Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Adventures in France: Getting There

Instead of having French class this morning, everyone in the class met up at our professor’s house for lunch. It was potluck style, and everyone was supposed to bring a dish typical to their native country. Since America doesn’t have many stereotypically American dishes, and I can’t cook, I made chocolate chip cookies. I didn’t think people would appreciate it if I showed up with McDonald’s.

We talked a lot about what it’s like to be an au pair, how we got here, and it turns out it was a bit different for Jascha than it was for Jody and me. I always forget that it’s way easier for Europeans to move around Europe. What with the European Union, a European can move to any other nation in Europe without too much trouble. They may have a hard time finding a job if they don’t speak the language well, but they don’t require a visa or anything. Non-Europeans, on the other hand, have to jump through all sorts of bureaucratic hoops. People keep asking me if I’ll stay in France when I’m done as an au pair, but for us non-Europeans, that’s not really a choice.

Last August, after we had completed all the necessary paperwork and received all the necessary permission to be au pairs in France, Jody and I had to go to San Francisco to get our visas. We couldn’t just go to the French consulate in Seattle, we had to show up in person in San Francisco. San Fran is a thirteen hour drive from Seattle, and we had to wait until the last minute to go down there (it was one or two weeks before we were to get on the plane to France). We planned the trip so that we would arrive at the consulate first thing in the morning (unshowered and unrested), so Becky*, Jody, and I were driving through the night.

Becky and me in San Fran after 13 hours
driving through the night. I hate this
picture of me, though I think Becky
looks really cute.

The consulate had a security guard who literally barked unintelligible orders at all the visa-seekers in pidgin English. She was a fairly small, Asian woman, but she was incredibly intimidating and by far the most unpleasant person I’ve ever come across. She ordered us to turn off all cell phones before passing through her metal detector. We asked if Becky could come in with us just to wait, and the woman glared her permission. Jody passed through the check, then Becky walked up. Becky had silenced her cell phone, thinking that was enough, and the woman practically guillotined her, shouting, “I tell you to turn off! Why you not turn off?!” It seemed like everyone that went through there only just managed to pass the security check. She instructed us to sit in a row of seven chairs, and when the person in the first chair was called up to a window, the rest of us were supposed to scoot down accordingly. Some people didn’t quite understand her, and when they didn’t scoot down, she would lean in to bark at them. She managed to intimidate every person who walked into the consulate so much that we were all terrified and nervous for the entire time we were in the consulate. We weren’t sure if we were allowed to talk, but no one wanted to take the chance of being yelled at, so no one said a word. We sat still, scared out of our wits, and listened to the people at the various windows. They were all young, between 18 and 25 years old, and a bunch of them were in a group that had come down from Seattle together. As I sat silently in my chair, I listened to three or four people being told they didn’t have all the items, pieces of paper, photos, proofs of existence necessary to get their visas. Jody and I had done our internet research before driving down, as we didn’t want to get to San Fran just to be sent back to Seattle. The girls at the windows argued angrily with the French ambassadors. “How was I supposed to know I needed photos/a copy of my plane ticket/my contract?” The French ambassadors, all of whom were your typical, uncaring, apparently bored Frenchmen, would respond to these comments by directing the angry, accusatory Americans to a photo booth/internet cafĂ© down the street, as opposed to telling them that all necessary documents were listed on the consulates website. I don’t think the ambassadors were even aware that the website listed the required documents. Anyway, after hearing the same conversation pass at four different windows, I was terrified. I triple-checked that all my documents were there (they were, but who knew if they would want a different one that I didn’t have!) Then a new, but no less scary conversation took place at one of the windows. The girl was chatting amiably with the Frenchmen behind the window (who, for the record, was not particularly amiable in return), and there didn’t appear to be any problems, though I couldn’t be sure, as they were conversing in French. She was totally showing off, that little…show off!

Finally, it was my turn. I approached the window. The guy behind looked at me. He didn’t say anything (typical French), which did nothing to ease my shattered nerves. French bureaucrats expect you to start the conversation, telling them what it is you want. They don’t ask, “how can I help you?” because, really, they’d rather not have to. When I told him why I was there, he started asking for documents. I kept waiting for him to ask for one I didn’t have, but it never happened (thank goodness!). I think Jody and I were the only people there that morning who weren’t missing any documents. In the end, we received temporary visas (what?!) and were told to be sure that our passports were stamped when we arrived in Paris.

Altogether, it was a terrifying and unnerving experience, but oddly enough, it didn’t end when we left San Francisco. The San Francisco French consulate managed to scare us even as we entered France. You see, our flight involved a plane change in Copenhagen and our passports were stamped by customs in Copenhagen. The flight from Copenhagen to Paris does not require passing through customs in Paris, since it’s travel within the European Union. So we got off the plane in Paris and were directed to the baggage claim, but we were freaked out because the lady in San Francisco had told us to be sure we got our passports stamped in Paris. We wandered around and found a customs agent and begged him to stamp our passports, but he refused.

Sidenote: when I walked up to the customs agent, nervous because I was about to speak French for the first time in three years, I prefaced my plea with “We’re American,” to which he responded, “I’m French.” Thank you, Captain Obvious!

When it came time to get our permanent visas, no one cared at all that our passports were stamped in Copenhagen and not Paris. Why was the woman in San Francisco so emphatic about it? She also told us to register with city hall within 8 days of our arrival, which we didn’t do, and no one cared. Whatever.

*Becky is my older sister. She's two years older than me, while Jody is two years younger than me. There's also Amy, who's four years younger than me.


  1. GOOD LORD! Too frightening. I could never imagine doing all that just to baby sit some kids....I hated babysitting so much I am amazed that I had children at all....actually I never planned it. It just kind of "happened" unexpectedly both times. (oops) I fixed that little problem PRONTO!

    Now I just have le cute little puppies in le cute little pink bags (can't spell fuciusiajfsjfklsdjf) what the heck! They are so much easier than children.

    I am feeling better today and Shyloh will be very happy with her new mommy. This lady is great and will soooooo spoil her it is not even funny. She let her last dog sleep with her and she totally plans on letting Shyloh do the same. (Wait till she hears the snores and smells the gas....I bet she changes her mind!) I can't think about it too much, it makes me cry.

    Beautiful day in Spokane! Near 90 here today! YAY!

  2. Hey Karenzicus, hope you had a chance to make up with yr mom for mother' day? It was kinda quiet here, my hub had to work on Sunday...dag! But I enjoyed the solitude :)
    I used to work at the american consulate in south africa and it pretty much is the same whereever you go. I am a very engaging person (i think), but I couldn't be that way with the public, because they would mistake it as being sarcastic. I know, its stupid. Its a good thing there was a glass between me and the public, because they would get real feisty at times, especially when their visas were denied!
    I experience the flipside though, when I had to obtain a visa for my mom for her trip to Canada. Omigosh. New Yorkers are not fun to begin with, now imagine communicating with a New York City Canadian Embassy Guard...aint hap'nin.
    We were herded and treated like cattle. Screamed upon and basically thought of as pests that interrupted their day!
    Ah well, governmental workers are not known to be the most pleasant of folk....
    thanks for stopping by and speak soon again!

  3. That French customs guy was so funny! "I'm French!" I laughed, even though I was crying on the inside.