Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Good News and Bad News

Time is ticking and still no letter from Kaiser. We did receive a gracious communication from the embassy stating that our file is “approximately” complete. We should present ourselves in person, no appointment needed, once we have the precious insurance documentation in hand. All else is in order. Kaiser’s “Customer Care” office has assured us that the letter is forthcoming, but I won’t believe that they’ve handled it correctly until I have the paperwork in hand. I’m a very trusting person by nature and I want to believe that we won’t have to resort to Insurance Plan B. But I can’t help but ask, are we waiting for Godot?

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Print Book Guilt

Joe gave me a Kindle for my birthday in March, but I have yet to take it out of its box. There are way too many printed books in the I-must-read-them-before-we-leave pile to start an e-reading queue. There are 3 or 4 books I plan to take with me, in addition to a handful of travel references, but I’m doing my best to reduce the number of yet-to-be-read titles before I inaugurate my Kindle. I have a lingering compulsion to first read all the printed books I own and feel guilty buying ebooks while my bedside pile awaits. I’ve read some terrific books over the past couple of months, several of which have been in my reading queue for a long time including So Much For That, The Paris Wife, The Road From Coorain, The Perfect Heresy and Drive. And since we’ve already packed up and stored the bulk of our belongings that will remain stateside, I’ve been giving away each book as I finish it. In the past, I either lent each book I read to someone I thought would enjoy it, or it was added to our personal library. However, since I’m in absolute relinquishing mode, not wanting to hang on to any possessions not coming with us, I’ve taken to leaving books wherever I finish them. If I don’t have a friend or sibling I know will enjoy a particular title, the book gets left in a cafe, at a fast food joint, poolside or in the dentist’s office. And each time I abandon a book, I keep my fingers crossed that it won’t just get tossed in the trash, but that an interested reader will pick it up. And each book I give away gets me closer to firing up my Kindle so I can test-drive it before we leave. 

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Health Insurance Will Get you Every Time

We made our much-anticipated visit to the French Embassy in Georgetown last week to apply for our long-stay visas. To put it mildly, the morning had its ups and downs. I had spent hours researching and preparing the visa requirements, collecting bank account statements, writing letters stating that we did not intend to look for work in France, getting passport-sized photos taken, printing out the Paris apartment lease, drawing up our itinerary and completing the applications. As the good Catholic schoolgirl that I am, I follow directions well. I diligently prepared the documents we needed according to the exact instructions provided -- paying special attention to the smallest detail -- made two copies of everything, stapled and clipped all the necessary paperwork together and organized the piles in two neat folders: a red one for Joe and a blue one for me. In typical “Marianne style,” I fretted about all the specific requirements, especially these:

* an English translation of the “long-stay” application (yes, I went though and translated, word-for-word, the French visa application into English);  
* a notarized copy of a year-long lease (all I had was a letter of agreement for a month-long lease in Paris);
* proof of medical coverage in the form of a letter from our insurance provider with some very specific clauses.

I took the directive that “one passport number equals one visa appointment and paperwork file” very seriously. In an effort to cushion the possibility that our initial visit to the embassy would not actually yield the desired approvals, I adopted the assumption that it would take at least two visits to the embassy to get our visas. We would be confronting French bureaucracy at its best (worst?) and I needed to go in with diminished expectations. We arrived at the embassy gate, primed for our interviews and ready for battle, armed with our meticulously prepared paperwork.

The first indication that the morning might not go perfectly was the sign announcing that there was no parking for visa applicants. What? Isn’t granting visas a major mission for an embassy? But they don’t provide parking for the supplicants? Already they were making things adversarial. And so began the ups and downs of the process. We put the car in reverse, backed away from the gate and despite Washington’s summer haze, heat and humidity, did our best to stay calm and cool. We drove a quarter mile down the street to the Georgetown University Hospital parking garage, paid our $20 and walked back to the entry gate. Wilted and wetter than on our first approach, we surrendered our drivers’ licenses to the guard and made our way into Building B, just minutes before our scheduled appointment times. We made ourselves as comfortable as we could in the molded plastic chairs of France’s version of the MVA. After about 20 minutes, it became apparent that we were there for the duration when they called the young woman with a 9am appointment at close to 10 o’clock. So much for obsessing about arriving on time...

We remained calm and sat back to listen to the travails of the applicants called before us. First came the young Bulgarian woman accompanied by her father who would be studying in Paris. For some reason, her plan to visit her country for two weeks before she landed in Paris was causing a major problem. And then came the two head-scarved teenagers with Algerian passports, again escorted by their father. They presented their story to the woman behind the glass in muffled tones. The exchange quickly became heated as the patriarch took over the interview. “It’s because we are Muslim, isn’t it? Who is your supervisor? This is an outrage.” And with that, father and daughters stormed out. We then understood why the processors are behind protective glass. Emotions can boil over quickly when the stakes are high. Next up was the loud talker whose every personal detail of her fellowship to teach in France became known by all in the waiting room. At close to 10:30, I mentioned to Joe that it was July 13, the day before Bastille Day, and that if all went as planned, we would be in Provence for the French National Holiday fireworks in 2012. “Maybe not,” he said, “we could still be here.” And at that very moment, they called our names.

The first part of the process went without a hitch. We presented our identification paperwork to the lovely woman at window #1. She took our fingerprints electronically, asked us a few questions, snapped our pictures and we sat back down. So far, all was in order and our next stop would be window #2. We were pleased and relaxed and thought, maybe this won’t be so bad.

Wrong. After about 20 minutes, we were called to report to the next window. It had gone so well at the first window, but then our luck changed. A not-so-dashing Inspector Clouseau-like figure who spoke English with a thick Italian accent (he must have been from Marseille?), had an attitude from the start. It seems that none of our paperwork was right and he was going to make sure we knew it:
-- “No, these are the wrong applications – these are the 2009 versions. Fill out these new ones.” And he threw two forms at us.
-- “Your last 3 pay stubs.” (When I protest that pay stubs weren’t on the list, he rudely fires back that he’ll print me the requirements from the web site – extended pause – Madame.) 
-- “Proof that you live in DC.” (This wasn’t on the list either!)
-- “Show me where this letter says you have health coverage in France.” (We highlight the sentence which says “outside the US” and he throws it back saying it’s inadequate.)

We retreat to our chairs, humiliated, after he scoffs one final time at our file and dismisses us with, “Sit and wait. You will be called.” On the verge of tears, I desperately wanted to strangle the man. Lucky for him, he was behind the protective window. Yes, emotions do run over. We dutifully completed the “new” form he’d given us, but WTF!  It was EXACTLY the same bloody form, except that the 2009 printed in 5-point type in the lower right corner of our forms said 2011 on his. And as I sat and fumed, I reviewed the list of requirements I’d printed from the web site: it said nothing about residency proof and pay stubs. I just wanted to scream.

In the end, we left the embassy after having an audience at the final window -- #3. The sympathetic young man gave us a to-do checklist and graciously explained the three items we still needed to provide: a one-page narrative about what we plan to do for a year; an explanation of how we sold our MD home and were living with friends and copies of our drivers’ licenses, our friends’ licenses and a utility bill proving their DC residence; and, a revised letter from our health insurance provider with some very specific language about coverage in France. He didn’t offer much hope about our ability to secure the proper insurance letter from Kaiser Permanente (“they NEVER do it right”), but wished us good luck. His parting suggestion left us feeling defeated: you may have to find a new insurance company. OMG!

I needed several hours that afternoon to calm my nerves and ease my frustration before I contacted Kaiser about a new insurance letter and started to prepare the other missing documents. Everything has now been faxed to the embassy and all we’re awaiting now is the Kaiser letter. Our visas now hang on obtaining this all-important document and I won’t breathe easy ‘til I have it in hand. Why does health insurance always have to be so difficult?

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Rubicon Has Been Crossed

The die is cast. Joe gave his notice at work. We leave for Europe in just over 7 weeks. C'est fait.  

Sunday, July 10, 2011

An Updated Itinerary

Here is an update on our full itinerary, which surprisingly hasn’t changed much since we originally conceived our year abroad, We've added a few side trips, but the distribution of our time has stayed the same: France, Spain, Italy and Greece are our primary destinations.


FRANCE/SPAIN: Make our way from Paris down to southern Spain (after a two-night stay in Sancerre, the source of our favorite French white wine) staying in the Dordogne, the Lot and the Cathar territory around Carcassonne

SPAIN: Explore the Costa Brava north of Barcelona and then head to AndalucĂ­a -- Cordoba, Granada and Seville; possible side-trip to Morocco

ITALY: Fly to Northern Italy to hike the Cinque Terre; make our way up to the Dolomites to ski in the Alps for Christmas

ITALY: Explore Florence and Tuscany; possible side trip to Corsica

ITALY: Head to Rome and the Amalfi Coast (Positano, Ravello); spend some time on Sicily and hike Mount Etna

GREECE: Fly to the Peloponnese (Olympia, Nafplio and the Mani peninsula); take the ferry to Mykonos

GREECE: Stay in the islands for long stays on Naxos and Rhodes; stop on Santorini

GREECE: Explore Crete and make a possible side trip to Turkey

EASTERN EUROPE/FRANCE: Fly to Budapest and then visit Prague, Berlin and Amsterdam; make our way to Chamonix, France to do the Tour de Mont Blanc hike

FRANCE: Explore Provence and stay near Aix en Provence

FRANCE: Continue our stay in Provence and then make our way back up to Paris

Friday, July 8, 2011

Homeless Vagabonds

I expected to feel sad when we sold our home of nine years, and yes, the waves of melancholy come and go. But the sense of calm relief came out of the blue. As we walked out of the settlement office with the sale proceeds already wired to our bank, I definitely felt rootless – a sense of having been untethered – but I also experienced the elation of having no mortgage, no fixed address and not a drop of debt. We paid off our old gray mare of a Chrysler long ago and if we can just add another two months to her useful life on top of the 212,000 miles she’s already given us, we can donate her to Purple Heart and leave the country car-less.

We’re temporarily camping out in the home of dear friends who are away for most of the summer and our U.S. mailing address will be our daughter’s DC apartment. As George Clooney’s character so aptly expressed in the movie, Up in the Air, there’s a palpable feeling of relief and freedom that goes along with emptying one’s “backpack” of worldly possessions and monthly bills. Traveling light can be liberating. We all have to relocate at one time or another, and along with the move goes inventorying everything you own. You really never know how much physical “stuff” you’ve accumulated over the years until you go through this daunting exercise. Far from being hoarding squirrels, we diligently cleaned out our closets, drawers and cabinets every spring, giving away whatever we could to diminish our home’s clutter factor. However, for the past two months I’ve spent more time and energy than I could ever have imagined donating clothes, selling electronics and dropping off books at the library. While I’ve always used Craig’s List as a wonderful means for getting a few bucks for things no longer needed, my recent selling experiences have astonished me in terms of what people will buy. That old antique chair with the missing seat cushion, the distressed copper planters from the front stoop, the oversized cork board that displayed our children’s artwork, the prehistoric laptops missing hard drives and the stereo cabinet designed for a record player: all found new homes with happy new owners through Craig’s List. Slowly but surely, we emptied the attic and guest room, got rid of everything on the patio and in the garage and shifted all we owned into just a few rooms of the house.

When moving from one residence to a new one, lugging along things you may not really need or end up keeping may not be a huge blunder. But when moving all our worldly possessions into pay-by-the-pound storage, we wanted to avoid taking an extra paper clip. No use storing (and paying for) what we don’t need and may never care to see again. Thus, it was a time-consuming and tedious job of meticulously sorting all our belongings, making multiple piles and deciding what to do with every single thing in the house. Books had always been the hardest to relinquish with previous moves, but this time, even the books went without much regret.

So, here we are, camping out in our temporary accommodations with only what we’ll need for the summer and next year in tow. Everything else is shrink-wrapped, crated and stored, not to be seen until we’re back in the U.S., some 14 months from now. Our backpacks are now quite light indeed. While the sadness about being homeless vagabonds and saying goodbye to our home comes in waves, it does feel good to be living so nimbly and with so few financial demands. We’d purposefully and steadily reduced our financial footprint over the past year and a half in preparation for our departure and now the process is almost complete. As soon as we say goodbye to the ever-steadfast Chrysler, we’ll be on our way, with no pesky possessions to weigh us down.