Visa Applications (Not of the Credit Card Variety)

Today was a day of supposedly epic proportions for me. Of all the paperwork that has passed through my mailbox since my applications were accepted, everything comes down to THIS application. If this application doesn’t go through, that’s it. I won’t be allowed into France. No study abroad for me! Sweet Briar sent me a plethora of paperwork, proving that yes, I had been indeed accepted to not only THEIR program, but to Paris III (Sorbonne Nouvelle) as well. I’d have full medical coverage, I had financial guarantees from both Sweet Briar and from my mom, I had proof of residence, I had a flight schedule dictating when I would be entering and leaving the country… I had to round up my passport (that’s where the visa stamp goes), some bank statements, and my mom and I half panicked a little bit printing out more than enough paperwork to try to prove we weren’t too poor to handle the finances all in preparation for my big day…

We got up this morning half an hour before we had intended to leave, with four hours to make it to the French Consulate of San Francisco with a commute of about three hours. After sending Noah to wake up my mom (she decided not to get up after her alarm went off), and getting some errands done, we were officially on the road about… half an hour later than we meant to be… We found the Consulate about 45 minutes before my appointment, so we went shoe shopping at a store just up the street. They were having a pretty decent sale, so I got two pairs of cute, neutral flats. Obviously, Imelda Marcos is not from France, but sometimes the idea of “she who dies with the most shoes wins” can apply to someone traveling to Paris, right?

The website for the consulate lists all the documents one applying for long stay study-related visa needs, so I made sure I had all of them and then some ahead of time. I was called up to the window quickly, and the clerk asked me for the documents… but not in the order they’re in on the website! I found them all pretty quickly, no harm no foul. The site asked for the originals, and the copies (for certain things), so that’s what I handed the clerk as he asked for specific things. He’d look over the originals, hand them back to me, and keep the copies. I suppose he was doing me a favor, but I had to be quick and try not to get confused. I managed to stay on top of things decently well. The only real hiccup we came across happened right away. The first thing he asked for was my application. The second thing was my proof of residence, and I thought he meant my proof of residence in France (where I’d be staying when I would be studying abroad). “Uh… no, we need proof of residence HERE.” My mom was sitting nearby, and heard him. I was a little flustered and embarrassed and asked him what would work. My mom said “Driver’s License.” He heard her through the window before I could repeat what she said, and he nodded. So I pulled mine out, and handed it to him. My address on my Driver’s License doesn’t match what I wrote on my visa application. The application address (and the one one my passport) is my mom’s. My DL address is my old apartment address, and I had changed it because I wanted to change my voting registration. I got a jury summons for my home county last year, and going to school 350 miles away wasn’t a good enough excuse to not appear (that reminds me, I need to change it back so I can apply for an absentee ballot). The clerk wasn’t too happy. Mind you, proof of American residence is not on the list of things to bring on the website… Luckily, my mom was able to produce her DL, but her address is my childhood home! Luckily, that’s CLOSE to our current address, so the clerk accepted it, and we moved on. Despite the pages upon pages upon PAGES of stuff Sweet Briar sent me to give to the consulate, they really didn’t need much (lord knows I tried to give them EVERYTHING I’d prepared). For example, there’s a requirement that asks for an official letter that says you’ve been accepted/enrolled in a program. Sweet Briar sends you a copy of your acceptance letter to the program (the very first one you get), a letter in French specifically addressed to the people at the consulate detailing the program specific to you (what university you’re going to), a letter that says what Paris university you’ll be attending, letters from that university that says you’ve been accepted, and letters that detail the programs that university has… In my “flustration,” the clerk saw the copy of the acceptance letter at the top of my pile, mentioned it, and asked for it. I never gave him the rest of the letters! When he forwarded me to another window later on to be finger printed and have my picture taken, I asked that clerk to place the letters in my packet. He asked another clerk (in French, and yes I understood everything he said) if they needed the extra letters. He then asked me if the other letters listed any different dates of enrollment than the one they already had. I said I didn’t think so. He said that was the main thing they needed to process the visa, so they didn’t need all of those other papers! On that note, they also didn’t need the extra print outs I had to prove my mother can afford to send me the required “allowance” per month, because the most recent bank statement that they asked for only had one of her two monthly pay checks on it instead of both of them. The amount of money she had wasn’t the issue. The paperwork (and my preparedness) was the issue, and I came with guns blazing in that respect. The website told me to expect the processing to take 21 days, but the clerk told me to expect my passport to be returned to me in just a week! All that worry, and the whole process was done in about… oh, 20 minutes at most.

This appointment made me realize something about my French ability. When it came to the clerks, I could tell who was a native French speaker, and who wasn’t. The first clerk, for example, was a native speaker. The second clerk, was me: a native English speaker who spoke great French (of course, he spoke better French than I did). How could I tell? Clerk 1 had a French accent when he spoke English. Clerk 2 sounded like me when he spoke English. I’ll admit, I was contemplating speaking French when I walked into the consulate, just to practice. I chose not to because I was too scared to! I wasn’t too sure what all of the documents would be called in French, and I didn’t want to select the wrong document (considering I did that when we were speaking my native language anyway, I made the right choice). One thing I’ve noticed about people who speak other languages (or try to) to native/fluent speakers, is that you can tell when your/their skill level in the other language is poor when you/they say something (like a question) in the learned language, and the other person responds in your native tongue. That was the other reason I was nervous to speak French at all in the consulate. I didn’t want to ever have to say “Ouch. Is my French really that bad?” Well, I took a risk. The ONE time I spoke French the entire time I was in the consulate was when I paid for the application processing fee… Clerk 1 passed the receipt I’m supposed to sign and a pen through the tray, I signed it, and…

Me: “Voila.”
Clerk: “Merci.”
Me: “Do rien.”
Clerk: “Et voici votre quittance. Votre enveloppe pré-affranchie?”
Me: “Right here. Now, it said online that I wasn’t supposed to affix the label, but the clerk just slapped it on before I could tell her not to… if there’s a problem, I have another written out… I’m sorry!”
So. I’m sure most of you understand the first three quotes there. The last thing the clerk said was basically “here’s your receipt, do you have your pre-paid envelope (for my visa/passport)?” The key thing I took out of that exchange was that I was the one that initiated and ended the French portion of the conversation. To me, that’s a HUGE compliment. The clerk was impressed with my ability enough to trust me to understand that big chunk at the end of it, and not ask him what he’d just asked me for in English. Considering all I said was “there you go” and “you’re welcome,” how in the world could I have impressed him enough to get him to test me further? My accent, and my rate of speech. After our whole paperwork exchange ended, I said “Merci” of course. I noticed that the way the clerk and I say merci is the same. I don’t say “mercy” or “do reen” like a French 1 student. I say then more like… “mare-see” and “durian.” Hopefully that works… I also don’t have to translate from French to English back to French in my head anymore. I’ve finally mastered my ability to think in French, so I’m able to reply to things quickly. I really felt honored with the exchange with the first clerk. Like I mentioned earlier, when the second clerk flagged down another clerk and talked to her in French and I understood every word, I was listening closely to see if they called me any names, almost like they thought I wasn’t “cool enough” to be in the Francophone club. I mean, I’ve obviously never applied for a long stay visa before in my life, certainly not in France (that would have been written on my application), so I don’t really know what I’m doing, but you better believe I would have said something like “J’ai entendu ça” (I heard that) if they said something that put me in a bad light…
To anyone applying for your French visa soon, take more paperwork than you think you need (obviously the bare minimum of what YOUR SPECIFIC CONSULATE ASKS FOR), try to hand your clerk all of it, let them look it over, and take back anything they don’t want to keep. Don’t try to tell them “but you need that because it said you did online” or “I want you to take that because ______” because THEY probably know what they’re doing more than YOU do. I prefaced my whole “could you add this to my packet please” with “I totally forgot to add this, I’m so sorry I’m an idiot, I’ve never done this before, do you need it?” When you’re dealing with something THIS important, I’d say it’s much better to come over prepared than under, and to walk on eggshells with the clerks. The clerks may be getting paid to deal with you, but if they don’t want to help you out, you don’t get to study abroad, or visit your family, or do whatever it is you want to do in whatever country it is you’re visiting. Remember, they don’t work FOR you, they work WITH you!
Mom and I got some lunch at a Tempura place nearby, stopped by an Old Navy on our way home, and crashed. For not doing “much,” we sure were bushed (despite two visits to Starbucks during the day)! Let’s just hope that in a week’s time, my passport will have a nice stamp that says I can enter France and stay for a long enough time to complete a semester abroad!


Edit: 16 July, 2012

Guess what came in the mail today, readers?

Looks like I had all the right paperwork! I’m going to France!

Du sublime au ridicule il n’y a qu’un pas. -Napoléon

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