One may think that a brand new EU passport may be the key to heaven to all Member States. I used to believe myself to be a privileged citizen, strolling across the Netherlands before heading to bonnie Scotland with nothing but a horrendous ID photo. A simple bunch of bound sheets, a small rectangular symbol on that opaque cover, and here you are renting flats and opening bank accounts – most of the time through the Internet.
Then, French bureaucracy happened.
My flatmate Maylis, who has a solid background in law and an endless patience towards French peculiarities and humankind more broadly, had warned me: “Get ready to meet a lot of people who have no clue what their job is”. In hindsight, this statement should be a motto to mandatorily display over the reception of any public building in the country. The French red tape is not there for functional purposes, but to twist people’s time and force them to become characters in an imaginary Lewis Carroll novel, on the lines of Alice and That One Certificate You Never Thought You’d Be Asked For.
I have been living with the paperwork nightmare for around a semester, and it never ends. In France’s defence, it is possibly the most generous welfare system left in Central Europe, distributing benefits to students of any nationality as long as they have revenue and residency status. It also means that you might want to get psychologically ready on wasting your afternoons to arrange for birth certificates to be sent to you by e-mail by your home country’s civil records office. Because it is not okay for you to send a normal one, but you need an official translation in four languages, stating your pluriannual lineage, the number of cats you left behind, and whether you believe chocolatine is an acceptable synonym for pain au chocolat.
I will never forget the application process for receiving a rent subsidy from the French social security. After a month and a half of waiting, I received an actual paper letter asking me for the holy certificate, to be rigorously forwarded by post for the sake of cutting trees and wasting time. As I started receiving bank transfers, here’s another letter asking for a French revenue statement which I could not possibly have due to my actual citizenship. It took them two extra weeks to update my online status, and I fear the moment I will ever need to inform them of my departure. Overall, 80 days went by as I realised how lucky I was to have enough savings to cover the first two months of rent in full. On the other hand, I genuinely felt like Jane Austen would have been required less formalities and less paper than in my situation.
Most recently, the need for blood tests implied requesting medical refunds thanks to my European Health Insurance Card. After visiting two hospitals, an emergency room, and a specialised unit for undocumented migrants (true sequence of events that I was not expecting to occur in my quest for a GP), my desperate expression and ridiculous French accent brought me to a medical centre. There, I had 4 different nurses either calling me out for my difficulties in explaining what my status was, or refusing to provide me with official receipts and prescriptions because “we doubt you will get a refund if you’re not even registered as a student” (?). A phone call, an office appointment, and several photocopies later, I was told refunds through the Social Insurance would happen four months later.
It was the end of an odyssey: I was ‘glad’ to be 270 euros in arrear as long as I could put an end to the pilgrimage from office to office, from one impolite receptionist to the other. As I was queueing up to submit the refund documents to the only graceful clerk I found in my painful journey, an Indian woman smiled at me and softly touched my arm, as to comfort me in the last stage. “Don’t worry child, that one seems nice”, she murmured ironically while pointing at the young lady behind the counter. And in seeing her massive stack of documents and two children playing with her gown on the ground, I realised how much luck I had so far in not being considered a foreigner until the very last.
I have been looked at as if I were an idiot, thrown around half the administration department of the Hotel Dieu to sort out my enquiries, and teased for not knowing what contributions play into care provisions. And yet, not for once did I have to provide additional proof when the actual verification came, except for a plastic card and an ID. When I left the office with a dossier put together by the lovely lady, the Indian woman was struggling to explain which papers she had already worked on, with her broken accent getting more into the way. The woman in charge of her case gave her at least three more modules with unusually complex clauses and left her to completing the statement with no further comments in a corner.
And in that exact moment, I realised how chanceful and contingent it is to be given power by a pen and a wallet stacked up with “first-world” documents. Even when it feels more absurdly complex than it should.