(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.