Tuesday, March 22, 2005

The Great Glitch

Hit rewind. It’s September. I’m standing on a street corner next to the canal St. Martin. Among picnicking couples, bouncing joggers and panting dogs, I’m the only one crying. I sob and choke into the phone. My misery? French bureaucracy.

I’d just been back to the Foreign Labor Office and seen a different woman who’d told me yet a different story. In France, the visa laws change depending on which employee you see. I’ve been sent away six times to find various Life Documents, all originals with original signatures and official seals and stamps and insignias. This is my seventh attempt to obtain working papers. I’m armed with every document that’s ever concerned me, from my birth certificate to my passport entry stamp.

Quite simply, the Foreign Labor Office is a madhouse. When I arrived that morning, a hand-written note was taped to the locked door: “Due to the high volume of visitors, we are no longer open all day. We will now receive visitors from 9am to noon. –The Direction.”

I reread the note several times to be sure I understood correctly. More people need papers, so they are open less often. It was 8:30am. I took a place in line.

Let there be no doubt: the French have no respect for orderly lines. There is no good translation for “wait your turn” or “single file”. When the doors opened at 9:15, a dozen people streamed out of the McDonald’s across the street and joined the funnel of people clamoring for working papers. I elbowed my way to the ticket distributor, which had, by that time, been knocked to the floor. Of the nine windows, only two housed state employees. The ladies blinked at us from behind the glass.

Eventually, one of them punched a button and a number appeared above her head. The skinny boy squatting next to me had just won the French lottery.

After two hours and sixteen sitting positions, my number was called. The woman took one look at my papers and said, “You’re in the wrong office.” I assured her that I wasn’t, that I’d been there six times before, that I had just been missing my pay stub from ten months ago. She looked at me and pushed a button; my number vanished from above her head. A pushy redhead with a nasty accent appeared beside me. The woman asked for her documents as I yelped, “You have to at least tell me where to go!” She pushed a paper with a new address my way.

And so I ended up on the quai of the canal, unable to begin work and angrily crying on the phone to my mother for just 2,34 euros/minute.

Fast forward to present day. Last Thursday, I was back at the same address the woman had given me, ready to renew the working papers that I’d received six months prior. I’d scouted it out earlier that week and had learned that the office was now only open Tuesdays and Thursdays from nine to eleven. I could call the office to ask questions, but they only answer the phones on Mondays from two to four. I had also discovered that because of a new rule, you had to apply to renew your working papers, by correspondence only, two months before their expiration date.

My expiration date was Saturday. I did the calculations: two days, not two months. Visions of deportation had haunted me all week. Would they at least let me pack up my things? Who would pay for the ticket?

As I sat down in Mme Dufournil’s chair, I feared the worst. I’d planned to lie about my dossier, telling her that I’d sent my renewal request months ago. Had she lost my papers? The French postal service was certainly to blame. After all, they had been striking recently.

Instead, I heard myself spilling my guts to her open-mouthed frown bearing clenched dentures. I was sorry. I didn’t know about the two-month limit. Please, Madame, don’t kick me out of the country.

She sighed, and finally asked, “When is your appointment at the Préfecture?”
“Ten o’clock tomorrow morning.”
She flipped through my documents, and concluded, “Bring me your last three electricity bills and your last pay stub. Be here at nine tomorrow morning. I’ll have your papers ready so that you can be at the Préfecture at ten.”

Brilliant. Through some glitch in the French bureaucratic system, I was golden. I could stay in France legally for another six months, and then would have the option to renew. I thanked her at least eight times before I left. I texted my friends to let them know that I wasn’t to be deported. Life was great and I was excited.

The next morning was magic. I walked to the front of the line at nine, told the angry Russian that I had an appointment and gave a solid knock on Door 623A. Mme Dufournil greeted me by name, we exchanged Life Documents, and I was off to the Préfecture... who informed me after my hour-and-a-half wait that they’d lost my file.

I spent the day walking back and forth between Ile de la Cité and my apartment, photocopying all the way. So it wasn’t a complete fairy tale ending, but I’m here for six more months. The exciting news is that, through an unrelated glitch, I was overlooked for my Visite Médicale at the Immigration Office. You know what that means. Sometime in the next six months, I’ll be the proud owner of lung x-rays.


At 6:55 PM, Blogger noricum said...

Oooo... you should post a copy of your lung x-rays here, so we can all make up diagnoses. ;)

From the sounds of things, they probably wouldn't notice if you had forgotten to reapply. :P

At 2:44 AM, Blogger The Michael said...

Em, hun, next time, just make it sound as tho you are really applying in a roundabout sort of way for political asylum. They'll take pity on you and whisk your paperwork right through. Hehe

At 3:37 AM, Blogger jkirlin said...

Heh heh...hey...there she is...Photocopy!

At 10:06 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Emily...I'm just someone thinking of moving to Europe. I'm Canadian. Just wondering...Are you working there, or studying? It seems from your stories that it's tough to stay there.

Don't you have the option of just signing up for a random university (since it's free)and stay as long as you want as a "student"(you don't go to school and no one keeps track anyway) and have all the student benefits like health insurance and discounts?
I'm just trying to understand the beurocracy in general.

One last question on work: you have to find it from your home country, right? you can't just come to a European city and start looking for work that way, right? (the city I have in mind is Berlin)
It'd be awesome if I could get some info. If it's too personal, can I e-mail you?

Thanks and good luck!

At 1:12 PM, Blogger Emily said...

Cher anonymous,

Yeah, this would be an example of when to e-mail me. ...But what are you worried about?! Don't Canadians have the right to work here?


At 8:26 PM, Blogger Jesster said...

Those French, they just want to get you with your top off again.

At 10:51 PM, Blogger Tony said...

Emily, you write a very interesting story...

This piece reminds me of being in Morocco. My parents have had to go through all sorts of hoops just to get the simplest things done. My dad often says, "The French invented breaucracy but the Moroccans improved it!"

Well, you've added one more person to your audience.


At 7:23 AM, Blogger Matt said...

I received your e-mail and decided to take a gander at your blog. I love it. The writing is exceptional and I like the single picture I see. You are quite talented and seem to lead an interesting life.
I am a journalism graduate but due to me being lazy and irresponsible in college and not getting an internship or any other type of experience I now am useless to society.
I admire your courage and spirit to tackle the idea of living in a foreign country. I think that is great.
I hope we can share funny stories and I will constantly be reading your blog.

At 6:10 PM, Blogger Randi said...

Congratulations! Sorry about the photocopying thing..
Good luck!

At 8:58 PM, Blogger Emily said...

Sorry about the photocopying thing? Hell, I love photocopying. Especially when drunk at office parties.

Oh, wait, that was just a movie. Or a TV show. Or both.

At 10:32 PM, Blogger cdretska said...

A couple of things, 1): 'préfecture' is spelled 'préfecture'. 2): considering the French bureaucracy, don't you think that you could just fall through the cracks in general? Just as you escaped getting yourself x-rayed, and the other trials and tribulations, that I had to go through, couldn't you just be 'undocumented'. Isn't there a periodic 'amnistie' If it used to work for the Portuguese (pre common market), why wouldn't it work for Ema? I can tell you the Luxembourg didn't notice...

At 1:49 PM, Blogger Emily said...


1. I agree.
2. I'd rather be legal. There's might be an amnesty period for expired documents, but not at work. I can't work without working papers, I can't get working papers without a carte de séjour, I can't get a carte de séjour without the proper documentation, etc., etc. The bottom line is this: no papers, no money. Voilà.

So unless you want to send me, say, 10,000 to finance my next six months here... I'll send you my bank info.


At 6:11 PM, Blogger cdretska said...


Alas, I wish I could. Sadly, I am having my own problems financing my standard of living in the expensive city of Washington DC, let alone my dear Ema in Paris. Maybe if the Euro took a tumble against the dollar? I think I might write to the European Central Bank in Frankfurt telling them that at least in my case, they are losing out on alot of money because I don't feel that I can afford to visit my friends in the Eurozone, and treat them to big nights out. My abesnce must be hurting the economy and contributing to unemployment in France and the rest of the Eurozone... non? Think about it!!!

At 8:02 PM, Anonymous Susan said...

1. "deportation" is spelled "deportation"
2. Six more months? Jesus Christ. I thought you were coming back to entertain me. What the crap.

At 1:33 PM, Anonymous cassy said...

Wow, Ema, let me just say that I am amazed at this story. You actually managed to get some customer service here in the Hexagone! That is a feat in an of itself. I don't know what kind of drugs that woman was on, but they should start passing them around to all the other amazingly unhelpful fonctionnaires in this lovely country. Congrats! At least we know it is possible!


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