I'm the kind of person who worries about things. Just ask my friends. Two things worry me greatly in this new life in France: exchange rates (the value of the dollar, or lack thereof, against the euro) and annual residency permits, required of non-European foreigners by the French authorities.
Residency permits have been a big worry for me this year. Early in the summer, some Americans I know were refused a long-term visa by the French authorities. I can't figure out why they would have been refused. They said they met all the requirements. Immigration is a hot issue in France, as it is the the U.S., and with a presidential election coming up in 2007 the issue is getting hotter and hotter. Maybe the government is clamping down.
Walt and I have to renew our residency permits every September, at least for the time being. Maybe one day we will get a five- or ten-year permit. But for now it's annual.
Every summer, the préfecture (central police and administrative offices for our département, or county) in Blois requires us to send in documents proving our birthplace and date (a translated birth certificate), address (a phone or electric bill), sufficient financial resources to live here without working, and valid health insurance for the coming year.
We mail in the documents in July, two months before our renewal date. In past years, we received a notice in early September that it was time to come to the préfecture in Blois to pick up the new permits. We would drive up there, find a place to park, go into the administrative building, take a number, and wait an hour or two in a big room with 50 or so other people. Then we would be called up and a fonctionnaire would hand us our new papers. The permit is a sticker that they paste onto a page in our American passports.
This year, we sent in our documentation as usual, in early July. When I went to the post office that day, there was a new guy in charge. I was used to dealing with the red-headed woman who was so nice and helpful, but she had been transferred to the post office in Vendôme, 50 miles north of Saint-Aignan.
The new post office guy wanted to sell me a special envelope in which I could mail my papers and Walt's together. But that meant taking all the papers out of the envelopes provided expressly by the préfecture for sending in such documents, because those envelopes were too big.
And because staples are forbidden on "official" documents, I was afraid all the papers would get all mixed up. The post office guy said it would all be fine, and it would only cost about five euros, and I would have a tracking number so I could make sure the documents arrived at their destination. I thought he was just making things more complicated.
I said no, I think I'll just leave the papers in the special envelopes they are already in and mail Walt's papers separately from mine. OK, the post office guy said, but do you want tracking? No, I said, the envelopes are just going to Blois, after all. What about insurance? No thanks, they're just photocopies, after all. A return receipt? No, they've always arrived just fine in the past. Pour l'amour de dieu, it's just 25 miles from Saint-Aignan to Blois, and the French post office offers very reliable service.
When the post office guy totaled it up, mailing the two envelopes cost me about two euros fifty. I figured that was taken care of, and headed back home.
This year, the instructions we got from the authorities said we would be contacted in good time by the people at our village hall when the residency permits were ready, and that we would pick them up there. Great, we thought. We won't have to drive to Blois (45 minutes each way) and we won't have to stand or sit around in the crowded waiting room for an hour or two. There's never anybody at the village hall, except the person on duty.
In mid-August, I got a letter from the village authorities telling me to come in and pick up a récépissé, which is a receipt showing that I had sent in the required documents for my resident's permit. What that meant was that I shouldn't expect to receive my new permit before September 10, which is my renewal date. The récépissé is in fact an extension of that date, a temporary permit, and the new renewal date turned out to be October 27.
Walt and I both figured he would get a similar convocation (summons) the next day or very soon. So I waited before I went down to the village hall (mairie or "mayor's place") to pick mine up, thinking we would go together and kill two birds with one stone.
Well, Walt's summons didn't come. After about a week, one day when I needed to go down to the village for something else, I stopped in the mairie. The woman behind the desk recognized me and was pulling open a drawer to get out my receipt before I even said a word. Of course, the receipt has my picture on it, so maybe that's why she recognized me. I doubt there are many other foreigners in the village who have to go through this process, though (since the Brits are Europeans and have a dispensation).
The woman at the mairie handed me my receipt and asked me to sign for it. I asked her about Walt's papers, but she didn't know anything. I mentioned that this was all a new procedure, and she said yes, they've changed things now. I didn't know what that meant. But it sounded ominous to me.
The rest of August and then 12 days of September passed. Walt still had no news from the préfecture or the mairie. I came to believe that the receipt I had been sent was an error, and that a few days before our renewal date, September 10, we would both get a notice to come pick up our new residency permits at the village hall.
Friday 9/8 and then Saturday 9/9 came and went. There was no convocation in the mail, for either of us. Knowing French bureaucacy as I do, I figured OK, everything is just running late — and the receipt I had received, if it wasn't an error, was just a sign that they knew they had thought they were going to have trouble getting the permits out on time, especially since August is a big vacation month in France.
Sunday was September 10, the renewal date. There's no mail on Sundays. As of Monday morning, Walt was illegal. I was still legal, but temporarily, because I had my récépissé.
So we waited. On Monday, the mail came at lunchtime, as usual. Nothing. Now I was getting seriously worried. The mairie is only open mornings, so I couldn't call them that afternoon.
What if the authorities had decided, for some unfathomable reason, that Walt was not to be granted another year of residency in France? My friends in America had unexplainably been denied a visa, after all. They assured me they met all the requirements, and they had appealed the negative decision of the French authorities. Just how severe was this immigration crackdown?
Sunday night, and especially Monday night, I lay awake thinking about what we would do if the préfecture denied Walt's residency permit for the coming year. What would our options be? Well, we would have to sell the house here and move back to the U.S. But where in the U.S.? California? Way too expensive, and too crowded. Upstate New York, I guess, or Vermont. Not North Carolina, where I'm from. Too conservative, and too hot and humid. The Adirondacks, though, might be nice, or the Green Mountains — except in winter. If we could afford it. And Montréal would only be a few hours away by train or car.
The whole prospect of having to leave Saint-Aignan was horrible. I wasn't quite in a panic, but I was getting there.
This morning, I told Walt I had to do something. Here was my plan: I would call the people at the village hall and ask them for information about his file. I would pretend to be him. The alternative was for both of us to get showers and drive down to the mairie to see what we could find out. Or he could go by himself. I couldn't very well go there and pretend I was him, since his picture would be on the document.
Walt wanted to do yard work this morning, and somehow didn't seem too worried about the whole situation. As I said, I am an expert in the art of transcendental metaworry.
At 8:30, I was on the phone. The woman at the village hall was very nice, as always, but she said she didn't have any information for me. I told her that my friend Mr. Broadhurst — moi, in fact — had been given a receipt proving that his documents had been received at the préfecture. Yes, she said, she remembered.
She then suggested that I (Mr. Streeter) call the Service des Étrangers at the police headquarters in Blois himself... er, myself. She said they wouldn't answer the phone before 10:00 a.m. and gave me a phone number.
I decided to pass the time until 10:00 a.m. by going out back and picking up the hundreds of apples littering the ground under the trees. I filled up the wheelbarrow three times. Then I picked up some clippings Walt had left on the ground when he started trimming the hedge the other day. I filled the wheelbarrow four more times and pushed it from the front yard about 80 yards back to the compost pile to empty it.
All the time I was thinking about what I was going to say to the people at the préfecture in Blois, if I could get them on the phone, and what answers they might give me. The worst-case scenario was heavy on my mind. Walt was busily pushing the lawnmower around the yard. I couldn't talk to him because of the noise of the gas engine.
At 10:15 I started calling Blois. After two or three tries where I got voice mail informing me that all lines were busy, please call back later, I actually got a live person. It was a woman who was very reassuring and not at all harried-sounding. She implied that she was the section chief, the chef de service, and she said one of her clerks would be able to help me.
She said the fact that I, Mr. Streeter, hadn't yet received my new permit was not gravissime — not the end of the world. If I were to be contrôlé, or stopped by the police, I should just explain that it was the préfecture's fault that I appeared to be an illegal alien. Somehow that wasn't reassuring at all.
Then she told me to call back in a few minutes and one of the clerks would answer. I called five or six times and each time got voice mail. I was about to give up until afternoon (the Service des Étrangers takes calls from 10:00 to noon and from 2:00 to 4:00) but decided to try one last time. A person answered!
I explained the situation to her. She looked up my... er, Walt's file. She said the new residency permit had been mailed out to the village hall in my village last Friday. It would surely arrive before the end of the week. What a relief!
Now I hope that my own permit (this is Ken) will arrive at the same time. But I couldn't really ask about mine, since I was pretending to be Walt.
I called the people at the village hall and told them what I had learned. They said they will call us as soon as they receive anything from the préfecture. Then I went and took a shower. As soon as I got dressed, I poured myself a glass of ice-cold rosé and relaxed for the first time in a while.