Friday, April 18, 2008

Visa story

This morning, I went to the French Embassy to submit my application for a long-stay visa.

I did some research and found that bus goes from Union Station to right outside the Embassy. I got up extra early and caught the bus. My appointment was at 8:55am. The bus dropped me off outside the embassy at 8:18.

I walked through the pedestrian gate and was waved over by a man encased in a round brown-glassed security "hut." As I approached I started to pull out the email I'd printed out in anticipation of the visit, "Please print this email as it will be requested by the security."

The man said, "Are you here for a visa?"

I said, "Yes."

He said, "They don't open until 8:45."

"Oh." I said, "I guess I'm early." I didn't move.

He said, "Yeah. And the facility isn't open. There's nowhere to wait."

I said, "Oh." I felt a little helpless and lost. I looked around. We were: nowhere.

He said, "There's a cafeteria across the street."

"Ok, thanks. I'll come back. Thanks."

I walked across the street to what turned out to be (part of) Georgetown U's Medical Campus. I never found the cafeteria, but that was ok. I'd picked up some coffee and a roll at Union Station. I wandered around and looked at the sculpture, which was plentiful. It was breezy and lovely, but too cool to sit outdoors. I found an indoor lounge and read for a few minutes. At 8:40am, I went across the street and back to the embassy.

This time, in exchange for my driver's license, I got a visitor's pass and directions to the visa office. I walked up the drive and found a seat in the office. A sign read, "If you have an appointment, please take a seat. You name will be called." Within ten minutes, my name was called.

I went to the window and was asked my purpose. I presented my passport. The lady said, "Are you going to study?"

"I'm going to take a class."

"You need a different visa then."


"You need a student visa, good for 90 days. And you need another visa if you want to stay longer."

I was befuddled. "Well, I, I'm not taking a degree, it's just a language class."

"It is the same. You don't understand."

"I didn't read that on the website."

"You read the wrong website."

I thought, "You mean the French Embassy one?" I said, "I have all the documents for the long-stay visa..."

"No. There are different kinds of long-stay visas. There are rules. It's important!"

I said, "Well, can I just apply for the tourism visa? I won't study. I'll promise not to study."

She kept my passport and told me to cross out "study" from my forms. When I started the crossing out while still standing at the window, she sent me back to my seat.

I sat and scribbled over the places where I'd written study and crossed out the name of school where I planned to take a French language class. Oy.

I went back to the window and handed her the altered forms. She said, "Do you have the other photos?" I handed them over.

"Do you have the next document required?"

I handed her my bank records. She made a mark on the application form.

She said, "Do you have the next document?"

I gave her a piece of paper on which I'd typed that I promised not to work while in France. It was signed and dated. She said, "Add to this that you will not study." I did. She made another mark.

She said, "Do you have the next document?"

I gave her the proof of medical insurance. Check. Then the "non-criminal record" certification. Check. Last, a note saying I'm staying with a friend. (They want a deed to an apartment...but how would I get that?) She didn't like the letter either. "No id?"

I said, "No, but I have a copy of her utility bill."

The woman said, "We'll call you. Please sit down."

I sat. I was discouraged. I thought, "Fine. Forget France. I'll go for three months...and then I'll live in the UK. Or somewhere else." I struck up a conversation with a woman sitting near me.

I was called up again, this time by the man working there. He said, "Write your name on this envelope. We will send the approval there. It will take up to two months."

"Two months! That's not what it said on the website!"

"You read the wrong website! Do not argue with me!"

I said, "I have it right..."

He cut me off, "Write your name and address please!"

I wrote my name and address on the envelope. I was asked to sit again and wait. I looked at the copy of the webpage. It read, " The procedure takes about 1 to 2 weeks for US citizens and 2 months for others nationalities."

I chatted some more with my new friend.

I was called to the window again. The man handed me a few pages of blank white paper. "Please go sit at that table and write on this paper exactly what you plan to do in France."

I stared at him and took the paper and sat at the table. I glanced at my waiting room friend and shrugged my shoulders. I wrote an essay that went something like this:

While I am in Paris, I plan to partake of the cultural opportunities--cinema, museums, concerts--that the city has to offer. I plan to spend time writing for a personal project. I will travel in the country. I also plan to use Paris as my "home base" when I go visit my friends in other parts of Europe. The time is a rest from my job, which I will resume when I return to the US.

I brought the completed "essay" back to the man. He smiled at me and asked me to sit down again. I felt a little dazed. I said to my friend, "It's like writing a grad school application." It wasn't exactly that, though. It was like writing the essay for my application for in-state residency in North Carolina. How to be honest and yet leave an opening for what I really intend to do (basically what I said, but I'm still going to take a French language class! Please don't tell).

I waited and was called again. The man gave me a big smile and said I would get the visa TODAY. He told me he could offer two kinds of visas: 1) six months only and nothing else to do or 2) indefinite, but with the need to apply for a residency card within 90 days of arriving in France. I chose number two.

I sat again and waited. By 10:15 I left the office with a visa.

At some point they must have realized that this is what I was asking: please let me come to your country, spend all my money, then go home. Who would say no to that?

Boy oh boy. I sure hope I'm doing the right thing!

Grateful for: persistence.

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