These last few days have been a jumble…..nail-biting, hope-laden and frustrating.
We wanted to arrive at the préfecture as soon as it opened on Monday morning, so we set the alarm (which meant turning the clock back on). After a restless night of worry, we left the cottage with time to spare…..only to have our plan circumvented by a “deviation” (detour) that wasn’t clearly marked. We took a wrong turn and were lost on small country backroads that were barely wide enough for our car…..much less the tractors and farm equipment that we met along the way. But, even so, we arrived at the préfecture a little after 9:00 and patiently waited in line with real French citizens who knew where they’d be living next month.
Finally, it was our turn. “Parlez-vous Anglais?” we hopefully inquired. “Non” was the simple reply. Fortunately, I had translated and printed a few key phrases….. “I am sorry that we speak French very badly” and “We would like to extend our stay in France and need a ‘Prolongation de Visa’ form.”
We were passed over to a very pleasant woman who spoke some English (and overlooked my poorly written French). She took our passports and told us to wait. Our spirits soared! We waited patiently…..positive that our problems would soon be solved.
Our hopes were dashed when she returned with our passports and told us it was not possible…..this type of passport could only be renewed at the consulate in our country of origin.
This was the first time we heard that we would have to leave before our visas expired. All of our previous research indicated that we’d be able to file for an extension in France. Sadly, slowly, silently…..we drove back to the cottage.
I optimistically sent an email to the French Consulate in San Francisco asking if it would be possible to extend our visas without returning to the United States. Then, I sent emails off to expat forums asking for advice and spent the rest of the day scouring the Internet for a solution.
After dinner, Craig and I sat down to discuss our options…..it boiled down to four: (1) stay in France illegally, (2) go home to request….and receive….a new visa, (3) go home for three months and return for 3-months as a tourist or (4) go home and stay home. Option #4 was quickly thrown out…..we know we’ll always want to come back. Craig was a proponent of option #1 until we found out that overstaying a visa could ban you from entering the EU/Schengen zone for 3-10 years…..so that option’s out, too. The remaining options both involve returning home, so that’s what we’ll have to do……if our visa request is denied, we can still go to good ol’ non-EU/non-Schengen Croatia in September and then return to France for 3 months…..visa-free but legal.
But, we have a few complications here in France…..a big ball of black fur and a leased car. Neither one would pose a problem if we get new visas….BUT will the French Consulate look favorably on our application if it doesn’t have the OFII stamp?
So what’s an OFII stamp? The visas issued by the French Consulates only initiate the long-stay process. The next steps involve the OFII (Office of French Immigration and Integration). Paperwork must be sent to the OFII within three months of arrival; the OFII then sets an appointment for applicants to be given a health exam, a chest x-ray and a language and civic skills test. Oh, and then a fee is paid (varying from 55 to 340 euros depending on the type of visa you have). If you’re healthy, have a place to stay and can pay the fee, your visa is given the OFII stamp of approval. This makes the visa “official”. If your language skills and civic knowledge are lacking, you’re provided with up to 400 hours of instruction.
We duly started on this process by sending in our paperwork within the specified period…..but all went awry when we returned to the US for 4 weeks in the Fall. When we came back to France, our OFII letters were waiting for us…..and our appointments had come and gone. Friends called the OFII in our behalf but couldn’t get through so I wrote a letter explaining why we had missed our appointments and requested that we be given new appointments. We sent the letter “Lettre Recommandée Avec Accusé” and got a return receipt after the letter was delivered.
Then we waited…..and waited…..and waited…..for our new appointments. In the meantime, we went to Germany, Austria, Portugal, United States and Holland….not realizing that without the OFII stamp, our visas precluded this travel.
We patiently waited…..checking the mailbox everyday but never finding new letters from the OFII. Perhaps we should have tried to contact them again…..but ignorance is bliss and we were blissful.
Blissful until we found out it wouldn’t be easy to extend our stay. We went to bed, dejected and discouraged.
We roused slowly on Tuesday…..but the sun was shining, the birds were chirping and we needed an attitude adjustment. It was way too early for apperitif time, so we hopped in the car and escaped to market day in Olonzac.
Happy, laughing people strolled under the shade of plane trees, browsing through booths that lined the small streets, eager merchants offered tastes of their goods….cheeses, sausages, fruits, vegetables, breads, wines…..while an accordianist played quintessentially French songs. If there ever was a perfect day in France, this was it. And it was just what we needed to revive our flagging spirits. France hasn’t beat us down yet…..we will go to the Consulate in San Francisco, we will get new visas and, victorious, we will return to our cat and our car!
All thoughts now centered on how to best guarantee that new visas will be granted expeditiously. Finances? Check….still within the requirements. Reason? Check….broken leg prevented us from boating last season. Insurance? Check….just renewed. Passport? Uh-oh….no OFII stamp.
Craig advocated that we go to the Consulate with what we have….plane tickets showing when we were in the US and a copy of our letter of explanation (with the return receipt). I disagreed. To use some well-worn platitudes….. “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions” and “The proof is in the pudding.” I think we need the OFII stamp.
It took some cajoling and a little bribery, but we were finally in agreement. We’re going to the OFII tomorrow.
Don’t stop, thinking about tomorrow,
Don’t stop, it’ll soon be here,
It’ll be, better than before,
Yesterday’s gone, yesterday’s gone……Fleetwood Mac