A combination of attention deficit and a pandemic don’t lead to sweet dreams, trust me.
While in self-isolation and lockdown, we attempted to renew three personal documents. It took nearly the entire span of our small garden’s annual lifecycle to accomplish this quest.
Let’s back-paddle to 2014, the year in which we moved to Saintes, Charente-Maritime, France. “We” being my American husband and my German-born-dual-US-citizen self. As a European citizen, I’m accorded the privilege to live in all 27 EU member countries without special permission or visa requirements. This dispensation extends to immediate family members. In our case, said husband who was, however, compelled to apply at the departmental government for this particular entitlement.
After we had settled in Saintes, we began the process of turning my husband into a legal resident by assembling a dossier of documents regarding both our individual entities and our legal relationship. All of the required documents had to be translated by a certified, court-appointed translator. After we had executed these preliminaries, the actual petition at the prefecture was a cakewalk, involving a rather pleasant trips to the beautiful city of La Rochelle with its multitude of seafood restaurants lining the circumference of Vieux Port, the old harbour, like pearls on a silken string.
Back in 2014, I lost sight of a small but not unimportant detail, the expiration date of his residency permit. Without having any factual base for such a surmise, I believed all titres de séjour, the French IDs for foreigners, to be valid for 10 years. Well, my dear husband’s was only in force for five years something I either conveniently forgot or never noticed although I photographed the darn thing front and back and added those very crisp pictures to our document file in the cloud. His ID’s expiration date in April of 2019 came and went, nobody paying the slightest attention. Subsequently we blissfully traveled through seven (7!) European countries – never mind that the entry stamp in his American passport was equally five years out of date. I’m just glad we chucked the idea of sneaking into Belarus … 😳😳😱
After we returned from our last trip abroad to gorgeous Bilbao, Spain, on New Year’s Eve 2019, all thoughts turned toward SARS-CoV-2, the new and unknown coronavirus that was spreading across Europe with a vengeance.
It was Wednesday, March 11, 2020, when we committed ourselves to isolation after I returned from my latest physical therapy session. Prompted by the discomfort I felt of being in close proximity to staff and other patients I decided to forgo the remainder of my prescription. These feelings of unease were apparently echoed by my therapist who shut down his practice two days later on Friday the 13th, the same ominous day we gave notice to our cleaning lady of the past two years with a three-months severance pay, then we cancelled the visit of dear friends scheduled for the weekend. That particular Friday the 13th inaugurated a year of unprecedented weirdness for us and heartbreak for all of humanity.
Like everyone else in France, we soon learned how to order groceries online and how to fill out the government-issued permission slips required to leave the house to pick up those groceries at the supermarket’s no-touch drive-through lane. We settled quite well into our lockdown routine, being fully aware of its importance to maintain our health. But before we could become too darn comfortable in our blissful isolation, the great ID caper kicked off.
It all began with my husband’s realisation that his passport was due to expire in January 2021. The US Embassy in Paris warned citizens to act proactively and mail in passport applications many months ahead of the expiration date owing to virus-related processing difficulties. Concerns about his passport renewal made us aware of the long expired French ID which was, of course, the more pressing issue. However, my attempts to generate an online appointment for a renewal of his ID led nowhere fast. La Préfecture de la Charente in Angoulême was as locked down as the US Embassy in Paris. The saga of one expired and one soon-to-be-expired document turned into a conundrum spinning ever faster through my mind during sleepless early morning hours. In order to apply for a new US passport, one must return the old one, never knowing when the new one might be issued. On the other hand, to renew his residency here in France he must present a valid US passport. Ein Teufelskreis, indeed.
There was no choice but to wait till the general lockdown in France was lifted and it became possible again to book an appointment online for that dreaded visit to the prefecture in Angoulême. As it turned out, the first date available was the 8th of December, more than six months hence. That was actually great news, because it gave us time to renew our passports ahead of the appointment in Angoulême.
Yes, passports in plural, as the third essential document, my German passport, was due to expire in October 2020. My passport was essential simply because my husband’s residency in France is based on my EU citizenship. Thankfully, the German Consulate in Bordeaux could be reached by phone for advice and support, and I was able to complete the entire application process online except for a visit in Bordeaux for biometrics after the general lockdown was lifted. Meanwhile we also mailed off my husband’s passport application to the US Embassy in Paris. But to be on the safe side, I first went to City Hall to have a copy of his passport certified, so that we had at least one slim proof of documentation in hand. I needn’t have worried, his shiny new passport arrived three weeks after we mailed off his application!
Spring turned into summer and we were content to spend a lot of time among the plants, bees, lizards, birds, and the occasional cat in our garden. Having the use of this beautiful space during the long months of isolation was and still is a true blessing. July was punctuated by my husband’s birthday
and a lot of studying, as I had signed up for the 30-Day French Challenge created by my cool online French teacher Géraldine Lepère of “Comme une Française“. She challenged us to learn 100 new terms and their uses in 30 days.
Summer had turned into autumn and as we processed our pathetic pomegranate harvest,
we knew we had to make a decision soon: would we or wouldn’t we?
Although we now had both our passports, we also had a pandemic raging out of control all around us through its second and third waves here in Europe. Would we dare to go to the prefecture? We had kept our elderly, slightly damaged selves safe for eight months, should we risk it? How long can one live in a foreign country without proper documentation?
It was time to grid ones teeth and face the music. In order to face that particular governmental music, one has to make copies, many copies of original documents from birth certificates to retirement benefits. Our appointment was on a Tuesday morning, so I earmarked Monday for preps.
However, I got bored Sunday afternoon and started sorting documents to begin the copying process. I tried anyway, but the printer refused to cooperate. It is, at least in my mind, a brand-new gadget, barely five years old. Nevertheless, and without ever before having exhibited any hick-ups, the darn thing’s motherboard perceived a paper jam when there wasn’t one and no reboot would convince it otherwise. We had no choice but to search the internet for a replacement printer, available in town, in stock, ready for pick-up the next morning, which turned out to be rather more difficult than expected since Christmas shopping was in full swing and the supply chains aren’t what they used to be pre-pandemic. Eventually, we found one single stationary store that had printers in stock. Before going to bed, I plugged in the car to charge overnight.
Except, on Monday morning, it wasn’t charged. Just like the printer’s operational failure the afternoon before, this was a first. Charging an electric car is no more rocket science than making a copy. You take the charger and plug one end into the power supply and the other end into the car, period. Something I’ve done regularly for the last two years. We have a dedicated circuit for the charger with its own fuse, installed by a licensed electrician and there has never before been a problem. That Monday morning, too, there was no discernible problem other than a car battery that was four fifth empty despite having been hooked up over night. Hm. How many Gods can there be against our trip to Angoulême? At least the “big” Renault that we only use for trips out of town actually started and we were able to purchase a new printer.
The rest of the day was spent in finishing his application dossier that we brought with us to Angoulême on Tuesday morning.
We carried with us a pile of original documents, as in his and her birth certificates, our passports, and our marriage licence that we presented to be compared to their copies which then disappeared, stamped and initialed by our interviewer into the official file growing fatter by the minute on the far side of the acrylic desk divider. Needed as well was a proof of residency in the form of an attestation by a utility. Lastly we handed over a few of the documents we brought on spec, print-outs of information the prefecture hadn’t actually demanded, like our US SS pension payments, French tax records and so forth. In my dealings with foreign governments for over 43 years, be that the USA, Costa Rica, or France, it has been my experience that they always want more information than they originally request.
Throughout our visit at the Préfecture de la Charente we felt quite safe. We wore our brand-new PFF2 masks and face shields while waiting outside in a rather fresh breeze on the sidewalk, before being ask inside by our interviewer. No indoor waiting or loitering allowed! The large entrance hall was subdivided for one-way traffic and there were several gel dispensers available. The three interview counters in turn were separated from the hallway and each other by portable dividers and each desk was “halved” by an acrylic shield, separating interviewee from interviewer.
Although it had been exceedingly difficult to communicate with the prefecture during this year of the pandemic, our actual visit in Angoulême was quite pleasant. It also must be said that there were no recriminations, no tongue-clicking or the like regarding our slight delay of 20 months to come in for this titre de séjour renewal. Au contraire, we exchanged some light banter with our interviewer and one of her colleagues regarding our fancy Texas marriage license and my husband’s equally fancy moustache. He was known as El Bigote Grande in Costa Rice for a reason! On our drive home, I pointed out that the application still had to go through vetting by higher-ups, but my moustachioed husband dismissed my concern: they know very well that anyone outside the law would have never drawn attention to himself like this. Logical, yet …