My friend Magali posted an article called “Ready to Strip” at her blog earlier and it reminded me of something that happened to me when I first got here.
Allow me to take you back to the year 2005. I’d been in France for approximately a week (maybe two), and the extent of my French vocabulary could be summed up in four words:
I’d signed up for French classes (to get my visa) and as part of the stay permit process, I had to pass a medical exam. I guess they had to make sure I didn’t have any Puerto Rican cooties.
I received a letter with the date and time and K went with me to translate and keep me company.
When we arrived at the building, we were told to wait. So we waited. And waited. And then waited a little more. And then, finally, a very unhappy-looking woman called my name. K got up with me only to be told something that sounded to me like bad news. K said something back that sounded like arguing. There might’ve been a fist-fight and then some mud-wrestling or maybe that’s just how I interpreted the situation in my head.
Bottom-line: K wasn’t allowed to go with me.
K told me the lady said that we’d understand each other just fine.
Well, okay, I thought. I’ll just follow the cues. How hard could it be?
The lady led me into a small room and said something. And then closed the door.
I stood there, confused. What had she said? What could it mean? Was I to wait? Was I supposed to do something? Was I supposed to pee in a cup? I didn’t have a cup. I looked around for a sign. There was none.
Five minutes later, someone knocked on the door and I opened it. The lady looked at me and her face turned angry. She yelled something at me. Then she closed the door.
Crap, I thought. Now what? I still had no idea what I was supposed to do.
She came back again several minutes later and when I opened the door this time, she didn’t look angry anymore, just resigned. She sighed at me. Then she grabbed at her shirt and said things while gesturing with her hands.
Ohhhh! I was supposed to take my clothes off! Relieved that I’d finally understood, I grinned and nodded at her. She closed the door and left me to it.
I was so happy. Clarity was such a beautiful thing. I just had to take my clothes off. Of course. How silly of me. Why else would I be in a little room? Duh. It seemed so obvious now.
I happily took off my shirt.
And then I paused.
Wait. Was I supposed to just take off my shirt? Or my pants, too? How about my bra? My panties? Was I supposed to be naked? Or just semi-naked? How embarrassing would it be if she opened the door and found me completely naked when she’d only asked me to take off my shirt!
But I couldn’t just stand there and make her explain it to me again. She already hated me. She was probably somewhere trying to get me deported and I’d only just gotten here.
I decided to take off my pants.
Was that enough?
Stripping down to nothing… that might be a little forward, no? We’d only just met. I hadn’t even caught her name.
When she came back again, I was down to my underwear. She shook her head and sighed at me. Just a deep, deep sigh that expressed just how terrible her life was at that moment and how much I was to blame for making it so.
Damnit! I was totally supposed to get naked.
She pointed at my bra.
She’d given up on leaving me alone, apparently, because this time she just waited for me to take it off.
This is how porn movies start, I thought. Perhaps I was in one and didn’t know it. I got a little worried. Here was this strange woman in this tiny room with me, watching me take off my bra.
What was happening? Was this normal? Was this how France welcomed all foreign lesbians? Was this a thing?
She took a step toward me.
And then she reached over to open a different door behind me. It led to a different room with a bunch of machines.
Oh, thank God. I breathed. She told me to stand at one of the machines. I did. A light went off.
And then … that was it.
She pointed back at the tiny room and gestured for me to put my clothes back on.
Welcome to France, Ingrid.