Renewing my visa in Lyon: 9 hours at the préfecture 

In Lyon, going to the préfecture is surprisingly like a transatlantic flight (minus the in-flight entertainment). You pack snacks and something to read, and then you sit in a chair until you lose all feeling in your ass.

(If you’re wondering what the préfecture is, it’s a big bureaucratic office that deals with things like immigration and drivers licenses. You go to your local préfecture if you need to renew your visa, or if you’re extremely masochistic, for example.)

Not all préfectures operate the same way. At some, you can make an appointment. Sometimes you can show up at 9 a.m. Sometimes you can make an appointment online. In Lyon, you wait in line outside the building to get a ticket, and then you wait inside the building until your number is called. They give out about 150 tickets per day starting at 8:30 a.m., and you have to come early to get one. Last year, that meant showing up before 6:30 a.m. This year… well, let’s just say that things have changed.

2 a.m. Alarm rings. I consider going back to sleep but instead I get up and drink a weird iced coffee. I think it’s been tainted by fridge smell.

2:30 a.m. I walk to the préfecture with an enormous bag filled with snacks, books, a cushion, and photocopies of all the documents I need to renew my visa. Plus a folding chair. I call my parents because it’s only 5 p.m. in California and they’re like, will anyone be at the préfecture so early? Is it safe?

3 a.m. I arrive at the préfecture and the line is already all the way to the end of the block and around the corner. There are about a hundred people ahead of me. The girl at the head of the line tells me she’s been there since 6 p.m. the night before, and at least thirty people are stretched out sleeping because they’ve been there all night. I set up my chair at the end of the line and get as comfortable as I can under the circumstances.

4 a.m. I’m glad I brought Calvin & Hobbes with me. I thought about bringing L’Écume des jours, but then I got real and reminded myself that this was not the time to challenge my brain.

5 a.m. My phone battery is already down to 30%. This doesn’t look promising.

5:28 a.m. The line is now so far down the block that I can’t see the end. I’m vaguely paranoid about not getting a ticket, but I think it should be fine. The people next to me are speaking a language I don’t understand. Ukranian? Only three hours to go…. until the préfecture actually opens.

5:29 a.m. I should have gotten fries on the way here.

5:46 a.m. This is when I GOT HERE last year. I’ve been here for almost three hours now.

5:50 a.m. A man asks which way to the end of the line. This means that the line is so long in both directions that he can’t tell where it starts. He sits down on the sidewalk and is politely informed that he actually needs to go all the way to the back of the line, because apparently he either doesn’t understand how queuing works, or he thinks we are all dumb or passive enough to let him cut in. Never assume that about people who have been in line since 3 a.m.

5:55 a.m. Three hours down! I can’t wait to go home and sleep later. And maybe eat a burger.

6 a.m. The street lights click off. I guess this means it’s officially morning.

6:30 a.m. A mosquito buzzes around my head. Seriously?! A mosquito?!

6:50 a.m. People are munching on pain au chocolat and I can smell the butter. #jealous

7 a.m. The line starts moving. We round the corner… and wait some more. Queuers step off the sidewalk to smoke their morning cigarettes. Blech.

8 a.m. I’m now all the way up to the employee entrance on the side of the building. There’s a steady stream of fonctionnaires coming in to work, sliding through the throng of immigrants outside. I wonder if they know how long we’ve been waiting.

8:45 a.m. I’m in! I set up my chair in the corner by an outlet to charge my phone. I’m ticket number E118… And they’re on number E019. Settle in and wait, part two. I eat my last cookie to celebrate.

8:57 a.m. A dude comes up to me and asks to borrow my glasses. He needs them to sign a paper. I try to explain that they’re not reading glasses and I forget the word for “near-sighted” because my brain is set in English/zombie right now. No one has ever asked to borrow the glasses off my face before.

9:16 a.m. omg I smell coffee.

10 a.m. They’re up to E055. Only 63 more to go. I just want to go to sleep. I look at the woman soothing her four-month-old. It must be tough to come here with a baby. There are a lot of families. A seven-year-old with a cast on her leg riding on her dad’s shoulders, a woman breast-feeding her baby, a blonde with a sequined top pushing a double stroller.

10:01 a.m. The people who wanted to borrow my glasses an hour ago have just finished at the guichet. No wonder it takes so long to bing-bong through all the ticket numbers.

11:26 a.m. E100! Only 18 more to go. I feel brain-dead but Josh and Chuck (of Stuff You Should Know podcast fame) are helping me stay zen. (With a podcast on road rage, ironically.)

11:39 a.m. The room is emptying out. There are less than 30 of us remaining.

11:45 a.m. Yes! E118, guichet 22. My turn!

I get a nice girl who is probably younger than me. Her supervisor is the dude with glasses who wouldn’t accept my dossier last year. I called her window a “guichet” but it’s really a glass cubicle. There’s a transparent wall separating us. It’s nothing like stepping up to the window to buy a train ticket, even though that’s also called a guichet. You don’t wait in line for half a day to buy a train ticket, even if you want to go somewhere really cool like Croatia.

I hand over copies of my carte de séjour, my passport, my justificatif de domicile, aka proof that I’m not homeless (my lease and electric bill, just to be sure), my last four paychecks. She compares them all to the originals and initials each page. I give them the attestation from the university that says they’re hiring me next year and my autorisation de travail from DIRECCTE, the department who gets to say, “Yeah, it’s cool if you work in our country,” or not.

Wait, there’s a problem. “No, this work authorization is from last year. We need the one from this year.” I start to panic. Should I have gone to DIRECCTE first? Did I screw this up? Then I remember I can’t get that form by myself – the university has to do it for me, and they won’t until September.

Another person is telling her that I absolutely need the one for this year, not last year. She comes back to the window. I’m shaking my head and internally freaking out.

“Don’t worry,” she says before I have a meltdown. “I’ll still take your dossier. You just need to bring in the form when you get it in September. You don’t have to come back early in the morning.”

She takes my fingerprints (“Uh, your right hand is the other one”) and has me fill out a form and sign my récipissé, the temporary document that says I’m legal while I wait for my new carte de séjour, my visa.

And then it’s over. All her coworkers have already gone to lunch. It’s 12:15 p.m. so I wish her a bonne journée and get out of there so fast I almost forget my chair. The line for the 1 p.m. tickets is already spilling out the door. (Afternoon tickets are for different orders of business than morning tickets.) The sun is shining but it’s not too hot. My adrenaline keeps me running just long enough to eat lunch and walk poor Tigrou the dog, and then I crash.

Today of all days, I give myself permission to do nothing but sleep, lounge, and Netflix all afternoon. Because I won my préfecture battle of 2015 and got my récipissé on the first try, dammit.

And it only took nine hours.

This was not my worst trip to the préfecture, even though it was the longest. You can read about my past adventures in French bureaucracy here.

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Winning an epic battle with French lab billing

A great pastime, particularly among foreigners in France, is complaining about the bizarre inefficiency of the French system and all the frustrations that come with it. I’ve ranted about French bureaucracy a considerable amount, but all of these experiences that make you want to clunk heads together are the rule, not the exception. Everyone has lived them, even French people.

So I’m happy to present to you a France success story! I like to tell it because I get to rant for most of the story (ranting is only fun after it’s all over) and it still has a happy ending. Are you ready?

In January, I went to the doctor. She said she was going to do a test that would cost 7 euros once it was reimbursed in part by social security. Fine, I said. In France, the doctor actually gives you your lab sample packaged in an envelope and you have to take it to the post office to mail it to the lab yourself. Weird, but okay.

A few weeks later, I got a bill for 23.10€. I sent a check, because that was the only way to pay. And that was that.

Except that a couple months later, a scary collection agency note showed up at my door, threatening to fine me over 100 euros for not paying the bill, which I had paid. So I called them up.

“Um, actually I did pay this bill a few months ago,” I explained.

They insisted that there was no record of my payment.

“Fine, then I would like to pay it now. Can I use an American credit card? I’m having some problems with my French bank.”

“Yes, clearly you are,” the woman smirked condescendingly.

(My French bank problems are an entirely different saga, and do not involve a lack of funds to pay a 23 euro bill.)

I argued with her until she conceded to let me pay the original amount owed, minus additional charges.

And that was that.

Except that it wasn’t, because in May (remember, this all started in January) the laboratory cashed my check. They cashed the check that they had said they had never received, after sending a collection agency after me, months after I had paid the collection agency!

I only had the number for the collection agency, and naturally, this debacle was not their problem.

“You’ll have to take this up with the lab because they are the ones who cashed your check.”

“Okay, could you please give me their phone number?”

“I can’t share that information with you, but here is there address. You can write them a letter.”

I can write them a letter?! (Side note: Sometimes, in France, you will be told that the only way to accomplish something is to write a letter. It sounds like a joke, but it isn’t.)

Thankfully, Google seemed to think it was okay to give me the lab’s phone number. You’re the best, Google.

So, in my best polite French, I explained that there seemed to have been an error.

“You’ll have to take that up with the collection agency, that’s not my problem,” the receptionist brushed me off.

“Oh no no no no nononononono.” My polite French got less polite. “I have paid almost fifty euros for something that was supposed to cost seven. Do you find that normal and correct? I did send the payment on time, and when I was told you had lost the check, I paid immediately a second time to resolve the issue.”

“We didn’t lose your check!” She was indignant.

I was confused. “Then… why… but… the collection agency?”

“I don’t know what my colleague did, but we didn’t lose your check. We sent you the reimbursement form, didn’t you get it?”

“Madame, the issue is not the assurance maladie reimbursement. The issue is that you have charged me twice and you need to reimburse me.”

Here, there was some hemming and hawing, and she put me on hold. Apparently, she didn’t share my view that reimbursement was obligatory in this scenario.

Finally: “My supervisor says we can send you a check.”

“Wonderful! When might I expect to receive it?”

“Bah, je sais pas madame! We have other clients, not just you. It won’t be tomorrow.”

“I understand, but could you give me an idea? A week? Two? I’ll be moving in a month.”

“You had better give me your new address. Ca ne va pas être demain!” she repeated.

“I don’t have it yet, and I really think that three weeks is sufficient time to send a check.”

“You’re moving in a month and you don’t have a new address? You’re really pushing it, madame.”

It sounds polite because we were calling each other madame, but the whole thing had turned into quite a spat.

“Look,” I said. “I am sure that you will be able to successfully mail this check in two weeks. In the event that I don’t have it before I move, I will contact you again. Will that work for you?”

“Yes. Au revoir.”

“Thanks so much for all your help and bonne journée!” I spit out sarcastically, sure that I was going to have to call and harrass her for the money in a few weeks.

But. BUT! Here’s the happy ending. Are you ready?

The check came in a few weeks time, and I cashed it. HOORAY!

The end.

Have you ever battled the French system? Tell me your story, or leave a link to your own rantings!

Why you should go straight from the bar to the préfecture (and other practical advice)

Remember when I told you about going to the préfecture in Vienne? It didn’t go so well. So I decided to try again… in Lyon. (Note: I had to change my address on paper to change préfectures.)

Unlike in Vienne, I knew what to expect at the préfecture in Lyon. My awesome expat friends gave me the inside scoop, so I knew I had to get there early and bring something to keep me busy.

I went so early that there were still people out from the night before.
I went so early that there were still people out from the night before. (Note: this is Hotel de Ville, not the préfecture. I imagined that the préfecture would look like this, but it doesn’t.)

I took the bus over around 5:30am. I worried that I was too early. What if there was no one around and I didn’t feel safe?

Ha. Ha. Ha.

There were over sixty people in line when I arrived. It was 5:45am. The préfecture doors open at 8:30am. By 6:15am, the line had doubled, and by 6:30am, it stretched the length of the entire block and around the corner.

So I settled in to wait. I wished I had something to sit on. I wished I had something to eat. I wished I had a latte and a blueberry muffin. But what I did have was a smartphone and a book, and so two and a half hours went by faster than you’d think.

At 8:30, the doors opened and the line moved forward. I showed my passport and visa and they gave me at ticket – number 64. Everyone rushed into the préfecture and tried to grab a seat before they were all taken. There are about 30 guichets, or windows to talk to a person, about half of which were open, and ticket numbers popped up on a screen with a bing-bong sound to show when it was your turn and which guichet you should go to. I jerked my head up every time a new number bing-bonged onto the screen, as though 64 was magically going to appear after 11.

image (6)
This means that sixty-three people got to the préfecture before 5:45am.

It was 10:02am when 64 bing-bonged onto the screen. I jumped out of my chair, shaking, and rushed over to my guichet. It was almost over, and the man seemed nice. Everything was going to be fine.

He asked for my documents one by one. Copy of your passport? Work contract? Birth certificate original and copy? Last pay stubs? They piled up on his desk as I slid them through the slot in the window.

Justicatif de domicile? This is the paperwork that proves you have an address. I was worried about this one. I didn’t have a recent bill because I didn’t have access to one, but I did have a lease, which I had used before without a problem. I thought unless I got stuck with someone really mean, it would be fine. I had even brought my bank statements to prove I did have the means to rent an apartment and wasn’t living on the street. That’s the point, right?

He peered at the documents I handed over.

“I can’t accept this. Do you have anything else?”

I tried to explain that there were no other documents available, that I had used the same ones before with no problem, that I was leaving on a plane the following morning and couldn’t come back (excuses, but all true.)

He wasn’t mean. He wasn’t unfair. He simply said, “Ma’am, your dossier is not complete and I cannot accept it. It won’t do any good to cry.”

I knew I had lost, and I knew I should have known better. There was nothing I could have done about it, but I knew that unlike the woman in Vienne, he was just doing his job. And he was right.

I walked out into the sunshine in a daze. I had come to Lyon specifically for this at an inconvenient time, rushed to get my dossier ready, waited for hours on my feet as the sun came up – all for nothing. And I was leaving for Barcelona the next day and wouldn’t be back in Lyon until after my visa had expired. I didn’t know what I was going to do, and I sobbed shamelessly as passersby stared.

Normally when French bureaucracy gets me down, I go to the boulangerie and get my favorite pastry, pain aux raisins, but this wasn’t a frustration that pain aux raisins could fix. So instead…

IMG_4803
…we went to Starbucks.

One latte, one blueberry muffin, and a lot of love and deep breaths later, I was ready to pick myself up and carry on.

And by the end of the day, I had schemed a Plan B.

To be continued…

If you ever find yourself at the préfecture in Lyon, here is my advice to you:

Triple-check your dossier

Bring all the documents listed, and anything else you think the might need. I was asked for a document that was not on the list, so it’s better to be prepared. Have originals and copies whenever possible – they won’t keep the original, by they like to see it. It’s a good idea to organize your dossier so that you can find the documents easily – that way you aren’t shuffling through everything at the guichet. You can see a list of required documents for your particular situation here. (If you’re outside of Rhône, check with your préfecture.)

Go early

The later you get there, the longer you’ll wait, and if you’re too late, they will run out of tickets and you won’t be able to get in at all. I’d recommend before 6:30am. If you’re a party animal, just skip going to bed and go straight to the préfecture from wherever party animals party at 3am (I really wouldn’t know). Try to lure your friends along to keep you company with snacks and whatever you drink at that hour of the morning (limoncello?) The other people in line will be so happy you’re all there.

Bring something to sit on

The sidewalk is not the nicest place to sit. It’s dirty and uncomfortable. It’s perfectly acceptable to bring a folding chair or a stool to sit on.

Bring snacks

If you get hungry in the morning, and I do, bring something to snack on. That means get something the day before, because nothing will be open when you’re on your way there. Starbucks opens at 7am here. Beverages are at your discretion – a mug of coffee could be nice, but remember, you’re going to be waiting in line for three hours at least and you can’t leave to go pee.

Bring something to do

Anything that will keep you entertained for a few hours that you can do standing up! (unless you brought that chair) I was pretty jealous of the girl with her iPad watching a movie next to me. I watched over her shoulder until I started feeling like a creeper. Cell reception isn’t great inside the building, so make sure you have more than your smartphone!

Bring your patience

You’re going to be there for a while.

Do you have a bureaucracy horror story?

Social Security Saga: getting l’assurance maladie in France (part 1)

When you work in France, you are entitled to social security and healthcare. That’s because they take away about 24% of your paycheck every month. Legally, you’re obligated to go through the process of getting a social security number, and hopefully a carte vitale, a green card that allows you to be automatically reimbursed for healthcare costs. Until you have it, you have to fill out beige forms to get reimbursed. (I have received approximately zero reimbursement so far, but everyone assures me that it will be processed sooner or later.)

Last year, I didn’t know how to get a social security number and my sketchy employer certainly didn’t offer any assistance, but this year, I was employed by the French government, so in October I got right to work submitting paperwork for my numéro provisoire.

“It’s very easy,” said the sécretaire at the lycée where I worked, “you just go to the office in the 4th arrondissement with your passport and your certification of employment, and they’ll give you a form to fill out with your temporary number. Once you have the temporary number, we’ll be able to process your paychecks”

I ran home to Vieux Lyon to get my passport, and zipped back up to Croix Rousse to get to the office before it closed.

Well, it was closed. Like, really closed. Like, they had closed the office in the fourth arrondissement permanently.

So I set off for Part Dieu, where the Assurance Maladie office was awake and functioning. They gave me a receipt with a number and a ridiculously underestimated wait time.

3 minutes? Mon oeil.
3 minute wait? Mon oeil.

When my number was called, the lady kindly explained that I had it all wrong.

“No no, the sécretaire was mistaken. We haven’t had those carbon forms with the temporary social security numbers for ages. You’ll have to come back with copies of your entire passport and a bunch of other papers you didn’t know you needed, plus fill out this form and then you should receive your temporary number in about three weeks.”

Assurance maladie form
The form looked like this. I took a picture because you always want proof when it comes to French bureaucracy.

After running all over town, the news that I would have to come back another day just to start the application process was not exactly welcome. But what could I do? I brought back all the necessary paperwork and was assured it would be processed quickly.

And then I waited. And waited. Three weeks, a month, came and went. Finally, two months later, I went back.

“What’s up, Sécu? Where are we on that whole getting me a social security number thing?”

They checked their system. And they checked it again. “Hm. We don’t appear to have your file. You’ll have to just start over. “

Are you kidding me?! Not even an insincere, “Sorry about losing all your paperwork and personal documents!” Just, “You’ll have to start over.”

Fine. Forty minutes home to get all my paperwork, plus a run to the school to print and copy what I didn’t have on hand (no! bad! Always keep a copy of EVERYTHING on hand on France!) and forty minutes back to l’Assurance Maladie at Part Dieu, and my dossier was resubmitted. Exactly how I wanted to spend my free Wednesday morning.

And I thought that would be it. They would process my dossier, I would receive my temporary number in the mail, and then after that, my carte vitale.

Spoiler: It’s almost July and I’m still waiting for my carte vitale.

To be continued… read Part 2 here