I’m going to tell you the story of how I once tried to make an appointment to renew my visa in France. Should be simple, right? Wrong. Strap in. This is going to be a long one.
It actually did start out simple because the website was very clear. Two months before the expiration of my visa, I had to present myself at the Prefecture where I lived and ask for a renewal. Done and done. Simple and easy.
I smile when I think about how naïve I was back then.
Naïve, yes, but I wasn’t stupid. I knew that it couldn’t be that simple. Every expat knows that you have to bring a stack of documents to an appointment like this, but no matter where I searched online, I couldn’t find the list of just exactly what documents I would need. I searched everywhere, but there was no information to be found online. Nothing. Nada. Zlitch. After putting off the inevitable for a couple of weeks, I finally gave in and steeled myself to make a phone call. Again, it should have been simple, right?
Ask anyone who is learning another language, and they will tell you that nothing is more terrifying than having to make a phone call in a foreign language. Or maybe that’s just me. Either way, whenever I make a phone call in French, I always feel completely adrift. There’s no facial cues or body language to aid in my comprehension. It’s just me and foreign words and that’s it. Suffice it to say, my phone call attempt did not go well. Or the one after that. Or even the one after that.
Eventually, I resorted to bribery, and I gave a French friend a Disney Christmas ornament in exchange for her making the call for me. All this effort was for naught, because all she learned was that to get that magical list of documents, I would first need to make an appointment online. No problem. Off I went to the website, armed with this information, only to discover that I needed a certain file number to make an appointment. The visa I had at the time did not have the right number attached to it. And after several more attempts to solve this problem over the phone (yes, more bribery was involved), I finally came to the conclusion that I would have to go in person to try and make my appointment. This was where the real fun began.
After procrastinating for a couple more days in a fruitless effort to hold off the inevitable, I finally shoved a stack of documents into my bag one brisk winter morning and headed out to the Prefecture of my arrondissement in Paris. After passing through security, I spoke to the woman at the front desk, who promptly informed me that I couldn’t make my appointment there. Instead, I would have to go to the main Prefecture on the Île de la Cité, a location I had heard other expats refer to as Hell on Earth. I had been hoping to avoid this building, but now I had no choice. Girding my loins, I set off in its direction.
This time, I had to wait in line to go through security, and once inside, I once again spoke to a woman at the front desk. She directed me to a room on the second floor, whereupon I immediately got into another line to speak to the person manning that room’s desk. When it was my turn 20 minutes later, the man promptly told me that I was in the wrong place. This would not be the last time I would hear this that day.
I went back downstairs and found the correct room on the other side of the building. There was a long line snaking its way out of the door of this room, so with a sigh, I resigned myself to yet another wait. An hour later I arrived at the desk, only to discover that I had been in the wrong line the whole time. I was directed through a door into another office, where, you guessed it, I had to join another line to talk to the man at that desk. Thankfully, this line only took 30 minutes to get through.
I spoke with the man briefly, and praise be to all the deities of the world, he actually knew which visa I held. More importantly, he knew how I could renew it. Unfortunately, I couldn’t make my renewal appointment at that Prefecture. No, instead, I had to go to a different Prefecture in the north of Paris. With a only slightly forced smile, I thanked him for his help and made my way out of the building to head to the Metro. Bonus, I only got lost once on the way out.
Two Metros rides and a short walk later, I found myself standing in front of yet another neighbourhood Prefecture, my third of the day. I went to enter, but was stopped by a rather intimidating looking policeman holding a machine gun. He asked me where I was going, and when I told him, he directed me around the building to the Mairie. This was when I learned that the Prefecture and the Mairie, two terms that I had been using interchangeably up until that point, were decidedly not the same thing.
Around the building I went, through security, and into the Mairie, only to be informed by the lady at the front desk that no, this was not where I was supposed to be. This building was for French citizens, and therefore I had to go back around the building to the Prefecture. Long sigh. Forced smile. Exit building. Back around the block. Well hello Mr. Policeman with the Machine Gun. I’m back. When I told him why I was back, he looked at me funny and asked, “You’re not French?” In retrospect, I should have been flattered that he mistook my bumbling French for a native speaker. But in that moment I was gobsmacked, and could only blink at him in surprise while I held up my decidedly not French passport. He just nodded and sent me down an alley, through security, again, and into a waiting room where I was instructed to take a number and wait. And wait I did.
Over two hours later my number was finally called, and with no small amount of trepidation, I walked upstairs to find my assigned desk and took a seat in front of a rather stern looking woman. Thankfully, she knew exactly what visa I was trying to renew and we got down to business. She began asking for documents, documents that I thankfully had, all the while talking about what would happen when my visa was renewed. Wait, what? My heartbeat quickened. Was it possible that this was my actual renewal appointment? Was it possible that I could actually walk out of this building with another year in France safely secured?
I held my breath as one by one she went through my documents. Everything seemed to be in order until she got to my birth certificate. She looked at it for a long time, her face crinkled into a frown, while my brain frantically tried to figure out what was wrong. It was an original, not a photocopy, and it was written in both French and English, so it couldn’t be a translation issue. Finally, she looked back at me and asked, “Where are your parents’ names?” I didn’t understand. “What?” I asked. “Your parents’ names. Your birth certificate should have your parents’ names on it.” I didn’t have an answer for her. This was the birth certificate I had been using all my life. I had never had any problems with it before.
I tried to explain to this woman that that piece of paper was all I had, but she wasn’t satisfied. “Your birth certificate must have your parents’ names on it.” “Why?” I asked. “We need to know that you have parents.” At that point, French bureaucracy rendered me speechless and I just stared at her in stupefied silence.
Doesn’t my mere existence prove that I have parents?
Apparently not in France. She handed me back all of my documents and told me to come back when I had a proper birth certificate. “Then I’ll get my visa renewed?” I asked, all hopeful and still innocently naïve. “No. Then I will make the appointment for you to renew your visa at the Prefecture.” For the second time that day, I was gobsmacked. I had left my apartment at 8AM. It was now close to 4PM and I had nothing to show for it. I slowly gathered up my things and walked back down the stairs and out of the building in a daze. I barely registered Mr. Policeman with a Machine Gun cheerfully waving goodbye to me. As I made my way back to the Metro, I felt about a dozen years older but none the wiser. All I knew for sure was that French administration had beaten me that day.
Of course, that was not the end of the story of me trying to renew my particular visa. The whole story would take a book and several bottles of wine, but long story short, I eventually got my renewal. And the one after that. It wasn’t easy, and I’ve been beaten by French bureaucracy in the years since more times than I can count. But I’ve also learned to just go with it. It’s just the way things are done here. Besides, complaining about bureaucracy is practically a French national pastime, so in that regard, I truly do feel like a local. More importantly, every time I go through something like a visa renewal, I see it as a test. How much do I really want to live here? Enough to compile a 208 page dossier to apply for my latest visa? Yes? Good. That’s how I know I’m exactly where I really want to be. I may not love the paperwork, but I love France. And while I sometimes want to tear my hair out in frustration at the time, I always know it’s worth it in the end.
Laura Moore is a professional storyteller who loves history and the many stories that make Paris one of the most fascinating cities in the world. Join one of her signature tours to learn the story of a city.