Jeanne Koré Salvato


here’s a New Yorker cartoon where Godot, in a baseball cap and a hoodie, apologizes for being late. He says, “I slept through my alarm and then I had an urgent phone call and then I couldn’t find my house keys and then I couldn’t find my car and then I got stuck in traffic and then I got lost and had to ask directions at a gas station, but the directions were very confusing, and then…”


What Godot failed to mention was paperwork.  That is the chief reason for delays, no-shows, disappointment and deportation.

In fact, I believe that earlier in the day Godot had gone to the bank.  There he was trying to get money out of his account.  Now you would think that he would take money out and be on his way.  Wrong!  He has a ceiling that limits his spending.  This fixed amount is calculated during 30 sliding days.  30 jours glissants means that you count thirty actual days, not just business days, to keep under your ceiling.  When I asked my manager how one would know how the ceiling was doing, she said, just jot your expenses down.  Jot them down?  In this electronic universe?  So, if Godot bought a car at the end of October, like I did, chances are his ceiling is in danger of falling during the whole month of November.  

Or, Godot could have been across town earlier, trying to establish residency in a part of Paris where he does not live.  Why?  Sometimes you would prefer your child go to a different school from where you live.  This is complicated.  You can get what is called a derogation, an exception, or you can ask a friend to put your name on their utility bill and then on your mailbox, to faire semblant, or make believe you live there. Then you fill out the paperwork accordingly.

Perhaps Godot had to go to the Sécu, la sécuritié sociale, where the health care is administered.  If you move across town, you have a new Sécu with new identifying numbers necessary when you submit the cost of the doctor visit to be reimbursed.

Or taxes?  There are also little tax offices scattered around where you can plead ignorance and get helping filling out your taxes.  You have to figure out how many parts you have.  (Don’t ask me.  My ignorance was not feigned.) You have a tax on your revenue and also a tax on where you live, which also includes a tax on the TVs you have. (Seriously?)


Godot at the Préfécture. Those of you who are in France, just close your eyes because living through this French paperwork is painful enough without reading about it.  The préfecture is something like the department of motor vehicles (DMV), an administrative jurisdiction, if you will, run by a Préfet. Take ten said DSMV offices and stack them up in a dingy building on a miserable lot, and you have the place you are assigned to go, based on where you live.  The coveted working papers come with a special card called la carte de séjour, good for ten years.  This you can obtain after three or four years of residence in France, or, actually, never. 


First you present proof of income.  Birth certificates dated no more than three months.  I found this endlessly amusing because how could your date of birth change, but actually other important dates, such as births and marriages are recorded on the birth certificate.  Who knew?  In addition, you must provide proof of where you live.  Now because we were given a place to live, we were what is called hébergé, which required an attestation, a testimony, together with the passport of a member of the Foundation who owned the property.  Other criteria include a livret de famille, which lists your family and which Americans don’t have and therefore ignore.  You bring your pile of documents from a list you garnered off the Internet, only to find that the list is incomplete, according to the clerk before you. This is hard to swallow.  Why have a list at all?  The next week you come back with what the clerk also asked for and yet another clerk assures you that the first clerk made a mistake. 

How many times did I see a man or woman pleading with the clerk that he or she couldn’t take any more time off for these meetings, that the children were actually present and their birth certificates were four months old and not three, but see, the children are still virtually the same.


Once I saw a sign that read in French, “Are you having trouble getting your papers?  Let us help.”  I thought, wow, this is hard to believe.  France has a reputation of being hard on immigrants. Upon inspection, the fine print said, “Let us help you return to your country of origin.” Wow.  That is real help.  If you were trying to fit in in France, an accompanying leaflet had the following advice: “If your name is Rashid, you might consider changing it to Richard.”  Rashid, in Arabic, is a name meaning rightly guided.  Richard, in France, extols the colorful figure Richard the Lion-heart who was buried at Anjou although his heart is kept in Rouen.  (He has English kingly origins, but they say he couldn’t speak English, having gone native in France.) My point here is that someone might prefer to be quietly rightly-guided rather than run around like Richard did off to the Crusades, where Jerusalem was not regained and England had to pay a king’s ransom to get the man out of captivity.

As clumsy as this advice is, a study by the prestigious Sciences Po in Paris (Institut d’études politiques de Paris) showed the wisdom, at least job-wise, in this name change.  In fact, the same resumé was sent out under two different names.  One was Rashid so and so.  And one was Richard so and so.  Richard received several requests for interviews, but Rashid received zero. 

France has a high percentage of Muslims, and particularly second- generation Muslims, whose parents are from elsewhere but who themselves are born in France and yet feel excluded from the French patrimony.  The French film La Haine, (hate) was recently re-mastered.  It tells the story of an Arab boy brutally beaten by police in Paris suburbs together with the response of his three friends.  Funny, brutal and searing.  A scene I remember for its gratuitousness shows the trains leaving Paris for the suburbs regularly enough, but stopping around 1 a.m. They don’t get going again until 6 a.m. In the film, you see police detaining young men, releasing them just after the last train to the banlieues, the suburbs, has left the station.  Critics call it anti-police but with plenty of room for nuance.


From A to B to C. All different ways of refusal, of saying no go.  And surely that makes us think of the men in Waiting for Godot.  All these ways of being stymied in this world of ours.  Funnier from the chair than when we’re living it on the ground. 


I was trying to refresh my mind about urban novels.  Thong on Fire was mentioned, but somehow not a book I have actually read!  Kei Miller’s book of poems, in nearby bushes, on the other hand, is an exquisite book of poetry, which offers us a Jamaica far from the tourist havens.  (Which of course we are benightedly dying to visit.)  Threat, concealment, violence, beauty and myth all figure in his poems. 

The poem called “The Understory,” begins,

“Here that is the unplotted plot, the intriguing

twist of vines, the messy dialogue—just listen

how the leaves uh & ah & er nonstop.”

And the poem ends,

“they are here—in the complication of roots, in the dirtiness

of dirt.  Are there stories you have heard about Jamaica?

Well here are the stories underneath.”

Here he is reading a poem called “Unsung,” which brings to mind Beckett’s project but in an even more personal way.

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