Chapter 10: Being Here – Visa’s, Phones & More

I think this is how it happens.  You go on holiday and visit a place for a few days or a week or two and it awakens something in you where you become inspired and think, “Gee, I feel so relaxed or at home here – I think I could live here and be very happy!”  You are then met with enthusiasm and positivity by those you speak with – “Oh, yes – you should do that!  It’s rather easy to purchase a place here.”  Well, it IS and it ISN’T.  If I told you right now that purchasing and then embarking on a major restoration while living in another country was going to be the easy part, you might run for the hills…unless you are still under the enchantment of the place you’ve fallen in love with, in which case, it matters not.

We found this place much sooner than we anticipated and undertook a restoration bigger than we planned.  At this point, I’m in the midst of my first winter here, spring is a promising glance away, and I can honestly say it is not the experience I had hoped for.  We thought with the interior renovation at 95% complete given we were down to draperies, artwork, and small finishing touches, it was decided it would be a wonderful time to have our first Christmas here with the entire Hays family.  This entailed flying my husband and myself, our two adult children and their significant others to France while my brother-in-law and his wife would arrange to bring themselves and their two adult daughters.  I would fly in ten days before Christmas and begin readying the house for family that would arrive on the 22nd, 23rd and 24th.  Fortunately, I had spent a month here between mid-October and mid-November sorting out where to find the necessary provisions for a holiday – trees, turkeys and all.  The plan was after everyone had returned to the States, I would remain for the winter since that had been our long-term plan anyway.  It was a solid plan.  Live in the house, see what works and what still needs work or attention, get it ready for its first rental season, maybe reach out and meet a few neighbors, and then return to the States in the spring.  During this time, I was to receive delivery on one of our vehicles from the States – that is a story that continues to unfold, so more on that later.  The other issue to address was the fact I would be staying in another country for greater than 90 days, meaning I would need a visa.  To obtain a visa, as an American traveling to France, I first needed to contact the French Consulate in Boston – which was the closest to where I live in the United States.

For this visa, you will first need to fill out a form online, submit it and select a date and time for an interview at the consulate.  You are then given the list of documents and procedures you will need to bring with you to this interview.  While I can only speak for my specific needs of American to France, I suspect it’s pretty much the same as an American traveling in all states of the EU.  This list includes:

  1. An active and valid U. S. passport, (must have a minimum of 6 full months remaining)
  2. Statements of income and employment,
  3. A notarized letter stating you will not seek employment,
  4. Something attesting where you intend to stay while you’re there – for us it was a notarized document from the notaire in France of our property ownership.
  5. Attestation of travelers insurance that includes repatriation and medical evacuation.  Our insurance company recommended IMG ( Travelers insurance is not terribly expensive and because most U. S. insurance providers will not cover you when you are beyond the borders of the United States, it’s a good idea.  Add to that should you suffer an accident or major medical emergency or the unimaginable happen and you perish while abroad, the horrors of having to deal with this along with the cost of repatriation is enough peace mind to warrant it.  That said, it will be a requirement, not simply peace of mind. There is a broad spectrum of limits and deductible options – I chose the maximum coverage with a $250 deductible for a period of 6 months and all totaled it was just over $900. It also includes a prescription card.
  6. A criminal background check, which you will need to conduct yourself. That will be through the website of the state you reside and will cost $25.
  7. A passport photo separate from your passport – so when you have passport pictures done, do yourself a favor and have additional ones printed for this, an international drivers license, etc.  I’d recommend having at least 6 printed to save hassles later.
  8. A personal check or money order to pay for the visa.  Mine was $100.
  9. And last, but not least, a self-addressed express envelope they will use to send your visa. They will also keep your passport and return it with or without the visa.

On the appointed day and time, you must arrive on time and with all of the necessary paperwork where you will be signed in and seated across from an agent behind a glass wall.  You will pass all of the required documents through a slot in the glass and will answer a litany of question.  I was very nervous for my appointment because the rules seemed very daunting, but when we arrived, although we were early, we were taken right away, my husband was allowed to remain in the room with me, and the agent was very friendly and helpful – not at all what I anticipated.  As he was reviewing the documents, he stopped and exclaimed, “No…really…?”  (I’m getting nervous here…) “You have a house in Sainte Terre?!?” he exclaimed – to which I responded, “Yes…?”  “I’m from Sainte Terre!” he said.  This is the point I knew it wasn’t going to be so bad!

Because I wanted the convenience of not revisiting this entire process every year, the decision was made to apply for a visitors long sejour visa that would give me up to 7 consecutive months per year.  This added a step to this process.  After my arrival in France, I would need to mail a document that was returned with my visa announcing to the OFII (which is the office of immigration in France) I had arrived to the state of France.  Within 30 days of your arrival, you need to mail it from the same region you are staying.  Within a few weeks, you will receive an attestation/confirmation they have received this and then you wait for them to contact you for a medical exam and interview.  There are several locations throughout France, but yours will be with the location that is closest to where you are residing.  Mine was Bordeaux.

The tricky thing about this is you have no idea when you will be scheduled so making plans to travel around or set appointments becomes challenged.  I arrived on December 15th.  I mailed my document the first week of January after the holiday commotion was over.  I received my attestation within two weeks of that, but my appointment did not get scheduled until March 16.  I was notified by email on March 2nd.  I had one appointment at 10:15 at a radiology facility for x-rays, then another appointment at 1:30 for a medical exam at a separate location in the city of Bordeaux.  Sounds like a fun day, right?  Think again.  The good part is I finally knew when it was going to be and could plan accordingly. You are further instructed to go online and pre-pay for your stamp in accordance to the type of visa you are applying for.  Since mine is considered a “Titre de Sejour Visitors” visa, mine is the maximum of $250.  You will also be asked to bring:

  • your passport,
  • an additional head shot photo (can be the same as is on your passport and visa)
  • proof of residence – whether it’s rental or ownership
  • an electric bill, tax bill or notaire attestation to further verify your status
  • the stamp from the OFII website validating your payment of the stamp
  • the x-ray and radiology report

Now, let me first say, I absolutely love Bordeaux; its architecture and monuments, it’s grandeur, the shops, and of course, the wine.  What I do not love is getting in or out of Bordeaux.  The streets are best described as chaotic with little rhyme or reason. (yes, I believe even worse than Boston)  I suspect it’s the way in big cities who follow the path of the river they encompass.  Streets are narrow, many are one way, several are closed to pedestrian only, and I suppose if you live and drive there often, you get to know the landscape, which may make it ‘plus facile’.  But here’s where it gets more complex; not only are the streets narrow and often times curved, but here’s a city struggling with the choke-hold of becoming filled with too much with no easy way to remedy it.  Too many people, too many cars, a decent public transportation system and not nearly enough infrastructure to accommodate.  So what does a city like this do?  Well, for starters, they have perhaps more underground parking than above ground, they block major arteries and bridges to bus and/or pedestrian traffic only, and in order to keep up with the constantly overtaxed roads and transportation systems, they have seemingly constant road construction.  Inconvenient you think?  Worse.  Let me paint you a picture.  You are on your way to Bordeaux – a city you’ve driven in and out of perhaps 6 or 8 times EVER.  Each time you have been met with differing construction and road blockage issues  – but none like you were about to experience.  Your GPS, which is installed in a car less than a year old does not seem to be aware there is road construction or that there are now bus lanes only where car traffic used to exist – across the major bridge to the city.  And the traffic lights?  I estimate there is one every 200 meters and each one is longer than you can imagine.

I glance at the GPS and it tells me my fifteen minute lead time has been reduced to ten – not bad.  Still time to park, right?  Then, I encounter ‘the bridge’.  One I’ve driven across numerous times last year when I was traveling to Bordeaux to work out my kitchen plans.  It’s perhaps one of the most beautiful and stately gateways to any city and it is now open only to buses and pedestrian traffic.  In disbelief, I allow the GPS to re-route me, but it is insistent it will bring me across this bridge.  GPS says I will be there five minutes before my appointment. Getting nervous… After the second re-route, I realize my only option is to ignore the GPS and continue following the river until I reach another bridge – which eventually I do.  Maybe I’ll only be a few minutes late… I just need to get across this bridge.  As I watch my appointment time come and go, I am faced with not only road construction – but entire streets intended to get me to my destination blocked and completely devoid of pavement.  I am left with no other option than to follow my instincts and try to loop around this city I do not know until I am beyond the reaches of this unrelenting construction to see if there is any possible way to selvedge this day.

Finally, I arrive at the Radiology center a full forty minutes late, but there is parking available (YES!) and when I’m inside, though horrendously flustered, heart pounding, hands shaking and all, the two women at the check-in desk are not.  They cheerfully check me in, I take a seat, and within ten minutes I am called for my appointment.  I’m not sure if that’s when I would have originally been called or if I just got really lucky.  My appointment was to be at 10:15, and by 11:25 I was done.  The next appointment at the OFII facility was an 8 minute walk, so I headed there.  One of the women at the desk kindly googled and printed me a map.

I arrive at the OFII location and enter but am instantly met by the person I will refer to as the ‘guard dog’.  He informs me my appointment is not until ‘apres midi’ and I must leave and return as he ushers me out by firmly pushing on the back of my arm.  Well alrighty, then.  I now have two hours to wander to my hearts content, and wander I did.  I realized this was quite close to the whole shopping and tourist district in Bordeaux, so wandered up and down streets, trying to not to lose my bearings since I had no phone to assist me with finding my way back.  Ahhh yes, the phone.

I’m not sure what the statistics are for the numbers of people owning and using cellular phones might be, but I suspect the population among developed countries is significant – perhaps 80% of those over age 12.  That fact alone is fairly staggering to me considering I’m not that old and it doesn’t seem that long ago if you needed to make a call and you were not at home you needed to find a public pay phone.  And for the record, the phone at home was still firmly attached to the wall.

In this state of perpetual connectivity, most of us still seek the assurance of anything we need being a phone call, text or email away and as technology evolves with the speed of light we are also frequently seeking newer and flashier devices.

I was lucky.  I had a friend here who freely offered up the use of her phone number for the various accounts and deliveries I was in constant need of but also knew those days would need to be limited.  The thought, however, of standing in the line for the queue at the Orange store and the even longer line waiting for an agent was daunting.  Most of us would just bite the bullet and do it, but after months of procrastinating, a new solution suddenly came clear to me so I wanted to offer it here.

I was long overdue for an upgrade on my current U. S. cell phone.  It still worked well, it just didn’t have all the bells and whistles of the newer models and its battery was getting a bit tired.  But it was mine.  No contract, no obligations – mine.  I purchased a new U. S. phone, then upon my return to France, took my old phone to the Orange store (I needed a decoder box for my television anyway), bought a sim card, added a modest plan to my home Wi-Fi/TV package and voila – a French phone number and all the freedom and independence it offers.

On the morning of my OFII appointment, both my sister, who is visiting, and my phones were running exceptionally slow while we were trying to check the weather app – so she suggested turning it off and letting them re-boot to clear the sluggishness.  Good idea!  Nope, not a good idea – not on this particular day.  You see, the problem with a phone that was previously locked and has now been unlocked and on a new provider in another country is that it re-locks each and every time you power it off and turn it back on.  On a typical day, I would have calmly remembered where that puk number and password were located, but on this day I tried from memory because I was in a rush.  After three failed attempts, I am completely locked out of my phone and the additional 15 minutes I planned into my morning is lost.  I leave the house with no phone, no GPS backup, no contact with anyone for the day.  I do have my U.S. phone, but know if I use it I will need to pay for the day, which I am reticent to do.

Do I get lost?  Yes, several times, but with getting lost is the silver lining of rediscovering the gut, innate instincts that have kept us and our forefathers alive for generation.  If I had a working phone to ‘babysit’ me, I might not have discovered all of the city that I did on that day.  I was grateful for a sunny day on one that promised to be rainy with clouds only at best.  I made it back to the OFII facility fifteen minutes before my appointment and a line was now forming, so I took my place behind several people and watched as several more lined up behind me.  1:30 came and went (where is this French punctuality today?).  At 1:35 the security gate went up and the guard dog came out to the street to check credentials as we were finally allowed in a few minutes later.  Evidently, all fifteen people standing in line had 1:30 appointment times.  You are taken in the order you manage to get to the check-in desk – I was third, although the first in line was a whole family.  Merde.  (by the way – the French rarely actually say ‘merde’)

After checking in, you sit in the waiting area of a room that can only be described as sadness and oppression with a dash of hope, complete with fluorescent lights, shiny, over-polished vinyl floor, hard plastic ganging seats (the kind even airports or bus terminals no longer use).  There seem to be a prescribed number of seats to immigrants so you are forced to sit as close as possible to your fellow immigrant.  The room literally smelled like curry, onions, too much cologne, mixed with despondent sadness and all the while the guard dog paced back and forth in the event anyone without an appointment tries to breach the door or one of us gets out of line.  There is nothing you can do but sit and wait.  This is the point I really wished I had either a book or my phone to pass the time.  Eventually, I was called for the first of three phases of my exams.  The first interview was what I’d liken to the ‘intake’ where you will have your weight and height recorded, you will be given an eye exam that would not even qualify at the DMV, and then you are asked a series of question aimed at determining whether you have or are at risk for tuberculosis.  You will then be sent back to the waiting area until the doctor is available.  When the doctor is available, you will present your x-rays given to you at the radiology office and ask another series of questions:  Do you have any diseases?  Are you on any medications?  Do you have a doctor here yet?  Do you have high blood pressure?  Are you healthy? (seriously) The doctor will glance at your x-rays and ask, “have you ever had TB?”  She or he will then fill out and stamp your official OFII ‘Certificat de Controle Medical’ and you will be sent back to the waiting room.  Wait a minute?  That was the medical exam?!?!  Not that I’m complaining, but calling this a medical exam in any form of the definition seems just wrong.  Look, I get that countries need to screen anyone coming here to live for any extended amount of time, but this in no way would prevent transmission of communicable disease should someone be contagious.

The next and last person you will meet is the one who has all of your documents you’ve submitted through your consulate.  These questions are pertaining to how long you will be here, etc. and this is where you get the actual stamp that formally validates your visa.  Mine is good for seven months and I’m told I can get a two month extension on this if I need but will need to go to the prefecture to request this.

By 3:20 I am finally done and head back to my car in the hope I can get out of Bordeaux before ‘rush hour’, but once again, I am bewitched by construction and street use changes.  The drama of the visa is over for now, my head is pounding, I’ve yet to eat today, and I’ve got a terrible cup of Starbucks coffee because it was the only coffee place I passed on the walk back to my car. Rush hour in France is quite a bit earlier so I met my fair share of traffic returning to my hamlet of Lavagnac, but by 4:55 I was home.  Normally, this is a 45 minute drive – today it was an hour and twenty five minutes. After a quick snack, good cup of espresso and an Aleve for that monster of a headache I headed to yoga to reclaim my zen.

I have to say, this whole experience has given me a renewed perspective toward immigrants – especially those who are following similar protocols in my home country of the United States.  It is a difficult and intimidating experience fraught with significant hurdles and the knowing you can be denied at any point of the process which is compounded if you either do not know the language or are just not proficient yet.  Not for the faint of heart. I may be a citizen of the United States of America, but in France, I am an immigrant, making this whole experience a very sobering one for me.

There’s really nothing about the experience of being in another country you were not born to that’s easy, but when you’re doing it on your own because the timing has not worked out for you to be accompanied by your spouse or significant other, it’s harder still.  If you’ve been by yourself for some time, it may be a bit easier but will still likely be outside your comfort zone.  It also seems to me the notion of living alone in another country is highly romanticized.  Don’t get me wrong – it does have its advantages.  If you are an artist, a writer, or someone who just prefers to be alone it’s a dream come true.  If you are a person who has rarely been alone it has challenging moments.  I, had never been alone.  I went from living in my parents’ house to college with roommates, to married, then shortly thereafter into motherhood.  Never alone with exception of the few weekends either myself or my husband would need to travel for work.  Here I am in my late fifties finding myself not only alone for weeks, months at a time, but alone in a foreign country.  It’s a sobering experience.  I have much to keep myself occupied with settling our house, and I know every move I make is for the ultimate good for all who visit here – yet this ‘alone’ part feels different than I anticipated.  I do write – so that’s definitely supported, but there are things I never thought about that now occupy my thoughts from time to time.  What if I fall down the stairs or off a ladder or do something where I become injured?  What if I had a medical emergency? I likely wouldn’t be found for days.  How am I going to move that giant metal table top onto the base?  If I’m using a knife to open a package – what if I cut myself?  What if I choke?  These are all safety issues that don’t even enter your mind until you’re by yourself.  I know several women who live alone and have most of their lives.  My respect for their fortitude has grown exponentially through this process and for me, I know this is somehow a missing piece of the puzzle of my life I needed to experience.  As my husband and I make this slow transition toward retirement, with me spending most winters here and he, unfortunately remaining in the states to look after business matters, I realize this is my new reality.  And I’m learning to embrace it as best I can.