bureaucra-see part deux, at the doctor’s office.


Doesn’t look like much, does it?

In America, if you want to do something stupid and ill-advised, that’s usually just fine. Say you die – so what? Well that was dumb of you!

Not so in France. If you want to do anything athletic at all, you need to have a signed doctor’s note saying that you are healthy enough to participate. In some ways it makes sense, but in others, what the- why!? How many people die each year at 5 k road races? How about intramural soccer games? Maybe a few heart attacks could be prevented by telling people who were at risk not to do sports, but I’m not even so sure about that. Some people know they are at risk; some would probably want to run a road race anyway, if it makes them happy.

And yes, people tear their ACL’s and whatnot, but that just happens, it’s a risk you know you take when you decide to play. They are called sports injuries for a reason, and that’s because they are an inherent part of sports. These kinds of injuries happen from the bottom level of sports all the way up to the very top, and no doctor’s note is going to make a tendon change its mind about snapping.

In my mind, here’s how this system came into place. Doctors weren’t getting enough business. Hmm, they thought. How can we get more people to come in? I know! We need to see the healthy people, not just the sick ones! So let’s try to think of a way to get perfectly healthy individuals to be forced to come see a doctor a couple times a year… hmm… yes! I have it! We’ll just require them to come see us before they do anything that’s, oh, I don’t know, completely normal for a healthy person to do!

Anyway. After I signed up for my marathon, I knew that I had to get one of these darn doctor’s notes. I put it off for a while, and eventually discovered that the university health service does this kind of thing for free. Great, I thought! But then it took another two weeks for me to get an appointment and make it into the office.

Because here’s another thing that bugs me about this system: it’s a pain in the ass to go to the doctor’s. They’re only open during working hours, and you know what I’m doing then? I’m working. It’s a relatively small barrier to participation, but it seems like erecting any more inconveniences and barriers to sports is a bad idea, even somewhere like France where there are a dearth of fat people. We shouldn’t be creating any more excuses not to exercise – or, forget the exercise in itself, to taking part in fun group activities that are so emotionally beneficial.

So, I finally figured out a day when I could come in to work late, and there I was. (And I should preface this account by saying that everything was discussed in French.) When the receptionist asked what I needed the note for, I said a running race. She laughed, like, a serious one? Yeah, I said. Then she laughed a lot more. Ha, ha, a whole marathon or something crazy like that! She rolled her eyes.

The receptionist took my height and weight and asked me to read an eye chart. When I replied to her questions by saying I didn’t smoke, no not even cannabis, nothing, and I didn’t take birth control pills, she gave me serious side-eye.

Then she asked me if I ate three meals a day. Where did I eat lunch, the university restaurant?

The fact that she said “good” when I replied the affirmative was troubling, because the food at the university restaurant is shit.

Things were not off to a good start.

The doctor was slightly more sympathetic, in that she did not laugh at me immediately (that came later). But my next challenge was explaining to her that yes, I did have asthma, but it probably wouldn’t be an issue because it’s only brought on by the cold.

How many times a year to you use your inhaler? She asked.

Oh I don’t know, a few.

Has an attack ever made you stop running?

No, I said, I’m never running when it’s cold enough to give me asthma. Then I’m skiing.

So when you’re running do you ever have heart palpitations?

Umm, no, what?

Well will you be carrying your inhaler with you just in case?

No, I mean, it’s going to be June in southern France, the chances of me having a cold-induced asthma attack are pretty slim…

Next she examined me for scoliosis, which I guess is nice, and took my heart rate. She expressed surprise and approval that it was so low. Blood pressure, too: “parfait.”

I was asked to do 30 flying squats, so that she could see how my blood pressure responded to activity. I’ve never been asked to do that before, but it’s a good idea, actually. So off I went. La la la la la la la, 30.

The blood pressure was again “parfait” but the good doctor was troubled that my heart rate had jumped. It increased a lot, she said. And all you were doing were 30 squats – do you really think you can run 40 kilometers if your heart rate does that?

My initial reaction was to be pretty offended. Yes, of course I can run a marathon! I didn’t quite know what to say. Had I really been working that hard? The squats had felt pretty easy, and my old Tabata instructor Jon – whose workouts I really miss, incidentally – would have been yelling at me to push harder, that I could do 25 in 20 seconds, or whatever. Standing in the doctor’s office in my bare feet, without a shirt and facing the doctor, I had gone at a pretty pedestrian pace.

As I mulled over the troubling possibility that I had been working really hard to slowly squat down and stand back up, she reached over and took my wrist to check my pulse again. Wow, she said, okay. It’s only been a minute but it’s already back to normal.

Now we were getting somewhere. I explained that the last weekend I had run 35 kilometers in 3 hours and felt fine, so I was pretty sure I could finish the marathon with no health issues.

Have you run a marathon before? she asked.

No, I said. Just a few halfs.

So this is your first one? Are you sure you are going to be able to do it?

I wanted to say, well, you have to do the first one once, or else how would anyone ever have done one before… but what was the point.

After a few more questions – many about a detailed history of my family’s heart health – she signed the sheet above and I was done. I felt even more ridiculous than at the beginning; I had imagined getting some sort of official-looking form describing my medical history. Instead, all of that was for a half-sheet of paper that doesn’t even say anything useful (but has, as all things in France must, an official stamp!). Are you kidding?

As I biked to work, I thought more about my heart rate, and realized that she probably had no idea what a high heart rate would even be for me. Okay, so at rest, it’s around 55 or 60 these days. That could double and I’d be working at the rate of an easy jog. It could triple and I’d be working pretty hard, but still not at max. I don’t think most people can see their heart rate go from 60 all the way up to 195, so she probably had no idea that I wasn’t working all that hard.

This is another reason the whole system is so stupid: you go to some doctor who doesn’t know you, and yet they are supposed to be able to quickly draw a conclusion about your suitability for sports. It’s so similar to other French bureaucratic messes that I have encountered, in that deep at the core it’s maybe a nice idea, but in practice it is so poorly executed that it just creates a hassle for everyone without fulfilling its actual purpose.

Oh well. I have the signed note, and I should never have to do this again, because after this summer it’s goodbye, France.

*       *       *

I have been thinking about trying to write something about the events that happened in Boston this week, and I have been struggling. Part of it is that it is difficult to process what is going on; I’m so far away, and it’s not exactly a top-headline news story in France. I know that if I was at home, everything would seem so much more immediate to me.

Every once in a while someone will realize that I’m American and ask me if anyone I know was affected. What do I say? None of my friends died or got their legs blown off, is that what they want to know? But yes, we were affected. I know so many people who were there at that marathon, either running or supporting friends and loved ones, and I have so many friends who simply live in Boston.

For me, it’s a double whammy against two of my communities: New England and running. A gut-wrenching shock. I can’t see or understand what’s happening all the way across the Atlantic, but I know how horrific it must be. These are great people, and they do not deserve any of the pain, physical or emotional, that has been inflicted on them. Luckily, I know a thing or two about New Englanders, and runners. If there is anyone who can weather this storm and help each other out, it is these two incredible communities of people. Already we have seen so much strength.

But that’s not really it, either. It comes down to what it means to be an average joe of an athlete. I’ve been at big sporting events where there was tight security; it was kind of a nuisance, but I knew exactly what sort of an impact it would have if some group attacked World Championships or something like that. It would get at a system where athletes generate a huge amount of money for themselves and their sponsors, where fans are rabid for their city or country or just their favorite athlete. Professional sports are inspirational and exciting and hopeful, but also economic and, to some extent, a matter of luxury. It wouldn’t be any less horrible if something bad happened at a professional sporting event, but it’s something our minds are more prepared for – something that government suits warn us about, at the very least.

The Boston marathon, on the other hand, is none of those things. The man who won, Lelisa Desisa, is an incredible athlete who is now two-for-two in marathons and is surely destined for more great things. He’s a professional. But if you look him up on the internet, you can barely find any information. He’s Ethiopian and is sponsored by Nike. You can bet he’s not raking in the big bucks; nor is he probably making Nike too much money either. Does he have other sponsors? Who knows. Distance running is not a particularly lucrative endeavor.

Instead, Boston is about everyone else. Talk to anyone with a passing commitment to marathons, and they’ll talk about the year they ran Boston, or that they’re planning to, or that they are working towards qualifying. It’s something special, not something you do every year; it’s also a very difficult marathon. Heartbreak Hill is famous even beyond the running community. And so the honor of running in Boston creates an incredible environment. It’s uplifting to see what “normal” people, our cousins and brothers and friends and teachers and bosses, can do. You always want to congratulate them and urge them on to greater heights, which is why Boston draws so many spectators for what is, at its heart, one of the more boring sports to watch.

Come marathon day, people are fulfilling their dreams and goals. Even if you have a bad race: you have run Boston. You did it. That’s a huge accomplishment.

To imagine that running towards those dreams could ever put you in danger – not from a moose or shin splints or a speeding car or a dog that slipped under the fence, but from a bomb – messes with all of our minds. It’s not supposed to be this way.

It all feels especially strange given that I had finally decided to re-enter the running community for real, and had signed up for my own very first marathon. It’s easy to imagine that another year, that could have been me crossing the finish line in Boston after four hours. It makes that much more real the threat that our community feels, and what has changed. As I run more and more in the next few weeks, this will likely be on my mind. I want to do a good job in my marathon for those that weren’t able to have the race they had dreamed of on Monday.

Let’s hope that things are not changed for good.

different lifestyles.


We had a three day weekend for Easter. We went to Monte Carlo.

Okay, that’s not quite right. We went to Nice for the three-day weekend and one day we went to Monte Carlo. Let’s be clear: we can’t afford to stay in Monte Carlo. Nor, really, even eat dinner there.

I contemplated not even writing about this trip. I don’t know what to say about it – I went with my classmates and we had a good time.

But the juxtapositioning to my previous trip bears noting. I almost considered not going to Nice; I didn’t know much about it, but traveling to see a city just because it’s a city that people go see isn’t really my style. I didn’t come to France with a list of things to see, cities to visit, checklists of things you’re supposed to do when you’re in France. I had some ideas, but Nice wasn’t one of them (and Monte Carlo certainly wasn’t).

It would be so nice to travel with company though, with my classmates who I love. What was I going to do otherwise? Stay in Montpellier, the city that makes me un peu malheureuse? Duh. I was going. (This was confirmed as a good decision when, two days before we left, my friends were talking to our buddy Reto, a Swiss guy who had also done an exchange semester in Sweden, and he looked up tickets and decided on the spot to fly to Nice and meet us for the weekend. If I had missed that, it would have been terrible and embarrassing.)

When we arrived we wandered the city streets and eventually found a Lebanese restaurant that served up a mean Moussaka. We spent the rest of the afternoon walking around, to the beach and boardwalk, up to a park overlooking the city. We soaked in the sights and it was great. So fun to be done with classes – we had finished the day before, and this was a celebration. We soaked in the atmosphere of no responsibility.

The next day, Monte Carlo. As we walked out of the station, the sun on the Côte d’Azur was so bright we could hardly see the paradise around us.


We wandered down the streets of this immaculately planned and landscaped city, seeking the water. There’s not much space; tall luxury apartment buildings swooped skyward, roads slithered underneath. Monte Carlo is built onto  steep slope that tumbles down to the sea; sometimes you don’t realize how tall the buildings are because you don’t know that you’re not staring at the window on the ground floor.

gardenIt was almost silent; when you have your own personal chef and house staff, why would you leave your condo at nine in the morning? You’d sit on your balcony or open the windows of your bedroom and admire the weather, the blue that seems to reflect off of everything. Or you could go up to your rooftop garden, lush and green from all the photosynthesis of the Mediterannean spring. And soak in the quiet, the calm of cars worth hundreds of thousands of dollars not yet plying the streets.

I don’t know who cleans Monte Carlo, or when, but by morning, it is immaculate. In so many ways a very unnatural place; as biologists we should have been appalled. But it didn’t feel sterile. It was nice to see a street with no trash, to not have to worry about stepping in all of the dogshit you find in France itself. There were flower beds everywhere, of course blooming. It smelled like flowers. This must be science fiction.

We found a playground. This was an affordable way to enjoy the city.


As we walked down the last street towards the port, I saw bikes flash past. My first thought was, man, if I was rich enough to live here I would buy the fanciest frickin’ road bike you’ve ever seen, and I would be so fit and and have a great time. Then my second thought was, wait a minute, that was a lot of bikes going really fast. I think there’s a bike race!

There was!

bike race

bike 2

This was paradise, I thought.

This surprising development was enough to convince even my classmates to stand in the sun and watch for a little while as the jerseyed riders streaked past luxury yachts. I explained how a criterium worked. It turned out to be a disappointingly lame crit: just a one-kilometer loop with two turns. But they were steep enough to bunch the field up nicely. Still, even just a few laps in, there were groups separated by almost half the length of the course.

You can only watch bicycles race around in loops for so long, so we began to wander down the port itself, looking at all the fancy boats. We laughed at their names, imagined what the owners had done to get all their money, and joked about what we would do if we were lucky enough to own one of those boats. I tried not to imagine how much it must cost to have a slip in the port of Monte Carlo.

After a rainy previous day in Nice, it was enough for us just to take in the sun. I hoped I wasn’t getting sunburned.

boats  blue water












We spent the rest of our time walking around, buying an overpriced and honestly not that good lunch (should have just sucked it up and payed a truly exorbitant amount for something good – if you’re buying lunch for a reasonable price here, they know you’re not their core customers…), and walking around some more. It was lovely.

As was the rest of the trip when we returned to Nice. I try to have a structure in my life: wake up in the morning, run, go to work, come home, answer e-mails or work for FasterSkier, make dinner, keep working, read something before bed. There’s little downtime, it’s always on to the next task. Now that I’m training for a marathon there’s an extra layer of control, even for me: you have to run at least this far, you have to not eat too much, you have to remember to sleep. To get away from that all for a weekend was liberating in a different way than going on a ski trip. There’s two kinds of vacations and both are very necessary! I felt guilty when I came home; over three days I had only run once. Unacceptable. But the standards I set for myself can be high. This weekend I was a normal person. And I know I will go back to being me, so it was fine.

It was more than fine. It was great. It was the Côte d’Azur, and I’m definitely coming back for another vacation later in life. The blueness of the sea, the tropical trees, everything. Delightful.

japanese garden



Now imagine racing around this corner in an F1 car:




This is what an immigrant looks like.

I think I look pretty normal. And I’m not sure why you wouldn’t want me in your country. I mean, I know I’m a little biased, but I’m a university graduate, working on an advanced degree, got my visa aboveboard, had it with me when I entered the country… I’m not sure why I should feel unwelcome.

And I can only imagine how fun it would be to try to enter France some other way, for example, illegally. And then try to stay. Montpellier is in the poorest region of France, which is certainly not unrelated to its position on the Mediterranean coast: there are lots of immigrants pouring into these ports, and France does not welcome them or integrate them at all. I recently read a great essay comparing these cities’ economic woes, unfavorably, to those of America’s rust belt. There’s imigrants, and poor, and homeless, and addicted – and by appearances, nobody does much about it.

Because you know who are an immigrant’s worst enemies? Liberté, egalité, and fraternité, that’s who. I’m afraid the venerable trio may have fallen a bit from their ideals.

I have to say, happily, that I am finally a legal resident in France. Six and a half weeks after arriving here, visa in hand,  I finally have a sheet of paper that says I’m allowed to stay. And for me, it was easy. I shouldn’t even be allowed to complain. But the number of appointments, paperwork, exams, trivialities… I would say it’s mind-blowing, but people do tell you that France is a bureaucracy that fuels its own appetites for paper (another great post: David Lebovitz’s, here). It’s true. I felt like France found a way to marginalize me, a relatively affluent white American.

It actually began way back in the fall, with the Visa Saga. I’ll gloss over the visa part, except to say that it lasted until the end of January, involving three separate trips to the French embassy in Stockholm, a lot of e-mails and phone calls and hair-pulling-out, and my consideration of either dropping out of my masters program or spending the spring semester in Munich just so I wouldn’t have to deal with France.

Think about that for a second. I was so dejected by French policy and bureaucracy that I thought the rules would be easier to follow in Germany.

Finally, the very day I left Sweden, I got my passport with my visa in it. Woohoo, I thought! Wait, not so fast.

I was legal to travel and arrive in France but, it turns out, not to stay. For that, you have to get a whole different “stamp” from the immigration office, OFII – it’s really the same thing as your visa, but from a different agency. The embassy in Stockholm gave us a piece of paper that we had to take to France and give OFII. If we lost it? Tough luck. You don’t get another one, your visa does nothing to vouch for you, you don’t get your residence permit.

I didn’t lose it.

So upon arriving, I copied my passport with the visa and the entry stamp from customs and brought it to OFII. A few days later I got a letter: my medical appointment would be at 8:30 a.m. on March 28th, and my interview at 9 a.m. The fact that I had two different obligations was immediately intimidating. Then there was, too, the fact that we didn’t get to have any say in the time – I had three free half-days from class that week, and Wednesday morning was not one of them, but too bad.

Min Ya and Berenice also had the same appointment. We told our professor: we have this silly OFII thing at 8:30, sorry, we’ll miss the first part of class. But we’ll be there by the first break!

He looked at us like we were crazy.

“Well, I don’t know how they do things here in Montpellier, but I know that in other places those immigration things take a really long time. Maybe we’ll see you in the afternoon, or who knows, it might take all day.”


Still, I was cocky and unconcerned. Although multiple signs should have warned me, I was so confident that this would be a brief formality that I didn’t eat breakfast. I had this plan: I’d go, fly through the appointments, and then come home and do some chores before going to class, since my professor was so sure I’d miss the whole morning anyway – why not take advantage of it?

When we walked into the lobby of the OFII building, there were already at least ten people there. The office is on the first floor (or, what we could call the second floor in America) and they don’t turn the elevator on until just after 8:30. The doors to the stairs are locked and can only be opened with a keycode (apparently the same on the way down, too – hope there’s never a fire!). So we all milled about in the lobby waiting for the elevator to start working. 8:30 came and went.

Eventually, we made it up to the office itself, where a bunch of us sat in the lobby waiting. We checked in at the desk, and then nothing happened. I first really realized that this was going to take a while due to the sheer number of people: we had obviously all been given 8:30 “appointments”, but what that really meant was, sometime today. There was no such thing as an “appointment.”

By nine, I had seen the first of the doctors, who asked me my height and weight and to read the top line of an eye chart, paying no attention as I did. I guess that was just screening, because I returned to my chair in the lobby. We all did: maybe fifteen people saw this woman, then sat back down. There were several more steps in the medical process, but the next examiners were apparently not at work yet.

Or perhaps it just took a long time to set up the x-ray, which is how they screen for TB. One by one, again, we were called in; we had to strip off our shirts and breath in as we smashed our chests up against an x-ray machine, then wait for the technician to produce the x-ray itself. It seems improbable that this is the cheapest way to test for TB, but what do I know. I got a free x-ray out of it. I’m thinking of hanging it in my window. What startled me more was the demand that we just strip down. No hospital gowns here; take your shirt and bra off, miss. In French.

The other thing that seemed incredible was the timing. Okay, so they don’t want dirty immigrants bringing TB into France. I get it. But if they were so worried, wouldn’t they call us in immediately? If I did have some dread disease, I had been living and breathing on the earnest and hapless French citizens for more than a month and a half. If you’re going to make me undress to protect everyone’s health, at least try to make it seem like you’re doing a good job with your public health program.

At the end of the x-ray assault, I at least got to go to a different waiting area – where I joined all of the people who had x-rayed ahead of me. We still needed to see one more doctor, but she wasn’t in her office yet. So we waited. Gradually, everyone who had initially been in the reception area was in this new area, and nobody had yet seen the last doctor. There weren’t enough seats for all of us.

The last doctor asked us me if I was on any medications or had been to the hospital recently. Did I smoke? Use contraceptives? I thought – who the hell cares? I’m pretty sure they couldn’t have kicked me out of the country for smoking, since the French themselves smoke like chimneys. So what’s the point of asking? There’s now a paper somewhere, that nobody will ever look at, saying that I don’t smoke or take any medications. And that paper belongs not to some health care service, but to Immigration.

Over an hour and a half after I was supposed to have my “interview”, I finally got called into the last office I’d see in that building – to a woman who did not speak anything other than French. I pulled out my passport, and she asked to see the letter I had received in the mail from OFII.

“Et les timbres?” she asked.


“Les timbres. Vous avez les timbres?”

“Les…. Repetez, s’il vous plait?”

She was becoming exasperated.

“Vous devez payer, les 58 euros.”

Yes, yes: this I knew. To get a student visa to France, it costs 99 Euros. As Erasmus Mundus scholarship recipients, this fee was waived – thanks, Embassy of France. But OFII was not so kind. There’s also an immigration “tax”, which for students in 58 Euros. And this was not waived. We had to pay to live here.

I pulled out the receipt from the Embassy stating that I owed only 58 Euros.

“Ah, celui-ci,” I said. “J’ai de l’argent.”

“Non. Vous avez besoin de timbres.”

Now I was really confused. She kicked me out of her office, saying that I could buy the stamps – that’s what “timbres” are – at a Tabac. I held a counsel with Min Ya and Berenice. Did they have stamps? No, they did not. Did they know what the stamps were? No, they did not. That made zero of us that had any idea what the hell was going on. Luckily, another poor battered immigrant waiting began to explain to us that the only way you could pay was with pre-bought stamps. He had bought his online and showed us a printout, stating that he had paid 58 Euros. That wasn’t an option for us, since we didn’t have a computer or a printer. We went in search of a Tabac, having still no idea what we were actually looking for.

It was raining, also. As we tromped through the rain and past the hobos, I was getting more and more furious. Why was the stupid OFII letter only in France, and why did it not explain where you buy these special Timbres? As we left on our quest, we saw another girl get up and leave, too. She had been listening and didn’t have any Timbres either.

The first Tabac did not help.

“Bonjour,” I said. “Est-ce que vous avez des timbres pour payer les….. choses officiels?”

“Rien,” the guy replied.

Right. They sell them at all the Tabacs.

So we tromped and splashed down another street, found another Tabac, and bought our damn timbres. They are just like stamps for letters – they might even be stamps for letters. In order to stick them to a piece of paper, you lick the back. We turned over our change, got our tiny stamps, and headed back to OFII. The lady mocked us when we arrived. I directed mental thunderstorms her way all afternoon.

Luckily, I had everything else I needed: an ID photo, a signed and stamped attestation from my dormitory that I lived there. Smooth sailing. She put the residence permit in my passport, and, x-ray in hand, I was free to go!

Just in time for lunch. By which I mean, my first meal of the day. And then, afternoon class.

For me, the paperwork is far from over – I still have to make my research at the university official. But at least I can’t get kicked out of the country. I’m allowed to live here. What a long, strange journey it has been. Welcome?