Bureaucratic mentality

If you move to France, prepare for their national pastime: bureaucracy.


Getting the paperwork ready for our trip to the French consulate in San Francisco last year to apply for our visa. Application forms, passports, additional passport photos, birth certificates, marriage certificate, various notarized affidavits, bank statements… And: proof we’ve rented a place to live and a record of our airline tickets (both of which we needed to have secured before they would grant the visa to actually stay in France).

Its tentacles are everywhere. Getting a visa, getting a residency card (carte de séjour), getting a driver’s license (something I am so, so, so, so glad I don’t have to do)… seems everyone’s got a story of a bureaucratic headache.

So far we’ve done well. Last year, when we went to the French Consulate in San Francisco armed with all of our paperwork to apply for a visa, we escaped without being tasked with providing them any more paperwork than what we’d brought with us, something that apparently happens with some frequency.

(I could tell the woman we met with was more than ready to saddle us with providing more documentation. Twice during our interview she shook her head because she didn’t think we had everything we needed. In the first instance, I pointed out the supposedly missing document in the stack sitting before her. The second time it turned out she was holding the thing she said we were missing. I’m not positive, but I think she was disappointed.)

Upon getting a visa and arriving in France, the next step is a visit to the OFII office (l’Office Francais de l’Immigration et de l’Integration) within three months of arrival. It’s a kind of bizarre cross between the ER and the DMV. Really.

First, you must prove that you are actually living in France. How do you do this? By showing them your gas bill, of course.

Apparently one’s gas bill is the Holy Grail of proof of residence. Okay, but there’s just one problem: we don’t get a gas bill. We pay our landlord one monthly fee that covers everything—which is shockingly not very bureaucratic, although rather convenient for us. But it means no gas bill. This actually had me a bit worried, since I’ve heard stories of people flunking their OFII visit because they didn’t have all the right paperwork (and after our experience at the consulate, I well believed it). Would I get some administrator who prized the gas bill above all? Or was the whole thing overblown? It’s hard to know. Almost everyone I’ve met who’s lived overseas has some kind of interesting visa story to tell. Was I about to have mine?

Happily, the woman I met with was satisfied with the paperwork I had from my landlord. I confirmed: this is okay? You don’t need anything else? It’s fine, she said. One hurdle cleared.

From there it was on to lots of waiting in sterile rooms, getting my height and weight measured, eyes checked, a chest X-ray taken, and finally a brief consultation with a doctor who listened to my heart and lungs.

“How’s it all look?” I asked him. He was quite friendly, spoke excellent English, and even gave me some tips on learning French that I have thought about often since.

“Everything looks fine—today,” he answered.

“Today?” I asked, not sure quite how to take that.

“I do not know what it will look like tomorrow,” he said in an even tone.

Well, I guess that’s true.

While he wasn’t about to make any promises regarding my future health, he was happy to sign off on letting me stay in the country. That’s good enough. Heck, by the time I hit his office I’d already experienced surgery in France, so really, this whole medical screening part was no big deal, just a few hoops to jump through. And as long as he was happy, I was happy.

After seeing him, it was another round of waiting, and then pay the fee. But not with cash or check or card. No, before you even think of showing up for your appointment, you better have gone to the tobacco shop and purchased a few hundred euros worth of special stamps and brought them with you to the ER/DMV… I mean the OFII. Hand them over and the attendant sticks them all over your special document, cancels them, and voila! you can stay. Hurray!

And that’s what happened. Just one trip to the consulate and one trip to the OFII. Yes! I am working this bureaucracy business, baby! And all things considered, that’s true. I sometimes shake my head at things (hello, setting up cellphone service in France!), but we’re managing.

Bit by bureaucracy

Today, however, the bureaucracy got us. Not in some huge earthshaking way, but one that had me shaking my head.

Our girls are going on a class trip that will take them outside of France—which is pretty cool. And which means we had to fill out more paperwork and provide their passports and visas for a school administer to take to la Préfecture de Police for review. We also had to provide another set of passport photos for each of them. (Seems to me if there’s anything they love more than the gas bill, it’s passport photos. You see the photo booths around town everywhere because it seems there’s always something else that needs one these photos: a Navigo pass, a library card, school forms…)

The school administrator who’s coordinating all of this paperwork warned me that the regulations for the photos we need to provide have been getting more stringent. It can’t be the same photo as their current passport. Make sure they’re not even wearing the same top as in their passport photo. (Really? Yes, really.) Make sure their ears aren’t covered by their hair. Anything else? No, that should do it.

So we get the photos and turn them in along with their passports and the signed forms, and we’re all set. Right?

Today I got a call from the administrator at the school. She was so sorry to be calling, so very sorry she had to give me bad news: one of the girls’ photos was rejected. Did it look too much like the passport photo? Was it because her ears weren’t showing enough? No—it was because her hair was covering up too much of her forehead. A new stipulation, she said. We’ll have to go back down to the photo booth and get a new one taken. I could tell she felt so bad to be telling me this, even though on the scale of life’s disasters, this was pretty low.

Well, we’ll be using the métro this weekend, which means we’ll easily find one of those photo booths, so we’ll get another set taken and drop the new photo off at the school on Monday. I’m just glad I’m not the one who has to handle all the paperwork for thirty students and make multiple trips to the prefecture.

The only constant?

To be fair, it’s not just France; bureaucracy is everywhere. We encountered plenty of it dealing with the girls’ schools back in Seattle when we began the process of transitioning them to their new school in Paris—complete with a surly administrator who seemed disappointed that we had turned in the paperwork that was required, and which she seemed sure we couldn’t possibly have gotten on file. Don’t get me started.

Perhaps Dr. McCoy said it best in Star Trek IV: “The bureaucratic mentality is the only constant in the universe.”

Perhaps. But is it worth it? Oh yeah. This whole enterprise (see what I did there?) of moving to Paris for a year began with a more inspirational quote:

“Extraordinary outcomes are not the result of ordinary actions.”

Merideth announced this at dinner when we were first discussing the possibility of moving to Paris and we were ennumerating all that it would take to make such a big dream a reality.

To which Evelyn asked, “Who said that?”

Merideth set down her fork. “I did.”


The Death [of a] Star

Writing means learning, because “write what you know” only gets you so far. And so that means research.

Do you know how a supernova works? It’s one possible way a star’s life can come to an end—a violent, catastrophic, glorious end. That much I know. But beyond that…

So over the last few days, doing research has meant all sorts of fun exploring astronomical phenomena having to do with novae and supernovae, including gamma bursts, accretion disks, star clusters, pulsars, binary systems, even the “Chandrasekhar mass limit”—a term I will not be using in my prose. After all, I’m a novelist, not a physicist!

Getting back down to earth, it’s also meant learning about various forms of energy production, as well as flight technology (or the lack thereof in an otherwise modern society—which is turning out to be a bit of a trick to make plausible). And very much back down to earth, I’ve been reading up on epidural hematomas (a kind of traumatic brain injury), since I have a character who—well, that would be a spoiler, wouldn’t it.

A word to the wise: it’s not enough to rely on google and wikipedia, as helpful as they are, especially when it comes to highly technical matters like medicine or astrophysics (which kind of is rocket science). So that means calling in the experts. And that’s where it really gets fun: talking (or at least emailing) with friends who know all sorts of things that I sure don’t about such topics.

And no doubt about it: it’s worth it.

  • I’ve learned more about how cultures develop energy sources from a single paragraph in an email from a friend than I ever did in twenty-two years of formal education. (Granted, I studied music and theology, although I’m pretty sure I got an A in “Rocks for Jocks”—I mean, Geology 101—back in my college days… not that it helped me understand mining or the importance of hydrocarbons in starting an industrial revolution…)
  • I’m getting closer to nailing down the workings of a significant stellar event that occurred prior to the start of the story. This part is taking some doing; just like writing the darn thing means multiple drafts, so I’ve gone through multiple versions of what exactly happened in the past and how it’s all playing out during the time of the story.
  • That business with the epidural hematoma? Thanks to a tip from a friend in the medical world, figuring out how that works means I should be able to sidestep the tired trope of the character who is mortally wounded but manages to talk and talk and talk, conveniently offering up their significant story revelations before expiring (like the coloratura soprano who sings beautifully and delicately—and for a seeming eternity—as she lies dying on the stage).

All this means I’ve been doing more reading and studying and pontificating than actual writing lately. But the research is worth it, right? And yet we can all point to huge scientific errors and implausibilities and plot holes and general sloppiness in books and movies and TV shows that we love—in spite of the fact that TIE Fighters wouldn’t really make that awesome sound as they zoomed by… So is it really worth it? Or should I just pretend there’s sound in space, make that supernova behave however I want it to, and let my dying character hang on as long as the plot requires?

Well, if nothing else, I appreciated reading this from my personal physics answer-man:

“As for your questions, congrats… you’ve already performed more due diligence than JJ Abrams did for either Star Wars or the Trek reboot. Watching the astrophysics in those just makes my teeth hurt…”

So yeah, it’s worth it.