Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Going to the Préfecture

My permission to live and work in France is conditional on my continued employment, and renewable in (kinda) 1 year increments from the date of my entry into France. I came to France just over 2 years ago in early Novemember, so every October I have to head down to the local préfecure to exchange money, photographs, and truely ridiculous amounts of photocopies for a 1 year extension on my stay here.

Now immigration procedures in most countries are pretty strict, tedious, expensive, and seem to be crafted solely to discourage legal immigration as much as possible. Having dealt with immigration in the US, and having friends who have dealt with it in various other countries, I think I am pretty safe when I say France takes the cake in terms of unecessarily complicated and useless bureaucracy.

At least the building looks cool

For most federal legal proceedings one has to go to the local préfecture and speak with a fonctionnaire. Préfectures are kind of like states, or maybe counties, and France is split up into 100 of them. My préfecture is fortunately just a 15 minute walk from my house, pretty much right in the middle of Lyon, but other than that little bit of fortuitous, there is nothing remotely pleasent about my (bi-, sometimes tri-) annual trips there.

As mentioned above, my permission to work here lasts for a period of one year, and then I must renew it for another one year period, ad infinitum. But that is only kinda true. Since my Id expires in November, I must go to the préfecture in October with my stacks of paperwork and in return, they give me permission to stay for just 3 more months, and at the end of that 3 month period I can return for my id card which at this point is now only valid for about 9 months (since it is dated from the expiration of my previous card, not when I actually receive it). So Id renewal therefore takes a minimum of 2 trips--one for the request, one for the pickup.

I say minimum, because this requires extraordinary preparedness on the requester's part, as well as a bit of luck that the préfecture is not too busy. Last year when I came back in 3 months, they apologized and said my card wasn't yet ready and they gave me another 3 month extention and told me to return for my real card. So by time I actually got my 1 year Id card, it was already 6 months old.

This year was a-whole-nother level of suck.

The worst thing about dealing with the French government is that everytime you pay them a visit, they have absolutely no idea who you are. Despite the fact that the French government has approved my stay in France 3 times (once for the initial visa, and two Id cards), every time I go for renewal I must bring all the same documents--birth certificate, marriage certificate, passport, work contract, proof of address, etc. Of course bringing an up-to-date work contract and current proof of address makes sense, but birth certificate and marriage cerificate. I'm pretty sure my birth details haven't change since last year, and fortunately neither has my marriage status.

But that is the French way. Apparently they just toss all that paperwork I give them every year into the trashcan, and when I bring it all back the next year, they are so happy that a brand new person has immigrated to France.

So per usual, George and I get up early to get a nice place in line and head to the préfecture with our dead trees and passport photos. This is exactly the same paperwork I gave them last year, and the year before, with the exception of the work contract and my last electric bill which need to be up-to-date. After 4 hours of waiting we hand our paperwork to the nice lady and she tells us that the rules changed this year and we are missing a few documents and that we have to come back with all the proper papers.

The new rules require photocopies of EVERY PAGE in your passport, as well as a signed affidavit to not be a polygamist. Seriously, as if signing a piece of paper promising not to break the law was the magic bullet for ending crime. Okay I said, I have my passport, can I just use your photocopier to make those extra copies and we can continue? "Out of order" she says. It is at this point that I notice every single machine in the office has an out of order sign on it. From the freshly stocked vending machines to the coffee machine to the photobooth to the array of photocopiers in the corner. What, did an electro-magnetic bomb hit this place?

You'll have to excuse my cynicism if I do not believe that

Well, rules are rules, so we collect our things had to the nearest photocopier and come back in two days to enjoy another half-day at the government offices. After another 4 hours of waiting, we happily give our documents to the functionnaire expecting success to hear "I cannot accept this translation of your birth certificate, it is not certified by one of our certified translators".

What? We had this translated in the US, and it is the same document we used last year. Well, the rules have changed she tells us, here is a list of certified translators.

Well, 3rd times the charm right? After 500 Euros (about 700 bucks) worth of translations (work paid for them, not me) we came back and this time we are treated to seeing the police drag a guy out of line by his hair for cutting in line (right in front of us :-), so with this little enjoyment boost and our confidence that we finally have all the documents together we hand them over and finally get our 3 month temporary card in exchange. Yay!!! And it only took a combined 13 hours of waiting in line, and about 15 minutes with the functionnaire. I'm crossing my fingers that they will actually have our official card when we return in 3 months, but I'm not holding my breath.

Dealing with the government officials themselves is not an overly unpleasant experience, but the environment itself couldn't be more uninviting. The préfecture opens at 9am, but by this time already has a line of at least 200 people waiting outside. The interior space of the office is tiny, and all your paperwork is checked BEFORE they let you in, so most of your waiting is outside the office. Being outside by itself is not really a bad thing, but coupled with the fact that 35% of French people smoke (and about 95% of people waiting in line at the prefecture) and the French (and apparently most of those who wish to be French) genetic inability to form an orderly line, this ~4 hour wait ranks right up there with some of the most unpleasant experiences of my life. People bumping into me, cutting the line, and blowing smoke in my face while I am trying to stay warm in the early winter mornings is definitely not something I look forward to, and once inside things do not get much better. Sure you cannot smoke inside, but trying to cram 100s of people into a space made for about 50 has its own problems (seriously, there are only about 20 seats in this place, and standing room for about 20 more).

And to top it all off, a recent article in the French newspaper Le Figaro ranks the Préfecture du Rhône (my prefecture) the 5th worse in France for issues of immigration and identification. That is 5th worse out of 100! Some procedures take 13 times longer than the more efficient offices.

red is bad. I live in a red one :-(

Thank God for my iPod and GameBoy.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Road Trip Part Deux

Veterans' Day is a national holiday here in France which means I don't have to go to work that day, and since it fell on a Thursday this year I decided to faire le pont and make it a 4 day weekend. Plus it's been cold and rainy in Lyon, so a trip to the sunny south of France would definitely be welcome. Conviently timed with our 4-day weekend, George's Sister Ming is currently working in Marseille, so we decided to take advantage of the free place to stay and make that our base camp.

Marseille is a perfect example of poor planning and even poorer hygiene turning an otherwise amazingly beautiful location into an amazingly ugly city, but it is smack dab in the center of some of the most beautiful parts of France. Plus as we have been to Marseille before, it made a good spot to park our car and our butts at night, but spend our days as much outside of the city as possible.

Old arena at Arles

We started our journey about a half hour north of Marseille in the city of Arles. Like most cities in Southern France, Arles was in its hay-day about one hundred years before the birth of Christ, which is when the Arena pictured above was constructed and it is still used today to host concerts and, unfortunately, bullfights. Interestingly the Spanish community of Cataluña just across the border from France has recently voted to ban bullfights, maybe the French will follow soon.

Romans like theatre with their gladiator fights too

There are numerous other roman ruins scattered across the city, in various states of (dis)repair. Seeing all the problems I had to deal with in my comparitively young 85-year old house in Seattle, I am always amazed to see 2,000 year old structures of any kind still standing, and the ruins around Arles are no different. During the next few days we would discover that these types of artifacts are fairly common in the South of France.

Nîmes has an old Roman arena too

Next stop, Nîmes. Other than being the birthplace of the (in)famous Jouan Amate, Nîmes claim to fame lies in its remarkably preserved Roman arena and the totally superfluous ^ character above the "i" in its name. The arena is currently also, tragically, used for Bullfights, and while the one in Arles, above, is older and bigger, this one has an awesome statue of a bullfighter in front of it, which is pretty cool to take pictures with.

Nîmes is also home to the best preserved temple of the Roman Empire. Built just over 2,025 years ago, it is still in great condition probably due to all the construction guys working on the front and right side of it (which is why my picture is of the left side, but you can still see some of the construction barriers). We've got one of these temple jobbies near Lyon too, in the suburb of Vienne, but this one is certainly in better shape. And it was sunny and warm when we visited this one, and cold and rainy when we saw the other, so this temple is apparently appeasing the gods better.

The Jardins del la Fontaine are apparently also one of those things you shouldn't miss when going to Nîmes, but we missed it, so you'll have to go to wikipedia to get your fix.

Le Pont du Gard

We missed the famous Gardens because we wanted to get out of town early enough to see the Pont du Gard (Bridge over the river Gard). This bridge was also build nearly 2,000 years ago as part of the old Roman aquaduct system, but aside from being big and old it was honestly a bit unimpressive. We also didn't really succeed in getting there before dark, so you should check out wikidpedia for some better pictures. Interesting factoid, the Pont du Gard owes its survival over the centuries to the fact that it was a very popular toll road for crossing the river, which shouldn't be suprising for anyone who has driven around the South of France where the only thing more common than old Roman ruins is toll booths.

After visiting France's first tool road, we went to the incredibly cool city of Avignon, but since it was super dark by this time, I don't have any pictures to prove it, so here is one from wikipedia.

Palais des Papes

Day 2 started with a visit to Aix-en-Provence (The waters of provence), which as its name sort of hints at, is famous for fountains, but I somehow managed to not get any good pictures of them, so next up a castle!

This castle is in Allemagne-en-Provence (Germany in Provence). Apparently there used be a few cities in France named Germany, but for some unknown reason the others all changed their names right around World War 1. The castle is apparently a bed and breakfast now and closed for the winter season (is it ever really winter in Provence), so aside from this view from the parking lot I don't have much to show.


Allemagne-en-Provence was the beginning of our journey following the Verdun river which cuts a Grand Canyon (their words, not mine, although to be fair those are both French words) thru the south of France, and eventually led us to the picturesque village of Moustiers-Sainte-Marie above. Perched on the sides of some limestone cliffs, the city has a waterfall running thru the middle of it, a giant golden start hanging across the chasm behind it, and about half-way up that chasm an old chapel that surprisingly (to some of us) didn't have a bathroom. You can see the chapel and the star below (the start is the little shiny thing in the top, slightly right hand side of the picture)

After leaving Moustiers-Sainte-Marie we just followed the Grand Canyon back to the nearest highway and then back to Marseille for some rest before our last day in the south.

That Grand Canyon I keep talking about

Our last day in the south was to be along the famous Côte d'Azur (the blue coast or more commonly, the French Riviera).

We made it as far as the famous Saint Tropez pictured above, but by far the coolest city we visited on this trip was Bormes-les-Mimosas pictured below.

The village

The view

The winding streets of the old town center

The old tunnels and bridges

The old stone buildings and tile roofs

The us

I hope the pictures above do some justice to absolute beauty of this village. Every road we walked down, every view over the next hill, every well-preserved building or cobble-stone pathway, every plant which still had nice flowers in November--the village was simply gorgeous.

On our way back home from the South George and I stopped in the city of Orange to grab some lunch, and SURPRISE, Orange has an old Roman amphitheatre too. As you can also see from the picture below, as we left the warm, sunny south, we slowly returned to the cloudy, rainy Lyon.

The roman Theatre of Orange

There is still a ton of stuff we didn't see, of course, as we only made it about half way from Marseille to Italy, so all that stuff east of their (Cannes, Nice, Monte Carlo, etc.) will need to be explored later. To check our more pictures of this little part of Provence, click here

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Happy Halloween

I was never much of a Halloween person when I lived in the US. Sure when I was little and could get some free candy out of dressing up and trick-or-treating I loved Halloween, but once you get past a certain age dressing up and running door to door is just creepy and/or sad and not very likely to result in free candy, so Halloween just became another one of those nights where I just sit on the couch watching (scary) movies and pretend not to be home when someone knocked on the door.

But as the old saying goes, you never know what you got until it's gone. Halloween is not a big thing in France, although it is certainly gaining in popularity, so around the end of October every year, my holiday spirit starts to perk up a bit.

Halloween starts with Jack-o'-Lanterns. We were unable to find normal, American sized pumpkins so we settled for a couple small European ones. I also did not have any real carving tools (just a single kitchen knife), and more importantly no artistic talent of any kind, so the resulting Jack-o'-Lanterns are unlikely to impress most, but I am fairly sure they were the only ones on my street, so I was proud of them.

Costumes are the next most important thing for Halloween. As I am sure I have mentioned before, George and I have very few possessions, so spontaneous costume making is a really difficult task for us. There are a couple costume rental places in Lyon, but their offerings are either cookie-cutter and lame, or extremely expensive, so we spent a few days browsing and thinking before coming up with something we hoped wouldn't put us in the lame-last-minute-costume crowd. I have a few fake musical instruments laying around the house (Rock Band!), so George decided to be a hippie rockstar, and I always have a fridge full of cheese so I decided to be this:

La Vache qui Rit (The Laughing Cow)

Jack-o'-Lanterns: Check
Costumes: Check!
Party: Oh yeah

George pulling on my teats

A few friends of ours here throw a pretty rockin' Halloween bash every year, so we put on our dancing shoes and our new, cool costumes and went out to shake our things.

Happy Halloween Everyone!!!