525,600 minutes

Every August 15, a big anniversary rolls around.

August 15, 2010 was the day I left the US with big dreams, 130 pounds of luggage, and a one-way ticket to Charles de Gaulle. The days leading up to the anniversary are always full of reflection and nostalgia for me. I spend a lot of time looking back at what I’ve accomplished — or failed to accomplish — but I also look ahead to what the new year might bring my way. It’s a bit like New Year’s in mid-summer.

Two years ago, on my first anniversary as an expat in France, I recounted the beautiful story of what led me to this country in the first place (“The Patience of a Butterfly“). Last year, as my second anniversary rolled around, I waxed rather philosophical about it all, writing about change as the very essence of life (“Every Beginning is Only a Sequel“). This year, I’m doing something quite a bit different. You see, I have a Facebook tradition every August 15: I start a new photo album into which I will post scores of photos of my life during the upcoming year. A few days ago, in preparation for “Ma vie à Paris: la quatrième année,” I was scrolling through last year’s album, and I was reminded of what a monumental year it’s been: chock full of the usual stresses of expat life, of course, but also charged with exciting developments that promise good things to come. This August 15, then, I’ve decided to share with you a little photographic montage of the last 525,600 minutes of my life as an expat — the mundane and the exciting, the frustrating and the promising, even the delicious and the inebriating … and the sentimental, of course. So … how do you measure a year in the life? Continue reading 525,600 minutes

Perpetual Student

If you know me well, you know that I’ve spent a heck of a lot of time learning things that I haven’t necessarily parlayed into gainful employment. I graduated from a high school specializing in science and math, but I didn’t become a scientist or a mathematician. Then I went off to college to study architecture, but didn’t become an architect. In fact, I changed my major to political science, but I didn’t become a political scientist either — even after following up with a degree in foreign affairs. Instead, I ended up working as the marketing director for — of all things — a professional society of pension actuaries! I guess the only time I’ve actually put all that book-learnin’ to practical use was after law school when I became a lawyer for seven years. Thank goodness for that, too, because my savings from that time in my life helped me move to France without a job and start a new chapter here as … <drumroll> …

a student.

This time, for obvious reasons, I became a student of French. After all, when I moved to France in 2010, I only remembered a smattering of the French I’d studied two decades earlier in high school. Initially, I anticipated a year of French courses and then, of course, I’d be gainfully employed in France doing … something. It hasn’t quite worked out that way, though. I even got certified to teach English back in March, but I’m still looking for what I’ve started to describe as “the ever-elusive teaching gig.” As a non-EU citizen, I need to find an employer who’s willing to sponsor me for a work visa, but no one wants to jump through the hoops of French bureaucracy when a qualified EU citizen can do the job just as well. Another option is to become an independent contractor, but that involves a complicated process that isn’t guaranteed a positive resolution. I’m keeping all options on the table, though. In any case, don’t worry about me too much. I do have a few irons in the fire at the moment, so keep your fingers crossed. Continue reading Perpetual Student

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.


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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