Extreme Makeover: Passport Edition

Leaving Paris on April 20, 2009 © 2012 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved

I recently wrote that a fat frequent flyer account is one of the many benefits of extensive foreign travel. Another one (at least for me) is collecting all those entry and exit stamps that fill up the visa pages in your passport. Even in this day and age of digital technology, every time you cross a border, a border agent stamps your passport to show your port of entry (or exit) and when you were there. Over the years, your passport gradually turns into a jumbled-up journal of your foreign travel—full of tiny, sometimes colorful souvenirs of where you’ve been.

As you can imagine, since meeting my French husband back in 2009, I’ve gotten quite a few passport stamps from French passport control. And for every one of them stamped at Charles de Gaulle, I have a corresponding one stamped by American authorities at Dulles or Charlotte. As an expatriate, though, it’s not just entry and exit stamps that decorate my passport: I even have two entire pages taken up by my initial student visa issued by the French Embassy in Washington and my first residency permit issued after my arrival in France by the Office Français de l’Immigration et  de l’Intégration. Just flipping through my passport, in fact, you see more French than English.

My beautiful student visa © 2012 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved
My first residency permit © 2012 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved
Permission to Remain in Ireland until September 20, 2006 © 2012 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved


My stamps aren’t limited to French and American ones, though. I do have an eye-catching one in vivid green from a trip I took with my mom to Ireland in 2006, as well as a few British ones I got at Gare du Nord in Paris before taking the Eurostar over to London. What I don’t have, unfortunately, are stamps from Belgium or Hungary, my other two international destinations since getting my current passport. Since both countries are in Europe’s Schengen Area, you don’t even have to pass border control if you’re coming from another country in the Area—like France. That’s really too bad. It would have been really cool to have one in Magyar … or even Dutch.

Leaving Gare de Paris-Nord for London on July 10, 2009 © 2012 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved

The rub with all this stamping is that you only get 24 visa pages in an American passport. Now, that sounds like a lot since each page (the old style, at least) had 4 little boxes for stamps. Technically that gives you 96 passport stamps during the 10-year life of your passport … maybe even more since most passport control agents are pretty sloppy about placing their stamps. When you travel as much I have, though, and you’ve got other big things like visas and residency permits pasted in there, you can run out of room before it’s time to get a new passport.

The solution?
If you don’t want to order a new passport yet, just order new visa pages!

American passport holders can order up to two 24-page inserts that are affixed in the passport by the National Passport Center, or by the local consular officials if you’re living abroad. Late last year, when I realized that I was quickly running out of room in my passport that was valid for another 2-1/2 years, I figured I’d just take a trip to the Embassy one afternoon and ask for new pages. Of course, it’s never that simple! It turned out that I had to fill out an application and mail my passport to the Embassy. Now, I’m a little skittish about putting something as essential to my immigration status as my passport into the mail system … even the French mail system. No worries! The Embassy requires you to use something called a Chronopost envelope for both sending the passport and getting it back. It’s very secure and traceable—kind of like FedEx, but more expensive … a lot more expensive! Little did I know when I walked into a French post office last Thursday afternoon that each Chronopost envelope costs 22.50€! That meant that just mailing the passport to the Embassy right here in Paris (just 5 miles from where I live) and getting it delivered back to me was going to cost about $60! On top of that, the fee for the visa pages themselves was $82.

Sigh.

Oh well, at least that’s not as expensive as my residency permit was … oh … wait a minute. Yes, it is!

Sigh, again.

Of course, you might be asking why I didn’t just spring for an entirely new passport that would be good for 10 more years for the bargain basement price of $110. Good question. After all, my passport photo is of me about 25 pounds ago! The truth be told, I’m already having buyer’s remorse about my decision to just get visa pages, but here’s my story and I’m sticking to it: It has something to do with the fact that my residency permit is linked to my current passport number. Maybe I’m wrong about that and getting a new passport wouldn’t create a problem with the French immigration system at all. If you’ve been following my story here, though, you know that I don’t have any desire to open that can of worms just yet! I’ll just wait until 2014 to worry about that, thank you very much!

In any case, in what may be a record of bureaucratic efficiency, I got my newly made-over passport in the mail today … just 3 business days after sending it! Now, it’s off to enjoy my 24 brand spanking new visa pages! Where should I go? Somewhere outside the Schengen Area so I can get some use out of them, I guess … or I could just look for flights with connections through London or Dublin!

Look how pretty the new pages are! It almost makes you not want to get them stamped.  © 2012 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved

For more information about renewing your passport or ordering visa pages, visit the website of the United States Embassy in Paris.

© 2012 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved

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First Class

Terminal 2 at Roissy-Charles de Gaulle © 2012 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved

One of the benefits of extensive foreign travel is a really FAT frequent flyer account, and since meeting my French husband, Michel, back in 2009, I’ve certainly racked up the miles. In 2009 alone, I flew back and forth between Washington and Paris four times on Air France, traveling almost 32,000 miles. I added 16,000 more miles to my travel log in February and April of the following year. That’s almost 50,000 miles traveled between Washington and Paris in just one year’s time! Aside from swelling my carbon footprint to shameful proportions, all that jetting back and forth got me a free one-way ticket to Paris in 2010 to begin my French expatriate adventure.

I should say up front that I prefer Air France to any American airline I’ve ever flown. I’m proud to be an American and all, but let’s face it: there’s something infinitely more charming about free-flowing champagne, wine, and cognac served up by French flight attendants wearing foulards than anything you normally get on an American flight … and I’m just talking about economy class, here. In fact, Air France doesn’t even call their upscale version “economy class” or “coach class”—it’s “voyageur.” Just read that out loud and you’ve already got a French accent!

Continue reading First Class

Up, up and away …

Saturday afternoon, I joined some friends at Parc André-Citroën to do something I’d never done before: ride in a balloon! That’s right. Perhaps surprisingly, this almost 40-year-old had never, ever gotten inside the basket of a hot air-balloon to make an ascent. It’s not that I’m afraid of heights. (I have, after all, been to the top of the Eiffel Tower, the Empire State Building, and the Sears Tower in Chicago. I’ve even gone parasailing.) It’s just that, for whatever reason, I had never gotten around to doing this before yesterday.

I was invited by a friend who was doing field research for a presentation on Parc André-Citroën. This 59-acre park was constructed on the site of the 1915 Citroën factory, where André Citroën built one of the first fleets of French automobiles. That factory closed in the 1970s, and the city of Paris purchased the property and opened the park in 1992. The park features an expansive central lawn around which are situated two greenhouse pavilions, “dancing fountains” where kids (and adults) can play in the spray of the jets during the summer, a reflecting pool traversed by a suspended walkway, and six ornamental gardens. But what drew me to Parc André-Citroën yesterday (in addition to catching up with friends, of course) was the opportunity to take a ride in the Ballon Air de Paris. Continue reading Up, up and away …

An American … no, make that eight Americans … in Père Lachaise

Your Guide to Père Lachaise © 2011 Michel Pouradier, all rights reserved

Best known to most Americans as the final resting place of Jim Morrison, Le Père Lachaise cemetery is the largest graveyard in the city of Paris, occupying 110 acres in the 20th arrondissement and having over 1 million interments. I can still remember my first visit to Père Lachaise back in April 2009—it was nothing like I had expected. There, in the center of a bustling multi-ethnic quarter, was a veritable city of the dead, with streets that actually bear names and divisions that function somewhat like little neighborhoods. It was even large enough to have a map with an alphabetized key for locating the grave sites of literally hundreds of its most famous occupants. I spent a few hours during that first visit, strolling along wide, tree-lined avenues and down narrow, winding cobblestone chemins in search of such luminaries of French literature, music and history as Honoré de Balzac, Marcel Proust, Georges Bizet, Jean de la Fontaine, Édith Piaf, Molière (who isn’t really there, but that’s another story), and even the legendary twelfth-century lovers Abelard and Héloïse (at least according to the 1817 marketing scheme to attract cemetery plot purchases).

Continue reading An American … no, make that eight Americans … in Père Lachaise

A Walk in the Woods

“The clearest way into the universe is through a forest wilderness.” — John Muir

Last week, I went with Michel, my mother-in-law, and my father-in-law for a walk in the woods—not in La Courneuve, certainly, and not even in the woods close to Paris (the Bois de Boulogne or the Bois de Vincennes), but in Picardy, about an hour to the north. There’s a trail in the Forest of Compiègne near the village of Saint-Jean-aux-Bois that we know and love. It leads you into a world that’s far away, one that’s quiet, peaceful, and full of simple wonders.

Continue reading A Walk in the Woods