“Have you heard the news?” I ask anyone who will listen, my voice dripping with sarcasm. “The CAF has processed my application. Can you believe it?”
The CAF (or Caisse Allocations Familiales) is a housing subsidy program that all students studying and living in France are eligible for. You can have your rent cut in half—if you’re willing to endure the weeks of grueling paperwork. Not only did they require my birth certificate, but a certified translation, as well as a bunch of other paperwork not readily available. After 8 weeks of my application being “en cours de traitement,” two emails and a phone call later, they finally respond to say that I have been approved.
“La CAF a traité mon dossier !” I squeal to my French friends. Needless to say, I am thrilled.
“I have a contact on the inside,” a friend tells me shadily. “Mine’ll get processed now too, I know it.”
I am still waiting on a document, potentially the most important one. (The document to rule all documents, if you will.) My carte de séjour, or stay card.
I filled out the paperwork for the stay card in my first week, as I was instructed to.
“Why did you do that?” my contact at the university asks me.
I stare back at him blankly. “I followed exactly what it said on the application.”
“No, you were supposed to send it through the school, I told you.” (He didn’t.)
“Okay,” I say, biting my lip, “but it will still be processed, then, right?”
“Yes,” he says, but I am not sure I believe him.
Now, three months later, the deadline to receive this card comes and goes. I still don’t have my stay card,” I tell my friends, bewildered. “I did all the paperwork when they told me to. I sent it to the right address and everything.”
“You don’t have a stay card? How did you get in the country?” my friends tease.
I laugh, but only half-heartedly. Without that card I don’t know if I have the right to stay here.
I call the visa people and get the answering machine. I press “1” to be connected to their emergency line, because maybe this is an emergency; I am not entirely sure. The lady on the other end yells at me for a solid 5 minutes and hangs up on me. Evidently it was not an emergency. I send two emails on two separate occasions and then finally decide to call another number.
The response is as follows: go to the prefecture. This is not ideal, as it requires a 40-minute train ride out of town to Marseille. I ask the woman on the phone again if this is necessary, given that I did everything I was supposed to, and she assures me yes, it is.
So, I wake up early to go to Marseille. Once in the city, I descend into their metro, walking in the slow, measured way I do when I am navigating a new subway system, eyes darting back and forth in search of signage. I do not know this city and am instantly overwhelmed. When I emerge from the metro, I find myself in a marketplace, and a man is selling spices, saying, Come one and all to see the things you can do with these spices you’ll be amazed it’s just incredible.
At the prefecture, an employee is asking people if they have their passports with them, and if they don’t, he shakes his head and asks them politely to leave. I wonder how one can come to a prefecture to do visa things and not have something as crucial as their passport. I realize I don’t want to be a hypocrite and quickly flick through my documents to see if I have mine.
Is this really happening? Did I really take a 40-minute train here without my passport?
My passport is in my scanner at home. The employee assures me that in my particular case, I will be okay without the passport. I am stunned at my luck.
I head up the counter and tell the woman what I am looking for.
“And? What do you want me to do?” the woman says.
I wonder why she is already angry. “My… carte de sejour.”
“I don’t know what you are asking me. Why didn’t you go to the OFII office?”
“I sent some emails and called and everyone told me to come here.” I even show her said email which she reads uninterestedly.
“You don’t even have your passport!” she shouts.
I allow myself to be stunned at this lack of communication, on the most basic level, between this woman and the man who is only an arms-length away. “That man just told me I didn’t need it, he’s over th—”
“Where is your identity card!” Everyone is looking, now.
This is a French thing so I hand her my driver’s license instead. “Marisa Cool-ton, is it?” she yells at me.
I nod slowly. You can’t just spit someone’s name like that, like it’s nothing, I think. It’s my name.
“I have nothing on file for you. You will have to go to the OFII office. Here is their address and number.”
“This process is so confusing,” I try to say. To my surprise, tears spring to my eyes.
Her tone softens suddenly. “Calm down, okay?” She proceeds to rattle off a list of 10 things I must do, and I start to take notes, but stop when I realize how convoluted it all is. I leave without a word.
On my way out, a man hovering near the entrance mutters something under his breath when I walk past, which sets the hairs on the back of my neck on edge. I turn up my collar.
When I call the number I have been given, the woman on the other end is hysterical. “This is not OFII,” she says, and a few other things in French I do not understand. I assume she is making a joke, and so I say, ha, ha, and ask for information on my visa.
“I told you, this is not OFII.”
So, they have given me the wrong number. I do a quick google search and find the right one (they have written a 5, instead of a 2) but when I call, it gives me a brief message and drops the call. I decide just to go home and postpone this to another day.
On the train, I fume silently, thinking about how nothing has come of this trip and how I’ve wasted money on train tickets and several hours of my time. I do not know, in that moment, that my stress and lack of attention will cause me to miss my stop and end up in another city altogether: Avignon. I will take another train in the opposite direction, which will overshoot my stop, taking me back to Marseille, where I started. Then, mercifully, I will take a bus home. At the end of everything, I will finally be able to reach OFII by phone who will tell me card is not even ready, making the entire trip pointless.
“When will it be ready, then?” I will ask. “It’s been 3 months.”
“I don’t know.”
“But you did get my documents, right? Does it say they were received?”
“Don’t worry, mademoiselle. You will get your card,” she says, not answering my question. Much later, I will find out that not only were my documents not received, but that no paperwork had been processed at all.
“Don’t worry,” she says, “Just keep calling back.”
That sounds literally awful, I think, but I agree to keep checking back. I hang up.
It is a long day that will get longer. But like all long days, it will end, and I eventually I will be home. I will be a little older, and my skin will be a little thicker. I’ll be better equipped to handle long days to come.
A lady jumps on the train with a younger woman who is probably her daughter. The daughter is struggling with a large black suitcase, and the mother is helping her move it through the narrow passageways. The doors ping, and suddenly the mother is squeezing past people, trying desperately to get off. As I watch her pushing past, I sincerely wonder if she will make it off the train before it pulls away with her inside. She wanted to stay with her daughter for as long as possible, I imagine. But this is her daughter’s trip, not hers.
The woman makes it onto the platform at the last minute and peers through the window. The daughter is busy with the bag and I’m thinking she won’t spot her mother in time, but she does. The mother taps four fingers against the glass and blows her a kiss, and the daughter returns it.
I find this little gesture—the fingers and the tapping and the kiss—so moving. I am probably still fragile from the episode at the prefecture, but the scene actually brings tears to my eyes again, because I know if it was my mother she would probably do the same thing.
Your family will send you off into the world with a suitcase in the hopes that you will be able to navigate large cities on your own and that you will not be yelled at by strangers in an unfamiliar tongue. But when it comes right down to it and the train pulls away, all you can do is hope.