(Subtitle: Why the French government is trying to turn us into libertarians.)
It's been a stressful few weeks here. We have been going through the slow process of officially registering our immigration status and obtaining a long-stay visa. Relatively speaking, we are luckier than many others – Eric qualifies for a special “chercheur-scientifique” status, which gives him greater privileges than most. He was given a 6 month visa, though I only received a 3 month stay, therefore I needed to go through the steps to receive a “carte sejour.”
We had already been through a fairly stressful period back in the US when we needed to wait – and wait - for our initial visas. After many "je suis désolé" emails increasingly expressing the urgency of this paperwork, we finally were able to make an appointment at the French embassy in Chicago and get our initial visas. There was a brief moment of panic when Eric was told that he needed a picture with no glasses, but the kind employee told him to go downstairs and get a photo at the CVS, thus saving us another trip to Chicago. (It also resulted in perhaps the worst photo in the history of passport photos – seriously.) But we had gathered all the documents, checked everything, and thought that the worst was behind us.
We were wrong. Though we had shown all the necessary documents the first time, apparently the French officials do not trust the officials at the french Embassy in Chicago – they must see the original documents for themselves. We had scanned copies of the documents, but hadn't brought the originals. Silly us, we should have know that the French would need the originals. We kicked ourselves, wondering why we would have left them behind. In fairness, after repeated inquiries, we were never told exactly which documents to bring. In France, they don't necessarily specify what you will need, they simply assume that you will have it, and seem appalled when you don't.
So now, a moment of true panic set in. We needed all of our documents, the originals. We feared that one of us might need to fly home merely to pick up documents. Providentially, Eric's mom was scheduled to visit in about a week, so this was perhaps the best possible moment for this problem to occur. And, unlike the chaos in the rest of our house, we actually have two bright-colored file folders in our file drawer for all important documents. And, the kind relatives who are renting our house were generous enough to look through them and find everything we needed. Minus one thing – they could only find the photocopy of the marriage license, not the original. We knew the French – this would not be sufficient. After much wailing and gnashing of teeth (plus the realization that if it wasn't in the file folder, it could be anywhere), Eric had a brilliant idea. Could the Kent County office grant a new marriage license? A quick call verified that yes they can. Would we need to pick it up in person or could Eric's mom get it? Sure – your mom can pick it up, no problem. How much will this cost? Three dollars. Wait – three American dollars? Are you sure that's not 300 dollars? No passport check, proof of first month's rent, fingerprints, retina scan? Nothing? So Eric's mom kindly went down to the County clerk's office, paid three dollars, and got our new “original” certificate. I'm not even sure they required any identification. I'm pretty sure that if you tell the kind folks at the Kent County clerk's office that you're a mother, they take your word for it.
So, thanks to the efforts of our kind relatives, we thought we were home free. Except, ..not only did we need the original documents, we also needed official French translations. (This is the moment when Eric and I always say: “Non, non, non, en francais!”) Official translations from an official “traducteur.” Even my birth certificate, which is both in English and French since I was born in Ottawa, needed an official translation. (None of this Canadian French – only France French.) We were now racing the clock. The day before the appointment, at about 8 in the evening, I open my email and there are the pdfs of the translated documents. Would the pdfs be sufficient or would we need the ones with the official seal?
This is where the story takes a comedic turn. We decided to take a late-night trip to Eric's office to print the documents. The subways are only running about every 15 minutes, so we don't arrive at the office until 11 o'clock. The documents are printed successfully, and we are packing up to leave when we hear an alarm. “Can't be us” we think, but we hustle out of there anyway. Sure enough, as we walk briskly through the parking lot, a security car approaches. (We had to remind each other: “Don't run.”) Luckily, after my panicky explanation, I was able to assure the security officer that we were legitimate. At this point, we noted both our white privilege and our nerd privilege. When leaving a research lab, probably the most trustworthy-looking individuals are two middle-aged, middle-class people with spectacles. So rather than being arrested on the night before our appointment, we actually had – hopefully – all the documents we needed. Incidentally, earlier we had mentioned that we should take the opportunity to go out one evening while Eric's mom was here. So this turned out to be our “date night” - full of heart-stopping adventure, intrigue, plus a rat sighting on the way home. What more could you ask?
The next morning, we set out early. Though we had a 9:30 appointment, a very helpful woman from our church advised us that the office opens at 8, and a queue starts forming at around 7. Sure enough, when we arrived, the line was already long enough that we couldn't tell if we were in the correct place. Once again, we were fortunate to find an ex-pat who helped us regain our place in line (resulting in many dirty looks) and somewhat guided us through the process. When we remarked on the craziness of the situation, she merely smiled and said: “Welcome to Marseille.”
Upon entering the building, the true chaos ensues. As far as I can tell, here are the rules of a French immigration office:
- It must be at least 95 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Despite the heat, about half the people around you will be dressed in fur-lined parkas. This is designed to exacerbate the claustrophobia which has already set in.
- There must be at least 8 babies, crying at impressive decibels. Apparently, there are no sleeping babies in an immigration office. Their older siblings will be running circles around their parents' legs, as they unsuccessfully shush them.
- It must be crowded enough to barely move. And yet, there will be lots of jockeying for position. Get your elbows out and be vigilant. (There were several times when I whispered to Eric: “stay right, there's a guy trying to cut you off.”)
- You will hear at least 6 different languages – also at impressive decibels.
- You must receive conflicting information about various requirements: do you need a number or not? Will they call your name? Do you have to line up?
They did indeed call our name, and we heard it, and they apparently didn't notice that the official translations were only copies. There was a brief moment of panic when they told us that we needed proof of the visit to OFII first, but a moment later, they told us that we could send it in later. Relief.
There was one more step in the process – the visit to the OFII. This was comparatively easy, though it did require the purchase of “timbres” to cover the cost. The cost was 241 euros, but you do not pay by check or cash or money order, but rather through actual stamps, which you buy at a “tabac” or newstand. So I walk into a little tabac, hand over 241 euros in cash, and in exchange he hands me 6 small stamps, smiling and saying: “Don't lose them!” This is precisely what I feared. I do not understand this system, and I'm sure I never will.
But finally, we have finished all the scheduled meetings, and hopefully will not need additional documentation. I have my temporary carte sejour, and have been told that my official one will probably – though not necessarily – arrive before we leave France.
So this is why we fear that living in France might turn us into libertarians. Those of you who complain about red tape and bureaucracy in the States? Yeah, you have no idea.