To the man who saw me cry in the French immigration office:
I think it goes without saying that I was having a really, really rough day.
You could have watched the scene unfold from your seat across the room, quietly feeling sorry for me like the rest of the responsible expats who showed up at the correct time with the correct paperwork. (Kudos to you for effectively reading between the lines on the government website.) You could have even snickered to yourself and thanked your lucky stars that you weren’t the fool for whom, as the receptionist put it, “there was absolutely nothing she could do.”
But, you didn’t. And for that, I want to say, thanks.
It was a simple misunderstanding, really – a rookie mistake – and for what it’s worth, I will take full responsibility.
I had showed up (the first time) to the L’Office Français de l’Immigration et de l’Intégration (OFII) at 9am that morning – a full 30 minutes before my scheduled appointment time – with a well-organized folder containing all of the documentation required of me, and then some. I was prepared and, because of my husband Chris’ recount of his own medical exam experience a few weeks prior, I thought I knew what to expect: hang out in the crowded waiting room until I’m called to reception, hand in my paperwork and tax (in the form of a few astronomically expensive stamps), and then head to another crowded waiting room to bunker down until it’s my turn to see the doctor. Standard protocol. Really, the butterflies in my stomach were just precautionary.
When I was finally called up front, the gentleman behind the reception desk requested my documents in quick succession.
“Votre passport.” Check.
“La Taxe.” Check… 250 euros worth of checks.
“Une photo.” Check.
“Un justificatif de domicile en France.” I presented him with a copy of my apartment lease agreement, my only proof of accommodation in France but that is signed exclusively by Chris and the landlord. I thought perhaps that could be a problem so I also pulled out of my well-organized folder a copy of our marriage license – just in case.
The man leafed through the lease agreement. “Where is your name?” he asked me curtly in English, and when I explained to him that, well, my name isn’t exactly on the lease, but, “Look here! That’s my husband!” he shook his head with obvious irritation. “No! Not your husband. You.”
“Do you have a copy of your husband’s passport and visa?” I didn’t. “Well then, I can’t help you.” He impatiently assembled my articles into a neat pile and handed them back to me, his face an inviting combination of sucks to be you and I don’t have time for this shit. “You’ll have to come back another time with that information. Lines form at 9am and 2pm everyday.”
Come back? My heart sank. It was only 9:30am and I had already flunked! I got my things together, my eyes brimming with hot tears, and left the OFII office intending to return later that day (after their obnoxious 2-hour lunch break) with Chris’ passport and visa information to supplement the stupid lease.
They say that hindsight is 20/20. I know now that, if mistake #1 was failing to bring Chris’ documentation, my decision to leave was mistake #2. Apparently, when the gentleman said I would have to come back, he meant after my medical exam. As in, asseyez-vous in your seat and wait like a good little girl for the nurse to call your name. But that’s not the vibe I got from the man behind the desk. I got “get the heck out of here and don’t come back till you have it together.”
So that’s what I did. I called Chris in a panic, we rendezvoused and made copies of his passport and visa, and then, at 2pm that afternoon, I was back at the OFII office to try again.
As you well know, there was a woman behind the reception desk that afternoon. My friend, the gentleman from before that could have vouched for me, that could have looked at my file and said, “Ah yes, I remember you. I instructed you to scram and come back later!” was no where to be found. Instead, when the new woman heard that I didn’t in fact get my medical exam at the time that it was scheduled (“I left and came back at 2pm like I was told!”), she shook her head with obvious irritation. Her face, like that of her colleague’s, was an inviting combination of sucks to be you and I don’t have time for this shit. I think it’s a French thing.
“When your appointment is at 9:30, you must be here at 9:30 – no exceptions,” she scolded, and no matter how much I tried to explain myself, she wouldn’t budge. That’s when the terror began to set in and the tears began to fall. That’s when you found me.
I should tell you while we’re here that I am a really emotional person. The slightest injustice can elicit tears whether or not they’re actually merited (my husband can attest to this… and give you many examples). But, in this moment I was honestly scared. I was scared that, after everything that Chris and I had been through over the past few months, I was going to be sent back to the States. I was scared that I had messed up and any chance of rectifying the situation was out of my hands, hopeless. And all I could do, after I had played out the inevitable in my head, was cry.
“Excuse me, Miss.”
Hesitantly, I looked up to see you standing there in front of me. From what I could tell through my tears, you appeared kind and concerned, like a friend. I’ll admit that I didn’t feel like making eye contact with you, much less conversation. I was embarrassed, no, mortified to be crying in a public place and that someone had noticed. I guess it’s hard to cry and be subtle at the same time. But, despite my adverting gaze which, after scanning your face and realizing you were indeed talking to me, ended up back on my shoes, you offered me a refreshing word of comfort: “Everything is going to work out, I’m sure of it.”
Please note that the grimace I gave you in return was my feeble attempt at a smile.
Then you turned to the receptionist and, although I was too distraught to even think about following your French conversation, I know that you petitioned for me. You petitioned for me and she was on the phone and then, about a half an hour later, I was called back into the adjoining waiting room.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
You were long gone by the time my appointment was over. I’m happy to share with you now that, after all of the stress and the drama and the unexpected kindness of a stranger, everything did indeed work out like you said. The woman behind the reception desk planted the long-stay visitor stamp in my passport and even smiled at me on my way out. I was so relieved, I must have said merci beaucoup 12,000 times!
In hindsight, I think I owe a considerable bit of that thanks to you. If nothing else, you gave me a welcomed dose of compassion in the midst of a situation that had made me feel very small. And for that, I am so, so grateful.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
Now it’s your turn – I must not be alone! Share your immigration horror stories below!