What if a French bureaucrat finds us or our documentation lacking, and says, “Merci for loving France but you have to leave at the end of the year.” This is the worry that we carried to our required meetings at the OFII (Office Français de l’Immigration et de l’Intégration) on Thursday.
Having been granted our one-year visas (visa de long séjour) last fall was just the beginning of our process to be allowed to live in France. The government requires a series of personal meetings and reviews at the OFII in Montpellier before confirming residency. At the end of the OFII process, an official attaches a vignette, or sticker, in our passports. The vignette confirms that we have been given final permission to reside in France for the duration of our visa, and allows us to leave and return to France whenever we want. Two to three months before the expiration of our current visa (for us, 10 January 2018), we will need to present our documentation at the prefecture in Carcassonne to apply for renewal of the visas for 2018.
Within three months of our arrival in France, we were obligated to apply to the OFII to schedule our interview meetings. The official documentation informed us that without the OFII vignette, if after our first three months in France we leave the country, we will not be allowed back in. In March, we received the very official-looking letters that announced that we were summoned to Montpellier (two-hour drive away) on 6 April, which was exactly during the time we were scheduled to be in Portugal for Mike’s niece’s wedding. Rachel, our local Franco-British advisor said our postponing the meetings would not be a problem, especially because the reason was a family wedding. But we would need to wait another 2 – 3 months for our revised interview date. In the meantime, we were planning to fly to Portugal in April, and to Hawaii in May. For both of these trips, we brought our entire visa and OFII folder with us. I prepared my explanation about why we didn’t yet have our vignettes in case we were challenged at immigration. It turned out that at no point during either trip did any immigration officer even mention the OFII vignette. A couple did jokingly (?) tell Mike that he should learn to speak French!
At last, early in June, we received our revised OFII appointment letters. We were expected for our first appointment on 29 July at 8:30 in Montpellier. There were to be three appointments: first to have a chest x-ray to see if we have tuberculosis; the second for a medical examination; and the third presumably just administrative. For the medical meetings, we were required to bring our passports, our vaccination histories, our medical records including any prescription drugs, glasses and hearing aids if relevant, and anything else that would be needed to explain our health conditions. For the administrative meetings, we were required to bring our passports, chest x-rays, passport photos, timbre which confirms that we have paid EUR250 each for this lovely process, and justificatif de domicile, or proof that we have been living in France (such as utility bills addressed to us).
Perhaps this all just sounds like some paperwork to you. For us, however, it loomed as a risk that an inscrutable bureaucracy may inspect some detail about us and deem us unfit to remain in France. Rachel had provided some context that was helpful: With all that is going on in the world, France is receiving immigrants from Africa, the Middle East, Asia, their former colonies as well as the Americas. The OFII is overwhelmed by all the required processing. She felt that since we have the means and health insurance, the officials will be happy to have us live in France.
Still, who really knows? All of our dreams of establishing a new life in France hang on the success of these interviews.
Here is how the meetings went:
Meeting 1: We arrived at the address about 15 minutes early: 10 rue de Victor Hugo. The building directory listed all sorts of medical offices, including one with radiology in the title. As we were deciphering the directory, a security guard appeared, asking if we needed assistance. We showed him our OFII letter, and he instantly gave us directions to the correct office. Very good natured and helpful. In the radiology office, again everyone was upbeat and efficient. The three women at the reception desk spoke French and English. In about a minute, we were sitting in a corridor waiting to be called. A few minutes later, we were summoned separately to changing-room vestibules with instructions to take off our shirts. One after the other, a pleasant radiology technician led us to the x-ray machine, and a minute later we were putting our shirts back on and emerging from the vestibule. About three minutes after that, our names were called by the receptionists. They proclaimed us “perfect” and handed us our x-rays and paperwork. We had completed Meeting 1 even before we were scheduled to start. Off to Meeting 2, the address for which was about two blocks away.
An interlude with two small stories:
First: As we were first sitting down in the corridor waiting area of the radiology office, two women next to us happily introduced themselves. They exclaimed, “Oh good, Americans!” In March, they had moved from New York City to a small village between Montpellier and Carcassonne and were going through the same process as we with the identical appointment times. Their energy, sense of humor and guilelessness immediately charmed us. We ended up accompanying each other through the entire day’s process, chatting for a few hours afterwards at one of the cafés on Montpellier’s Place de la Comédie, and then chatting a couple more hours over lunch at another café. They had planned to take a train and a bus back to their village which happens to be on our route back to Carcassonne. We were pleased that they accepted our offer to drive them back home. So another couple of hours chatting in the car and as they showed us around their new village house. We must thank OFII bureaucracy for introducing us to new friends in France.
Second: We left the radiology office with our new friends and walked, full of conversation, the two blocks to the main OFII office for the next meetings. As we were standing in line for the reception counter, Mike exclaimed that he couldn’t find his passport! We had had to show our passports to the staff at the radiology office, but that was the last time he recalled having his. We frantically searched pockets, folders and bags, but without success. Mike felt that the receptionist hadn’t given his passport back to him. Starting to sweat, we tensely explained to our new friends that we needed to dash back to the radiology office in hopes of recovering Mike’s passport. The pleasant leisurely two blocks from radiology to OFII turned into a stressful hot walk-run back against the clock. At the radiology office, we asked if perhaps they still had the passport. They said, “Oh no. We don’t keep the passports.” That made me recall that they had inspected my passport and given it right back to me. But they looked around their desk; we looked under chairs in the waiting room. Tension kept building. What would happen if we had to return to OFII to explain that we’d lost a passport? One of the receptionists disappeared and a minute later emerged from the changing room that Mike had used. She smiled and held up his passport. It had been there on the floor of the changing room. In all the quick and efficient disrobing, x-raying, rerobing, chatting with our friends, receiving the x-rays, the passport decided to stay behind. We dashed back to the OFII building, arriving, overheated and adrenaline-amped a couple minutes before our appointed 9 am check-in.
Back to the official process:
For Meeting 2, we were called together into the medical office. Two women in white coats sat behind a table and their computers. One of them asked us our heights and weights, but we quickly realized we didn’t know the answers in metric. So we were measured, asked if we smoked, had to read an eye chart, and were given an iPad questionnaire. All the questions were about tuberculosis and its symptoms. We passed easily. She asked if we have had vaccinations, including typhoid. We said yes, but that we didn’t have our childhood records. She smiled and said, “No problem.” Then they asked about medications. I only take some vitamins, but Mike does have a few medications that he has been taking for years. He handed our interviewer the list. She proceeded to write the medication names by hand on a sheet of paper. She stopped at one and asked Mike what it is for. He said it is for cholesterol. She nodded, and wrote that name down as well. Then that was it. No in-depth questions about health or chronic conditions or proof of vaccinations. We started to feel the worry lift a little.
Meeting 3 was, as hoped, all administrative. The woman took our passports, photos, payment, and justicifatif de domicile. She handed us an official sheet that confirmed our acceptable state of health, saying that we must never give the original away, and that we will need to show this to the prefecture when we apply for our visa renewal. She searched through our passports for an empty page for the vignette; she commented that we need bigger passports. And then the vignette was affixed. She even smiled a little, and we had been officially accepted. We are French residents!
We now each have a (1) passport number, a (2) vignette number, an (3) OFII number, a (4) visa number, and a (5) foreigner number. I guess they have our number and accept us as new neighbors.