10 May 2005

Franz Kafka in Versailles: Préfecture Follies of 2005

I moved to France in 2004, departing New York the day after George Bush was elected. Yeah, a lot of people talked about fleeing the country, but I actually did it. (In truth, I’d already made up my mind to move, and I didn’t want to give Bush any additional power; he’s grabbed more than enough as it is. But it makes a good story, doesn’t it?)

The process of getting my residency permit was so difficult that now I can easily sympathize with the “sans-papiers,” that shadowy class of immigrants who slip past the borders and do much of this country’s heavy lifting while praying the authorities don’t notice. Apart from pesky questions of legality, there’s little incentive to put oneself through the bureaucratic hurdles. At every turn, there’s another, wholly unanticipated, unannounced extra step, which in turn requires days or weeks of extra preparation, extra fees, visits to ancillary bureaucracies, and phone calls to lines that don’t work.

For instance, despite the fact that my passport contains all information pertinent to my birth and citizenship, in French and English, confirmed by the government of the United States, I was required to furnish my birth certificate. Since I don’t travel with that particular document, I had to call to request a copy from San Antonio. (Between clerking and shipping fees, this cost about $100.) Thereupon, since a Texan birth certificate isn’t written in French, I had to provide a translation: not my own, but one by a state-approved translator. His two-page effort was 75 percent longer than the original. And it set me back another $50, plus another delay while he took a week-long state-mandated vacation.

Most time-consuming and frustrating was my struggle to open a French bank account. With time running out before the expiration of my visa, the first bank took two weeks to tell me they couldn’t open my account because I didn’t have a residency card — something I’d told them in our initial conversation. (It emerged that the woman assigned to my file went on vacation, and the guy who picked up my file in her absence had lost it — though naturally he didn’t say so.) Other banks were more efficient, informing me immediately that, although I needed a bank account to obtain a residency card, they required a residency card before they’d give me a bank account. Even bank employees admitted that this was “une situation Kafkayenne,” but they knew of no way around it. Apparently, every other applicant for residency has given up and gone home at this point — or else gone underground.

Instead, I threw myself on the mercy of the bureaucrats at the Préfecture, doing the John-Boy Walton impression that has been my salvation in the States on many an occasion. (The surprise was that it worked in French, too.) I was given a form indicating that I’m legitimate, am in the process of filing my application, and not the worst possible risk. This was sufficient to get an account — at the Société Générale, the bank where Kurt Weill kept his money after he fled the Nazis. These guys know from refugees.

With only a few days to spare before the deadline (which was April Fool’s), I assembled my outstanding paperwork, and showed up at the Préfecture in Versailles, around noon on the last Thursday in March. I was informed that I was too late, “the window was closed,” and I should come back the next day. Versailles lies smack between Beynes and Paris, and I don’t have a car: the commute isn’t easy, but no matter.

So the next morning, I arrived bright and early, and the lady at the reception desk said, “You’re too late — all the places are taken.”

“Are you serious?” I asked. “It’s only 10:30.”

“Yes, and if you keep showing up at this hour, you’ll never get anywhere,” she said. “We have 15 places in the morning, and 8 in the afternoon, and they go fast. People start lining up outside around 6 in the morning. All these people —” indicating a sea of humanity, most of whom appeared to be from former colonies of the French Empire — “are on standby. I can’t take anybody else. You’ll have to come back another day.”

Naturally, nobody during any of my previous trips to the Préfecture had offered me quite so much detail. As a result of this uncharacteristically thorough briefing, I walked out, reserved a hotel room across the street for Sunday, and returned to the Préfecture at 5:45 on Monday morning, with a good book (Zola’s La Curée) and an umbrella in hand.

I was the fifth person on line.

It was pitch dark, drizzling when not pouring, and much colder than I’d anticipated. Of course I was losing body heat the longer I stood there.

By seven o’clock, there were easily two dozen people behind me; by eight, there were forty or more. The Préfecture doesn’t open until 8:45. And this is how it happens that the staff is overbooked before the day starts.

All through the long dark morning, people ahead and behind kept asking me to save their places while they went to the bathroom and such. I complied, being a) an excessively nice guy, and b) thinking that we had a long wait ahead of us and I might need their cooperation, too, before we were done.

Apparently my niceness pissed off a Moroccan guy, who (around 8 a.m.) cut ahead of me, announcing that he’d actually been the first person on line, had arrived at four in the morning, but had been off drinking coffee somewhere.

“C’est une belle vie,” I said between clenched teeth.

“Oui,” he agreed blithely, “c’est la France!”

I was furious, but when I saw that nobody was going to back me up, I figured I’d better just let him have his way. I did start to tutoye him — using the informal tu instead of the formal vous — but I was too tired to make any bigger scene.

Which turned out to be a very lucky thing, because around 8:40 — just before the doors were to open — he announced that he’d been kidding, and returned to his place on line. Possibly some of the others around me were in on the joke (except for a little Russian lady, they all spoke Arabic, too). Teeth still somewhat clenched, we laughed it off. “Let that be a lesson to you next time,” said the Moroccan guy in conclusion, “not to hold places for others.”

The Senegalese guy standing between us enjoyed the comedy immensely, and greeted me like an old friend every time we ran into each other afterward. Oh, we are a jolly little immigrant community in Versailles.

At last we were admitted into the Préfecture and assigned numbers to wait for the various windows. I had to wait about twenty minutes, because none of the personnel for the “services étrangers” windows had shown up yet. I was still freezing — shaking so much, I was afraid people would think I was a drug addict. But in due time the last of my paperwork was processed speedily and pleasantly —

— And I still didn’t have the residency card. Because there was yet another unadvertised next step — a medical screening, in a town I’d never heard of, on the next Friday morning. I was told I was lucky they had appointments available so soon; some people have to wait weeks.

By now, even French people were dismayed by my misadventures. Friends had stopped laughing (“Oh, you’re exaggerating, you don’t really have to get there that early!”) and had begun telling me helpfully, “You know, the French police almost never uphold deportation laws.” However, I didn’t intend to take any chances. I learned in high school that I have a guilty face — I couldn’t order a Dr. Pepper without getting carded.

And yet, as my efforts to obtain the residency card began to take on the proportions of an Icelandic saga, the medical exam was almost disappointing. Although we were required to wait at several points, all the waiting areas were indoors, and I was processed and done within about an hour of my appointment. The staff at the medical center pretty much took one look at me and skipped several parts of the exam, which I’d been told to expect. “You work out a lot, don’t you?” the doctor said, when I removed my shirt. They let me keep my chest X-ray (the first I’ve ever had!), and it’s now decorating the refrigerator door. You’d never guess I was a smoker for eight years.

The next step was to purchase four stamps, at 55 Euros a pop. I’m still not sure where the folks at the Préfecture wound up affixing them, but I’ve learned that the French use expensive stamps to do a lot of business — to pay parking tickets, for example. (God forbid you need to send a letter and use the wrong postage.) Balzac, who clerked in a law office, writes often of papiers timbrés — stamped papers — and now I have a clearer idea what he means.

Once the Préfecture received the results of my medical exam, they were supposed to write to me, instructing me to come back to them to pick up the card. Instead, they waited for me to phone. They really were testing me — making sure this wasn’t just some whimsical notion that popped into my head.

Six and a half months after I arrived in France, I received my residency card. The hell of it is, I was lucky: Mary Dibbern, an American musician who’s lived here for 26 years, has never heard of anybody getting a card so quickly. The process would’ve been even tougher if, God forbid, I wanted a work permit. And many times, I realized I was being treated preferentially: I wasn’t an ex-colonial or a Slav, I was an educated white person, who bathed and spoke reasonably good French. I got more explanations than most people around me were getting, as well as more patience and tolerance, and more leeway. It was blatantly unfair. And I wasn’t about to complain.

However, just to prove that France doesn’t automatically get easy just because they tell you you’re legitimate, I attempted to visit the Château de Versailles (across the street from the Préfecture), to celebrate my good fortune. And the palace was closed. No explanation, no access, but hordes of tourists waiting patiently for the doors to open, or re-open. I said the hell with it, and went home.

(It turned out that the château was closed while Sofia Coppola shot scenes for her empty strudel of a movie, Marie Antoinette. Hardly worth the inconvenience.)