By The Hair of My…

I recently got this message from someone asking…

“It would be a great help to me if you would be so kind as to just note down some of the problems, bureaucratic and otherwise, you encountered while procuring visas, papers, lodgings, etc.”

Since I don’t have the enormous bandwidth to describe the entire process, nor the urge to re-visit those repressed memories, the very short answer is that the French certainly don’t make it easy to get (or renew) a visa. I guess that’s understandable since so many wholly undesirable people, like me, want to live here. But what I don’t understand is why they don’t make it easier to figure out.
So being a good, responsible person, to that young lady out there, since you asked, here’s some answers your questions:

My first clue that something was a tad amiss was when I was starting the process back in San Francisco, while a friend in Boston was doing the same. Comparing notes, we realized the list of documents requested on the French Consulate of San Francisco’s web site was different from the list of documents requested on the French Consulate of Boston’s web site. When I went into the San Francisco consulate to ask, with both pages printed out (I learned that early on), and pointed out the bizarre discrepancy, the fellow behind the counter snidely replied, “Well, where do you live? In San Francisco…or Boston?”
When I pointed out that that would be like telling someone from Lyon that in order to get a US visa, they would need different documents from someone in Paris, he simply shrugged, and I handed over my dossier and went back home to wait.

The most important thing to realize is that there are two iron-clad rules that you’ll come up against:
One, is that the system is not designed for efficiency, but to employ as many people are possible.
And two, just because it’s someone’s job to help you, that doesn’t mean they have to. Or want to. They’re under no obligation. So you need to get them on your side using whatever means necessary.

(And if anyone out there wants to get rich really quick, open a photocopy shop in France, since everything needs to be copied in quadriplicate. And invariably no matter how prepared you are, they come up with something completely out-of-the-blue.
“You didn’t bring your mother’s sixth-grade report card!? Mais oui, but of course you need that! And we need 5 copies too…oh, and all notarized within the past 30 days…from the town she was born in.”)


An answer to the part of her question asking about “any problems I encountered procuring lodging”: This was my apartment, the week I arrived Paris.

When I finally did get the paperwork granting me permission to come to France, I foolishly listened to them at the consulate and assumed that having gone dredging up every scrap of paper from my past, I was in free-and-clear. Not so fast, cowboy. Upon arriving in France, I was told, I needed to go to the police station and pick up the ‘real’ visa. But what’s this official looking piece of paper I’ve waited 6 months to get? Oh, just permission to actually apply for a visa.


I was not quite a free man in Paris. So once back in town, I head to my local police station. They know nothing, and send me to the main police station in my neighborhood. They know nothing either (This is about the time I started using the phrase, “Welcome to France”, and repeating it over and over and over.) I finally discover that I need to go to this stifling, little dingy office out in the middle of nowhere, where I wait in a long, non-moving line for an hour to make an appointment at the main Préfécture de Police, only to be told that the one piece of paper that I don’t have in my dossier (I forgot what it was, but it was something rather obscure), so I need so I’ll need to come back. Incidentally the Préfécture de Police is located just around the corner from the Conciergerie, where Marie Antoinette and other less-fortunate souls, waited for the dreaded end to come. As you sit and wait in the crowded, hot room, hoping that if you sit in the last available seat, you won’t be next to someone who doesn’t have access to a weekly shower. And you wait until your name gets called. And you wait.
And wait. And wait. And…
You begin to feel as if you’re about to meet a similar fate as poor Marie.

(Did you know the last time the guillotine was used was in 1975?)

To make a long story short, and to preserve bandwidth, I eventually got my visa, which I need to be renew yearly, and for the most part, everyone I had to deal with (except in San Francisco) was rather pleasant and helpful. (Must be the chocolate I brought them.)
You need to start the process about 8 month before its annual expiration date, so I’ve simply to re-start the process when I go pick up my visa. If anything, at least I am efficient. So today I come home, and there’s an official letter from the government telling me they want the last 12 statements from my bank in the US translated into French (um…Can’t you just look at the dollar amounts? Isn’t that what you’re looking for?) Trying to explain what bank ‘interest’ is to a French person always draws wide-eyed stares, since the idea of your bank actually doing something for you is a rather unusual concept. And trying to explain why there’s ads on your bank statement draws more curious stares.

Welcome to America, I suppose.

So re-armed and re-ready, I head back to the Préfécture de Police to hand over my freshly-translated documents, where they tell me I have to wait a few more months, although my visa’s set to expire at the end of this one. So I need to get a prolongation…at another bureau…way on the other side of Paris. Of course.

Then I need to come back. And do it all again.

Exhausted, I eventually made it back home where I decided that perhaps I should treat myself a glass of something with a high percentage of alcohol, polish off the box of chocolate-covered caramels that I was saving for a special occasion from Le Roux, and look at my picture of Frederick. And since I had the Cognac out, I decided to preserve the few kilos of Mirabelle plums I got at the market yesterday.


In August and September, the yellow Mirabelle plums abound in big bins at the markets. These tiny plums are small, roughly the size of a French bureaucrats petit boule, and are grown in various regions around France, but especially in the Lorraine, where the best ones are grown, and locals use them to make everything from tartes and jams to crystal-clear eau-de-vie. They’re small and sweet, the perfect size for preserving. Using Judy Rodger’s recipe in The Zuni Café Cookbook for inspiration, I began by rinsing and sterilizing my jars with boiling water.

But in case you’re a stupid boy like me, I don’t recommend making anything involving sticky, searing-hot liquid while wearing only a pair of shorts. As I swirled around the hot water and sugar in the jars, one with a faulty lid began spraying boiling-hot water in a grand arc across the kitchen, and me, eradicating a good amount of the hair from my stomach (couldn’t it take some of the fat instead?), leaving a red welt roughly in the shape of Corsica.

Luckily I live in Paris and there’s no less than five pharmacies within one block, and picked up the best minor burn remedy on the planet: Biogaze, which everyone should have in their medicine cabinet. (Buy some on your next visit if you don’t live here.) After I explained to the wide-eyed pharmacist how I narrowly escaped the world’s first Parisian Bikini Wax, I returned home, patched up my rosy tummy, and continued my project using the sterilized jars, happy that I didn’t sterilize myself at the same time.


Depending on how many small plums you have, for each pound (450g) of plums, dissolve 3/4 cups (150g) of sugar in 3-4 tablespoons hot water in a 1-quart (1 liter) preserving jar with a well-fitting lid, (or dress more appropriately that I did.) Pour two scant cups of decent, but not outrageously expensive brandy or Cognac the plums. Secure the lid and tilt the jar to mix everything together.

Unlike my stomach, Judy recommends using fruit that’s unblemished, and gives recipes and tips for other fruits including cherries, red currants, figs, and raisins too.

(LATE-BREAKING TIP: 3 days later I noticed the plums floating at the top, not submerged in liquor, were discoloring, so I removed them and slashed each one with a paring knife, hoping that would help them get saturated. Seems to have worked.

LATER-BREAKING TIP: another 2 days later, I noticed the tops of the plums were still floating above the liquor-line, so I drained ’em and made jam. I replaced them with sour cherries, and am waiting…)

Store the jar in a cool place for a few weeks, then refrigerate. There’s no indication how long they’ll keep, but I hope mine will be ready-and-waiting for me on the day that I finally get my visa renewed.

Hopefully the hair on my stomach should just about returning by then as well.

Never miss a post!


  • September 1, 2006 3:04pm

    It’s always so enjoyable to read your posts David. This one is very, very funny and still has me chuckling. Hope your tummy’s on the mend.

  • September 1, 2006 3:05pm

    David: lest you think this is some peculiar french anomaly, please let me remind you that going the other way is equally as frustrating, bank accounts in europe need letters of translation into dollar amounts, everything needs to be photocopied lots of times, and all other kinds of rediculous rubbish, not to mention the endless waiting. Wouldn’t it be easier if we just got married as planned?

  • September 1, 2006 3:21pm


    I do!

  • September 1, 2006 3:57pm

    Oh man, I had no idea it was that hard to get a visa in France, even for a “Western” citizen like you… Getting a Green Card in the US is not much easier, I guess people are faster but they make mistakes, like forgetting to stamp your passport or sending you a male Mexican immimigrant card, although you’re a sweet French girl… Things would have been much easier if you had married a French (you know they love your accent, right?), especially since you bake.

  • September 1, 2006 5:13pm

    It wasnt that easy for me to Immigrated to Canada either and I did legally marry a Canadian Citizen.

  • Lesley
    September 1, 2006 10:41pm

    Oh boy can I relate. I had to get the “carte de sejour” while a student in France, and the list of items I needed to have in triplicate, the places I had to go to have something stamped or stapled, the DOCTOR’S visit where I had to have an AIDS test….the whole process, like yours, took about 6 months, and then had to be started all over again…

    And don’t even get me started on how hard it was to open a bank account or find an apartment. Who knew you needed electric bills from your last apartment to find a new apartment? It was craziness…

    What kind of Visa do you have, may I ask…

  • Mila
    September 2, 2006 1:13am

    All this makes me wonder why environmentalists don’t attack government offices for wasting paper, all those trees dying for the sake of your 3rd grade spelling bee’s notarized form.

  • September 2, 2006 4:54am

    When our Titre de Sejour was finally issued it had already expired…so we had to renew it before we actually had it in hand. To preserve bandwidth – I wrote the whole story on my blog…the whole process took over 2 years. The good news is that, even though we didn’t know we were legally resident, the gov. was kind enough to allow us to pay taxes for that year. C’est la vie….c’est la guerre..

  • Doug
    September 2, 2006 9:01am

    I can certainly understand how looking at the picture of Frederick could help after a difficult day! He brings an entirely new dimension to the chocolate industry.

  • September 2, 2006 9:37am

    Reading this gave me slight stomach cramps as the memories of the visa process came back… My only recommendation – be a student, it’s much easier to get a visa! Great post!

  • September 2, 2006 12:07pm

    Ah, memories. Love the Mirabelle ideas.

  • September 2, 2006 12:33pm

    Awwww… it was funnier when you used the english version of petit boule.

  • September 2, 2006 7:55pm

    We also got our visa’s through San Francisco and noticed the different (and additional) paperwork we needed compared with the other Consulat général in the States.
    The mirabelle plums are like candy…I can’t get enough of them!

  • mr. black
    September 2, 2006 11:06pm

    Ooh la, le carte sejour. I moved to Paris in Janary of 2002 and when I realized I wanted to stay I visited the French consulate on my next trip to New York to request papers. The documentation seemed so onerous, I decide to forget it. So here I am 4.5 years later, pas de carte sejour, me living in Paris as a illegal immigrant. I do get slightly worried every time I return from the states, but normalment they don’t give me a second glance at customs and sometimes don’t even stamp my passport. Lets hope I don’t get kicked out of the country… one day.

  • Alphonse the Noble
    September 3, 2006 5:14am

    David: Doug has put in succinctly i.e., I couldn’t have put it better myself – looking at a photograph of Frederick after a bad day is the best cure for whatever has caused one misery. Nor only does Fred’ bring a new dimension to the chocolate industry – he brings new perspective on life (even on my Greek island!) P.S. are you and Sam really gonna get hitched? When?

  • September 3, 2006 9:36am

    1. Red tape, ugh.
    2. Ouch.
    3. Yum!

  • hde
    September 4, 2006 2:04am

    Hello David,

    Thank for taking the time to answer the young lady’s comment on getting a Visa for France.

    After reading it, I feel not so alone, as I have been going through this process myself since uh, oh my god, I feel sorta sick…

    …And I’m marrying a French person, so you’d think it’s a bit easier.


    I’m still waiting for two copies of my birth certificate, which I requested twice now, which take 2 -10 weeks to get and need to be good within 6 month’s from date of marriage (Michel’s need to be no more than 2 months old…which means he’s had to get copies three time now – going on his fourth.) but can’t be older than two months from the date you plan to get married in the town you will be living in…which means mine really can only be 2 months old..

    got it?

    anyway, the wedding has been delayed since last March. My family and friends don’t believe we are getting married, we’re just lazy ‘ol farts taking our time.. and why are you still here Heidi?

    well lalala..

    at this point – who wants a wedding? Let’s just get me over there and then deal with all this..

    But I hear you Uncle Dave….take a deep breath, count to three and begin again…

    ..And yes, you’re right. San Francisco is different from Los Angeles, even from Honolulu, and from what I understand, we ALL should have done our paperwork through Honolulu…(and NEVER, EVER go through Las Vegas…)

    Anyway, with the October marriage date in the dust, we begin again. Now giving my work 9 month’s notice…

    we’ll see.

    not that I’m complaining…

  • September 5, 2006 9:01am

    God, I am glad I am European and free to pitch up my tent whereever I please. According to loads of friends, the French system is apparently not that bad compared to the Austrian one…

  • September 5, 2006 9:32am

    Johanna: Um, I’d be careful saying that to Americans, since “pitching a tent” has a another meaning…
    …but it’s nice to know that Europeans feel comfortable ‘pitching a tent’ wherever they please’!

    The system here is frustrating since it ‘almost’ works. If they said, “We need #1, #2, and #3 documents”, that would be great. But as it is, you bring in #1, #2, #3…then they say, “Where’s #4? Of course you need #4!”

    It would be easier on everyone if they just said that in the first place. And spite of the fact that France is one of the most tech-saavy countries anywhere (remember the Minitel?) they just starting using computers at the Préfécture.

    I’m sure Austria, America, and everyone else is no picnic either…but it’s always nice to complain about things. After all, I was told I’m now a real Parisian since I do so more often than before.

    I’ve become a vrai râleur!

  • September 7, 2006 3:12am

    When I moved to France in 2002 I needed a carte de sejour (I am European). Every time I went to the bureau d’etrangers there was a problem. When I finally had all the papers together, the first was one expired. I got so angry, told the lady over the phone that I was not coming back anymore and I did not want the carte de sejour. So she got even more upset. So there I was, without the carte. I moved to this tiny little village, called them to make an appointment and ask what documents I needed. To my great astonishment I received all the info by phone. When I went there the sweet lady told me: We just received this letter yesterday, you don’t need a carte the sejour, you are from a Schengen country.

    Two months later my boyfriend and I decided to get married, the date was 6 weeks later. Officially all the paper work has to be with the Mairie one month in advance. But how does one get all the necessary paperwork ready in two weeks, translated, including a certificate that I was divorced, etc etc. Two weeks prior to the wedding all the documents were ready (a big thank you to all those who helped), and the Mairie had no objections receiving everything “at the last moment”.

    My advice: move to a little village with only some 2000 habitants, the people at the Mairie are soo much more friendly, and willing to help out.