I’m going to tell you a story. My purpose here is not to bore you or embarrass myself (although it might seem like the opposite!); it’s to prevent someone else from making the same mistakes I have made.
When I first moved to Paris, I was with a program called TAPIF (Teaching Assistant Program in France). They provided us with all the information we needed to know about the process that would allow us to legally work and live in France. As problems arose, we were able to communicate with a member of their staff whose sole purpose was to help us teaching assistants pre-departure.
I didn’t really understand or care about the processes I went through to get my visa. I just followed the directions given to me in my TAPIF handbook. All I understood at the time was that there was a ton of paperwork, it was both stressful and boring, and if I just did what they said, I could move on and actually BE in France, eating baguettes every day.
By spring of 2011, I knew that I wanted to stay in France longer but having been rejected for a second year of TAPIF, I needed something else to do. I knew several people who had taken French classes at the Sorbonne and it seemed like a perfect fit – a great way to get a student visa to prolong my stay in France as well as deepen my knowledge of the French language. At my appointment to sign up for classes, I told the woman (for whom I believe French was not her native language) that I wanted to take two semesters of classes. She happily accepted my credit card to pay a deposit and printed out a confirmation sheet. I glanced at the sheet to make sure it stated the school’s name and address and had an official stamp, since I had read on the French consulate’s website that those things were very important in order to be approved for a visa. All was well (spoiler alert: all was NOT well, mistake #1), and I flounced out of the office, off to a picnic with friends.
Come early July, I had packed up my little room (leaving most of my things with my second au pair family) and said à bientôt to all my friends. Back in Oakland for two months, I spent the summer seeing friends, working in my mom’s office, petting my cats, and attending my brother’s wedding. A few weeks before I was scheduled to fly back to Paris, I had my visa appointment at the consulate in San Francisco. I had read through all the required documents on their website and brought them all with me to the appointment. I chatted in French with the girl who reviewed and approved my dossier. While waiting to be called up to take my visa picture, I was mentally high-fiving myself for how awesome my French had gotten and how I totally had my shit together.
Not so fast. The supervisor was in possession of my dossier and he called me up to the window. He said flatly that he couldn’t issue me a visa. I tried to remain calm, even as I was inwardly panicking about the logistical nightmare that would follow if I was not granted a visa. Would I have to fly back to France and bring all my stuff home? Could I get a refund on my school tuition? As we continued talking, I got more and more frustrated – he had a really irritating way of cutting off every sentence I began. Finally, he explained (rudely) that on my application form I had requested a visa until May, but the receipt from the Sorbonne that I had provided only showed payment for one semester. The woman at the Sorbonne had misunderstood me and I didn’t notice!
I still don’t understand why this man at the consulate couldn’t just say, I can give you a student visa until January and then you can extend it at the prefecture once you are there. Instead he kept saying too bad, I’m not issuing one to you. I got really upset as it sunk in that he was denying me. I had just had a great year abroad and loved it so much that I wanted to stay. I had gone through all the stress of finding a new place to live and work, moved my possessions across Paris, and arranged my finances to be able to pay for classes which would be a great step toward a possible career in France or a French-speaking company. I had flown all the way back to California, I had navigated their stupid shitty website to make my visa appointment, and made tons of copies of stupid forms and documents. I had paid $140 to Campus France (a completely useless organization) just to be able to study there. And now this stranger was telling me no?!
And he wasn’t just saying no, he was saying it in the meanest way possible. When I explained in a trembling voice that I had used my savings to pay for school and my expensive round-trip ticket and that I HAD to get a visa, he said, No, you would LIKE to get a visa. You would LIKE to go to France. It’s ME who decides, not you! I can turn you away if I want to. Then he suggested, seriously, that I go back to the school IN PARIS and sign up for the spring semester as well. It was AUGUST, the month when most French people take vacation and leave France. The school was definitely not open, and obviously I couldn’t afford to fly over just to get a stupid piece of paper.
His tone, words, and message INFURIATED me. I hate being told what to do, and I really felt that he was being unnecessarily mean. I started sobbing uncontrollably. He said I could put the application in but he would probably reject it. I had to take my picture anyways and my face looks so sad in it. I left the consulate and continued to cry on the street in San Francisco, where three different strangers approached me to comfort me. One guy stopped me, grabbed my shoulders, looked me in the eye, saying firmly, “It’s gonna be ok.” A girl said something similar. On BART, an older man grabbed my hands and prayed to God to quiet my soul. Wow! Even though I was really upset, I still was laughing a bit on the inside at these three random people who wanted to comfort me, all in very different ways.
Now that I’ve had six months to get over it, I realize that I approached the situation with the wrong attitude. Yes, I am an independent individual who is free to make her own choices. But when entering a foreign country, especially to do something other than tourist activities, a part of your freedom must be surrendered. Other countries have the right to place restrictions on those who want to enter for whatever reason and compliance is mandatory. I knew in my mind that I was 100% planning to sign up for another semester in the spring. I know that I am a trust-worthy person and that I have never intended to work illegally or become a terrorist in France. But the French government doesn’t know that – they need proof. My paperwork did not prove that, so he had every reason to deny my request. The French are not known for their stellar customer-service, and this man was a living example of how they tend to deal with people.
Part 2 coming soon!