Thursday, June 25, 2009

Acte de vente "sans profession"

What things plow through a woman's mind just days before her wedding, making her fertile perhaps but also furrowing her brow? If, like me, you are overseas, marrying someone from another culture (albeit one you are familiar with; it is European, Western, and you speak the language), the wedding ritual is made slightly more complicated, concerned as you are with the comfort of international guests and the possibility that any of your own faux pas will be magnified through the lens of difference: different customs, a different church, different any- and everything. A destination wedding is beautiful, but it is also an act of loyalty, courage, and maybe insanity (or at least masochism). All this to say that a lot was going on in my head space four days before taking vows, much of it logistic. An abundance of logistical detail of course means that you do not have to think too deeply about your emotional state. But here's what I remember about June 25, 2002, exactly seven years ago today—an event having nothing to do with the wedding or marriage, per se, and everything to do with that core of emotion rubbing raw despite my efforts to ignore it: at 18h30, I was in the office of a "notaire" in the city of Toulouse, to finalize paperwork on a real estate transaction that I had opposed, but which was going through anyway with my name attached to it. The story is long, complicated, and involves other people I do not wish to expose in this blog. Let me stick to the thing that haunts me most, with the open admission that it does so due to misplaced pride, perhaps, and also some rage against the machine of bureaucracy and a woman's historical place in society. So, I am sitting in the notaire's office, listening to a pompous man read aloud pages of legalese in French. A side note here: do not make the mistake of confusing a "notaire" with an American "notary public," despite the similar sounding terms; in France, a notaire is a function of higher standing and apparently quite lucrative—it's closer to a lawyer's role, though it isn't that either. (Which makes me wonder how common these hybrid positions are: there are the gendarmes, too, an additional mid-level we do not have in the States, something between police and military.) Sitting in this office, it occurs to me that our English word "bureaucracy" does not derive from the French for nothing. So I'm trying to focus, and then something catches my attention. It's a description of me as a spouse "sans profession," without a profession. Excuse me?! I am particularly ticked off when I hear and read this in official language, typed black-on-white, because my husband and I had been in the French Consul's office in New York City just weeks before, reviewing a copy of this paperwork we were to sign—reviewing it for any corrections to be made—and we had in fact corrected this same error on the spot when it came up the first time. Another bit I remember, this from said visit to the Consulate: When asked to supply my occupation, I said "writer and editor," because that is what I am, what I do. I am a professional, published writer; I also make a living as a freelance editor. Yet I was told, quite clearly, that this was not possible; I could not be two things, I was one or the other. I wasn't sure I was hearing right, but that was the case: there is no such thing as a solidus in a French career path. If you want to make me angry, try to stuff me inside a narrow box of bureaucratic thought. I am perhaps a square peg in the world, but there are many of us, and not every hole is perfectly round. Despite this, I had made a choice because I had to. I probably said "writer," but anyway something was meant to go in that gaping blank space on the form—something other than "sans profession"! In Toulouse, in the notaire's office, four days before I'd walk down the aisle and therefore remove the last barrier to actually becoming, legally, French (I knew the language, I would just have to wait a few years to qualify automatically for citizenship by marriage), my cheeks burned with an indignation I could not or would not express. It was too late, anyway. And what does it matter, really, what a document says about me? It doesn't. And yet, being a matter of public record, it does. Even now, this memory is enough to flip my stomach and quicken my pulse. Why? Is it because I know what my mother sacrificed for family life (motherhood being in fact a fine "profession" of hard work that she did exquisitely well), and for good or ill, I knew even before marriage that I could never make the same choice and feel satisfied? Is it because of the history of women who were, no matter what work they did, labeled as having no occupation . . . and the backlash of feminism, growing up in an era when the old rules no longer applied and the idea of being without a career began to carry a stigma? To hell with it all; however, as I sat there in that office, I couldn't shake the realization that, because I did not receive a weekly paycheck from a single employer, assumptions were made about me and about the worth of my work and contributions. I couldn't shake the suspicion that maybe this—a woman "sans profession"—was actually how the large population of my soon-to-be in-laws viewed me. And I couldn't help feeling misunderstood, unappreciated on a level that went deeper than a description on legal paper. At the end of the hour, we signed the documents that needed signing, and we left the office to find some members of the wedding party and head out for one of many celebratory dinners to come. Socializing was the distraction I needed, and I remember the ease with which a glass or two of champagne went down, the resulting lightheadedness a relief to me—a more appropriate way, I thought, to spend those few precious days left to me as a single woman, when I was still only just myself, a square peg that did not need a round hole.


  1. french bureaucracy is very similar to greek bureaucracy - you cant be two things at once, and that notaire (simvolaiografo we call them here) is indeed a very licrative job, just as well paid as a lawyer

  2. Yikes! What a horrible experience.