Sunday, January 24, 2010

My life in the photo booth

We became French citizens last year, Mr Mo, Youngest, and I, and last week we were summoned to the naturalization office at our Préfecture in Upper Provence to receive our certificats de naturalisation. This was something of a non-event, as it turned out: for the 1.5-hour drive to our departmental seat, thought I, our Youngest ended up missing a half-day of school? Mr Mo or I could have turned in our residency cards and dealt with getting our temporary citizen ID cards, and so on.

(After we received the summons, I had, in fact, phoned Madame Naturalization Office and asked if one of us could come on behalf of all of us, but she seemed shocked at the notion: Mais non, c'est la remise du décret—"No, this is the handing over of the decree [of naturalization]." I would rather that Youngest have missed school this coming week, when Mr Mo and I will go back up to the Préfecture for the Official Semi-Annual Reception to Welcome New Citizens, with Monsieur le Préfet himself in attendance, and our mayor from our tiny village, for that matter, but [a] Youngest says she's not interested, and [b] she cannot afford to miss more school for any reason at this point.)

Well. Anyway. So up to the departmental seat we went, and with us we took not just our residency cards, but also an entire envelope full of ID photos, some from The Dawn of Time (in other words, from when we first arrived in France more than eight years ago). The summons had said for each of us to bring an ID photo. Not knowing precisely why yet another photo was needed, Youngest insisted that she hated the latest round of ID photos (the ones we'd turned in with our request for citizenship... and quite honestly, I thought Youngest's photo was cool: she looks a lot like Amélie Nothomb in it—but I digress), and so we would need to make a stop at a photo booth conveniently located at a local hypermarché to get new ones. Which we did. (Or tried to: Youngest got hers, but Mr Mo's never came out of the machine; he was reimbursed. Given Mr Mo's difficulties, I didn't try.)

Youngest ended up using an even older photo for her temporary ID card, as did both Mr Mo and I. (Oh younger self, how I miss thee.) And we waited around as Mme Naturalization shuffled papers and folders and then finally, tah-dah, gave us our official copies of the decrees. "This is the only original you will ever receive," she cautioned each of us. "If you lose it, you can never, ever get another. It is the only proof you have that you are a French citizen." (Given where these papers are sitting currently, a house fire would be very sad if what she said is true.)

But back to the photos. In America, the only official photos I have ever had to deal with were for (a) driver's licenses (with the photo most conveniently taken right there by the clerk at the Dept/Registry of Motor Vehicles) and (b) passports. The passport photos were as much of a nuisance to deal with in the U.S. as the photos we've had to provide here in France (well, OK, more of a nuisance: U.S. photo booth photos do not produce legally-usable photos, so we had to go to a real photographer and pay real photographer prices), but here is la vraie différence: the French have required us to submit about 10 times (or more) as many photos as we ever had to do in the States.

Now, I'll grant you that some of the photos we've submitted would have had to have been submitted even had we still been living in the States: the Chinese and Russians would have required photos for us to get our tourist visas, for example, and it just so happens that we lived in France when we decided to travel to these visa-requiring countries.

But all those other photos. Hmm. Unlike the DMV/RMV in CA, PA, and MA, the prospective Legal Driver here in France has to provide ID photos: they are not shot on-site and instantly incorporated into some national French database of drivers. And I've had to provide one or two photos when I got my new carte vitale (French healthcare card; the old ones are photo-free).

Convenient enough in the bigger towns and cities, says I, are the photo booths of France: they all provide cheap and legal-size ID photos (although one may still have one's photo disqualified if, God forbid, one wants to look pleasant instead of slack-faced morose; what the hell is it with the authorities—American as well as French— that everyone has to look like sh*t and entirely unlike themselves in photos meant to be used for years?—but I digress). It is possible to find photo booths at most (larger) supermarkets and often at train stations.

But it is not so easy to deal with photos in tiny towns. Our village has no photo booth (though I think I'll suggest that the Musée de la Préhistoire install one; tourists can have the option of creating photo-postcards of themselves with a mammoth or something, and why not?). Anyway, the closest approximation of a photo booth that I know of is 20 km away, and it is not a booth, but a lady with a high-end "instamatic" digital camera who has a corner on the Official ID Photo market. But God forbid her little bookstore/tabac/gift shop be closed; I don't know what one does to deal with ID photos in that case.

I have had ID photos taken in this lady's shop. She keeps a special little white sheet tacked up in a corner of her store to serve as the backdrop for these official photos. I honestly can't even remember why I had to have new photos — maybe for my replacement driver's license or my carte vitale or maybe even for my Russian visa or... who knows.

Now, I complain about the plethora of photos Mr Mo and I have had to supply for various official reasons, but honest to God, our numbers totally pale in comparison to the number of photos Youngest has had to supply — and nearly always for Mysterious School Purposes. One thing we learned right away was to always, always get the "two sheets of photos for only 50% more!" deal offered at nearly all booths: no matter what French school requirements might officially say, four photos were never enough. Five photos usually were sufficient for Youngest; and two photos (out of the four on a photo booth sheet) have usually been sufficient for me and Mr Mo. Which explains why we have multi-generational (as it were), outdated ID photos spilling out of a thoroughly inadequate envelope from which we chose old photos to use on our temporary ID papers, ... and about which I felt just a tiny bit embarrassed as Mme Naturalization looked on, clearly amused.

ADDENDUM: Mr Mo reminds me that when we apply for our French passports sometime this week (or shortly thereafter), we will not have to supply photos at all (unless we want to). France is now very 21st century: we will end up with biometric scans that we can use for our passport photos. Cool. Of course, even though our Town Hall is where one normally applies for passports, our town, our mairie is too small to have biometric scanning equipment, so it's off to the “neighboring” town we must go (whether we bring our own photos or not).

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