Thursday, December 1, 2011


There is a joke in France about the amount of bureaucracy that one must deal with in order to get something done. Well, c’est vrai—it’s true. I don’t know when I’ve completed more paperwork, gathered more “evidence” and paid more fees than in obtaining our one year visitor’s visas for France. As with many situations in life, I found the whole process humorous—now that it’s over. Of course it’s not always so easy to find amusement when in the throes of bureaucracy.

One month before my family left for France, we applied for visitor’s visas at the French Consulate in Los Angeles. We collected passports, paid for a criminal record clearance from the police department, printed bank statements and other relevant documents to prove that we had funds to live in France for the year, wrote a letter promising not to work in France, proved that we had medical insurance, a place to live, and paid approximately $500 for a processing fee.

The day before our trip, we received a call from the consulate saying that my children and I had received our visas and would be able to remain in France after our vacation to begin our year of residence. My husband, who fortunately had to return to tie up loose ends anyway, would get his visa later. 

Off to France we went.  As Americans, we have the right to reside in a country that is part of the European Union for up to 90 days without a visa.  A woman at the consulate told me that we had two months after our visa began to send relevant paperwork to the prefecture in France. Since our visas began September 1 and we left Los Angeles July 4, we had plenty of time to inform French immigration that we were in the country—or so we thought.

We rented a house (a story in itself) beginning on September 1, and with a myriad of things to set up, didn’t get around to sending in our paperwork until the beginning of October. I called the designated prefecture in Grenoble as was told that at this point we were here illegally and needed to send our paperwork in immediately or face possible deportation. Oh and by the way, that will be 340 euros each for French residence tax.

We sent in the paperwork, received an appointment time to have a medical exam, directions on how to buy our timbre or stamp for our visas, and a list of items to complete to prove our identity and that we were healthy.

I then went online to pay our residence tax and receive our timbres. After having entered our credit card number, the website malfunctioned.  Unfortunately, the way that they have their website set up, we were unable to even enter our names before the credit card number had been provided. In the end we never received confirmation of payment, or our timbres.  When my husband looked at our credit card statement, however, he found that we had been billed about $950 for the timbres.  No problem, we thought, a simple call to OFII (French office of immigration) would straighten out the problem.  Not so.

I had experienced enough with the French system at this time to know to seek help from a French person. Luckily, one of our wonderful neighbors is an English/French translator for the prefecture and knows how to work the system. She was an invaluable aid throughout this process. She called the prefecture for me, wound her way through the system in order to get to the right person, and told us exactly what we needed to do.

One might think, as I did, that a call and explanation would be a fairly straightforward way to right the wrong. This is not the way it is done in France. The woman at the prefecture could not simply match up our credit card number with the charge; instead, we needed to fill out a form explaining the problem, include our bank routing number (again to prove that we were who we claimed to be), which would then be sent to the Paris prefecture to be sorted out.

Meanwhile, the time for our appointment was drawing nearer; two weeks later we had still not heard back from the prefecture. Alas, we went to our medical exams.

 At this stage, a large group is ushered like so many cows into the small waiting room to sign in. When one’s name is called, one progresses to the next stage—disrobing from the waist up, and taking a chest x-ray. After, one talks with a doctor about their health, gets weight, height, and vision checked, and proceeds, x-ray in hand, to the next doctor. Between moving people in and out, telling so many foreigners to sit down in so many languages, telling them to sit down again, making phone calls, and calling the next victim er visitor, this doctor makes you feel as though you’ve “got the golden ticket” when you finally reach the inside of her office.

When my name was called, I sat down in the chair across the desk from the doctor and she pulled out my x-ray, stuck it up on the wall lamp and asked me a few questions—did I smoke, have I had my vaccinations, etc.—at which point she looked at my x-ray. Whew, I thought, almost done! The next thing I knew, the pen was raised, it moved toward my chest x-ray and a circle was drawn around a small white area in my left breast. “I am concerned,” she said, “about this lump here.” My heart just about stopped. “I want to make an appointment for you at the health center in Chambery, to have another doctor look at your x-ray and maybe preform another test,” she told me.

That was enough. Tears sprang to my eyes and I fought to keep them back as I was then to go see my husband and two babies while she discussed my ominous “lump” with the secretary in order to orchestrate a return to OFII after my next medical exam.

This happed on a Friday. My medical appointment was the following Monday. I was depressed all weekend. Not so much because I really felt that there was something wrong; I’m 30 years old, in good shape, and just stopped breastfeeding my baby a month and a half earlier, plus have no family history of relevant health problems. My malaise was more because of the fact that there could be something wrong, and all of the complications that would come with getting healthcare in a foreign country, plus, I was…well, angry that this doctor who spent three minutes with me could make such an interpretation based upon a quick glance at my x-ray. Or maybe it was just the wording that she used to explain her concern. “Lump” and “breast” are two words that no woman ever wants to hear in the same sentence, especially in a doctor’s office in a foreign country.

On Monday, sitting in another doctor’s office at a public health center, I was hoping for the best, but bracing for the worst. This time, the doctor asked me the same questions, took a brief look at the x-ray and said, “No, it’s not anything.” Music to my ears! It turns out that the “lump” was really compressed blood vessels in the breast (compressed because of the x-ray) and that it just was a poor quality x-ray. Coincidentally, the moment I returned to the car with my good news, I received a call on my cell phone from OFII saying that Paris had responded positively and we could receive our timbres and complete our visas the next day. At this point, relief covered any remaining bitterness. Now, I can gladly say that we are legal visitors in France.

Throughout the experience I found the French to be cordial, kind, and generally helpful. I can only imagine what many people must go through to come to the United States.  At the same time, I must admit that I wondered more than once, “What the heck are we doing here?” I guess I’ll just chalk it all up to experience.

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