Tuesday, September 2, 2008
Americans can enter Europe without a visa. All they need is a plane ticket and a passport. They can travel freely from country to country without going through boarder crossings, thanks to the European Union, and can stay in any Schengen state (which includes almost all European countries who are EU members) for a combined total of 90 days as a tourist. If you leave the Schengen states for a certain period of time and reenter then you get a new 90 days.
When I arrived in France no one stamped, scanned or otherwise marked my passport. They just mumbled bonjour and waved me and the rest of my flight through the gates to France. While touring I have visited many countries both in and out of the Schengen states but since we were crossing the boarder as a tour group there was no one there to stamp my individual passport and thus document my exit and reentry.
Being married to a French person means that ultimately I am allowed to be here, I just need to tell the right people, in the right order, with all the right forms filled out, in the right color of ink etc. Since I have been on the road so much I haven't had a chance. My 90 days came and went and before I knew it I had been here almost 150 days.
Thanks to a very last minute trip to Egypt (see separate posting) I exited Europe and reentered with a brand new stamp from the Italians dating my arrival in Europe last week. Now that I have some time off from touring I started to look around online to see what I need to do next.
According to the various websites I found, I am in trouble. Supposedly you cannot change from a tourist visa to a long-term visa without going back to the US and applying from there. If you are already in France without applying for a long stay visa then you must present yourself within seven days of your arrival in Europe to the Prefecture of Police. Gulp.
The office which handles immigration paperwork is conveniently located in the police station of the 17th arrondissement. Genius if you ask me. That way illegal immigrants who need to be detained are already in the right building.
I get my paperwork together and start walking towards the police station to turn myself in. I turn down a dark street and see a massive brick building with lots of little windows. As I am walking I prepare myself to be stuck behind one of those little windows assuming those are the jail cells for illegal immigrants. As I approach the building, I breath a sigh of relief, it's just an elementary school near the police station. Not a jail. Phew.
After passing through the metal detectors I take a number and have a seat. 171. They are only on 125 and I prepare myself for a serious wait. There are a few other immigrants in the room. Some from the Philippines, most from North Africa and one fellow American who is chatting with the person next to her talking about her cats and dogs and what she does for a living and how she ended up in France. In true American style she is telling her life story and sharing personal details with anyone who will listen. To my surprise the numbers are ticking down quiet quickly and 171 pops up on the screen in no time.
"Bonjour! I am here to ask for a carte de séjour." "On what grounds?" the lady behind the desk asks me. "Why, I am married to a French man" I say and I hand her the yellow folder of paperwork the website told me I needed. She shakes her head and says that she needs proof that we have lived together in France for at least six months. I told her that was not on the list online and that she can plainly see on our wedding certificate that were married in August of last year so we have officially been living together since then. That did not impress her and she said I needed to bring in six months of bills or rent checks that show both of our names on it. "Should I get them now and come back today?" I ask. "Do what you want lady" was her reply. The whole interaction took about a minute and I now understood why the line moved so quickly. It doesn't take long to be told no and sent away.
Based on the indifference shown by the lady behind the counter my fears of been arrested were somewhat soothed. Earlier this month I was watching the news and saw President Sarkozy give a rousing speech on immigration, pledging to crack down on les sans papiers meaning illegal immigrants who are living in France without the proper paperwork. Grégoire and I were discussing this news story with his parents on skype who both agreed that while I officially fit in that category I was not the kind of sans papiers Mr Sarkozy is looking for. But still, I was breaking the rules and as I returned for a second time that day to the police station, I remained concerned that they might haul me upstairs to the jail cells and force me to fly back to Seattle.
Turns out the second guy was just as indifferent as his co-worker. He told me that the paperwork I brought in wasn't enough. Grégoire and I started renting this apartment in May so we only have paperwork proving we have been living together for four months not the required six. He told me I should come back in November when I have the necessary six months. Not wanting to rock to boat, but dying of curiosity, I asked him a few questions, "Ok. So then what is my current status? I mean, how can the French government ask me for proof that I have been living in Paris with my husband for six months when technically I am only allowed to be here for three?". The guy shrugs and says appologetically, "I know, it's not easy". Then I carefully confirm that what he is suggesting I do is to continue living here illegally until November when I will have six months worth of rent checks and then come back to this office? He stares at me blankly and says, "Oui". And I ask again, "So then how would you define my current legal status?". He replies, "Bah, rien quoi" which roughly translates to, "You don't have one". With that I take my yellow folder and ride the metro back home.
It appears that the French government is using a don't ask don't tell policy with me. As long as I am not looking for a job (thankfully I am employed and paid by a US company) and willing to pay for my doctor's visits in cash, they don't really care that I am here. Instead of arresting me when I presented myself as an illegal resident they simply suggested that I get my paperwork inline so they get me out of their office and pass me along to the next one with as little hassle and additional work for them as possible. For the time being the uniquely unmotived French workforce is working in my favor. Stay tuned for the November installment of Immigrating.