Our Family’s (2nd) Year in the South of France
Kids and Castles - Our year with kids in the South of France

Category — Bureaucracy

A Visit to the Doctor in Provence

I will confess – I was looking forward to visiting the doctor in France.

Not the being sick part, of course. We are self-employed, over-40, and I have a “pre-existing condition” so we are one of those families that the US healthcare system doesn’t really work for. I was very curious to see how a doctor visit in France would compare.

We got our chance last week. L sprained her ankle so we dug out the list of doctors that we got at Tourist Information (incredibly helpful place!) and found an office near us. JM called to see when we could come. Our first surprise came when THE DOCTOR answered the phone on the first ring – no receptionist, no voice mail.

There are walk-in hours from 9-12 every morning (appointments in the afternoon) so the doctor suggested we drop by. We walked into a tiny but modern building and saw a sign for “Salle de Dr. F (Room of Dr. F). We entered a small room that had a few people waiting, some chairs, a few magazines, and nothing else:  No receptionist. No nurse. No sign-in sheet. We sat down and waited like everyone else.

Every 10-15 minutes the doctor would open the door and the next person would go with her. Everyone waiting was very civil and knew exactly where they were in the order. Exactly one person would get up each time the doorknob turned.

The room had a price list posted.  22€ for an adult. Kids were more at 28€. Mileage was additional for house calls. (Yes, this doctor makes house calls!!!)

We waited for just under an hour for our turn. Lots of time to study the other people’s feet and realize that once again I was the only one in the room wearing white running shoes. Nothing else screams “American” quite like those shoes – except maybe a baseball cap.

When it was our turn the doctor firmly shook all our hands and walked us into a large office with a big desk and an examination table. Dr. F took L’s history directly onto the computer, put her on the table and confirmed it was a sprain, then typed up and printed a prescription – no illegible doctor handwriting here!

The visit ended with her giving us a bill for exactly the 28€ posted. She took Visa. We took the prescription to the pharmacy, and spent 8€.

(WARNING: I am about to sound bitter about the American health system. But it’s only because I am bitter.)

A similar visit in California would involve making an appointment for the one slot that the doctor had available that day, then waiting in the outside waiting room for 5-10 minutes. Then there would be a second wait of 10-30 minutes or more in the exam room, where there is nothing to distract the children. We’d be greeted by a receptionist, handed off to a nurse, and then see the doctor and repeat everything we told everyone already. We’d leave having had excellent medical care, but not having a clue what the visit would eventually cost.  (The last part is because of the self-insured thing – we have a high deductible plan to keep our premiums reasonable. It’s not the typical American experience.)

Then we’d go to the pharmacy with our handwritten prescription, where they would ask us what the writing meant and we’d have no idea, so they’d call the doctor’s office to confirm. If we were lucky the phone would be answered and we could go shopping for 15 minutes while they prepared the prescription. If we were unlucky the doctor wouldn’t answer and we’d have to return later in the day. If a generic is available the charge would be $20-30.  If no generic, we hold our breath and  pull out the credit card to wait for a nasty surprise.

Two months later the insurance and the doctor’s office would figure out what we owed, and we’d get a bill that we wouldn’t understand in spite of being highly educated – usually for about $120-180 on top of the $20 co-pay we had paid at the doctor’s office previously.

I did miss the fish tank in the pediatrician’s office in California, and depending on JM to communicate with the doctor is a BIG negative for me – but otherwise I kind of preferred the Provence way.

December 6, 2010   10 Comments

The French Grèves (Strikes) and Our Trip

This may be a very short post, but I’ve had a lot of questions about the impact of the protests in France on our trip. Short answer – NONE (almost).

We haven’t seen any violence, run out of gas, or gotten stuck in traffic because of a protest. None of the businesses we frequent have closed and we don’t use public transportation on a daily basis so don’t notice when the trains stop. We don’t have a TV or a radio or get the paper except occasionally, so we don’t hear that much about what is going on unless we go looking for it.

We have talked to a few people here about what they think of the strikes, and that’s been really interesting. One of the goals of this trip is to be exposed to a completely different point of view, and certainly the protests have facilitated those conversations. It has inspired JM and I to think more about our own views and the balance between wanting a social safety net (we’re Canadians, we like that!) and not really believing that government is a solution (we live in Calfornia, enough said).

The “almost” part is because of two things:

  1. We’ve canceled our trip to Paris: We had planned to take the TGV (high-speed french train) to Paris for the fall break, because Z is very disappointed that she hasn’t seen the Eiffel Tower yet viagra a bas prix. But we aren’t excited about getting stuck at a train station, so have decided to delay that trip until later in the year.  Instead we’ll head south and explore Provence with the kids.  We’ve been flipping through the Routard Provence looking for all the “family-friendly” icons and I’m even more excited than if we’d gone to Paris.
  2. The teachers strike: So far L’s teacher has taken two strike days and Z’s teacher has taken four days. (One thing we learned is that you don’t get paid when you go on strike in France, so it is sometimes an individual choice to strike or not.)  But the teachers are very considerate about how they strike.  You get several days notice, and there is always an option to put your kid in an alternate program for the day. One day Z was put in L’s class, which was a huge treat for her.

As you can tell, neither of these things are real hardships, and it gives us something to talk about.

October 24, 2010   1 Comment

The Power of the Village

Hello World!  This is JM’s first post.

France is famous for its bureaucracy.  But we’ve discovered that the natives are aware of this, they help each other simplify things, take short-cuts and make their lives more enjoyable in spite of it. Indeed, we’ve seen that this part of Provence is about the community and helping each other out.  This “community approach” here in the village has become quite apparent during our first hectic week, when many people went out of their ways to help us get settled.

Case in point:  We tried getting cell phones a couple of days ago.  The lady at the store was very friendly and helpful at explaining the variety of phone plans in their intricate levels of details.  However, we hit a snag.  In order to have an affordable plan, it needed a contract, which needed a bank account.  But getting a bank account in France requires a utility bill under our name which, of course, we don’t have since we are “seasonal” renters.

Coming to the rescue is our friendly neighborhood village Mayor!  I saw him last Sunday at the local café and I explained our bank account dilemma.  His reply:  “Let me talk to the local bank manager, first thing Monday morning, and see what I can do”.  The bank was closed on Monday, but the Mayor was going to see the bank manager socially.

Monday morning, 11am.  Someone knocks at our door.  The Mayor shows up, with a smile and a formal letter in hand complete with the official seal of the village.  The letter states that we are residing in the village and have the full rights of a local resident.  Problem solved!  When we went to the bank the next day, we were welcomed immediately and had an account that day.

Merci Monsieur le Maire!  (Thank you Mr. Mayor!)

September 13, 2010   7 Comments

The Blue Chair/Brown Chair System Goes Bad

I went to pick our our final approved visa’s at the San Francisco consulate today. Very easy. The security lady remembered me, which was kind of nice. The guy who stamped the passports knew my last name without cross-referencing the number on my receipt, which was kind of unnerving. I’d never spoken to him before. The paranoia began immediately – what was it about our application that was memorable? Maybe all that time JM spent writing his letter of motivation actually made an impact.

The Blue Chair/Brown Chair system was still in use.  There were only two people waiting – both sitting smack-dab up against each other in the line of blue chairs in an otherwise empty room. Both gentlemen were rather, um, large, and you could feel them straining to give each other their personal space. I was very happy to get a brown chair with lots and lots of elbow room.

July 26, 2010   Comments Off on The Blue Chair/Brown Chair System Goes Bad

The San Francisco French Consulate: Applying for our Long Term Visa

This was a BIG day for our trip.  We carefully booked the appointment so that it would fall after we got Z’s new passport but before we left for our Canadian vacation.  The Consulate web site has a very detailed page outlining what you have to bring.  The obvious stuff like passports, green cards, but also:

  • Where you will stay – in our case the rental agreement
  • Proof of health insurance
  • Motivation letter
  • Bank statements showing that you have the required amount per person per month of your stay
  • Passport-size photos

Yelp has reviews of the visa process, and the consensus is that if you have all your stuff together, everything is straightforward. So we spent the days leading up to the appointment filling out forms, making copies, and trying to guess what else they might ask for.  They changed the list between the time we applied and the time we went, so I cross-referenced the lists and prepared a  superset of everything plus a whole bunch of extra stuff – just in case.

I was ready, and I was STRESSED.  My first experience head-to-head with the famous french bureaucracy. Here we come.

BOTTOM LINE:  It was fine.

The process was pretty painless and took just over an hour. Our agent was a delightful woman with a charming British accent who was extremely helpful with a few issues we had.

The consulate uses a “blue chair/brown chair” system. There is a row of blue chairs against the wall.  Visa applicants  are seated in the first open blue chair, and as people are called up from the chair at the end, everybody shifts down one spot. Only applicants get blue chairs.  If  you are there with a friend, they have to sit in a brown chair to wait.

In the middle of the room are 3 rows of brown chairs. People who are picking up visas sit anywhere in the brown chairs.  When an agent is free, they go through all the brown chair people first, and then call the next blue chair person.

Not sophisticated but pretty efficient.  The kids did get to sit wherever they wanted.

A Few Tips:

  1. Don’t be even a tiny bit obnoxious: The lady who was in line behind us was not exactly rude, but she made a couple of comments to the room about how strange the system was. I think she meant to by funny, but I suspect it was not a coincidence that she was sent down the street to get a photocopy she hadn’t brought, while our agent quietly photocopied our marriage certificate for us.
  2. Stuff to bring not on the list: Marriage certificate and photocopy. Plane tickets and photocopy.  Bring a book – no cell phones or laptops allowed.
  3. Stuff we didn’t need to bring: The kids.  They did not have to be there and were quite bored with the whole process.
  4. Renew passports: The web site says “passport valid for one year”.  Turns out the rule is really “valid for 3 months after planned return  date”.  It’s a good rule of thumb anyway as I discovered a year ago when I was pulled off a flight to Tel Aviv because my passport expired in five months. Plus, it’s such a complete pain to get a passport renewed while traveling that it’s better to just reset the five years months before you’re thinking of departing. (Yes, we are making an emergency trip to the Saskatoon passport office while we’re in Canada next month.)
  5. Make multiple appointments at the same time: The web site is clear – one appointment per passport.   So I scheduled my appointment at 10, L’s at 10:30, Z’s at 11:00 and JM’s at 11:30.  But turns out they actually have 5 appointments per slot, and they deal with people as they come into the office (the appointment gets you through the door, not talking to somebody).  So I could have made all 4 appointments for 10:00.
  6. Be prepared to be without your passport for 2 weeks: I didn’t find that written anywhere, but they wanted to keep our passports until the visas were ready.  Turns out we were lucky that JM’s passport needed renewal, so we got all the passports back until his is ready.  I always hate being without my passport (never know when you have an emergency) but this would have meant rescheduling the trip to Canada and missing the family reunion.

UPDATE (July 22, 5:30 PM):  The French Consulate just called to say our visas are ready.  We just have to take our passports in to pick them up.  That was FAST.  So much for a two week wait.

July 22, 2010   5 Comments

Our Address in the Village

So in our village, the street address is just “Le Village”.  No number.  No actual street name.

The mailman knows all the names of the people on the route.  Just like the Rural Route system at my grandparent’s farm.

The funny part is that the “mairie” is working on assigning names and numbers in the village,  but it’s been going on for 2 years and isn’t done yet.

July 19, 2010   Comments Off on Our Address in the Village

Letter of Motivation

To apply for a French visa, they ask you to write a “letter of motivation”. Here is how it’s described on the Consulate General of France in San Francisco web site:

  • A motivation letter from applicant certifying that she/he will not have any paid activity in France and explaining the purpose of the stay

It seems simple, but JM spent almost all afternoon writing his letter in French, during which he frequently referenced the big French-English dictionary and the “Petit Larousse” (which is actually one of the biggest books in the house – I am genuinely frighted by the idea of the “Grand Larousse”).

Here’s how Google translated his letter from French to English.

I have done with your services dated July 20, 2010 for a visa for France, mention long stay.

I certify, <JM’s info removed> and carrying on the profession of electronics engineer, said he holds a Canadian passport.

The purpose of my trip is a cultural holiday and tourism. I am indeed fascinated by the history and French culture and would like to compare my knowledge discovery in situ of France.

I plan to visit several historical sites in southern France, especially in Provence, as Orange, Avignon, Nime, Arles, Vaison-la-Romaine and many others, and the issuance of a visa de long I would stay this project dear to my heart.

My passion for history and French culture is longstanding. My children are both bilingual and converse in French. Through our cultural tour in France, I want to increase their affinity for the language and their knowledge of French culture.

In addition, my wife, <my personal info removed> wants to learn French through total immersion during our stay.

Also, thank you for a favorable response to my request and in anticipation of your reply, I beg you to accept, Mr. Consul, my respectful greetings.

I love how this sounds in the translation – just like something out of the Three Musketeers. My letter, in English of course, had less than half the words and only a “sincerely” to close.  Hopefully they don’t bounce me for lack of eloquence.

I send you, dear reader, my respectful greetings and fondly hope to write to you again in the very near future with the glad tidings that our petition for a visa has been approved.

July 18, 2010   2 Comments

Can it be this easy?

Having a signed house rental contract now moves everything forward.  With an address we can apply for our visa, register for school, and tell our parents where they can come and visit us.

Registering for school is done through the town hall of the village. They have a very nice web site with the email of the town hall, so JM sent an inquiry.  We immediately got a response with an apology that our village doesn’t have a school, but they would go to school in the next village and gave us the phone number of that school.  JM called the school and the lady who picked up the phone was incredibly helpful, took the kids names and info and told us we had our place reserved.  We need to show up a few days before with immunization forms.  Very simple! (Knock wood. Or is it rap wood?)

That felt good.  Then 10 minutes later the town hall emailed us back to introduce us to the mayor of the village and give us his cell phone number – in case we had any questions.

I feel welcome already.

June 22, 2010   2 Comments