You are Number 1189

Photo: © 2011 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved

Tomorrow morning I venture back to the Préfecture at Bobigny. This will be my third visit … the goal: to renew my titre de séjour—my residency permit—the little sticker in my passport that lets me stay legally in France.

“Why,” you might ask, “will this be your third visit? You haven’t been in France for three years.” And you would be absolutely right. I have never had to renew my residency permit before because I arrived in France on August 16, 2010 on a student visa that is valid through August 15, 2011. So why will this be my third visit to Bobigny? Well, that’s simple: French bureaucracy.

The French are famous for it. The French even joke about it themselves. And it’s absolutely true. French bureaucracy is all about having exactly the right forms, exactly the right papers, and exactly the right answers or … you get to do it all over again. Now, don’t misunderstand me: I haven’t (yet) failed to have the right forms, the right papers, or the right answers, but that hasn’t prevented the French administrative system from giving me a major stress headache on more than one occasion. I could write for pages about my problems registering with Sécurité Sociale—the French health care system—but the immigration story is much more entertaining. Maybe we’ll chat about Sécurité Sociale another time … say, when it’s time to renew my registration this November.

So back to the story at hand … let’s go back in time a little …
it was a cool, rainy April …

I realized that it was time to start thinking about renewing my residency permit because my visa (and residency permit) were set to expire in about four months. Recalling how the initial process had been expected to take a few months (although in the end, it was relatively quick), I was anxious to start the process. I asked Michel to call the local Préfecture of Police (the administrative agency that deals with immigration after you’ve been granted temporary residency) to make sure I understood what I needed to do and when I needed to do it. (I was sure I’d misunderstand something if I made the call.)

“When should he come to renew?”

“Oh, in April or May. As you like.”

… “comme vous voulez” … such a common response  … such a meaningless and erroneous response! Attention fellow expatriates: beware the “comme vous voulez“!

At the time, I had no reason to suspect that what the Préfecture says and what they want are two different things. I assembled all of the required documentation clearly listed on the Préfecture’s website, including a certified copy of my birth certificate, translated into French by … oh merde ! … a translator that was not approved by the Court of Appeals of Paris! A miniature crisis ensued. “What am I going to do? Oh no, this won’t work. I can’t do this all in time. I won’t be able to renew my permit. They’ll deport me.” (If you know me, you can imagine this mini-meltdown.) Thankfully, Michel has a cooler head and, after making a few calls, we located a agreeable translator in Paris, Cabinet Fields. We dropped off the birth certificate with their delightfully friendly staff, paid the 52 euros ($70) to have it translated, and headed off for a week in Budapest. Within a few days, I received an email from Cabinet Fields letting me know that my translation was ready … I was all set! So, upon my return from Hungary, I re-assembled my dossier and, on April 20, I headed off to Bobigny.

I arrived around 10 a.m., and after a few missteps, eventually located the right place. I got in line but, after about 20 minutes, I realized I was in the wrong queue: this one was only for those who already had green convocation notices. Hmmm, green convocation notices. I wondered what that was all about. Why would I need a green convocation notice? They didn’t say anything about this when we called. The anxiety mounted. I was redirected to a second queue and, after another 15 minutes in line, I was greeted by a friendly, smiling immigration services employee who asked why I was there.

“I would like to renew my residency permit, please.”

“Okay, and you have a student visa,” she replied, leafing through my passport.

“Yes. That’s right.”

“And it’s valid until the 15th of August … [pause] … well, you’re here too early.”

“Excuse me? I’m sorry?”

“You can’t come any earlier than three months before the expiration of your visa.”

“Oh, we called. We were told I could come in April.”

“No. You need to come back after May 15.”


I went home, frustrated but laughing about it. “Oh, that French bureaucracy! Ha ha ha!” This would make for a good story over cocktails.

One month later …

Even though May 16 was the Monday of the last week of my classes (and the day before my first exam), I headed back to Bobigny bright and early, not wanting to waste any time in this process. This time, I brought Michel with me as my unofficial translator, just to short circuit any potential communication problems that might arise. I had to be sure, you know?

© 2011 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved

We got in line at Porte 1, the entrance for initial demands for renewal (for those of us without those intriguing green convocation notices, still not completely sure what they implied). The line was long, but I wasn’t too concerned; it was moving. As we approached the door, we noticed unfolded cardboard boxes on the sidewalk. We subsequently learned that, apparently, this is where people had spent the night before to ensure prime places in line. That was a little disconcerting. Nervous laugh … the anxiety mounted again.

After getting inside, I was given a ticket: “You are number 1189. There are 430 people before you.” Oh là là … là là … well, that has to move quickly, right? But I knew we’d be there until lunch. “Good grief, we’re going to have to spend two hours here!” I thought.

We were directed to the waiting area, which was reminiscent of those giant waiting rooms in big-city DMVs. I sat down with my little paper ticket in hand, periodically looking from it, to the little LED display showing the “now serving” number, to the crowd around me. It was interesting, and a little surreal. It was really a little microcosm of the world: African immigrants, North African immigrants, Indian immigrants, East Asian immigrants, a few immigrants with my complexion. There we were, all of us, waiting for France to let us stay: the elderly Asian gentleman in a suit and tie, the Arab family with a giggling little 18-month old, the young guy from Congo seated on the other side of Michel who had as many questions about how this worked as I did.

Unfortunately, the Ellis Island-esque novelty of the situation dissolved as the minutes turned into hours …

Of the 12 windows in the waiting room, only 4 or 5 were occupied by an agent at any given time, and what I had hoped to be a rather quick, efficient process drug on and on and on. Lunch time came, and only two windows remained open, slowing down the process even more. The realization set in that we were in for a very long-haul. Michel got up a few times to smoke a cigarette outside, but I didn’t dare move, for fear of missing my number if, for some inexplicable reason, the process sped up and number 1189 were called.

My anxiety turned to impatience, which in turn degenerated into frustration, anger, and despondence. I wanted to literally scream a few times, and I began to oscillate between laughing at the absurdity of the situation and wanting to cry because I was so exhausted. There was only one “working” bathroom, and there was nothing to eat or drink. Not even a vending machine. The worst of it: I didn’t even bring anything to study, thinking that there was no way I’d be in Bobigny that long …



“Hello. I’d like to renew my residency permit.”

Looking at my passport and searching on her computer, “Okay, and you will still be a student?”


“You have a certificate of pre-inscription.”

“Yes, I do,” handing it over.

“Oh, we don’t need it right now.”

“Okay,” taking it back sheepishly.

Looking at a calendar beside her desk, “What do you want: morning or afternoon?”

“Euh … morning?”

“Okay. July 12 at 10 a.m. Fill out this form, and bring this, and this …” handing me a form and indicating with a pink highlighter various items on a checklist of necessary documents.

The reality began to sink in. I had just spent 6-1/2 hours waiting so I could spend 3 minutes at a window with an immigration agent getting forms to fill out in advance of my next appointment in two months! I was speechless. I was confused. I felt relieved to have finally made my way to the window, happy to have an appointment, reassured now that I knew what a green convocation notice was because I had one in my hand! But completely exhausted and shocked at the monumental inefficiency of this system. Really? Six and a half hours out of the lives of every person in that waiting room, all day, every day, just so we could have a few minutes at a window to ask for an appointment and get handed a few forms that should have been available online?! Sigh. No matter, it was going to make for another good story over cocktails.

“July 12, 10 a.m.” Okay. And then things will be set for a little while. Well, at least until I have to go back the fourth time to pay the fee and have the residency permit affixed in my passport. I’m now pretty confident that’s why I have to bring a self-addressed, stamped envelope tomorrow.

Famished and fatigued, we left the Préfecture and, en route to the Tramway to go back home to La Courneuve, I re-read the list of necessary documents … and a translated birth certificate wasn’t even on it.

July 13 update: Read how it went here.

© 2011 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved


3 thoughts on “You are Number 1189

  1. Um….wow….speechless.

    I’m sending this to a friend (British, currently living in Arlington). She actually dared complain about the DMV here — she ain’t seen nuttin yet.

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