I wrote this post in August 2010 for another blog I was working on at the time which is no longer online. I’m republishing it below:

My student visa for France expires on July 26, so in order to legally re-enter France in the fall, I needed to go to the préfecture de police to request a carte de séjour, or residency permit.  Normally, you have to make an appointment two months before the visa’s expiration date, which for me would have been the end of May.  Of course, being the relatively conscientious person that I am, I had sent my papers days after my arrival in Paris in September, declaring my presence and my address.  I received them back three weeks later, with a letter requesting a copy of my passport, my visa, and the stamp of entry into France at CDG.  How was I supposed to know this, since it hadn’t been written on the form?  I sent back the forms with the photocopies in October, and heard nothing.

I had still heard nothing when I returned from April vacation in the US, so finally, I went to the OFII – Office Français de l’Immigration et de l’Intégration – to see what had happened.  The woman at the front desk looked me up, and lo and behold, I wasn’t even in their system!  She had me fill out the paperwork, and gave me an appointment for May 21 for the medical visit.  After completing the medical visit, the OFII people put a sticker in my passport that serves as a residency permit for the first year, with the same validity dates as my visa.  I went the same afternoon to the Algerian consulate to get my tourism visa for my trip.

Photocopies in hand, I went onto the Prefecture’s website immediately to set up an appointment before my departure.  I put in my “numéro étranger” or foreigner number, date of birth, and visa expiration date, and got the message, “Les informations que vous avez fournies sont erronées”: your data is incorrect.  I checked again, thinking I had typed in the wrong number, and then figured that since my appointment had been that morning, they might not have put my information into the computer yet.

I tried many more times over the course of the next five weeks to set up my appointment.  In any case, my passport was sitting in the Algerian consulate for the first three weeks, so an appointment wouldn’t have done any good, and then I was so close to getting the paperwork I needed for my appointment that I figured I’d just wait until I had everything I needed – proof of enrollment 2009-2010, pre-enrollment for 2010-2011, grades for this year, sample of my great-grandmother’s DNA, etc. – and go down there to make an appointment in person.

The day after I defended my thesis, July 1, I planned to go to the police department, waited in line, and ask to make an appointment.  I had everything I thought I needed, and I figured that nobody would have been able to make appointments since the site hadn’t been working, so I thought I might even get in the same day.  Before I left, I checked online to try one more time.  It worked.  And the first available appointment was July 15, three days after my departure.

“You have to make an appointment online,” she said.

“I know, but the site wasn’t working.  I’ve been trying for five weeks.”

“Well, it’s been working for 48 hours.”

“I’m leaving for the summer on July 12, and the earliest one is July 15, and my visa expires on July 26.”

“Well, if you leave the country before renewing your visa, you’ll have to go back to the US to get a new visa.”

“With what money?”

“Well that’s not my problem.”

“But what about the guy that just left because he didn’t have all his paperwork?  Can’t I have his appointment?”

“That’s not how it works.”

“Well how does it work?”

“You make an appointment online.”

“But there ARE no appointments online, and there haven’t been for FIVE WEEKS because YOUR site wasn’t working.”

“Well there’s nothing I can do.”

“Sure you can.  What about if someone cancels their appointment?”

“That doesn’t happen.  We had 65 appointments made in the last 48 hours since the site went back up.”

“65?  That’s not that many.  At the OFII they said they take over 300 people a day.  You must take at least 100, so I’m sure it’s possible.”

And so on.  In France, you have to insist to get anything done, so insist I did.  Nothing is possible the first time you ask somebody, but l’impossible n’est pas français.  There’s always a way, you just have to push the right buttons.  Except I was in front of three French bureaucrats who had woken up on the wrong side of the bed, so this hardly went over well.

“Miss, where EXACTLY do you think you are?  Go ONLINE, make an appointment, and come back when you have one.”

“But I’m LEAVING the COUNTRY.”

“Then come back with a new visa!  It’s very simple!”

And I left, just before they could kick me out.

I was crying in the train, wondering what to do, when I had an idea.  There had been something on the website about travel documents, so maybe if I went to the other office, they would make me a paper to let me back into the country.  I stopped at the building, and went to the Visa Services room for everybody except students.  A sign on the door said, “Travel documents are no longer made at this location, so they cannot be delivered immediately, even in case of emergencies.  Please allow at least a month.”  S&*!  I’m leaving in 10 days.

So I went to the Help Desk, picked out the most sympathetic woman, and explained my situation.  She frowned.  “Ask in the Visa office anyway, and see what they can do.”

The woman there also listened, but couldn’t do anything.  I went back to the Help Desk.  “You wouldn’t happen to have any other suggestions, would you?”

“Try the America-Europe Room.”

The man sitting at the front desk in the America-Europe Room was mid-40s, balding, and a bit overweight.

“Sir, you might be my last hope”

He took off his ring and held it out.  “I’ve been waiting my whole life for a young, beautiful woman to tell me that!”  We laughed.  And I explained my situation again.  “They were really mean to me at the other office.”

“They suck.  I know they’re doing their jobs, but you’re leaving for your studies, for a conference in Algeria, and they shouldn’t be messing with that.  Idiots.  OK, here’s what you do.  Go up to the Student Services on the second floor.  It’s a little office, and nobody will tell you it’s there, but insist, and they should help you.  See what they can do.”

Now the people in this building – the ones who had no power over my situation – were being so (comparatively) nice to me that I had a feeling it was going to work out.  But there weren’t any signs anywhere for student services.  The woman I asked told me it was where I had already been.  I ask in Commercial Services, and the guy says, “We only handle a few special cases here.”

So I told him my story, he told me it was impossible for about five minutes before finally taking my passport and going back to his cubicle.  I heard him on the phone.

“C’est pour une Américaine.  Oui, oui.”  He comes back a few minutes later.

“You have an appointment for July 8 at 8:35.  People start lining up at 7:30, so get there early.  And here’s a list of what you need.”

The list of documents that he gave me was different from what was posted online. Not only did I need proof of enrollment, but final grades, and I also needed my birth certificate. I didn’t have it.

So I called my mom, who sent my dad into Boston to get two certified copies of my birth certificate to Fedex to me. Meanwhile, I called translators on the American Embassy’s list. In New York I had translated the documents myself, and the guy looked them over and made a few corrections. He charged me $10 a page. In Paris, it was much more expensive. The woman who only charged 30 euros didn’t live in Paris, the one who charged 45 wasn’t very nice to me on the phone, and the only other one who got back to me charged 52.

I brought him a copy and a check on Friday, up five flights of stairs, and he told me it wouldn’t be ready until Wednesday. I insisted that he had said one to two days on the phone, which meant it should be ready on Monday or Tuesday. He agreed, and said I would get an email when it was ready.

The FedEx package with the original birth certificate was supposed to be delivered before noon on Monday, so when I woke up, I checked the tracking number online. “Delivery attempted at 9:40.” It was 10:00.

I called the FedEx help number to find out why it wasn’t delivered. “We don’t have the building codes,” the woman explained.

“The post office has them, why don’t you?”

“We’re not the post office.”

“Then why don’t you ask for them on the forms?”

“Because the person sending it is supposed to know.”

I gave her my building codes and my phone number. “When can he come back today?”

“We’ll reattempt delivery tomorrow morning.”

“No, I need it today. It’s for my visa.”

“Well, we can’t deliver it until tomorrow morning.”

“Then when can I come pick it up at a FedEx location?”

“Tomorrow morning.”

“Listen. The reason we paid for this service is because the envelope would get here today. How can we make that happen?”

“We can’t. You’ll get it tomorrow morning.”

“And what’s your name?”

“Samia.”

I hung up. She called back ten minutes later. “We’ll reattempt delivery between 5 and 9 tonight.”

I got the email to pick up the translation late Monday afternoon, so Tuesday morning I went back to their office. No sooner had I crossed the street with the envelope than the secretary called me. “Can you come back here just a minute?”

I went back up the five flights of stairs, and she looks at the copy she gave me. The translation code said 2009, and not 2010, she showed me. “I’ll have to print it again and have him sign it. He won’t be back in the office until tomorrow morning. Can you come back?”

I agreed to go back the following morning. I got back to the office right before they closed for lunch. “The translator wasn’t in the office this morning,” she said, “because he had an unexpected meeting.”

“Well why didn’t you call me like you did yesterday? Why did you make me come all the way out here if they weren’t ready?” She looked at me as though I had just asked her to hand-deliver them to my door in the middle of the night. Clearly it was too much to ask.

“Can I send them to you?”

“No, you can’t send them to me. I’m going to work right now until 7 PM, and then I have an appointment at the police department tomorrow at 8:30, which is why I need this document. You told me it would be two days, and this is already the third time I’ve been back here.”

She went into the other room. If she wants me to come back a fourth time, I thought, I’m going to tell her that I’m only paying half price since I’ll have to leave work to come back here. But miracle of miracles, she came back with the correct document, and signed to boot.

I showed up at the préfecture at 8:00 the next morning with all of the documents in hand, and lo and behold, my name wasn’t on the list. When they asked for my “convocation,” I explained that the appointment had been made by phone by someone in the Cité Préfecture, so that I should be on the list but I didn’t have a paper to prove it.

I waited until 9, when I knew the Cité prefecture would be open, and called their help line.

“I spoke to someone in the Student office last week who helped me to make an appointment, but I don’t know his name. Can you find the nice man who helped the crying American?”

Miraculously, after a few minutes, they found him, and I explained the situation.

“I’ll call them,” he said.

“Thank you so much.”

I got back in the long line that had accumulated since I went outside to call. By the time I got to the front, the angry man had added me to his list, and he gave me a ticket. “But wait here for just a minute.”

A rather large woman with a Parisian frown came out from an office in the back over to where I sat in a chair.

“I’m the director of this office,” she began, glaring at me. “and your behavior is totally inappropriate. My colleagues told me that you were in here last week and caused a huge scandale, and I won’t stand for that in my préfecture. Now, I’m going to let you in because my colleague requested it, but you completely flouted procedure and it will never, ever happen again. Do you understand?”

I nodded and said “oui, madame” as she spoke.

I ended up having to run back home for a new copy of a document that wasn’t acceptable, and I was at the préfecture until they closed at 5:30. But I left, récépissé in hand, the day before I was supposed to leave. I brought a big box of macarons from my corner boulangerie to the guy in the Cité préfecture who helped me out twice.

I’m not necessarily proud of pushing my way through the préfecture and subverting the system, but I’m glad it worked. At the time, I didn’t know that I probably could have left and re-entered the country with just my passport and a “convocation” stating that I had an appointment.

On the other hand, I’m frustrated that France makes it as hard as possible for those of us who want to stay here legally. In what world is it acceptable for a government agency’s website to not work for 6 weeks, with no warning or explanation, and with no other way to make appointments? Now that I live in Seine-Saint-Denis, of course, I have to wait in line at the Préfecture in Bobigny for upwards of 8 hours, starting at 6 in the morning, in order to make an appointment, but I don’t think that’s right either. Hopefully the newly elected François Hollande will make up for his horrendous economic policies by making it a bit easier for us to stay.

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