It’s not me … it’s YOU.

Today, we have two French expressions du jour:

bouche bée : agape, open-mouthed (like when your jaw drops from hearing something unbelievable)

vous vous foutez de ma gueule : “you’re kidding me” or “you’re screwing with me” (It’s a fairly vulgar expression, so don’t use it lightly.)

Keep an eye out for them in today’s post …

So, I went back to the prefecture today for the fourth time this year in the tediously unending process to renew my residency permit. You can read about the last few visits here and here but, in a nutshell, every time I set foot in that place, something goes awry. Nevertheless, hope springs eternal … until the plumbing breaks.

“cold, drizzly pre-dawn hours” at Bobigny © 2012 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved

Now, I don’t want to give the wrong impression. Today wasn’t a disaster of epic proportions. Believe me, I’ve been there and done that. In fact, it was a relatively good morning in Bobigny. I had to stand outside in the cold, drizzly pre-dawn hours, but arriving at 6:00 am does have its advantages. When the doors opened just before 9:00 am and I explained my business to the immigration agent at the door, I got handed a ticket with the lucky number 0014 — meaning there were just thirteen people ahead of me. It promised to be a relatively short morning (from that point forward, of course; I’m not talking about the three-hour wait outside).

“You will be called under the number 0014 … There are 13 persons ahead of you.” @ 2012 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved

Once inside the waiting area, the process moved fairly quickly. After only about twenty minutes, I was called to Guichet A, where I told my immigration agent that I was there to add a document to my file. And that’s when things started to go downhill.

Now, if you’ve followed this year’s renewal story, you know that this process has involved many more steps than my first renewal in 2011. Since then, French immigration has apparently tightened up its paperwork requirements for visas, and you can no longer renew a one-year student visa on the basis of pre-registration certificates like I did last year. Nowadays, you need a final registration certificate for both semesters of the academic year to justify your presence on French soil. Okay. I get it. The problem, though, is that you can’t get final registration certificates until … final registration. So what do you do? Well, you go to the prefecture multiple times, dropping off documents as they become available (first, pre-registration certificates and, then, final ones), getting a new récépissé each time because they’re good for only three months.

And that’s exactly what I was doing in Bobigny this morning. You see, back in July when I dropped off my renewal request, I only had a pre-registration certificate for the winter semester; I had to come back with the final one after final registration in September. But when I came back in September, they told me I needed to be registered for the spring semester, too, or they couldn’t approve my request. <sigh> Pre-registration for Sorbonne Nouvelle didn’t open until November 12, so I had to wait another two months to get the document the prefecture wanted and they, of course, gave me a new récépissé good for three more months.

So, this morning, after handing over my pre-registration certificate for the spring semester, I made the offhand remark that I’d have to come back with the final certificate in January. My agent confirmed that, but then handed me my récépissé with a note that I’d have to come back again to get a new one of those after its expiration on December 19.

“Excuse me, but could I have a new récépissé today?” I asked. “This one expires in three weeks. In September, they gave me a new one because that one was set to expire a few weeks later, too.” I added with a slightly pleading tone, “It’ll save a visit.” I simply couldn’t face the prospect of yet another visit to Bobigny in three more weeks.

The agent was convinced by my logic but went to check with her supervisor anyway. And that’s when the “bouche bée” moment happened. Her boss came back and, looking at me as if she were lecturing a child, delivered this gem:

“Sir, we can give you a récépissé today, but that’s the last one, okay? You need to come back with a final registration certificate. You can’t just renew for two or three months at a time.”


Alright. So, just in case I wasn’t crystal clear earlier, the reason I keep coming back to the prefecture is because they tell me to. Let’s continue …

“Excuse me, ma’am, but I’m giving you what you’ve asked for. In September, I gave you the final registration certificate for the winter semester, and I was told to come back as soon as possible with the pre-registration certificate for the spring semester. That’s why I’m here. The final certificate will be available in January.”

“You need to be registered for an entire year, not just two or three months at a time.”


“I am registered for the entire year. I’m registered for the winter semester at CCFS [very much wanting to point to the form in my file], and I am pre-registered for the spring semester at Paris 3 [very much wanting to point to the form in front of her face]. Final registration is in January.”

“In January, we need the final registration for the spring semester … through June.”

“Well, of course.”

I was probably looking at her as if she had two heads … which, honestly, might have been less shocking than her reaction. In retrospect, I wish I’d had the presence of mind and the gumption to add that I couldn’t just make the Sorbonne register me whenever I wanted.

The boss left, and I defused the tension by chatting with my agent while she printed up my new récépissé. I noted how things had certainly changed since 2011, and I bemoaned the fact that I could only bring documents when they were available … and that’s when the “vous vous foutez de ma gueule” moment happened:

“Wait a minute,” I thought. “What was I being apologetic for? The fact that the prefecture had to print three whole récépissés for me in four months’ time? Or the fact that I was bothering them by coming back every few months … at their command?”

<sigh> Have you ever been in a dysfunctional relationship where you get blamed for the crap the other person’s doing? Yeah. Kind of like that …

As my agent handed me the new récépissé, valid until February 26, 2013, I thanked her and wished her a good day. She was nice to me this morning, after all, so she deserved the sentiment. But as for the prefecture itself, just let me say this:

I’ll see you again in January, Bobigny. But, don’t delude yourself.
I won’t be coming back because I like spending my mornings with you.
So enough with the attitude. Got it?

© 2012 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved


12 thoughts on “It’s not me … it’s YOU.

  1. Seriously.

    (Your ears must burn a lot, because every time I have to think about these damn papers, I pause, I think about your case, I think about this guy I helped filling his forms last time at the Préfecture, and I consider myself the luckiest immigrant in France.)

  2. Mon Dieu ! c’est fou, cette histoire. French bureaucracy at its best. It’s an exercise in patience. And I know there is no sense in complaining to a supervisor. These “fonctionnaires” are hired for life. You have no leverage. All you can do is be nice.

    1. I know, right? I was just shocked by this supervisor’s attitude, as if I had done something wrong simply by showing up with the documents THEY asked for. Oh là là ! And the worst of it is that I would have been content never to have heard her voice. It was my agent at the guichet who called her over. Oh well, water under bridge … at least until January! Ha ha!

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