04 May 2007

Préfecture Follies of 2007

If I've dropped off the radar screen lately, there's a reason. It's that time of year again, the annual Préfecture Follies, as I struggle to remain in this country legally. The process does get easier and easier ... up to a point.

As in years past, I spent sleepless nights, fretting for weeks over the paperwork, then managing to do it all at the last minute. Again I booked a hotel room in Versailles and overnighted there, then awoke at 4AM in order to arrive at the Préfecture (across the street) and begin standing on line. This year, I broke my record, arriving at 4:25. I was third.

Spring having arrived early this year (my garden in Beynes has been blooming since January, and the irises are unfurling this week), the weather was better yesterday than it's been in previous years — but "better" is a relative term. It's hard to dress warmly when you know the temperature's going to be in the mid-80s later in the day, yet in the pre-dawn hours, when you're not moving, and there's a stiff breeze blowing from the north, you regret having left your parka in storage back in Westchester. My hands were so cold that I couldn't hold the book I'd filched from the hotel. (Molière, The Learned Ladies. Yes, people do leave the strangest things in hotel rooms.)

Fortunately, my fellow standees were the chummiest I've yet encountered there: a gregarious Romanian, whose French was terrible but whose good cheer was as infectious as welcome; a thoughtful Moroccan chef, whose French was, of course, flawless; and a sullen-looking Senegalese hip-hopper who turned out to be sleepy, not sullen. We actually had conversations.

"Why would you leave the United States?" the Moroccan wanted to know.

"The food is better here," I replied.

"Are you nuts?" came the answer.

But I felt like a savvy character. I knew the ropes. I had the skills. I'd even planned my menu the night before, to minimize the need for bathroom breaks. (Which are nigh impossible, because there are no bathrooms.) Although there were only a handful of us for the first 90 minutes, the later arrivals eventually numbered more than 120, according a shamelessly gleeful head count conducted by the Romanian, who was first on the line. In all likelihood, most of these people didn't even get wait-listed. "There's no point coming here at all after 7AM, even on the best days," said the Senegalese, "but you have to know." One poor soul showed up at 8:15, and we marvelled at her cluelessness. We would never be so dumb.

Exercising the astute powers of political observation that are the hallmark of the disenfranchised, we agreed that Nicolas Sarkozy is all but certain to win the presidential elections. (The first round of voting will be Sunday.) Sarkozy is a hardliner, who as interior minister already made things tough for immigrants in France, and as president would like to make things tougher still; we agreed that it was worth enduring a few hardships if it meant retaining our legal status and staying out of Sarko's clutches. "You can't expect them to make it easy for you," said the Romanian. "They can't just let people in. You have to make an effort."

After a mere 4 hours and 20 minutes of waiting, we were admitted indoors. This year I didn't receive the expected convocation, reminding me to show up and telling me what documents I'd require. Without the list of documents, I was directed first to the general assistance area — even though I already knew which documents and had them on my person, in triplicate. "Well of course you didn't get a convocation," said the woman there. "C'est normal. You're supposed to come here directly, any time in the two months prior to the expiration of your residency card. Then we'd have given you the list, and you could have done the rest by mail. You don't have to come here early, you don't have to wait. Of course now that your card is expiring in a few days, you have to do everything in person, right away."

From her demeanor, you'd have thought I'd inconvenienced her, rather than myself: though she's usually one of the pleasanter people at the Préfecture, yesterday she was almost surly. Meanwhile, I was mortified. I'd suffered in all the usual ways, yet I didn't have to.

After a few hours, I remembered — dimly — that yes indeed, I had been warned about this. Last year, somebody (probably La Souriante, the Smiling Woman, who's always been so kind to me — no, really) told me about the two-month deadline and the processing by mail. Somehow, I'd forgotten: apparently my wits are not their sharpest on these mornings when I've been waiting for hours in the dark with no sleep and no coffee. If I renew again next year, please remind me, in late February, that it's time to be efficient.

I was told to come back at noon to get a new number, for the processing room, which doubles as a day-care center for the yowling babies and rambunctious toddlers of the other applicants. Maybe they bring the neighbors' kids, too; who knows? There are a lot of them. You stare at them with festering envy you don't bother to disguise. Wouldn't you love to be screaming and running around, too, instead of sitting there, hour after hour?

The young woman at the window there was the same who'd been a trainee last year, under the supervision of La Souriante, who's gone now, presumably retired. (Maybe that's why she was smiling.) One surprise in the processing: the Ex-trainee wanted a new copy of my birth certificate, with an officially recognized translation, even though I'd already provided both two years ago. Do they think something's changed? Could I have been born a second time, without notifying them or selling the story to Weekly News of the World? Fortunately, I'd brought both the certificate and the translation, so we continued without a hitch ... for a while.

Last year, I imposed on several people to write testimonial letters, to show that there was some chance of my earning a little money from freelance gigs, but La Souriante showed little interest in them. So this year I imposed only on F. Paul Driscoll at Opera News — and thereby flustered the Ex-trainee. "But you've just given me a sworn statement to the effect that you will undertake no professional activity while you're here!" she yelped.

"It says that I will neither seek nor accept employment in France — this is freelance for an American magazine," I babbled. "— I've always been told that this is acceptable!" The Ex-trainee remained doubtful. Suddenly I had visions of being deported — frog-marched out of the Préfecture and straight to the airport — and my room isn't even clean.

In the end, however, my American income didn't raise anybody else's eyebrows. What they really care about is my bank statements; next year, I won't pester F. Paul. Yet the lesson was reinforced: now that I've been here a few years, the only remaining complications in this process are those I create for myself. Damn.