3 November 2006

Huddled Masses

Filed under: Reflections — ktismatics @ 6:21 pm

Today Anne and I went to the prefecture’s office to renew our cartes de sejour so we can stay here in France legally for another year. Leaving our daughter gratefully behind to enjoy the last day of the ten-day Toussaint (All Saints’ Day) school holiday, we set out at 8 this morning. We didn’t get back home until 3. Our applications were approved, but we still have to go back in a couple weeks to pick the damned things up. What does this endurance course in French bureaucracy have to do with ktismatics? I don’t know – I’m too overwhelmed to think about it. So I’ll just tell you a little about what it’s like.

The prefecture is headquartered in one of the buildings at the Centre Administratif, a gated compound of several nondescript sixties-era office buildings that handle issuance of passports, visas, car titles, drivers’ licenses, and who knows what-all official government transactions with the general public. The gates open at 9, but people start lining up at least an hour before then. All the transactions that take place at the C.A. seem to take forever and there aren’t nearly enough staff people, so you always want to be one of the first ones served. When they open the gates everybody surges forward and runs for the doors – it reminds me of those old newsreels of the last people leaving Saigon on the U.S. choppers in 1975. Once you get into the building the mob scene calms down. Everybody quickly finds their way to the right place to stand in line, and then you wait. And wait. Eventually you show your portfolio to someone at the main desk. If your papers seem at first glance to be in order, the desk person hands you a number. Then you wait again for your number to be called. And you wait.

We started out this morning on the packed-out 8:05 commuter train that runs from Cannes to Monaco, getting off at the St. Augustine stop to catch the 9 bus. Sadly, we missed our stop, so we had to ride the bus to the end of the run and come back. By the time we got to the Centre Administratif it was 9 a.m., the gates were open, and we were at the back of the queue. It took us an hour and a half just to get our numbers.

Every day people from all over the world converge on the prefecture’s office. France once had a big colonial presence especially in Africa, so the whole human color spectrum is well-represented. You hear lots of exotic-sounding languages and ringtones at the prefecture’s; you also see plenty of headscarves and an occasional turban. Lots of little kids running around, playing, squalling – it’s a fairly informal place if you’re not standing in line.

A few places ahead of us in the first line were three English-speakers: an Englishman, a Scotsman and an American woman. The Englishman observed how unpleasant it is to be doing this with a hangover; the threesome then discussed various kinds of French alcoholic beverages, what kinds of glasses they’re served in, how they taste over ice cream. And so they passed the time.

We had a brief chat with a Frenchwoman who was waiting for her husband, an Algerian national, to be processed. We told her we were from the States, which immediately triggered her anti-Bush sentiments. We agreed, so the conversation continued amicably. We wondered whether the Socialist woman might be the one to succeed Chirac. She hoped so; she regards Sarkozy as anti-immigrant. But aren’t his grandparents immigrants, we asked. Yes, Poland or Hungary. As long as your skin is not bronze-colored you’re okay in France, she said. We talked about Bush’s plan to erect a barrier between the U.S. and Mexico. She was surprised: like Israel, she said.

We bought a sandwich and espressos from the vending machines. We did the best we could to give people directions. Sorry but I don’t have change for a five-euro bill. We watched some little girl systematically dismantling the theater-like barriers that demarcate where you’re supposed to stand in line. The mom came behind the little girl and put everything back the way it was.

When at last our numbers were called the protocol went smoothly. The young woman who handled our case was efficient and friendly. We wondered what it might be like to do that job every day. She stamped each of our applications with two different rubber stamps, she stapled 3 copies of our passport-sized photos to the papers, we signed in 3 places, she recorded our names and numbers by hand in the big ledger book, she wished us a good afternoon, and we were on our way.

Having gone through this routine a few times now, we wonder what it’s like to be a foreigner doing this sort of thing at a U.S. Immigration Office.


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