Saturday, December 5, 2009

In Which Bill Explains The Visa Problem

Disclaimer to the good people at the French Embassy: The following is a work of satire, not to be confused with the actual thoughts, feelings, or words of the visiting sad little American family in question.

This afternoon, I interviewed Bill on the sunny terrace. Yesterday’s nasty mistral wind had abated, and the temperature had gone from dreadful back to its normal pleasant. I was wearing one of Bill’s enormous wool sweaters and my down vest, but nonetheless, felt quite cozy and happy in the sunshine.

We had spent the last week or so with our heads stuck in the freezer, eating Picard frozen goodies like they were going out of style. While sticking one’s head in the freezer might seem less lethal than sticking one’s head in an oven, let me tell you: it’s just not a great idea long term. I had enjoyed the break from heavy kitchen duty, but all of us were starting to get cranky on a steady diet of processed food. It was almost like we had returned to the U.S. too early.

It was time for a return to olives, rosé, fresh vegetables, and market rotisserie chicken, the ingredients of a truly happy life.

Thus we spent the morning at the market, swerving between the socks and soaps and polarfleece pullovers to buy some real provençal cheese and apples and other treats straight from the dirt. We ate our lunch in the sunshine, and were winding down with a little wine, some P.E.T.A.-banned sausage, and three kinds of cheese.

We were all feeling much better. Good enough to address the dread that is just beneath the surface of our happy days in the sunshine. The Visa Problem.

Seeking some substantive answers, I dove right in.

Launa: Bill, I have had a lot of requests from concerned blog readers to have the whole Visa Problem explained.

As far as I can tell, it involves interlocking problems of schooling, health care, and nation of residence. And lots and lots of copies of our most important and private family papers.

It also seems, from my vantage point as a totally lazy wart on the buttocks of the family, utterly intractable. But since I left this all up to you, perhaps you could enlighten me.

But don’t talk too fast, I’m typing here.

Bill: I would like to say at the outset that I have done the best to protect you and the girls from this swirling vortex of poorly-translated paper that is threatening to engulf our family.

Launa: I think you should also say for the record that you have “done your level best to meet the entirely reasonable wishes of the good people of France.”

Bill: I think you just said it. I also want to say that I feel as though I am living inside…

Launa: Is the word “Kafka-equse” coming? Because I remember your thesis…

Bill: No. I was going to say that I feel as though I am living in a nightmare about the LSAT. In which I, and my wife and my children, have been dropped into an LSAT problem. But instead of involving Mr. Green and Mr. Blue and Mr. Pink, it’s you, and Grace, and Abigail whose lives are at stake. And me.

Launa: In what way are our technicolor lives threatened?

Bill: OK, let me see if I can explain how this works, and what makes it an LSAT problem.

We have visas. But we won’t be able to validate our visas if we are infected with swine flu, or if we can’t prove that both of our children are in school.

And we can’t get swine flu vaccinations without validating our visas.

And, without validating our visas, we might not be able to enroll Grace in the school-alternative we are being asked to “choose.”

You with me?

I’m not sure that I was, but at that point, we had to pause to get the children to stop running around like lunatics, and ask them one more time to clean up the kitchen. Now that the kids have had a little more experience with housework, and Grace has more than passed her midterm in the subject, we had asked them to clean up after lunch while we lazed on the terrace chatting about whether or not we would be able to return to said terrace after going home for Christmas and New Year’s.

Grace, chasing Abigail across the stones, broke into a Brooklyn accent in order to better threaten us into telling her where Abigail had gone: “If any of youse knows where she’s went, you best be telling me.” I’m not entirely sure whether her tendency to break into Brooklynese is going to be helpful or harmful to our case.

After a sharp lecture to the kids, we were back to our lazing and worrying.

Bill: OK, Oh boy. Right. I think that there’s a better way to explain this.

So we can’t validate our visas without proving that our kids are in school.

And it seems to me that while it is possible that while we are technically allowed to homeschool our child, we’re going to flunk the homeschool inspection unless we sign up for something called CNED, which is a French correspondence course for Francophone students.

Launa: Which would be a great idea for her, if her French were any better than mine.

Bill: There’s another issue. I’m not 100% sure that we can sign up for CNED without having a Carte Sejours, which requires us to have validated our visas.

Launa: Bill, this is reminding me of that moment in Raising Arizona, when bank robbers tell people in the bank they are robbing to “Freeze! Hit the Deck!”

And the good people in the bank complain about the logical contradiction: “If’n we Freeze, we can’t hit the deck. And if’n we hit the deck, then we’d be in motion.”

Bill: Actually, it’s more like that moment in the Simpsons when Homer must weigh the pain of giving up a free keg of beer at Union meetings against the hard cold fact that “Lisa Needs Braces.” It has taken me awhile to realize that there is no way for us to have braces and beer at the same time –or, as it were, school, homeschool, vaccines, and the legal right to camp out here for a few more months.

Launa: Ouch. Sounds bad.

Bill: Right. OK. So for us we need “Cartes Sejours.”

Launa: Does this involve a chest x-ray? Because Paris Jessica had to get one, like months ago. She put it on her Facebook page. I can see why Swine would be a problem for that.

Bill: Yes. I think so.

Launa: And do we also need braces? I’m confused.

Bill: You know I had braces for six years. And you’ve raised a really dark memory for me. As a patient of Dr. Salvatoriello, DDS, I was one of “Sal’s Pals.” But Dr. Sal wanted to pull sixteen of This Pal’s teeth.

My Dad said, with his usual impeccable logic, “What’s going to happen when he gets old and his teeth fall out? He won’t have any extras for chewing his food!”

So they compromised by pulling eight of my teeth. This led to Dr. Sal saying, six years later when the braces didn’t work, that it was my dad’s fault for not having let him pull all sixteen of the teeth.

Launa: Bill, you’re exaggerating again. I don’t think you even have sixteen teeth. I don’t think any of us have sixteen extra teeth. Not even Jimmy Carter has that many extra teeth, and he won the Nobel Prize.

Bill: Not true. I have more teeth than other people. And I need to add: when the tooth-pulling guy pulled my molars out, he said I had “the longest root” he’d ever seen.

Launa: Ooooh… longest root! (makes porno movie music) “Bwah chicka bwana bwana….”

Bill: He asked me if he could keep it and bronze it and put on his shelf.

But, to get back to my initial digression, Dr. Sal told my father that the only way to save my face was to put me out completely, and to have my entire lower jaw surgically removed, broken into smaller pieces, then welded into shape, with all the horsey teeth taken out. And my Dad said, “Well, what happens if it doesn’t work. Is he just going to have a flap of flesh where his chin used to be?”

When Dr. Sal had no answer, my father said, “After six years, you haven’t fixed his mouth. Why would I let you remove his jaw from his head, break it into pieces, then put it back in?”

To which I would like to say to my father right now, “Thank you Dad for not letting the mean man take my jaw out of my head.”

Launa: (with some concern, and clear anger): Is this the orthodontist we hired this summer to make the girls’ retainers?

(There was an awkward silence, during which Bill sort of stared off towards the edge of the terrace. And I officially gave up. The threat of deportation seemed more pressing than the concept that the girls’ jaws might have to be removed from their heads at some later date. This sort of lack of foresight is what makes me such a bad mother.)

OK, Back to the Visa Problem. This is wholly separate from our orthodontics, correct?

Bill: Yes. I was just trying to distract you.

Launa: OK, so you mean the fact that we are homeschooling and unvaccinated makes us less than desirable visitors to the French republic? That’s like almost American.

Bill: We may very well be plenty desirable, but the homeschooling and the lack of immunity may make it hard for us to get the pieces of paper we need. And lacking the pieces of paper that we need might make it more difficult for us to homeschool and get vaccinations.

Look, it’s not that complicated. We need the Document des Circulation des Enfants Mineurs for the kids. We need Cartes Sejours for us. We need vaccinations, because of the asthma, and we need one of our daughters in school. We need the other one to stay home. And we need CNED for that to happen, not because we want it, but because without it, she’ll have to go back to school, even though she wasn’t learning anything there. But the French government won’t vaccinate us, and CNED may not inscribe us, because we don’t have the Carte Sejours.

The problem is just one of timing. We are here legally. We have done what we need to do. We are signing up for CNED, which doesn’t require one to be a French citizen. Turns out, the French authorities are very happy and welcoming to invite strangers to do French homework all year long, for a small fee. And, if you’re actually someone who speaks French, CNED is pretty much awesome.

Launa: Can I remind you of something? Grace doesn’t speak or write French at a 5th grade level. She’s improving pretty rapidly, but I’m not sure that even you are fluent at that level.

Bill: But we really need the Cartes Sejours to come back after Christmas.

Launa: I’m with you. So how do we get them? Or CNED? Or the vaccine?

Bill: Well, we have to be healthy, and pass a medical exam. Our lungs need to be clear. But we’re not going to pass the exam if we get the swine flu. But of course we can’t get the vaccination without a letter from the social security in France. And we can’t get the letter to get the vaccine without the carte sejours.

Launa: I have to point out that given the timing of the holiday and the current rate of travel of this virus, we are pretty much likely to be actually traveling while we have swine flu.

Bill: Yes. It seems to me that there is at least a 25% chance, and I am not exaggerating this for the blog, that we will be stopped at the border. Because either we will have swine flu, or not have a document that says, “Boy, have we really tried to get our visa validated. PLEASE don’t stop us at the border when we’re really really tired, and Launa is still just the tiniest bit hung over from her 40th birthday party.”

Launa: That’s going to be complicated, given that my real birthday is the Tuesday after we return. Assuming we return at all.

Bill: I think that the birthday party is one of our strongest arguments, because the Quarantieme is really important here.

Launa: You made that up. This is not making me feel any better. We’re not talking about Who being on First here. My children are going to be in a foreign Airport, and I can’t even use the proper verbs to ask if What’s on Second.

Bill: No. But I have a backup plan. At the border, I am going to throw some sand in their eyes by discussing the proper method for making Pastis, and whether you should tutoyer or vousvoyer people without a Carte Sejours.

It will be like in The Hobbit when Gandalf tricks the Goblins into killing each other, when they are about to eat the Hobbit and some dwarves.

Get it? In the analogy, we’re the Hobbit!!!!

Launa: You have lost me. And my readers.

Bill: Well, maybe if your readers spent less time reading your blog and reading a real book, they would know what I am talking about.

Many of our arguments end up in this sort of pointless stalemate that has nothing whatsoever to do with the actual problem we are discussing.

This is what it is like to be married. You know each other so well that you can really get into some impressive battles of wits. But you’re so stuck in the limits of what you’ve failed to learn from one another that you inevitably get trapped in a cul-de-sac of one sort of another.

I guess I am only happy to say that at least our cul-de-sac one of our own making, and not a literal, suburban one.

The girls were still grouchily not cleaning up after luncheon. The town bell rang out 14:00, which sounds an awful lot like 2:00 if you aren’t listening with your French ears on. We had been talking for the entire forty minutes during which the kids hadn’t been able to finish up.

Bill: You know, I would like to say that every actual real-life French person that I have encountered in this odyssey has been totally pleasant and friendly. And they all seem to be on my side against ‘THEM,” the evil French bureaucrats who have tied me in a Catch-22.

It’s almost like they weren’t themselves French bureaucrats.

They all seem sincerely to wish that they could give me the piece of paper that I need. They are all willing to give me tips for how to get my collection of pieces of paper pulled together in time for our trip back to the States.

And to all of these good people, I would like to say, “Thank you for letting us stay here, either legally, illegally, a-legally, or non-legally.”

And also either “Thank You,” or “Fie On You,” pending the way that things work out.

(With this, Bill looked down ruefully at the marble table.)

Launa: (suddenly almost angry, despite the fact that she has not herself lifted a finger to solve any of this confusing LSAT problem): Is this going to mean that the second half of our not-really-a-sabbatical is going to take place in a terminal in the Heathrow airport? Cause it seems like that’s where we are headed.

Bill: That’s why I didn’t want to have this interview with you, because it’s entirely possible that we may have to finish things out in a different country.

Launa: Like Colorado? That’s in the country.

Bill: Yes.

Launa: OK, now I think my Mom – along with the other three readers of this blog -- has been totally confused and alarmed.

Thanks for your time.

Bill: I would like to add one more thing. Were on defense in this case. I’m used to being a plaintiff’s lawyer, but this is a case of defense. If I think like a defense lawyer, I may be able to keep the vortex swirling until we were planning to come home anyway.

And in that case, we will have been able to have been here a year, without having to have a final determination on the legality of our residence. And ideally without getting the swine flu. And with our kids speaking fluent French.

And then, years from now, I might be called into the French embassy so that they can determine whether or not I’ve had swine flu, and whether I can pass French 5th grade.

But don’t worry, honey. I’ve got it all under control.


  1. I am totally confused, but laughing at the same time. Who thinks up these complicated rules and regulations? Do they really want people living there at all? No matter what, I will pray that all goes well, that the papers you need appear miraculously, completed, and rubber stamped for easy exit and return to France and the United States and any other country you need or want to visit.

    In the meantime, thanks for all the fantastic stories and photos. Yea!!!

  2. As far as I understood it (which is certainly not that well) anyone can go and get vaccinated, but you'll probably have to wait a long time in line if you haven't gotten the letter french people get that tells them when to come in and get one. You just go to the centers and wait and eventually you get a shot. I think you can find centers near you here:

  3. Oh, I like that idea. We got turned away for not having the letter, but maybe we just need to wait longer.

    Don't worry everyone: I think we'll get out of France just fine, and likely back in as well. Bill has done everything he possibly can to make this all work out as beautifully as it has done thus far. But it's too much fun to watch his logic spin around in Laurel and Hardy circles.