Monday, June 14, 2010

Carte de Sejour

Time for Monday Memories again. Another of a long series of last year's bureaucratic nightmares that seem to be the norm here in least for Americans living here. The crazy thing is, I am now actually starting to get used to it!

Obtaining my long-term Visa so I could move to France was difficult. I had to apply, in person, at the French Consulate in Chicago and had to make the appointment more than a month in advance. Other people’s horror stories encouraged me to make the appointment in September to assure that I would get it before my planned New Year’s Day departure, even though they assure you it will take less than a month. Then I had to begin gathering together all the papers on the list provided. I needed attestations from my bank saying I had enough money to live, divorce papers, proof of income, proof of health insurance and employment (which I obviously was no longer going to have after moving to France but this didn’t seem to be important), fingerprints and FBI records (I'm clean...whew!) and a long series of other papers. I then had to find someone to translate them all into French. They were to be copied 3 times, once in French and twice in English and stacked in a very particular order.

I took a vacation day and drove the 5 1/2 hours to Chicago for my 9:30 am appointment, so nervous that once I got there they would ask for something I didn’t have…or perhaps it would be noticed that a few of my papers were slightly “fudged”! Once there, I presented my documents, surrendered my passport, and crossed my fingers. The actual appointment in Chicago took no longer than 5 minutes at which point I climbed back in my car and drove the 5 1/2 hours back to Eau Claire. This process was supposed to allow me my year in Provence.

When I was approved (after a very nerve-wracking 6 weeks) and my passport with it's new Visa sent back to me, there was a little note inside that said:

"The visa you have been issued is valid for 3 months only. This is NOT a mistake. It IS a long stay visa. It will allow you to ENTER the French Territory within the dates stated on it and to apply for a residence permit once you get to France. Within one week of entry into France, you will need to go to the Préfecture to apply for the residence permit (called Carte de Sejour). This carte de sejour will REPLACE the visa and will be valid for one year, renewable in France." (the capitalization is theirs, not mine)

Très simple! Pas de problème! I have already written about how this really went down and after several visits to the local préfecture and much agony, I ended up with an appointment in Marseille 5 months later. And I now have a new list of things I must provide. A brand new (dated no less than 1 month before the appointment) birth certificate, newly dated bank papers, newly dated divorce papers, a letter stating I will not work in France (in French) and other assorted nonsense. 

I had to find a notary to stamp everything and then an "official traducteur" (translator) to make it all official. I spoke with many people who have had to do this same process, researched it on-line and knew that, even though I had been provided a list, there was sure to be more that I needed.

I completed most of this busy work before my Grand Tour with my mom and my sister but still had to get the translations done. I found a traducteur who translated in English and took my papers to the office the Monday before my Thursday appointment. The very unhappy woman (I would be unhappy too if I worked in that hot, dirty, dismal office) at the desk spoke some English and all seemed well. The papers, she said, would not arrive by post on time but would be faxed to the office and I could pick them up Thursday morning before my 2:15 appointment in Marseille. That will be 150 Euros. What??? For 4 paragraphs? I've got to learn to speak French soon because I know how I'm going to make my living! And I've been here long enough to already know this will not go as planned.

And, of course, it didn't.

The kids were visiting at the time and we planned to rent our car that morning, go to Marseille for the appointment and then go to the beach. I worked in the morning, and then ran to the traducteur's office. I walked in and asked the gentleman, in English, if my papers were ready. He replied, in French, "I don't speak English. You must speak in French."  I am not kidding you! This is a translator's office! If I hadn’t been so stunned I would have crumpled to the floor in a fit of hysterical laughter. However, people don’t take kindly to that sort of display so I played the game.  I asked him the same question in French.... my version. He said he would go look. He disappeared and I waited. Eventually, the unhappy woman from my previous visit, whom I have dubbed "The Escargot” slothed her way out to the front desk and said, in English "What do you want?".

 So much for customer service. I asked her for my papers.

"Did we call you?" she said.

 No, you said they would be here Thursday morning.

 'If we didn't call you, they aren't here."

I've been perfecting my sad damsel in distress face and I tried it out on The Escargot. Just a minute, she said. Let me call the translator's wife. She did and informed me that the papers would be faxed that afternoon. I thanked her (don't burn any bridges), told her that would be too late, and shuffled sadly out the door.

Now I have to cancel my appointment and make a new one. But if French is difficult in person, it’s virtually impossible on the phone; especially when it concerns  “official” business. I ran to a nearby friend’s house and asked him to make the call for me. However, it was exactly noon, and everything closes for 2 hours at noon. That’s lunchtime, after all! So he wrote out everything I should say, had me practice it and I called the kids and told them we didn’t have to rush.

At 12:55 The Escargot phoned me and said the papers had just been faxed but they would only be open until 1:00. I ran back to her office, picked them up (I was so excited I nearly hugged The Escargot and the non-English speaking man…. they actually smiled at me), called the kids and told them to be ready in 5 minutes, ran back home, picked them up, ran to the rental car agency, tried to open the door and…. it didn’t move  Of course! It’s 1:15. Everyone is still on lunch break. At that point, I just leaned against the window, (breathless), banging my head on the door in frustration and trying desperately not to cry. The door began to move and I looked up to see the BEAUTIFUL young man inside who said he was willing to open and get me my car.  I was so happy and grateful that he smiled at me.

The kids and I piled in the car, raced to Marseille, got lost, raced around some more, walked 3 miles, arrived at the Prefecture just in time…..and I waited for 2 hours for my 2:15 appointment that I had made 5 months ago. When my name was finally called and I arrived at the window for English speakers only, the non-English speaking women went through all my papers, asked me questions that I tried to answer, made small talk, and presented me with…tada… Carte de Sejour. Or at least the temporary version. The real one would arrive soon at my local prefecture. I asked her if it was real. I asked her if she needed any more papers. I asked her again if it was truly real. I kissed it. If there had not been glass between us I would have kissed her. She smiled at me too.

What a great day!  I’ve had 3 smiles and a workout and now I have this little piece of paper decorated with my photo that entitles me to ….absolutely nothing. But I have it. And in just 9 more months I will  begin gathering papers again because I get to do this every single year!



  1. Sounds very similar to my experience except I was coming from the EU so shouldn't have required a Carte de Sejour in the first place!

    How typical this is of French bureaucracy - good on you for sticking it out, now you have an excellent funny story to tell!

    And how ridiculous having a French only speaker working in a translation office! To you think he was one of those people that know other languages and refuse point blank to speak them?

  2. Mlle. ChaussetteJune 14, 2010 at 9:43 PM

    Every once in a while, and certainly at times such as trying to get the carte, I ask myself, "why am i doing this??". And then I come back from a trip to the US, and I so clearly remember why. And I appreciate those inflexible French because it is thanks to them that France has remained so beautiful, so partially intact, and still so interesting.

  3. I went through all of this, only I did mine in New York rather than Chicago. I remember racing cross town in a cab in the rain carrying with me: a stapler, a water bottle, my documents, my tax returns, my insurance papers, my passport, my address book (friends in France), my cel phone, etc., etc....because inevitably they would ask me for the one thing I didn't bring. Then I went through the prefecture business in Arles...being spoken to only in French...being told to leave and return with all my papers in French...and then something just clicked and I realized: I DON'T NEED TO DO THIS! Seriously. I looked at the escargot behind the counter and said YOU WIN. I GIVE UP. I left the prefecture, came home, shoved all my papers that had into a file and that was the last of it. No carte de sejour, no three month visa, no problem! And I've never had a problem since.

  4. yep Piglet, every time I have some sort of a road block, in the end it becomes a funny story. I just have to keep remembering that!

    Holly, you said that so perfectly. And you are right.

    Julie-good for you. In fact if you leave the country for more than 3 days every 3 months, you really don't need one. We have a mutual friend that makes a trek to Morocco every three months problem!

  5. Only someone who lives in France and has battled with the bureacracy knows that not a word of this is hyperbole or exaggeration. I felt your pain every step of the way with this post and I know just what you went through.

    Mr FF and I signed a PACS contract here and the palaver we went through was incredible - all the same non-help from the authorities and certain things in a certain order. Honestly, sometimes it just does my head in living here - and then I think of the alternatives


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