Photo: “valid until October 11, 2011” © 2011 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved
They say that you should do what you’re best at. If you explain things well, be a teacher! If you’re good at taking things apart and putting them back together, be a mechanic! If you write well, be a journalist! If you complain well, be a blogger who writes about French bureaucracy!
It’s been a few days now since my last visit to the Prefecture at Bobigny; I needed a few days to simmer down and collect my thoughts, to distill my observations into something more comprehensible than the experience itself. The last post I published on this subject was last Tuesday, where I took a comical look at the frustration of dealing with French bureaucracy. I needed to laugh about it so I didn’t end up stewing in my anxiety. I had just gone back to the Prefecture the day before to request a new récépissé, which is the receipt showing that you’ve submitted a request to renew your residency permit. It serves as proof that you’re in the country legally while waiting for a new permit. I had also been told that morning I was there too early: my récépissé was set to expire at midnight the next day, and I needed to come back after its expiration … after I was en difficulté (“in difficulty”).
So, yes, after having gotten to the Prefecture Monday morning at 7:43 (FourSquare is very useful in reconstructing a timeline), and having waited in line for almost two hours, I was politely advised that I needed to come back two days later. It was frustrating, of course, but I laughed it off, as I did in that blogpost. My status on Facebook that morning summed up my sentiments:
The difference between the American and French immigration systems: the US makes it hard to get into the country; France makes it easy to get in but so painful to stay that you just want to leave. — at Préfecture De Seine Saint Denis.
I didn’t realize at the time how much more acute that sentiment would soon become.
Having no immigration business to manage the next day (Tuesday), I finally went to my classes. I had sent an email to the administration at CCFS to inform my professor that I would miss Monday because of an urgent visit to the Prefecture. Because CCFS is a French language school for foreign students, this was nothing out of the ordinary for them. There are always students missing class to go stand in long lines and deal with immigration issues. When I arrived Tuesday morning, I greeted my professor (thankfully, the same one I had last semester), apologized for missing class the day before, and told him that, unfortunately, I was going have to miss the next day (Wednesday) as well because my visit to the Prefecture had been too early. He sympathized, both of us shaking our heads about it, and he wished me bon courage. After class, we said goodbye: “À jeudi !” (“See you Thursday!”) Little did he or I know at the time, I wouldn’t see him again until Friday.
Wednesday morning, I rose very early and headed off to Bobigny to get in line as soon as possible. Based on my last four visits to the Prefecture, I knew that this was imperative. I checked in on FourSquare at 6:53 am, about an hour earlier than I had arrived on Monday. The line was already too long for my comfort, but at least it was shorter than it had been on Monday. I was immediately ambushed, as usual, by the guys trying to sell spots farther ahead in line. Eventually, the little lady selling hot mint tea and coffee from thermoses in her grocery bag passed by chanting her sales slogans. All I wanted, though, was to get a ticket (with a number, like the ones you get at the DMV) that would assure me I could wrap this up before 2:00 that afternoon. I just wanted it over and done with so I could go back to class and go about my life. I waited … and waited … and waited. I read a little, I checked Facebook on my iPhone, I looked around at my neighbors, I tried to keep my spirits high. Suddenly, a fight broke out in the line ahead of me. I couldn’t see exactly what was happening, but I could hear the raised voices and see people milling around the site of the disturbance. My neighbors in line were craning their necks to catch a glimpse of what was going on. No one knew for sure, but we all assumed it was a dispute over someone trying to cut in line. Normal. That was around 7:30. The sun wasn’t even up yet.
The line finally started to move about an hour and a half later, as immigration agents came outside to ask us our business and give us those magic numbered tickets. Around 9:20, I finally spoke with one of the agents, and I was told I needed to move straight ahead to the line for the “welcome desk.” Hmm. Others who had “convocations” (green or orange forms from the Prefecture) were given tickets immediately and ushered through a separate door. That brought back memories of my visit in July when I had initially submitted my renewal request. That fine day, I had gotten magic ticket number 0117, which meant there were only 17 people ahead of me! Sadly, it wasn’t going to be like that today, it seemed. I received no ticket—I was going to have to ask for one inside at the welcome desk.
Of course, I had no idea what still lay ahead of me, so I was a bit apprehensive, but still convinced that I would wrap this up that day. After all, I had to. I was technically sans papiers … undocumented … since my récépissé had expired 9 and a half hours earlier. They had to give me a new one, right? Inexplicably, it seemed that the line for the welcome desk just wasn’t moving. It was, of course; it just wasn’t fast enough for my sense of agitation. Finally, at about 9:45, I got inside the building, into a little foyer, and I saw ahead of me a “line” that snaked through a tiny waiting room toward three windows: S, T, and U. This was going to take a long time, it seemed.
I shuffled along, taking a step or two every few minutes, until I was finally in the straightaway. I could see the three windows directly ahead of me. I was heartened. “Soon, I’ll have my ticket and I’ll be able to get off my feet and sit over there in the waiting room.” And then, at 10:40, it happened: the garbled announcement in very quick French over a loudspeaker that served only to further distort the message:
“… those of you waiting at windows S, T, and U … questions … récépissés … appointments … no tickets for today … tomorrow …”
Uh, what did she say? I heard groans of frustration from some people near me in the line. Others seemed as genuinely confused as I was. A gentlemen behind seemed to understand.
“Excuse me, sir. What did she say?”
“She said there are no more tickets for today. But I think it’s only for people who just have questions. If you’re here because your récépissé has expired, I think they will still see you. They have to.”
“Yeah, that’s me. Mine expired yesterday.”
“Me too. I think they have to see us.”
Still very nervous about the uncertainty of what was going on, I advanced step by step toward the windows. I scanned the agents working at the windows, struggling for any indication as to whether people were still getting tickets. I couldn’t tell anything from my vantage point. “She seems nice. I hope I get her,” I thought, looking at the woman at window U. Anything to assuage the knot of anxiety in the pit of my stomach. A little after 11:00, I finally reached the window … window U.
“Hello. My récépissé expired yesterday. I need a new one.”
The pleasant-looking woman took my récépissé and consulted her computer. After a few seconds, she handed it back to me, still looking at her screen.
“You have to come back tomorrow.”
“I’m sorry? Why is that?”
At that point, she looked up at me as if I were completely daft.
“There are no more tickets for today. Come back tomorrow morning … early.”
“Uh. Tomorrow at what time? I mean … I don’t have a récépissé now. Um … I was here at 6:45 this morning.”
“Come back tomorrow morning … early.”
She looked over at her colleague and smirked. Typical.
I took my useless récépissé back from her and reassembled my file, muttering about how broken their system was, and I walked out, completely deflated. I was frustrated … I was pissed. I had just spent my second day in line at the Prefecture to ask for something I shouldn’t have even had to ask for, if only they had done their jobs and issued my permit at some point during the previous three months! I mean, good grief, the sub-prefecture confirmed on August 24 that my file was complete! And now, after having waited in line—on my feet—for almost four and a half hours, I was going to have to come back … early … to do it all again?! And hope that there would be enough tickets?!
I called Michel and left a despondent message. I railed on Facebook. In French, for my French family and friends:
I apologize in advance my French family and friends, but you should be ashamed of the [expletive deleted] immigration system in your country. Immigrants who only want to live and work in this country and integrate well spend four and a half hours waiting for nothing, only to hear that they have to come back the next day to be treated once again like animals. I’ve had enough.
In English for my American family and friends:
So, it’s back to the prefecture tomorrow morning (probably around 5 am this time) because the [expletive deleted] lazy [expletive deleted] who work there decided not to take anyone else after about 10:45 am. I guess waiting in the cold for 4-1/2 hours to ask for a piece of paper I wouldn’t have to ask for had they done their [expletive deleted] jobs at some point during the last THREE months isn’t enough to ask. Really, everything you’ve ever heard about French bureaucracy is true … AND MORE … so don’t let anyone tell you it’s hyperbole.
I was honestly, and clearly, on the verge of cracking. Thoughts of leaving France altogether flashed through my mind. “I’m tired. I’m just tired. I just can’t deal with this bullshit anymore.” I went home, took three Doliprane, and went to sleep.
So, what do you think happened the next day? Tune in tomorrow for the exciting conclusion: “So, I woke up from my drug-induced slumber …”
© 2011 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved