The path to French citizenship begins, or “Visitor no more”

I saw her place the green and white paper on top of my file.  It was the paper used to print a recipisse (the temporary document one uses for identification while waiting to get a permanent identity card).  Externally I remained stoic.  Internally my jaw dropped and I wanted to shout out.  That enormous dossier that I had handed over 15 minutes earlier had worked.  Not only had I successfully jumped the track from the hamster-wheel of visitorhood to the track to an EU and French citizenship, but this had been the shortest prefecture visit since I moved to France in 2013.  From start to finish it had been thirty minutes.  I had felt supremely confident in my dossier – but this was France, after all.  There could always be something objectionable.

Still dumbstruck, I silently handed over my photos.  As the big printer hummed, she clipped out one of them, handed the rest back to me, then dutifully affixed it to my recipisse.  She then gave it all the stamps and signatures it needed after I had verified all the information and signed it myself.

Today is eight days after I successfully changed to a Profession Liberale visa.  As long as I earn a certain income over the next five years and pay the requisite taxes, I’ll be eligible to apply for French citizenship (note: that does not mean I’ll get it).  I’m officially allowed to work in France, now.  I had to go to URSSAF yesterday to do more paperwork, and I need to come back in 90 days to give the prefecture that paperwork, but that’s literally paper pushing, rather than the complex compilation of a dossier.

Could I have taken this path immediately in 2013 instead of taking the visitor route?  Yes.  Indeed, if there are any of you out there interested in taking this path, I can help consult you through this process as someone who has successfully completed it and has a winning template (and if you live in Paris I’ll throw in a lunch, too).  For more information, email me.

And yet, the answer for me is also No.  I could not have taken this route myself, knowing as little as I did about France in 2013.  I didn’t even know what I didn’t know, and my plans and ideas about my time in France were so inchoate when I landed here.  Yes, eight days ago I took a bulletproof dossier to the Prefecture…but I knew it was bulletproof because of my last two visits there and what I had learned about the French and their expectations in the last three years.

It’s also been marvelous to hear from people I’ve met because of this blog – not just those who needed help regarding the visitor visa but those who have started to meet with me to strategize about what I’ve just successfully done: a transition to the citizenship route.  A few of their testimonials are here.

Thanks for continuing this journey with me.  Last Thursday was the end of the beginning.

The image is the flag of the Bourbon Restoration.  It’s as good a time as any to admit that I’m an unabashed royalist.

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Meetup: A great way to build a core of diverse friends

This summer I went to the Fete de la Musique with a large group of friends.  Though it originally started in France it’s now a worldwide annual event.  As the evening closed out at our fourth musical venue out of hundreds we could have chosen, I took a moment to be thankful for a platform that has connected me with so many wonderful people.

Meetup is a company that started in NYC in mid-2001, but really gained traction after 9/11 as New Yorkers tried to connect with people who wanted to talk and process the disaster that had befallen their city, their nation, and the world.  It has grown quickly in the US, and as a result it can cost north of $100USD/year to start a group.

For those who aren’t familiar with the concept, Meetup is a “just add internet” for any type of group.  Want to “jog on Wednesdays” or “knit on Tuesdays” or “club on Saturdays”?  There’s a group for you to join.  Can’t find the group you want?  Start your own.

For the casual browser it’s a dazzling arena of fun activities with strangers who might become friends.  For the organizer type (comme moi) at only 12€/year to start up to three groups, it’s a bargain that pays back massive dividends.

I created Paris Culture Lovers as a way to find people like me – who love art, film, books, conversation, food, and day trips.  We are closing in on our first year as a group and have done almost 90 events, some of which were among my most treasured memories of 2015.

So what’s the bad news?

  1. Many groups are ephemeral.  People get enthusiastic, start a group, never do an event or do one and give up.  That’s okay.  It happens.
  2. Because Meetup has created a “buffet” culture, and because of society worldwide becoming less accountable about events and invitations, many people feel they can no-call and no-show an event they have RSVPed for, or cancel hours or minutes before an event, for frivolous reasons or for no reasons whatsoever.  You might not do that to friends but you may be inclined to do that to strangers (At PCL we have invented a ranking system that measures and ranks you by the number of events attended and gives senior members priority for events).

But neither of these things are dealbreakers and as this year ends, a group of the core of Paris Culture Lovers have become good friends and strong acquaintances, which means a lot to a stranger in a strange land – even more so to the type like me, who isn’t seeking to surround himself with expats to build an anglo island in France.  There are meetup groups for that…if that’s what you want.  But when I want to feel like America or be with Americans…I visit that country.

* * *

PS I should note that I had two Meetups fail due to lack of interest – a casual kick around soccer group and a chess players group.  But you have to try in order to see what works 🙂

You can(‘t) go home again

“What do you miss the most?”  My friends smile, anticipating a favorite dish, a favorite place, or a particular time of year.  “Well, you guys, of course,” I say quickly, hoping to deflect the question from my true answer: “Nothing.”

Of course there are things that are wonderful that one could miss – but I “miss” them in the same way that I “miss” anything from a place I have been to – like missing dim sum in Hong Kong or missing walking the beaches of Sydney.  But I don’t miss anything in the “think about it all the time” way that I think they probably mean.  But in fairness to a country that played host to many happy years of my life, I miss walks in the Huntington Gardens in California.  Food trucks in Austin.  Baseball in Saint Louis.  Hot chicken in Nashville.  The squares of Savannah.  BYOB restaurants in Montreal.  Autumn in New Hampshire.

Next month will mark the beginning of my third year in Paris and I’m “in between.”  America is no longer “home” for many reasons but I still can’t believe I really get to call this place home.  I’m Parisian in my bones – in a way I always have been – and I marvel every day that I get to live in my dream city.  I’ve often been alone on a quiet street and stifled a laugh as I took in that crooked winding view of centuries.  Two years on, I still have “pinch me” moments.

Going to the United States has become a rather elaborate production.  As part of my visa requirements, I have to spend at least 270 days a year in France, so you can’t go back for too long – but if you’re going to cross an ocean, it’s 3 weeks’ minimum for me.  I’ve also hit upon the strategy of visiting my friends and family during “non-holiday” periods so I don’t have to share them with other commitments they have.  I’ve also find this makes for finding absurdly cheap flights (I just booked the cheapest Europe-America flight of my life recently).

I haven’t yet chosen to ditch 7 years of medical/dental/accounting services and technology and occasional travel stateside means I don’t have to.  The PPO (insurance plan) I once had in the United States cost $135/month and covered me for pretty much everything for years.  The “affordable care act” in America has not only cancelled that plan, but the closest current equivalent costs $570/month.  So I just pay cash to see my old doctors for my annual checkup, etc.

Dental insurance remains extremely reasonable ($35/month in my case) so it’s cheaper to retain it solely for your cleanings twice a year.  Just those two cleanings will cost more in cash than the entire annual premium for your insurance – and that’s assuming you have no other problems.  Do the math.

I couldn’t help but laugh at the times I would put a car into park and then stare mutely at the dashboard, wondering if I hadn’t forgotten to do something.  Not driving for months and months makes you a bit cagey when you do finally slip behind the wheel again.

***

The more assertive variation on the question “What do you miss?” is “When are you coming back?”  This led to a very long and fruitful exchange with a close friend in which I enunciated advantages I have now that effectively prevent me from returning to the United States for the foreseeable future.

  1. Physical health – I finally gave in and got a fitbit to document what I’ve always suspected: I walk a moving average of 10 km/day.  I do this at various speeds, up and down stairs, on cobblestones or grass, all around this city.  Not only did this regime of walking contribute to my losing 30 lbs/13 kg when I moved here, but it has established a new weight standard which would be impossible for me to retain in most American cities.  During my recent visit to Kansas City, I experimented by refusing to take and elevators and as often as I could remember I parked my vehicle as far away from a store entrance as possible.  I even tried not to use carts to carry my purchases.  With these “extreme” measures I couldn’t even get close to 4km/day as an average.  I’m simply healthier here in Europe.
  2. Access to Europe – I used to treasure an annual trip to Europe to see places new and old.  But now that I live here, all of Europe is at my doorstep, for pennies, either by flight, train, bus, or ridesharing (think uber but for long distances).  When living in America I experienced a variation on these sorts of fun possibilities only during my two years in New Hampshire, when Boston, Philly, NYC, and even Montreal were just road trips away, and in some cases, by train or bus too!  On this recent trip I had some business up by Chicago and elected to take the train (Amtrak) but perhaps had forgotten that there’s only one departure a day and when it gets delayed, it really gets delayed.  An engine on the train coming to Kansas City blew up in Arizona and they had to run another engine out there from California.  It delayed my journey by 7 hours and Amtrak had to pay to transport me to and from a hotel and put me up in it so I could connect to the bus to Rockford in the morning.  Not too shabby a recovery from the taxpayer-supported Amtrak, but a far cry from the dozens of departures and arrivals all around Europe every day.
  3. Constant challenge of language – Every day I make progress in French, but my work and life brings me into contact with the whole world.  During the summer I had a date with a Brazilian girl who didn’t speak English and we laughed our way through our makeshift Spanish and an occasional assist from Google Translate.  Expressing yourself in a foreign language is one of the most difficult, fun, rewarding, humbling, and interesting experiences in life.  You get opportunities like that every day here.
  4. A built life – Next year I transition from my visitor visa to one that puts me on the path to citizenship.  I continue to maintain that the EU passport is simply the most valuable passport obtainable by the average person in the world.  The only ones more valuable are the Vatican and Swiss passports – and they are very, very difficult to obtain for various reasons (as an aside I was recently asked at a dinner party what I liked most about having an American passport and I replied that it was the knowledge that Navy Seals will come for me if Somali pirates ever commandeer a vessel I’m on.  I’m sorry, no country can top that!).  I’ve started something wonderful here, and it would be nuts to leave it – especially when I’ve gone through all the hard stuff.  Indeed, as I looked over the list of requirements for my dossier for my new visa – which will be far more difficult to obtain than the visitor one – I said to a friend, “Is this it?”  The list had 28 requirements.  I realized after 2 years I am simply unfazed by the French government.

So my answer to my friend was, “Why would I come back?  I’m healthier and happier than I have been for many years, possibly more than I have ever been in my life.”

The caveat is, of course, family.  My nieces and nephews continue to grow by leaps and bounds and I measure their skill in their improvements in art and coloring, parcheesi, and sports.

On more than one occasion I’ve heard someone say, “I have to live here, because I love my family.”  I get that, I truly do.  But ultimately I moved because I placed my happiness first.  Of course I’m happy when I am with my family – but I know that part of the reason I get to contribute to their lives, bring them presents from all around the world, and share great stories with them, is precisely because I’ve built and chosen an intentional path for my life that doesn’t defer a dream life to some unknown future that no one has guaranteed that I will live to obtain.

There’s no right answer here and I’m not proposing that I have the right one.  I can only say that I can spend more quality time with my family now – and treasure it more deeply – because I know our opportunities are so precious and limited – and because I am well and truly happy, and that speaks volumes to children.

***

There’s nothing more satisfying than waking up every day knowing in your bones that you are on the right path.  And while two years isn’t yet enough for me to claim “Parisian” status yet, it does feel like home.

***The picture is of one of the fountains in one of the many lovely squares of Savannah, Georgia.***

I live in a different Paris than you do…

“And you know, Paris is all metro and work and the run-around.”

He used the famous idiom “Metro-boulot-dodo” which is a colloquialism that is literally “subway-work-sleep” that indicates the grind of life for many in the City of Light.  We were high in the French Alps, not far from the Italian border, but quite a distance away from home, and yet the complaint was similar: “I used to think Paris was magic, but now it’s just a place I work and pay bills.”

I tried to hide my dismay at hearing this, because no one should live in a place that one doesn’t love, if it can be avoided.  It’s socially acceptab2014-04-08 13.57.40le to tell people you moved to a dreadful city for a job but it’s some revolutionary concept to tell people you moved someplace for the city and who cared about the job?  It would come.

Now, I’m not pretending that everyone can have a great amount of time wealth/lifestyle in the world’s finest cities, but if you are going to bother to live there, to “put up” with the cost of living, it’s surely a great shame if you can never enjoy it.

Now, the first time I heard this complaint was from a lady who attended my Paris Culture Lovers meetup who rather sourly 2014-03-28 13.24.00complained about her schedule as I described my own, which included grocery shopping, visiting parks and museums, and riding a Velib during “off hours” – when everyone was at work from 9-5.  While I was a bit taken aback at her tirade, even though I’ve become very used to the French complaining (it’s a national art and sport), especially since she chose to move to Paris 15 years ago – for work – I avoided what would have been a typical American retort: “Well why don’t you do something about it instead of just complaining to 10 near-strangers about it?”  I said it another way to my friend Julia last month: “The French as a people would rather complain about what they don’t have than take responsibility for building their dreams.”  Instead, I just managed to stutter, “I guess…I guess I just live in a different Paris than you do.”

Since my current conversant was French I decided to take a different tack and asked him how he planned to break the cycle.  He shared some great ideas, but unsurprisingly, had not done any real research into those ideas.

2014-04-14 12.29.22***

Okay, Stephen, so people quit their miserable city jobs, then what?  Look, I don’t know.  I’m not advocating that everyone quit his/her respective jobs.  I’m just asking the serious and adult series of questions: what is the life you want for yourself?  Are you living it now?  If not, why not?  Do you have any plan or timeline in which you will be living the life you want?  Does it solely hinge on money?  Have you rethought that?

Surely life is more than paying rent or a mortgage.  Our time on this magnificent planet is too short and brief to spend focusing on the life you don’t have.  Start creating the life you desire and marvel at how much the journey alone will prepare you to enjoy what awaits your sacrifices.  I’m reminded of the words of Marcus Aurelius:

The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.

The obstacle is the way.

2014-04-18 19.48.52-2The photos are all ones I took this time last year, when Spring had definitely arrived.  For now they are consoling me that we are almost there, as Winter is staying too long this year.

Little Entrepreneurs and a Sunday Stroll

I’ve often said that Paris is built for walkers.  The subtext there is that it’s a dream for wanderers.  Have some free time and nothing on your agenda?  Just take a stroll.  If it’s a particularly cold day, you might hit a string of Passages.  Historically these were just places where the bourgeois could shop, free from the threat of the elements.  Now tourists (and locals) mug in, enjoying the ongoing “show” that are the endless corridors of glass shop-windows.  Today my target was a string of them, starting in my neighborhood, the 2nd, at the Cadet Metro station and working my way south towards Bourse.

Because my F2015-01-18 16.23.39rench is still a work in progress, I will often buy used children’s books as a means of improving (so I read like a French 10-year old, so what? 🙂 ).  If they are used and on offer for 1 or 2 euros, that’s ideal.  These young entrepreneurs had set up in front of a beautiful art store that was conveniently closed.  People might crowd around looking into the store at curios and hey – there are some kids selling books right here – let’s take a look.

Where had these children (they couldn’t have been older than 10) gotten these books?  Had maman insisted on a cleanout of the rooms?  Had they found them by the trash somewhere and decided to be enterprising?  I stopped asking myself questions and started looking for my friends Babar, Madeleine, Tintin, and Asterix.

I spotted what I wanted – a picture book on St. Bernadette, and inquired of one of the young ones – “how much?” in French.  She told me to wait one moment and she asked her brother.  He told her, “whatever you think.”  She paused, hand firmly under chin, mulled it over, and said “deux cinquante.”  I shrugged and nodded and reached into my pocket and pulled out a grip of coins.  Seeing my “riches” she quickly amended: “Trois.”  I laughed.  How do you say no to a kid selling books on the sidewalk on a Sunday?

I happily paid the spontaneous 20% upcharge and walked away with my new treasure, grateful to witness yet another facet of life in this amazing city.  Entrepreneur might be a French word, after all 🙂

 

 

How to get a French long-term stay visa Part I, or “learning to love bureaucracy”

You would think the fact that I’m conversational and literate in French, and that I’m a teacher, would alert me to the fact that as I went back and forth with the machinery of the French consulate, I would remember that the very etymology of bureaucracy traces to the French word for desk.

When I first started doing the research behind the visa I would need to live in Paris, I didn’t find much help.  About.com had a decent article, but it was from 2006, and who knew what had changed since then?  Here’s what I was able to glean from the web, before I made my way to the website for the French Consulate office for my region, which happened to be in Chicago:

1.  You cannot get a student visa unless you are going to school at least half-time.

2.  You cannot get an “au pair” visa – where you trade out work around a home in exchange for rent – once you are over the age of 26.

3.  You cannot get a work visa without a sponsor in France who is guaranteeing your job.

The last option, you have to imagine, for someone who has spent the last decade building businesses, was the least viable.  And so, I had to look at the long-term-stay visitor visa.

I received a one-year stay visa just a few weeks ago so this is not just a chronicle of how I did it for the edification and amusement of my friends and family – it’s also a how-to for those of you who are US citizens who want to follow in my footsteps to successfully obtain a visa and can’t get any of the visas I listed above.

Guiding principle when dealing with the French: be calm, polite, friendly and prepared.  And never assume you will simply get the visa because you gave them the form and the money.

Here is what you will need:

1.  A filled out application form.  That link is for the English version.  I decided to kiss-up and fill out mine in French (couldn’t hurt my chances, I thought).

2.  One passport sized photo which will go onto the application form.  You need to make sure it’s against a white background, captures your full face, has no glasses or hat, and has your mouth closed.  Don’t smile!

3.  A questionnaire – not to be confused with the above application – and this one has to be filled out in French AND notarized.

4.  Your  passport (you’re going to have to leave it with them) plus one copy of the identity pages.  I suggest you make a couple copies so that you have some on file yourself should some mishap happen.  This might also be a good time to make sure you have a passport card so that if you need to travel to Canada or Mexico while your passport is with the consulate you will be able.  This is mutually exclusive, though – the State Department will need your passport too in order to send you back your passport card so you would have to apply for it in plenty of time to get your passport back before your visit to the consulate.  Your passport must have been issued less than 10 years ago, must be valid for at least 3 months after your projected return to the US, and have at least 2 blank visa pages left.

5.  Status in the US:  A simple statement saying “I am a citizen of the United States.”

6   Letter explaining what you intend on doing in France.  I wrote a one paragraph statement that said I was planning to visit France and learn about it and perhaps write about it.

7.  Notarized Letter promising not to work in France.  I wrote a one paragraph statement in which I stated that I would not be working for any French companies during my stay.

8.  Letter of Employment in the US stating occupation and earnings.  So here’s where it gets interesting.  It seems as though the French expect that you either have a job or are taking a leave from a job in order to come and they want certification.  They are even okay if you continue to draw pay from that employer.  As long as its not a French company (and hence, you are not depriving someone in France of a job they could have) they don’t care.

9.  Proof of means of income.  They will want at least your last 3 months of checking and savings accounts, if not more.  How much are you going to need?  Great question.  From what I could tell during my interview in Chicago, they want your rent + $800 per month for every month you are staying, minimum.  So, let’s say you have a very small place in the city, like my apartment in the 17th arondissement, where you will pay at least $1000USD, add in $800, and that brings you to $1800/month.  If you want to stay for six months they will want to see that you either have that in savings or that you will earn enough (item #8) in combination with your savings to stay.

10.  Proof of medical insurance.  This one requires a bit more pirouetting.  You may not apply for a long-term stay visa until 90 days before your departure.  The company I use only sells annual policies.  However, the French are going to want to see full coverage during your time there.  I split the difference.  I got a policy that went into effect two weeks after my visit to the consulate, which was 86 days before my departure (I wasn’t taking any chances!), and when I sent the proof of insurance to the consulate I stated that the policy auto-renews at the end of one year.

11.  Marriage and/or birth certificates for the children.  I got to skip this one!

12.  Enrollment in school for your children.  I also skipped this.

13.  Proof of accommodation in France.  I initially presented them with an email from my landlady.  This would be rejected and a copy of her passport as well as her utility bill was asked for.  Have those on hand to skip my delay.

14.  The processing fee.  This will change so check here to see the latest cost.

15.  For those who want to stay more than 6 months, you must fill out the residence form.  You only need to worry about the top part.  The bottom comes after you’ve been approved.

16.  A self-addressed prepaid EXPRESS MAIL envelope.  Absolutely no UPS, Fedex, etc.  Good ol’ US MAIL.

Did you do all that?  Good.  You’re still not done.

Now you have to make an appointment in their system.  The French are not known for their amazing websites and often this link will not work, or be wonky.  Be patient.  Switch browsers.  Keep trying.  At some point you will get to the appointment system.  Make an appointment.  Keeping in mind that processing time can take up to one month, I would recommend that you have your appointment no later than 60 days before departure.  Despite the fact that I submitted my application at perhaps the earliest possible date, I was still incredibly nervous and stressed as the back-and-forth commenced.  I wouldn’t wish it on you.

I had no other business in Chicago the weekend I planned for my visa so I simply scheduled a flight up for Friday morning (my appointment was at noon) and a flight back Sunday morning.  I got a rental car so that I would be in complete control of my destiny on Friday.  Didn’t want to take any chances.

I had all my paperwork together.  Now I had to have my in-person interview.  Don’t let the word “interview” fool you.  All you are doing is dropping off forms, giving them money, and smiling for the camera.  It’s all very routine.  I imagined I would be asked all kinds of questions about what I would do in France.  I wasn’t.

I got to Chicago around 9am that Friday morning and drove immediately to the consulate.  It’s located in an office building but it’s accessible only by a secured elevator.  You can only enter the secured elevator with one of these

photo (18)

Half worried that for some reason my appointment wouldn’t show up in the system, waves of relief washed over me when the receptionist handed this to me.  I then went to have breakfast, came back, and dropped off my forms.

It couldn’t be 100% smooth sailing, for sure.  At the interview was where I was asked for proof of insurance – I had simply provided them with a photocopy of my American insurance card.  I had also originally simply brought a letter from the President of my Bank attesting to the readiness of my funds and my good record there.  They wanted statements.

As soon as I got back to Kansas City I got the insurance policy and the bank statements.  Not enough.  They wanted my savings account statements for the entire year.  Sent.  Now they wanted a photocopy of my landlady’s passport and her utility bill.  I reached out to her (Que Dieu vous bénisse, Carole!) and she was very quick at getting this to them.

The interval was total agony.  During the one month in which I was sending them (via email scans) all that they asked for, I kept thinking, “All of this to be denied?”  It was totally unpalatable.  Because, let me explain how this would go down if I got denied.

I would only be eligible for the standard tourist visa, which anyone entering France is usually eligible for.  You may stay in France – or any of the 26 countries – for three months, but then you have to leave the Schengen Zone (the European Union save for the UK) for at least 3 months, before you can return to restart with another tourist visa.  This would kill my plans for travel, ruin my mobility, and most of all, have wasted all the time I spent applying for the long-term stay visa above.

The final week before I got my visa I was visibly stressed to my colleagues and friends.  I had made plans and already made major decisions (and the money that goes along with that) as part of the preparation process and the fact that I might be denied really weighed on me.  So my advice, dear readers – don’t let it stress you out!  I had applied 90 days out and as much as the French like to take their time and make sure everything is just so, they didn’t want to hang on to my passport unnecessarily long, either.

One of my colleagues texted me when an Express Mail package arrived from the French Consulate.  I called immediately.  “Open it,” I told her breathlessly.  I just wanted to know, Yes or No.  I just wanted it to be over.

I heard the package rip.  She opened it up.  “There’s a visa in here, Stephen.”  Despite the fact that I have no problem screaming whenever my soccer team scores a goal, I was in a public place when I was on the call so all I could do was pump my fist in the air.  “Thank you thank you thank you,” I told her.  “I’ll be by soon.”  I said a brief prayer of thanksgiving, and then headed in to the office to see it myself:

corrected visa

Even now staring it I get happy (note my incredibly non-happy/very French expression).  I think of all the documents and diplomas I’ve received in my life and they always seemed to be at the end of an arduous journey.  But this document, this was an authorization to change my life.  The difficulties and stress in obtaining it melted away in the endless possibilities the next year would present me with.

It’s said that the American Dream is owning your own home.  I’ve never understood how paying $100,000 in interest to a bank over 30 years on top of whatever you paid for a home was a dream.  My American Dream?  Living the life I want, on my terms.  This visa cleared any final obstacle to that beginning.