Happy Birthday! Love, the Prefecture

Before we get started, here are a few things to know by way of background:

Today’s my birthday.

Yesterday, I was at the prefecture (the government office where they manage immigration).

My “visa year” runs from August 16 of one year to August 15 of the following year. That means I have to start the process of renewing my residency permit every May (three months in advance of expiration). After you submit a renewal application, the prefecture gives you a récépissé (a “receipt”) , which proves your file is being processed and that you’re legally in France even if your residency permit has already expired. The problem is that, while récépissés are good for three months at a time, I’ve never known my prefecture to do its job that quickly. That means you have go back every few months to ask for a new récépissé until they issue your new permit.

Got it? Alright. Here we go …

So, yeah, I was back at the prefecture yesterday — the day before my birthday. Nice timing, huh? Anyway, I was there to renew my récépissé one again because, well, 9 months is apparently not long enough to process my application and give me my residency permit for the 2012-2013 visa year. Believe it or not, after 5 visits and 4 récépissés, I was still waiting for it. Amazing, but true. So, given that track record, it was obviously with lowered expectations that I ventured back there yesterday morning.

As usual, I was in line outside the prefecture at the crack of dawn — 6:00 am to be precise — waiting for the doors to open at 9. It was the usual scene at Bobigny: a queue of miserable people, everyone either anxious (the first-timers) or resignedly blasé (the veterans like myself), but determined to get inside and take care of whatever administrative hassle they had looming before them. Like every other time I’ve been to Bobigny, the sketchy “spot-brokers” were surreptitiously selling places in line, resulting in the inevitable altercations between their customers and those of us who’d already been in line for hours when they finally showed up. <sigh> Old hat.

Once inside, though, I noticed a palpable difference, but one I couldn’t immediately identify.

It wasn’t that the waiting room had changed. It had the same old worn-out 70s architecture, bad fluorescent lighting, and grungy floors. It wasn’t that the crowd had changed. We were still the same old “United Nations General Assembly” of immigrants begging France to let us stay. So what was it?

AHA! It was that the bureaucracy itself had changed!
I know, right? Once again: amazing, but true.

As usual, I had a numbered ticket telling me when I’d be called to a window … well, not “when” exactly, rather how many people would go to a window before me. I was number 0556. Not too bad; it meant there were only 56 people ahead of me. Based on prior experience, though, I figured I’d finish up around 11:30. But then, I noticed that the numbers on the LED screen above the service windows were clicking away at an unusually quick pace. That’s also about the time I noticed several prefecture employees wearing little red “Puis-je vous aider?” (“Can I help you?”) vests, circulating near the service windows, answering questions and … helping people. I started to wonder if I’d somehow ended up at the wrong prefecture.

"You will be called under the number 0556 ... 56 persons ahead of you." © 2013 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved
“You will be called under the number 0556 … 56 persons ahead of you.” © 2013 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved

Before I knew it, my number was called and — just a little more than an hour after walking into the waiting area — I was already at a service window speaking with an immigration agent who was … well … just about the most mild-mannered, polite person I’ve ever dealt with in the entire French bureaucracy! It was kind of surreal, to be honest. It was like I was in a Twilight Zone episode and some extraterrestrial force had come in and replaced everybody!

After I explained why I was there, my agent consulted her computer and responded with a pleasant smile:

“Here it is. Oh, good news. Your card is ready. You can have it today.”

How’s that? I was completely taken aback. I had mentally prepared myself for something more like: “You’ve already had four récépissés, monsieur, and you want another one?! We can’t just give you these things forever!” I had mentally prepared myself to have to come back some four … five … six weeks later to finally pick up the permit, in the meantime unsure how or even if I could start the renewal process for next year (August 2013 — August 2014) without having the permit for the current one (August 2012 — August 2013). Instead, I was apparently going to get my permit on the spot … and from a very nice lady at that.

But, wait! It gets even better …

After hurrying next door to the Public Finance office to buy 49 euros worth of “revenue stamps” to pay for my new permit, I almost skipped back to the prefecture. Five minutes later, I was walking out with a brand-new residency permit valid until …

December 18, 2013!

Look closely: valid until "18/12/2013" © 2013 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved
Look closely: “valable jusqu’au 18/12/2013” (“valid until 12/18/2013”) © 2013 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved

For some unknown reason, the prefecture had decided to give me four extra months! Maybe it was because they’d already made me wait for so long? Who knows? Who cares?! All that mattered to me was that my renewal window had suddenly shifted four months forward, which meant I wouldn’t even have to think about immigration again until September: plenty of time for the marriage equality law in France to go into effect, for Michel and me to get our DC marriage recognized by the French authorities, and for me to finally apply for a multiple-year family visa instead of this blasted one-year student visa. So …

Happy Birthday to me!

Thank you, Prefecture of Seine-Saint-Denis for giving me a pretty swell birthday present this year. I certainly didn’t expect it. Have a good summer, and I’ll see you in September! By the way, I’m loving your makeover. Keep working on that turnaround time, though.

© 2013 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved


13 thoughts on “Happy Birthday! Love, the Prefecture

  1. Hurray! What relieving news… Hopefully this turn for the humane at your prefecture will last! Just when you probably won’t be needing to visit it so often…

    1. Thanks Marti! It was indeed the icing on the cake of a very good birthday week … or, as the French put it “la cérise sur le gâteau” (“the cherry on the cake”). Bisous to you and David!

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