The phone rang and I was so pleased to find that there was an automated option for english. Alas! My native tongue was going to come in handy! I went through the selections and eventually chose the one that sounded like it made sense to me. But when the real human answered the phone, I felt a sinking suspicion that this was going to be a less than helpful phone call. Though her english was perfect, she was, in fact, French. I tried to be as cheery as possible and asked her my oh so important question.
You see, my visa expires the beginning of next month, and while my school promised me that they would send me a letter saying the school didn't end until March, they have yet to do so and I have yet been able to get a hold of the newest failure in charge of foreign students. And considering that I just want to be a tourist, oh the joys and carefree life of being a tourist, I didn't really need such documents anyway. I just wanted to know what I had to do in order to remain in France, legally, as a tourist. The last thing I wanted was to be hauled away by men with guns when trying to leave the country, be stuck in some foreign prison where I would be forced to make berets and only spoken to in french. Though I'm sure that under such conditions my ability to communicate in this nonsensical language would, no doubt, improve.
But since my desire to learn french isn't that great, I decided that I would try and figure out how I could stay here as a tourist. I did what most people do these days and looked it up online, and while I found a few forums discussing the topic, I didn't find any concrete, legitimate source telling me what to do. Apparently this isn't a question that comes up that often, though I don't really understand why. I can't imagine that I am the first student who has wanted to remain after her visa expires and take in all the joys that Europe has to offer before returning to real life back in the states. But no official website had any information on this matter.
I even went to the US embassy to try and ask them this question but the guards wouldn't let me in. This, they told me, was a question for the Paris prefecture. But what I really didn't want to do, almost as much as I didn't want to make berets next to my fellow inmates Brigitte and Genevieve, was deal with the Paris prefecture because I had heard horror stories from my friends about their interactions with these people, their refusal to speak english, and their overall bad attitudes. While my french may be good enough to ask them what I needed, I wasn't so confident that I then would be able to understand their response, and really, that was the more important part of the transaction.
So here I was, calling the US embassy because they wouldn't let me in the front door. Surely these people had to know the answer to this. It seemed like a simple enough question! The woman told me that she couldn't help me, that she suspected I may have to leave the country for 90 days in order to be allowed to return as a tourist, because that was how it worked if you had a tourist visa. But, she admited, that she really didn't know. She told me that I had to call the prefecture, and gave me the phone number to call. Though it was the last thing I wanted to do, I dialed the number, and instead of being connected with a human, or at least a prerecording of a human's voice, I was lucky enough to be allowed to listen to the shrill buzzing, beeping, and workings of a fax machine. Oh joy! Not only did the woman at the embassy not know the answer to my question, she had also given me the prefecture's fax number. I scoured through the prefecture website to see if I could find the correct number, but still was unable to.
I was starting to lose it. No one had the answer to my question, and if I had to leave for 90 days?! Then my entire trip was ruined, and both my sisters, their families, and my boyfriend, had already bought plane tickets. I had already reserved hotel rooms for my trip across Europe. Not to mention the emotional attachment I had to this sojourn. This couldn't possibly be the correct answer. I started freaking out, cried a little bit, and then collected myself. I couldn't break down because that was not going to help anything. And if I were to end up in a French prison somewhere, I doubt that Brigitte and Genevieve would take kindly to an blatant display of weakness such as this one. I was not going to be some French felon's salope. If I had to put on my detective hat and spend the next few weeks figuring this out, so be it.
I called the US embassy back. Obviously they could give me the right number for the prefecture. Obviously they had this information written down somewhere, easily at their disposal. This time, a different woman answered. I decided that I would ask her my question again, about staying in France as a tourist, because perhaps she would have the answer. But the woman on the other line, with her french accent, apparently had no interest in helping me. "You need to call the prefecture. This is not of my concern. This is not a question we answer." When I asked her if she had the number of the prefecture she responded with, "That is not my job. I cannot help you." I kindly thanked her for being completely useless, and went back to the prefecture website in an attempt to unearth the information I needed.
An hour later I was dialing up the prefecture. I managed to bumble my way through the automated french robot to an actual human being who, thank god, spoke a little bit of english. But just as I asked her my question, she told me to hold on and connected me through to someone else. Apparently I hadn't understood the french robot as well as I thought. This next operator did not speak any english, or at least that's what she said. I find it hard to believe that anyone here doesn't speak english, especially considering that these people work with foreigners all the time. Sure, I may be the classic American stereotype, believing that everyone should speak my language while I fail to speak theirs, but honestly, it's kind of the universal tongue. And France really isn't that big. Plus our educational system is a mess, while theirs is, apparently, much better. With my poor french and their poor english, I would think we could come to some sort of middle ground. But no, this woman either failed out of english in school or was refusing to show off her skills, and so I was left looking like an idiot trying to figure out how to say, "travel" in french (it's "voyager" by the way).
Eventually she understood me. Sure it may not have been perfect, but I had managed to get my question across. I believe what I said went something like this, "Hello, I am a student in Paris. My visa is finish at three, third, of February. I would like to tourist after my visa finish. I would like to travel, but I don't know. How can I do?"
The woman then informed me that I had to go to the international student center to get my question answered. She gave me the address and told me that it was at metro Porte de Clignancourt. This did not bode well. I may have never been there but from what I have been told, by everyone, is that it's the "bad neighborhood" in Paris. I wasn't exactly peeing my pants in excitement for a journey to this part of town, nor was I jumping with joy at the thought of doing it alone. But I was determined to figure this out, today, and so there was nothing to be done. I put on some shoes, grabbed my passport, and made my way on the metro.
Not to disappoint, Porte de Clignancourt was as sketchy as I thought. All the fabulously dressed, skinny-legged, rich french people were nowhere to be seen. I emerged from the metro at the intersection of KFC and discount middle-eastern shops selling miscellaneous crap. And, of course, there were no house numbers anywhere. I was looking for 92, which in french is 4, 20, 12. Apparently you are supposed to multiply, then add while counting. It makes no sense, and is the basis for my belief that this is a ridiculous language. So as I was aimlessly walking about a man shouted out from behind a street full of paraphernalia he was selling, "Quatre-vignt-douze?" (or, 4, 20, 12).
Supposedly he could tell that I was out of place. I'm not sure if it was the color of my skin, the fearful look in my eye, or the lack of second-handedness to my clothes, but he knew I didn't belong there. He also knew where I was trying to go. I'm sure he found stragglers wandering the streets as aimlessly as I was looking for the same spot. What was more surprising than his deductive reasoning was the fact that he had gone out of his way to help me, without my even asking for it. I was, clearly, not in Kansas anymore. I was also walking in the wrong direction.
So I flipped a u-ey and made my way down the other side of the street. Again there were no numbers but I decided to rely on my own investigative abilities and see if I could figure it out for myself. Surely there had to be a sign somewhere telling clueless foreigners where to go. And, though not as big or bright as I felt it should be, I did eventually stumble across something that said, "Etudiants estrangers," meaning foreign students, but which I read as student strangers and which I feel is much more fitting.
Through security and up the elevator, I managed to figure out where I should go despite the lack of clear signage or help of any hosts or information desks. I did, however, make the mistake of waiting in the wrong line for half an hour until getting to the front where the woman pointed me over to another, less formal queue against the wall. This line moved much faster and soon enough I was at the front asking a very energetic and helping man with a decent sized mole on his cheek the question.
The man with the mole looked at me as if I were an idiot. I had waited in line for 45 minutes just to ask him this? This was the easiest question in the world! Or at least, that's what his eyes seemed to say. "You are americaine?" He asked. "Oui..." I responded. "Then this is not a problem. You just leave the schengen area* and get a stamp on your way back," and as he said this he opened my passport and pretended to stamp it, quite hard, to ensure I understood. "But for how long?" I asked. "How long I travel?" "Three months," he responded, obviously not understanding my question. I didn't want to know how long I could travel but how long I had to leave before being able to come back. "Yes," I said, in my broken french, "but I go to United States for how much? One day, two days?" "One day, is enough," he responded. And in less than five minutes he had given me my answer. Why had everyone else acted like this was some deep existential question that required hours of thought and debate?
But all of my worries and anxiety and frustration were gone. I practically skipped into the elevator as I left the building. The metro ride home seemed to fly by without care. And to top it off, I had just found yet another extremely cheap flight back home! I was going to get to bring all my crap, clothes, trinkets, and memorabilia back to the states and get to see my friends, dog, cat, and boyfriend again. Things were looking up! Plus there were some things I had to take care of in Colorado. I needed to move my stuff out of storage and into Grant's new apartment, saving me $100/month on storage rent. I had to go to the bank and get my new debit card so that I could continue spending, frugally, while in Paris. And by going home, I get to complete all of this stuff without having to worry about it, or make my boyfriend or mother do it. Sure my sister, Kathryn, may be a bit pissed that I'm coming home and, yet again, not going to California to see her but I'll just have to deal with her wrath and guilt trip, and really, isn't that what big sisters are for?
For the first time since I've been to France I've actually been happy to be the Americaine. Yes the fiends who bossed me around at Pain de Sucre may have called me that as if it were an expletive, and sure so many of the French hate us, along with people from other countries, and sure I get questioned all the time on why we are so fat, why we concern ourselves with other country's problems, why we bomb so many people, and told that our government is evil, that our economy is failing, and that we have horrible taste in food. I don't know why they think I know the answers to these things but really, I dont care because I get to stay here as a tourist without barely any trouble at all! So really, I think it's just jealousy talking. Well that, and our obesity rate, and propensity to get caught up in external affairs, and the fact that we dropped the bomb, twice...but other than that, it's totally jealousy.
* Through some of my research I had heard about this "schengen area" which is a collection of European countries. You can find a list of them online if you happen to be in a similar predicament.
So what I learned from all this is this:
- If you are an American living in France on a student or intern visa, you can remain as a tourist once your visa expires as long as you leave the Schegen region and get your passport stamped upon exit and re-entry