How to Get a Long Term Stay Visitor Visa (VFS and Covid-19 edition)

Those in our Facebook group know that for some time I have been seeking an updated version of my 2013 article on how I got my original visitor visa.  While that article was one of the cornerstones of this site and while certain principles of it still apply, since the advent of VFS taking over not just France’s, but other countries’ visa processes, and with Covid-19 limiting in-person meetings, I wanted an updated article from one of my visa clients who went through the process very recently, knowing that this would become an article that would be referenced for years to come.  Luke Middleton was kind enough to do just that for me and I enclose his very detailed story below.  For my video course that breaks down some of these steps in even more detail, click here.  If you’d like to read more of his writing you can do so here.

I also note that Luke got his visa while explicitly stating that he would be working his US job remotely, which once again undermines the misinformation peddled by Allison Lounes, that you cannot have a remote job on a visitor visa.  I stated as much when I applied (and renewed) such a visa almost a decade ago, long before remote work was something everyone knew about, and Luke has just done the same last month.  Alas, that means you don’t have to accept her narrative and drop $2000-$4000 using her services to get a Prof Lib visa, but I don’t suspect you’ll be upset about that.  -SH

How to Apply for a Long Stay Visitor Visa

After a long period of disruption due to Covid-19 the French authorities in the United States resumed processing all categories of visa applications in June 2021, including the visiteur category that Stephen has discussed so many times on this blog. 

The application process has changed from the one he encountered in 2013. Probably the biggest difference is that the French have now partnered with a third-party service provider which handles a portion of the application. While this arrangement may have streamlined things on the backend, some initial amount of confusion may result from having to interact with two completely different websites that have no evident connection to each other. And neither of these websites happens to be the website for a French consulate, which is where you might have started your Google search. In fact there are nine consulates (and one embassy) in the US and each has its own page, presenting information in a slightly different way. All the information you need is ultimately out there but it certainly wasn’t as plainly presented as any might like. 

Let’s start with the two websites I mentioned earlier: 

The first is france-visas.gouv.fr (I will call it France-Visas going forward). This is where you will fill out and submit your visa application form. 

The second is VFS Global. (I will simply call it VFS after this).  This is the third party provider with whom you will make an appointment to hand in your application form, passport, and other documents. Note that VFS handles visa applications to and from a wide variety of countries, not just for Americans going to France. So when you are on their website, make sure you are looking at the correct information. 

Here is the recommended order of steps as described by France-Visas: 

  1. Create an account at France-Visas.
  2. Fill out the online visa application form. Until you have “submitted” this form it can be saved and you are free to go back and edit it (well, you can edit some of it). You can even download a PDF version which will have a large “DRAFT” watermark on it. Once it has been submitted the DRAFT watermark will be removed and importantly at this point you are unable to edit, delete or recall the form. You are supposed to submit the form before proceeding to the next step, but I recommend you wait and will explain why shortly. 
  3. Next we need to go to the VFS website and book an appointment at one of the 9 VFS visa application centers. Here again they will ask in ALL CAPS if you have already submitted your form on France-Visas. I recommend you proceed with scheduling the appointment and only afterwards go back and submit your application at France-Visas.  
  4. Attend your VFS appointment where you will hand in your application form, various supporting documents as well as your passport, and have your biometrics taken. 
  5. After your appointment VFS will mail your documents and passport to the consulate in Washington DC (the only time the French authorities gets involved). At this point your application is either approved or denied and your passport is mailed back to you. 

That is the recommended order and the one I followed but here is a potential problem: when you fill out the visa application form on the France-Visas website, you must specify which VFS application center you will be going to. I live in Kansas so I chose the center in Chicago since various internet searches told me that Chicago is the “consulate for my region” (in fact that is true, but it doesn’t matter as we will see).  Having completed the form on France-Visas I submitted it and only then went over to VFS to book my appointment. That is when I discovered to my dismay that the Chicago office had no openings available for as far forward as it would let me look. But once the application form on France-Visas has been submitted it can no longer be edited, and I had already told them I was going to Chicago! Also I wasn’t sure if I was even allowed to go to a different office. 

In the olden days, including when Stephen applied, you had to book an appointment at the French consulate for your region – you couldn’t just choose any one you felt like. But today we are not booking an appointment at the consulate, we are booking an appointment at a VFS Global Visa Application Center. These application centers just so happen to be located in the same cities as the French consulates (with the exception of New Orleans), but they are not the same thing! For example in Chicago the VFS center is about seven blocks away from the French consulate. 

With this change it no longer matters what VFS center you go to, you are free to choose whichever one you prefer. There are nine located in the following cities: Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, San Francisco and Washington D.C.

Since you have to tell France-Visas which VFS center you are visiting, and you won’t know which ones have availability until you book an appointment, I recommend the following:

  1. Go ahead and fill out the application form on France-Visas so you are sure you are able to answer all the questions, but don’t submit it yet – just “save” it instead.
  2. Now go to the VFS site and book an appointment. 
  3. Then return to France-Visas and “submit” your form. If you had to select a different location, you will actually need to fill out a new form on France-Visas since it will not permit you to edit the location field. At least you will already know the answers to all the questions, and after you submit the correct form you can delete your earlier draft. 

This is not the recommended order but you will avoid what happened to me: since I couldn’t change my submitted application for Chicago, VFS instructed me to create and submit a second application. I managed to reserve an appointment in Houston and prayed I hadn’t hopelessly confused their computer system (it all worked out in the end). 

I am told that VFS posts new appointment availabilities to their website once a week, and they don’t open appointments more than a couple months in advance. So if you really must go to a specific city you can also just keep checking back each week. 

Now let’s look at each step in more detail. 

Step 1: Begin the France-Visas Application Form

Create an account at France-Visas and start a new application. Most of the form is self-explanatory but I will highlight some important items here: 

  • Place of submission of application – for many TAIP readers, this is going to be United States of America
  • City of submission of application – this is where you select one of the nine VFS cities, make sure you can get an appointment there first! 
  • Visa type requested: we are applying for Long-stay (1 Year+)
  • Your plans: this is actually where the visa type is specified. We want to select Visitor
  • Main purpose of stay: there are two options, Visitor (adult) or Visitor (minor). Most of us are presumably going to be adults, unless you are bringing your children with you in which case you will be creating a group application that includes forms for each person. 
  • Planned date of arrival in French territory: remember that you can not submit your application more than 3 months prior to your planned arrival date.  You don’t have to arrive in France on the day your visa begins, you simply can’t arrive before that day.

Further into the application you will be asked to give your Host person or organization. Since we are visiteurs, I selected the option to provide the Name of hotel or place of accommodation. And since my place of accommodation is an apartment I just typed in Appartement for the name, and then provided the address. If you don’t have a residence lined up yet enter the name of the hotel or other lodging you plan to stay at. 

Another section is titled Funding of travel costs. Once again we see various options that make more sense for visa types other than the one we are applying for, here are the ones most relevant for our purposes: 

  • Credit card
  • Cash
  • Other

I checked Credit Card, Cash, and for Other I put USA Employment Income since I am keeping my US job while living in France. There is also an option to give them the name of a French guarantor, which I suspect most of us will not have. 

Note: in several places you will need to provide a US address (for your current residence; where you were born; the address of your American employer if you have one, etc). Of course this form having been designed by the French you will only be given a City field, but not a State field. Type both the city and state in the City field. 

Another note: pay attention as well to date fields and remember that the French put the day first and then the month. I found that the VFS website also used this French convention. 

Ok, we’ve made it through the application form, but as discussed above let’s just “save” it and hold off on “submitting to the visa center” until we complete the next step. 

Step 2: Book an Appointment at a VFS Global Center

Next, create an account at VFS Global and schedule an appointment. Hopefully you created the account from the correct section of the site in which case you will be relieved to see that it knows you are an American applying for France, and not something else. During this process you will select which VFS city you want to go to. It will also ask you for your Appointment Category which in our case will be Long Stay Visitor

In general I found the VFS website to be unrefined and buggy. When it asked for my US location it forced me to select a city from a predetermined list which strangely did not include my actual city, the largest in the state. The list did however include several obscure towns out in the boonies that no one has ever been to (I just selected one at random, it doesn’t seem to have mattered in the end). Multiple times the site croaked, showed errors, or just directed me to blank pages (maybe this was to prepare me for French life?), and I had to fortify myself with whiskey before I could log back in. But persevere and eventually you should be able to make an appointment. 

Note: at the conclusion of this process VFS will provide you an appointment receipt or “appointment letter” which will also be emailed to you. This letter will indicate the time and date of your appointment as well as the address of the VFS office. You need to print this letter and bring it with you to your appointment.

Step 3: Go Back and Submit Your France-Visas Application

Now that you know where you are going for your appointment, return to France-Visas and “submit” your application form for real. If you have to change your appointment city from what you originally specified, you will need to create an entirely new form. Save a PDF copy of your first draft so you have your prior answers, delete that application, use the draft to help you fill in the new one, and when done, submit it. 

Download the PDF of the final, submitted form and print it out (it should have no “DRAFT” watermark). This PDF will include three things – the completed application form, an application receipt, and a list of required documents to bring to the VFS appointment.

Note: depending on how you answered certain questions when filling out the application, there may be additional required documents not listed on the receipt, but which will be described nonchalantly in a wall of text on the confirmation page after you submit the application. So read that page well, because once you leave that screen you will never see it again.

If you, like me, answered “yes” to the question “Have you previously resided for more than three months in a row in France?” bring a copy of that previous visa.

Step 4: Show Up to Your VFS Appointment

Now you need to present yourself to the VFS office at the appointed hour, bringing with you all the supporting documents required. Don’t worry, this meeting will be in English and your documents can be in English as well.  As Stephen often reminds us, the visa interview is in the language of the country you are applying from.  They don’t assume you already speak French.

As already mentioned the required documents is listed in the same PDF as your France-Visas application form, but let’s go through them one by one: 

VFS Appointment Letter
This is not actually on the list, but I am repeating it here because you need to bring it.

Signed and dated application form
This is your France-Visas application. In my case the VFS person I dealt with already had a copy of this form on her computer and she preferred to use it instead of mine. All the same, bring your own copy since that’s what they tell you to do.

Receipt France-Visas
This is included in the same PDF file as your France-Visas application form, so you should already have printed it out. 

A travel document
The exact wording follows: “issued less than 10 years ago, containing at least two blank pages, with a period of validity at least 3 months longer than the date on which you intend to leave the Schengen Area or, in the case of a long stay, at least three months longer than the expiry date of the visa requested. Be sure to transmit (scan) ALL PAGES of your travel document containing visas, entry and exit stamps or any other inscription.” is included in the same PDF file as your France-Visas application form, so you should already have printed it out.” 

Clearly you need to bring your physical passport, which you will hand over to VFS and which will be returned to you later by mail. The language about transmit and scan I believe refers to the option to submit some documents electronically.

Although it is not explicitly stated, I remembered that Stephen was asked to bring a photocopy of his passport in addition to the original. Just to be safe I did the same thing (making copies of the title pages as well as all other pages with entries). The VFS lady took my copies without seeming to think that was unusual, so I would recommend you do the same. 

ID photograph
They are referring here to a passport photo. In my area of the country the usual place to get these are pharmacies. Your mileage may vary, but I went to two Walgreens stores and got terrible pictures both times (low resolution), but the ones from CVS were sharp and clear. White backgrounds are common so do not wear a white shirt or they may decline to take your picture as your head will appear to be floating in space.

As it turns out VFS will also be taking your photo as part of the biometric collection (in addition to your fingerprints). The photo that ended up on my visa is the one VFS took, not the one I provided. However it is listed as a requirement and they did ask me to hand it over, so whether they want to use it or not, bring one (I brought two but they only asked for one).

Letter from the employer or proof of business ownership / business license (if self employed). If retired, pension certificate.
I am employed by an American company and I got my boss to sign a letter that made the following points:

  • so and so is indeed an employee at our company
  • we are aware that he is seeking French residency
  • he has our approval to do so
  • his relocation to France will not cause any change to his employment status since he is free to work remotely
  • his salary is $X which at the current exchange rate equals Y€ per month.

I had my boss sign multiple copies of these letters in case I need them for something else later, and gave VFS an original. I am less able to speak about the other cases, though presumably the student category should not apply to those of us applying for a visitor visa. What ramifications self employment might have for the next item probably depends on what you do; if you need advice I would suggest posting your questions on the TAIP Facebook group.

Promise not to exercise any professional activity in France
I provided a signed letter declaring on my honor (as the French like to do) that I would “not exercise any paid professional activity in France.”  The fact that this follows directly after “letter from employer” means that the French do not consider your remote work “paid professional activity” for purposes of this visa.

Travel health insurance certificate
The text continues: “issued by the insurance company (covering any possible costs for medical repatriation, and emergency and/or hospital treatment, for a minimum amount of €30,000, valid in France for the whole stay. A copy of your American health insurance card is not an acceptable proof of adequate coverage).”

For this requirement I chose to purchase an International Health Insurance plan from Cigna Global as Stephen did so many years ago.  This is a process in itself, but I will try to restrict my comments to the basics. They offer three levels of coverage which they call Silver, Gold, and Platinum. Even the lowest Silver level offers 800,000€ coverage for inpatient and emergency care, which is 30X above the French requirement. Gold and Platinum have increasingly higher coverage levels and also include maternity care. In addition to selecting the three coverage levels you also specify your desired deductible ($0-$10,000), percentage of cost share (0%-30%), and out-of-pocket maximums ($0-$5,000). Higher levels of these selections will reduce the price of your premium but will of course increase the sticker shock if you ever actually ever use the insurance. You can also choose to pay monthly, quarterly, or annually, with the latter two options offering a slight discount. Even without the discount it makes sense to buy a one year policy since you need to show coverage for the full period of your visa.

After these selections you will be presented with various optional add-ons such as outpatient coverage, vision and dental, etc. but don’t glaze over this section because you will absolutely need to purchase the “International Evacuation & Crisis Assistance Plus” add-on to meet the French requirement for medical repatriation coverage.

While the cost may vary based on your age, gender, and other factors, as a point of reference I chose the absolute cheapest Silver plan, maxed-out deductible, cost sharing and out-of-pocket levels, with no other add-on except the international evacuation feature, and earned the discount for paying for an entire year up front. My total came to $900. 

Several minor frustrations are encountered during this process. At the beginning of the insurance application they ask what country you will be living in, which is obviously France. Later you have to provide your mailing address and at this point the form will only accept a French address. Even if you know this address in advance (and some won’t), by definition we are not living in France yet and we may not want mail going there. However they do provide the option to receive communication electronically which solves the mail problem. If you don’t yet know your future French address you can just put down the address of your hotel.

A second frustration is that Cigna will not allow you to schedule your coverage start date more than 45 days into the future, but it is entirely possible you will need to buy it more than 45 days prior to your departure. This means your one-year policy period may not overlap exactly with your one-year visa; in my case it was off by about one month.  But ultimately that’s no big deal.  You may, like Stephen, end up ditching Cigna immediately and buying a much cheaper private French policy.

Finally after having forked over your money and waited several days for your Cigna account to populate, you will be able to download a one page certificate of insurance. What concerned me is that this certificate does not explicitly describe the coverage levels: it showed that I had purchased the “Cigna Global Silver” plan, but who knows what “Silver” represents? I wrote several emails to Cigna asking if they could give me a more detailed cover letter, and never got a response. Afraid this would be a problem I printed off the entire 40 page Cigna Customer Guide and brought it to the appointment. I discussed the issue with the VFS representative and she thought the basic cover letter “should probably be enough.” My visa was approved so apparently it was. 

Proof of accommodation in France
The text continues: “property title deed, tenancy agreement or any other supporting document. Or proof that accommodation will be provided by a person residing in France, or if not, a document explaining the accommodation arrangements planned for France.

By various undeserved miracles I was fortunate enough to have an apartment lined up in advance and was therefore quite pleased with myself to be able to hand over a copy of my French contrat de location (rental contract). But my self-congratulation immediately ended with the next question: “Do you have a copy of your landlord’s identification?”

Uhm no, I did not. To my relief the lady once again said, “That’s ok, I think the contract will be sufficient.” And it was, but if this applies to you and you are able to obtain a copy of your landlord’s ID and electricity bill, it definitely won’t hurt.

If you don’t yet have housing arrangements made you will want to write a small letter explaining your plans to do so. 

Proof of enough resources to cover all expenses during trip
The requirement says bank statements and that is what I was asked for, so bring them whether they prove anything or not. Thankfully having now met the literal requirement I was permitted to provide other documentation as well; I gave them pay stubs from my employer and my savings account statement.  If you’re a pensioner that statement will come in handy.

If, like me, you decide you need to move funds around to present the best possible financial picture, make sure to plan ahead for the time it will take to make those transfers as well as for the statement to be produced from whatever account you move them to, since all of that will need to be done prior to your appointment.
After requesting each of these items in turn, my interviewer finished by asking “Do you have anything else you want to give me?” I did not. You don’t have to volunteer anything that is not requested, but by all means if there is something you think will help your case then provide it.  As Stephen often notes, have more documentation than you are asked for with you, but don’t hand it over unless they ask for it.  More does not necessarily equal better.

All that remains at this point is to pay for three things which will be combined into a single charge to your credit card (cash and checks not accepted): the visa application fee, a service fee to VFS, and the cost of overnight FedEx service to return your passport. Unlike in Stephen’s day you do not need to bring a pre-paid envelope with you, you will purchase it at the appointment. For me the total cost came to roughly $200 but no doubt this will fluctuate. 

Step 5: Wait for Your Passport to be Returned

At this point VFS will forward you application, passport, and documents to the French embassy in Washington DC where your case will be approved or denied. The VFS agent informed me at the time that they were currently very busy processing student visas (my appointment was in August) and she could neither guarantee nor estimate how long it would take to receive a response. She did say the consulate typically strives for a turnaround of two weeks. 

She also said that if the French authorities needed any more information they would contact me directly and if I didn’t want my application to end up in a forgotten pile somewhere I should respond as quickly as possible. 

In the end the French never asked for anything else and my approved visa was in my hands a mere seven days later. 

The visa appears as a large sticker on one of the pages of your passport. It will have a start date which in my case was two weeks earlier than the planned departure date I put down on my application.

Included in the envelope with my passport/visa were two miniscule slips of paper: 

  • The first informed me that upon arrival in France I would need to go online and register and validate my visa. This will be the subject of a future blog post. 
  • The second referred to current Covid travel regulations. Since these seem to change from week to week there is no point discussing them here, just check before you go and hope for the best. 

Whew! If you’ve made it this far and your visa was approved, congratulations – you’re going to France!

Final Thoughts

Start preparing early and try to think ahead as much as you can. Since you can’t submit the application more than three months prior to departure, and the recommendation is to schedule your VFS appointment at least 1 month prior to leaving, it can start to feel like a lot of activity is getting crammed into a very short period of time. Needless to say, these last few months are already going to be hectic with moving preparations. But there is nothing stopping you from starting to gather documents prior to the application process, and you will thank yourself for any groundwork you were able to do in advance. Bonne chance!

The process may be different now but the sticker in your passport will still look substantially similar to the featured photo above.

usps delays

USPS to France? Be Prepared to Wait

Covid-19 has shaped many parts of our lives in the last 12 months.  One way that wasn’t entirely expected (at least not by me) was the performance of the United States Postal Service.

While the USPS has never been a world-beater, throughout my years abroad I’ve come to expect a fairly reasonable level of service.  If a package was sent to me from the US I could sometimes get it as early as a week, but more often than not it took two weeks.  Not anymore.

I still maintain a US address for various administrative reasons and every now and then I have some of that mail forwarded.  Sometimes it’s routine stuff like a new credit card to replace one that has hit its expiry date.  Other times there are some important bits of paperwork I need to deal with.  In 2020, I also got “free” money from the US government in the mail.

In late October 2020 I had a package put together with some of these important items as well as a couple Christmas gifts I wanted to give to friends in Paris.  Not only did the package never arrive, but it was returned to sender in late January of this year.

The USPS does provide tracking, but there was no update for that number beyond its first original scans.  According to the website, it didn’t appear to have ever left the state of origin.

I wondered if it had been delivered and my local post office had simply forgotten to give me a delivery notice, as the box would not have fit in my mailbox.  I showed the tracking number to a clerk at La Poste.  A few taps later he told me in French, “It’s in customs in Chicago.”  Of course the French knew where my package was, but the USPS seemingly didn’t.

It was late December by that time, so I was able to file a claim for the package, but I had given it up as lost.  I pictured it somewhere in the warehouse you see at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.  But just when I had given up hope, I found out it had been returned to sender.  On cue, the USPS called me to follow up on my claim three days later.

The woman on the phone sounded so kindly I had no heart to turn on my customer-service indignation of the US variety.  Indeed, I was so relieved to not have lost the contents of that package (which included a ring I had resized) that I just thanked her for following up and verified that I would get a refund given that I never actually got the package.  “Yes, no problem,” she said.

When a friend went to get the refund the clerk blamed the French.  “It was delivered,” he insisted.  True enough, the package did look like it got stamped/stickered through customs.  But somehow or another it never got to my post office.  It came to France, hung out, then was returned.

I didn’t want to take any chances on the next package so I stripped out everything that wasn’t critical (I’ll get those things some other time, I figured) and focused on only sending something business envelope-sized.  That envelope was sent on February 9th and I’m happy to say it arrived just before the end of February.  “It’s a Christmas miracle,” I typed to my friend as I sent a photo of the envelope in my hands.

Three months for a non-delivery.  Almost three weeks for something the size of an envelope.  Thanks to the tracking I was also able to see that of the 17 days it spent in transit, 12 of them were in the United States, and 11 of those days were spent getting from the origin, in the middle of the country, to New York.

What is going on?” I asked a friend of mine who I suspected might occasionally mail herself things from the US.  She didn’t have a ready answer, but did tell me that her mother had attempted to send her Halloween candy both in 2020 and 2019.  Both times the package never arrived: once it was returned to sender and the other time it disappeared.

The USPS has been underfunded for a long time and unlike what I’ve experienced in Europe and Asia, routinely undercharges for both domestic and international packages (while managing to charge a FORTUNE to ship to Canada, which is closer to 48 of our states than Hawaii or Alaska).  It seems to have caught its own strain of Covid-19 and is, for the moment, not to be relied on for timely package deliveries.

For comparison: a book I ordered from the UK on Tuesday arrived on Thursday of the same week, which is even faster than I’m used to receiving packages from across the Channel.  Clearly not everyone has the same Covid problems.

Over the years I’ve often sent small packages to friends who were flying into Paris.  This allowed, in some years, for nearly half a dozen “courier” deliveries that I paid off with bottles of champagne.  That means is currently not as available.

So, if you’re in France and awaiting packages from the US, adjust your expectations, file claims, and be prepared to wait.  It is, after all, a First World problem.

Photo by Pope Moysuh on Unsplash

flying during lockdown

Flying During Lockdown

While many of my planned trips this year evaporated in the Spring, there were still some trips I chose to take for business and personal reasons.  During a brief window in the summer when PCR tests weren’t required, I went to visit family and friends in the States.  Inside Europe I managed short trips to Croatia, Mallorca, and Andorra.  I did all this on my US passport, despite the alleged “American ban” in Europe, and even without my French Carte de Sejour.  But I still had a final business trip in the calendar for 2020: Salzburg in November.

As you do when traveling in Europe these days, I was checking the ReOpen EU site regularly, to see what new regulations were in place.  I don’t remember exactly when I found out I was going to need to take the dreaded PCR test, but when I did, I immediately made an appointment at a lab in the 11th.  In early October the appointments were at least 2 weeks out and I needed a test that was done fewer than 72 hours before my arrival in Austria, in early November.  I managed to get an appointment for the right day and time and I showed up to a virtually empty clinic.

Covid-19 Testing

This was to be my third Covid-19 test.  The first had been at my doctor’s request during lockdown, when I described the flu-like symptoms I had earlier in the year.  The second had been before a summer trip to Croatia, when I thought they might ask for a test even though I was coming from France, not the US.  But those had been blood tests.  The PCR test was “invasive,” I had heard, but I hadn’t really read much more about it.

When I came to the clinic I was ushered right to a receptionist who verified my appointment and asked for my Carte Vitale.  Since the summer the French government had started fully covering the cost of Covid testing so I wasn’t asked for any money out of pocket.  After a few minutes I was handed a printout and some stickers which would ostensibly go to the lab with my swab.

Personne suivante,” came a calm voice from behind a mostly closed door.  I came in and sat down in the chair that she beckoned me towards.  She told me I would need to remove my mask, which I did.  She then asked if I had done this before.  I shook my head and she told me to sit back and relax and that it would not take long.

I assumed the pose that I normally do at my dentist’s.  Relaxed, head back, remembering that the person who is doing this does this all the time, professionally, and is not interested in hurting me.  For those of you who are unfamiliar with the PCR test, it involves sending a swab about three inches into your nose to grab some samples of upper respiratory mucus.  As you might guess, this is not a pleasant feeling.

This is not so much a question of pain as unpleasantness.  Your nerves in this area sound an alarm: what is this thing doing here?  When she had inserted the probe the entire way in she actually moved it around a bit, ostensibly to make sure she collected enough of a sample.  She saw me tighten up and after withdrawing it she waited a beat before asking if I was ready for the “next one.”

Then I realized she meant the other nostril.  Okay, I know what to expect this time.  I braced myself and a few moments later it was over.  I thanked her, got my stuff, and headed home.  I got the results by email the next day, which I then printed out so I could present it in Austria when I landed.

Arriving in Austria

As I said, the trip was originally planned for Salzburg, and had the trip occurred one week before that would have been fine.  But in the days leading up to the trip Austria announced a lockdown and this led to many hotels and airbnbs closing their doors (as the government promised to make them mostly whole if they complied).  Not wanting to take a risk of being in Salzburg without a place to stay, I decided to improvise and go to another location where I knew I could stay, outside Vienna, close to where my colleague on this trip actually lives.  But there was an additional wrinkle.  Austria had asked for a 10-day quarantine on visitors, even those with a negative test.  I decided to chance it.  My trip was scheduled for 7 days and if they made me stay an additional 3 days in Austria, I wouldn’t fight them.  Though, my business involved me working in the same room as my colleague, so if they actually planned to enforce this quarantine, my trip would be pointless.

The flight was about 80% full and during the flight we filled out contact tracing paperwork (which they collected) as well as an “Entry and Transit Declaration” (which they did not collect).  This document asked for:

  • Name, Nationality, Date and Country of Birth
  • Flight Details
  • Stays in the previous 10 days
  • Address in Austria for the next 10 days
  • Contact details

I was asked to sign and date this form, next to a declaration that said, “I hereby confirm that I will self-quarantine at home or in suitable accommodation for a period of ten days, that I will cover the costs of any such accommodation and that I will not leave home or this accommodation for the duration of the quarantine.”  The flight attendants said to keep this form on us and that we might be asked for it at anytime.  I considered that curious, as if the form were true, the only place I could be asked for it would be inside an isolated accommodation.

At the very bottom of the document it said, “The details provided here will be sent to the health authorities of the province where you will be staying for the next ten days and, at the end of this time, destroyed.”  So, this form was supposed to be turned into someone, not carried with me inside an isolated accommodation in case a police officer stopped by, who couldn’t possibly know I was staying there unless I had turned it in in the first place.

No matter, the main concern for the Austrians for those of us arriving was a valid PCR test.  They had military personnel, not customs agents, looking at our passport and PCR test.  Because of the perfunctory manner in which the soldier dealing with me looked at my paperwork, I realized he was looking for two things: a name match, and a valid 72-hour window.  That meant that anyone who wanted to forge up an official-looking test could easily do so.  There was no electronic scanner to verify that this was an actual lab which had administered an actual test.  It was a simple check of paperwork using the technology of 1920, not 2020.  He handed back my paperwork and my passport.

I then proceeded to the passport window.  Surely, I’ll be checked, I thought.  Vienna had just had a terrorist attack the previous week.  But no, the lady at the window was busy on her phone and just waved me through.  The Austrians didn’t care what my purpose was in their country or if I even had a valid purpose to be there.  They only worried if I had a valid PCR test, which I could easily have forged, it seems.  As has been the case for most of this year, I was watching biosecurity theater, and not even good theater at that.

“Lockdown” in Austria

A friend picked me up at the airport and we headed back to his place to have lunch.  As we walked into his apartment building I marveled at the people not wearing masks.  “Is there no mask mandate?” I queried.   “Not outdoors, that’s weird!” he said.  Indeed it is, I thought to myself, but felt like a kid on Christmas day just because I wouldn’t have to wear a mask outdoors all week.  We had had an outdoor mask mandate in France for some months now.

Later in the week I was walking around Vienna with another friend when I realized that pretty much all the shops were open and a lot of restaurants were offering takeaway service.  I tried to explain that in France “lockdown” meant I couldn’t leave my house without a permissible reason, that I could be stopped and asked to justify myself at any time, and all this was to take place within 1km of my house, outside of particular extenuating circumstances (although, just as in late Spring, the French were not taking this seriously at all).  He wrinkled his nose.  “We had something like this back in the Spring, but not now.”  While it seems that since my visit Austria has been put into a much stricter lockdown, I was happy to take the opportunity to, among other things, get my hair cut while I was there, as I didn’t know when I would have the opportunity again in France.

Coming Home

When I came back home to France I presented my passport at the border.  The agent scanned it and after some time my linked Carte de Sejour showed up digitally on his screen and he waved me through.  No tests, no quarantine, and not even any paperwork pretending to enforce either.

So, traveling during lockdown?  If you’re worried about how to do it, don’t (the authorities clearly have no idea what they’re doing).  Just have your paperwork in order and be ready to be patient and smile.

Photo by Ashim D’Silva on Unsplash

The Covid Location Test

The arrival of Autumn last week was underlined by rain and punctuated by cold: summer is officially over in the City of Light.  It was, by all accounts, one of our quietest summers in recent history, as we were bereft of many of the non-European tourists that normally flock to our city.  But I had used that time to mull over an idea that had first occurred to me during lockdown: the Covid Location Test.

The test is simple.  Imagine that you were told that you could not leave your city (or if you’d like, country) for the next twelve months.  How would that make you feel?  Use those feelings to ponder the fundamental question: are you truly living the life you want to live?  If not, why not?

It certainly was a useful exercise for me.  While I was used to being location independent and sometimes having to work on an assignment for a client in the coffee shop du jour wherever I was in the world, I knew that remote work was a new and unwelcome experience for some of my friends, even the ones who had previously envied my ability to work from anywhere.  Hence, telling me that I could not leave Paris and would have to stay in my apartment didn’t qualify as punishment.  My home, after all, was designed as a refuge, a place for me to relax when I wasn’t working.  It fulfilled that purpose perfectly during March, April, and May of this year (even if it was also the place where I was working).

As for telling me that I couldn’t leave Paris, that wasn’t difficult to bear either.  I had perhaps traveled “too much” during my past seven years here, and some extended, unbroken time in Paris would be welcome.  Even if you told me I couldn’t leave for a year or more, it wouldn’t particularly trouble me: I was living in my dream city.

While I made a point to host a party at my house the very first week of deconfinement, I didn’t travel outside France until July.  I enjoyed my trips to the US, Croatia, Spain, and Andorra, despite the challenges of travel these days, but I took those trips not only opportunistically, because of work that presented itself, but because it was nice to travel around again and indicate by my actions that I refused to live my life in fear.

But something had changed.  In a world in which travel is a luxury, those who partake of it should feel quite privileged.  I very much felt fortunate to see places I had not previously been, and linger around some old haunts I knew well.  But for me the Covid Location Test was a reaffirmation of another privilege I feel fortunate to have in my life which I don’t take for granted: living where I want to live.

I encourage you to take the Covid Location Test yourself.  I suspect many of you have unwittingly taken it earlier in the year if you were locked down in any measure.  If you aren’t living the life you want to live now, why aren’t you?  What is holding you back?  We haven’t been promised that a similar situation won’t happen in the future and it’s folly to build a life assuming that history can’t repeat itself.  As I said in a previous article, at least as far as the EU is concerned, a residence permit = passport for freedom of movement, even in a pandemic, and that’s a powerful argument for those who felt trapped wherever they were.

Don’t be trapped.  Use the Covid Location Test to surface the feelings and sentiments you may have buried under the piles of routine and daily life.  Life the life you want to live now: you’re not promised tomorrow.

Photo by Khamkéo Vilaysing on Unsplash

passport pages

Traveling Without My French Resident Card

So in an earlier post I shared that I had been pickpocketed late last year and hence no longer had my physical four year Carte de Sejour, which was perhaps the hardest-earned French document in my possession.  In that same article I noted that it really wasn’t such an important document in terms of daily life in France, and after this most recent theft, I had a number of trips in which an EU residence card had no relevance: visits to Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, the UK, Italy, then Bulgaria.  However, then a little thing called lockdown happened and when we were finally deconfined, the EU residence card took on a new meaning.  I knew in the back of my mind that I should have some kind of replacement document, but knowing that I was putting in for my ten year card quite soon led me to rely on my confidence on how the system worked and my inherent knowledge of and patience with French immigration.

First Flight Back

The end of July saw me at the Aer Lingus counter in Chicago, following a whirlwind three-week trip to the US which I took because of a convergence of very low airfares and the possibility of doing some work with a client as well as on one of my business projects.  I’d also get some family time.  I was tired, but the accomplished-a-lot-and-feeling-good kind of tired.  The agent at the counter asked for my passport and then she asked if I had residence in France.  I said that I did and handed her a photocopy of my residence card.  She didn’t really know her way around it so I pointed to the expiration date, which is in September of next year.  She nodded, but slowly.  A colleague hovered nearby.  “No way a photocopy is good enough,” he said in a voice probably intended to be low enough that I couldn’t hear, but I did.  “Legit, I think he needs to have the actual card.”  She seemed swayed by this and asked me to wait while she “checked on something” (read: go ask my boss).  She came out after a few minutes during which time I continued to smile and look composed.  She didn’t seem to look too dire when she came back, but wanted a bit more context.

“I understand where you’re coming from,” I said, “but here’s the police report noting it was stolen, and obviously since lockdown I haven’t gotten an appointment for a replacement.”  I smiled and simply gave the attitude that this was not a problem at all.  I live in France, I lost my card, leave this to the French.  For their part, an airline that incorrectly transports someone without entry rights has to bear the cost of repatriation, so she was not being unreasonable in pushing back a bit on me, but the fact that she didn’t really put up a fight was an indication of something I would continue to see: a willingness of those to be “understanding” to travelers in this time period.

Landing in Dublin turned out to be no big deal, as this was an inbound EU flight so I was just able to do a simple transfer within the airport.  I wasn’t forced out through customs as I had been on the way into the US.  Next stop: the French border.  I handed over my dark blue passport.  The border policeman’s eyebrow immediately flicked up as he saw the emblem of the eagle which grasped olive branches and arrows in its claws.  He assumed English and asked: “Why are you visiting France?”  “J’habite ici,” I smiled and answered in French.  “Ah,” he said, and asked for my residence card.  “Malheuresement…” I explained that I had been pickpocketed and handed him copies of the police report and a copy of the residence card.  He frowned.  He continued in French, asking why I had not gone to get a new card (he noted that the police report was dated November of last year).  I told him I had been traveling, and then afterwards there had been lockdown.  He pointed out that there had been deconfinement and I countered, smiling and polite, that it was hard to get an appointment (I knew from friends; I hadn’t actually tried myself).  He looked at some colleagues who had been obviously listening in.  They shrugged.  He flipped to an already crowded page and stamped.  “Merci; bon journee,” I smiled.  No documents?  No problem.

Not asked for?  The contact tracing form that Aer Lingus insisted we fill out before arrival.

The Croatian Question

I had planned to do some work in Salzburg with a client in August when an opportunity came up for us to do the work in Croatia instead.  Salzburg is still on my list to visit, but summer on the Adriatic is hard to beat.  Croatia was one of the countries that was “open” to Americans with a valid negative Covid test within 48 hours of arrival and proof of accommodation.  But, would they treat me as an American citizen or as an EU resident?  Surely, I couldn’t use the photocopy again?  Should I get a Covid test just in case they decide to treat me like an American?  Life continued on in Paris and a few days before the flight I decided to wander down to the Paris Plages to get one of the free tests they were giving out (the blood test used a pinprick and a few drops, with results in 15 minutes, the PCR test had a minimum 5 day waiting period for results – I opted for the quick result blood test).  The philosophy I have with French administration (always be prepared for everything they might ask for) guided me and while the negative test result printout I was handed didn’t look as “official” as I would like, I felt it would satisfy the Croats.

It was a fairly full flight to Zagreb (unlike domestic US flights, there seems to be zero insistence on the vacant middle seat) and I was one of the first off the plane and hence one of the first in line for passport checks.  When I handed over the American passport he asked where I had come from.  “Paris,” I answered.  “Transiting?”  “No, I live there.”  “Ah, where is your residence card?”  I handed him the photocopy of my residence card.  His face betrayed skepticism.  “It was stolen, here’s the police report.”  I handed it over to him.  I didn’t know if he could read French but his eye caught the filing date: “This was in November.”  “Yes, and we had lockdown so I didn’t get a replacement.”  He looked at everything again to satisfy himself, it seemed, then started flipping my passport pages to find a place to stamp me through.  He handed me a piece of paper with contact information for all the places I could get tested if I wanted.  No demand to self-isolate.

Not asked for?  Proof of accommodation, negative covid test, or contact tracing form.

Coming Home to France

Before March 2020, when I came home to France through passport control, the agents would scan my passport and lazily stamp it, usually while talking to their colleague.  They didn’t ask if I was a resident, because they didn’t care.  When I presented that passport, they assumed I was a tourist and just stamped me through.  I could have always bypassed this process by handing them a resident card along with my passport.  This would mean my passport would not be stamped.  But I never bothered with this.

When I handed my passport to the border agent his eyes flicked up at me as he perceived the dark blue US book.  He scanned it and after looking at his screen for a moment, handed it back to me.  I gave the usual, “Merci; bon journee,” and walked through.

The only way he would have handed my passport back to me without stamping it?  If the record he was looking at on my screen indicated that I had a legal carte de sejour, and hence was a resident of France.  No need to stamp the passport of someone returning home.  Had it always been this way and the border agents just assumed if I didn’t hand them my card I was just a tourist, and they didn’t look any further at my record?  Or is this a new level of digitization that’s been achieved by the French, something we’ve seen a lot of during Macron’s tenure?

Either way, I was home, and I it was my fastest way through yet.

Not asked for?  Carte de sejour.

I’m not saying that you should, as I have, push your luck.  Next week I’m going to stop putting it off and get a recipisse which will serve as a temporary ID until I get the appointment for my ten year card.  What I am saying is if you don’t feel like you’ve gotten everything just so during this period of travel, don’t let that deter you.  A ready smile, a good attitude, a fair number of documents, and a plausible explanation might just see you through.

The photo is one of my passport pages.  As you can see, the French don’t really care whether there’s “room” for a new stamp. 🙂

Mailbag: the Non-Existent “American ban,” Work Possibilities with the PL Visa, & Snake Oil

In the last eight weeks I have received an avalanche of questions from those hoping to immigrate to France.  In the past when I received a lot of questions I would collect them into a post like this and call it the “mailbag.”  But since creating my Facebook group and videos on Visitor and Prof Lib status, I haven’t had to.  The last mailbag post was in 2016!  But there have been so many questions I’ve answered recently that I thought to collect just a few of them here to share.  The questioners have been anonymized and their questions have been corrected for spelling and grammar and/or redacted for privacy when necessary.

I keep hearing that due to COVID-19 Americans are not welcome in Europe right now.  Hence If I file for a long stay visitor visa (greater than 1 year), am I wasting my time?

It is fake news that Americans are not welcome in Europe.  Very rarely, if ever, is an entire nationality banned from some place, as that might also include expelling anyone of that nationality already in the country.  What the media isn’t saying, because it’s so intent on portraying an inept US response to Covid, is that US citizens, traveling for leisure, coming from the US, cannot currently enter France and some European countries.  Americans themselves are free to travel around Europe given that they have valid residence in a European country.  Those Americans who have never lived here but are confirmed on student status for this Autumn are also welcome to come to France in particular and Europe in general.

That said, your application process will depend on where you are applying from.  In some countries consulates and embassies are running again at normal capacity, with certain safeguards in place, and in other places those consulates and embassies remain closed or unable to assist applicants at the moment.  But you won’t be denied just for being an American.

I have a long term visitor visa but of course I’m stuck here in the US. So I will have to renew it before 4/15/21 and I haven’t even left yet! Can you help?

Here you can again see the power of fake news at work.  Since the questioner only had access to mainstream news, she was paralyzed.  I explained to her that the long term visitor visa, which for her became effective mid-April, gave her valid entry into France.  Even though she had never “lived” here, the visa gave her residence status, which was what she needed to travel.  After I assured her this would be fine she booked a ticket!  A late breaking addition as of just this afternoon – a negative covid-19 test 72 hours before travel will be required on the US side before departure.  This may change in the weeks and months ahead, but as of now it’s a new requirement.

How many times can you renew a long stay visitor visa? (Initial application would be for 1 year)

Indefinitely.  As I’ve said before, it’s one of the easiest visas to get, and even easier to renew and retain.  After five years and a language test, you can apply for a ten year card.

What kind of work contract can one be hired under while on a VLS/TS Profession Libérale? I’m attempting to apply for this status as a video editor/motion graphics designer and animator. I’m unsure if this can be considered as a liberal profession, and moreover, my understanding is that audiovisual production companies hire people under CDDU (CDD d’usage contracts), meaning that it’s salarié. My hope is that I can get hired for contracted work under a different work contract. What kind of work contracts exist for your visa?

The Profession Liberale visa is a work visa, meaning you are allowed to work, but it is not the same as a salarié visa – meaning the type of visa you get when sponsored by a company with which you have a CDI.  Should such a company wish to hire you, they would hire you as a contractor via your PL status.  As a contractor you don’t get any of the benefits of a regular employee, and rarely, if ever, sign “contracts” in the French work sense of the word (despite being a “contractor”).  You’re essentially acting as a consultant/freelancer.  That said, this could be an entree into a job, as perhaps the company will like you enough and recognize that you have a set of skills that’s difficult enough to find in the job market that they are willing to go through the time and expense of sponsoring your work visa, to make you an employee.  To be clear, PL status does not allow you to be employed as an employee.  Should you get a bona fide job offer you are going to have to change visa status to accept it, which also means shutting down your URSSAF account and figuring out what to do with your pension (transition it or keep it in place).

Stephen….I am still weighing the pros and cons of freelance visas from about five different countries.  Could you please clarify something regarding the Profession Liberale?  Does France limit the amount of time that a Profession Liberale holder can physically be outside of France and still maintain his or her immigration status and path to citizenship?  Must a physical address always be maintained during Profession Liberale status (as opposed to a mailbox at the UPS store)? 

Once you have a long term visa, be in Visitor or Prof Lib (or other classifications for that matter), there is not really any way that the French can track how long you are in the country.  For tax purposes you are essentially stating that you are in the country for 183 days+, but if you are there for less, the French wouldn’t know.  Now, I’m not encouraging you to do that, I’m just saying that for purposes of filing taxes and keeping your status, you have to assert that you are a fiscal resident of France.  There is no box on your French personal or business returns that asks you to indicate how many days you spent in France in the previous year.

To continue to renew your visa status as a long-term resident, regardless of your visa classification, you need to be a fiscal resident of France, and file returns here every single year.

You do need to maintain a physical address, as all correspondence (and trust me, there’s a lot) will be sent there until you get yourself set up virtually, and even then you’re going to receive a fair amount of physical correspondence from the agencies, like the Ministry of Finance, that still send paper notices for a number of things.  We don’t have a “UPS store” but there are various places that I know of that will allow you to maintain a physical address with them…for a fee.

Are you familiar with XXXXXXX XXXXXX, who also assists with visa applications and business formations, and if so, do you have an opinion about this person?   My wife and I were both getting a snake-oil-sales feeling about this person.

Yes, unfortunately I have heard many bad stories about this person, and XXXXXXX has a dreadful reputation in the Paris community.  This person is obsessed with Profession Liberale as the solution to every visa question, manages a Facebook group that is ruled like an absolute dictatorship (people get deleted for questioning/contradicting the narrative), and gives factually inaccurate advice by continuously asserting that a visitor visa does not allow you to have a remote job (it does, I’ve helped dozens of people to get visitor status who had a remote job as their proof of income), hence fueling the narrative that PL solves all.  Moreover, this person charges between $1800-$4900 to help you obtain a PL visa, despite the fact that this person married into his/her immigration status, and hence never had to obtain one of these visas on her own merit.  Your snake-oil feeling is confirmed.  I wouldn’t get within a country mile of this person, and it’s crazy to think that obtaining this visa should cost even 1/3 of what XXXXXXX charges.

My First Flight Since Lockdown (and Ten Things I Learned)

“You are?” my European friends responded, bug-eyed, to my disclosure that I was flying to America this week.  They had been watching CNN or some other similar network, in which the impression was being given that the country was burning to the ground a la Mad Max.  I knew better, and dodged the subject: “Well, the flights are really cheap, to be honest, and I can also do some in-person work for a client.”  Both reasons were true, but to be honest, the idea of flying post lockdown seemed purely theoretical to me until it actually happened today.

I arrived back in Paris the day before lockdown in March of this year.  I had cut short a business/ski trip in Bulgaria under advice from friends, though by Monday night, as I arrived back into Paris with all the shops in the airport already closed, it looked like wisdom.  Unbeknownst to any of us who came back that night or in the days after, we would not get to leave the country again for months, and even our daily trips out of our homes would be curtailed with the strange experience for those used to living in free societies: if stopped, we were expected to have “our papers” on us, explaining what we were doing, and why we were doing it, with consequences for “incorrect” answers.

I was delighted when confinement in Paris ended, almost a month ago now, and most of the city is quite “normal,” whatever that word means.  Masks are only really required on public transportation, and most Parisians comply, but out on the street, a dwindling minority voluntarily wears them even when not required by law.

My first attempted flight purchase for this trip had been abortive, with Turkish Airlines.  Turkish had been selling “ghost flights,” flights they had never intended to run but were happy to collect revenues for.  In fact, when I told a frequent flier friend about the ticket, he sounded dismayed. “Turkish.  I’m not sure they will actually honor that flight.”  Sure enough, they didn’t and two weeks after I had booked that flight and two weeks before I was supposed to fly, I was told that Turkish had cancelled my flight and yes, it might take 2-8 weeks to get a refund.  Chagrined that I was being used to help finance the airline’s working capital (yes, things are that bad) I was happy to find a comparably priced Aer Lingus ticket, though I had to shift my dates of travel slightly to make it work.  First rule of this current phase of travel: flights you buy might not actually happen.  Be prepared; stay flexible.

I had chosen a mid-morning flight out of Charles de Gaulle, but the terminal felt as though it was either very early in the morning or very late at night, and in some strange circumstance.  Almost every single shop was closed, everyone was masked, and there was no rush, no stress, no bustle.  

I made my way to Terminal 2A, which is not where Aer Lingus normally operates out of, but they had helpfully told me by email a couple days before not to go to Terminal 1.  Second rule of this current phase of travel: pay extra attention to email alerts telling you where to go and what to do; it can be the difference between making and missing your flight.

I stood in a “socially distant” queue to check in, though luggage tends to naturally space us.  When I got to the checkin desk I slid my passport under the now ubiquitous plexiglass.  The agent took my luggage, handed me my boarding pass, and then asked me if I had filled out the “Covid form.”  Because she asked in such a nonchalant tone my brain didn’t go to red alert.  “No,” I answered.  “If you can wait here for my colleague, she will bring you a copy.”  I turned to my right and saw a small queue developing of other similarly clueless travelers.  Before too long her colleague did return with paperwork specifically from the government of the Republic of Ireland.  The form was intended to help with contact tracing, but for transiting passengers like myself, less information was needed.  Third rule of this current phase of travel: be prepared for extra paperwork that may be country-specific.  Be patient and don’t panic when confronted with something you didn’t hear about ahead of time.

Ireland

When I arrived in Dublin this morning I wasn’t permitted to stay in the airport and follow the signs to “connecting flights” but was directed to the border and airport exit where I turned in my form and got a stamp in my passport for my shortest stay in Ireland ever.  “Sorry I’m not staying,” I smiled.  “Next time,” she nodded.  Fourth rule of this current phase of travel: be prepared to have to “exit” the airport, even on a layover, and go through security again, and don’t forget to keep it snappy while doing so: there’s no guarantee they’ll hold the flight while you’re taking your time.

I left through baggage claim and went upstairs to departures and, like all the others on my flight who were continuing on to destinations after Dublin, had the great pleasure of going through security a second time, but this time with an Irish accent.  

I looked up at the screen and saw that I would get a gate number after passing through US Customs.  Ireland, like Canada, has a US Customs section which pre-clears incoming passengers to the US, allowing them to skip the line when they land.  There are always random additional security searches, but with so few passengers traveling to the US, your chances of being one of the random searches increases dramatically.  My lucky number came up and as I was unpacking my carry-ons for the third time today (there’s an additional security screening at the US border in these countries) I was told to follow some of the employees to a secluded part of what was already a ghostly reception area.  They made me turn on my laptops and ran bomb residue checks on my hands and almost every part of all my bags.  

Having passed my third security screening of the day, it seems that the authorities of three different countries, France, Ireland, and the United States, were satisfied that I was not a malefactor.  If you think about it, this makes sense.  At a time when so few people are traveling, it might be the perfect time to attempt an act of terror.  Fifth rule of this current phase of travel: each country you pass through on your trip may make you do additional screening that has nothing to do with your physical health.  Stay patient and stoic through the process.

Mostly Empty Plane

As we boarded the A330 for our transatlantic flight, the flight attendants told us that we could sit anywhere we wanted.  There would only be 39 souls on a flight that could seat 340.  But as we got closer to departure the purser announced that the seats had been allocated by the computer based on flight load, and there was a method to the random assignments: we needed to sit where we were assigned for takeoff and landing.  In between those times we could sit where we wanted in between.  I was one of the last ones to board and watched most of the plane walk past me to the back, where they were originally seated.  Sixth rule of this current phase of travel: be prepared to have a lot of space to yourself.  On the Dublin-Chicago segment I had a 4-seat row to myself, with no one sitting in the row in front of me nor in the three rows of window seats to my left.

I have a friend who works at Emirates who has kept me filled in on the lean and bare bones conditions of the flights they are still running.  Hence, I was prepared to be tossed a box of cold food then watch the flight attendants disappear until right before landing.  This wasn’t the case.  Not only did we have a beverage service, but we had hot food (“Would you like chicken or beef?”), followed by tea and coffee service, followed by ice cream service.  Then, hot calzones and another beverage service before we landed!  Cheers, Aer Lingus.  Seventh rule of this current phase of travel: in-flight service might be the same.  Enjoy!

Masks

What wasn’t the same was the mask requirement.  We were told that we had to wear them the whole flight, but obviously we had to take them off to eat.  Since we were in an enclosed space, using recycled, non-medically-treated air for all seven hours of the flight, taking off the mask to eat would have been all the virus needed to get from one of us to all of us.  So, it’s a bit of security theater, like taking off your shoes when going through security, but I understand the airlines probably wouldn’t be allowed to fly if they didn’t participate in this charade.

Nevertheless, some of us lingered over our meal a little longer, enjoyed the “authorized” masklessness, but after the service the flight attendants were really only there if you hit a call button, so you could feel free to be as masked or unmasked as you wanted to.  I have only worn a mask when required to in Paris, which is to say, on public transportation, so these two flights were the longest I’ve ever worn a mask for any reason in my life, and that might be a challenge for some.  Eighth rule of this current phase of travel: be prepared to wear a mask the entire time you are on the plane, and perhaps when you are in the airport as well.  Make sure it’s a comfortable one.

Stateside

When we landed in Chicago I realized that the pre-clearance I had gone through in Ireland wasn’t entirely valid because of the additional measures being taken in the US.  We had to turn in a CDC form, similar in quality to the one that I had to turn in on arrival in Ireland.  However, it seems half of the passengers of our flight were given this CDC form at the gate and the rest of us grabbed one of the photocopies in the customs area when we landed.  

We then got into another line in which we were orally questioned as to whether we felt any symptoms or had been to China, Iran, or Brazil in the last 14 days.  After answering no to all of the above I was sent to another line where my temperature was taken contact-free (I was 97.5 F – the plane must have chilled me) and again asked where I had been in the last 14 days, specifically if I had been to one of the three aforementioned countries.  When I answered in the negative I was given a handout and told that I should “self quarantine for 14 days.”  I smiled, nodded, and went to get my baggage.  Ninth rule of this current phase of travel: You might get to go through customs for the same country multiple times.  Bear with it.

Chicago isn’t my final destination, but flights to destinations that are not major hubs are two to three times more expensive at the moment, hence I’m on a DIY layover, in which I self-transfer to the domestic airport in Chicago, Midway, and take a $50 Southwest flight on to Kansas City.  Tenth rule of this current phase of travel: be prepared for a comedic sequence of planes, trains, and automobiles as none of the regular transfer/conveniences can be reliably counted on.  Don’t assume; call ahead.

What’s Next?

How long will this state of affairs last?  As you should know by now, nobody knows, and anyone who claims to know is just guessing.  But what is certain is that the chilling effect on travel as a whole is rippling out worldwide.  Those closed shops and empty queues and empty seats are harbingers of an untold disaster much worse than even the most hysterical headlines tell us.  In one way the disaster is economic, yes, but there’s a psychological toll as well which can paralyze people from even considering travel. 

I remember being told some time ago about research that showed people were more “happy” before and after a vacation: before because of the anticipation, after because of the revisiting of the memories.  In those pre-covid times we seemed unable to be present and savor the vacation while we were on it at least as much as we anticipated or revisited it.  But we are now in a time in which we can’t anticipate “normal” (again, whatever that term means) travel.  All we can do is plan lightly and curb our expectations.  If we can adopt the right attitude when we travel in the weeks and months ahead, not only can we start to create necessary momentum to once again give our fellow friends and humans the confidence and desire to travel, but we can also take a moment to be grateful for the privilege of traveling when so much of the world is still locked down.  As we do so, we might recapture, however cautiously, however tentatively, that joy we take when seeing new places and old faces.

Photo was taken halfway through my flight from Dublin to Chicago.

This article also appeared on Dispatches Europe.

the old normal in Paris

The Old Normal is Alive and Well in Paris

I’ve spent my entire life in countries with unrestricted freedom of movement.  Not only did those countries let me go where I wanted, whenever I wanted, as long as I wasn’t breaking laws, the countries were indifferent to my location on a given day at a given time.  Insofar as my movement encouraged commerce and the support of local businesses, which in turn paid taxes, these governments might actually encourage me to get out and about.

I think it was because I’ve always taken freedom of movement for granted that I felt that energetic frisson in my bones and brain this last weekend, as our local parks opened and restaurants prepared to open their outdoor terraces here in Paris.  While there had been an energy and buzz in the air since the first days of deconfinement, this last weekend was different.  Normal service wasn’t quite restored, but it felt quite normal.  The streets and parks were packed (Buttes Chaumont, a very large park near my home, was as busy as I’ve ever seen it, and that was with its restaurants and bars closed).  The majority of the population across 6 arrondissements that I visited one day (specifically the 19th, 11th, 5th, 4th, 3rd, and 2nd) were unmasked and not social distancing.  Witnessing this has been like watching a light turn on in a dark room: one moment there was coronavirus, the next moment it was summer.

It’s important to note that it is only in and around Paris, and only for the next few weeks that we will continue to see these restrictions, which include: schools reopening with capped class sizes so some students will continue to attend remotely; swimming pools, campsites, and theaters closed; gatherings in public places limited to groups of ten (enforced by roving police).  The rest of France, host to fewer cases and a lower infection rate, are “back to normal.”

The much-mooted “second wave” which the media seemed to almost hope for so they could continue to be one of the few “essential” workers hasn’t materialized, and the president of the Scientific Council advising the French government has said that even in a worst-case scenario a second lockdown would be unacceptable for a number of reasons.  Given that sunshine and fresh air are extremely effective (and free) deterrents against viruses of all kinds, not just the recent celebrity COVID-19, one wonders why we didn’t deconfine sooner.  We were, in part, witness to the worst tendency of science throughout the ages: stubborn adherence to old beliefs and measures taken when we had very little data and information, combined with a refusal to modify hypotheses when in receipt of new information.  This tendency continues on into the private lives of some of my friends and acquaintances who have been scared into a private “extended edition” confinement.  I try to respect the turbulent emotions some of them have felt in the past months, so I avoid asking them: “If masks work, why do we social distance?  If social distancing works, why do we wear masks?  If both work, why did we lock down?”

Some of the fearful ones do venture out, with all the protection you can imagine: gloves, masks, gel, sometimes even a visor as well. Some of the younger set, determined to be as fashionable as they are “safe,” have bought designer cotton masks–not necessarily helpful against viruses, but they certainly go well with their summer outfits.  This is an unsurprising historical (and humorous) echo for anyone who has visited the Museum of the Liberation of Paris, which has stills of models sporting gas masks as accessories for that season’s release of new fashions.

I’ve even been witness to a few exchanges in which the French have lectured each other, imitating the health and safety briefings of the weeks gone by.  On the first day of deconfinement I was on a bus, masked.  A young man entered the bus without one.  About half a minute later, two middle-aged adults gave muffled speech to complement their camouflaged disapproving looks.  “You need to wear a mask, sir,” she gently chided in French.  Her interlocutor, probably in his late 20s, gave her the typical gallic shrug.  “It’s not just for my protection, but yours too…” she droned on, and he listened politely, but in the vein of, “I’ve heard all the same stuff you have, lady, and I’ve decided to act otherwise.”

That’s the reality of a free country: you are continuously surrounded by others who differ from you in many ways.  In those first few days there was a tension of the “good” mask-wearers who wore them even though they weren’t required outside of public transportation or in certain stores in contrast to the “bad” mask-ignorers who only wore them when required to.  But as day passed on to day, and masks were optional in more and more shops and businesses, the French resumed their normal cultural attitudes, formed over centuries of living in this country.

No longer being legally required to stay home or forced to justify leaving them, the French interpret “optional” as “don’t bother.”  Mask wearing may have been hip two weeks ago, but as summer continues to come on, social pressure will work the other way, and it will take a deeply rooted moral conviction to remain masked, probably rooted in a Noah complex, that a flood is coming and we mask-ignorers are to be pitied for our ignorance.  I stopped predicting early on in this crisis, but I am willing to predict that we will have a summer this year, as long as we don’t conspire to ruin it for ourselves.

We’ll be harvesting lessons from the bad dream that was most of the last ten weeks for years, but it’s not too soon to draw a few now:

  • Given sufficient economic incentives, the French will obey the law.  Even the Yellow Vests, undeterred by Christmas, stayed home during the entire confinement.
  • Temporary natural crises do not make for permanent cultural changes.  Despite the claims of the “new normal” and “it will be a long road back” all appearances indicate that the current normal looks remarkably like the old normal.  In a few weeks (which seems rather short to those who were shut in for months) theaters will reopen and indoor service at restaurants will augment the outdoor service already happening.  Indeed, the biggest priority for many French, apart from standing in long lines to get back into IKEA, will be planning summer vacations, not just here in France, but in the greater EU.
  • Scientific theories ultimately come up against economic realities.  Now-leaked documents from both the German and Danish governments indicate that these authorities considered the reaction to the coronavirus to be overblown even as they implemented policies that directly contradicted these assessments.  France reopened not just because the number of sick were below a certain level, but because the money already committed to bailouts of the auto, tourism, and restaurant industries were mounting to unbelievable levels, and all those bailouts are premised on future tax dollars, which can only be generated by functional, not locked-down, economies.
  • Too many of us were willingly puppeted by the media.  As the slogans morphed from “stay home save lives” to “black lives matter” in the US and abroad, what was commonly prompted one week (avoid crowds, wear masks, social distance) immediately and seamlessly was opposed the following week (march in protest, gather in force, do what you want).  If such mass gatherings now don’t deliver a second wave, we may have the protestors to thank for volunteering to test a hypothesis: has COVID-19 disappeared or is at least in abeyance?

In the meantime, many of us are glad, after months of confinement, to get back to an important notion that should be taken for granted in a free society: the ability to make our own informed choices about what we do and how we conduct our lives.  No man is an island, and everything we do, even in the privacy of our homes, has an effect on our society as a whole, no matter how much those who deny the existence of the soul would tell us.  The states that slavishly imitated China’s extreme lockdown procedures would have us believe that they are so very different from the communist Chinese, but the past three months have shown us that the same lie that animates the Chinese government has spread and infected the West as well: the State knows best.  If those states were properly oriented toward the Permanent Things and eternity, perhaps we might believe them, but since they are manifestly not, we may not have to wait too long before they subject us to such a lockdown again…for our own good, of course.

Photo taken at Cafe de la Poste, in the Marais, where I wrote this piece and broke my fast of sitting on a Paris terrasse.

This piece originally appeared on Front Porch Republic.

quarantine in Paris

Cracks in the Quarantine

Two weekends ago the weather was particularly lovely and while I was out for a Sunday stroll in my neighborhood what I had already been sensing over the previous weeks became crystal clear: many Parisians were not abiding by the draconian rules of quarantine that had been laid down in March, which almost seems like another lifetime ago now.  The French have received some favorable press abroad and even from the French Prime Minister for being generally “well behaved” during the lockdown, but there’s a good reason for that: they’ve been paid off.

Not Disciplined Normally

The French are not scrupulous rule-followers.  At all.  I know, I’ve lived here with them for years now.  If you want rule followers all you need to do is cross the border into Germany where people will wait on an empty street in the pouring rain rather than cross it without a proper signal.  Three of the four landlords I’ve had in my time in France have either wanted to be paid in cash or wanted me to conceal that I was paying rent (and hence avoid the taxes) by telling me not to put anything in the memo section of the monthly bank transfer.  I know at least half a dozen people who have used someone else’s payslip in order to qualify for the apartment that they live in now.  Then there’s the bragging about methods of tax evasion that can happen at a casual apero during the week or when you are on vacation in Provence.  Did the French suddenly become rule-followers and acolytes of the government because of a viral scare, just weeks after a transportation strike that ruined Christmas and New Year’s plans for the entire country?  Non.

What the French did get, due to the systems and mechanisms in place, is money, and lots of it.  In almost every field the French were paid off so that they were not losing money at the rate that businesses in many other countries have been.  Those who needed additional aid had ways to apply for it, right down to small business owners like myself, as I wrote about earlier this week.  When you’re being paid to stay home, you can still get fresh bread, tobacco, alcohol, lottery tickets, and food, all while your high speed internet is working, why fight?

Like the Occupation

It hasn’t even been 100 years since the Occupation of France during World War II, and while President Macron has famously evoked the term “war” to refer to what is going on in France and throughout the world, the reality is that the last war wasn’t really that rough on the capital and it was famously preserved by the commanding Nazi general because he was persuaded that the war was lost and Hitler had lost his mind (to learn more check out Is Paris Burning? and the film of the same name).

So too, life hasn’t really been that bad under the virtual house arrest we have been under for the last eight weeks.  Yes, we have to print out a humorous attestation in which we give permission to ourselves to be out for whatever reason, but we have had access to food, shelter, and information.  Our borders are closed and you must have permission to travel even inside the country.  Such restrictions over such a relatively short period as eight weeks is not the stuff of which revolutions are made (despite the fact that there have been a dozen forms of government in France since 1789).

More importantly, just like during the Occupation, the French have figured out the ways around the laws.  After the stings of fines in early weeks, Parisians have figured out when and where the police are patrolling and how to make sure they have a plausible story if caught.  More than a million fines have been handed out during the last eight weeks so you can reasonably guess that at least double that number were not caught by the police, which means there are literally millions of people in France not obeying the law (if you want to read some of the more creative excuses given to the police, The Local collected them in this article), so please, don’t tell me about how much the French are “respecting the quarantine.”

Different in America

While many are eager to exploit the current explosive and divisive politics of America to point out how “wrong” the US is getting public policy, I can only hope it has been an instructive civics lesson for those who are less familiar with how the United States has been governed since 1789 (when it tried out its third form of government, which is the one that still prevails).  While many thought the “states’ rights” question was answered in 1865, many more have started to see that this issue has always been the central question of how the US is governed (and indeed, is the intellectual framework of its founding).  It is the question that will not go away.  So you have coastal states that have used strict lockdown measures, other states that have milder forms of it, and some states that have not locked down at all, along with lawsuits against governors, with more to come under the aegis of the Department of Justice.  It turns out that state Governors, not the US President, has been the focus of the attention of many of the restless in the United States.

While the $1200 checks that went out eased some of the pain for some people, and some federal business loans and grants backed by the SBA helped some business owners, the United States is a large and sprawling country with hundreds of millions of inhabitants.  The health care system is famously broken in many ways and even with plenty of advance notice could not have done anything like what Germany has been doing or France is planning in terms of mass testing.  Yet, even as heralded as France’s health care system is, there has been no system of testing, and as such the lockdown was simply a time-buying measure.  Things are different in America for many reasons, not just because of one man, no matter how much the media would like us to believe otherwise.

You Probably Had It

Several of my friends who, like me, were traveling in December and January, suspect that we might have had the virus already, but are asymptomatic.  We have 27 million visitors to Paris each year, and at least one third of them are Chinese.  Is it likely that one of those millions brought the disease to France as early as December, that it has spread through the population, and that hundreds of thousands, if not millions, already have the disease and are asymptomatic?  Yes, quite.  But we won’t know until we test, and as we prepare to open up next week, I suspect that this upcoming weekend will have scenes like we saw just two weeks ago:

This video (featuring a Dalida song – Laissez-moi danser – released the year I was born), viewed almost 8 million times now, was of an impromptu dance party in Montmartre which the police came to break up but gave fines to absolutely no one.  It’s technically not illegal to dance on the street to music coming from someone’s apartment, and many people were observing some kind of social distancing.  Six weeks in, the police have learned which battles to fight and which to pretend they don’t see.

A story I tell along these lines was from Fete de la Musique in 2014 or 2015 when I was lounging in the lazy afternoon sun in Place des Vosges with some friends and one of the park guardians came up to let me know that alcohol could not be consumed inside this park.  But he said it in such a friendly way that I suspected that if I reached for a paper bag and put the bottle inside, he would consider his duty done.  I did precisely that and he smiled and said, “Merci” and walked off.

As I stroll around on Sundays there are groups of friends standing and talking in the sunshine, clearly ignoring the rule that they are not supposed to meet friends (or are we to believe that they all coincidentally came to the same spot in the sunshine?).  Others are a bit more covert: I saw three young men gathered around a car, all with takeaway food and while one sat in the passenger seat the other two stood next to him outside of the car, ostensibly so that if the police did come, they could say they were just eating some takeaway that had gotten and were getting ready to drive off.

As far as masks go, it’s a pretty even split outside, though inside the metro I’ve observed 75% of the people are masked or gloved, and as of Monday it’s going to be required if you want to use public transportation, though how so-called “social distancing” will be enforced at rush hour is less clear.  I’ll have to wear one for my (already scheduled) haircut this Tuesday.  My barber is talented enough to work around the ear straps (though I suspect they will be removed at a certain point during the haircut) and she’ll have plenty of practice for all the willing Samsons that will be lining up starting first thing this Monday.

The French have mostly kept their heads down for the last eight weeks, but who knows what will happen on Monday, when for the first time we will be permitted to be outside of our homes without our “papers”?  I’ve stopped predicting anything in these times, but I do know that without our restaurants and cafes, which are a core part of life here in France and not slated to be opened until June at the earliest, this will be the oddest May that has occurred in France in centuries.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

French aid coronavirus

Coronavirus Financial Aid for Small Businesses Arrives

This is the time of year when I often have to remind non-EU nationals who live in France most of the year that they need to file taxes.  With all that has been going on I was particularly glad that not only had my US personal and corporate returns been filed, but that my American business accountant had quickly filed for the small business aid package offered by the US government and two of my US corporations had gotten the initial grant ahead of possible additional loan consideration.  Additionally the much trumpeted $1200 American bailout check has arrived at a US address and will be deposited this week.  My French business has also received aid for the month of March.  At a time of year when I’m used to having to calculate what I owe to two different countries, it’s an odd feeling, to say the least, to be receiving funds from two different governments, but hey, when you pay taxes in two different countries, it’s not an unreasonable (nor undeserved) outcome.

French Small Business Aid

I’m a member of the National Union of Journalists (a UK-based organization) and the Paris chapter was incredibly helpful in getting information out to members early on and throughout the shutdown here in France.  The aid which came through from the French government last week was the result of a fairly straightforward form available at the French tax site.  You log into your account (which you have if you’ve ever filed a return here in France) and then navigate to your secure inbox and select a dropdown specifically designed for Covid-19 aid for your small business.

You are then taken to a one page digital form in which you attest that:

  • Your business was open before 1 February 2020
  • It was not in liquidation before 1 March 2020
  • Its workforce was less than or equal to ten employees
  • Your turnover last year was less than 1,000,000€
  • As a managing partner of the company, you did not take more than 60,000€ in dividend income last year
  • You do not hold either a CDI (employment contract) or a pension which results in your receiving more than 800€/month
  • If you own multiple companies, you are still subject to the above attestations (meaning that if you had more than ten employees among your multiple businesses, or if their combined turnover was more than $1M, etc. you are disqualified)

You then fill in your name, address, email, phone number and SIRET (tax ID number for your business) and then state whether your business was closed or suffered a loss of turnover of at least 50% from a comparable time last year.

Now interestingly enough the lockdown occurred in the middle of March and while it did interrupt the onboarding of a new writing client I had in Paris, my March 2020 wasn’t a particularly bad month, but March 2019 had happened to be a very good month for the business, and as such, I was able to apply for aid.  The money was directly deposited into my bank account last month, and I just repeated the same process for the month of April.  The French government has said that this program will be in place until the end of May, so that’s been a big help to small business owners like myself.

This program served as a gatekeeper for a second funding program, which offered assistance to anyone who didn’t qualify under the first program.  Since I had qualified for the first program I was ineligible to apply for the second program, but the application was simple and straightforward as well.  It was one page and was to be submitted through the URSSAF system.  The questions were more probing, however, as they wanted 2018 business income as well as certification that this was your only stream of income and that losing it jeopardized your ability to cover your basic needs.

Outside of small business owners, millions of French are on 75-85% of their regular pay (or more) due to government programs so while others have marveled at how “calm” the French have been during lockdown, I can guarantee that such calmness would not have been on display if these programs were not in place and being efficiently executed, which begs the question, if the French can have such efficient bureaucracy in a crisis, what’s the problem during “normal” times? 🙂

Photo by Matthew Waring on Unsplash

This article originally appeared as part of a series for Dispatches Europe.