Friday, August 18, 2006

vive le visa

Sarah and I went to NYC on Wednesday to get our students visas from the French consulate. I’ll cut to the chase and say that the trip went about as smoothly as possible. However, the events leading up to the trip didn’t quite go that way, and the excursion itself was interesting, so I’ll also fill in the details.

A few weeks ago, Dr. Hubbard was making a trip to the consulate to get visas for himself and his wife. He offered very kindly to take the applications and materials for mine and Sarah’s, as well. So we made the necessary trips to the graduate school office, the health office, Donna Smith (our wonderful graduate field coordinator), our committee members, a couple of photography places, and the French consulate website to gather all the required forms, letters of enrollment and guaranteed support, and identification in the way of passport copies and photos. This part of the process was remarkably painless. So we collected everything and placed in it manila envelopes for Dr. Hubbard to take with him.

He was taking the 4:50 a.m. bus to NYC to get to a late morning appointment. So we did’t see him until the next day. Despite the long day of travel, he still came into work the following day. I saw him walking past as I was eating lunch outside. He came over, and his greeting was the single word: “Failure.”

He had achieved a visa for himself. He had apparently even gotten the officials to look at Sarah’s and my paperwork, because one of each of our photos were stapled in the appropriate place on the form, which we certainly hadn’t done. At some point, however, he was told we would have to come in person to apply for our visas. (This seems particularly peculiar since our trip to India last January only required us to mail in our applications.)

Okay, so we’d hit our first snag. Next snag: navigating the consulate website. They close themselves off quite effectively from outside contact. You cannot speak with anyone over the phone to ask questions or to make a reservation. You cannot even speak to anyone at the consulate in person to make a reservation. All reservations have to be made online. Even the phone information essentially runs you through a choose-your-own-adventure that always leads to instructions to look at the website for the information you want.

Now, to some extent this is understandable. If I were working at a visa application center, I would probably enjoy my job more if I knew every person coming into the office had already been through something of a screening process with the online application. And I imagine such an office would get bombarded by innumerable questions to grate one’s teeth if one accepted casual phone calls. In fact, once we got into the office, the people working there were friendly and courteous.

The website, especially the portion for making an application, was not well-designed or easily understood, however. Sarah and I flipped back and forth from page to back, reading about time-slots and calanders and how to make an appointment for multiple people, and basically crossing our fingers the whole time that we wouldn’t fail this essential step of getting into the consulate. We did all the checking and double-checking we could, and finally convinced ourselves that we had, in fact, made an appointment for two people at 11:45 on the morning of August 16. That was two or three weeks out from the day we made the appointment, so we spent the next fortnight waiting and nervously anticipating our uncertain foray into French bureaucracy.

Then came Wednesday. After a fair amount of discussion whether it would be better to drive, giving ourselves extra flexibility and possible saving some money, or to take the bus, saving ourselves the headaches of driving in Manhattan and at least one of us having to focus for the entire ten hours of the trip, we decided to take the bus. It turned out to be the right choice, as parking on Manhattan was even more expensive than I had thought it would be, and the trip was expensive enough that I at least really couldn’t have afforded a night out on the town before or after the consulate run.

It’s not nearly as interesting to tell when things go smoothly, so I’ll run through the rest of the day quickly. We also took the 4:50 a.m. bus, arrived on time at the Port Authority at 9:50. A couple of subway trains took us within six blocks or so of the consulate, which is just next to Central Park. We made it much more than the requested ten minutes before our appointment. Once in, we did have to stand in line for a while, but not more than 45 minutes or an hour. We had taken enough care in assembling our materials that there were no difficult questions to deal with; it was definitely handy that we brought extra photocopies of everything. We were handed a receipt and told to come back between three and four to get our passports and visas.

We spent most of the next couple of hours sitting on a hill in Central Park, watching kids play and dogs walk around an artificial pond. It was a pleasant afternoon. I particularly enjoyed lying back, looking at the different shades of leaves above varying with the amound of sunlight that reached them. We bought pita sandwiches at a corner stand for lunch. Not the most exciting things to do in New York, but we weren’t really going for excitement. There’s enough of that around Ithaca nowadays.

Once we arrived back at the consulate at 3:00, our names were called almost immediately. So we took our visas, sans problèmes, and headed back to the Port Authority via the subway again. We were back in Ithaca by 9:30 p.m. Not a bad day at all, except for the ten hours of bus ride. We even got to sleep through some of that, and watched both the sunrise and the sunset.

The departure approaches…

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