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!

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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…

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…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?

The Préfecture: Hell in France?

The préfecture is not a popular destination in France. It’s the place where foreigners go to take care of bureaucratic nonsense like visa renewals, and it usually involves waiting in line for hours and dealing with cranky civil servants who hold your fate in their temperamental hands. Or so I hear – I’ve actually never been to the préfecture after two years in France. Well, not until Tuesday. On Tuesday I went to the préfecture.

It did not go well.

Continue reading “The Préfecture: Hell in France?”

Updated: Seven foods that need to go mainstream in France

(Update: I wrote this two years ago, and a lot of things have changed around here! I’ve discovered new things, a lot more international food has popped up in Lyon, I started buying almond milk, you get the idea.

I think that a lot of the things on the list still hold true. None of them are part of French culture (France has its own awesome things) and most of them are still unfamiliar to the older generation/people who live in less urban areas.

Keep in mind that Lyon is the second biggest city in France (or third after Marseille depending on how you slice it). It’s been voted one of the best cities for start-ups and there’s a substantial population of young hipsters and bobos (and foreigners, like me!)  There is so much innovation and creativity present in this city! Happily, that has begun to translate into food too. In the years that I’ve lived here a lot of new restaurants and cafes have popped up, and I’ve discovered new places I didn’t know about before.

If you live in a less-urban area of France, I’d love to know your take on these things too! Can you get smoothies and barbecue where you live? Does anyone eat corn on the cob?

So with that, here’s the original post; you’ll find my updates italicized below each section.)

Continue reading “Updated: Seven foods that need to go mainstream in France”