Sunday, August 24, 2008

The clouds are breaking, and it's a rainbow sky!

As always, the sky is always darkest right before the dawn. While we haven't made much progress on our visa situation (yet), something even more significant and wonderful has happened--we've secured an apartment in Lyon!

The entire situation behind this housing is truly an amazing answer to prayers. Our realtor (a distant contact made through the LDS church in Lyon), had been keeping an eye out for us for several months. Unfortunately, every promising place that he'd found was already taken by the time he was able to look at it. A couple days ago, he called us in the United States to explain that he thought it would be best to simply wait and look for something after we arrived. Amazingly, he invited us to live at his home for a short time while we searched. I am amazed, humbled, and inspired by his trusting generosity, opening his home to a family that he's never even met. We awkwardly explained that we're quite a handful with two noisy and rambunctious children, yet he politely insisted, explaining that he'd already gotten his wife's permission.

Wow. I don't think it's possible to ever repay such kindness. One can only hope to some day pay it forward.

Before hanging up, this kind man agreed to look at one more place that Jason had found on a website. Even though he didn't expect it to be a particularly good match for our family, he scheduled an appointment for the next morning.

That evening we received another phone call. He'd visited the place, and it was perfect for us. While the apartment is not large, it's light, spacious enough, and recently remodeled. It's in a great part of town, close to a park, and close to the metro. Perhaps best of all, it comes equipped with an "American" kitchen, meaning that there's a fridge, oven, and cabinets! (Many times you have to move in your own kitchen appliances in France.)

Our realtor/friend explained that he considered it a miracle that the apartment was still on the market. It becomes available the day before we are supposed to arrive. He was so impressed by the place that he wrote out a check immediately to secure it for us, trusting that we would pay him back when we arrived.

You know, someday when we actually get to France, we will smile and laugh about the hurdle of our visas. While we may rip out our fingernails trying to claw our way through the bureaucracy, some day we will pass through. And when we do, we will be oh, so very grateful to have a home to come home too. In the big scheme of things, finding a safe, happy place to live will have the greatest effect on our French experience. Even more, we are already developing deep friendships based on generosity and trust as our gospel "family" in France reaches out to embrace us, even before we arrive.

I'm learning that while Heavenly Father may not answer prayers in the moment we want, he nevertheless answers our prayers--always. In this case, our family had to sink uncomfortably deep into the dark unknown before God yanked us out at the last minute, showing once again that He is truly at the helm. Thanks be to heaven for rainbow skies.

Monday, August 18, 2008

I'd be jealous if it weren't me...

Yesterday I had a realization. If one of my close friends or family members were taking off to France for the next ten months, I'd feel insanely jealous. The journey sounds so carefree and romantic, adventuresome yet somehow serene. Sidewalk cafes, twisting streets, crepes, and confiture--what isn't to love?

At the moment, however, I feel completely the opposite. I confess that there are often moments when I wish that it were anyone but me. I've been pretty silent in the blogosphere over the past couple of weeks, waiting, hoping, and praying for a ray of sunshine to break through the gloomy, overcast tidings so that I would have something positive to write about.

Well, unfortunately, the clouds keep building, and I've decided that I finally have to get everything off my chest. I suppose that will make the drama much more exciting when the situation finally does resolve itself--let's just pray that it's a happy ending...

So, as you may have guessed, preparations are not going well for France. We have slammed up against an immovable bureaucratic wall when it comes to securing visas. My university in Lyon was supposed to send paperwork to this other French agency, ANAEM, who in turn sends a file all the way back to the French consulate in the United States. The paperwork was extensive (and expensive by the time I paid for certified translations), yet I got it all together in a timely manner and sent everything imaginable to France months ago, not only for myself, but also for my family.

Well, the HR contact at the university in Lyon was confused when it came to the procedure for securing visas for my family members. So, she asked me to contact the French consulate in Chicago for clarification. Seems simple enough, right?

Wrong. I sent an e-mail. No answer. I sent another e-mail. No answer. I politely waited and sent more e-mails. No answer. Why, you are probably asking, did I not simply pick up the darn phone and call? Because, according to the consulate website, they are very busy and cannot answer phone calls. The best way to get a hold of them is via e-mail (NOT!).

In utter desperation, we finally schedule visa appointments for the entire family. (By the way, these appointments must be scheduled three weeks in advance via the internet.) At last the day arrives. I am sick, but I still manage to teach my English class for an hour, find a substitute for the second hour, jump into a car with Jason and the girls, fight downtown traffic, and sprint to their office on the 37th floor of a Michigan avenue skyscraper, arriving on time, albeit slightly out of breath and limping, thanks to a broken shoe.

What, you may ask, was the outcome of all this effort? Well, after three hours of driving and weeks of waiting, we got to to stand at a counter for five minutes and shout to a woman with a thick French accent through a thick pane of glass. It was quite a sight--Jason and I straining for answers, absent-mindedly hushing our cranky children who were doing their best to wreak havoc in the hot, crowded waiting room.

As we walked out, Jason and I paused for a moment and said, "Well, I don't think that could have gone any worse." Since they had not received my paperwork, the consulate was unable to do anything. They gave no helpful advice whatsoever to pass on to the contact in France, except to say that the people overseas should already know what they need to do. Oh, they also said that despite our family relationships, Jason and the girls would not be granted visas in connection with me (even though the consulate had originally said they would.) Rather, they must apply for the extensive (and expensive) visitor visas, which, by the way, can take an entire month to process.

Back to the drawing board, we frantically send a slew of e-mails to everyone we know in France, begging to find out the whereabouts of my paperwork and have it sent on. Unfortunately, by this time it's already the beginning of August. I've been doing a bit of reading about France lately in a book called Paris to the Moon. I've learned that in France, nearly everything closes down in the month of August. The entire country takes four or five weeks of vacation. Well, I think the book is right. It's been weeks now, and we haven't had even a single response. We call regularly--no answer. The silence is deafening, and my anxiety is rising.

In the meantime, we've been struggling to assemble all of the paperwork for the most extensive category of visitor visas. This requires proof of financial support for an entire year, which is kind of a stretch when you consider the dollar to euro exchange rate, but we're working on it. Jason and I have both picked up a couple of odd jobs recently to add a little extra padding to our bank accounts.

And then there's the criminal background check. Honestly, I think they'd be better off just looking Jason in the eye--he's obviously not a hardened criminal--and yet the paperwork must be official. We barked up the wrong tree at the county courthouse for a while before figuring out that it needed to be an FBI background check. Well, when we finally got on the FBI's site, lo and behold, they also require three to four weeks processing time. But wait, you have to get fingerprints first!

Of course, we learn this Friday evening and call the police office Saturday morning about fingerprinting. They tell us to call back on Monday so we can schedule an appointment. Jason calls back first thing on Monday and is told that they can't get him in until Tuesday. However, they also let him know that he could have called the university police who do the fingerprints for free, but they only schedule appointments on Sunday....

I feel my grip on sanity growing warily thin. As an outsider, I'd be jealous, but as an insider, I want out. It feels like we've passed that point of no return. We've acted in faith that this was the right decision and have closed a lot of doors behind us. Jason's turned down his assistantship, we've handed in our 60 day-notice for our townhome, we've even starting packing the house in boxes. Our plane tickets are purchased for September 8th, yet it will take an absolute miracle to get us on those flights. (Not that I'm all that eager to get there, seeing as to how we don't even have a place to live yet...)

I know that in two months I will look back and smile about how everything all worked out for the best, but at the moment the path is awfully dim. So let's pray for clouds with silver linings.