Visa Renewal (Part III) a Hard-Fought Victory-Sept 2016

(See Visa Renewal Part I & Part II for the beginning of this three-part story.)

We returned to the sous-prefecture in September, waiting in the reception line only about 30 minutes. After another 30 minutes in the crowded seating area, an extremely efficient yet personable official inspected our two large sets of documents. She seemed pleased that they were complete and in order. In twenty minutes, she sent us on our way with the following instructions:

“You’ll each receive a text advising you of the date when you can pick up your visa. Ignore your first appointment. Wait for the second text, and come together to the second appointment. If, for example, Roger receives his text first, wait for Carol to receive hers. When you come to Carol’s appointment, ask for her visa first, then show the text for Roger’s earlier appointment, and they’ll locate his visa as well. That way you don’t have to come twice. Be sure to bring payment for both visas. The texts will include the amount due.”

Four weeks later, Carol’s phone buzzed with the news that her visa was ready, with a hefty price tag and an “appointment” for pickup on the day before both our current visas expired. We waited patiently, and as Carol’s date approached, we checked Doc’s phone, then hers on the chance that either of us would receive notice of the second meeting. Nothing came.

We decided not to miss the “first appointment,” hoping that Doc’s visa might also be ready. We wondered, too, if the cost quoted in Carol’s text might be for both of us, since it was half again as much as the prior year for one. We knew we couldn’t just hand them our bankcard. Instead, we were required to bring our payment in the form of official tax stamps purchased through a local convenience store. We bought no stamps for Doc, thinking it better to purchase the exact amount once we were certain of the cost.

We made sure to plan enough time for the 40 minute bus ride and several minutes to walk to the sous-prefecture. As we stepped off the bus, Doc noticed a Tabac, the French version of a 7-11 store, just like the one where we’d bought Carol’s tax stamps.

We arrived at 1:50 PM for Carol’s 2:10 PM appointment. The lobby was as crowded as an early morning commuter train to Paris. Carol heard an African man say he had an appointment, so she and a few others joined his line. Soon, however, an official came to tell us there was only one place to wait, which was on the other side of the rope. Someone showed her the text he’d received on his phone, and I thought that man had said “14:10,” but she seemed to ignore him. When we moved back into the group, a French woman looked at Carol knowingly. She spoke softly, “It’s a convocation” (pronounced “kahn-voh-kah-see-own”— we don’t know the English word). She explained that everyone had been given an identical appointment time—the hour when the window opened for visa pickup. Many people had already been waiting in line, and their family members had taken a good portion of the seats.

We reached the front desk at 2:45, where the receptionist assured us that we could get both visas that day. We were called to the pickup window at 3:20. When we asked about Doc’s visa, the woman responded with irritation.

“You should have known that this text was for both visas. You should have come today with tax stamps totaling twice the amount listed in your text !”  (Notice the space before the exclamation mark. This is proper French punctuation, and I’m beginning to understand why ! ) Of course, all of our communication was in French.

Once we mumbled our apologies, she gave us two options and sets of directions for buying the required stamps—one to a convenience store 15 minutes away—the other to another government building 15 minutes in the opposite direction. We had to return by 4:00, or come back another day.

On our way out the door, the French woman we’d met earlier asked if everything had worked out for us. She introduced her young friend, a Chinese student whom she was helping with her initial visa. She laughed, “We French just expect you foreigners to know how things work ! Bon courage !”

Thankful that Doc had spotted it earlier, we walked as quickly as we could to the Tabac, purchased his tax stamps, and rushed back. At 3:55, we stood in another long line to reception. Thankfully, our irritated clerk motioned to the receptionist to let us pass, and we left the building at 4:05 with both visas in hand.

This all transpired a year ago in Massy, France. We now live in Grenoble. The only way to schedule this year’s appointment is online (yeah!). We’re slated for next Thursday and instructions say to come just 10 minutes before, so this is not a “convocation.” There probably will be new surprises, but each year we go with hopeful and more patient hearts.

Victoire !

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Visa Renewal (Part II) – Aug 2016

(See Visa Renewal Part I for the first of this three-part story.)

We were stunned. The wrong place?!? Five hours in the wrong line?!? The cold weariness of the morning seeped deeper into our consciousness and our aching limbs. We shuffled back to seats in the waiting room to discuss next steps. We’d texted our friend to inform him of the situation. He wouldn’t be able to pick us up until after class around 11:30, so we took advantage of the time to rest our feet. Finally making our way to the exit, we allowed the now warm sunshine to brighten the mood. “Well, now we know for sure where to go. Maybe there’ll be time to finish this today and not miss any more school, that is if John doesn’t mind.”

The tiny lunch we’d packed lessened our impatience as we scanned the roundabout for John’s car. His ever-present smile beamed a compassionate welcome as he rounded the bend and pulled to the curb. “I take you now to the sous-prefecture,” he directed, and we scrambled into his car.

Twenty minutes later we stood in line inside the satellite office. The presiding official at reception seemed stressed and weary. About fifteen people kept restless vigil in rows of chairs before several windows, most of which were unmanned. Judging from the signs on the wall and the advice of a fellow immigrant, we moved outside and around a corner to a shorter line in an adjacent office. That line moved quickly, but once we reached its head, an official sent us back to the first office.

john-joanna-2016We expected that John would drop us off and we’d walk the forty minutes home (not an uncommon distance). But he ignored our suggestions that he could return to his wife, two primary school children, and newborn. “Joanna tell me, “Stay with Krebs until they finished.”” (John speaks four languages, but the choppy English of this well-educated, deeply committed Korean pastor reminded me of how we sound to the French.)

The original line had swelled substantially during our short time at the next-door office, even though the receptionist processed individuals at a steady rate. Windows were still unmanned; most seats were taken in the waiting area. When our turn at reception finally came, the tired worker said firmly, “We have no more room today.” He noted the mid-October expiration date on our visas and assured us, “You have plenty of time. Come back after “les vacances” (a month later, the first week of September). You do not need an appointment – just come and we’ll see you that day.”

We took one long look at the waiting crowd, then headed for the car, trying not to think about the lengthy process to come in early September.

To be continued – a new meaning for an “appointment.”

Mr. C – Our French Hero – Oct 2016

Hello sir!” I beamed. “It’s nice to see you!” I was delighted by this serendipitous meeting on the path to the market.

“Excuse me,” the old man answered. “I don’t recognize people until I get close; my eyesight is so poor, you know.” Mr. C hunched and squinted as he approached. “Ohhh, you’re the wife of ‘Anglais!’ How are you today?”

“I’m doing well, thank you!”

“Your husband doesn’t know a lot of French, and I don’t know much English, but we sure enjoy talking to each other!”

Early in the year, while on his walk from school, Doc met this 95-year-old Frenchman on the street. At first they just exchanged pleasantries. Over time, through charades and “Frenglish,” the man asked about where Doc had lived in the U.S. and they shared a bit about each other’s families. Their camaraderie always began with “Bonjour, Anglais!” and ended with Mr. C’s chuckling, “Bye-bye!”

michel-carraage-wwii-memorialDoc wasn’t the only person to visit on the street with Mr. C. The crusty senior could often be seen discussing the day’s news with folks of various ages. Most gave him their rapt attention. He cut a colorful figure in his worn flannel shirt, saggy trousers and an old light brown beret. A hand-rolled cigarette hung from the corner of his mouth, and he peered through thick glasses. His expansive, weathered hands gestured firmly to emphasize his point. A man at the bus stop, thirty years his junior, described the near-centurion as a local hero. Evidently Mr. C had helped liberate the village from the Germans in WWII. A monument dedicated to his service stands near our apartment.

Doc joined his aged friend one fall afternoon on a sidewalk bench. After their normal greetings and a short visit, he asked permission to take Mr. C’s picture. He agreed, removing his beret and cigarette. Then he invited Doc to his house for a beer. michel

“Well, uh, where do you live?”

“Right there.” He pointed through the iron fence behind them. (Most French homes have the same fortress-like look—minus the bench outside the front gates. I wonder now if the city placed it strategically.) Inside, the two men inspected and discussed a number of family photos.

The next time we walked together, Doc identified Mr. C’s house. The old man sat gazing out his living-room windows, and we waved excitedly. Motioning for us to wait, he plodded to the front door, carefully navigating a few outside steps. The black wrought-iron gate squealed at his command and he crossed the threshold. Apologizing for his eyesight, he squinted curiously.

“C’est ma femme!” Doc chimed. (This is my wife.)

Mr. C responded, “Oh, bonjour Madame! Enchanté !” (It’s nice to meet you.) “Salut, Anglais!”

We chatted briefly, then excused ourselves, each of us happy to have spent a little time together.

Two weeks had lapsed, and here I stood with Mr. C.

In my own broken French, with gratitude, I remarked on his service in WWII, motioning toward the town memorial behind us and across the street. He acknowledged my words, but shrugged as if to say, “That’s over and done.” I tried to express the honor I felt to know him—that my dad had been a POW in Germany for 11 months and that Doc’s dad had served with American forces in the Pacific. Momentarily, his eyes lost their twinkle. He nodded appreciation and set his jaw as if to ward off memories. I quickly mentioned that each of our fathers had died.

Mr. C’s grin returned. “I don’t know why I’ve been kept alive for so long. My legs, oh my legs are bad! My hearing’s bad and my eyesight is very poor, but I’m still here.”

We’d been talking for about 15 minutes and I knew his legs must have been weak from standing. I’d been praying as he talked.

“Mon ami,” I began, “I believe God wanted the three of us, you and my husband and me, to meet. I believe that Jesus wants you to know how much He loves you.”

Our wizened friend paused reflectively, his eyes filling with tears. “I know,” he replied, then raised his long arms toward the sky. He began to chatter. He spoke so quickly, I couldn’t understand most of what he said. But these words rung through: “Jesus is faithful . . . God is big . . . God is love!”

I can still feel the scruffy-chinned kisses (perfectly appropriate French farewell) that our friend planted on each side of my face before we parted. I still hear his gruff, affectionate whisper, “Merci . . . merci, Madame Anglais.”

Visa renewal (Part I) – August 2016

The surprises and adjustments of acclimating to a new culture seem endless. Though we’d learned a few things from the experiences of colleagues, they laughingly assured us that we’d “earn” our own stories—part of the rights of passage in cross-cultural service.

Our first-year visas expired in mid-October. We‘d been told we should start the renewal process 60-90 days ahead. So we checked with the administrative assistant at the French language school. “Oh, yes, especially since August is the vacation month, you should start in late July!”

The website indicated that some types of visas are handled in one town at the “main prefecture,” while a small satellite office closer to our area handles different types of visas. Our visa status wasn’t mentioned in either case.

After a slight hesitation, in typical “onward and upward” French fashion (which I thoroughly appreciate), our friend declared, “Yes—I would go to the main prefecture! Yes, that’s what I think you should do.”

So we did.

Other students told us we’d need to arrive early and to expect to stand in line for hours. A friend picked us up at 5:00 a.m. Half an hour later, we climbed from his car at the front gate of the prefecture, surprised to be “the first ones in line.” However, we were greeted from across the street by a fellow with a clipboard. “Write the next numbers and your names on the list, please,” he instructed. We took him to be a French official. There were about 20 men standing around at the time, so we were surprised to be numbers 55 and 56 on the list he carried. He explained that others had signed before us, planning to return later. He’d been waiting since 10:30 the night before, he reported, muttering that, with such high numbers, we might not make it into the building that day. He indicated that someone would come from the building around 7:00 a.m. to organize us in the line across the street. We settled in for a long wait. The early morning chill sent shivers up our spines as we munched on a few pistachios for breakfast and took turns sitting on a tiny, sling-strap portable chair, on loan from a friend.

Notice the line in the background. We were too nervous to take our own pictures. Wish these folks had been there with coffee the morning we waited.

By 6:30 the group had swelled considerably. Our self-appointed leader continued to collect signatures, but folks were getting restless, so he instructed us to cross the street. Another immigrant helped him call out our names and numbers, and we took our places peaceably, along with 40-50 others. I heard the organizer instruct a late arrival not to bother with signing up, as she would have been #70.

Another 40-50 people had joined us by 7:00. In the entire line, I could only see about 20 women. Folks toward the back became agitated when they noticed people from the original 69 signups step into line ahead of them. One tiny woman began to shout questions and complaints. When someone explained the numbering system, her rage matched her bright red outfit and turban. She yelled accusations that this was not how things were done. The organizer tried to reason with her, but she goaded four strong, surly young men in line next to her. The group began to pace along the sidewalk, back and forth like caged dogs, outside the metal barricades behind which the line formed. Everyone was restless, and many grumbled about the need to wait so long. A number were waiting just to schedule a future appointment (not available online). The young watchdogs continued to growl about the signup system. Their snarls, plus the upset woman’s shrill complaints wore on my nerves, and I prayed for peace over the crowd. I feared an impending fight, but at nine o’clock, security guards opened the first gate to the compound.

_2evry-france-prefecture-line-htmWe moved into yet another outside holding area, still far from the prefecture building. Our long line threaded the iron corridors of the que. Most people treated one another with respect, but “Red” and her group shoved ahead in the line. More expletives and challenges rose from the people being pushed. Resentment and fear filled my throat, and I prayed for patience and grace. All the while, more and more people entered the que.

 

A young Muslim couple stood behind us. They seemed frustrated and tired like everyone, yet they responded graciously to our limited French and attempts at conversation. Several times I offered our chair to the wife; several times she declined demurely. I admired her lovely outfit—full-length, blue floral skirt, bejeweled white chemise, polyester, navy shawl and ecru scarf of synthetic wool. Her ankles were covered by thick white stockings and tiny satin slippers held her feet. She had no need to stomp or shift them to ward off the cold, unlike those around her. She seemed to be watching as I whispered a silent prayer—for peace in the line, for the Lord’s favor with officials inside the prefecture, and for individuals that Holy Spirit brought to our attention, including this couple. Though our language skills were extremely limited, I had a deep sense that God was expressing His love through us and that this couple could be on the road to faith in Jesus. Even as I write, God is birthing additional prayers for them from my heart.

I continued to ask if she’d like to sit, knowing that in her culture one automatically declines such an offer several times before eventually accepting. When she finally sat in the chair, her smile seemed to light the entire block! Her husband beamed as well, though he never took a turn.

At 10 o’clock, a guard unlocked the next gate. The line surged sporadically and by 10:30, our time had come. A short, worn path led to a six-foot high revolving iron gate. We had to push hard to reach a smiling French woman on the other side. She wore a navy dress and heels—no jacket. She asked the purpose of our visit, then issued an alpha-numeric ticket. “Take this path to the building,” she instructed kindly, “then find section F and watch for your number on the screen.”

Not until that moment did I realize that I had felt caged for five hours, and the mere privilege of walking (or running, if I cared to) was a gift. We hurried about 60 yards to the building, presented our ticket to inside security for directions, and reached section F just in time to see our number on the screen.

It took less than five minutes to hear the verdict. “I am sorry,” the French official behind the glass moaned. “You cannot apply for a renewal here. You must go to the satellite office. They only handle certain matters, but your type of visa renewal is processed there.” Then she added brightly, “It is close to where you live!”

To be continued—Our sous-prefecture experience.