Sunday, July 12, 2009

All you have to do is nothing.

It's been a good long time since I've written about the circus of keeping my visa current. It's not that everything is just fine, but rather my method for the past couple of years has been just to do other things. That's always been my method; it's just that this time I did nothing for quite a long time.
I've been late before, regularly in fact and usually by a month or two, and each time I get chewed out for it by the woman at the Visas department of our local prefecture. She really detests me. I think she detests just about everyone who shows up at her window, but she has a special reserve of ill feelings for me. She particularly hates the way she can't really refuse me my visa, given I press all the right buttons: I'm of that most-favored nationality, I'm highly and uniquely qualified for my job, and I have a job - a full time, permanent one. When I slink into the waiting room with my number, trying to sink into the decor, then sidle up to her window when I'm called, all folded into myself and quite pale, she seems to see a prima-donna, waltzing in without a care.
Visa Woman is one of the reasons I drag my feet so long going to the prefecture. And I'm not even supposed to go to the prefecture. I'm supposed to go to the police station in Chamalières, drop off all the papers and a SASE, and wait for the mail. You only go to the prefecture in person if you have a problem, or if you live within the city limits of where it happens to be.
Well, I did it the 'right' way for my last renewal, and in good time. And I waited. And I went down there, but there was nothing for me. The guy there just shook his head like I was crazy to think it would be there. So come the week my visa would expire, I gathered my courage and with a new set of photocopies did the waiting thing at the prefecture.
Took my number.
Waited with the subdued crowd of chinese, algerians and senegalese.
Took my turn with Visa Woman. Who took one look at my papers and told me NO; I live in Chamalières, I have to go to Chamalières. GO AWAY.
So I did. And I waited, and I checked in, and there was nothing for me.
And then I did what I do best. I did nothing.
Actually, I did plenty of things: worked excessively, went travelling, watched TV, knitted sweaters. The only thing I didn't do was go back to the prefecture to renew my visa.
It's surprisingly easy to become an illegal immigrant, and to get away with it. I'm not proud of it at all. I'm deeply ashamed. I just want to explain.
While I'm told all the time that anybody can be asked for their identity papers at any time, this has never happened to me in the past 13 years (except in airports, where you expect it). The personnel department might send me an email once in a blue moon, and I say, oh, yeah, I'll get that for you. And really, I mean to take care of it in the morning, the next morning, next week once some class is over or some grant out the door. And since there's never any follow-up from personnel, the question fades into the background and gets forgotten.
Nobody else ever wants to see any papers from me. I don't have a car, or a european license. When I do rent a car, I show my California license, which is perfectly valid, and off I go. I've never been sick, I've never made an insurance claim. I've never bought a house. I do my banking, I pay my bills, no problem. I pay my French taxes on time, the TV tax, the habitation tax. I behave in all those ways. France doesn't seen terribly concerned about my residency status.
Leaving and entering France has never been a problem either. Business or pleasure, most border agents take it for granted that the California address is my regular address. I just walk on through. When I have been asked a more specific question, I've admitted to living in France, but I seem to have forgotten the laminated visa card at home. Each time it's no problem. Each time I kick myself and promise I've got to get that taken care of just as soon as I have a morning to waste at the prefecture.
But when does anyone ever have a morning to waste at the prefecture when there's so much fun science to be done?
It's not like the State Department is unaware of my living here - I've declared myself an expat - so it's surprising that with all the fancy technology in place that scanning my passport in their machine (either coming or going or wherever) wouldn't call up my status. I thought that's what all that stuff was for. It should at least be clear, if each entry in each country is recorded, that I spend 90 % of the year in France. But only once in four or five entries am I asked for my visa (and I've usually had it, it's only recently I've been illegal). It's a pretty lax system.
So anyway. During my last trip to the US, the folks in Personnel noticed they didn't have valid papers for me, and there was a crisis waiting. They wanted my papers and they wanted them right this minute.
Well, it was a rather scary thing. No way could I pull a rabbit out of a hat. I could be fired, and probably should be. This is deep shit.
I gathered up all the usual papers and steeled myself for a very difficult morning at the prefecture. It's not at all assured that I'll walk out of there with any kind of papers, I realised. This time it's been more than a year.
And then, my friend and colleague JF mentioned my predicament to another colleague YD, whose father BD works in the mayor's office. Give him a call; he'll know what to do.
Ooohhh. second to visiting the prefecture on my fun-list is phoning. I'm a real phonophobic. It's a problem.
But I phone anyway. Answering machine! whew.
BD calls me back and he agrees to meet me in his office in the morning.
So there's BD, and his assistant, and I explain my problem. It's all my fault. It's stupid, really, I've been an idiot. There's nodding and smiling all around. How big a problem could it be? People renew their visas late all the time. Then we get to exactly how long I've been on the wrong side of the law, and their eyes kind of bug out, and the smiles turn to incredulous laughter. Two and a half years. Um, hm, two and a half years?? It's so outrageous I can't do anything but plead hopelessness.
And here's the woman who will liaise with the prefecture. I know her. She works with us all the time on the financing and organisation of certain major projects. Heh heh. Um, Hi.
She gets on the phone, and wheels turn, dossiers are called up, nervous grins are exchanged. In twenty minutes I can go pick up the necessary papers. Fill them out, attach the requested documents, and you'll be notified of the next step by the end of the week.
Just like that.
I'm not done yet, of course. But things have been started. BD is happy to vouch for me. I'll be skipping the dreaded roomful of hopefuls and the plexiglas window with Visa Woman behind it.
I'm not one to pull strings. Cronyism is a dirty word to me. It's not fair, and I don't like things not to be fair. I feel it isn't right to take advantage of an accident of birth - to be born white middle class American. But damn I'm glad to know somebody who's related to somebody who's on good terms with somebody else! Walking into Visa Woman's lair on my own two and a half years late, I'd be on the next plane to the USA.
It's still not over. I filled out my papers and received an appointment for this morning with instructions to bring every single pay slip since October 2007. Which I miraculously have in a desk drawer, not a one missing. I'm prompt. It's a shared office, and who is there at the next desk but a promoted Visa Woman. She's had plenty of time to go over my dossier with her colleague. It took them ages to find it, too, because it had been pulled way back when I was waiting for word in Chamalières. My visa then had been waiting for me. I just never knew it.
Visa Guy (who is usually Asylum Guy but he's the contact from the Mayor's office), is not pleased. Visa Woman is even less pleased, but thank God I'm not her case today. I get the dressing down of my life so far. I'm absolutely certain that, were it up to them, I wouldn't be taking the short track to good papers today. I'd be starting over, and since it takes about three months to make the papers authorizing somebody to work, that would be a serious problem for me and my employers. As it is, I'm not sure what sort of penalty my employer will incur (if any). Nor whether they will be sufficiently angry with me to fire me. That could happen.
I leave the prefecture with a receipt for my visa, valid for three months. Soon I'll receive an order to get a chest X-ray and a medical appointment, the tuberculosis-free results of which will go through offices in another city, before everything is finally in order to issue me a new card, good for one year. Don't even think about asking for a longer visa; not until I've been good for a year or three.
I swear, this is the last time for being late. I'm a natural procrastinator, but this can't go on. It won't work next time. Visa Woman was practically foaming at the mouth - next time she'll take me into a back room for a little one on one. And really, it's dumb. There's no reason to be late. Sure, I have classes to prepare, and trips to take, and grants to write and meeting to hold. But I can file papers too.


Rachel Cotterill said...

Wow, what a story. It's amazing that it is so easy, too.

marc aurel said...

I had a medical problem a couple of years back, which put me in extreme discomfort. Trying to make an appointment with the specialist was being blocked on the phone by his receptionist. I realised I would have to go and see her. They had recently relocated their office and all her files were in disarray. She was very flustered and, because of her tension, rather unpleasant. With my parent's example, she became a challenge for me. How could I make her happy and get my appointment? Now I see the doctor regularly and she and I seem pleased to see each other. It could so easily have gone the other way.