Friday, July 4, 2008

At the Préfecture

It was time this week to renew our annual long-term stay permits, our cartes de séjour. Getting hold of one of these cards is not that easy--it's not designed to be easy--and so C's company, which sponsors us here, employs someone to manage the process. Madame Tie is short and solid and, for a Frenchwoman, stout--a lot out in front and a fair amount out in back. She bustles. I can't decide whether she is more like the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria in full sail or a high Victorian grande dame whose corsetry you can hear creaking from the next room: suffice it to say that Madame Tie is a Presence.

Here is what you need to bring with you to the Préfecture, the administrative office of the département, in order to secure a carte de séjour:
  • three copies of your passport;
  • three copies of a letter stating that you are gainfully and legally employed in France, and likely to remain so;
  • three copies of your bank statements for the past six months;
  • three copies of your latest paycheck stub;
  • three copies of a document attesting to your having health insurance;
  • three copies of an electric bill that lists you as the resident and bill-payer at the address to which it was sent;
  • three copies of your marriage certificate, translated into French;
  • three copies of your birth certificate, likewise;
  • three identity photographs.

We had all that, thanks to Madame Tie. In fact, we've actually been here long enough, now, that we just have copies of all those bits of paper lying around. I can prove at the drop of a hat that I was born, got married, and have a bank account; we even have copies of all of those papers for the girls, too--not the bank account or the marriage license, of course, but the birth certificates and the passports.

The office that handles requests for cartes de séjour opens promptly at 9:00 a.m. We arrived, marshalled by Madame, at 8:52. Upwards of 100 people waited outside the locked doors. Madame Tie took us in by another set of doors, past two security guards who nodded, almost smiled, and wished her a good day. Thence into a large and grimy lobby--with Madame kissing or shaking hands with every fonctionnaire we passed, addressing them all with the familiar tu instead of the more formal vous--and to the far side of the lobby, where the beginning of a low-ceilinged, narrow corridor was marked with a painted yellow line on the floor. We stopped at the line. Down the hall we could see signs for each of the administrative departments: permis de conduire, driver's licenses; cartes grise, vehicle registration; étrangers, foreigners. That was ours.

When the hands on the clock in the lobby clicked over to 8:59, Madame stepped over the yellow line and briskly down the corridor. We turned in at Etrangers--a smaller grimy lobby, with stanchions set up to manage the people waiting--and went straight to the desk. Madame perfunctorily took the numbers that the fonctionnaire handed her, asked after his new baby, and directed us to sit down in the foremost row of chairs. She took our file and proceeded to the first window. Blowing some good morning kisses to the woman sitting behind the window, computer screen and stapler at the ready, Madame sat down and drew out the papers.

A minute or two later she beckoned me to come and sit down beside her. I watched as she put our papers in order, all the while chatting with the lady behind the window about children, families, the new office design, the heat. They passed papers back and forth through the slot at the bottom of the window; Madame Tie wrote my name on a form, with my address and a line of text underneath, and handed it to me to sign.

When C and I were married, I did not take his name. I went from Mademoiselle Marron to Madame Marron, but, for a whole host of reasons with which I could fill a college Women's Studies seminar, I chose not to be known as Madame C. I explained that once or twice here in France. When I told our family doctor as he entered me in his list of patients, he nodded. Of course you may call yourself anything you like--it sounds less brusque in French--but here we file everything under the family name. When we told Jules that my name was different from C's, and that our post box should include it, he asked if we were really married. It was all the same to him, and we could tell him the truth. (I'm still not sure if he believes that we are.)

So, officially, in France, regardless of what my passport says--and it says, simply, Madame Marron--I am known, officially, as Madame Marron, épouse C--and the C trumps the Marron. It hasn't changed here in centuries: I've handled passports, cartes d'identité, ration books made out the same way, the words scratched in quill pen onto vellum. And, maybe for that reason, it doesn't bother me much. Being called Mrs. C in our other life, even when it was in the context of being my daughters' mother, got under my skin like little else. I can let it go here, maybe because C's name sounds better than mine in French, maybe because being the épouse C connects me to all those women whose centuries-old papers I handled.

I signed the paper that Madame Tie gave me and passed it back to her. She nodded and smiled, and switched to English for me. This paper says that you will not work in France, that you are here only with your husband.

Another bit of identity messed with: from independent professional woman using her own name to someone's wife forbidden, because of foreigner employment laws, to work. It's a lot to handle before lunch.

I finished my turn at the guichet and went back to my place next to C. While my back was turned, the room had filled. Dozens of people now filled the rows of fixed metal chairs. Dozens more waited in line. None of them, so far as I could tell, had the help of a Madame Tie. There were no other Americans there that I could spot. A few eastern Europeans, from countries that have not yet been admitted to the European Union, clustered together. Most of the rest were North Africans, the women in headscarves and the men wearing skullcaps. Everyone, grâce à les flourescent lights, looked old and wan and tired. The atmosphere in the room was one of anxiety. Babies cried. Strangers compared notes. People watched for the "now serving" number to change and then rushed to the windows. Do I have to have that? But no one told me. I cannot come back tomorrow. or: When did that become the law? or: He will not sign the paper for me, but it is true, I promise. Or, worse than anything else, silence from the petitioner when the fonctionnaire finds the flaw in the dossier, and shuffling away.

We sat for perhaps half an hour while Madame Tie, the only native Frenchwoman on our side of the glass, conducted our business for us. When I was a child, my mother took me to New York City. Our friends were to meet us at the Port Authority bus terminal--we had taken the bus in from my grandparents' house in New Jersey--and we arrived a little before the appointed time. I stood there, close to my mother, and surveyed the room. It was the mid-seventies, so I can only imagine what the bus terminal denizens looked like. We're the only normal people here, I said to her. And, in the family story, my mother responded: Do you know what that makes us? Not normal.

I thought of that yesterday. C and I were the only people there who looked like people like us. Most of the others looked like they had worked hard to get here. Not like a multi-national company had sent someone to pack up their porcelain on one continent, and unpack it on another. Not like they even owned porcelain. I wondered if we looked as startling to them as they did to us, if we unnerved them as they did us.

Madame Tie ushered us out, back into the main corridor. We walked along in her wake. A woman followed us, walking quickly to catch up with Madame. She was wearing a long flowered pale pink robe and a white headscarf. She put out her hand to touch Madame on the arm. I need someone to help me with my dossier, she said. I will pay you. Will you work for me as well?

Madame shook off her hand and shook her head. The woman tried again. Please, Madame, s'il vous plaît.

Non. Je ne peux pas. I cannot. The woman fell back then, and Madame opened the glass door to the outside. She held it so that C and I could follow.

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