It’s December 2009, and winter has begun. I’ve arrived in Paris at long last, and la vie en rose is a beloved reality. I don’t even mind the cold. Okay, I do, but let me embellish, would you?
The chilly wind makes everything crisp and clean and I ignore my shivering bones as I saunter in a daze along the teeming streets, peeking at window displays or colorful stalls on a brisk afternoon. I’ve only been here for a few days, but already I’m in awe.
Everywhere I look, les Parisiens make their way to work, school, or a picturesque café. An old world charm seems to imbue everything with wonder. I’m so happy to be here, I can hardly stand it. It has taken a lot of planning to accomplish this. I have left behind my family, the Bwindi Forest and Rwenzori Mountains, all that is familiar and home to me, and struck out on my own into something new and faintly terrifying.
If anything had gone wrong at the last minute, I don’t know what I would have done. But here I am, the smells and sounds of a city in flux surrounding me, making me feel welcome.
This is now my home.
As I pass an entrance to the Metro, I’m already thinking about when to visit Le Louvre. Should La Tour Eiffel wait until tomorrow after I meet with the landlord about my (studio) apartment I saw in the classifieds? I haven’t even bought much in the way of groceries, subsisting on dining out and drinking really good coffee. Maybe I’ll have a glass of wine this evening. The possibilities of my new life seem endless.
I am glad that I dressed for my impromptu tour of the city. I’ve noticed that the French are always fashionably attired, no matter the time of day or night. There’s something of a flair, I suppose, to being French. Maybe I’ll add clothes shopping to my huge to-do list. I could spend all day just walking and getting lost in my surroundings. It’s so magnificent, I feel small amidst a sea of perfection.
It helps that I speak French, too, because I can already communicate with the locals and ask for directions and haggle over prices. I get a kick out of sitting at a restaurant and having an exquisite meal while quivering in my scarf, hat and gloves.
I could go on and on, but reality intrudes, and perfection takes a back seat.
As a newcomer to this wonderful country, I have to get my papers in order. To get a permanent visa or a carte de séjour (CDS), which is an official residency card in France, you have to go through the French Office of Immigration and Integration (OFII). This must be done within the first three months of arrival in the country. And since I don’t want to be sent home, I need to brave the system.
“No problem,” I think as I present myself at an office with my application, passport, proof of accommodation, and payment. Then, I am asked to appear for an interview and medical examination. After that, a registration stamp is to be added to my passport so that my visa is validated.
I feel accomplished. I decide to check out a contemporary dance show that night. I’m working on making new friends and getting to know the quirks of living in France. Warm milk might not become a favorite.
After an eye-opening evening, I focus again on the legal issues of being a French resident. I need to get my carte vitale (social security number which gives me access to health insurance). All French residents must have health insurance. I have to register at the local CPAM office (the organization that administers health care in France), which I can find using the Ameli website. Simple, yes?
Part of the process involves proving that I have the right papers to be in the country, proving my identity and place of birth through my birth certificate, verifying that I live in France, procuring my banking information, demonstrating that I have gainful employment, and, of course, the completed application form.
Mornings are best, so you know, to avoid a long line at the CPAM office.
Robert Hoehn, founder or the French Fried TV, outside the CPAM office
Otherwise, I hope you’ve had a nice breakfast and brought something to keep you occupied while you wait. You will receive a ticket that tells you when it’s your turn. A clerk gives me an application form to fill out while I’m waiting and avidly watching the electronic screen between scribbles. When my number appears, I meet with the worker and hand over my form along with the required documents.
Once it’s over, I step outside and breathe in the air of satisfaction. I have braved the scary world of CPAM and come out unscathed. Barely.
Not long after this milestone, I wake up on New Year’s Day in Paris for the first time. It’s something I’ll never forget. “Soon, I’ll have my carte vitale and everything will be in place.”
What could go wrong?
Well, in January 2010, my application for the carte vitale is rejected because my visa hasn’t yet been validated by OFII. I thought I’d done that? A minor setback, I think, though my eye twitches in consternation. I spend the rest of that month working with the OFII office to get the problem resolved. And then I re-apply.
By now, I’ve practically memorized the procedures and it’s old hat. I do everything exactly as requested, and hope for the best.
To be continued…
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