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?