Finalizing French Long Stay Visas

Obtaining permission to visit France for more than three months is harder than you might think. It begins in the US (see my post about applying for a visa here) and doesn’t end until 1-3 months after your arrival.

When we applied for our visas, we filled out what’s called a residence form. (Actually, we filled out 1/3 of it.) They sent them back to us with our visas. When we settled in France, we filled out the rest and mailed it (along with copies of our passports, visas, and stamps of entry) to the nearest Office of Immigration and Integration. They then mailed us a paper saying that they received our mail, that minors don’t have any further obligations, and more paperwork to fill out. A month later, we received convocations with a date and time to come prove we exist, be examined by doctors, etc.

This day loomed ahead of us: the date they sent us was a month away, and I was sure we would forget to go or not have all our papers in order. Or we would leave without the address. Maybe I had misread their letter and was missing something important. (Government French is so hard to understand!)

The big day coincided with a visit from Harold’s dad, so he kept Lucas while we went. (We are SO glad. It would have been so much more stressful with a toddler.) We made the most of our alone time (the first in two months) and ran a few errands at the Confluence, ate at SushiShop, took advantage of the Mother’s Day sales at Du Pareil au Meme and Monoprix, etc.

Like any good étranger, we showed up at the building ten minutes before the time we were told. It wasn’t hard to find (the building with the flag and the mass of foreign-looking people in front of it). It was lunch.

The doors were unlocked ten minutes after we were told. The mass of foreigners rushed up a set of stairs (I have no idea how they knew where to go; I just assumed I should follow them) and for a very chaotic ten minutes everyone handed in papers and were directed where to wait. When it was our turn, I handed both my convocation and Harold’s to the receptionist. She took mine, ignored Harold’s and gave it back to me. This was followed by confusion when Harold seemed to be absent but his wife was not.

Our papers went into a stack and went through an assembly line of nurses who would pick up our papers, call our names, and when they were finished with us, put our papers in the next pile.   In between nurses, we waited in a crowded collection of chairs in front of the reception desk (not worthy of being called a waiting room).

There was the room where we had the topless chest x-rays done, the room where they checked our vision and asked us random questions about our medical history. The room where they measured us and asked us more questions. The room where they listened to our breathing, looked at our vaccination records, and followed up on the questions we had already answered. Then we were called up by the receptionist to be told that the bill we had brought as proof of address was too old (our landlady pays her bills annually) and that we could come back anytime to turn in another one.

All in all, we were there for over two hours.

When we came back the next day, it was super easy to finish everything up. We showed up, handed the receptionist our landlady’s house insurance bill (the only one she could find to meet their criteria), and voilà! We got some fancy new stickers in our passports.

My French is passable, and I got along fine through the whole process. (The most difficult was the second day when there was a group of giggly American students in the waiting area.) If there was something I didn’t understand, nearly everyone who worked at the office switched into English. Pas de problème.

Some of the nurses weren’t super friendly. But I don’t blame them! They were processing thirty people all at one time. I wouldn’t be super friendly either.

Anyway.

Hurdle: jumped!

I would like to say that this is the end of our difficult relationship with French bureaucracy. However, there is a special certificate for foreign minors that I need to get for Lucas at the prefecture. And we’re looking into finding childcare. (This requires boatloads of paperwork, I’m told. It also difficult to find places.) And maybe I’ll enroll in some university classes next fall . . .

*sigh*

I’ll just look at it as great language practice. That’s why I’m here, right?

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An Expat’s Obstacles to Simplicity

I’ve only been an expat for a little over a month now, but what a month it has been! Last weekend I finally had some r&r time to recover a bit from the whirlwind. I wrote this post saying that I planned on reflecting a bit on how our family can slow down and enjoy life a bit, and reflect I have!

What makes my life as an expatriate in France so difficult? I have a list! (These are in addition to the obvious: language, logistics, etc.)

  • Life takes longer when you don’t know how things work. It took me two weeks to figure out how to sign up for a Monoprix card, one week to figure out that there really is only one place to change money (and the rates are terrible), and eventually we’ll figure out how to get Lucas some vaccinations.
  • Life just takes longer. We all spend at least an hour commuting from home to school every day. When we first went to a bank to try to open a bank account, we were told that we could schedule an appointment. How does next Wednesday sound? (On Monday.) In fact, our paperwork for the bank still hasn’t been finalized. We’ve done a lot of waiting—waiting for buses, waiting for SIM cards to arrive in the mail, waiting for debit cards to arrive in the mail . . . (only to realize they’ve been at the bank for four days).
  • Keeping in touch with your entire entourage of friends and family is a real time-suck. It’s important to maintain relationships, but I’m realizing that no matter how hard we work, somebody will fall through the cracks. Because of the time difference and my mother’s work schedule, I get to talk to her once a week, if we’re both free over the weekend. She has Skyped with Lucas once. Maybe if we rearranged our schedule to center around all our friends’ jobs and routines, we’d do better. But I don’t think it’s worth it.
  • Living in Europe makes me feel obligated to see everything. I have a checklist about a mile long and about everyone I talk to has something else for me to add. Every weekend we’ve had some monument or market to see, and yet I’ve been in Lyon for a month and I have not been to a single museum, eaten at a single fancy restaurant (gastronomic capital of the world, hello . . .), or even been to the Parc de la Tête d’Or.

I have a lot of unrealistic expectations for myself. I expect things to go faster. I expect to accomplish more than I do. I feel overwhelmed at the thought of accomplishing everything.

Stop! Slow down!

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Searching for Simplicity Abroad: The Beginning

It’s been a month since our move to France, and I’m happy to say we’re still alive.

Today is the first Saturday I’ve taken to do nothing. Absolutely nothing. Sure, if I feel like doing laundry, maybe I’ll do it. If the inspiration hits, I might even plan a meal or two for next week. But I am officially (my husband has agreed to this) under no obligation to accomplish anything.

Accompanying that heady feeling of freedom I have is a conviction that I have waited way to long to take a day like this. My body and mind are both feeling the consequences of being pushed too hard for too long. Much of today will be spent reflecting on how I can change my routine to preserve the element of simplicity that has become vital to our family. And, of course, writing about it.

Bon weekend!

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Nice to meet you, Francis Cabel

While there is a huge difference in meaning between l’amour (love) and la mort (death), there is very little phonetic difference. French vowels kill.

Luckily, today when my professeur de français asked what the meaning of this song was, the answer was both.

 

Apparently Francis Cabrel is something of a French Neil Diamond. Less flashy, but noteworthy. Shakira covered one of his songs, so that’s pretty cool. My teacher was shocked that none of us had heard of him.

I like this song, I think. Not that I really get it at all. It’s sad, and very poetic and nice though.

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Lessons Learned from a Recent Trans-Atlantic Flight

My family and I have made it to Lyon! Soon I will be writing away about the joys and terrors the move has brought us, but first, about the flight. It was our first with the little guy, and definitely a learning experience.

We flew from St. Louis to Chicago, Chicago to Heathrow, and Heathrow to Lyon. We changed terminals at every airport. We did not sleep well on our long flight. Luckily, when we arrived it was time to go bed.

A few notes for next time:

  • Less is better when it comes to carry-on. We should have paid for an extra checked bag in order to have our hands (and shoulders) free in the airports. We had three carry-ons, two personal bags, a stroller, and a baby. It was too much. Consider buying an additional carry-on with wheels.
  • On a related note, toys and food are great, but easy does it. Remember that airlines usually provide at least a snack. And how much does everyone really want to eat after doing nothing but sitting for hours? Lugging around every possible thing you might need or want gets old by the time you’ve checked in.
  • Plan diaper changes wisely. Sure, you can probably wait until you get to the plane, but consider also the time it takes to settle, taxi, take off, and eat dinner. And conversely, it’s no problem to wait until you get to the airport, but you also have to eat, change terminals, and go through security again. Don’t wait until you’re guilty about how long it’s been, or even worse, until you neeeeed to change it.
  • British Airways wins. Every time.

 

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Applying for a French Long Stay Visa

Last week our family applied for our first ever French visas. This was no small accomplishment.

As I prepared our application, I spent a lot of time feeling confused, guessing at wording, and hoping that the consulate would be forgiving as they looked everything over. Then there was the trip to Chicago—parking, finding the right building, rushing to be on time, etc.—and the handing in of a monstrous number of papers.

In the end, I think everything turned out ok. Of course, we haven’t gotten our approval yet, so I can’t say for sure. I thought I would share my experience, though, in hopes of being helpful to some other confused soul going through the same process.

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Before you apply for most visas, you need to have certain things arranged for your stay in France. We had been planning for a few months prior to our application and have been accepted to a French school, arranged housing, and booked tickets.

Once you are ready to look into visas, the first thing to do is figure out which French consulate is responsible for your state. There are ten located in major cities around the US, and each has its own territory. Check out this map on the French Embassy’s website to see which consulate you need to interact with.

Check out the consulate’s website and figure out which visa you need to apply for. Some deciding factors are: reasons for traveling, duration of stay, and anticipated employment. Since my husband and I are going to be studying French for about a year, our choice was between a long stay visa and a student visa.

My impression from talking with some friends who have done this recently is that applying for a student visa is cheaper, takes longer, and requires an additional set of paperwork. It also leaves the possibility of working in France open. The long stay visa is more expensive, less work-intensive, and requires you to promise not to seek employment in France. Our school recommended that we apply for the long stay visa, so that’s the route we ended up going.

Our permanent address is in Missouri, so we report to the consulate in Chicago. Their website’s instructions on how to proceed with a visa application isn’t bad as far as government sites go, but still leaves something to be desired. Here is the page that has the most information about preparing an application for a long stay visa. There are many helpful links on the right sidebar as well.

The entire process is straightforward enough: make an appointment, bring the list of stuff.

Here are a few of the sticky spots I encountered:

  • The PDFs they give you are made to be printed on A4 paper, not 8 1/2” x 11”. Nothing critical is cut off if you print it on 8 1/2” x 11”.
  • I was confused by the signature portion of the questionnaire. It seems (with my imperfect knowledge of French) that you are supposed to sign it on the day you submit your application. But there is also a space for a notary to sign it, indicating that it should be signed before submitting the paperwork. I emailed the consulate and they replied that it is fine either way: to wait to sign the form until you submit your application, or sign it prior to submission in the presence of a notary.
  • There was a space on every application form to fill in the entity that issued your passport. They used a different word to convey this on every form, and the French portion of my passport said yet another word. This was one of the spaces I half-guessed at and put “USDS” (United States Department of State takes way too much room). So far no one has asked about it, so I’ll take that as a good sign.
  • As I gathered all of my documents, I felt very silly. We ended up giving them four copies of our marriage certificate and proof of accommodation. And my 1 year-old submitted a letter promising not to engage in employment. The website is particularly unhelpful about applying as a family or minor. I emailed about it and didn’t get a response, so I just made the copies and letters for everyone.

 

The other tricky part about this whole process is that you have to apply in person. Which makes me very glad that I do not live in Montana or North Dakota. We’re in Indy right now, which means that we only had to drive for three hours. We left Lucas with some friends (children under 7 do not have to come) and made a date of it.

We had to change our appointment twice (first we weren’t actually ready like we hoped we would be, then there was a snowstorm with whiteout conditions), but we finally went. We gave ourselves lots of extra time to park south of downtown, take the train in, find the building, have coffee, and then go for our appointment. But Apple Maps misdirected us to the train station, so we ended up parking downtown, rushing to the building, and getting there five minutes late.

When we got to the building we had to check in at the security desk and get visitor’s passes. I think this is the part that you’re supposed to have your appointment receipt for, but they just took our IDs. We scanned our passes to get to the elevators and the rest was easy.

The office where they take your visa is tiny. There’s a small waiting room with worn chairs, a TV playing French gardening shows, and the lady who took our papers was behind a giant wall of plastic. Think ticket booth. She was very civil, but not particularly welcoming. There was some kind of microphone system there, but she didn’t use it so she was muffled and  difficult to understand. Luckily, we were the only ones there most of the time.

She took all our papers at once and took a long time to sort through them and make sure we had everything. She asked questions to clarify where we were going, what we were doing, if anyone had invited us, etc.

The only tricky thing that we encountered was that she wanted our company’s bank statements, presumably to prove that they have the funds to pay us. She took a trip or two to the back to talk to someone, maybe she was confused about something we had said or included in our application? It took a while to figure out what she was asking, since the idea that we would have access to this information seems a little silly. We explained that we work for an organization with hundreds of employees and millions of dollars and aren’t privy to their banking records, and she believed us and told us that they’d let us know if they needed anything else from us.

She gave us most of our copies and some of our original documents back (sigh), we were fingerprinted and photographed, we payed our fees, and that was it. She never really told us that we were done, so we just stood there awkwardly until it became very obvious. Now all there is to do is wait for our SASE to return to us, hopefully with approved visas inside it.

The end. That’s all I have to say about that.

Except that if you decide to go to Hancock Tower while you’re in town, you should not pay $17 to go to the observation room. You should instead go to the lounge and pay $8 for a drink.

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Confessions of a Seasoned Packer: I’m getting better at this.

In which the writer shares the wisdom she has gleaned from her many moves.

Our latest move went well. It was not perfect. It still took longer than I thought it would. But in the end, Harold and I were satisfied.

Here’s what we did.

  • We had a goal. This may seem obvious, but if you don’t have a clear vision of what you want to accomplish by the end of your move, chances are you aren’t going to get there. We set our sights high for this one:

Our goal was to arrive in Indy with nothing but ourselves and our car. We wanted the things we left behind to be organized in such a way that we can get away without thinking of them until after we get to France. But if we do think of them, they are easy to locate. And we wanted to leave behind a sparkling-clean apartment for our landlords (my in-laws), and no loose ends for them to tie up for us.

  • We had structure. After taking into consideration, a) the kinds of things we were wanting to store and, b) the many locations in which these things may be wanted in the future, I decided upon a loose system that became more defined as I worked. Anything we want to take to France stayed with us. Anything we want shipped to Africa went in one pile. Anything else we didn’t get rid of went in another.

With this in mind, it was fairly easy to keep track of things as I packed them. I numbered each box as I packed, making a list of what was inside. Everything we boxed up is either staying in storage in my in-laws’ basement or being shipped to Africa in a year or two, so I was sure to make those two categories easy to tell apart. When I was done, I typed it out and now have a digital copy in addition to our notebook.

  • We had the tools we needed. We had the usual: boxes, tape, packing material (we use towels and plastic bags to pack our fragiles). I LOVE packing in apple boxes from the grocery store. They’re super sturdy and pretty roomy so they fit more of those odd-ball items. But sometimes they can be hard to come by. We had some leftovers from previous moves, but mostly used paper boxes because we had a great source and uniformity is a wonderful thing.

But for boxing our stuff up long-term, we stocked up on a few other things:

  • garbage bags—when you leave the country and leave your stuff behind for years, who knows what will happen to it. If my in-laws decide our boxes can’t live in their basement, they could end up in a drafty barn or worse. So we put a garbage bag inside each box before we packed it to keep moisture out.
  • moth balls—I’m not sure if this is necessary, but I sure don’t want to have maternity clothes shipped across an ocean someday only to find that they’re full of moth holes. Sure, they’ll smell like my grandma’s house for a day or so, but give them enough air and the stink will leave.
  • labels—really big, easy-to-read, custom-made labels so that when we call the in-laws asking them to find that pair of boots we decided we need, they won’t be terribly inconvenienced. “Box 7A? Got it.”

I bought a pack of 81/2 x 11″ label paper, printed, cut them in half, and stuck two of them on each box. Here’s what they looked like:

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  • We had LOTS of time. We started this two months before the day. Which gave us time to make decisions slowly. Every time I walked past our piles, I had a chance to get rid of one more thing. And every time I needed more time to decide where to put a certain shirt or notebook, I had it. Most of our boxes were packed by a few days prior to moving—it was the stuff we kept with us that surprised us at the end. There was way more of it than we thought!
  • We had LOTS of space. We had an empty space in our garage that was perfect for spreading everything out. It was great—our stuff didn’t swallow our living space, and I could go down and pack for half and hour at a time during Lucas’s naps. Everything was just how I had left it. There was no cleaning up or digging things out to get started.
  • We had both hands free. The last day before a move is crunch time. It’s the day that you realize that you’re moving. And the day that you spend in a constant state of panic. We decided on a whim to send Lucas away with his grandparents. They were headed to Omaha for Christmas a day ahead of us, and we figured he’d have more fun with them than he would staying behind.

As a result, we could put anything on the floor that we wanted, which is very important in the final stages of moving in which furniture is emptied and the odds and ends of the house end up strewn around haphazardly. We were pushing our time limit without him around. I hate to think what would have happened had he stayed behind.

  • We were flexible. We ended up leaving behind a few things that wouldn’t fit into our car. And we didn’t let it stress us out. Our reusable diapers didn’t make the cut, so we’re using disposables. My special teacup from a childhood birthday party broke. I’ve moved on. Our external monitor didn’t fit, so we’re doing without. And it’s fine. We try our best not to let what we have define our attitudes or self-image. If people all over the world have never even considered using an external monitor, then I guess we can get along without it.

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Missed previous posts in this series? Check it out:

 

Confessions of a Seasoned Mover

Lessons Learned

Simplicity is Key

 

 

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Confessions of a Seasoned Mover: Simplicity is Key

I mentioned the constant sloughing off of stuff our family has been doing from day one in my first post of this series.

When I compare my belongings now to four years ago, I see lots of changes. Sure, I’ve moved out on my own, gotten married, and had a kid since then, but these things do not account for all of the changes. The most glaring difference between now and then is the lack of clutter. See picture below, taken previously to moving to college.

Things were given a lot of importance in my home growing up. They were placed on a pedestal, given sentimental value, kept for keeping’s sake. They were like badges showing my non-achievements: in first grade, I collected bunnies. In fourth grade I went through a dog phase. At some point in middle school, I thought about picking up knitting.

And it was all still around when I got married.

Now very little of it is, all for the sake of a decluttered, mobile life. A simplified life.

Simplicity is hard to define exactly. It’s all the rage these days—people throw it around to mean organized or natural. I like to think of it as my life reflecting my values. So in order to simplify, I have to know what is important to me so that my choices line up with my values.

Simplicity can happen in any area of life: food, family, schedule, etc. But today let’s talk a little bit about how seeking simplicity affects our possessions.

Stuff drags us down and drains our resources, our time, and our emotional energy. The more we accumulate, the more space we need and the harder it is to move. When we go into auto pilot and keep getting more and more, our identity becomes our stuff, not ourselves.

Simplifying makes it much easier for our family to be mobile. The thought of having less to pack and keep track of is a huge motivation for me. But I find that it pays off in many other ways:

The more I simplify my possessions, the more I appreciate what I have. The things I keep around are really special to me. And I buy things purposefully so that I enjoy them.

Keeping simplicity as a goal teaches me self-discipline. Which is a great attribute to have around.

Buying less on a whim means I can make bigger, more intentional purchases.

Less stuff doesn’t limit what I can do. It makes me use my creativity in order to achieve more with what I have. (This especially hits home in the kitchen. Very rarely do I regret not having a panini grill. My cast iron does just fine, thanks.)

I am by no means an expert in simplification. But I am a believer! Consider simplifying: leap into it, take it slow, whatever works for you. It will be so worth it.

If you want to read more on the subject, I would recommend Simplicity Parenting, a book about the effects simplifying can have on children, and Organized Simplicity, which gives very practical steps to simplify your home.

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Want to catch up on the series? Here are my previous posts:

Confessions of a Seasoned Mover

Lesson Learned

 

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Confessions of a Seasoned Mover: Lesson Learned

One thing I’ve learned from all of our moves is that packing always takes longer than you think it will. Think you’re planning ahead and doing great? All of those little nothings that are left at the end add up very quickly. The last day will be spent working non-stop and you will end up having to totally slack on that one thing you were planning on doing.
Maybe it’s cleaning, organizing, or maybe it’s preparing for Christmas, but if I’m on a deadline, I’m never happy with how my move goes. Examples:

When we left Columbia, I was eight months pregnant. And finishing my last semester of college. And my husband worked non-stop the last two weeks we were in town. Luckily, I had a friend who came over (with her four children) and helped me pack. (By which I mean that I stood around and did nothing while she packed my house for me.)

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Harold was in the midst of a chicken-raising experiment, and the night before we left, Lisa and I finished packing while her husband and another friend were outside butchering chickens with Harold. This educational experience that took much longer than its allotted two hours, and we were up much later than we had planned. Oh, yeah, and there were six kids playing in my living room while all this was happening.

Before we moved to Dallas, we had this lofty goal of packing the things we weren’t taking with us in a semi-permanent state so that we could keep it in storage for however long we needed. I was going to label everything perfectly, keep lists, maintain calm . . . and ended up running out of time, shoving it into boxes, and dumping it in my in-laws’ garage.

When we left Dallas, Harold was on a business trip. He hates packing with a passion, and helped minimally before leaving. My mother came from Missouri and together she and I did most of the packing and moving. All of those little things that add up at the end? It was almost too much.

The thing that surprised me was how much cleaning I was expected to do before leaving. It was intense—there was a checklist two pages long, and I don’t think I’ve ever cleaned some of the things that were on it. I was so exhausted that I left a few things on the list undone—I figured it was worth losing my deposit to leave. (I didn’t lose a cent, by the way.)

The good news is that we finally did it. Our latest move was pretty awesome. We were still exhausted by it, and not everything went like we planned, but I’m generally satisfied with the entire experience. I’ll have to tell you about it soon.

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Confessions of a Seasoned Mover

When I think of all the crap Harold and I moved into our first house, it makes me cringe. We had just gotten married, and we already had more stuff than we knew what to do with.

Most of it took the form of mementos and knick knacks following us from our childhoods (getting married apparently means that your parents will no longer house those kinds of things for you). And most of it sat in our guest room, untouched.

Slowly, we shed our material accumulations. And we started with the box full of half-used notebooks I had laying around “for next time I need a notebook.” I really don’t find myself needing that many wide ruled puppy dog notebooks that have been badly mistreated in my third grade backpack.

Away went the terrible t-shirts my grandmother brought me back from vacations. And the 50 million high school t-shirts. And the clothes I’d owned since seventh grade.

Sarcophagus Mask

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Away went the plaster of Paris sarcophagus mask and the Cerberus sculpture. Away went my history notes I thought might come in handy someday.

Etc., etc.

My mother came in very handy during our periodic purges. If it had any value whatsoever, we brought it to her. She put it in a room and whenever she had a yard sale (which happens more frequently than you might think), she put it out.

Not only did she take our junk from us, she also kept track of how much it went for and randomly gave us envelopes of cash containing the exact amount—and not a penny less. Pretty awesome stuff.

We’ve moved seven times since we were married in June 2010. And every time, we’ve gotten a little better.

And we’ve had a little less to take with us. It’s funny how that thing that you could never get rid of becomes less important after three moves.

We’ve also shifted to staying in furnished places, so our supply of kitchen and other household items has dwindled down to a handful of things we find either absolutely necessary, plus another handful to make wherever we are feel like home.

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to be posting about packing.

Thinking about packing sends me on about a million different rabbit trails, so really, my posts won’t all be about packing. There will be a bit about simplicity, a bit about how the future shapes today’s decisions . . . probably more.

I hope you enjoy it!

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