Today I had to go to the French Office of Immigration and Integration so that, along with my Visa, I can obtain my carte de sejour (residency card). Why someone who is only staying here for 4 months needs a visa and a residency card is beyond my area of expertise, but to avoid getting deported and/or heavily fined at the airport, I complied. This was not my first time at an Immigration office; while studying in Buenos Aires I had to have a student visa. And before I tell you about my trip today to Immigration, for the sake of cultural comparison, I’d like to tell you about my experience in Argentina.
[Let me preface by saying that according to Argentine law, you apply for and receive your Visa while in Argentina, while according to French law you must enter the country with a Visa. This is why my Argentine experience lasted 3 non-consecutive days, while obtaining my carte de sejour was just one day since I already had my Visa.]
Argentina Day 1: All the exchange students from my university met on a certain day for the preliminary visa application steps. We were crowded in a small room along with other visa hopefuls. All I remember about this day is that I had to wait in 3 separate lines to answer questions or present documents to be allowed to wait in the next line. I spent all day waiting. When I was finally in the last line, the line where I would be given my appointment day and time at Immigration, some extremely important, impossible-to-operate-without machine broke. While I was at the teller window. At first the teller calmly tried to fix the small machine, but then as it proved unfixable and the line behind me grew longer and longer, other workers began frantically trying to fix the all-important machine, but to no avail. This was the only teller open (Argentina…) and the dozens of people in the room began adding up in line until around 50 people were impatiently standing behind me. The whole room was staring at me, wondering why I could possibly be taking so long. What’s worse, my name was flashed up on the screen, so everyone knew who was holding up the line. I’ve tried to suppress this memory, so I don’t remember exactly what happened next, but after 30 minutes of waiting (no exaggeration) for the machine to be fixed, I could finally leave and step out into fresh air.
Argentina Day 2: I arrive at the Immigration office at my appointed day and time. The Argentine Immigration office is located in Retiro, right next to the bus station, in a filthy area filled with criminals, disoriented hordes of immigrants pouring into the Immigration building, and poor people standing around watching.
Inside is an absolute madhouse. Had a cow walked through the building I wouldn’t have noticed. Luckily a professor from my university is there to direct students to the correct line (of which there were many). The building is bursting with immigrants, and we are herded through the lines like cattle. When I get to the most important line, where I am questioned for my Visa, I am faced with THE MOST bitter government worker in the history of bitter government workers. She was the meanest person I encountered in Argentina, but she wasn’t just mean, she was downright hateful. If you hate foreigners, perhaps a job at Immigration where you allow foreigners into your country all day long is not the job for you. Oh, I forgot to mention that I woke up incredibly sick that morning. When all you want to do is a mixture of throw-up and collapse in bed, your ability to speak another language is severely diminished. For the life of me, I could not understand her. If I answered incorrectly, she rolled her eyes and yelled at me; if I asked her to repeat something, she purposefully spoke faster. Why couldn’t I have had a dashing young Argentine with a sexy accent like all the other girls?? After being directed to pay in another line, I had to wait for her to call me again. The roaring din around me made it impossible to hear, and her constant glare led me to think she was waiting on me to walk up to her window. So I went up and asked if she had called me, to which she replied by rolling her eyes and spitting out “No” with every ounce of disdain she could muster. I somehow survived the day and was given another day and time to return, upon which I ran out of the building and waited what seemed like ages for a taxi to come rescue me from this horrible place.
Argentina Day 3: After my first day at Immigration, I was not looking forward to returning. In fact I was terrified. What’s worse, I had to return all alone, no coordinated university trip. When I arrived I went to Building 4, where my appointment supposedly was. Well Building 4 was locked and there was no one around (Argentina…). I checked my appointment sheet and indeed was at the right building at the right time. I noticed a security guard and went and explained my predicament. He tried to tell me that he couldn’t help me, but when I showed my appointment sheet his demeanor changed and he took me through the madhouse of the main building and through a door in the back where there was a waiting room filled with people. He told me to sit and wait, spoke with one of the tellers, and then left. I had no idea what to do, so I waited. And waited. And waited. And waited until people that came in after me were processed. The security guard was nowhere in sight and I didn’t want to interrupt a teller and face their wrath, so I just sat and waited some more, wondering if I was in the right place. Magically, I heard my name called and walked up to a teller. He handed me a simple white sheet of paper and dismissed me, so I went and sat down again. I don’t know what I expected a visa to look like, but certainly not like that. I began to get the feeling from everyone staring at me like I was an idiot that I should not be sitting down again, so I went and asked the teller if I was done. “Yes, that’s your Visa. Leave.” And leave I did. I flew out of there clutching my Visa and waited outside on another taxi to come save me. I was so traumatized by the whole situation that I didn’t venture back into Retiro for months, which is a shame since other than the bus station it’s one of the nicest barrios in Buenos Aires.
My Visa experience in Argentina was the worst thing that happened my whole trip – I have never in my life felt more out of place or unsure of myself. So needless to say, I was dreading my appointment at the French Immigration Office.
France: I arrived this morning at a clean building on a nondescript street filled with modern apartment buildings. As I walked to the front door I tried to encourage myself. When I passed through the doors I was met by 3 women at the front desk who showed me the waiting room for my medical exam. The waiting room had about 8 other young people, all speaking English, who worked for Airbus. When the nurse called my name, I answered a few questions and then had my lungs X-rayed. I then showed my X-ray to the doctor who confirmed that I’m not bringing tuberculosis into the country. After the doctor’s approval, a woman asked me for some documents, such as my passport and receipt showing I paid for my carte de sejour, and then she put a sticker in my passport. And that was it. I was done. In under an hour. The place was clean and orderly and everyone was very nice. If I didn’t understand something, they simply repeated the question again slowly, like any normal person would. And then I left and went to work. It was all so easy! So stress free! And I felt very proud of myself for doing it all in French.
Now I won’t be fined at the airport! Yay!