It took every bit of self-restraint not to scream like that in the face of the impassive man I just encountered at the Caisse Primaire d’Assurance Maladie. To get the medical benefits I help fund with the taxes I pay to the French government every month, I need a social security number and Carte Vitale. These must be applied for, a process comparable to playing a card game in the dark with your hands tied behind your back.
Each time I go to the office to determine whether all of my papers are in order, I’m given a different, seemingly negligible reason that my application is incomplete. Last week, it was that I didn’t have a copy of every page of my passport – “yes, every page, even the blank ones, Madame.” Last year, after I was finally told that my dossier was perfectly in order and reassured that it wouldn’t matter that the copy of my birth certificate did not convey the texture of the stamp on the original (told, in fact, that if I included the original as I was inclined to, they would surely lose it), my application was returned because… they couldn’t tell if the stamp was legitimate.
Today’s adventure involved the revelation that I didn’t have the appropriate “apostille,” apparently an additional piece of paper rendering a birth certificate EXTRA official, and that my birth certificate translation (a required element ridiculous in and of itself because birth certificates have hardly any English on them in the first place) was also not official enough, despite the fact that the man I hired to do it was on a special list of court-approved translators provided by the city of Lyon.
I will spare you the rest of the boring details, but I will say that I can’t help but begin to suspect that this is a brilliant scam by the French government. Foreign workers padding the country’s coffers, unable to access the services that native tax-payers may access. The truth is of course probably not as nefarious– French bureaucracy is inflexible and there’s still a high value placed on formality and ceremony, compartmentalized processes, things being just-so and the following of protocol. Besides, making immigrants jump through hoops is a practice of most countries.
Still, I left the office this morning and stormed down the street crying tears of rage, longing to be in New York, where such behavior is acceptable in public.
I wish I had advice for those of you similarly mired in paperwork insanity. All I’ve got for you is: 1) Always bring every piece of paper and ID card you think might be helpful to dossier-assembling appointments. Imagine you’ve fallen into an alternate universe where the placement of a staple can make or break an application, because you have. 2) Don’t expect to get anything back– send originals with discretion. 3) Mail things “lettre recommandée”, so that you get a receipt when your documents are delivered. 4) Always carry a few extra passport-style photos, French bureaucrats love them. Most transport hubs have a photo booth somewhere inside. 5) It might be useful to learn some breathing/meditation exercises so that you aren’t too tempted to throw things when some patronizing little #*ucker tells you you’ve used the wrong kind of paper, “of course.”