Thursday, June 13, 2013

Travel visas - vacation in France - IV

Nothing else is out of ordinary at the moment, so, I had time to finish the following post, which I started 10 days ago.
June 3, 2013, Monday

Camille takes her son back to spend another day with us so the kids can bond some more.  We did more picking up and dropping off Tavin and Leone from and to their schools, animal petting, and then big lunch together.  After that, I took a nap from 2-4 - I am still getting over the jet lag, you see.  Vacation is about sleeping, no?

Now let's get to the point here.

Traveling aboard is generally troublesome to many people, I know.  But I bet many of the ones from developed countries only know half of the troubles that we Chinese do.  In addition to regular and predictable headaches that everyone encounters, such as packing suitcases, sitting in a confined space for long hours, and failing to make flight connections etc., we Chinese have to acquire a valid visa to go just about any other country in the world!  Which means, we generally need to plan way ahead of time.

As disorganized as one can be, I had to abort few of my international trips due to the visas that I applied for failed to arrive on time - some Embassies use regular mail service instead of FedEx to mail me my passport/visas, you see.  Amazingly enough though, I have never learnt my lesson.  It would not be too big of a deal when I was a single, young, and poor.  I would simply curse a little, look at the bright side about money and time saved, and then call the airlines to credit me back for what I paid for the ticket, minus some fees, of course.  I would move on to live a productive and industrious life quickly.  But when I have grown older and had couple of little kids to look after, this disorganization has become a family issue affecting more than myself alone.

It was the Summer of 2009.  Fabrice and I were taking our little ones Zhuzhu (2) and Niuniu (6 months) to France.  Niuniu was born early that year so we were excited to take him to meet his grandparents for the first time.

Our home airport is small with no custom's office, so the continental (CO) agents had treated us as regular domestic travelers and the 4 of us smoothly got on the flight and arrived Houston airport, where we anxiously and excitingly waiting for the flight to Paris together with tons of people.  In the mean time, a CO agent was begging for passengers to "volunteers" to delay their travel plan, which would be the next day, because the current flight was overbooked.

I must say almost every time we take CO flights to Paris from Houston, we hear this type of request, but never had it sounded so desperate.  The agent tried to lure "volunteers" with a travel voucher of $200, $400, $800... When that did not work, he started to announce to give cash of the highest value.  I would have delayed a trip for the cash and for helping out, if I were by myself.  I took a look at Fabrice and said, "The cash would have allowed us to have a good time tonight with our old friends,..."  "... if we did not have the kids with us now!"  Fabrice completed the sentence for me.  Indeed it would have been fun to burn some unexpected cash in the city where Fabrice and I met and fell in love, particularly we still had many common friends living there.  However, a delay in our current travel plan would have resulted in a significant reduction in our happiness as we had only a total of 20 days for the whole vacation with family of 4.  So, we kept following the stream of people to approach the gate.  

Fabrice was holding 2 dark blue American passports of the kids, 1 burgundy red French passport of his own, and 1 dark red Chinese passport of mine in one hand and Zhuzhu in another.  I was wearing Niuniu with my favorite baby-wrap like a Kangaroo.  We were fully loaded and very ready to unload ourselves inside the big plane.  

When it was finally our turn to pass the boarding gate, an experienced CO agent checked our passports carefully.  When he flipped the pages of my passport for the third time, I began to sense something was missing. 

"Ma'am, do you have a travel document with you?"  The agent asked me.  "Yes, my green card is attached to the first page of my passport." I answered dutifully.  "I saw your U.S. resident card, but do you have a permission to travel to France?"  He asked and this question shocked me.  "Isn't a green card a proper document to allow me travel abroad?"  I began to be aggravated.  Ever since I had a green card, I had enjoyed getting in and out of the U.S. freely.  Why did he insist on asking for other documents?

Seeing that I was confused, he explained, "A green card can only allow you to come back to the U.S..  I need a document that allows you to legally enter France."

"Oh, right, here it is."  Fabrice handed to him our Family Book (Livret de famille), a legal document that the French Government issues to every French citizen after he/she gets married.  The book contains all personal detailed information about our little family members, including our new addition Niuniu.  The experienced agent took a quick look at the book and insisted to see our "legal document" because apparently the family book only shows that I am married to a French citizen, which doesn't automatically grant me to go France without a proper travel document.  So, he was looking for a short stay visa.  "You and the children can go ahead to board."  He said to Fabrice, and then he turned his head to me, said, "Ma'am, you will need to go to the French Consulate in Houston on Monday to get your travel visa."  I suggested Fabrice take the kids to Paris without me, but he thought a family should stick together, plus, Niuniu was still on breast milk exclusively at that time.

Seeing us standing in front of him in a utter shock, the CO agent directed, "An agent at the counter can help you to arrange tonight's hotel and reissue your tickets for next Monday."

I wanted to argue because I suspected that he insisted to get us off that particular flight because they were desperately looking for passengers to give up their seats to solve the "overbooking" problem.  It would have been okay to let the French Custom's Officer at Paris entry port to deal with my visa issue, given the facts that I, 1) had been to France numerous times before and never stayed a single day illegally; 2) had been living in the U.S. for 18 years already at that time; 2) was a U.S. permeant resident; 3) was a full-time employee of a U.S. University with a steady income; 4) married to a French citizen, and finally; 5) had 2 American kids.  What's more to prove that I would not intend to stay in France for the rest of life?

But knowing that Fabrice would not want me to make a fuss in public particularly when a long line was behind us, I followed his lead to retreat ourselves to the gate counter.  The agent was a bit more sympathetic and explained to us that since Houston has a French Consulate Office, so there would not be a point to turn us around back to our home.  It was their CO agents' fault for even allowing us to get on the flight from our home airport to Houston.  For that, he was issuing us an overnight stay at a CO partner's hotel, but we would need to pay for the second night...

At that moment, I regretted that I had not taken my old passport with me.  I had a brand new one because the pages in the old one were completely used up for visas and entry/exit stamps.  Yet the new one in our hands had no previous records.  Additionally, the French Consulate in Houston had issued me a 3-year-multiple entry Schengen visa at one point.  When the lady who always interviewed and issued me visa handed me the passport back, she said, "Alright, I am issuing you a visa that will be valid for the next 3 years.  I believe it would be long enough for you to obtain a French passport or an American one within this period so that you will not need to come here again in the future."

That 3-yr-visa had indulged me for traveling in and out of France freely for a while, but had not helped me to apply for French or American passport.

What, you think that I am patriotic at heart?  No no no, not at all.  My Chinese government does not even known that I exist.  It's my laziness and disorganization.  Now when the French government amended their foreign policies, it becomes harder for me to get a French citizenship, because I cannot pass the French exam without putting in a great deal of efforts to learn a new language!  

Sure, it ultimately was my fault for not remembering where I was from.  However, when the CO agent stopped beg for customers to delay their travel plan, I knew the problem was solved due to my help!

Until today, I am still wondering whether the CO agent would insist to get rid of us from that flight if it was not overbooked.

Anyway, when we made it into the hotel room, we got online right away.  I was finding the webpage of the French Embassy in Washington, because I remembered seeing a statement that "a U.S. permeant resident who married a French citizen does not need a visa to enter France", whereas Fabrice was writing emails to our Friends in Houston making our extra 2 day-stay more pleasant.

After having convinced that I did not need a visa to go France, I started to calling around.  I accused the CO agent working in Houston airport for not keeping himself updated with the current French visa requirements; I reported that the CO agent had put us in the misery only to solve the company's "overbooking" problem; I also suggested the customer service person to read the "new French visa requirements" himself.  Eventually, I had him convinced and he directed me to get back to the airport to explain our situation to local agents so that they could put us on next flight to Paris.

The early next morning, I dragged Fabrice and the kids to the airport and repeated my stories to a CO agent.  She patiently finished listening and then quickly scan through the webpage that I printed out for her and said, "You are right.  I am very sorry for our mistake and let me see what I can do."  She left us in the empty airport and said she would need to check with other agents.

Few minutes later, she came back with our new tickets and 4 lunch vouchers.  She apologized to us sincerely for his colleague and then said, "I am sorry that I could not do any better, but hopefully the lunch vouchers will help out a little bit."

I did not care about what she gave us as a "compensation" for the CO agent's mistake, I was in heaven already to know that we would not need to rent a hotel room for the night, a rental car, and then drive to Houston downtown only to find out the consulate would not interview me because I had no prior appointment... (the French Consulate in Houston requires visa applicants to make appointments for interview, which can easily take 2 weeks to get an available interview slot in Summer time!)

Well, we eventually got on the flight that afternoon and arrived Paris next morning.  But guess what happened next?

The customs' officer stopped the 4 of us at the entry port of the Paris airport.  He escorted us to the headquarter, which was a small and broken room located on the back of the customs office.  We were let loose there: Zhuzhu could then entertain herself by climbing up and down the stairs.  Niuniu was cozily sleeping on my chest in my kangaroo wrap, while Fabrice was answering the questions of the officers.  I showed the webpage to them and tried to convince them that I could not travel very far with an infant attached to my petite body!

Fabrice was telling them what we had been through in the last 48 hours believing that these officers would have been sympathetic.  They were, from what I could tell, but not enough to omit our waiting for the main officer to show up.  He was tired up by another duty, yet we needed him to determine whether I, a Chinese passport holder, mother of 2 American French, and wife of a French citizen, would be allowed to enter his country.

If you are fed up by the incompetence of the American government employees, you would certainly be outraged by the French ones!  The main officer could not decide either, when he finally showed up about 1 hour later.  He first made few phone calls, looked up few files, and then discussed more with Fabrice about our situation.  Finally, he had made his mind about me, who clearly was not likely a terrorist nor was likely to become a jobless burden to his country.  "I can only issue your wife a transit visa, which will let you stay in France legally for 10 days.  But this is the maximum allowable length for this type of visa."  He explained this to Fabrice in French.  Then he turned to me and said in Frenglish, "You must go to Paris to acquire proper short stay visa, because you will have not gotten out of the country before this transit visa expires."

"Sure sir and thank you!"  I promised him that I would not break the law.  

But I did.  I had never gone back to Paris to get a proper legal document on that trip and it did not seem to bother anyone at our exiting Paris 20 days later.  I now have broken the French law for having illegally extended my stay in France for a week long!  

For the record, it was a mistake of mine, not the CO agent, although he could have turned a blind eye to our situation like the other CO agent who gave us the lunch vouchers the next day! 

Well, to be fair, not all the traveling abroad troubles result in unpleasant surprises.  In 2004, Fabrice and I went to the U.K. for a job interview and then our flight from Birmingham, U.K. to Newark was cancelled but the KLM agent put us on an alternative flight to Amsterdam, where we wound up spending a whole extra day biking around the city, enjoying our adventures, and watching people sitting on the roofs smoking cracks!  

In 2011, Fabrice and I had taken the kids and Fabrice's parents to Athens.  Fabrice's father is a 4th generation Greek descendent but had never visited Greece before.  Thus, we thought it would be a good opportunity for him to visit his "hometown" when we would be there for an European scientific conference.  During the day of that trip, the 6 of us would start our days with a massive, luxurious, and free breakfast together.  Following that, Fabrice and I would walk 2 blocks away to attend our conference leaving the kids with the grandparents to play at the park beside or swim in the pool inside the hotel.  In the night, we all would explore the Acropolis 1 train station away.  We had wonderful few days.  Yet just when the 6 of us had become used to that unusual and joyful routine, we were told that the Greek were mad at their government and they were so mad that they would put on a huge demonstration that might trigger some violence.  The conference attendees were advised to arrange their early return to their home country ASAP.  So, we had only a few hours to find us a flight back to Lyon or Paris.  Although AirFrance was quite accommodating, they could only find a flight to have 6 seats for us to return to Paris in next evening, which would not allow us to catch any fast train back home.  So we again had an unplanned overnight stay in a hotel at Roissy en France, a small and charming village that is only 1 train station away (2 miles) from the paris CDG airport.  On early next morning, the 6 of us walked around the village, visited beautiful parks in town, and watched the village people getting on their relaxed lives before we headed to the CDG train station. 

So, traveling abroad is troublesome for us Chinese, but I am willing to go through many more of such troubles anytime in exchange for the wonderful experiences gained from those trips!


No comments:

Post a Comment