Embassy runaround

Leave it to the U.S. government.

I need to get a document notarized, which means a trip to the U.S. Embassy—for the second time. (Pro tip for living overseas: don’t get involved in property transactions back in your home country. Everything that is already cumbersome enough on your home soil is made harder when you’re half a world away.)

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The 1/4 size Statue of Liberty near the Pont de Grenelle on the Île aux Cygnes (Island of the Swans), a narrow man-made island in the Seine with a lovely walkway running the length of it. Unless you have to go the embassy, go here instead.

So, I need to sign up for an appointment, which means using their online appointment registration website. Which is full of advisories and caveats and warnings in microscopic legalese. But I’ve done it before. So I cruise through the links, get to the right page and start inputing my personal information with the check boxes and dropdown menus. I think I was putting in my email address when the form autofilled (because my computer remembers my email) and I hit return. But it didn’t just complete the field, it submitted the form, even though I hadn’t finished filling it out.

Now, in any rational world, the system would kick me back and make me put in the missing information. But this isn’t the rational world, this is the government. It takes me to the final page, the “you’re done” page. But I knew I wasn’t, so I click the back button on the form (which is tiny, of course), and am taken to where I left off.

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Bureaucratic mentality

If you move to France, prepare for their national pastime: bureaucracy.

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Getting the paperwork ready for our trip to the French consulate in San Francisco last year to apply for our visa. Application forms, passports, additional passport photos, birth certificates, marriage certificate, various notarized affidavits, bank statements… And: proof we’ve rented a place to live and a record of our airline tickets (both of which we needed to have secured before they would grant the visa to actually stay in France).

Its tentacles are everywhere. Getting a visa, getting a residency card (carte de séjour), getting a driver’s license (something I am so, so, so, so glad I don’t have to do)… seems everyone’s got a story of a bureaucratic headache.

So far we’ve done well. Last year, when we went to the French Consulate in San Francisco armed with all of our paperwork to apply for a visa, we escaped without being tasked with providing them any more paperwork than what we’d brought with us, something that apparently happens with some frequency.

(I could tell the woman we met with was more than ready to saddle us with providing more documentation. Twice during our interview she shook her head because she didn’t think we had everything we needed. In the first instance, I pointed out the supposedly missing document in the stack sitting before her. The second time it turned out she was holding the thing she said we were missing. I’m not positive, but I think she was disappointed.)

Upon getting a visa and arriving in France, the next step is a visit to the OFII office (l’Office Francais de l’Immigration et de l’Integration) within three months of arrival. It’s a kind of bizarre cross between the ER and the DMV. Really.

First, you must prove that you are actually living in France. How do you do this? By showing them your gas bill, of course.

Apparently one’s gas bill is the Holy Grail of proof of residence. Okay, but there’s just one problem: we don’t get a gas bill. We pay our landlord one monthly fee that covers everything—which is shockingly not very bureaucratic, although rather convenient for us. But it means no gas bill. This actually had me a bit worried, since I’ve heard stories of people flunking their OFII visit because they didn’t have all the right paperwork (and after our experience at the consulate, I well believed it). Would I get some administrator who prized the gas bill above all? Or was the whole thing overblown? It’s hard to know. Almost everyone I’ve met who’s lived overseas has some kind of interesting visa story to tell. Was I about to have mine?

Happily, the woman I met with was satisfied with the paperwork I had from my landlord. I confirmed: this is okay? You don’t need anything else? It’s fine, she said. One hurdle cleared.

From there it was on to lots of waiting in sterile rooms, getting my height and weight measured, eyes checked, a chest X-ray taken, and finally a brief consultation with a doctor who listened to my heart and lungs.

“How’s it all look?” I asked him. He was quite friendly, spoke excellent English, and even gave me some tips on learning French that I have thought about often since.

“Everything looks fine—today,” he answered.

“Today?” I asked, not sure quite how to take that.

“I do not know what it will look like tomorrow,” he said in an even tone.

Well, I guess that’s true.

While he wasn’t about to make any promises regarding my future health, he was happy to sign off on letting me stay in the country. That’s good enough. Heck, by the time I hit his office I’d already experienced surgery in France, so really, this whole medical screening part was no big deal, just a few hoops to jump through. And as long as he was happy, I was happy.

After seeing him, it was another round of waiting, and then pay the fee. But not with cash or check or card. No, before you even think of showing up for your appointment, you better have gone to the tobacco shop and purchased a few hundred euros worth of special stamps and brought them with you to the ER/DMV… I mean the OFII. Hand them over and the attendant sticks them all over your special document, cancels them, and voila! you can stay. Hurray!

And that’s what happened. Just one trip to the consulate and one trip to the OFII. Yes! I am working this bureaucracy business, baby! And all things considered, that’s true. I sometimes shake my head at things (hello, setting up cellphone service in France!), but we’re managing.

Bit by bureaucracy

Today, however, the bureaucracy got us. Not in some huge earthshaking way, but one that had me shaking my head.

Our girls are going on a class trip that will take them outside of France—which is pretty cool. And which means we had to fill out more paperwork and provide their passports and visas for a school administer to take to la Préfecture de Police for review. We also had to provide another set of passport photos for each of them. (Seems to me if there’s anything they love more than the gas bill, it’s passport photos. You see the photo booths around town everywhere because it seems there’s always something else that needs one these photos: a Navigo pass, a library card, school forms…)

The school administrator who’s coordinating all of this paperwork warned me that the regulations for the photos we need to provide have been getting more stringent. It can’t be the same photo as their current passport. Make sure they’re not even wearing the same top as in their passport photo. (Really? Yes, really.) Make sure their ears aren’t covered by their hair. Anything else? No, that should do it.

So we get the photos and turn them in along with their passports and the signed forms, and we’re all set. Right?

Today I got a call from the administrator at the school. She was so sorry to be calling, so very sorry she had to give me bad news: one of the girls’ photos was rejected. Did it look too much like the passport photo? Was it because her ears weren’t showing enough? No—it was because her hair was covering up too much of her forehead. A new stipulation, she said. We’ll have to go back down to the photo booth and get a new one taken. I could tell she felt so bad to be telling me this, even though on the scale of life’s disasters, this was pretty low.

Well, we’ll be using the métro this weekend, which means we’ll easily find one of those photo booths, so we’ll get another set taken and drop the new photo off at the school on Monday. I’m just glad I’m not the one who has to handle all the paperwork for thirty students and make multiple trips to the prefecture.

The only constant?

To be fair, it’s not just France; bureaucracy is everywhere. We encountered plenty of it dealing with the girls’ schools back in Seattle when we began the process of transitioning them to their new school in Paris—complete with a surly administrator who seemed disappointed that we had turned in the paperwork that was required, and which she seemed sure we couldn’t possibly have gotten on file. Don’t get me started.

Perhaps Dr. McCoy said it best in Star Trek IV: “The bureaucratic mentality is the only constant in the universe.”

Perhaps. But is it worth it? Oh yeah. This whole enterprise (see what I did there?) of moving to Paris for a year began with a more inspirational quote:

“Extraordinary outcomes are not the result of ordinary actions.”

Merideth announced this at dinner when we were first discussing the possibility of moving to Paris and we were ennumerating all that it would take to make such a big dream a reality.

To which Evelyn asked, “Who said that?”

Merideth set down her fork. “I did.”

« Très bizarre »

Getting a prepaid SIM card is one of the more ridiculously cumbersome processes in France. It means going into a shop (usually with a long line), wading through French paperwork, presenting your passport to be photocopied, and finally getting your service activated. Going in for surgery in France is only slightly more difficult (and I would know).

It probably doesn’t help my outlook on things that a friend told me recently that when he was in the UK, he got a SIM card from a vending machine and was good to go. Well, this is France, not the island of the Queen.

Last week I stopped into a Tabac to purchase another month of service for the girls’ phones. You get a big long receipt printed out, but all that really matters is the fourteen digit code. Call the special number, wait for the automated French voice to stop talking (“wait for the end of… of… the speech,” the French salesman at the Tabac told me), press “2” and then enter the code.

The first time I did this I left the shop before trying to enter the code and went home, only to realize I couldn’t understand the French “speech” and didn’t know what selection to choose. Thankfully, the concierge’s daughter was able to help me (the concierge is kind of like a building manager who lives on the ground floor). The next time, I had the man at the Tabac do it for me and show me how to do it the next time.

So it’s the next time and I’m feeling confident. I’ve got two fourteen digit codes and I know what buttons to press. I get home and Carolyn’s phone accepts the code without any trouble. Time for Evelyn’s phone. I call the special number, but the announcement I get is definitely not the same. I can’t understand much of what’s being said, but it’s clear it’s not giving me any options. The Orange phone company jingle plays and then it hangs up on me. I check her text messages; sure enough, there’s one from Orange that says something to the effect that we need to go back to the shop (le magasin) and present identification to get the service reestablished.

Okay. So I make sure I have a book to read (Dracula, no less!) and go to the shop. Mercifully, the line is short and I’m able to get help in under fifteen minutes.

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The Orange shop near our apartment.

Aside–This is how it goes at Orange: someone greets you, finds out what you need, takes your name, and then tells you to wait. This person then spends the rest of their time tidying the shop (or just gazing around with a slight, Mona Lisa smile) but never actually helps any of the customers.

The representative who assists me calls up the account for Evelyn’s phone on his computer terminal. Turns out there’s no personal identification or passport information associated with it. The only thing I can think of is that when I first got the SIM cards for the girls’ phones, all the information was entered into Carolyn’s account but not Evelyn’s. No problem. He enters all the info, takes a picture of my passport with his phone and emails it off to whomever has the power to make Evelyn’s service active. He tells me it might take an hour or two for it to be ready to accept the recharge code I’ve purchased. Fine. I head off to meet a friend and later that night I try calling the recharge number with my code in hand. But no such luck; I get the same announcement as before with the bouncy Orange jingle. Could it be that things are just taking longer than the man at the shop expected? Let’s hope for that. But in the morning it’s the same thing. There’s nothing for it; I have to go back to le magasin.

As I’m waiting, the man who helped me the day before comes into work. And when my name is called he’s the one available to see me. And he remembers me. This is all quite fortuitous! I show him the phone and my receipt with the recharge number. He tries it and gets the same recording. He checks the account—sure enough, it’s locked pending my personal information getting validated. He gets on the phone and spends time navigating automated menus in order to get to the powers-that-be who can unlock the account. The call is dropped. He starts over. After some time he looks at me and asks if I just want a brand new SIM card. It means Evelyn will get a different phone number, but it will be no charge and it will work immediately.

Oui, let’s do that!

He hangs up and disappears to the backroom to get the new SIM card. When he returns, he pops it in the phone, but the phone refuses to recognize it. Is the phone unlocked? Oui, I say, it worked fine when I got the original SIM card. Hmm. He goes to the back room and reappears with another new SIM card. He pops it in. Same result—the phone won’t recognize it. He gives me a look. Surely there must be something wrong with the phone. Wonderful. Evelyn’s phone is my old iPhone; the battery doesn’t last as long as it used to and the physical on/off button is sticky. I’m starting to think that we’re going to have to get her a new phone when the man pops the second unrecognized SIM card into his own cell phone. His phone won’t recognize it either. He tries the first unrecognized SIM card in his phone; same result. Two brand new, non-working SIM cards! “Très bizarre!” he says.

Finally, the third time is a charm. He gets a third SIM card and it works, accepting the recharge code. He shakes his head and actually looks apologetic (a rare sight in this country where it’s a privilege for the customer to even enter the shop). “Désolé” (Sorry), he says. “Très bizarre.

I pack up all the new paperwork (along with Dracula) and head out of the store, hoping I won’t have to be back anytime soon. Evelyn’s phone is working again–at least for one more month…

Visa time

The girls have one more day of school and then we head to San Francisco to apply for our visas. Getting everything together for this has been one of the most demanding and anxiety-inducing application experiences ever. I’m pretty sure applying for college was a breeze by comparison! I truly have to keep telling myself it’s all going to work out.

The French consulate requires a ton of paperwork–our passports, birth certificates, marriage certificate, proof of income, a notarized letter saying I won’t try to get a job (and so deprive a French person of employment), documentation of our apartment rental, plane tickets (that’s right–we had to get the apartment rented and plane tickets before getting a visa to actually live there!), proof of medical insurance, and more. Oh–and the actual application forms duly filled out. I’ve gone through it all, double and triple and quadruple checking things. Our appointment is Thursday morning; I’ll be glad when we can hand all of this over!

Here are our mug shots for the application. (Merideth doesn’t need one, since she won’t be in France for more than three months at a time.)

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A table full of application documents.

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Tickets and visas

I haven’t posted in here a whole lot since I started this blog… mostly because we’re not in France yet! But we’re getting closer. We now have plane tickets for our flight to Paris on July 30. Next step: visas. Today I booked our appointments with the French Consulate to get our visas to stay in France for a year. We have to appear in person with a whole pile of paperwork. And no, the office in Seattle does not handle visas. They do not want to even talk to you about visas. If you need a visa and live in Washington (or one of nine other western states), get yourself to the French Consulate in San Francisco!

So that’s what we’ll be doing when school gets out. Hopefully I’ll remember to bring all the right paperwork!