Wednesday, April 10, 2013

A Year Later....Ramblings on French paperwork

What a difference a year can make....

Yesterday, I registered my kids for summer camp through our town here in France.  Last summer, I posted a bit on this experience - Summer, Pessac Market, friends & Sailing Camp  & the day camp experience - Day Camp French Style-Centre-de-Loisirs.  What I didn't post was how frustrating, pain-in-the-neck, long process it was to register them last year.  Having been through many different registration processes in the states, this one had to be one of the worst.  This is also one of the tough things about being an are different.

Lac Cazoux - home of  the Nautical camp

Rewind to last April - we had only been in the country for a mere 4 1/2 months.  We had heard lots of great things about summer camps or "Sejours d'ete" as they call them here.  We had learned they were reasonable in cost, fun for the kids and parents spoke very highly about them.  Great, I started doing my research early and found out that our town offered 2 camps in the summer.  One was a sailing/nautical camp at a lake about 45 minutes away near the ocean and the other was a mountain/hiking/outdoor adventure-kind of camp in the Pyrenees mountains.  As I did my on-line research, I figured out when to register, what paperwork I needed to bring in, but nothing about the cost or if English paperwork (kid's health immunizations) were acceptable.
Departure day for camp 
I find this fairly typical about the way things are done here in France.  Information is often not succinctly presented as I've been use to from my American perspective.  Even though, all of this information was found on the town's website - one had to go through different screens to put it all together - and as far as cost - all it would say was it was dependent on your CAF.  CAF stands for  caisse d’Allocations familiales or money that the  government provides for families to supplement extra costs of children.  This allocation is dependent on your family income. So naturally, the lower the family income, the more CAF one would receive & additionally, the lower the family income, the less a family pays for town/school services relating to children.  Cost of camps, after-school programming, vacation programming, certain town-sponsored after-school activities & lunches at school are all pro-rated by one's income.  So it make sense to me that the cost of camp is dependent on one's CAF allocation - but there was no table, no range, Nada...This meant I had to email and ask for this information.

Now, at that point, I was less comfortable with my written French, so I had my husband email about a month before we were to start registering for camp.  The response back to his email, "We haven't set up the cost table, so can not answer your question at this time, we will send it out once we have created it.".  So we waited, I had heard that these camps have limited spaces and fill up fast so it's best to sign up as soon as registration opens. (No surprise there, I know where I lived in the States - same thing for a lot of summer programs).  It came to the weekend before registration and still no word on cost - so I sent an email in my probably, at the time, not so great French and asked for the cost - This was done the morning before registration was to open that afternoon.

Sending the big girls off to camp for a week
Surprise, they did send me the cost, & also encouraged me to register early.  But they didn't answer how this was billed, did they charge it all up front?  Was I to pay a deposit when I registered? How much of a deposit did they want?  I wanted both girls to attend the same camp, the same week - I was flexible on weeks, was this possible?  It looked like I could register them on-line but I had all these questions and others about our paperwork, so I opted to go register them in person. (As it was indicated, registration is first-come first served - with 1/2 on line and the other 1/2 in person).

So off I went that afternoon to the Mayor's office with paperwork in hand and armed with my questions.  As I got to the Mayor's office (Now, you have to remember that here in France, La Mairie (or mayor's office) is  the place to do all paperwork and anything relating to town activities - Think, School District, Town Offices & State Offices rolled into it's a busy place on any given day!)  and went inside and noticed it was jammed packed - lots of people - all with paperwork in hand - all doing the exact same thing as me.  You are given a number in line and you wait until your called.  They were at number 104 and I was number 181!!  I glanced around to see that yes, there were many assistants open and taking people, so I hoped that this would move along at a decent pace.  This was not the case, it seemed to take each person 10-15 minutes each to do their registrations.  Another difference in France, people are not in a hurry, especially in situations like this.  The clerk works through the paperwork, talks with person but at their own pace.   Again, coming from the States, having been in registration situations similar, I was use to people speeding along - trying to get everyone through the process.  Here it's more about taking care of the people in the process, and there is always tomorrow.

I then realized that I had forgotten the registration form which I had printed out at home.  That's okay - I figured it wouldn't take me long to go home, get the form and return - I would probably still make it back before my number was called.  At least that trip took some time away from waiting.  I returned at 3 pm and they were only at 155.  I  then proceeded to wait until 4:40 and still being 10 numbers away from being called, I had to leave to go pick up my kids from school. There were still about 20 - 30 people waiting just like me.  Frustrated, no questions answered, no registration done, I headed home. This was ridiculous, I had wasted my whole afternoon for nothing.  I was not happy. I figured I would return the next day and start this ridiculous process again - hopefully with better results - if there was still room in the programs.

They come back - tanned, relaxed and thrilled about their experience.
After I got the kids off the bus, I figured I'd take a few minutes to look at the on-line registration process.  It wouldn't answer many of my questions, but I would see how it goes.  So I clicked on and began to register my first daughter for camp - name, camp name, which week  (so far so good).  Then it got a bit tricky - one needed to upload and attach the various documentation (this is where I had some questions) but I figured I would see what I could do.  So I scanned each piece - CAF verification, Medical/Social Security verification, copy of kid's immunization (now this was in English - but it's all I had), and registration form.  The only thing I was missing was a swim test - proof they could swim.  I attached what I could and proceeded. It confirmed what I attached, didn't seem to mind that I was missing the swim test & moved me on - The next part was a great surprise - There was a place where I could ask my questions!!  So I typed my questions in. I was still unsure about the billing, but figured I would see a screen later.  Again, I confirmed and moved on, it asked me to confirm the summary and then send.  What no payment?

But I had one done and  sent - so I went on to register my other daughter - I figured on her question section, I would ask about payment.  Her registration was a bit easier as I knew what to attach.  I asked my questions about billing and sent it in.  This whole process took me about an hour and a half.  But at least it was done...I was pretty sure I had registered them.  Happily the next morning, I received confirmation that my registrations had been received and accepted.  They were set.  They even confirmed that they would bill us on our monthly town bill in 3 payments.  Great, but this information could have been posted somewhere.

Fast -forward a year later,  Yesterday, was registration day.  This time, I was not going to go to the Mayor's office and waste my afternoon - Armed with the completed registration form,  I sat down at my computer at the 1:30 pm - the designated start time for registration and proceeded through the process.  In just under 10 minutes, I was done!  Within an hour, I received confirmation that they were all set.  Now, that was efficient!  Yes, what a difference a year makes - I have to say - the French love their paperwork and it's not always clear to know what exactly is needed - but it's improving.  With an Internet registration, this was about as easy as it gets.
I think we are finally understanding the system better here - but a little good luck helps too!
Please pardon my long post here - but one of the things about living in France is there many times there seems to be a lot of paperwork to hand in for lots of things.  The French love their dossiers!  But at the same time this is not always the case - other things, take a simple one page application and some trust that all will be fine - but that is a post for another time.

Have a great day!!


  1. As you've noticed, in France it's not the process that counts and how it efficient it is, but enjoying the connection with people. Carpe diem (seize the day)!

  2. So, that's how expats deal with summer camp registration in France. Your post is commendable since you've cared to share this experience. Thanks.


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