today i dragged myself out of bed at the crack of ass (in this case, 6:33am) and stagger-stumbled my way to Montparnasse. this is extremely unusual behavior for me these days, as i more likely to be going to sleep at six am than getting up. desperate times, however, call for desperate measures, and i was desperate to be able to leave the country. only one place in Paris could help me with that goal, the dreaded Prefecture de Police.
among expats, immigrants and exchange students in France, the Prefecture de Police is considered one of the inner circles of the bureaucratic hell that is the visa application process. i can’t count how many times i’ve been to one of them…probably because i’d rather erase those incredibly frustrating experiences from my mind. once we showed up to a Prefecture de Police with all the documents listed on their webpage (collated, with originals and two copies of each piece, thanks to Froggy) only to encounter an employee who was having a shitty day and who was quite happy to take it out on us. she demanded a document that was on no list and refused to process my application until i came back with that piece of meaningless paper. it meant a second hour-long journey to the other side of Paris and back and another early morning of standing in a mile-long line.
the truth is, i’m luckier than most when it comes to all the hoop jumping. the majority of other people i’ve encountered at the PdPs have been African and Arab immigrants, and there is a * noticeable* difference in how they’re treated. at the information desk at one of the PdPs, we saw a woman working there use “tu” (the informal, and in this case, impolite form of “you” in French) with the African immigrants who approached her with questions. she was rude and dismissive of them, but when she saw our white faces, she smiled and addressed us with “vous” (the formal, polite form of “you”). i know that if i weren’t a white North American, my applications would be scrutinized more fiercely, and i’d probably have a much harder time renewing my family visa.
when i decided to go to visit my friends in England, i realized that my titre de sejour, the French equivalent of an American green card, was about to expire. as my appointment to renew it isn’t until August (despite the fact that the appointment was made in December), i needed some kind of proof that i am eligible to exit and reenter the country. this proof is called a récépissé, and it can only be had at…you guess it…a Prefecture de Police. Froggy and i had gone to this particular PdP in Montparnasse last week, but we got there at 12:30pm, and there was a line stretching down the block that was inching forward every ten minutes or so. an officer told Froggy that the doors closed at 4:30pm and that we weren’t likely to get inside that day. she also told us that there’d already been about 20-30 people in front of the PdP at 5:30am when she arrived for work.
so on Monday i returned to Montparnasse. it was sleeting and there was a frigid wind blowing, and when i got to the PdP at 7:30am, there was already a crowd of what looked like thirty-ish people. everyone was sitting on the stairs of the station which just happened to be covered by an overhang. when i sat down on one of the steps, the woman behind me tapped me on the shoulder and said i should go and sign the list. the list she spoke of was a piece of loose leaf paper that had been folded and unfolded, pocketed and repocketed countless times. it looked like a makeshift attendance sheet that you’d pass around a classroom when there was a substitute teacher. i added my name next to the number 50, and then went and sat down and shivered and felt sorry for myself for two hours.
right before 9am, when the PdP raises the grill covering the front doors, the list holder told everyone to stand up, and he then proceeded to organize us into a line number by number. the only white guy i saw was called out for trying to cut in line, and i didn’t recall seeing him during those two glacial hours on the steps. people were pissed off, but after a few squabbles, everyone just shut up, grudgingly left the linecutter alone and waited for their time to go through the door and the security check. that took another hour.
i expected to spend the whole day there, but it turns out that getting a récépissé is the quickest process, and i was in and out of the waiting room in less than 30 minutes. when i got back outside, the line still stretched way down the block.
i know that i complain about what i have to go through to stay with Froggy in France, and i do think that we queer couples get a raw deal here, but i also think we’re not the only ones. Monday there was an African woman in front of me. she looked like a business woman and mother, and like me, she’d been there in the cold, wet weather well before opening time. while we were standing waiting, she began to hunch over and moan with pain. she said her back was killing her, and i could tell she was in agony, but she had to stay in that line no matter what. i had been crying some while i waited (there were people with a small baby in one of those baby snowsuits like the one Maggie Simpson wears), and i was just generally feeling sad and shitty, but something about seeing that woman in pain stuck in a neverending line made me forget my own woes. i kept trying to think of some way to help her, and, finally, i told her to give me her two bags. all that time, she’d been carrying a handbag and laptop bag that both felt like they had rocks in them, and i felt bad for not offering sooner. when i was leaving the waiting room, she grabbed my arm from one of the seats, and said, “merci encore, madame. merci.” the look of pure gratitude on her face was like a little bit of sunshine, and i realized once again how good it feels to make someone else’s life a teeny bit easier.
my reward for a few hours in the cold is a piece of paper with a horrible photobooth picture of me on it. that piece of paper is my ticket to England (and back.) i’m going back to one of my favorite places on earth to see two of my favorite people on earth….finally, something to look forward to.