A special treat for the Panatics, (Paris fanatics), who dream of moving to France is my blow-by-blow account of last weeks’ visa appointment. Graphic warning, this post includes nudity so you have been warned. With only a handful of French phrases at the ready the appointment was quite the experience. For those about to move to country where English is not the primary language, or for the sensible souls that never will, please use this account as a reference for what you could expect, or alternatively use it just for a laugh at my expense.
Um excuse my ignorance, I thought that a letter addressed to Madam Célia with an official appointment time, 8:30am, and address to report to, would ensure I could waltz into the visa building, coffee in hand, and wait for my name to be called at around 8:35, (hey we’re all busy I get it). I’d smile brightly as the receptionist quickly checked over the required documents, commending me (Hugh) on my (his) thoroughness and then pointing me to a room to wait for my medical. By 9:00 I’d be out the door, visa in hand bee-lining back to the apartment for a nap. Easy Vis-y.
In July last year, pre-move, I had an appointment at the French Embassy in Sydney to process a long stay visa. Once I arrived in France I sent a document to the French visa office with the address of our apartment in Paris. In November I received an official visa letter with the appointment date and time of January the 6th, 8:30am. The details were etched in my memory, I knew the importance of the occasion. It takes a great deal of organisation to stay on top of the visa process in a foreign country. The lengthy preparation documents had information as to what I needed to bring with me, all written in French. After sourcing help translating the document I set off across Paris to collect the documentation including passport photos and fiscal stamps from a tobacco shop?!
In France I am on a long stay/visitor visa. I’m allowed to be in France as long as Hugh is. I am tied to him. If he is a Whale Shark, I am the small fish swimming along underneath. If he is a cruise ship I am a small inflatable dinghy tied to the back, bobbing along behind. Hugh and I share a social security number and my health insurance is attached to his. So let’s be frank. I am not here to steal a French person’s job, or a French girl’s man for that matter. I bet you’re roaring with laughter at the thought of me stealing a Frenchman from the clutches of a Parisienne. My point is still a point though and because of this I did expect preferential treatment at the appointment. In my opinion, I am adding revenue to the French economy via tourism and retail. I expected a gold coloured visa with frequent flyer points or a nice chair and a latte for my wait at the very least.
January the 6th came around quickly. Hugh and I were up at the crack of dawn to make sure we arrived before 8:30. We drove across town to the 11th arrondissement. I was busy looking for the street name, and still half asleep, when I looked up to see a queue of people waiting at the door in a line working down the street. Darn. It looks as though I was part of a crowd. I walked to the end of the line and stood with my documents in hand until finally the door opened and a security guard stood waiting to search our bags as we entered. Hugh was not allowed in the building and I saw his eyes grow panicked; I knew he was thinking; “Can she really do this by herself?” Coincidentally at the same time I was thinking, “Do I really need this visa?”
The line continued inside the building moving slowly up the stairs until we reached a desk with two people waiting to process our papers. As I do not know the language I often find myself in a queue closely observing the interactions of the person in front of me with the salesperson, receptionist or checkout operator. In France, I am constantly trying to anticipate or predict what will be said to me. It’s the same sort of experience as communicating with a baby who desperately wants something, but you have no idea what. I watch for clues in the few English sounding words and the gestures made at me. Sometimes I just stare into a French person’s eyes trying to read their mind. After a few fiddle-y moments locating stamps, photos, the lease documents, dropping the stamp sponge on the floor and sticking the stamps in the wrong place, I was directed to a waiting room along with my fellow line pals. I was not sure whether I could use my cell phone so I waited until a few daredevils (or people who knew French) pulled out iPhones to scroll through Instagram before I took mine out.
In groups of six our names were called out, “alright-y” I thought, “It’s go time!” We walked to another waiting room full of people, where I sat and waited some more. Forty minutes later a nurse called my name and I entered room where my details were recorded. I once again had to read the nurses mind and follow her clues so that I knew what to do. My height and weight were recorded, fully clothed and wearing shoes I might add. I felt proud of the extra centimeters recorded for my official French height, but not so much the extra kg. YES, my shoes weighed the exact extra amount that I wasn’t prepared for on the scales. NO, it wasn’t the reindeer cookies and/or wheels of baked Camembert I’d consumed of late. Next came the vision test, it was worrying… very worrying. I guessed well, but wow, what an eye opener. Or closer? Or squinter? The real crème de la crème of this full body service test was the chest x-ray.
I stood nervously outside one of three doors marked with a 1, 2, or 3. Finally it was my turn, I entered through door number 2 into a small dressing room. I un-robed while reading the ‘you are now under surveillance’ sign. At the exact moment I had finished hanging my last item, a light knock came from the door from the other side. Here goes nothing, I thought, attempting to walk confidently, yet naked from waist up through the door which was magically opening in front of me. It was if I were entering onto an improv scene of Whose Line Is in Anyway, with a live audience. I half expected Drew Carey to jump up from his Laz-e-boy in a ‘Friday night football scene’ with a large foam finger. I’d hear Ryan Stiles yell “Touchdown” at a television set as Drew turns to say; “Hey buddy, I think you’ve forgotten something.. and it’s not the nachos!” Cue canned laughter from the audience. In reality the scene I stepped into, totally unprepared for, was a nurse and doctor bustling around a clinical white radiography room, (what a surprise right). The nurse pointed toward the large x-ray machine. I walked with one arm wrapped around my chest, trying to fake casualness about the whole topless situation. It felt weird. It was weird. The nurse had to readjust my arms three times before I was ready for my ‘chestie or lungsie’
It was over quickly and I returned to dress myself and move back to the waiting room. After too many minutes wasted on social media a young Egyptian man struck up a conversation with me. I knew he was Egyptian due to his passport used to sandwich his ‘official documents’ like everyone else’s in the room. I looked around at the green, blue, red, black passports, it was a rainbow of uncertainty. He asked why I was in Paris and also whether I knew what was going to happen next. Of course I didn’t, but I took advantage of his ability to speak French and English and asked him to eavesdrop on the receptionist’s conversation as she spoke with an individual so that he could translate and I would know what to do once my name was called. It is quite an unnerving experience when an official person with a clipboard calls a message across the room in French and the whole room goes quiet to listen. Some, in the room responded quickly by leaving while others nodded. I lent over to my new friend,”pssst what did she say?”
Suddenly Morrison, Celia was called by a doctor behind me. This was curious, I’d only seen the receptionist call names and the process that followed was that the person would leave the room to move to another area. I started to get sweaty palms. Was I to be penalised for pneumonia at eleven years old? Did my lungs still carry the battle scars; I cursed my parents as I took a deep breath and followed the doctor into a room. Then I saw them, my lungs on a large screen. They were GLORIOUS I tell you! I was mesmerised by my large, even, spot free rib balloons. I’m no doctor, but I know brilliant organs when I see them. The doctor took my blood pressure, listened to my breathing and complimented me on my lungs. “Do you smoke” she asked? “I think we both know the answer to that” I winked nodding in the direction of the large screen. The doc and I laughed and high-fived. Ok, really I just said “No” and she said; “Oui, c’est bon”. For the record Dad, a liver x-ray was not required, so just shush.
I finished up back at the receptionist desk three hours after arriving. I was free to go, with an instruction to book an appointment online five months prior to the one year date of when I first arrived in Paris. I started counting backwards from August with my fingers, as you do, as I walked down the stairs to the exit. A man at the front desk spotted me and laughed mimicking my counting. C’est bon? He asked “You’re ok?” YES I said my cheeks flaming, I may have a visa, but I am still definitely not French.
I decided to walk home to celebrate my semi-permanent-for-the-moment status and ended up strolling six kilometers from Bastille, to our apartment appreciating every building, Seine view and pâtisserie smell that I stumbled across. For those yet to embark on their VIAFACE (visa in a foreign awesome country experience) I wish you equal measures of good luck and patience and perhaps a sprinkle of French, Italian or whatever language you need. It is all worth it, yes even the nudity.
I considered posting the above Visa account without photos, until I was told by a trusted friend “don’t do that”. It was hard to work out what images to use to accompany what I wrote, and harder to work out when I should publish the post. My visa appointment was the morning prior to the Charlie Hebdo attack and this last week in Paris has been difficult. Hugh and I are so blessed to live in a central location but I have to admit my stomach was in knots all week when I left the safety of our apartment and I felt devastated for the immensely talented victims who lost their lives. I was grateful that Hugh and teammate Jono played on Friday night, as it was an excellent game, with both teams paying their respects to the victims. The next morning, Hugh, Jono, Hailey and I drove two hours east of Paris to the beautiful city of Honfleur, a hamlet that provided inspired for various people including some guy called Monet.
“Je suis Charlie” messages were everywhere on our drive to and from Honfleur. Closer to home, The Palais de Tokoyo next door draped a huge black banner across the outside of the building and armed army personal have been deployed all around our area. Had we been in Paris on Sunday I would have definitely attended the march against the attacks, but instead we finished our short trip to Normandy at Omaha beach, the D-Day landing for France’s allies of World War II. The flags of allied countries who sent their young men into battle all those years ago stood blowing in the wind, alongside the French flag flying at half mast. I couldn’t help but think of the flags lined in solidarity when I saw the images of the world leaders walking next to President Francois Hollande in the march.
That’s what I am going to remember about the past week, the amazing worldwide support shown to Paris, and the beautiful messages from people back home just touching base to see that we were ok.
Lastly, I thought you should know that Paris was looking extra beautiful today…