Saturday, July 17, 2010

Working in France… Chapter 3: The Prefecture Strikes Back

Off I went, contract in hand, on my merry way to the prefecture.

I actually had 2 pieces of business to attend to.  The first was the obviously minor detail of getting my carte changed.  The person that knows the other person at André’s work was informed I was going in for the change – and, of course, I had the word of the employee from last time, so the wheels should have been good and greasy.

The other had me a bit more worried.  One of my interviewers had informed me that, in fact, I was driving illegally!  Turns out that, once you have lived in France for over one year, you have to change your license to a French license.  If you do not do this, you are not legal.  I quickly renewed my international permit and started to research.

Turns out that getting a license in France is no small matter.  It generally costs about 1000 Euros.  The only chance you have to escape this exorbitant fee is to exchange the license you have from another country to a French license.  The catch here is two-fold.   Firstly, you have to do it within the first year you are in the country (whoops!).  Secondly, you have to belong to a country or (in the case of the US) a state that has a reciprocity agreement with France making such exchanges legal.  It turns out that only 14 of our 50 great states have made such agreements.  Thank the heavens, it turns out that Pennsylvania is one of them.  I still needed to get the paperwork to make the switch, which wasn’t too difficult to procure and I was hoping the fact that the one year time limit had long expired could be overlooked.

So, first bureaucratic form in hand, I headed over to the prefecture desk.

Just a note on the prefecture here.  You never see the same employee twice and you never get names of who you have spoken to in the past.   I’m a bit surprised they don’t all wear masks. They are a nameless, faceless bureaucracy. It’s probably for their own protection – what a detestable profession.

So, there I was handing my contract over to another unsmiling employee.  I requested she change the status of my carte saying something like…. “I have brought in my contract for work so you can change my carte de sejour.”  Smile and acquiesce, right? Not so much.  Her first reaction was pure shock.  This was quickly followed by automatic rejection.  Undaunted, I persisted, insisting that I had an agreement with the employee from the last time and she should just check my file.   She kept reminding me that I was a visitor – and that was that!  I tried name dropping the contact that I knew about, but got nowhere.  Various back and forths ensued and, ultimately, she disappeared into the dreaded ‘back’.  She returned about 10 minutes later with the person I had spoken to during my last visit.   She looked at me as if I was some sort of infectious disease and gingerly picked up my contract, as if it might be covered in slime.   

She glanced down and then informed me that she had never said that I could change my status.  At this point, my confidence started to weaken.  I reacted with surprise and reminded her that she told me all I needed was a contract.  She glanced down again and informed me that I would have to have signed up to work for at least 6 months in order to qualify. (You see, I am not sure if I will be able to work over the summer, so I only agreed to work for them until the end of June – i.e. 4 months).  Thinking fast, I offered to go back to and get a 6 month contract.

Keep in mind through all this I am speaking in my far-less than perfect French.  I will now attempt to recreate the scene (although I certainly wasn’t as eloquent in French).  I am R (for Rebecca) and she will be HBB (for heartless bureaucratic bitch). HBB2 will represent the other employee who didn’t talk much. Feel free to act this out with any person who might be hanging out near the computer….

R: Oh, 6 months?  I can go back to my employer and ask that they change the contract, ok?

HBB: No, that won’t work

R:  Um… maybe I don’t understand.  I thought you just said that it would work if it was for 6 months?

(At this point HBB actually looks down at the contract and reads it a bit)

HBB (in shocked tones): What?  This is only for 13 hours per week?  (shaking head)  No, No, no, no absolutely not, this can not be done.

R:  But, I don’t understand.  You said to bring a contract, and here it is.  I promised these people I would work!

HBB: Look, I can only grant a change in status if you have a full time contract and it should be for an undetermined time.  This is not going to happen.

R (starting to lose composure):  But, I can’t work full time.  I have 3 little kids!

HBB2 (butting in):  So, why do you want to work anyway?

R (losing it further):  Well, I need money! 

HBB: Then why are you here as a visitor?

R (now over the deep end): Look, before we got here they told us we would have CAF money and we don’t.  We had savings that we were using and now they are gone. (starts to sob) Spring is coming, my kids need new clothes, they wanted to go to camp this summer.  (wailing now) I don’t understand!!!

HBB2:  That can’t be true, you are an American.  They are all rich.

R (still crying):  Look, what am I supposed to do? I promised these people I would work for them.  I signed a contract.  I start tomorrow!!!  This guy (desperate now and again name dropping)  Mr. X, told us that we could do this.

HBB: Who?  Who is this Mr. X anyway???

R:  I don’t know, someone who works here that gave us information about all this stuff.

HBB2:  I have never heard of this person.  I don’t know who he is.  He doesn’t know how things work around here.

R:  But I need to work tomorrow!

HBB:  Tomorrow?  This will take months to clear anyway. 

R:  But I said that when I was here the last time and you assured me that all I needed was this contract. I promised!

(At this point I am not really sobbing but just sort of snuffling and doing gross stuff like wiping snot on my sleeve. HBB and HBB2, unmoved, look at me as if I am vomit upon their shoes.)

HBB2: You need to go, other people are waiting.

R (rallying a bit):  I’m not going anywhere.  You need to renew this carte!

HBB (probably realizing I wasn’t going to go quietly):  Look, it is not even my decision.

R: Is there someone else I can talk to?

HBB (reluctantly): Yes, we will leave your carte as pending for now. It will take time to change no matter what. You will have to talk to the head of the office. She is on vacation this week, but you can call her next week. 

I leave the desk.  I call André immediately and start sobbing over the phone to him about everything.  I think, until that moment, I didn’t realize how much I really wanted this job.  I mean, we can survive if I don’t work. I haven’t worked for a long time and I think (since I don’t have the most confidence in the world) that I told myself that it didn’t really matter whether I worked or not. 

But it does matter.  It matters more than I ever imagined and I was utterly, utterly, crushed.

And how in the world am I supposed to do now?

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