Our home was in escrow and now it was time to make our appointments at the French Consulate in Los Angeles so we could obtain our visas to live in France. We scheduled the next four available appointments – two on July 14th, one on July 15th and one on the 19th. That was going to be a lot of driving back and forth from Orange County to LA and not an ideal scenario for our kids, but we didn’t have a choice at this point. We had three weeks to pull everything together.
We were applying for a 1-year Long Stay Visitor Visa, meaning that we were intending to come to France on our own, without French jobs or sponsorship from any company. I read the Consulate’s complete list of requirements for the visa again, more thoroughly this time, and had a major “Oh crap” moment when I saw this: For all minors between 6 and 17 years old during stay in France: proof of registration/enrollment in a school in France. When I originally read this line weeks before, my jumbled brain processed it as “kids 6 and up need to be registered for school.” Rhône was still going to be 5 when we arrived so I figured we’d get to Paris in mid-August, get settled in our neighborhood and then register him for public school. Mais non. The LA Consulate wanted proof of registration beforehand. How were we supposed to do that?!
I did Google searches, scoured blogs and studied the chapter on education in Living Abroad France, a book my mom had just gotten me for my birthday. There were no instructions on how to register a child for school and it was definitely unclear how to do that from abroad. I had an idea: I was going to tell the Consulate I was homeschooling Rhône and then we wouldn’t even have to worry about this step. Technically I would be homeschooling him until we arrived. Ha ha! Got you, France! I was so pleased with my problem-solving skills. Of course the Consulate didn’t accept phone calls so I crafted an email stating my intentions to homeschool my almost 6-year-old and waited three business days for a response. Here’s what they said: “Your son must be registered for school.” Okaaaaay. Apparently France is not big on homeschooling.
I am a rule follower, so I decided I was going to get him registered. I did everything in my power to figure out how to do this, including staying up past midnight and waking up at 5 a.m. so I could call different mairies (city halls) in different arrondissements (neighborhoods in Paris) to learn about the process of school registration. Let me just say right now that it was a very humbling experience. My French was rusty, I lacked some vocabulary and these people on the phone did not want to be bothered, period. After I was told off for even suggesting that a friend of mine could drop off the necessary paperwork (“C’est à VOUS d’inscrire VOTRE enfant, Madame!”), I was informed that I must have an address in Paris first and then I’d be able to register Rhône for school – in person of course. We did not have the time or resources to fly to France, find an apartment, register our child for school and come back in the next two weeks. Things were looking bleak.
Securing a 1-year lease before our arrival was another one of the visa requirements, and we’d been trying for weeks to find a place to live in Paris. In between packing, organizing yard sales and furniture pick-ups, stalking our contractor who suddenly went MIA when we needed him to fix some things he messed up, scheduling inspections and walk-throughs, poring over contracts related to the sale of our home and the day-to-day madness of parenting two spirited young boys, we were researching neighborhoods and apartments in Paris, compiling our dossier, contacting French landlords and trying to find the perfect home for our family without ever setting foot in it. We tried all avenues – agencies, websites connecting apartment owners and potential tenants like PAP.fr and SeLoger.com, friends of friends, even the show House Hunters International. (They weren’t ready to film yet.) We reached out to dozens of people in Paris and so far only had two leads.
I was going back and forth with the LA French Consulate via email, and while I promised to register my son for school as soon as we arrived and offered to give them a notarized document saying so, they were not budging. There was one apartment in the 7th arrondissement that we had put in an application for which looked promising. I called up the public school we would be zoned for and asked if they would write me a letter saying they would reserve a spot for Rhône. The director said that would be strange because our son had a legal right to go to school once he arrived in France. I said, “Yes, I know but we can’t get our visas unless he’s registered for school and we can’t register until we arrive.” The director was puzzled. The feeling was mutual. He still agreed to write the letter (bless him). We weren’t able to use it because a few days later our apartment application was rejected. The landlord said it was because we had young kids and he thought they might damage the antique furniture.
Our appointments were coming up soon and clearly we could not get around the lease and school registration issues. We realized we were not going to be ready in time and in a couple weeks we would not have a place to live anymore. We needed a new plan. I had joined an Expatriates in France group online and some members had shared their experiences there about obtaining visas. One woman mentioned that the French Consulate in San Francisco did not require school registration. (Don’t you just love that they all have different rules?) I tried to make an appointment there using my parents’ address in Northern California but they were fully booked until late September. We were determined to get to Paris at the beginning of the school year so Rhône wouldn’t miss out on key instruction or be the new kid joining the class weeks/months later. He was about to be thrown into a different school system in a totally different language. It was the least we could do.
I decided to look up the Miami French Consulate’s rules. Jonas’ parents live in Florida and we planned to visit them before we left the country anyway. Bingo! No school registration required. They had four available appointments all on the same day in early August. The processing time for visas was about three weeks, which, if we were approved, would get us to Paris right around the first day of school. It was settled then. We were “moving” to Florida. We still didn’t have an apartment lined up but at least we had more time.
We packed up our things, said our goodbyes, left a big pile of stuff on our front lawn for a scheduled donation pickup and prayed the truck would come when they said it would, before the new owners arrived. I can’t even remember if I cried as we pulled out of the driveway but I’m crying now as I think about all that we left. Not the stuff; the amazing people, the neighborhood and the experiences.
Jonas and I were beyond tired. It was our wedding anniversary. We began the long drive up the California coast to spend a few days with my parents in Sonoma. We got married in Sonoma so it was fitting we were headed there. We toasted with cups of ice water as we sped up the 5 Freeway. The boys asked over and over, “When are we going to be at Grandma and Grandpa’s?” We had done this drive several times before. We knew where we were going and at the same time we had no idea where we were going.