Thursday, March 22, 2018

Visa Adventures

It happened today -- an official, shiny seal of blue, white and red in my passport showing that I am approved to stay in France through 2019.
2019! That seems so far away.
I was notified by mail that I needed to report to the Marseille Immigration office for my official medical exam.
I also needed to bring a passport-sized photo, a certificate to show I had a place to live, and 250 tax stamps. (That sounds like something from the Colonial times, doesn't it?)
Curiously, although Earl entered the country at the exact same time as me, he did not have an appointment. He came along, mapping the route the day before, in case they meant both of us but only named me.
The appointment had me spooked. I'd read enough books about Americans visiting French doctors and being asked to wait completely naked in the exam room, or, God forbid, the David Sedaris story, In the Waiting Room, about going to the doctor and being sent to wait in his underwear.
I knew that the medical exam included a chest xray to check for tuberculosis, so I anticipated that clothes would be removed.

The man at the tourism office convinced us we needed to catch the 5:45 train from Aix en Provence to Marseille. So we walked out the door of the apartment at 5 a.m., which means I was in the shower at 4:15 a.m. It makes my eyes droop just thinking of it. I had gotten up at 4:30 a.m. the previous morning to drive my friend Delana to the Marseille Airport.
So, at 5 a.m., with the city still dark, we walked one of the spiral streets that leads to the Cours Mirabeau, the famous tourist street in downtown Aix. We passed the tourism office and continued to the bus station.
The dark and empty bus station in Aix en Provence
The man at the tourism office warned that later buses get quite crowded, still, at 5:25 a.m. with the temperature right at freezing (O in Celsius, 32 in Fahrenheit) I thought a gaggle of warm bodies might have been better.
As we stood waiting, a Japanese man approached us carrying two bags. He sat them down and began to talk to us in superfast English, telling us of his travel adventures. It helped pass the time, and he bowed as we boarded the bus.
Thirty minutes later, we arrived at St. Charles train station in Marseille. Yes, 6:15 a.m. for an 8:30 appointment. We were prepared, carrying our folder full of official papers.
I insisted we stop for coffee and pain au chocolate at the train station, after using the pay toilets.
The trains were striking today, so workers gathered in the station, preparing for their demonstration.
Strikers gathered at St. Charles station in Marseille
Luckily, the buses and the metro were not affected. We descended to the Metro and bought a roundtrip ticket on the subway. A few stops later, we climbed into the city to see daybreak in a clear sky.
Finally the sun rose on our morning
We walked to the office to make sure we knew the location then we searched out a boulangerie, some place warm to wait, sipping a coffee to make it last, and last, and last.
We'd seen a sign for a "McDrive" a McDonalds with a drive through, so we walked in search of it because after all that coffee, we needed a bathroom, but we couldn't find it so returned to the immigration office. A few people had already gathered outside the door.
Once the workers opened the door, precisely at 8:30, everyone pressed in, no matter what time they had arrived. There was no sense of first come, first serve. I was escorted past the reception desk to the medical waiting room. By 8:35 I sat in a wooden chair, alone, separated from Earl. The woman said something in French I didn't understand but then explained I would be first.
After she left, I saw the sign that explained the medical staff didn't begin until 9. So I was first, once they arrived.
The radiologist came in carrying a motorcycle helmet under his arm. A tall thin woman nodded bonjour to me. She was the "infirmier," the nurse who would later weigh me, after covering the standing part of the scale with a piece of paper to protect me and the rest of the patients from foot germs.
The radiologist called me in first. "You are perhaps wearing a little tshirt?" he asked hopefully.
No, my instructions had not included wearing a little tshirt. But I had a tshirt dress on. Wasn't that close enough?
No. I needed to get undressed and put on a see-through green smock. I didn't know which way it tied, in the front or the back.
I opened the door a crack and called out, "Monsier, ..." I asked in my halting French whether it should open in the front or derriere. He didn't care and led me to the board where I pressed my chest against the plastic and held my breathe. Then I could get dressed and prepare to see the nurse and the doctor.
The nurse asked questions about my immunizations, my eye prescription, the number of pregnancies. She weighed me and measured my height then did some calculations. The weighing part didn't bother me at all, even though I had eaten breakfast and had two coffees. At home, if I'd been going to the doctor I would definitely have fasted for a day or at least the morning before being weighed, but since I didn't know what was light or heavy in kilograms, it didn't faze me. (Don't tell me. I don't want to know.)
Next, she pricked my finger with a needle to check my blood sugar -- very good.

I was sent to the waiting room to look longingly at the doctor's door. Frequently, the doctor, nurse, radiologists, or receptionists would pause in what they were doing to exchange cheek kisses with co-workers who arrived to start their days. I couldn't imagine such a ritual in the U.S.
The doctor called me in. My chest xray was good. My weight and blood pressure a bit high (for French or Americans, I wondered). He listened to my heart and my lungs, looked in my mouth. Felt the glands in my neck and sent me on my way.
No. I moved to the reception area where I got to sit by Earl. He urged me to ask about his appointment, but I put him off. "Let me get my visa complete than I'll ask."
The clock ticked toward 11 and I was getting worried. The office closed from 11:30 to 2:30 for lunch. Would we have to return?
But as the reception area thinned out, a woman called my name, or part of my name. I proudly handed her each document she requested. When we got to the stamp tax, I gave her a piece of paper printed with squiggly lines that could be read by a phone or computer. Electronic stamps worth $250.
My friend Delana had explained that we pay for the stamps in a tabac -- a corner store that sells cigarettes, post cards, newspapers, and apparently tax stamps.
The woman behind the counter, who had been quickly moving through all the steps shook her head. "We need the actual physical stamps, not electronic," she said.
"But I showed them the letter," I protested.
She just shook her head again.
The woman spoke in French the whole time, so I'm sure I missed some of the points, but she kept saying she was waiting for my vignette. The vignette is that sticker with the shiny French flag stamp, but I had no idea. I thought a vignette was a story that someone might tell.
She printed out a paper explaining how to redeem the 250 Euro electronic tax stamps we'd paid for and I sent Earl down to the nearest tabac for 250 Euros in actual, physical stamps. He returned quickly and I handed them over.
Once she used her glue stick to adhere the "vignette" into my U.S. passport, I asked her about an appointment for Earl.
I knew that our original visas were good for travel in and out of the country for three months, and that deadline was fast approaching. As of April 4, we would have passed three months since arriving in France.
He plans to visit Italy, I explained, to see his sister.
The radiologist had stepped out to reception at that point. Was he still picturing 50 year old breasts as he commented about the joys of visiting Italy and asked what part?
"Pisa," I explained.
"Ah, yes, Americans love Pisa."
But, getting back to the subject, could Earl travel to Pisa and return on April 5th, one day after the three-month mark?
Better not, the woman advised with a look that said he could be banned from France, stranding me alone in Aix en Provence.
He doesn't have an appointment (rendez-vous) yet, I pointed out.
She looked him up and told us his appointment was scheduled for April 3. He just hadn't been notified yet. Should we try to reschedule the appointment so he could go to Italy?
Well, there were no earlier appointments, and he might not get back into the country.
Probably best to keep the appointment and change the trip, we agreed quickly, afraid of losing our spot in the immigration line
What a relief to be finished with the hoops, for now.
Before I left, the woman pointed out the date on the visa. "If you want to stay in France," she explained, "you must apply to renew the visa two months before it expires."
Okay, eight months before I have to start the paperwork again, and two months before we take the early morning trip to Marseille for Earl's visa journey.
Don't worry though, we made the best of it, walking down to the old port and enjoying a lunch along the harbor
The waiter took our photo during lunch. We should have leaned forward to get the shade off our faces. 

The view from our lunch table, over the harbor and the beautiful Notre Dame de la Garde high above
before we returned to Aix en Provence and my friend Najah who is visiting from Ohio.
We may take her back to Marseille tomorrow, and maybe I'll share some of our adventures with you. 


Jeanie said...

What an ordeal, Paulita! I had no idea! Your posts are like a graduate class in ex-patting it in France!

Anonymous said...

Now that you mention it, I remember having to get chest x-rays before moving to Belgium. And the same scrum at the commune to renew my papers. I would call and get an appointment (why didn't the others?), plus, something that was rather horrifying, there were two windows: one for UK, Switzerland, Canada and US, and the other for the rest of the world. Guess how that race breakdown looked in the waiting room?
As for the doctors, get used to being naked. I've never been given a robe/wrap/paper cover. You take off your shirt (or pants, depending), and they do what they have to do. They see so many breasts and butts and everything else that you can't take it personally. I remember going for a mammogram and they wanted to also do an ultrasound, so I had to go from one room to another topless. I started to freak out a little but the rooms communicated without having to go into the hall.

Paulita said...

Jeannie, Thanks. Hope I'm not scaring anyone off.
Francetaste, Thanks for more warnings. Friends who tell me things like this are why I was kind of freaked out. Now, of course, I know that in addition to being naked part of the time, I'm also being judged as overweight and naked. I'll adjust, hopefully.

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