I will start off by stating: this is not a guide on how to get a French Visa, I wouldn’t dream of dragging you through everything we have been through in a blog post. Rather, this is a condensed version of our experience during the week we traveled to obtain our visa.
If you are an American and you want to stay in France for more than three months, you must obtain the appropriate approvals and visas to stay legally. Since I am working in France, I first applied (with the assistance of my company) and was approved for a work permit. In order to get the approval, I had to provide an abundance of paper work and wait for several months. It is my understanding that the approval of a work permit will allow you to more easily obtain the necessary visa.
The next step in the process is to obtain a Long Stay Visa. After researching this topic extensively, I learned that we must visit the French Consulate assigned to your area of residency. This is proven by providing your driver’s license, in our case, Colorado, and means we are assigned to the French Consulate in Los Angeles. When I first learned that we would need to travel to Los Angeles to pick up our visa, I was disturbed. Los Angeles is more than 1000 miles from Boulder and almost 6000 miles from Nice. For weeks, I questioned whether an easier option than traveling so far to obtain our visas existed. I will spare you the details, but suffice to say that all options to avoid traveling to Los Angeles were exhausted and no solutions were found.
The requirements for obtaining a Long Stay Visa include that all applicants over the age of six be present at the Consulate for an appointment. For our family, this meant four of the five of us would be traveling to Los Angeles. In order to make this happen we decided to take two separate trips while the other parent stayed home with our youngest son–avoiding 12,000 miles of travel with a three-year-old.
After booking our trip to LA and enduring an epic saga to obtain an appointment at the Consulate on the same dates as our travel was booked, it was time for one of my daughters and myself to get on a plane. Tip: book your consulate appointment far in advance of obtaining your work permit approval. There is no reason to wait. Even though we were dreading the long flight from Nice to Los Angeles, we were also relieved to have everything accomplished to get us to this point. It was a huge relief to know that we were finally on our way to summiting this mountain of paperwork and red-tape.
Buckets of tears, seven-year-old girl anxiety attacks and 16 hours of travel later, we arrived in Los Angeles having traveled through Munich. The plane ride from Munich to Los Angeles went faster than expected as we were able to connect to the internet with on-board wifi. During the flight we did several Skype chats and Facebook messaged with quite a few friends. Being able to stay in contact with friends and family during a long trans-Atlantic flight adds a certain level of connected comfort which I enjoyed and helped to relieve the aforementioned tears and anxiety of my seven-year-old daughter, who had a miserable introduction to international travel back in January.
Within an hour of landing in LA, our first stop after renting a car (unfortunately no convertibles available) was In-N-Out Burger. When flying to the west coast it always makes good sense to use the In-N-Out Burger iPhone app to locate the nearest location. The app isn’t fancy, but it gets the job done better than using the Maps app. I’m not known for my planning skills in everyday life, except when it comes to travel, and I was prepared to hit the In-N-Out at the NW corner of Sepulveda & 92nd (just north of LAX) before we had gotten out of the airport. I used the time on the rental car shuttle effectively to obtain the appropriate directions from Avis. Although extremely tired, we enjoyed two #2’s- Cheeseburger, Fries, and a Coke. We also added a vanilla shake to make sure we didn’t waste this rare experience. For those who are wondering why we settled for the public menu, I am a fan of the basic In-N-Out Menu not the Not-So-Secret-Menu– I’ll leave the Animal Style and Protein Style to someone else.
We arrived at Hotel Shangri-La in Santa Monica trying to fight off a jet-lag-in-n-out-coma around 8:00 p.m. pacific time and managed to keep ourselves awake just shy of 10pm by showering off the travel grime and playing Club Penguin (at least my daughter did). We were exhausted, full, and now fit for the magnificent beds at Shangri-La.
Five hours later, I woke up around 3am and couldn’t sleep so I Facebooked myself to sleep for another few hours, just short of 6am. Anxious to get to the Los Angeles Consulate, we got dressed, hit Walgreens to pick up passport photos, Starbucks for a latte, Fedex for envelopes, and Krispy Kreme to keep our streak of healthy eating alive. By 7:45 a.m. we were standing outside the French Consulate hoping to get in and get out (a tip from a colleague) early.
My expectation for the French Consulate was way, way off. I expected an old but elegant, stately white building with big columns, magnificent manicured gardens, and a large French flag flying proudly out front. Instead we found an outdated 1970s style glass building with absolutely nothing French or stately about it. It actually reminded me of visiting the DMV in Colorado, which is not saying much. We entered the front of the building looking for the visa office only to be told to enter via the alley. Are you kidding? After waiting outside the tinted glass door with no exterior markings, except for the six or seven pieces of crinkled 8 1/2 x 11 white paper with various messages printed on them, a man emerged and slowly, began speaking to us.
I exchanged limited words with the security guard who allowed us to continue to wait outside of the door for another 15 minutes and we were finally allowed to enter the building. Once we were inside the small office, we were asked to show proof of the required paperwork, which we did, and then we were asked to wait in another tiny room. We were then called to glass window by a very nice woman who efficiently processed our papers, took our passports, snapped our photos, and finger printed us. By 9:00 a.m. we were done at the Consulate and had begun a process of waiting for an unknown time for them to contact us regarding our approval or denial. The whole process was anti-climatic and much different than I had expected, but it was a huge relief to have completed this step.
Not knowing how much time we had in LA, we spent the rest of the day shopping at the Third Street Promenade, just a short walk from our hotel. It had been almost five years since I had visited Santa Monica and I didn’t remember the abundance of shops all within walking distance of each other. If you like to shop, and haven’t been to Santa Monica lately, I highly recommend it.
Of course food is also a priority for us during this break away from France, so we managed to find a modern Mexican restaurant- La Sandia and enjoy one of our favorite food genres while overlooking the promenade. The Mexican cuisine at La Sandia, even though it was good, not great, was a welcome change from the French food we have become accustomed too. For the record, there is nothing even close to good Mexican food in France-not even a resemblance.
With our arms dragging and shoulders drooping with the weight of the goods we had procured during our miles of walking around Santa Monica, we returned to the hotel for a break to treat ourselves to some desert. We had heard that the specialty of The Dining Room at the Shangri-la was Sticky Toffee Pudding, so we ordered and devoured it in record time. With the temptation of ordering another, I was interrupted by a business call and so 2nd dessert was put on hold. The rest of the evening was a blur as our jet lag called us to our beds and again woke at 3:00 a.m. ready to start a new day and again went back to sleep for a few hours.
We were anxious again and couldn’t sleep as we knew we were heading to Disneyland to spend the day having fun while waiting for the Consulate to contact us. After hitting Starbucks for a grande latte (for the French that are reading–this is an espresso or two with steamed milk and foam in a large cup) we were heading south for Walt’s first theme park. We bought a park hopper pass and managed to be one of the first in Disneyland when it opened at 9am. With only two of us, we were able to hit just about every ride we wanted before 1:00 p.m. and we rode some twice.
For lunch, we exited Disneyland and walked over to Downtown Disney for yet another meal of Mexican goodness at Tortilla Jo’s. Although not as good as the meal at La Sandia, the fish tacos at Tortilla Jo’s were much better and similarly priced as a hamburger, fries, and coke within Disneyland. I highly recommend exiting the park for food in Downtown Disney.
We had a quick chat with the rest of the family back in France and then headed for California Adventure where we found some real rollercoasters. While waiting in line at the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror I got the email we had been waiting for- APPROVAL! We had officially been approved for our Long Stay Visa and could pick it up on Wednesday morning. Maybe it was partly an adrenalin influence from a day of riding rollercoasters at Disney, but we were overjoyed to know that we could go back to France and have the peace of mind that this ordeal was behind us. We managed to end the afternoon soaking ourselves, ride after ride, on the Grizzly River Run.
Knowing now that we could be heading home a day early, we headed to the grocery store in Santa Monica to pick up various items that we can’t buy in France. We brought two nearly empty suitcases with us to California, knowing that we would be loading them with goods on the way back. We hit Ralph’s and Whole Foods and were able to find almost everything on our list except for the elusive canned tomatillos. In Colorado you could easily find tomatillos in the Mexican food section of King Soopers, but they have been hard to find in California. While strategically packing the suitcases with double Ziplocked canned goods, corn and flour tortillas, Patron, and other goods, we ordered room service and again passed out with exhaustion.
The next morning we were at the Consulate by 8:00 a.m. and again after waiting outside for the mysterious security guard, we were allowed to enter the building and collect our visas. While waiting, I took the opportunity to question the visa agent regarding alternative options for remaining family members to collect their visas without having to visit Los Angeles, but she explained that there were no other options. This time the process took about 30 minutes and we were on our way, mission accomplished. With passports and visas in hand, we moved up our flights by one day and headed to the airport.
Even though this wasn’t a trip I wanted to take, reflecting back on this week I will have fond memories and consider this trip a blessing in disguise. I got to spend valuable one-on-one time with my youngest daughter–traveling more than 10,000 miles together, shopping at the 3rd Street Promenade together, eating Mexican food together, ordering room service together, and of course experiencing Disneyland together for the first time. I believe this trip has brought us closer together and I will be forever thankful for the opportunity, but I’m hoping there is no long distance international travel in my future. Now it is time to return home, so that my wife and oldest daughter can travel to Los Angeles to get their visas and repeat our week. I will be working and babysitting.