Once comfortably settled in the McDonalds off the Place d’Italie, with our laptops whirring and our free wifi humming, R and I begin adding up the number of euros we’ve dropped in des cybercafes over the past few days.
“That was stupid,” I said.
“We’ve made a lot of dumb mistakes,” was her answer.
We came to the conclusion that it’s okay to be stupid – that’s how we learn, right? At least isn’t that what my dad’s always saying? But for Pete’s sake, we’ve been in France only 4 nights – how many dumb things do we have to do before we get this living in Paris thing right?
Today for example, we were completely, utterly defeated by French red tape. The plan for the day was get up early, make a few phone calls regarding housing, stop by Sciences Po to drop off our registration materials, head over to the Prefecture de Police to apply for our cartes de séjour, and then go to a movie or do something fun to relax. Ha. It’s 11:30 at night and we’re finally (kind of) relaxing in McDonald’s, of all places.
At Sciences Po we were shuttled around to three different offices before being told we couldn’t even turn in our materials today without first having our cartes de séjour. At the Prefecture de Police we wandered two long hallways on the first floor (translation: in France, the first floor is the first floor above street level) before being sent back down to the information desk and learning that we needed to be across town in the 15ème. Since everything we’d read in our SciPo orientation materials, or heard from our study abroad programs at UW had instructed us to go to the Pref. de Police for our cartes and to have our birth certificates officially translated into French (a necessity in order to apply for the cartes), we’d made our way from Sciences Po in the 7ème to the Prefecture, next to Notre Dame on Ile de la Cité. The 15ème is all the way down in the southwest corner of Paris, way beyond the Tour Eiffel.
Not only could we not apply for our cartes de séjour, the Prefecture aided us only by providing a list of approved translators from each arondissement, not by providing the translators themselves. Knowing it was useless to head across town without a translated birth certificate (for me only, Rachael was lucky to hail from San Francisco, where she had hers translated at the French consulate before coming to Paris), we wrote down phone numbers of translators in arondissements we were likely to pass through today and holed up in a phone booth with our list. Of the six translators, one was sick, three didn’t answer, and two were out of the office. At one of the numbers, however, a woman gave me the cell phone number of Monsieur Billel the translator supposedly of the 11ème, who wasn’t working in the office today, but would be answering his mobile.
M. Billel was friendly and seemed to understand me on the phone, so we made an appointment for 7:30 earlier this evening. I had the address of his offices from the list at the Prefecture, and he told me which metro stop we needed (Gallieni, on the 3ème line), so at 6:45, R and I hopped on the Metro to find him.
When we surfaced at Gallieni, optimistic about accomplishing at least one thing today, our confidence took a quick dive. With one look around, it became clear that we were no longer in Paris – surrounded by low-income housing and freeways, we realized that we’d taken line 3 straight into the banlieue. We were east of the 20ème, in an area known as Bagnolet. R and I gave eachother nervous glances and thought about how our parents (and grandparents) would kill us if they knew where we were, but we were determined to finish at least one thing we’d started.
We called M. Billel from a pay phone and got directions to his home – he also chose this moment to mention that he only works in his office in the city one day a week – the rest of the time he works from home. We walked up a winding street, past high-rise after high-rise, a graffiti-covered grocery store and a group of street soccer-playing boys to find our translator. Peering through the slats in his front gate while we rang the bell, we saw a tricycle, and a teeny girl followed him out to answer the door, which we took as signals that it was safe to proceed. We walked into his yard, and he went back inside, telling us to go up the stairs and meet him at the top.
R and I tiptoed up the flight of rickety spiraling stairs (that looked like they’d been hastily installed by M. Billel himself) to an office, where he took my 60 euro and a copy of my birth certificate and after some pressing, promised to have the translation done by the next afternoon (faster than any other translation bureau would have offered). The only catch? Since he spends only one day a week in his office in the 11ème, we have to return to jolie Bagnolet tomorrow afternoon. Tomorrow though, we’re bringing the pepper spray.
Hey, at least we accomplished something, right?