5 Lessons Learned from Perseverance at the Prefecture

I’ve been MIA, I know. But before I delve into the roller coaster of emotions/events of the past few months (BIG changes on the horizon), I figured I start with something concrete- life lessons I’ve learned from the prefecture.

‘What the heck is a prefecture?!’, some of you might ask. To which I would respond that it is the hellmouth, the keeper of your future, a cirque du soleilesque mental challenge of your emotional strength, or as some people like to call it ‘the administrative building for visas and other important documents’. And for those of you who know what it is, I’m sorry. Let’s take a minute to hold hands, sigh, and let go of what we cannot control. Life lesson number one.

photo (18)

For those who need a visual

Which brings me to: 

Five lessons learned from prefecture pain and perseverance:

#1- Learn when to let go of things you cannot control. I’ve learned this the hard way, but when dealing with administration, it’s important to check your desire for controlfreakyness at the door. Once you step through those big wooden frames, you are a mere puppet at the mercy of French hands. Building a bubbling rage over a desire for the line to be shorter, the weather to be less miserable, the French people to be less rude, or the process to be less inefficient, won’t change a thing. It only makes the time painfully slow and your mood increasingly less pleasant. Feel that rage for a moment if you need to, and then breathe it out. The line will move, and you will get to your destination.

#2- Expect the unexpected. Just because you have all the right documents, or you waited the allotted six weeks (or months), does not mean that you will leave with a smile of success. In order to release, or at least aid, that desire for control, you must expect the unexpected. Prepare for a multitude of possibilities so that your emotional armor is strongly in tact when you leave. Don’t assume anything. Because trust me, no one wants to see a frustrated sobbing mess crumpled in defeat just outside the gates. It’s awkward. On the flip side, when you do have that rare moment of prefecture success, it tastes all the more sweet…especially when you weren’t expecting it.

#3- Kindness Kills. Ok, so this is a strange expression, but it never hurts to appeal to a person’s humanity. Don’t over do it- especially with the French. But a simple smile, a polite ‘how are you’, or a preemptive merci can work wonders. This is not to say that you should avoid being firm when needed, but rather don’t come in with guns ablazing and silent rage bubbling. After all, these are the gatekeepers you’re dealing with. Make eye contact, be confident, but most importantly be kind.

#4- Be creative, don’t despair. If things don’t go your way, don’t crumple in awkward panicked defeat. Allowing your first thoughts to be your worst thoughts is not only unproductive, it’s unrealistic. There are always options. Maybe let a few frustrated tears fall if that’s what you need, but then get back to the drawing board! Did you ask all the right questions? What would happen if you went again? What would happen if you talked to someone new? 9 times out of 10, plan B has had a weird way of working out.

#5- If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again…and with different people. Piggybacking off of the whole being creative thing, is the need for some good ole fashion perseverance. Keep trying. As my grandma loves to say, “Never surrender! Never give up!” (yes, I know that she mixes the order- it just adds to the delightful quirkiness of her shouting it).

My French coworker once said to me, “French administration is a labyrinth. You can get in, but you can’t find a way out.” While it is indeed a mental maze and at times you might find yourself in a pit of despair, a release of control, a creative outlook, a little kindness, and a lot of persistence are excellent tools for navigating that labyrinth.

…and if all else fails, grab a tea or coffee at the nearest cafe with a supportive loved one and prepare for round 2…or 20.

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On being broke and unemployed in France

When my TAPIF program ended 8 months ago, I looked ahead at my unemployment with wide eyes. I had a bit of savings left, a whole summer in Europe, and the world as my oyster.

…Until that oyster turned on me. A year after submitting my visa paperwork, and 8 months of waiting for the prefecture to grant me the right to work, and I could no longer deny it- Je suis a sec. I’m dry, or as we say in the States, I’m broke.

True, at times, being unemployed had its perks. I had the freedom, and flexibility (and privilege), to paint, to travel, to create my own schedule, to launch my website, take care of random tasks, wander the streets of Grenoble, and catch up on far too many American series. I was lucky to have a savings to fall back on. I lived like retirees- sitting in the park in the middle of the day; enjoying the sun as it warmed my skin, and smiling at the elderly women in their fancy coats. (I sound like an old bachelor). I verged ever so slightly on crazy catladydom as I snuggled up with my soft Sasquatch, and took far too many cat pictures. I read more. I cooked more. I did some yoga and generally failed at inner peace. But I also lived the life of a retiree- at 25– and there was something unsettling about that. Continue reading

Is this really happening??

The Visa. This has been the bane of my existence and a source of stress for far too long. After many trials, much waiting and feats of patience and perseverance, I finally got a foot in the door! If all goes according to plan, I will have a long stay visa in a month! The papers have been accepted!

But let me tell you about the wonderful world of French bureaucracy; it is long, it is difficult, it is inconsistent, it doesn’t care about being polite, and it is designed to turn you away at any given opportunity. The entire process felt like training for a military course- be the fastest- get there first! Be the most cunning- cover your ass with legal documents. Be stubborn and strong- endure the painfully numbing cold and hold your place in line. Use connections to get to the top, use determination to get back up when they push you down, be resilient, be persistent. And if you’re especially lucky- have a kick ass French boyfriend.

I got my first taste of the inconsistency that is French bureaucracy when I first arrived in France. I was about half way through the TAPIF program before I even officially received my health insurance. But it wasn’t until I noticed that my working visa expired 10 days before my work contract, that I became aware of the bitter reality of bureaucracy. Though a pain in the ass to deal with the Boston consulate’s mistake, I figured, “Good. I can extend this visa and bide more time time for the next visa. Easy peasy.” Except it wasn’t. And I never say easy peasy. Even with the little knowledge I had about the system, I knew one thing- come prepared with a native speaker. So with ma responsable at my side I headed to the Montbeliard préfecture- confident and naïve. They took one look at my visa and the fact that it was only a 10 day gap (which in their eyes was comically small), pushed my passport back though the window with a reply, “You vill juste ave to fenesh avant.”

To make a long story short and provide a concise overview of the French administrative system, it went a little something like this: get reject by préfecture. Contact head of program. Use information to contact American Consulate in Strasburg. Get sent to French Consulate in Boston, where I am told to contact the very préfecture who originallyrejected me. Contact head of program again- told there is nothing they can do. Bienvenue en France.

So instead of easy peasy, I now had a fire under my ass with time ticking away. I was left  not with an extension, but a deadline- get pacsed, and get a visa FAST. All things considered PACSing went relatively well. But the success was temporarily blinding as I thought it would be easy enough to wake up early and stand in line outside all just to ask for papers to begin the visa process. Silly Anna. That was a test and you failed. Antoine and I left the Grenoble préfecture confused and angry. Why did they give us the wrong papers? Why didn’t they just listen to us?? Simple- because they don’t have to.

But this time we came prepared. Antoine returned with legal paperwork in hand and obtained the proper documents. We then spent the next week and a lonngggg night meticulously preparing the folder with originals and copies and “just in case” papers. We showed up before it opened in the bitter cold, ready for round 2. We waited and watched as people used babies to cut lines (But really what are you gonna do? Create a scene? Make the baby wait in the cold like the rest of us?) until finally, we made it to the window. We gleefully opened our folder and presented it to this woman of fate. “Do you have the originals and copies?” “Yes, yes we do!” This was it, the moment of truth! “Ok. Here’s your ticket.” “Our whaa?”

So yes, we waited in line for the préfecture to open, only to freeze and wait in another line to get a ticket, only to wait in yet another line. I clutched my ticket- C407 and stared at the monitor. It was gonna be a while. It was fascinating to watch as people from all over filtered in and a variety of languages filled the space. We all shared in a communal desire, feeling both frustrated and nervous as our eyes darted back and fourth from the screen.

I don’t know if it was my imagination, but as time drew closer the volume and excitement of the room seemed to increase…as did my heart rate. It felt like back when I did theatre in highschool- nerves and excitement welling into nausea right before the opening show. How would this performance be received?

Except this wasn’t a show. This was real life. And fortunately sometimes real life can go your way. Antoine and I made it to the window, presented our folder, showed the legal document to prevent being turned away and actually left with success! True, had we not been extra prepared, we might have been rejected (blog post with required documents to come). But we learned from our past experience and knew that we had a small window of all or nothing.

So for anyone ever battling the hell that is the visa process, know that it is one rife with landmines and designed to trap or scare you, but with perseverance, the right documents, and amazingly helpful people, it can be done.

Antoine and I left the prefecture in shock. I couldn’t help but think, “Is this really happening? Did we actually do it?!” We exited the building and crossed the street for coffees at a cafe. As we sat down, I looked at my war buddy and with a sigh of relief, we smiled. It was over.

…at least for now