Being half French has always been a part of me that I valued and took pride in, right from my elementary school days of kids asking me to say something in French to the summers I spent as a teenager traveling around the country that held so much mystery and promise. But more importantly, it is my motherland. And by that, I mean quite literally it is my mother’s land, a place that is full of her very essence. From the day I was born, she spoke and sang lullabies to me in French. As I grew up, it became like our secret language; I could call out “Maman” in the middle of a store and only one mom would answer. From my earliest days, I wanted to be a part of this world from which my mom came. I wanted to be able to read and write as fluently as I could in English. To that end, I would beg her to make me vocabulary lists to quiz me on and I studied French all the way up to college. This French-ness was never forced upon me; it was something that I craved on my own, something that I assimilated into my identity. Maybe the strong connection that always existed between us fueled this desire to feel French or maybe I wanted to be just life her, I really don’t know where it comes from. I have just always felt as French as I feel American, it’s just as simple as that.
Fast forward to the beginning 2014 as I was making choices about what I would do after graduation. Although I didn’t decide until much later that I wanted to move to France, I knew that it was something that might interest me in the future and that, at the very least, I wanted to have the option. Additionally, I was determined to finally close my mom’s French estate by the end of the year, an affair that had been dragged out since her death as the result of complications related to long distance. So in January, I started trying to assemble all the pieces together that would allow me to accomplish these goals, following paper trails that had dissipated following my mom’s death. We had always talked about establishing my dual citizenship one day but once her cancer aggressively relapsed in 2008, other things took priority. I had no idea where to start or if I was even still eligible now that I was no longer a minor. My father passed along a contact he thought he still had at the French Consulate in Atlanta but I quickly discovered that the person no longer worked there. Dead end Number One. Busy with other more pressing school commitments, I put off my search until the summer.
But even once I contacted the Consulate, it seemed like no one ever gave me the same answer. My first question was whether I would still be able to obtain French citizenship, now that I was over eighteen. The general consensus was yes but the process would depend on whether my mom had registered her children with the French government (though the person who told me this failed to explain that the “government” in question was also the Consulate itself). If she hadn’t, it would be much harder now that I was over eighteen. Regardless, I was told it could take up to a year to complete the process. Discouraged, I crossed my fingers that my mom had the foresight to register us. As I prepared for my upcoming departure for France, I rummaged through our family files in search of my birth certificate and anything else that I might need to prove that my mom was French, I am her daughter and, therefore, I am French. While doing so, I stumbled upon my mom’s old French passport and as I flipped through it, my eyes widened with glee to find both my brother’s and my name and pictures in it, an indication that we were probably registered as her children. I quickly called the Consulate and asked how I should proceed, since I would be leaving for France soon. I was told that I would have to present this passport, along with my mom’s birth certificate, at court in France. Greatly relieved and about to embark on my trip across the ocean, I was confident that I would soon have a French passport.
Soon after I arrived in France, my aunt and I got down to work. From our online searches, we discovered that my mom’s birth certificate had to be a copy ordered within the past three months. Fine, ok, easy, we thought. Her birth certificate ordered from the suburb of Paris where she was born, we waited to be able to move forward. But of course, things of this nature are never so simple! Upon receiving her birth certificate, my aunt noticed that it didn’t have the stamp showing that the person in question is now deceased. Thinking this was simply a clerical mistake that could be quickly fixed, we called the town hall where the birth certificate had originated. And here is where the biggest “WTF” moment of this entire process occurred: for whatever reason, my mom’s death had supposedly never been registered with whichever part of French bureaucracy is in charge of recording these things, despite the fact that every other part of the French system that my mom had been a part of, from her French bank to her insurance company, were quite aware of this fact. In other words, I found myself in a very strange situation that could only exist in French bureaucracy where my dead mother of three and a half years was still legally considered to be alive by one government agency and dead to all the others! It was so infuriatingly absurd that all I could do was laugh.
Back to square one. Obviously, her death would need to be officially registered in order for me to proceed with becoming a French citizen. Back in North Carolina, my dad would have to order another death certificate and send it to the Consulate, who would then send it along to the right government agency in France. In the midst of this bureaucratic stalemate, the days allowed for staying in a country of the European Union without a visa were quickly dwindling away. I certainly wouldn’t be the first person to slip past this deadline but as a self-proclaimed goody two-shoes, I was having trouble accepting this potential reality, which manifested itself in recurring nightmares of being deported … I’ve always had an overactive imagination. When riding the metro or traveling, I did my best to attract as little attention as possible and strictly follow all the rules. If my metro ticket happened not to work, I’d take the extra time to stand in line at the ticket office and ask for a new one instead of just hopping over the turnstile like so many other Parisians, just in case there was a ticket check or any policemen around. I hoped that the cover of my accentless French and white skin would be enough to protect me from any questions if I were to get stopped (yes, the same social problems and inequalities do exist in France).
Simultaneously, I was trapped in a long exchange of emails and paperwork with the lawyers in charge of my mom’s estate. Having reached the peak of my frustration, I had a momentary meltdown one afternoon. As I tried to identify what exactly I was feeling that was causing me to be so upset, I realized that I was angry. Specifically, at my parents for having not taken the time to make this easier for me. Why hadn’t my mom been more proactive and taken care of establishing French citizenship for her children? Why had my dad let this estate drag on for so long? Why do I have to take care of this on my own? Basically, I had a little pity party. Once I got it all out of my system, I took some deep breathes and calmed down. I reminded myself that my mom had a million things to take care of and that she did the best she could under the circumstances. Every minute she didn’t spend on the phone with the Consulate or worrying about all this paperwork was another minute she got to spend with us. The things in life that matter are not handed to you, you have to fight for them. I learned that from her. Tears dried and determination restored, I forged ahead.
Shortly afterwards, I received a phone call from my dad. While dealing with the death certificate debacle, he had spoken in depth with a well-informed officer at the Consulate about the problems we were encountering. “Sir, your daughter is already considered to be French, as is your son. Their mother registered their births with the Consulate and they both have French birth certificates,” the consular officer informed him after searching through their database. According to him, all I would need to do is order a copy of my French birth certificate from Nantes, a town in the Northwest of France, and complete the paperwork for a passport like any other French citizen would! Upon receiving this news, I chuckled to myself. It was like a sign from Mom showing me to never doubt her love or the fact that she provided me with everything I needed. Of course she wasn’t perfect but she didn’t leave me completely in the dark, either.
No less than three weeks after this discovery, I now have a French passport to prove that I am a legal citizen of France. As I walked out of the town hall this morning, freshly printed passport in hand, my aunt and I did a happy dance and celebrated the end of an exhausting journey. And while I am genuinely elated to posses the official document that allows me to stay in this country as long and as freely as I choose, I realize that I never really needed a fancy piece of paper to make me feel French. It is part of the legacy that my mom passed on to me that I will always cherish. To complete my adventure with French bureaucracy, I also spent Friday morning in a lawyer’s office in Paris signing the papers to close my mom’s French estate. Finally, after three and half years, it is over. As the lawyer went over the thick file with me one last time, the papers shuffling by each contained a jumble of memories flashing through my mind. Her birth certificates, our birth certificates, summary of assets, death certificate, a slew of “In God we Trust”s and “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité”s, a Final Will and Testament, and God knows what else. An entire life summed up in one file. This is the business side of death. Hidden in the background of those official documents are tales of joy, courageousness, family, illness, perseverance, and heartache. But business is business, no place for being sentimental. I signed what needed to be signed and now the final unfinished chapter of my mom’s existence, or rather her un-existence, has been closed. She and her file may legally rest in peace, at last.