Someday, I promise myself, I’ll write all this down. Someday it will turn into a book. A story. Something funny, where the reader empathizes with the narrator and yet has no idea how to empathize, because how the heck do you empathize with someone who’s putting themselves through so much misery for something so inconsequential?
Long story short, and for a lot of different reasons, I went back to the préfecture this month. I didn’t have to go back until July, so there’s no good reason why I would have gone back now, except that I did, and it was important, to me. Maybe it will make some of you laugh. Maybe it will help some of you. Maybe it will help those close to me understand why I’ve been such a pain for the past few months. Whatever the reason, this is the story.
I made the decision to return to the préfecture for a status change just a few weeks before I went in for a renewal, which meant that this year, for the first time in my nearly eight years in France, I’d be going through the process twice. It’s a process that the Country Boy has learned to loathe even more than I do; in my world, only the préfecture is crazy and demanding and slightly terrifying, but in his world, I become a reflection of that which I hate.
I asked a host of questions at that first renewal — I always try to ask questions when I have a person in front of me, because they can’t hang up on you or ignore your e-mail. My questions were pointed and probably quite befuddling to agent #2, because while she didn’t know my plan, I did — I had put aside short-lived thoughts of applying for nationality and had had a heart-to-heart with TCB: we were going to get PACSed.
I would have to wait until getting my recently renewed visa in October before making an appointment to change statuses. That was fine, because paperwork was coming.
The list of required papers to get PACSed as a foreigner was long and involved several different documents proving a negative (never married, never PACSed), which I didn’t think was possible. Apparently, France doesn’t care that you can’t prove a negative. Here, you can and do. Actually, that part was relatively painless — send a request by post, receive the document several weeks later.
But there were crazier documents to track down. I ordered a new birth certificate. I realized through a series of odd events and two different phone calls with the same fonctionnaire trying to make a visa change appointment too early in the game that I had requested the wrong copy of my birth certificate. I ordered a new copy, and, because I had everything else I needed and was ready to go apply for a PACS, I sent my sister a typed and signed letter of procuration that she could show to the officials in New York (and franglaised my way through it because I’ve never written a formal letter in English) and then asked said sister to rush around New York City getting it signed and stamped by two different officials, then scan it and e-mail it to me so that I could have it translated, then mail it to me by overnight post so that I could apply for my PACS appointment in accordance with the schedule I had set up for myself in August.
She did all of the above with grace and poise and in under 2 hours. Score 1 America. And score 9,000 family.
By the time we had all of the paperwork assembled for our PACS, some of it was too old to be used; paperwork for a PACS needs to be no more than three months old, but when applying for a PACS in Paris, your PACS appointment is usually about three months after the day that you drop off your paperwork.
Ergo, we would have to apply for some of it again, because the perfect timing of the paperwork did not work out exactly as I had planned. Cue first panic attack, whereby I have a meltdown because we were supposed to drop off our PACS paperwork on a randomly designated (by me) Thursday, and now we would have to wait until Friday, i.e. 24 hours later. On a related note, I don’t deal well with the unforeseen.
Also cue the first time that our landlord pissed me off by not sending us rent forms. Which we didn’t even end up needing. But it made me mad anyway. It’s the principle of the thing.
When we finally received all papers, TCB and I were not speaking, because the aforementioned landlord issue had turned me into an illogical banshee and he decided he shouldn’t speak to me anymore, which at the time made me madder but in retrospect was a very wise decision on his part. We went to the Tribunal d’Instance at 8:50 AM in silence — the irony of going to get PACSed while not speaking together because of the assembly of documents for the aforementioned PACS did not escape me.
I stood in front of the doors to block two women who had arrived just after me and were — I was certain — going to cut me in line. TCB smoked a fair distance from me in case of literal Emiglia-explosion.
When the doors were unlocked, I realized the women I was competing with were employees of the tribunal.
Two men were standing in line behind us, ostensibly to get PACSed. They were in their 60s. It made me happy to see them. We dropped off our paperwork and were told to come back with the two documents that were valid now but would not be valid in three months. TCB and I made up without a word.
The day had come! (Or the first of many, anyway.) October 16th.
I picked up my carte de séjour and tried to make a new appointment online, but the system would not allow me to make an appointment online, and instead I was told to call a number. Since I hate phone calls even more than I hate the préfecture, I tried again on the 17th. No dice.
I called. I spoke with a delightful* woman who, with grace* and poise* told me that she could not help me, and I should try the woman on line 3. I tried line 3. She sent me back to line 2. I started feeling like I was in a Kafka novel. I got back on the phone with the lady on line 2. She told me she couldn’t help me. She didn’t hang up on me, but she made it very clear to me that the conversation was over.
A month later, I would not be so lucky.
Parallel to all of this — because life was still going on, to some extent — TCB and I had finally planned our dream trip to Normandy in October and had thus taken a Friday off work.
Before driving off into the sunset (or sunrise, really), we went down to the préfecture, again, and asked the woman at the reception desk if I could make an appointment for a visa change — the same thing that the women on lines 2 and 3 had told me in no uncertain terms was impossible, but TCB is less easily swayed than I. She sent me to the 2nd floor, where I was told there were too many people today for him to even consider making me an appointment, but that I could try coming back on Monday. I explained that I would have to work. He told me life’s tough and then you’re dead.**
I tried the downstairs office again and put on a very adult* voice and asked nicely* and calmly* if there was anything she could do. The receptionist gave me a piece of paper with an address on it and told me to write a letter. I asked if I could speak to the person to whom I would be writing the letter in person instead. She handed me another piece of paper with the same address on it, but highlighted it this time.
I left and broke down hysterically crying on the Pont Saint-Michel.
We went to Normandy and had a spectacular time. When we got back, I wrote the letter, had it checked by three people to make it more French, flourishy and eloquent, and sent it.
I tried to stop thinking about a visa change, because at this point, I was certain it would never, ever happen.
*Replacement adjectives for my sanity.
**Copyright Jean Monaco, aka my mother, aka the reason why you don’t cry unless they’re’s blood. Sorry, Mom — there’s a fair amount of crying without blood in this story.
In November, I had planned a trip to Prague with my aunt. Based on the timeline I had meticulously made in August, I knew that planning a trip at the end of November might be dicey, but I also knew that if I decided not to go and nothing happened, I would regret it, so I planned the trip, knowing full well that it might interfere with all variety of appointments. Miraculously, it didn’t.
The Friday before my Sunday departure, I came home from work to find a letter in the mail, telling me to be at the préfecture on December 9th with a list of documents. My flourishy letter had worked — I had gotten my renewal appointment!
One small problem. The documents. I had two weeks to get them, and one of those weeks I would be in Prague. TCB totally stepped up and agreed to track down most of them either while I was away or together once I got back — the only one I would have to get alone was an attestation de sécurité sociale, which one usually gets online. Unfortunately, the site was telling me that my social security number — which I had been using since 2010 — did not exist, and I would have to call for more information.
But it was a weekend. Everything was closed. I wrote down the number I could call and took it with me to Prague.
Enter the worst phone call of my life (so far). Apparently for the past two years, while living in a country with socialized healthcare — I haven’t had healthcare. A paperwork glitch from when I finished my Master’s degree and became an employee that could easily be resolved in four to six weeks — TCB was in Paris rapidly assembling more papers to do so — but that meant that I wasn’t going to be able to get that attestation. Since I know that papers are king in France, and since I know that no one here ever offers a life-saving paper of their own accord, I started asking about other attestations — could I get an attestation that I had been paying into the system (since I was…)? Non. Could I get an attestation that said that I was in the process of regularizing my situation? Non. Could I get a letter of any kind saying that I wasn’t a delinquent and that this wasn’t my fault?
Madame, j’ai répondu à vos questions, donc je n’ai plus qu’à vous dire au revoir. Au revoir madame.* Click.
She hung up on me. 45 euros in international calling fees later, all I had to show for my efforts were tears. Lots and lots of tears.
I had a fantastic time in Prague. I knew that when I came back, there would be a scramble, but I was ready for it. Kind of.
*Ma’am, I’ve answered your questions, so I have nothing more to do than to say goodbye. Goodbye, ma’am.
I got back from Prague on November 28th. My PACS was December 3rd. It didn’t give me a lot of time for any remaining paperwork.
Luckily, my secret weapon is my Merovingian boyfriend, who has a way of talking to French people that I will never understand. Literally, I once showed a préfecture worker a copie conforme à l’origine of my attestation d’assurance (one of these days, I’m going to do a post on French words expats don’t know in English because WE DON’T USE THEM). She said that I couldn’t use it; TCB said, “Mais si,” and she said, “Oh, you’re right, of course.”
That was the moment I realized that I would never win at this game, and all I could do was try to keep my head above water. The water of my constant tears of frustration.
ANYWAY. I got together as much proof of my continued payment of sécurité sociale as I could, and the morning of my PACS, TCB and I went to the social security office. I showed my social security number on my paychecks and a letter from the head of billing at my company saying that I had, in fact, been paying into the social security system, but no dice.
“I can’t write an attestation for something that I can’t prove in my software,” the very nice man said. “And what’s more, my software is broken.”
I could see TCB, who works in IT, physically holding himself back to keep from crawling over the desk to fix the software of this lovely man who was beginning to remind me of a bureaucrat à la Douglas Adams.
“But sir, please, I have a renewal appointment next week. I didn’t realize that my situation wasn’t regular.”
“Well, mademoiselle, there are certain administrative things that you have to keep on top of, you know.”
Yeah. At that, I started crying.
Which is when the very nice man decided that in order to get the crazy girl out of his office, he could write an attestation attesting that I had a social security number attributed to my name.
Fine! Perfect! Yes! Sign! Stamp! Put another stamp on there! Can someone else sign it? Just pass it around like a birthday card and get everyone to sign! He’s the janitor? I don’t care! He can sign it too!
I took my paper and we left. We bought some Christmas decorations and thought about having a stiff drink, which we did not do; the day wasn’t over yet.
Our PACS was relatively uneventful, save the moment we showed up at our assigned office and saw a piece of paper on the front door, which usually means fermeture exceptionnelle pour grève, but this one was just telling us to go next door. So we did. The woman who was PACSing us inverted my first and last names, got my birthday wrong, and looked like one of those people who wouldn’t react if you exploded a paper bag next to her head. She also spent more time explaining how we could de-PACS than actually PACSing us.
We went to our favorite restaurant for dinner and drank a delicious Crozes-Hermitage. It felt like we were nearing the end.
Six days later, I got up very early and had a cup of coffee, but I couldn’t eat anything.
I’m very superstitious about visa day. I spend the entire pre-appointment period thinking of all the things that could go wrong, which in my mind makes it impossible that those things could happen. It usually works; this time it did not. I missed one.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. After a week of back-and-forthing with our landlord trying to get quittances de loyer that proved that we pay our rent (which we do), and deciding, finally, to meet in person on Tuesday, she called TCB on Tuesday morning letting him know that she had just dropped them off at the post office. Luckily, she didn’t call me, or I might have rendered us homeless. Also luckily, we had several other proofs of residence, including lots and lots of attestations from our insurance company, based in Gien. They’re lovely. We brought them a big box of chocolates last weekend.
TCB tried to be helpful by telling me that we could show the people at the préfecture the repeated bank transfers to our landlord and show that the person we were sending said bank transfers to was the same person on our lease, but I wasn’t sure. I drank another coffee and tried not to throw up in the street.
We showed up at the préfecture at precisely three o’clock. We stood in line for a full hour behind two (2) other people. The line did not move. My back hurt immensely, because I was carrying 10 pounds (not hyperbole) of documents on my back.
When we finally made it to the front of the line, I showed the person behind the desk my convocation. He passed me a piece of paper with a few lines handwritten on it.
“Please pick another date.”
“Software problem. We’re running behind. The earliest is the 7th of January.”
In related news, the French administration needs new software.
“While you’re picking your date, I’ll tell monsieur which documents you need to bring.”
I gaped for a while longer, but when it appeared that the woman behind the desk was getting frustrated with me, I picked the 7th. I tried to tell myself that it wasn’t a big deal — just one more month of waiting — but I didn’t quite believe myself. Just next to me — but seeming about a mile away — I heard TCB say, after the exhaustive list of documents given by the agent, “But… we had all of them.”
The agent looked sadly, pitifully to his colleague. “They had everything.”
Sensing a bit of compassion, I tried to barter. “I can stay till the end of the day, if that helps.”
The woman who had become frustrated with my gaping raised her eyebrows and scoffed. “Or you could have no visa. We could decide not to give you one.”
“The 7th is fine.”
I gathered my folders and we left. I felt tears welling up. I turned to TCB. “I give up.” The tears started coming. I tried to hide behind a wall, which is difficult to do, if you’ve never had the opportunity to try it. “I can’t do this anymore. I can’t take it anymore.”
TCB tried to get me to calm down, or at least move outside, but the tears were free-falling by then, and I was too embarrassed to walk past everyone else. So I cried, as silently as I could, next to my wall.
I have a vague recollection of the agent, the compassionate one, coming up next to me, asking TCB if I was OK.
“Yes, she’s just disappointed. She’s been waiting since July. It’s stressful, you know.” He spoke with the perfect combination of apology and frankness. The agent nodded; he understood. He went out to smoke his cigarette. TCB managed to get me to the coffee machines.
The agent came back from his smoke break. He said some stuff to TCB that I refused to understand, but 5pm and wait here were involved. TCB looked at me, smiling, and said he’d buy me a coffee.
“Did you understand?”
He fed change into the machine and pressed the button for an allongé, no sugar. “Dry your face. Drink your coffee. He said he’d do your dossier at the end of the day.”
And now I was just plain mortified.
I drank my coffee and calmed myself down as best I could. We went back into the first room, where the woman who had tried to take away my visa was staring daggers at me. The room was nearly empty before agent #4 called me over.
It was the fastest préfecture interaction of my life. He barely glanced at our papers. I was scrambling through my Important, Might Be Important and Random Extra Visa Shit folders (and yes, they are labeled as such) trying to give the agent everything he asked for. He was making photocopies — which we’re supposed to make ourselves at 10 centimes a pop — like a pro. And then, the moment of truth.
Attestations de sécurité sociale?
I knew that all I had was my fake attestation from the week before. And TCB, who had brought his whole life in document form, is known for the bizarre pride he has of not having had a carte vitale since 2006.
We were fucked. (Pardon my French.)
I gave him my fake attestation. He asked why I didn’t have a real attestation, and I played dumb. For once, it worked. Then he asked for TCB’s. TCB was still fake combing through his documents. “I don’t have it. I didn’t know. But you can see on my work contracts…”
“Look. You have a dossier en béton. In concrete. But I have to run all new PACS visas past my superior. Wait over there for 15 minutes.”
We went back to the waiting room. Now TCB was nervous, but I knew that there was nothing else to do but wait. The agent had told us that in the worst case, we could drop off any remaining documents to complete our dossier at our convenience. If nothing else, we had moved forward today. We might not be going home with the visa, but it was something.
I sat down in front of a terrifying lady who was combing through my dossier. “Why are you applying for a status change? Your visa is good until July.”
“Oh! I actually wrote a letter explaining…”
“Where’s the letter?”
“I sent it. Here. To you.”
“I don’t have it.”
“Well someone must have gotten it; that’s how I got the appointment.”
“And you don’t have a copy?”
I pulled out my phone and started frantically searching my e-mail outbox for an old copy — any copy.
“You got fired?”
“No! No. I just want to leave my job to do freelance work.”
“You’re suffering at your job?”
“I’m not… suffering. No. I just want to do something else.”
“Oh. That’s fine.”
She passes the dossier to agent 4. Agent 4 starts stamping stuff. Stamping is good.
I sign. Pass the form back.
“You signed in the wrong place.”
What? We’ve come this far… he’s going to turn me away! I start to panic again.
“Here.” He hands me a new version of the form. “Sign here.“
“OK. Thank you. What can we do? How can we — repay you?”
“Put a comment in the comment box.” He grins.
“What’s your name?”
“Thank you Mr. Agent #4.”
“I won’t give you a récipissé, since your old visa is still good. Just come in February and pick up your new visa. Or whenever. After February.” He stamps more things.
“So… that’s it?”
“I still have my old visa.”
“Yes, but the new status.”
“The new status is good. I can… do whatever I want.”
He looks me in the eye.
“You have all of the rights of a French person. You can iron all day, if you want to.”
After that, we didn’t go out to celebrate. We were too exhausted.
We came home, had a beer, and I made comfort food. Not this comfort food — I was far too tired to take pictures of what I made. I made this, if you’re interested, and it was delicious.
Salt and Vinegar Fried Potatoes, Mushrooms, Spinach, Soft Egg
300 grams small potatoes
1/3 cup white vinegar
2 Tbsp. duck fat
4 tsp. olive oil, separated
300 grams mushrooms
2 handfuls baby spinach
salt and pepper
Place the potatoes and white vinegar in a pot and cover by one inch with cold water. Bring to a boil over medium heat. Boil 20 minutes, or until the potatoes are tender.
Meanwhile, quarter the shallots and toss them with 2 tsp. of the olive oil. Place in a baking dish and place in the oven (use a toaster oven so you don’t waste energy) and roast for 30 minutes.
While the potatoes and shallots are cooking, thinly slice the mushrooms. Add the rest of the oil to a pan and cook the mushrooms until browned. Season with salt and set aside.
When the potatoes are cooked, halve them and heat up the duck fat in the same frying pan as you used for the mushrooms (to keep TCB from asking why you always use every pan in the house while making dinner). Add the potatoes and cook until golden brown and crispy, about 10 minutes.
Remove the potatoes from the pan and add the eggs. Fry to your liking. Runny is good for this dish.
Add a handful of raw spinach to each of two deep plates. Top with mushrooms and potatoes. Finish with shallots and the egg. Season with salt, pepper and malt vinegar to taste. Collapse on couch and eat.