Celebrating 20 Years in Paris at the Préfecture
Twenty years ago today, I boarded a plane with my husband and daughter on route to Paris with a lot of our personal belongings, a lease for a long-term furnished rental apartment in the 17th arrondissement and a tingling in my skin. We were embarking on a one-year-or-more ‘sabbatical’ from life in Los Angeles to a new life in the City of Light with which we had fallen in love.
The plan had taken almost a year to sell our home and cars, organize for an apartment in Paris and enroll our daughter in a school. At the time, there was no Internet — only phone, fax and printed publications. Through FUSAC, a publication of classified ads which we special ordered from Paris, we found rental agencies offering furnished apartments. It took a trip to Paris and a whole lot of apartment visits that week to settle on one that was less than half the size of our L.A. home, furnished with the landlord’s old castaways and equipped with what seemed to us like 1960-style appliances.
It was a shock, to say the least, when we arrived on September 4th to this whole new world so different from Los Angeles or any other place we had known. The apartment was in a more-than-100-year-old building, a bit dower with “greige” (grey-beige) worn-out stained carpeting, old-fashioned furnishings, views on inner courtyards without much light and a big kitchen, but situated down a long hall from the formal dining room. The double bed mattress was a far cry from our queen size waterbed in L.A. and the armoires were just not as spacious as our walk-in closets. I can remember exhilarated and stunned and scared and feeling a bit like being in no-man’s land.
Our almost-nine-year-old daughter started school the very next day, so there was no time to waste getting all of us acclimated to our new lives. We trekked her across town by public bus to a bilingual private school in the 15th, said “goodbye and good luck,” then prayed like hell she was going to be all right — with not a word of French in her vocabulary (and hardly 10 words in our own).
At the end of the day, she exited school alive and well, carrying a list of things she was instructed to have with her the next day. I didn’t have a clue what anything on the list was or where to buy it all. Another parent pointed to a “papeterie” (stationary store) down the street and the elderly couple running the little shop was able to fill the list of paper, pens, rulers, etc., thereby costing a small fortune — another shock within hours of our arrival.
A fountain pen was one of those things required with blue ink, not black, and there was another pen designed to erase the ink — I’d never seen that before, nor had I ever known anyone, particularly a child, use a fountain pen. The paper in the notebooks had special lines or squares on it resembling either music composing paper or an architect’s sketch pad. It was all so different from our grammar school experience in Los Angeles where computers were already in the classroom.
L.A. French Consulate and had an appointment at the “Préfecture de Police” (administrative offices, prefecturedepolice.interieur.gouv.fr/) to more formalize the process within a few days of arrival. That was our first of many experiences with immigration procedures at the Préfecture and dealing with its “fonctionnaires” (civil servants).We had applied for our long-stay visas in advance of arrival at the
The waits were long and the clerks were unhappy and unpleasant. They reminded me of the women working in the L.A. post office near our home who would chew-out the old ladies for whom they had no patience. In that case, I learned to compliment them in some way immediately upon stepping up to the counter to establish a friendly rapport, like saying, “Wow, I just love your fancy nails!”…and it worked! So, I applied the same concept to the clerks at the Préfecture. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t, but I always wondered what was so bad about their lives, with their ‘cushy’ jobs, their five weeks of paid vacation, and the inability to ever get fired, that they should be so mean and hateful to us pour struggling immigrants!? (Maybe they weren’t so bad, but coming from the La La Land where people had sunny dispositions made it all so much more of a culture shock.)
Our one year in Paris quickly became two, and two became four and with each year, it became even more impossible and undesirable to leave, or go back to the life we once had in the States. Year after year I renewed the long-stay visa by going through the same process until after 10 years of enduring the quasi ‘torture’ at the Préfecture, I was granted a “Carte de Résident” for 10 years. What a blessing!
Everyone I know has stories — not all as gruesome as mine and some much worse. Gay men seem to skate through best, from what I can tell — why I don’t know! And I normally fared better with a male clerk than a female clerk. When my daughter was finally granted her own Carte de Résident after years of struggling, I was so happy I cried and kissed the clerk! She must have thought I was nuts.
The memory of hours spent waiting at the Préfecture to be chided by a civil servant have faded, but now 10 years later, I’m obligated to renew it again for another 10 years (or I could also apply for citizenship). In late April I mailed in all the documents they requested by registered mail and received confirmation by poste that they had been received by the Préfecture. Then I waited…and waited…and waited. No news came. I emailed them and have not gotten a response.
It’s now six weeks away from when my Carte de Résident expires, so I took a chance yesterday and paid a visit to the Préfecture…for the first time in 10 years. It made me just as nervous as the first time 20 years ago and I purposely dressed in white so as to look ‘pure’ and ‘innocent’ and ‘unthreatening.’ When I entered, I took a deep breath, put on my sweetest smile and most polite French. It mustn’t have worked very well.
The welcome desk clerk sent me to “Escalier E, Salle Amérique,” then after waiting my turn to speak to the clerk there, she obligingly sent me to room 1509 on the first floor; then I waited my turn again and the clerk there told me I should have taken a number outside the door and wait again; then I waited for my number to be called (about 15 minutes); then visited a clerk at a “guichet” inside an office where there were 11 stations waiting to process immigrants’ visas.
I tried my old approach to establish a friendly rapport, but it made no difference. She barked at me to remove my bag from her desk, to take my Carte de Résident out of the passport case, and proceeded to tell me that I was wasting her time, because it was ‘normal’ to wait for news from the Préfecture by post to come as late as it is now. She said I had a choice to either email the office (already tried that to no avail) or go to another office in the 17th arrondissement just to get a “récépissé” (receipt).
Meanwhile, an application for insurance is currently on hold simply because my Carte de Résident is about to expire and there’s nothing I can do about it. It looks like I just need to have faith that ‘ye ol’ fonctionnaires’ at the Préfecture will come through just like they have before the last 20 years and we’ll all be the happier for it.
Regardless of my “fear of Préfecture” (which I suspect many of us have), marking my 20th year in Paris in this place that is at the heart of an immigrant’s survival, was somehow very fitting. And it was reminiscent of the obstacle course we have overcome to enjoy the ‘good life’ in the City of Light and France.
I once told my sister, who has never quite understood why I’ve continued to take the challenge, that “Life isn’t about being ‘easy’ — it’s about being ‘rich’ — and not in the monetary sense of the word.” This is what it’s all about.
NOTE: The Carte de Résident was created in July of 1984 by an leftist government. According to an article in “Liberation” this past June, the visa is increasingly more difficult to get thanks to a series of successive laws. The granting of a residence permit is at the discretion of the administration — This means that even if the conditions are met, the prefect reserves the right to refuse it. Between 1986 and 1990, 60,000 people each year on average obtained the visa. After the Pasqua Law of 1993, the numbers have fallen year after year to 40,000, then to 30,000. After the 2003 Sarkozy Act it was reduced to 20,000 a year and today it’s about 17,000 (according to Antoine Math, an economist at the Institute of Economic and Social Research (IRES). To learn more, read the article (in French).
A la prochaine…
Editor, Parler Paris & The Adrian Leeds Group, Inc
(2002 50th Birthday)
P.S. I’m reading “The Treasure of Saint-Lazare” and can’t put it down! Author John Pearce will be speaking on Nazi Thrillers and the Liberation and his books this Sunday night September 7th at Paris Soirées, a Dinner Salon for Expats. For more information and to reserve your spot, visit meetup.com/newintown-521.
P.P.S. There are still a few seats left for the Living and Investing in France Mini Conference — Nice and the Côte d’Azur on Tuesday, September 16, 2014 from 6:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. You’ll learn how to make a smart investment, plus ask me all of your questions about owning property in France. If you’re going to be in Paris, why not take a quick trip down to the Riviera for this informative evening and to enjoy the gorgeous weather. Register now