Watch your step, surviving the French Prefecture

© Jessie Kanelos

On a recent trip to the Prefecture, the dreaded bureaucratic destination of all expats living in France, I promptly took a number and a seat.  “80 people ahead of you in line,”  snarled the ticket.  Along with almost one year of marriage under my belt, no celebrations are complete without the anticipation and trepidation of renewing my visa.  Albeit the edible, instant perks of the living in France, there is a long paper trail to get something like a visa.  Although I still cannot go to the Prefecture without getting butterflies in my stomach, I could not help but compile a few quick tips while counting down from 80 on my last trip.   So be warned, fellow francophiles.

1.)  Always address someone with ‘bonjour madame/monsieur’ first thing.  This is common protocol for good reception in France.  Whenever I get back to France from a trip back to the States, my father-in-law always gets a chuckle saying “Welcome back to civilization!”  Although I did not think it was funny the first time, there is a lot of truth in this.  France is still greatly indebted to politeness. In the States, good manners are read as stuffy and a bit outdated.  But in France, the ultimate insult is to call someone mal élevé or not brought up well.  Case in point, about once a week, I see two hot tempered people get in a scuffle on the metro if one person bumps into the other without a pardon or excusez-moi.

Although I am still awaiting customer service to arrive in France, taking an extra step to be polite might certainly pay off with better service later on.  And do not forget to say hello, too.  Americans, myself included, when arriving in France all sparkly eyed, tend to demand exactly what they want the moment they have someone’s attention.  But like sitting down when I eat, acknowledging a person before addressing my own concerns is a  French custom that I have adopted as my own.  And at the end of the day, it is a bit more civilized.

 2.)  Never be too optimistic going to the Prefecture.  Although I am an optimist at heart, I always tell myself on the way to the Prefecture, “ok, this will be a pain”.  Bureaucracy in France is a continual wild goose chase.  And although one thing is stated on the website, there might be one imaginary thing that you do not have when your number is finally called at the Prefecture.  After our wedding, I had to fly all the way to the French Embassy in New York to apply for a visa to come back to France.  I followed the website’s precise requirements.  Although I had mon mari’s French passport in my hands, I was quick to learn it was not proof enough that he was French.  So I had to scrounge up birth certificates from my in-laws at the last minute.   Nevertheless, always ask as many questions when you do have someone to speak to because it has the potential of saving several trips in the future.

3.)  Be prepared to wait.  I trekked to the Prefecture at 8am that morning.  And there was line wrapping halfway around the block.  Much like DisneyLand, the queue continues in an unseen location after, too.  Once the doors opened at 9, myself and my fellow bovines in the cattle call were given numbers and waited in a packed waiting room inside the building. Never schedule another rendezvous in the morning if expected to handle anything at the prefecture.  Because it could take all day.  And always bring a book.

4.)  Be prepared to argue.  The French are notorious arguers.  It’s a continual battle between right and wrong.   Children learn argument/counter-argument at an early age.  The best thing to do is play it innocent.  If you can convince the person helping you that their exceptional knowledge can be of exceptional service to you, then maybe you can get your way.  But since everyone always wants to get the last word,  the lines are particularly long.

5.)  Over-prepare.  And take the time to organize ahead of time.  Buy a binder and organize everything carefully in plastic sleeves so it is easily visible and accessible.  Make a photocopy or two of all originals beforehand.  And don’t forget to bring  a pocket of change in case you need to make last-minute, emergency photocopies.  And for the coffee machine, if you can be so lucky.

Living anywhere has its tradeoffs.  But like everything, preparation and a sense of humor can work wonders.

Do you have any Prefecture horror stories?

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