Attempting to move internationally during COVID

Make no mistake, COVID has totally upended the way we travel internationally — potentially forever. Moving abroad is never easy, even in the best of times, but the pandemic brought some additional anxiety and stress to a process that is already challenging, both logistically and emotionally.

There was one aspect of this whole process of moving abroad that hadn’t changed though, and that remained as (frustratingly) familiar as ever: applying for a French long-stay visa!

The process varies from country to country, but applying for a long stay visa almost always involves a massive amount of paperwork, a lot of prayers, and — more than likely, at least if you’re me — some crying. When we moved to Lyon in 2018, we were under the naive impression that the process would be difficult for Dani since she was applying as a non-traditional student in a language school and easy for me, since I was the one that, you know, actually had a job lined up. Needless to say, we were sorely mistaken — Dani’s morning appointment was over within twenty minutes, whereas mine involved a four-hour wait past my scheduled appointment time, only to be turned away because I did not have the right kind of work authorization paperwork. I had to re-do the entire process — including a second trip to Chicago — and cross my fingers that my passport came back in time before our flight.

What a pile of visa paperwork looks like!

Applying for a French long-stay visa during a pandemic

When we first decided in late spring that we wanted to return to France, we weren’t sure if it was even going to be possible because nearly all flights between the US and France had been grounded and the European borders closed. The French Embassy had quit issuing visas of any variety, and there was little indication as to when they would start accepting applications again. This uncertainty persisted until well into the summer, when finally, in August, the Embassy gave word that they would begin allowing visa appointments again, but only for students, language assistants, and — luckily for us — those applying for a passeport-talent. Once my work authorization paperwork came through in mid-October, we hurried up and booked a last-minute appointment in Chicago, hoping again that our passports would come back in time for our flight that was planned for Halloween (we had already rescheduled about five times).

We were lucky to even get an appointment in Chicago at all; there were so few appointments available because of how severely VFS Global had to limit their staff to comply with Chicago’s COVID-19 restrictions that it had never appeared before as on option on the visa appointment scheduling platform. Plus, Chicago is the only visa center for the entire Midwest, which means it’s almost always booked solid pretty much immediately. There was a slight snafu when the system gave Dani and I two separate appointment times (one morning, one later afternoon), despite the fact that we had applied as a family; thankfully “my” appointment was scheduled for first thing in the morning, so Dani came with me and we pretty-pleased the receptionist who allowed us both to go back together. This was a huge relief, as not only were we worried that our files would be sent separately (rather than together as they were meant to be), but there was also another woman with the same last name as Dani scheduled for a visa appointment at the very same time that afternoon! I shudder to think of the miscommunication that might have happened if the visa agents thought that Dani was applying as the spouse of this other woman.

At our hotel in Chicago, getting the last of our documents ready to print

Compared to our previous visa experiences, the waiting room was nearly empty — it was just the two of us and one other gentleman, whose appointment was ending just as ours began. There were less than a dozen people on the list for the day, a stark contrast to 2018, when there were at least a dozen people crammed together in a single room during my long afternoon of waiting. We had our temperatures checked upon entry, and wore masks for the duration of our appointments, except for a quick minute when we had to have our photographs taken for the biometrics procedure.

We dropped off our half-ton of paperwork and watched like hawks until we saw that our files were bound together into a single envelope that would later be sent to the Embassy in Washington, D.C. for further processing (for the low-low price of only $105 per person…not to mention the cost of an overnight trip to Chicago. WOOF). The turnaround time was going to be tight, but I knew from past experience (both mine and others’) that though it was uncommon, it was possible to get a visa in a week to ten days, if you could prove imminent departure — and we had included receipts for our flights. There was nothing left to do but to cross our fingers and wait.

Our appointment coincided with Dani’s birthday (lucky her) so we went for a beer on a patio the evening before our appointment

A wrench in the plan: France’s second confinement

About a week after we turned in our visa applications, the President of France announced a second nation-wide confinement in attempt to re-flatten the COVID curve after a worrying second wave. Borders would remain closed and travel restrictions within France would go into effect after the weekend of Halloween/la Toussaint, which is typically preceded by a two-week holiday period when children are off of school and families take time to travel. Immediately we began to worry that this new confinement would mean a denial of our visa applications, which meant that my new job was in jeopardy. I had to be in France to begin my new position, since I had signed a French contract. It was already clear at this point that we weren’t going to make our Halloween flight…but now we began to worry that we wouldn’t make it at all. That all of this would be for nothing, and that we’d have to begin the job hunt again, back at square one.

After several days of feverishly Googling the “small print” of this second confinement, we were relieved to find that it at least appeared as though some visas were still being issued, and that holders of a valid long-stay visa would still be allowed to enter France. However, our new departure date of November 12th was creeping closer, and still — no visas.

Nevertheless, we had to continue to plan as though we’d be able to leave on November 12th. Part of the travel restrictions to France include a mandatory COVID test within 72 hours of departure, so on November 9th, we took a chance and scheduled our COVID tests for the following afternoon. That day, as we drove to our appointments, we got the notification from FedEx that a package from the Embassy would be delivered to Dani’s parents’ house that afternoon, while we were in the middle of our COVID tests — our passports! Hopefully with visas inside.

Let me tell you, that 50-minute drive from our COVID testing site (don’t ask — rural Michigan problems) back home felt like an eternity as we tried not to worry too much about what we might find (or not) when we got there.

Would France let us in?

Once we arrived home, we nervously raced to open the packages that contained our passports. My hands shook as I flipped through the pages in search of my visa — and there it was! Thankfully, Dani had received one, too. They were accompanied by a small slip of paper with instructions that we were to ask for a multi-year carte de séjour (residence permit) within two months of our arrival in France.

Our relief was palpable but temporary, because there was one hurdle remaining: actually getting on the flight and entering the country. As you’re warned when applying for the visa, receipt of a visa does not actually guarantee entry into France — that’s up to the border agent. With only 48 hours to go until our flight, we had no time to do any more research or to contact any more authorities to verify that we’d be allowed in — we’d just have to fly into Paris and see!

We all know how that part of the story ends, but that doesn’t necessarily mean our departure was without complication. I’ll have to save that story for next time!


Oops, we did it again…

…moved to France, that is!

Last month I was finally able to share some news we had been sitting on for a while: we moved back to France! While it wasn’t exactly a secret, per se, we had avoided telling too many people beforehand because we just weren’t sure that it was actually going to happen. We also knew that if it was going to happen, chances were high that we’d have to leave relatively quickly; given the current situation with COVID — and the fact that the more people we told, the more they wanted a chance to see us before we left — we just couldn’t risk any potential exposure, no matter how nice it might have been to say a proper goodbye beforehand.

Similarly, because of COVID, there was a huge possibility that we wouldn’t have been able to come to France at all. We had already had one opportunity fall through and were incredibly lucky that there was even a second opportunity at all — but that’s a story for another day.

So how’d this all happen?

Though there’s always a lot of planning when it comes to moving abroad — planning that often lasts for many months — it was not our original intention to move to France at all. It had been our plan (had been for years, in fact) to move to New York at the conclusion of my Master’s degree. Dani and I have both spent a good amount of time in the city, and it’s been our dream for 10+ years to move back there permanently. Leaving our jobs in Michigan so that I could attend graduate school seemed like the first logical stepping stone in a move further East; after all, a program of study is always finite, and once I finished my Master’s, we’d be forced to move on to something else. For us, that “something else” was New York or nowhere, and early in 2020 we began making plans in earnest.

And then March arrived, COVID hit, and the world ground to a literal halt.

New York was particularly badly affected, but in the early days of the pandemic, we naively assumed that things would be fine by the time we actually planned to arrive in the city, sometime in mid- to late-summer. We didn’t know just yet how seriously COVID was going to affect the economy, but unfortunately for us, it didn’t take long to find out.

I can’t speak for Dani, but I must have sent out a hundred resumés in the month and a half between my Spring Break in March (which marked the end of my Master’s exams) and my graduation in early May. I applied to every single teaching job for which I was qualified in the city of New York, in public schools, private schools and charter schools. I applied for jobs teaching French and my secondary certification, history. I applied for “humanities” positions at private schools, hoping that my background in French, history, and music would be enough to qualify me for those jobs.

Then the NYC Department of Education announced an indefinite hiring freeze. Dani’s entire industry, live event production, essentially evaporated (and still has yet to return). I began looking at jobs outside of the classroom, in education-adjacent positions that I thought might be a good fit: jobs in Edtech, instructional design, educational consulting, and even copywriting and editing jobs in the hopes that my freelance experience might let me get my foot in the door.

We received no phone calls.

At this point it was late May, and it was very clear that we were likely in this COVID situation for the long haul, with no indication as to when things might start getting back to some variety of “normal.” While we were still committed to moving New York, we realized we had to be realistic and start considering some other options as well. New York also isn’t the kind of city you can just move to without a plan — at least not for us, anyway. Financially we knew we could weather maybe a month or two of job hunting in the city itself, but with the uncertainty of the pandemic’s long-term effects on the economy, we also knew that we could wind up getting really, really screwed if we decided to just try our chances. Plus, we knew that the absolute last place we wanted to be without access to employer-sponsored health insurance was in one of the most expensive cities in America during a global pandemic.

Back to France…during a pandemic?

Sometime around Memorial Day weekend (if memory serves), my old boss from the university I worked at in Lyon reached out to see if I would be interested in re-joining the team as a lectrice d’anglais, and I decided to go for it. Dani was also excited by the idea of returning to Lyon, and since we didn’t have any other serious prospects — well, why not? Unfortunately for us, that opportunity fell through at the literal last second — as in, the university’s semester was already underway, and “my” classes were being covered by a colleague until my arrival. We were back to square one, and had been living with Dani’s parents for more than three months since our lease ended in Pennsylvania in June.

And then…an e-mail. From an educational technology company based in Paris, for a job as a Quality Assurance Manager that I had applied to on a whim when we were still living in Pennsylvania. I didn’t actually believe I had a chance at getting it (the labor laws in France make it extremely difficult to be hired as a non-European, or at the very least as someone who doesn’t already have valid French working papers) but since it fit my background and, from what I could tell on their website, seemed like a fun place to work — I went for it anyway.

First, I was contacted by one of their recruiters for a quick introductory chat. From there, they expressed an interest in a formal interview process, and I went through a barrage of Zoom calls over the course of about 10 days, one of which I messed up so spectacularly that I was certain that was the end of it. And yet…it wasn’t. They wound up offering me the job, with full visa sponsorship for myself and Dani. Whether or not the Embassy would grant us those visas remained to be seen, but we decided to go for it anyway, despite having been recently burned in our attempt to get to Lyon for my teaching position. We managed to snag a last-minute appointment in Chicago (as in, we made the appointment on a Friday and had to leave from Michigan the following Tuesday) and crossed our fingers for the three weeks in between the submission of our file at the visa center and the return of our passports, with visas enclosed, just days before our scheduled flight from Detroit to Paris.

Bonjour, Paris!

So here we are — just wrapping up our very first month in Paris. We arrived on a Friday in November, and I began my job the following Monday. In light of the pandemic, my company has adopted a “remote first” policy, so I work from home full-time and could really be based anywhere in France. We’d like to eventually move to Lyon, but given the current travel restrictions/confinement in France that have made it difficult to travel between regions, and the fact that we have to apply for residency now rather than at the end of a year, we’ve decided to stick it out in Paris for the time being. We spent the first few weeks in an AirBnB, and have since moved into our own apartment that we look forward to making our own, for however long we may be here!

My job has been going really well. Despite being fully remote, my team has gone above and beyond in helping me feel welcome and supported. Everyone has truly been so kind and helpful — I truly can’t believe that this is the job I managed to stumble into. It’s a great mix of my professional background in education, curriculum design, and writing and editing. While I do sometimes miss being in the classroom, I have to admit that I do feel more than a little bit relieved. The prospect of starting a new teaching job in a brand-new school, in the conditions under which teachers are being forced to work currently (whether fully remote, hybrid, or — insanely — in person) was something that had been causing me intense spells of anxiety all spring and summer. I truly feel for my colleagues in teaching right now, many of whom are really, really suffering, both mentally and physically.

Other than that, Paris is still pretty heavily restricted due to COVID, so we’ve mostly been hunkered down at home. Nevertheless, it’s still the Paris we know and love, if a little quieter — and we’re making it work.

I’ll share a little more later on what it was like to move abroad during a global pandemic, but that’s it for now — dinner and a glass of red beckon…