Friday, July 18, 2008

Les Grandes Vacances

OK, here it is—The vacation post.

It's July, and life is slowly seeping out of my suburban neighborhood. Not exactly a bubbling cauldron of activity at any time of the year, in July what little buzz there is fades out and an alarming silence sweeps through the streets. There are no kids screaming in the park, there are hardly any old ladies rolling their caddies down the sidewalk, and the stores on the one "busy" street are closing down one after an other. It's as if the entire neighborhood is entering into a state of deep hibernation. By August, all will be still and the urban pulse will have slowed to a couple of beats per minute.

It's peaceful here, I'll admit. It's peaceful knowing that you are still safe and sound in your apartment while almost all of your neighbors are stuck somewhere south on the autoroute in a horrific traffic jam. You could get rather smug about it, but you know that soon it will be your turn—soon you too will be battling overstuffed freeway on-ramps or fighting through the crowds at the train station. Despite the bother, you are kind of looking forward to it. Despite the illogic of everyone going on vacation at the same time, and the knowledge that there will be crowds in every sunny spot on the continent, and the firm conviction that we would all be better off if more people traveled off season, you don't like feeling left out of the party. You too want to be able to flaunt your tan in September at the rentrée (literally, re-entry), when everyone will be swapping vacation stories and moaning about going back to work. You too want to be part of the smiling hoard of vacationers invading normally tranquil places and wondering why there is so much noise. You too want to roast, at least for a little while, in the sun after endless months of clouds and rain.

I used to be convinced that my husband's desperate need to go to the family holiday cottage every year at the same time (August) was based on some deep-rooted insecurity or ancient childhood trauma. The idea of voluntarily spending time with one's parents and relatives over vacation seemed highly suspicious to me, particularly when it meant three weeks in an isolated house in the middle of the woods. That was before I had been seduced by the pure air, the relative calm, and the abundant supply of fabulous foodstuffs available in that particular corner of the southwest. For better or worse, I've adapted. This year, to make sure that I get my share of noise, pollution, and madness, I've tacked on a week in New York at the end of my trip. As any ex-New Yorker knows, ya gotta tank up every once in a while.

So this is a long way of saying that I've succumbed—you probably won't be hearing from me until September. Bonnes vacances—on se verra à la rentrée!

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

My Life in Hell—Another Visit to the Préfecture

I wasn’t going to do this. I was going to write a nice post about the impending vacation season and it’s effect on my neighborhood. But I can’t. I must vent. My frustration level has reached an alarming level and if I don’t do something soon I will simply dissolve into a mushy, pulpy mess, or more likely, explode and spatter all over the walls. As you may have guessed by now, I’ve had another morning at the Préfecture. For those of you who are not aware, the Préfecture is the home of the French Immigration Service. This is where you have to go to deal with your carte de séjour, the French equivalent of a Green Card. I thought I was ready this time. I got all my papers together. I even got new pictures taken, even though I had already done all this back in December, when I was obliged to descend into the depths of bureaucratic hell because I didn’t have my current address on my carte de séjour (see my previous post, My Beautiful Préfecture).

What has happened since then to push me to return to that evil place? Quite simply, nothing. I still haven’t received my new carte de séjour. And I realized that my recipicé, the piece of paper they gave me back in December that authorized my existence until I received my new card, expired in March. Filled with dread, I called the Préfecture. Sure enough, they couldn't tell me anything because the telephone information service had been suspended indefinitely. I was informed that I must come in person, even just to ask a question. Filled with even more dread, I gathered my papers last night and put them in a bag next to the door. After a very bad night’s sleep, I charged out into the morning rush hour feeling relatively hopeful, since I had gotten an early start. I triumphantly arrived at the Préfecture at opening time, only to realize that I had left my bag of papers at home. At 9am, a long line was already winding out the entrance. I decided to dash home and get my papers—after all, sometimes you actually have a shorter wait if you come a little later after the 9 to 5-ers have left. I dashed back to the Préfecture, papers in hand. Usually there is a little machine that doles out numbers so you know where you stand in the line. The machine was not working. Actually it said “service fermé.” Surely, an error, I thought. I know the service is open. The machine must be broken. I then waited in line at the accueil, which actually means “welcome”—a serious misnomer since I can’t imagine anyone less welcoming than the harpy that was behind the window this morning.

Said harpy informed me that the service was indeed closed, that they only dole out 150 tickets each morning because otherwise “we would all be here until midnight,” and when I gasped in horror, snapped out a few more spiteful phrases and told me to get there by 9am next time. O alas, and double alas, if she only knew that I actually was there at 9am this morning! If only I had taken a number before running back to get my papers! But then again, how in the name of God’s Green Earth was I supposed to know that they had suddenly decided only to take 150 tickets?? This certainly was not the case every other time I ventured into the Dark Realm. Mouth still hanging open, I noticed that there was not so much as a sign on the window explaining the new procedure. And of course no one had said anything when I called. And God forbid anyone should think of posting a little notice on their uninformative website.

I know that there have been, in the name of streamlining the system, cuts in personnel and I know that now less people are supposed to do more work at places like the Préfecture. But shouldn’t these kinds of reforms go along with a little reorganization? I’m no genius, but Christ, even a 5-year-old could figure out a more efficient way to get people through this dismal process. I could understand (sort of), if we were in a third-world nation, but this is France, for heaven’s sake. Land of philosophers and scientists. If they can get their brains around Decartes, why oh why can’t they realize that they would save everyone on both sides of the window an enormous amount of time and energy if they would just make appointments over the telephone, or post the lists of necessary papers to bring on their website? Would it be so hard to install one of those voice message systems (“if you still haven’t received your paperwork, and you are ready to commit a violent act, press 2”) telling people of procedural changes? What gives?! Fer cryin’ out loud, what, exactly, gives?!!