Sunday, August 28, 2011

Obnoxious And Terrifying Visa Process Is Obnoxious And Terrifying

So about that visa appointment.

After several weeks of slowly gathering documents and paperwork (some of which my parents had to bring to me when they came to visit last month... including my passport [fail]), printing out forms at the local library at ten cents a pop because I decided I didn't need to bring my printer with me for the summer (fail), having passport photos taken for at least the eighth time in the last two years (Passport photos: they're not just for passports anymore. In fact, you need them for EVERYTHING YOU APPLY TO DO EVER.), and making copies of everything because the French are as obsessive about that as my mother, I had everything I thought I would need together and somewhat organized and was as ready as I was going to get for my appearance at the French Embassy in Washington, D.C.

I was living about three hours away from D.C., so I drove up on Monday night before my Tuesday appointment time and spent the night with a friend in an outer suburb so I could be slightly less anxious about getting delayed. Getting to and finding a parking spot at the nearest metro station the following morning was still a harrowing experience, despite having left really early (relative to my appointment time, that is). Then I had to purchase a new metro card (that saga isn't worth telling right now, so suffice it to say that I got one on my first trip to D.C. several years ago and it is no longer in my possession), which took me a few tries to figure out because for some stupid reason you can't buy them from the same machines you use to add money to them or vice versa. And yes, I could have just bought a regular paper farecard or a day pass, but I like having the card I can [hopefully] keep to use in the future, plus I could use it to pay my parking fee at the end of the day. Anyway, the next major annoyance, though I knew about this one in advance, was that the French Embassy is not on Embassy Row. It's not anywhere near Embassy Row. In fact, you can't even get there on the metro. I had to take a half hour trip into central Washington on the metro and then get on a bus two blocks away to take another half hour trip to the Embassy. Now, I haven't spent a lot of time in Washington, but I've been there enough that I'm reasonably comfortable getting around by myself... but I'd never taken a bus before, mostly because I've never strayed too far beyond the realm of the metro. I prefer trains to buses in general, and one of the reasons for that is that as far as I can tell, when you take a bus in an unfamiliar place, there's pretty much no way to know where all the stops are in advance. And it doesn't usually occur to me to ask the driver where I should get off—not that I'd be likely to do that even if it did. Of course, for a trip this specific and time-dependent, I'd used the trip planner on the metro website and let it tell me exactly what route to take, but for some reason it failed to mention the existence of a bus stop literally right next to the Embassy, leading me to get off at least two stops sooner than was actually necessary and walk a third of a mile down the road for no discernible reason whatsoever.

Whatever. It was a nice day, and a safe neighborhood, and I was an hour and a half early regardless, so no real harm done.

Then the real fun began.

The gate to the Embassy is locked, understandably, but there's no buzzer, at least not that I saw, so I guess you just have to hope that the person in the guardhouse sees you standing there and decides to trust you. She did. However, said guardhouse is in the middle of the driveway, not really anywhere near the pedestrian entrance, and if you enter on foot there is nothing blocking your path and no sign indicating that you should cross the driveway to the guardhouse instead of just following the sign beyond it pointing towards the consulate, so that's exactly what I did, before being called back by the woman on duty because apparently you're supposed to check in at the gate and apparently you're supposed to be either clairvoyant or just not very self-sufficient.

There followed an awkward conversation wherein I was speaking French (and not even badly) and the woman in the guardhouse was insisting on speaking to me in English despite having initially called out to me in French. I relinquished my driver's license in exchange for a badge that said "visa section", wondered how I was supposed to present my ID at the visa office if they took it from me at the gate, and headed up the hill to the consulate. Inside, I took no chances on repeating my faux pas from outside, and approached the woman sitting at the desk in the lobby to ask for the visa section despite the fact that the door was right next to her and clearly marked.

Beyond that door was a large waiting area full of rows of plastic chairs. If you don't have an appointment, you get in line to get a number and then wait until you're called, which I guess is just whenever they get a chance, since most people have appointments (I was told it was required, so I'm not really clear on what circumstances would bring someone to the visa office without one). If you have an appointment, you just sit and wait until they call your name "at your appointment time", or ten or thirty or ninety minutes late, depending on how far behind they are that day. They were running way behind the morning I was there, but then there were several people who apparently failed to show up for their appointments (WTF?)*, so I got called up only a little bit late.

Before that, however, I'd already been forewarned of the next annoyance by others in the waiting area. Along with the visa application form, we were theoretically supposed to have filled out part of a form that gets completed after we arrive in France and sent to the local immigration office to finalize our visa status. Said form is available as a PDF on the Embassy's website along with the application form, so pretty much everyone present had printed it out and filled in what we were supposed to have filled in, not realizing that the form on the website was outdated because A) there are no dates on the form itself, just one in some fine print in the corner of the page that seems to just indicate the year the form was created, and B) there's no reason to think there should need to be any changes made to a basic name/birthdate/passport-number type form. But apparently it gets updated every year, somehow. And apparently the one on the website was last year's.

Now, it seems to me that if you're going to make the form available online, you should update it as needed to keep EVERY SINGLE PERSON from having to fill it out twice. Or, if you're not going to update it, you should just take it off the website. I mean, it's not like it's January and they just haven't gotten around to changing it. It's August. At this point, why bother?

So I was irritated about that, because I'd spent ten cents and wasted two sheets of paper on a form that no one wanted.

Oh, but it got better.

I should mention here that there are some questions on the visa application form that it's not immediately clear how one should answer ("occupation", for example—the vast majority of assistants seem to be in the same position as me: no longer students, but not really anything else yet, either) and others that most people can't answer ("address in France", for example—we're not there yet, and the vast majority of assistants are not provided with housing and won't have a physical address in France for several weeks after arriving). Not wanting to screw anything up, I had found a page on one of the help websites for language assistants that spelled out how one should fill out the form to make things simple for everyone.

But Lesson #3 about French bureaucracy (right after "Everything moves slowly" and "Make copies of everything, not just to be safe, but because someone will want them") is "Do not expect consistency." From anyone. Ever.

The woman who called me up to her window in the visa office when it came to my appointment time was in a bad mood (or was just generally unpleasant, it's hard to tell sometimes) and I'd already overheard her being fairly curt with everyone she's dealt with previously. I handed over my passport and application form and she looked them over, then asked, "Are you returning to continue your work as a language assistant?"

And that's when I knew I was in trouble. The website I'd looked at had recommended writing "language assistant" under "occupation" and using our assigned school as "current employer" as well as "employer in France".

"... No, it's my first time as a language assistant."

"Well, then you've put down false information." She shoved my forms back under the window. "You' are not a language assistant until you've begun your contract. You need to cross all this out and put down your current employer."

I pondered that for a second or two. Leaving aside the fact that that sounds ridiculous (Have you ever had a job where someone said, "Okay, you're hired, but you're not allowed to say you have a job here until after your first day, even though everything's already official. Oh, and you especially can't say you work here on the forms that will allow you to come work here."? Because I haven't.), I didn't really have an alternate answer. Would my unpaid summer internship count as employment? Probably not, and even if it did, it was six hours away from the address I was already hoping not to have to prove was really my address (having already overheard someone else being told that the same parent's-driver's-license-and-a-utility-bill-in-their-name solution I'd been told to use was not actually valid), and I did not want to raise any eyebrows about that.

So I said, "I don't have one."

"Then you need to cross this out and write 'unemployed'."

Now THAT sounds like false information to me. Because I AM employed. My job just hasn't started yet because it's still summer.

So I did that and handed the forms back to her.

"And I see you've also put down false information here." She pointed to the "address in France" section, where I'd repeated the information for the school yet again. "I don't think you're going to be staying in a spare classroom."

She seemed to think she was funny, or my attempt to sneak past her was laughable, or something, but that one I could argue, and I did. "Actually, I AM going to have lodging at the school." She looked confused. "It's a boarding school; they have housing at the school and they've set aside a place for me."

"Well, then you need to put that address."

I gave the address for the ENTIRE SCHOOL. Even if that's not specifically the building where my room is, wherever I'm actually living is associated with that address and I can totally be reached there.

"That's the only address I've been given." I was starting to get frustrated with her at that point.

"Then you need to indicate that you don't know your specific address."

I'm pretty sure that by now she was just making shit up to keep me from being right about anything, because what could possibly be the point of that when it's a perfectly valid address and I've just explained the situation to her in person.

She accepted my form after that, and things went pretty smoothly from there. I had the other documents she asked for, which mercifully did not include proof of my American address, I filled out a new copy of the "outdated" immigration form, I was electronically fingerprinted and had my picture taken (so I was asked to procure and bring additional passport photos... why?), and I handed over the prepaid envelope in which my passport was to be returned to me when the visa was ready, and that was that. I was dismissed and left to hope that not being told otherwise meant I would, in fact, be receiving a visa. I remained mildly worried about the alternative until I was able to confirm a week later that the package had been delivered to my parents' house.

But now I have a visa. And a plane ticket.

I'm moving to France.

* As much as I don't understand missing your hard-to-get visa appointment without even bothering to cancel or reschedule it, that's nothing compared to the girl who didn't even have a visa application form and acted like she had no idea she needed one. I REALLY don't understand how that's possible—it's been in all the information we've received from the program, it was all over the appointment-scheduling website, and it and other visa requirements have been a major topic of online discussion all summer. I don't know how you can be oblivious to that many opportunities for you to become aware of something you need to do. Life must be exceptionally difficult for people like that.

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