This is what an immigrant looks like.

I think I look pretty normal. And I’m not sure why you wouldn’t want me in your country. I mean, I know I’m a little biased, but I’m a university graduate, working on an advanced degree, got my visa aboveboard, had it with me when I entered the country… I’m not sure why I should feel unwelcome.

And I can only imagine how fun it would be to try to enter France some other way, for example, illegally. And then try to stay. Montpellier is in the poorest region of France, which is certainly not unrelated to its position on the Mediterranean coast: there are lots of immigrants pouring into these ports, and France does not welcome them or integrate them at all. I recently read a great essay comparing these cities’ economic woes, unfavorably, to those of America’s rust belt. There’s imigrants, and poor, and homeless, and addicted – and by appearances, nobody does much about it.

Because you know who are an immigrant’s worst enemies? Liberté, egalité, and fraternité, that’s who. I’m afraid the venerable trio may have fallen a bit from their ideals.

I have to say, happily, that I am finally a legal resident in France. Six and a half weeks after arriving here, visa in hand,  I finally have a sheet of paper that says I’m allowed to stay. And for me, it was easy. I shouldn’t even be allowed to complain. But the number of appointments, paperwork, exams, trivialities… I would say it’s mind-blowing, but people do tell you that France is a bureaucracy that fuels its own appetites for paper (another great post: David Lebovitz’s, here). It’s true. I felt like France found a way to marginalize me, a relatively affluent white American.

It actually began way back in the fall, with the Visa Saga. I’ll gloss over the visa part, except to say that it lasted until the end of January, involving three separate trips to the French embassy in Stockholm, a lot of e-mails and phone calls and hair-pulling-out, and my consideration of either dropping out of my masters program or spending the spring semester in Munich just so I wouldn’t have to deal with France.

Think about that for a second. I was so dejected by French policy and bureaucracy that I thought the rules would be easier to follow in Germany.

Finally, the very day I left Sweden, I got my passport with my visa in it. Woohoo, I thought! Wait, not so fast.

I was legal to travel and arrive in France but, it turns out, not to stay. For that, you have to get a whole different “stamp” from the immigration office, OFII – it’s really the same thing as your visa, but from a different agency. The embassy in Stockholm gave us a piece of paper that we had to take to France and give OFII. If we lost it? Tough luck. You don’t get another one, your visa does nothing to vouch for you, you don’t get your residence permit.

I didn’t lose it.

So upon arriving, I copied my passport with the visa and the entry stamp from customs and brought it to OFII. A few days later I got a letter: my medical appointment would be at 8:30 a.m. on March 28th, and my interview at 9 a.m. The fact that I had two different obligations was immediately intimidating. Then there was, too, the fact that we didn’t get to have any say in the time – I had three free half-days from class that week, and Wednesday morning was not one of them, but too bad.

Min Ya and Berenice also had the same appointment. We told our professor: we have this silly OFII thing at 8:30, sorry, we’ll miss the first part of class. But we’ll be there by the first break!

He looked at us like we were crazy.

“Well, I don’t know how they do things here in Montpellier, but I know that in other places those immigration things take a really long time. Maybe we’ll see you in the afternoon, or who knows, it might take all day.”


Still, I was cocky and unconcerned. Although multiple signs should have warned me, I was so confident that this would be a brief formality that I didn’t eat breakfast. I had this plan: I’d go, fly through the appointments, and then come home and do some chores before going to class, since my professor was so sure I’d miss the whole morning anyway – why not take advantage of it?

When we walked into the lobby of the OFII building, there were already at least ten people there. The office is on the first floor (or, what we could call the second floor in America) and they don’t turn the elevator on until just after 8:30. The doors to the stairs are locked and can only be opened with a keycode (apparently the same on the way down, too – hope there’s never a fire!). So we all milled about in the lobby waiting for the elevator to start working. 8:30 came and went.

Eventually, we made it up to the office itself, where a bunch of us sat in the lobby waiting. We checked in at the desk, and then nothing happened. I first really realized that this was going to take a while due to the sheer number of people: we had obviously all been given 8:30 “appointments”, but what that really meant was, sometime today. There was no such thing as an “appointment.”

By nine, I had seen the first of the doctors, who asked me my height and weight and to read the top line of an eye chart, paying no attention as I did. I guess that was just screening, because I returned to my chair in the lobby. We all did: maybe fifteen people saw this woman, then sat back down. There were several more steps in the medical process, but the next examiners were apparently not at work yet.

Or perhaps it just took a long time to set up the x-ray, which is how they screen for TB. One by one, again, we were called in; we had to strip off our shirts and breath in as we smashed our chests up against an x-ray machine, then wait for the technician to produce the x-ray itself. It seems improbable that this is the cheapest way to test for TB, but what do I know. I got a free x-ray out of it. I’m thinking of hanging it in my window. What startled me more was the demand that we just strip down. No hospital gowns here; take your shirt and bra off, miss. In French.

The other thing that seemed incredible was the timing. Okay, so they don’t want dirty immigrants bringing TB into France. I get it. But if they were so worried, wouldn’t they call us in immediately? If I did have some dread disease, I had been living and breathing on the earnest and hapless French citizens for more than a month and a half. If you’re going to make me undress to protect everyone’s health, at least try to make it seem like you’re doing a good job with your public health program.

At the end of the x-ray assault, I at least got to go to a different waiting area – where I joined all of the people who had x-rayed ahead of me. We still needed to see one more doctor, but she wasn’t in her office yet. So we waited. Gradually, everyone who had initially been in the reception area was in this new area, and nobody had yet seen the last doctor. There weren’t enough seats for all of us.

The last doctor asked us me if I was on any medications or had been to the hospital recently. Did I smoke? Use contraceptives? I thought – who the hell cares? I’m pretty sure they couldn’t have kicked me out of the country for smoking, since the French themselves smoke like chimneys. So what’s the point of asking? There’s now a paper somewhere, that nobody will ever look at, saying that I don’t smoke or take any medications. And that paper belongs not to some health care service, but to Immigration.

Over an hour and a half after I was supposed to have my “interview”, I finally got called into the last office I’d see in that building – to a woman who did not speak anything other than French. I pulled out my passport, and she asked to see the letter I had received in the mail from OFII.

“Et les timbres?” she asked.


“Les timbres. Vous avez les timbres?”

“Les…. Repetez, s’il vous plait?”

She was becoming exasperated.

“Vous devez payer, les 58 euros.”

Yes, yes: this I knew. To get a student visa to France, it costs 99 Euros. As Erasmus Mundus scholarship recipients, this fee was waived – thanks, Embassy of France. But OFII was not so kind. There’s also an immigration “tax”, which for students in 58 Euros. And this was not waived. We had to pay to live here.

I pulled out the receipt from the Embassy stating that I owed only 58 Euros.

“Ah, celui-ci,” I said. “J’ai de l’argent.”

“Non. Vous avez besoin de timbres.”

Now I was really confused. She kicked me out of her office, saying that I could buy the stamps – that’s what “timbres” are – at a Tabac. I held a counsel with Min Ya and Berenice. Did they have stamps? No, they did not. Did they know what the stamps were? No, they did not. That made zero of us that had any idea what the hell was going on. Luckily, another poor battered immigrant waiting began to explain to us that the only way you could pay was with pre-bought stamps. He had bought his online and showed us a printout, stating that he had paid 58 Euros. That wasn’t an option for us, since we didn’t have a computer or a printer. We went in search of a Tabac, having still no idea what we were actually looking for.

It was raining, also. As we tromped through the rain and past the hobos, I was getting more and more furious. Why was the stupid OFII letter only in France, and why did it not explain where you buy these special Timbres? As we left on our quest, we saw another girl get up and leave, too. She had been listening and didn’t have any Timbres either.

The first Tabac did not help.

“Bonjour,” I said. “Est-ce que vous avez des timbres pour payer les….. choses officiels?”

“Rien,” the guy replied.

Right. They sell them at all the Tabacs.

So we tromped and splashed down another street, found another Tabac, and bought our damn timbres. They are just like stamps for letters – they might even be stamps for letters. In order to stick them to a piece of paper, you lick the back. We turned over our change, got our tiny stamps, and headed back to OFII. The lady mocked us when we arrived. I directed mental thunderstorms her way all afternoon.

Luckily, I had everything else I needed: an ID photo, a signed and stamped attestation from my dormitory that I lived there. Smooth sailing. She put the residence permit in my passport, and, x-ray in hand, I was free to go!

Just in time for lunch. By which I mean, my first meal of the day. And then, afternoon class.

For me, the paperwork is far from over – I still have to make my research at the university official. But at least I can’t get kicked out of the country. I’m allowed to live here. What a long, strange journey it has been. Welcome?

2 thoughts on “Bureaucra-see?

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