I started running the moment I got off the bus.
There was no way I could make it on time and the email reminder specifically stated that appointments could be cancelled due to lateness.
I had taken my jacket off before the bus stopped and pushed it deep into my shoulder bag. After a very long, rainy and chilly spring, summer had arrived in full force on the official first day of summer, and it was hot!
Wearing a summer dress and black dress flats, and clutching my bag tightly to my chest, I ran between the walkers and the idlers, finding any opening in the crowd to break through. I paid careful attention to how I placed my feet, as the construction project surrounding me had left small rocks and debris everywhere. The risk of spraining my ankle or falling was incredibly high.
I raced on.
It wasn’t far, and I knew the way. I had been there before a month earlier when I had tried to exchange my license the first time.
During my last visit to the Parisian Department of Motor Vehicles, I was flatly refused an appointment because my visa de long sejour didn’t have my Parisian address on it. Alternatively, I needed an official “récépissé” to prove the change of address, which I didn’t have.
The civil servant who I had spoken with subtly suggested I try the exchange process in the town where we used to live – to avoid the address-change hassle. This seemed dubious, but I seriously considered it for the whole afternoon, trying to figure out how I would collect the mail at the apartment where I no longer lived…
Quite by accident, by following a totally separate administrative process, I had the required récépissé by the end of the day. I was thrilled! I wouldn’t have to go back to the suburbs to attempt the not-quite-legal exchange there.
It felt like I was one step closer to having a French drivers license.
You are allowed to exchange your license for a French one if (1) you have a non-student visa, (2) your country (or US state) has a reciprocity agreement with France in this regard, and (3) you start the exchange process before the end of your first year in the country.
I have an American friend who lives in Paris, and her native state of Texas does not have a reciprocity agreement with France. As such, if she wants a French license, she is required to pay between 2000 and 3000€ to go through drivers ed and re-pass the drivers test.
Having met the first two requirements (thank you, Husband, and the lovely state of Maryland!!), it was simply a race against time for me to get the paperwork together – and secure an appointment – before July 1st.
It was June 24th. So I was running!
Passing through the iron gates at the entrance and slowing down considerably to pass through the security scanner, and past five police officers, I arrived at the second floor office breathless.
Quite anti-climactically, I entered my phone number in the mini kiosk, and immediately received a ticket with my number on it. I was E31, and could finally sit down and take a breather.
Relieved that my lateness would not cause me to miss this window of opportunity, I sat down in a seat at the “front.” All of the chairs were facing the same large screen, where E22 was called and IB97 and R54.
I was incredibly anxious, and took out my application packet to triple check one last time. Holding my little ticket for E31, I saw it flutter. I was shaking a bit!
These types of experiences make me feel all sorts of chaos.
For me, job interviews are a BREEZE compared to getting approval from government offices. At least with those, I know exactly what I can do, what the company needs, and how to speak about my experience in a dynamic way. It’s about developing the right relationship with the person and identifying their needs and explaining how your assets will help them with what they struggle with. Piece. Of. Cake.
Government requests and applications have none of that “I can meet your needs” baloney. It’s all “Just the facts ma’am. Just the facts.” Although I (nearly) always have all the right papers, I have this horrible sense of being out of control. You just never know when they’re going to surprise you with a “no.”
Applying for my visa felt the same. I was all jittery and my heart was pounding in my chest. And then the man just said, “ok” and that my husband would have to send them a fax (yes, a FAX!), and then I’d get my passport and visa straight away. So much easier than I had imagined in my mind.
It’s also different from jobs, because with jobs, there are SO many. You can just apply for another one. When you’re asking a government to say yes, there isn’t another government office that can help you. This is The.Only.One. And that’s just very scary to me.
So, I sat there shaking and staring at the screen waiting for E31.
My number was called and I nervously sat down in front of the woman, and gave her all of my papers. Immediately she inspected my drivers license as though she could tell by just looking at it if was real or not. It’s real, but could she really tell? I doubt it. That’s what those barcode scanner strips are for on the back. You scan the license to match it with the police records. But of course, France doesn’t have a direct connection to Maryland’s police records – or scanning equipment, so they eyeball it and hope they’re right.
By the look on her face, she seemed very cautious about trusting my license is real.
Finally she said it was ok.
Then she looked at my driver’s history, and announced that she wasn’t holding an original copy. The French are REALLY fussy about originals. The tone of her voice was that of a conversation ending. There is no hope when you don’t give them the documents they want.
I explained that I received it as a PDF by email (she corrected my French, because I apparently used the word for postal mail, which is almost identical). Maryland offers the option to order and download your drivers history online. Useful, right? But not consistent with the French way.
She said sternly that her colleague would “look into it.” Sheesh.
I had provided certified translations of my Maryland drivers history, my Connecticut drivers history (where I got my license originally) and my drivers license itself.
She accused me suddenly that one of the translations was not an original version. She seemed to be inspecting the translator’s signature on the paper to see if the pen mark had gone through to the back of the paper – proof that it’s original.
In shock, I suddenly lost my anxiety and got my courage back.
I was silently outraged. It had taken an unreasonable amount of time to get those translations together, and entirely too much back-and-forth with the translator who kept making small formatting mistakes that had a significant impact on the meaning of the documents.
Holding in as much of my outrage as possible, I let out a slightly exasperated “Yes! It is the original! It’s the only one I have!” That last sentence didn’t make any sense, but that’s what I said. 😛
At that point, I felt so much more in control (no idea why), and I could think a lot more clearly.
My anxiety seemed to disappear. I had my wits about me.
Fortunately, that was the last accusation from her. She accepted my originals and my translations, and told me to go sit down while she and her colleagues fully reviewed my application.
Called back about 10 minutes later, she was strangely chipper. She spoke in these oddly positive tones, telling me that, as I might have expected, the fact that I got my original drivers license in Connecticut was, in fact, a slight problem. You see, the Maryland drivers history doesn’t include the date that I passed the drivers education test, and the Parisian DMV needs the Maryland drivers history to include an event that happened 7 years before I moved to Maryland.
The fact that I had ordered and had translated my Connecticut drivers history was irrelevant.
In what world is that logical? One in which the US is not the United StateS, but one united state.
The trouble with French people is that they think that the US is one huge federation, like France is. But legally speaking, the US is more similar to Europe as a whole than to France individually.
In the US, States do not share data the way French regions do, and that doesn’t fit with the way French bureaucracy works. They expect all the data from birth to death to be incorporated on one lone document.
Sorry, France. That’s not how the US works.
But actually the real story is: Sorry, Tammy. You don’t get your French drivers license.
She sent me away telling me that someone higher up on the pay scale would look into my peculiar situation and I would be contacted sometime in the future. (By email, or by mail? I have no idea. She used one of those words I can’t tell apart.)
My instructions are to wait to receive this message. My next steps would be indicated on that future communiqué.
So I wait. That’s very French.
The French are really good at waiting. Trust me, they are way more patient than New Yorkers, that’s for sure! They wait patiently in line, even if it takes ridiculously long, and the most they will do do express their disdain for the length of the wait is to let out a “dis donc!” under their breath. It’s a sort of “Well, well, well.” Privately, the French might complain boisterously about the French administration to their friends. They will also go back to the office in person to encourage the process to go a bit more quickly, but most will not cause a ruckus while there. They will be polite and courteous.
At most, they make a few huffing and puffing noises. And they wait.
I’m not worried at all. That feeling of confidence has remained ever since that moment I defended the original version of the drivers history translation. I know that all my documents are real. I can prove it, even. And with that knowledge I have power and a strong sense of sureness about this whole process.
They might ask me to jump through a few more hoops.
In fact, I’m almost certain they will. They’ll probably say that I have to get a document from Maryland that indicates that I once passed a drivers test in Connecticut. And they’ll insist that it has an original signature made in PEN, and that I have it translated by a court-approved translator, and that I bring it to them with one photocopy… I’ll let you know what crazy paperwork hell I have to do for the next step of this process.
But ultimately, none of that matters, because I made it before the deadline!
I just had to START the process by July 1st. I made it with 6 days to spare, and all it required was a little jog through a construction site in fancy dress shoes and a sundress. 😉
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