Monday, October 13, 2008

Why it's hard to be a stranger in a strange land

What could go wrong? I asked. And of course I had to ask, thus tempting the fates to throw their red tape-wrapped wrench in my plans. Well, let me tell you what can go wrong when one is a foreigner and attempts to open a bank account in France, or tries to obtain the proper documentation to live and work and go about one's life here, or when one tries to do anything whatsoever that involves a government agency here.

Of course the short answer to the question of what could go wrong is, "Haaaaa! You fool! You naive, pitiable amateur! Why don't you return to the States now while you still have most of your sanity, and your precious forehead is still
smooth and has not yet known the blunt force trauma that results from bashing it again and again into a hard and particularly sturdy brick wall." The long answer is this:

I went to the bank on Friday, paperwork in hand, only to be told that I would need my carte de séjour in order to open an account. "But, er, that could take months, and I need a bank account to get paid," I said. "In a few weeks." In that case, he said, I would receive a paper from the préfecture stating that I had applied and was waiting for my carte de séjour. I would be able to use that paper to open a bank account. Fair enough, I thought. I needed to go to the préfecture anyway; I just had my order of operations wrong. However, it was already too late to go to the préfecture that day, so I would have to wait until Monday. As banks are closed on Monday, that meant I would have to wait until Tuesday or Wednesday to open an account, which was already putting me dangerously close to the deadline of October 15, the date by which we are supposed to have sent in our account information in order to actually be paid in the beginning of November. But as I didn't have a choice, I passed a pleasant weekend and made plans to go to the préfecture on Monday. Which was today.

Now, I have been trying valiantly to apply for my carte de séjour ever since arriving in France about three weeks ago; it isn't as if I have been slacking or putting it off. I first tried when I was staying temporarily in Meaux. I took a number and waited in line, only to be told that I had to go to Melun. The only thing that you need to know about Melun is that it's far. In fact, were you to mention to anyone, anyone at all, that you were going to Melun, that's what they would tell you: "Ohh...that's far." And then they would tsk and shake their head sympathetically. So, Melun is far, but I hadn't yet started school at this point, and my schedule was fairly open, and so I regrouped, looked up time tables and itineraries, and made plans to go to Melun. Several days later I was at the bus station waiting for the bus to Melun, and thought that maybe I would just call the préfecture at Melun, just to make sure that was really where I needed to go, and that I wouldn't travel two hours out of my way just to be told I needed to go back to Meaux, for example. And good thing I did, because as I was on hold I half-listened to a recording of a laundry list of documents that I was required to bring with me. I quickly snapped to attention. Wow, I thought. I don't have any of those things. I could have gone a long way out of my way for nothing. Good thing I called! I then spent the next two weeks trying to procure the necessary items, namely, a) a place to live, and b) proof that I live there. Well, as we all know, I found a) about a week and a half ago, and so it came down to b), or specifically: (1) letter from Mr. Big stating that I reside chez lui, (1) copy of an electric bill in his name, and (1) copy of his identity card. (All of which I felt like a pain in the ass for asking for, but what can you do). But finally I had it nailed down; check, check, and check. I double and triple-checked my documents, just to make sure nothing could go wrong, that they would have no reason to send me back, empty-handed. But I had it all: arrêté de nomination, procès verbal d'installation, birth certificate, translated, notarized copies of birth certificate, proof of residence, four passport-sized photos.
And, oh yeah, my passport. I had it all. I checked train schedules. I got up at 7:30 this morning and got on a 9:00 train. Two hours later, I was in Melun. Half an hour after that, I was at the préfecture. I walked confidently up to the Accueil to get a number, only hoping I wouldn't have to wait in line too long. "Bonjour!" I said to the man breezily. "J'ai besoin d'une carte de séjour."

"One moment," he said, "I'll be right back." And off he scurried to some back office, taking my passport with him. He returned a few minutes later, handed me a piece of paper, and said, "Come back tomorrow at 9 a.m., and bring these documents with you."

"But, excuse me?" I said. "But I have all those documents with me now. Why do I have to come back tomorrow?"

"We can only process a limited number per day," he said, "and today we are all done. Come again at 9 a.m. We are open every day but Wednesday. Goodbye."

My eyes started filling with tears. "But," I sputtered, "but I traveled two hours to get here! You're telling me I traveled two hours for nothing?"

He shrugged. "There is nothing I can do."

Make that four hours, I thought dejectedly as I turned away to leave.

"Thank you! Have a nice day!" he said.

Nice day indeed.

Of course, I can't go back tomorrow morning, or Wednesday morning, or Thursday morning either, since I have to work. Which puts me at Friday, which means I miss my bank account deadline, which means I won't receive a paycheck until roughly somewhere in 2009. Give or take, of course.

Other than that, everything's fine.

So what's been frustrating you lately?


  1. What's frustrating me is job hunting. This economy is shitting on us freelancers. I'd be thankful to have a paycheck owed to me, even if I didn't have a bank account in which to deposit it quite yet.

    But it does suck that you had to travel two -- no, FOUR -- hours to be told that they already reached their day's quota. Screw that!

  2. I know the Préfecture in Melun (by the way it's Melun not Mélun ;) I went there a couple times with my future husband to ask for his carte de séjour.
    This place is so depressing, you feel like commiting suicide. It is always packed with people and you don't see the end of it!
    But once you have your carte de séjour, things will get much more easier for you. Bonne chance !

  3. Oh you poor dear. I keep thinking that this will all be a great story sometime in the not-too-distant future and that your struggles will all seem very romantic in a funny way. But in the meantime?, that totally fucking blows.

  4. Thanks Isabelle! I will fix those accents right away. (But gosh, what an ugly-sounding ville without them!)

  5. And Georgia- I dearly, dearly hope so!

  6. What bank did you go to ?

    My wife (a Spaniard, so from the EU which probably makes things easier, although a US citizen is probably treated better than a Romanian citizen...) went to 3 banks when she arrived in Paris. The 2 first banks wouldn't let her open a bank account for being 1/ a foreigner and 2/ a student. The 3rd one, the Caisse d'Epargne, accepted her without discussion. 10 years later she is still with them and I am pretty sure everybody at Caisse d'Epargne is pretty happy with her as a customer.

    So I advice you to try Caisse d'Epargne, la Banque postale or, if you meet the conditions, the CASDEN BP (in the next Banque Populaire, it is a bank for teachers).

  7. Oh Rachel, that is pure suckitude. I would never have expected it to be so difficult to open a bank account in a foreign country, considering is so easy for non-citizens to open bank accounts in the US. I used to open hundreds a month for international students, with sweaty wads of cash pulled out of places that cash should NEVER be stored.

    I am mentally sending your way any international bank account opening-related karma I may have gotten from that experience.

  8. That sucks. Sorry you have to jump through so many hoops. A very wise person once wrote "when life really gets at you, sometimes all you can do is take a seat and eat a pastry." Good luck on Friday!

  9. oh! rach. this makes boy gossip seem so pointless!