French Expression: Ah buh oui, uh?

Meaning: That’s just the way things are. That’s life. Some things will never change. Yesssirrybob. I told you so. Welcome to France. Tough shit.

Anyone who’s ever taken a linguistics class or traveled abroad knows that the flavor of a language – the essence of its soul – is not in the words themselves but in the unwritten expressions and gestures. Once the point of understanding these sublties is reached, then either you’ve been in that country too long, or it’s too late and you’re in-culturated.

I came back head waggling from living in Southern India for a year. It drove my mother so crazy that she would grab my head to stop me shaking it back and forth. I couldn’t help it! I didn’t even know that I was doing it. That’s just part of talking and listening in Southern India. Studying in London, I picked up phrases that sounded like I smushed every vowel in the alphabet together at one time: “aaoouuw-right mate?” and “aaoouuw’s it going?” From a summer in Ireland I picked up more of a drinking habit than anything else (it’s part of the language I swear) and from a different summer in Spain I learned how to use my hands simultaneously when talking to punctuate feeling.

From France? No doubt I will come home blowing through my lips in exasperation and shrugging my shoulders while rolling my eyes slightly to the heavens above. Ah buh oui uh? Notice that this sentence only contains one word. The rest are sounds.

The first, “ah” is pronounced as written. The second “buh” is really more of an exasperation created by pursing the lips and blowing out. “oui” you know – I’m sure you’ve heard this one before. And “uh” is said with a slight upwards inflection as if asking a rhetorical question.

We’re not done yet.

On the “ah” it is necessary to raise the eyebrows upward and cock the head to one side every so slightly. With the “buh” of exasperation, the shoulders come come up in a shrug. They remain in the shrug on “oui”. And with the last “uh” there’s an optional hand signal, palms outstretched and turned up, to punctuate the shoulder shrug as if asking, “what are you gonna do?”

Let’s say it together now with feeling: Ah (eyebrows raised, head cocked) buh (shoulders come up with explosive lip sound) oui (remain in shrug position) uh (hands come up if you’re really feeling moved by emotion)

Why am I writing about this? Because I’ve just spent the last three weeks trying to do two of the most difficult things for Expats in France at the same time: find an apartment and get my Carte de Sejour renewed. Ah buh oui, uh?

Lets talk about finding an apartment in France. I’m from San Francisco and I clearly remember trying to find an apartment during the Dotcom boom where high rolling geeks lavished roundtrip plane tickets to anywhere in the world on landlords. Or offered to double the rent. Or even paid for a whole year up front just to cinch the deal. You think I’m joking? I’m not.

Here in Paris, it’s not about the extra cash or the perks you can offer, it’s about the paper work. He who has the most paperwork wins!

Ah buh oui, uh?

When you go to see an apartment you must bring a book with you that proves you are a good person with a paying job, you have money in your bank account, and either your employer or your parents are willing to pay the bill if you cannot. If you are an Expat then you also need copies of your Carte de Sejour (oh wait, mine’s expired, hope they don’t notice!), your passport, and any other official looking documents that you can throw on top to make the pile look more presentable.

Once you’ve got this book together then it’s time to start combing the listings because paying for an agency is astronomical. If you want to do it the French way, then it’s necessary to go to the website De Particulier A Particulier and search through listings posted privately. Be careful about leaving telephone messages because often landlords get scared when they hear a foreign accent. Ah buh oui, uh?

And who wants to be turned down, or not have the call returned, before you even get the chance to show off your official looking Book-Of-Self.

One apartment I looked at (for an ungodly amount of money) the young owner asked if I could have my parents sign a paper saying they would vouch for me. I’m American! What was he going to do? Drain my parent’s accounts all the way from France? And, I’m a grown married woman of 34, not a college student. I can afford to take of myself thank-you-very-much. I don’t need my mommy or daddy to sign a permission for me.

Thankfully, I did finally find a new apartment through my connections with the Democrats Abroad. This is the other thing about living in Paris that is a must. You MUST network if you want to get anything here. Ah buh oui, uh? Now I am the proud renter of a tiny cute flat in St. Michel complete with a wood-beamed ceiling and a bed I have to climb up stairs to crawl into. I love it. It’s my new mouse house. And the landlord is an American ex-pat who didn’t even ask to see my Book-Of-Self. Go figure. Ah buh oui, uh?

Finding an apartment is peanuts compared to the Carte de Sejour process. Guess what you need this procedure? That’s right! Paperwork!!! You must also bring the Book-Of-Self that contains everything you put together for the apartment search on top of everything you thought you didn’t need and some pictures. No matter how complete your revised book is they will find some problem with it. I guarantee it.

Yesterday, I went to the police station buried deep in the outskirts of the 17th arrondisement to file for my extended Carte de Sejour, so that I can file for my re-newed Carte de Sejour next month at the Prefecture de Police. Ah buh oui, uh?

It was raining and freezing cold, so just for fun the security guard decided to keep us waiting in line outside the building, letting groups of ten enter in 45 minute intervals. I waited 45 minutes to enter the non-descript depressing building. I climbed the stairs to the room marked for Etrangers (strangers or foreigners) grabbed a number and waited in the holding pattern for my time to visit the clerk who would undoubtedly find something wrong with my revised Book-Of-Self.

I waited another 45 minutes.

Finally my number was called and I had my first encounter with the secretary who asked the reason for my visit and quickly scanned my paperwork to see that I had everything in order. Then I went back to the holding pattern to wait for my chance to see another pencil pusher who would give me the green slip – the extended Carte de Sejour – so that I can repeat the process with the big guns down at the Prefecture de Police.

My number was called again and a disgruntled unfriendly blonde took my book for review. She looked at the photos I had brought and decided they wouldn’t work. What? They won’t work? It’s the same friggin’ picture I’ve used on my Carte de Sejours for the last three years! I showed her my old Carte de Sejour and she took it and the photos to her boss to see what could be done about this.

I was told that even if they did work last time, they wouldn’t work this time because my shoulders were ever so slightly cocked to one side. They needed to be full front. She told me to get new ones and come back. Wait, what? You want me to wait outside in the freezing cold rain for another 45 minutes? She explained that I could just come straight back inside and that it wouldn’t be a problem.

So, I did what I was told. I found a place to get my pictures retaken and then marched on back to the Police station. But the guard had changed and the new guy didn’t recognize me and he refused to call the disgruntled blonde upstairs. He told me that I must stand in line like everyone else. Ah bu oui, uh? (tough shit)

Another 45 minutes elapsed and finally I was allowed to see the disgruntled, blonde, unfriendly pencil pusher. She took my photo and cut it out and pasted in on my new green extended Carte de Sejour slip. 4 hours of waiting for 2 minutes of cut & paste.

Now, I have an apartment and an extended Carte de Sejour.

Ah buh oui, uh?