We walked from Metro Bellecour through Rue de la Republique on this morning in January—the sun shining, the weather so mild. We crossed the Rhone at the Pont Wilson and took a left down the wide street, crossing into the block that is taken up by the stately Prefecture Building. We were walking quickly, afraid to miss our 10 a.m. appointment. The guard, young and polite, directed us to the front of the imposing building, up the winding stone staircase, into the ‘great hall’ with its cornices and high ceilings and there, we stopped to the left. Salle Jean Moulin. Dozens of other people were waiting in front of the closed doors. We were all waiting to become French.
After over three years of paperwork and waiting, we have been ‘convoque’ to receive our French naturalization papers. I whisper to Paul, “Take it all in, so I can describe it later.”
I do not feel particularly sentimental or excited about this step. After all, we began the process for Andrew, learning that he would be trying out for the French national baseball team and needed to be French, we applied. We could not apply for him alone, but if the whole family was French, the process might go more quickly for him.
It didn’t. The day of his 18th bday came and went without him being French. We however, received notice of our acceptance later that year.
So really, I didn’t care much about becoming French. I wanted it for my son, for his future. But Paul and I agreed that with political situations so volatile throughout the world, and visas harder to come by in France, perhaps it would be a good idea to be French.
I was never the student who dreamed above all else of going to France. I was not the girl who soaked up the culture like a fish in water. I was enchanted, but also intimidated, feeling I didn’t have the personality to embrace France—too sensitive and sentimental. But I came, out of a call, an obedience, a scary step into the unknown.
And I stayed. We stayed. Twenty years in the country is enough, I suppose, to merit being French. No matter that I still don’t ‘feel’ French or act French or even enjoy so many things that are part of Frenchness. I have grown to love the people, one by one, and the country, visit by visit into its untamed countryside and historic villages.
Anyway, here we were at the Prefecture with a group of other people, all waiting to become French. We looked around. We were one of the rare white couples. Most of the people looked North African or African or perhaps Middle Eastern or Eastern European.
Immediately I thought that this ceremony meant a lot more to most of these people than it did to me. It was there hope, their future, their security. I wondered briefly if we would see anyone we knew, and before that thought had time to disappear, in walked Cynthia, the young mother from Central African Republic who goes to our church. Two years, she’d been waiting. Her two children were French already, having been born here.
Eventually, a little after 10, we were ushered into the room, a beautiful ‘grande salle’ with a grand oil painting of a scantily clothed man chasing a scantily clothed woman. Greek mythology? I don’t know. There were about 100 red velvet covered folding chairs set up in the room and two women greeted us and instructed us to have a seat.
Paul recognized one of the women as someone he had met with during this three-year- process. The ladies were friendly, professional and actually made the event seem joyous. A celebration. They explained the importance of the papers we would be receiving in our ‘dossier’. The one that mattered, the one that said we were French, was indeed unique, one of a kind, never to be reissued. Guard it with your life, make photocopies and keep it in a safe, safe place. In case of fire, she told us what to do, who to write to.
She told us that she would call our names and we would come up one at a time, or by couple, and sign a paper, hand over our ‘carte de resident’ and receive the dossier with our French naturalization paper, our certificate of birth and of marriage, our livret de famille, a copy of the ‘Marseillaise’ and a few other things.
A young man volunteered to read the letter of welcome from the President and the woman reminded us of the cost of this citizenship, the cost of ‘liberte, egalite, fraternite’, the many other foreigners throughout the centuries who had been ‘naturalized’, become French and some, become great men and women of France.
And as she spoke, something happened inside me. I felt a stirring, a pride, a thankfulness and even a tear or two in my eyes. We’ve given a good part of our lives to this country—not in a grand way. In a soft and subtle and even desperate way, but we’ve done this and I am proud, in a strange way, to be French. I felt hopeful and happy. I especially felt the joy of these other people, most needing, probably desperately, this nationality. For us it is ‘un plus’, for many of the others, ‘essentiel.’
She emphasized that it was necessary to go immediately to our ‘mairie’ and apply for our French citizenship card, which would take between 3-4 weeks to get. During the ‘delai’, we couldn’t leave the country because we wouldn’t have any card to allow us to come back in. At least those who did not have another nationality. We turned in our residency card and would wait for the formal French card. She explained too about getting the passport. Again, for us, this was just a formality, but for many others, it was life and freedom.
After the ceremony and the handing out of the dossiers, she said that those who had other questions could stay to ask them. So we stayed and asked about Andrew’s citizenship and delightedly learned that perhaps there was still hope for him to become French without having to spend 5 consecutive years again in France. In fact, she was so helpful, she encouraged Paul to come back in the afternoon, which he did, to talk and see what could be done. We will wait and see, but I am guardedly hopeful.
And so, today I am French. And American. And yet, deep down inside, I am neither. I am a wayfaring stranger, a citizen of heaven, waiting, at times impatiently, for my Savior to call out to me and say, “Welcome home to eternity.”
Until that day, I pray I, we, will serve Him with honor and dignity and integrity in whatever land He calls us to for however long He asks us to stay.