Our self-addressed envelopes from the Préfecture des Pyrénées–Orientales in Perpignan arrived notifying us that our new Cartes de Séjour (Residency Permits) were ready for pickup. The letter advised us that our 2016-2017 Cartes de Séjour can be picked at the Préfecture on Monday afternoon or Wednesday or Friday mornings. We are required to bring our old Cartes de Séjour and €106 each in timber fiscaux (tax stamps.) It took just over two weeks from the day we dropped off our renewal application to receiving the “ready to pick up” letter.
The following Monday we took the €1 Bus to Perpignan and spent the morning shopping, having lunch, enjoying an obligatory coffee in Place de la République,and wandering around the historic town center before the Préfecture’s étranger bureau (immigrant office) opened at 1:30. We stopped by reception and were issued numbers and there were 14 people ahead of us.
Despite there being only one window open, the electronic display counted down quickly. Most people only required one or two minutes to complete their transaction. Most seemed to be doing exactly what we were doing, picking up a new Carte de Séjour. The waiting room looked like every other large doctor’s office/ DMV waiting room we have ever spent time in with individuals, couples, and families sitting, talking, and straightening out their documents in folders.
For this visit we were only required to bring our Cartes de Séjour and tax stamps for payment with our Passports for identification. But we brought our entire renewal dossier, “just in case.” We were called up for our turns in less than a 30 minute wait and it literally took less than one minute each for the immigration officer to issue our new Cartes de Séjour for 2016-2017. We’ve spent far more time waiting in DMV lines back in the US. As often as we have been warned about French bureaucracy and “red tape” in France, we have pleasantly been surprised how straight-forward and helpful government representatives have been. Perhaps it is a much different story in large Préfectures in major cities like Paris, Marseille, or Lyon, but in the Préfecture des Pyrénées–Orientales and the Préfecture de l’Aude in the Languedoc-Roussillon region we have always been well treated.
This year’s renewal process now complete, Tracy and I are legal residents of France for another year.
Tracy and my most recent micro-adventure was joining 10,000 other spectators at the 600th observance of the annual Procession de la Sanch (The March of the Penitents) in Perpignan on Good Friday, 2016. (La Sanch is pronounced “lah sank.”)
Outside of Spain, the Procession de la Sanch isn’t really performed any longer. In France, it is only held in the southern Catalan country. The largest and most famous of the French penance processions still performed during the Semaine Sainte (Easter Holy Week) is the Procession de la Sanch a Perpignan. Nearby Arles-sur-Tech and Collioure also still perform la Sanch ceremonies, though on a smaller scale. The event was originally brought to Perpignan in 1416 by Saint Vincent Ferrier, a Valencian Dominican. (Remember, Columbus reached the “New World” in 1492, 76 years after the first Procession de la Sanch.)The Pyrénées-Orientales département (which includes Perpignan, Arles-sur-Tech and Collioure, sometimes referred to as Catalunya Nord) has strong Spanish and Catalan roots that has helped this French department retain a traditional event that is typical of the Semana Santa (Spanish Holy Week). The strength of this French-Catalan-Spanish blend can be easily seen in the departments’ flag, gold and red stripes, the same colors as those used in Catalan and Spanish flags.
The somber, masked procession began centuries ago as a method to support condemned men on their final march to execution and ensure their Christian burial. La Sanch’s robes and the conical hoods (the hood is called a Caperutx — today the entire ensemble is referred to as Caperutx)were worn by the executioners and the prisoners to conceal their identities. Apparently early on in history the victims and families of the victims were a bit too happy to pull them out of the procession and just beat them violently to death in the streets.
The Caperutx worn during La Sanch are either black (worn by the penitents representing death) or red (worn by the leader, the Regidor, representing blood), only the children and priests in the procession (representing the innocents and the saved) wear white. A Regidor, in his red Caperutx is at the head of the procession and rings an iron bell to warn of the coming procession. The robes worn in la Sanch, while reminiscent to the costumes worn by the Ku Klux Klan, actually predate the Klan’s by 500 years and have a completely different origin and meaning.
About 700 members of local associations, Confrérie de la Sanch, organize, march, and carry the approximately 35 “misteris” in the procession. (“Misteris” mean mysteries in Catalan.) The misteris are litters with life-size portrayals of scenes from the Passion of Christ. Weighing between 60 and 100 pounds, the misteris may be carried by up to eight persons. Some of the penitents in Caperutx carried drums and beat a steady, slow tattoo for the procession. Penitents also may sing”goigs,” traditional songs dating back before the 15th century, that recount the sadness of Mary’s suffering in Calvary. We didn’t hear a “goig” being sung while we were watching the procession.
The Procession de la Sanch takes three hours (from 3:00 to 6:00 p.m.) to circle the historic downtown of Perpignan and passing other parishes, starting and ending at Église Saint-Jacques(Saint James’ Church) which dates back to 1245.
Prior to the procession start, we visited Église Saint-Jacques. We found a beautiful 13th century church with a unique bell tower that was built in the southern Gothic style. Its most unusual feature is that there are two Catalan-styled altarpieces at opposite ends of the single nave with the organ at the center. Inside the church were many of the Misteris with their fresh flowers being displayed before the procession. We had a wonderful opportunity to see the Misteris up close and appreciate their size and weight. We spoke with another visitor to the church who was admiring the Misteris. He was French, but had completed his doctorate at the University of Minnesota. He recounted the history of the event with us and told us we were very welcome there and encouraged us to have a look around the church. Since Tracy and I share an appreciation of sacred architecture, his invitation was quite welcome.
We choose a location to watch the procession in Place Puig (Puig Square)in the Quartier Saint-Jacques which is also referred to as the Quartier Gitan because of its significant Gitan (Roma people, often called Gypsies or Gitanos in Spain) community. While waiting for the event to start we visited with a local Gitan man who explained the Gypsy history of the area and how the former military barracks adjacent to Place Puig were converted to public housing and was now home to primarily Gitan peoples.
The procession was preceded with a loudspeaker explanation about the history and meaning of the event. After the announcement we heard the tattoo of drums and the procession became a solemn, slow-moving parade. Approximately 700 men, women, and children participated in the procession. Although it is easy to fixate on the penitents wearing the Caperutx hoods and robes, there are a surprising number of women dressed in black marching in the procession. The misteris on their litters looked impressively heavy as their were carried on the procession. Both the men and the women carried misteris. The carriers had an unusual technique of using a forked walking stick under the carrying poles to support the weight of the misteris when the procession stopped and to trade carriers. The use of the forked sticks was performed without verbal direction with orders by tapped by the team leaders with their stick on the ground to alert the other carriers. Tracy noticed that several women were wearing heels up to 4 inches to allow all the women carriers to be the same height. Several of the hooded penitents wearing the Caperutx elected to walk the entire route and to carry the misteris in their bare feet.
I spoke with one of the marchers who was collecting charity contributions from the crowd. He attempted to chat with us in French, Spanish, Catalan, and, I think, Caló (Gitano-Roma) before I explained that our French and Spanish was very poor and that we were Americans. While saying he didn’t speak English, he spoke enough English welcome us, thank us for a supporting the procession,and gave us a prayer card with the “Our Father,” . . . in Catalan, of course. It is always amazing to us the number of multilingual people we meet in the Pyrénées-Orientales département, even though English is seldom one of those second languages, usually the French people in this area of the south will most often also speak Catalan, Spanish, or Maghrebi (Moroccan Arabic – Darija.)
At the end of the official procession pasted, members of the public joined at the end of the parade and followed the official participants.
In all, it was a unique opportunity to watch the 600 year old Procession de la Sanch in person. A chance to observe a traditional Catalan and Spanish religious ceremony performed in a very secular modern France. To be involved in the conclusion to the penance and atonement of the Lenten season in a historic ritual dating back to 1416. It was an extremely powerful experience.
Our third effort at renewing our Cartes de Séjour (residency permits) was exceptionally easy. We seem to understand the renewal process well now and are experienced with the requirements at the Bureau des étrangers (immigration office) at the Préfecture des Pyrénées–Orientales in Perpignan.It also help that we started preparing in January although the permits do not expire until the end of March.
The Préfecture des Pyrénées–Orientales is extremely responsive to e-mail. I was uncertain about which forms to download from the Préfecture’s website, but an e-mail was answered in 24 hours with links to the correct forms and a currently list of supporting documents. The list of documents was the same as last year. They were also kind enough to make an appointment for us to submit our renewal application. The Préfecture’s e-mail responsiveness saved us from making a physical trip to Perpignan to pick up forms and make an appointment saving us a great deal of time while we were in the process of changing residences.
The list of supporting documents for our renewal appointment is actually short and straight forward. Bring the original document and a copy of the following:
1. Current Carte de Séjour (residency permit) that is being renewed. Something that was different this time: during our appointment our Préfecture officer made an extra copy of both Carte de Séjours and added them to each other’s renewal application.
2. Passport with copies of pages with identification information, expiration dates, with all entry stamps, and visas.
3. Marriage certificate since our passports do not confirm marital status. This document was not specifically on our list from the Préfecture des Pyrénées–Orientales but from past experience we knew marriage status had to be confirmed at each renewal. There is also an attestation that we are married on the renewal form that our Préfecture officer witnessed us signing.
6. Four recent passport-style photographs. There are passport photo machines everywhere from retail stores to train stations. Photos are required with almost all government applications.
7. €106 payment for each of us submitted by timbres fiscaux (tax stamps.) The tax stamps are sold in specific Tabacs (tobacco and convenience stores). This was a bit more challenging since I couldn’t find a Tabac in Argelès-sur-Mer who sold them and in Perpignan I was also having difficulties. We were finally sent to the Trésor Public (Public Treasurer) at the Centre Des Finances Publiques à Perpignan where there was a helpful gentleman at a cashier window who was happy to sell us the timbres fiscaux.
8. Proof of financial independence equivalent to 12 times the monthly French minimum wage. I had previously requested an income verification letter about our pensions from the Nevada Public Employees Retirement System. We also prepared a translation including a conversion of dollars to euros at the current exchange rate. That was the only document we bothered to translate. We submitted a confirmation letter from our French bank that stated that we were customers in good standing too.
9. Sworn handwritten attestation not to exercise any occupation in France. There is also an attestation on the renewal form that our Préfecture officer witnessed us sign. Our visa status is specifically for retirees and prohibits us from working in France.
10. Self-addressed, stamped envelopes which are available from any supermarket or post office.
Tracy (A.K.A. the “Queen of Organization”) took my collection of paperwork, rearranged and organized our documents exactly in the order of the checklist, and made certain the required spaces on the renewal form were filled in.
On our appointment date of March 15, (yes, the ominous ‘Ides of March’) we took the €1 Bus the 23 kilometers (14.5 miles) from Argelès-sur-Mer to Perpignan.
Our appointment was at 9:15. so we took the early bus and arrived in Perpignan with time to enjoy a café crème and a pain au chocolat before walking to Préfecture’s annex in the Hôtel D’Ortaffa located behind the actual Préfecture. We arrived as the office opened at 9:00 and waited as a police officer from the Police Nationale hand-checked the bags of visitors as they entered.
There was a short line at the check-in window, but before we could reach the window, a young customer service representative in a red vest looked at our appointment e-mail and walked us into the immigration office. We waited a couple of minutes and were called to a window for our appointment at exactly at 9:15.
Our very helpful and friendly immigration officer was extremely impressed with Tracy’s organization and deemed it “Parfait!” (Perfect!) The only issue was with the electronic fingerprint scanner which had difficulties reading my dry hands and it took several attempts to get readable prints. Tracy had no such problems.
This renewal was much simpler than last years since we were not changing regions and we had a regular lease and power bill.
Our final step was to sign and accept our Récépissés de Demande de Titre de Séjour (receipt of application for residency permits) that serve as temporary Cartes de Sejours. Our immigration officer advised us that we will be sent notification letters that will let us know that we can return with our timbres fiscaux (tax stamps), passports, and Récépissés de Demande de Titre de Séjour to collect our new Cartes de Sejours for 2016-2017.
And Tracy received official recognition that she is, “Parfait!” But I already knew that. We were “in-and-out” of the Préfecture in 45 minutes total after processing both our renewals. I know there is a stereotype of cumbersome French bureaucracy, but (“knock on wood”) we have had minimal challenges and all the representatives have been very patient and helpful.
Now we just have to wait for our notice in the mail to arrive and our return trip to Perpignan..
While we were doing our final preparations to move from Carcassonne to Argelès-sur-Mer, we received an e-mail from our future landlord that our letters from the Préfecture des Pyrénées–Orientales notifying us that our Cartes de Séjour (residency permits) were ready for pick-up. We decided to wait the until we completed our move before we would go to collect our new cards. It had taken the Préfecture about three weeks to officially approve and produce our new Cartes de Séjour.
We moved to our new residence, unpacked, settled-in, completed and submitted our US tax return, shopped for kitchen basics, found the local open-air market, got to know Argelès-sur-Mer’s public transportation system, met a couple from Collioure for drinks, and even hosted friends overnight who were on a vacation through France.
We sorted out the “€1 Bus” schedule to Perpignan and left early on a Thursday morning with the documents the notification letter said were required: our passports, current Cartes de Séjour, €106 payment each in timbres fiscaux (tax stamps), and the notification letter. I double-checked the letter and we headed to the Préfecture des Pyrénées–Orientales in Perpignan.
The trip went flawlessly . . . almost. We correctly figured out the regional bus schedule from Argelès to Perpignan, we remembered the path from the station to the prefecture without error, we successfully planned enough transit time to enjoy a leisurely cup of café crème in a nearby cafe, and we were waiting at the right door when the immigration office opened for business. We were feeling very pleased with our skills navigating life as “strangers in a strange land.”
However, I made the embarrassing and very rookie error while reading our notification letters and mis-translated “mercredi et vendredi” (Wednesday and Friday) as “du mercredi au vendredi” (Wednesday through Friday.) That day was, of course, a Thursday. So we spent the remainder of the day exploring Perpignan, took photos, enjoying a nice lunch before catching the bus back to Argelès.
The next day, Friday, we repeated our inadvertent “trial run” and returned to the Préfecture des Pyrénées–Orientales in Perpignan. This time everything did go flawlessly. We enjoyed our morning café crème, was near the front of the line when the Préfecture’s immigration opened, and the receptionist gave us the first two numbers to be called to the service windows. Tracy had our documents well-organized and our immigration official very professionally processed our forms and payment and issued us our new Cartes de Séjour with receipts complete with digital photos should we lose our cards.
It took eleven minutes from walking into the Préfecture to walking back out with our new Cartes de Séjour tucked in our wallets. We are now all set for another year of living in France.
The issue we expected to deal with was that we were moving to the city of Argelès-sur-Mer during the same week that our current Cartes de Séjourexpire. The new city is in a different department than where we currently live (a department is one of the three levels of government below the national level, between regions and communes.) These administrative levels of French government are roughly analogous as US states to French regions, US counties to French departments, and US cities to French communes. Because of the change in physical location we had the question, “Do we renew in our current department or at the one where we will actually be living for the duration of the permit?”
After double-checking with both prefectures (a prefecture being the government office that performs national level business at the local level – think visiting a “Federal Building” in the US) we learned that the Préfecture des Pyrénées–Orientales would prefer to handle our renewal (although the Préfecture de l’Aude very kindly told us they would be happy to help and do the renewal if there was any problems.) So after two visits to the Préfecturedel’Aude and a couple of e-mails to the Préfecture des Pyrénées–Orientales I was a finally able to request an appointment date.
We now knew “when” and “where,” the next step was “what.” Although immigration is performed by the national government, we have been told that there is some discretion at the individual préfet offices in issuing renewals for Cartes de Séjour. The Préfecture de l’Aude provides an in-house form and check-list of “what” supporting documents are required. Not knowing “what” documents the Préfecture des Pyrénées–Orientales may require and in an attempt to avoid a four-hour round-trip train ride to Perpignan, I requested the correct renewal forms and check-list from that préfet by mail and by e-mail. Yes, I know it’s redundant for both, but I wanted to make sure I received a response so that we had plenty of time to acquire all the supporting documents before the appointment. I’m sure anyone who has ever gotten turned away at a window at the Department of Motor Vehicles because of a forgotten document can relate.
The Préfecture des Pyrénées–Orientales very promptly responded with a confirmation date for our renewal appointment, the renewal forms required, and a list of supporting documents that need to accompany the renewal application. The forms themselves simply asked for identification information (i.e. name, date of birth, address, nationality, and such) and the required documents is a short list (the originals to be brought with us and copies to be attached to the application):
1. Current Carte de Séjour (residency permit) that is being renewed.
2. Passport with copies of pages with identification information, expiration dates, entry stamps, and visas.
3. Marriage certificate since our passports do not confirm marital status. This document was not specifically on our list from the Préfecture des Pyrénées–Orientales but marital status was mentioned on the copies of passport pages. A marriage certificate was also not on the required document list at our previous renewal, but was requested during that appointment. We always opt for the “better safe than sorry” theory so the marriage certificate was included with our application. We carry our dossier file to all government meetings, our dossier file is a binder-briefcase that contains all our important documents in case an additional document is requested.
4. Birth certificate.
5. Proof of the location of residency with a utility bill and our landlord’s identification information. Our new landlord was happy to provide that information as was our current landlord during last year’s renewal.
6. Three recent passport-style photographs. There are passport photo machines in a dozen locations around Carcassonne. Photos are required with almost all government applications.
7. €106 payment each in timbres fiscaux (tax stamps.) The tax stamps are sold in specific Tabacs (tobacco and convenience stores.)
8. Proof of financial independence equivalent to 12 times the monthly French minimum wage (in our case with bank statements and pension confirmation letter from the Nevada Public Employees Retirement System [NV PERS] as retirees.)
9. Sworn handwritten attestation not to exercise any occupation in France. (There was actually an attestation on the form that could be filled in.)
10. Self-addressed, stamped envelopes.
All of these documents and items were then obtained over January and February. In several cases it takes a couple of weeks to process the requests plus transit time in the mail. Some agencies or companies will only mail to our “official” US address and then that document has to be re-mailed to us in France, which Tracy’s sister graciously handles for us.
Tracy (AKA the “Queen of Organization”) arranged and organized our applications exactly in the order of the checklist we were provided. There was one folder for me and one for her in the event we saw separate officials rather than together as a couple. (We have so far always had “couple” appointments.)
On our appointment date of March 2 we traveled by train the 114 kilometers (71 miles) to Perpignan. Since this was the first time we have visited Perpignan, we built-in a “cushion” of extra time in order to locate the Préfecture des Pyrénées–Orientales, do a bit of sight-seeing, and enjoy a leisurely lunch before our appointment.
The train trip included beautiful views of the snow-capped Pyrénées mountains and flocks of pink flamingo on the salt marches between Narbonne and Port-la-Nouvelle
Just before our 2 pm appointment, we went to the Prefectures’ information desk to check-in. A very friendly staff person (speaking both French and English) explained that renewal office was located around the corner at a Prefecture annex in the Hôtel D’Ortaffa. Once we checked in at the reception desk, we were directed to a waiting room and we noticed immediately that there was an electronic display board with numbers and the other patrons were holding number slips. I went back to double-check with the receptionist if I needed a number. Another patron kindly explained to Tracy that there were two waiting areas, one with check-in numbers and a second with appointments to be called by name. Tracy called me back from the reception desk and we moved to the second waiting room. It is always little things like this that seem to cause us the most confusion.
After a twenty-minute wait we met with our immigration representative, a very patient woman who spoke no English. Almost immediately the discussion about “issues” with our renewal applications started.
The first issue: We are moving to Argelès-sur-Mer the day after our current Cartes de Sejours expire. This means we are moving between departments. Our representative first believed that we needed to apply for our renewal in Carcassonne. I was prepared with the e-mailin which I had previously confirmed where to apply for renewal. That seemed to fix the problem quite nicely.
Second issue: We had no proof we were living in Argelès-sur-Mer. Of course not, we haven’t moved yet. However, once we produced our current rental agreement and receipts she shook her head and mentioned that our stuff from Carcassonne didn’t work there. We then pointed out the address for the upcoming residence. Our representative pointed out that the residence was described as a “holiday” property. We indicated the arrival and departure dates on the lease. Our rep ran upstairs and had her supervisor approve it. She came back smiling and saying, “Okay, Okay.”
Third issue: Normally residency is proven with a utility bill in the name of the applicant. But with the Argelès-sur-Mer rental property, like our current home in Carcassonne, the utilities are in our landlords’ names. We produced a copy of the utility bill for the Argelès-sur-Mer property and a copy of our new landlord’s passport as the utilities holder. Our new rental home is a form of duplex. The landlord lives on the opposite side of the property with her entrance on a parallel street opposite from our entrance. The two units have the same number, but use different street addresses. The utility bill, although it is for both properties, is mailed to the landlord’s address. After many attempts in our limited French to explain the architecture of the buildings, Tracy solved the concern with a quick sketch of the two unit’s adjacent floor plans. Oddly, that seemed to work just fine.
Fourth issue: Our pre-addressed envelopes for pick-up notification were made out to our current Carcassonne address. (We assumed that notification would come prior to the 30 days we had before we moved.) Our representative insisted that the address be changed to the new address and kindly provided “white-out” tape for Tracy to change them. We are hopeful that we will have mail upon arrival.
With those issues resolved, the representative accepted our renewal applications for final approval, took our digital fingerprints to confirm our identities, and prepared our Récépissés de Demande de Titre de Séjour (receipt of application for residency permits) that serve as temporary Cartes de Sejours.
Surprise fifth issue: Although the Prefecture’s checklist for the application asked us to bring three passport-style photos each, our representative needed four photos to complete the application process. Easy to fix, we always keep extras in the dossier.
Our representative had us sign our paperwork, issued us our Récépissés de Demande de Titre de Séjour, and advised us that once we received our notification letters we needed to return with our timbres fiscaux (tax stamps), passports, and Récépissés de Demande de Titre de Séjour to collect our Cartes de Sejours for 2015-2016 with our new Argelès-sur-Mer address.
Success! Although we were getting apprehensive in the middle of our meeting, our representative handled everything with relative expediency. Relieved, we happily walked back to the Perpignan train station with our Récépissés tucked safely inside our dossier. There was even time for a celebratory beer at a café before we boarded the train back to Carcassonne and start packing for our move.
Our biggest lesson: if there is any confusion in terminology. i.e. vacation rental, or addresses that don’t match for utility bills, it needs to be addressed prior to the appointment. A lot of the confusion could have been easily resolved with a letter from the landlord that indicated the dates and duration of our stay, that it would be our permanent address during those dates, that she owned both properties and covered them under one utility bill, and that our utilities were included in the rental price.