Walt and I packed up and moved from California to France 14 years ago. For the first 6 years we were here, we were temporary residents on a year-to-year basis. In other words, every year we had to re-apply for what is called a titre de séjour by sending in our birth certificates with translations into French, proof of our address, and, mostly, proof that we had enough money to live on here without seeking employment.
Then in 2009, I decided to find out if we could get a 10-year carte de résident which would let us avoid all the paperwork and uncertainty of the yearly application for permission to stay in France. I had read that foreigners living here legally had the right to the 10-year resident's card after five years on the year-to-year plan, but nobody in the département offices at Blois had ever explained this to us, and they hadn't automatically offered resident's status in 2008, when I thought they should have.
In 2009, I picked up the phone and called the office in Blois that regulates foreigners' immigration status. The woman I got on the phone, after it rang for 5 or 6 minutes, was helpful and polite, if sounding slightly harried. She said to me, Monsieur, do you have a retirement pension? I was 60 years old at the time. I told her that I would start receiving retirement benefits from the U.S. in two years' time, and that I would also begin receiving a small French retirement pension when I turned 65 in 2014. Write us a letter explaining those details, the woman said, and we'll see what we can do.
With some help from a neighbor who had recently been elected mayor of our commune (village), we soon had our 10-year resident's cards, which would be good until 2019. We sometimes talked about applying for citizenship, but for a while I thought I didn't see the point. Then in 2012, when it became legal, we went to New York and got married. I started thinking about what would happen if one of us died or became incapacitated and how the other one of us would manage. Who would inherit the house in France? What taxes might be assessed on the inheritance? Would the survivor's residency card be renewed in 2019?
So we started thinking about naturalization — becoming French citizens. Our marriage was recognized in France in 2013, when le mariage pour tous became law here. We were able to draft wills spelling out our final wishes and file them with a local notaire. By then, though, we had started pulling together the documents we needed for our naturalisation applications. First, we needed our parents' birth certificates. Walt's mother died when he was eight years old, and he didn't even know where she was born, except that it was in New York State and probably not far from Albany, where he and his father were born. I didn't have that to deal with, since my mother is still living, and I knew my father's birthplace.
Walt found out where his mother was born by inquiring at the NY Department of Health in 2012, where records are kept. That's when he learned that, in New York State, a child does not have the right to apply for official, certified copies of his or her parents' birth certificates — even if the parents are both deceased. The best the state bureaucracy could do was to give him copies that carried a big red stamp saying "For geneological research only." For certified copies, he would have to go to a judge in New York and make his case for having a legitimate need for the official documents. That would mean another trip to New York, because it was too late at that point to get a court date right then.
In my case, my mother was able to go to the courthouse in the county where she lives, and where I grew up, and easily obtain copies of my (deceased) father's and my own birth certificates — no questions asked. (I figured I might as well have a new copy of mine.) But my mother herself was born in South Carolina, so we had to apply for her birth certificate down there. I read about the process on the internet, and I learned that, even as her son, I was not allowed to request my mother's birth certificate as long as she was still living. I had hoped to be able to apply for it by mailing in the application and fee.
My mother said she wouldn't mind driving to the area in S.C. where she and my maternal grandfather were born, and which is a five-hour drive from where she lives. It had been 20 years since her last visit there. We did the drive in 2013, when I was back in North Carolina for a visit, and we stayed overnight. My sister and my mother's sister came along for the ride, and we ended up seeing some of our S.C. relatives while we were there. It was fun.
When we arrived in the local county seat, however, we were disappointed to learn that birth records are not kept at county courthouses in South Carolina, as they are in North Carolina, but by the state's department of health. Luckily, there is an outpost of that agency in the larger nearby town of Rock Hill (near Charlotte, N.C.). We turned around and drove over there. And we learned that the local health department office was only able to provide us with what is called "the short form" birth certificate, which I knew would not satisfy the French authorities. Getting the long form would require a three-hour-roundtrip drive down to Columbia, the state capital. We didn't have time for that.