Tuesday, 24 January 2012

32 Days

I've never gone away for longer than a couple weeks before. I've also never moved out of my mom's house. I've also never been anywhere where the first language WASN'T English. I've never been to Europe. Or travelled outside North America (save an Australia trip when I was in Preschool). I've never travelled alone. I don't speak french. So what in God's name am I doing!? So I've taken to asking for advice. From anyone and everyone. 
I've been focusing a lot on what to pack for the trip. I read that regardless of whether you're travelling for 3 weeks or 3 months you should pack the same. Which makes sense! For one, why would I bring all sorts of Calgary clothes when I'm going to be living in Paris!? Obviously I am going to go shopping. Two, I don't want to carry a giant suitcase around for six months. So, my plan is to take one bag. I still haven't figured out whether that one bag is going to be a giant backpack or my lulu gym bag (carry-on size). Everything I've decided on bringing fits into half my gym bag, so for the first three months of Paris I'm set. It's just the last three months of backpacking I'm thinking I probably need a backpack for. That part, I've yet to figure out. I really don't want a giant backpack, but I also don't want a backpack that is going to hurt my back. So it needs an internal frame. But I also don't want it to be huge because I don't need that space! 

SO, When I asked my friends what I should bring, this is what they said:

"You're going to Paris. Bring nothing and shop there!"

What to bring:

  • Light Weight Weather-Proof Jacket 
  • Big Scarf/Pashmina
  • Comfy, Versatile Dress
  • Warm Sweater/Hoodie
  • Thin, Layering Long Sleeve Shirt
  • Only one pair of Jeans
  • Leggings/Stretchy Pants
  • Lots of Socks and Underwear
  • Walking Shoes 
  • Flip flops for "Greeby Showers"
  • Ear Plugs
  • Sleep Mask

What to leave:

  • Dressy Clothes
  • Skirts
  • Flat Iron
  • Toiletries
  • Heels

What I Think I'm Probably Bringing:

  • 3 Racerbacks
  • 2 (3?) T-Shirts
  • 2 Long Sleeve Shirts
  • Black Jersey Dress
  • Black Cardigan
  • Huge Circle Scarf
  • Full Length Denim Wunder Unders
  • Black Crop Wunder Unders
  • Skirt
  • Black Opaque Tights
  • Black Cable Knit Thigh High Socks
  • Plaid Blouse
  • 'Cashmere' Crew Neck Pullover
  • Army Jacket

My mom got me this compressor thing for packing clothes so everything I wouldn't be wearing on the plane compresses into a dense little ball roughly the size of a ham. The rest of my stuff -- toiletries, underwear, socks, electronics -- would take up the rest of the space in my bag! 

Except, I still haven't figured out shoes yet. Walking shoes that are Paris-worthy are SO HARD TO FIND! Especially since I have flat feet and need fancy orthotics. So, another thing to figure out before I go. Also, I still haven't figured out what that strange French receipt is. BAH!

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

45 Days

Yesterday something beautiful came in the mail. This 'something beautiful' was my Working Holiday Visa for France. It may have only taken a week to process the application, but that application was in the works for a good six months! So here is an extremely abridged explanation of that process:
First I realized that for any stay over 90 days in any Schengen state, you need something special on your passport. So I got researching. 
We don't have a French Consulate in Calgary, and typically visa applications need to be done in person. I got around handing in the application in person at the Vancouver location because I'm under 28! WIN! The Canada Youth Exchange Agreement allowed me to mail the application in. So, the Agreement has a couple visas; the one I went for is the 2E Working Holiday -- basically I won’t be there for school or work, just to chill. If I wanted to work I could get a couple more documents together while in France.  
OK, application time. So I'm checking out the form and I see it asks what my address will be in France. Immediately I go into apartment hunting mode. For three months I search. I finally find what I think to be a decently priced (in Paris standards) apartment in an OK location and within my budget (when including agency fees, deposits, insurance, etc.), then I email my interest to the agent. They ask for all sorts of info including a copy of my tax return and my passport -- immediately I am terrified this person is trying to steal my identity. I eventually am convinced this is a regular practice and send my documents with my SIN blacked out. I get an email back essentially saying, "Woops! I meant to send that email to someone else. Don't worry, your documents weren't readable anyway!". I still don't know what happened there, hopefully there isn't another Mikaela Cochrane prancing around France now.

Take two! I am in correspondence with this lady (and her colleague) for two months. Why? Because after they confirm my reservation, and before they can take my money, they have to confirm it is available. YES! AFTER! Apparently, they aren't clear whether the current tenant wants to renew. So I'm waiting and waiting, sending, "Have you heard anything, yet?" emails every week. Now I have spent half my time left to prepare my application just looking for potential housing. So I scramble to search out someone in Paris to let me put their address down on the form. Luckily my Dad's girlfriend has a lovely, supportive family willing to help me out. Side note: Last week I email the agent again out of curiosity (she had promised to contact me once she had ANY news), and she tells me that the apartment was never available (even though the website still declared it so) and could she help me find another one? Pah!
When I have an 'address' I'm thinking I just need to fill out the rest of the forms and send them off! ... Right? NO! Before I had gotten obsessed with finding a place I had skimmed the 'Required Documents' page but figured it couldn't be very hard. I finish the written form and go into an absolute panic when I see the checklist form. Insurance, health care, proof of this, proof of that — all these things I've never heard of or had to deal with. My Mom doesn't even know what some of it is. Bad omen!  
I spend a good two days calling around to every healthcare provider, bank, government agency I think might be related to what I’m looking for. I discover that there IS in fact a version of the French Consulate in Calgary, and in my excitement I call them thinking, "Why WOULDN'T someone want to help me?". A very sweet lady with a very clean French accent answers the phone. I start to ask a question and she starts "mmmm"ing in a I-need-to-stop-you-from-talking kind of way. I finish my question and she replies with, "Yes, we do not do the (giggle) administrative work," disdainfully, and HANGS UP ON ME! I am shocked, and immediately compelled to update my Facebook status (hah). Suffice it to say these two days bring me to many automated menus and no answers.
Lucky for me I’m in a dance show at the University of Calgary. One day after practice I’m waiting for my boyfriend to pick me up and wandering the basement of Mac Hall when -- (insert angel chorus here) -- I discover TravelCuts. I chat with a lady for maybe ten minutes about travel insurance and other stressful things and feel a lot more confident. Within the next week I have called and bought the insurance I needed for my paperwork (and my travels) from David-from-TravelCuts, and he has assured me it is exactly what I need for this application because HE'S DONE IT BEFORE! Can't be more confident than that! He sends me an email with all the info I need to copy and send to the visa people (They need a full policy brochure X2; one with highlighted sections to prove I’m covered in all the areas they request and that I can read and operate a marker) plus he gives me his personal line (giggity) for if I have any questions about the visa application. Swoon.
That same day I make one last attempt to navigate the many automated menus of Alberta Health Care. I end up chatting with another lovely gentlemen with personal experience in French visas. I am seriously blessed this day. He tells me I have to get the name on my health card changed to the one on my passport because FOR SOME REASON back when I got that passport I thought it would be more 'official' if all four of my names were on my passport. No matchy, no takey with visa applications. Not a hard process, but annoying. I walk on down to AMA (irony) and stand in line for a good hour so that they can type a couple more letters into the system. They say that in a week my new card will arrive, and then I can call the lovely man again and then he will send me a letter addressed to Mikaela Rae Welsh Cochrane (Not M R Cochrane) saying "Yes! You do live in Alberta and have coverage!". So that is taken care of too!  
So far so good, but it’s three months till Paris time by now, and I have heard you should allow four months for visa processing. However, in another place I read not to send before three months because it annoys them ... hard to know who to trust! I need to provide proof I have money to live there. They want a letter signed and stamped. I go to the bank, sit down and explained the letter I needed for my visa application. She didn't understand why I needed a letter to get a credit card. Not a good start. Half an hour of explaining and finally she says, "Oh, we can't do that." I ask what she could do, and she says she can print off my latest bank statement on official looking paper, stamp it and initial it. So I achieve that my first attempt. My Mom goes another time and gets someone to sign an affidavit saying my Mom has money in case I run out, and the person signs on the date line and stamps over where the signature goes. I call another day and pay a fee for them to send me an official statement in the mail which is neither signed nor stamped, but has my address on it so that is a start.
Last but not least I need a round trip plan ticket. I’m out looking at cameras downtown one day and there’s another TravelCuts smiling at me from around the corner. I walked in, sit down, tell Kayla my life story and she says she'll email me in an hour with some good news. I pick out a camera, go home, wait at my computer constantly refreshing Mail and finally get an email with so much info I just about cry with joy. Good-news-Kayla tells me all about typical prices, good ones, alternative routes, possible alterations I could make to plans, prices for flying through the states, prices for flying to London and taking a train to Paris -- beautiful words. I’m all ready to commit to that last one when I realized -- I do not yet have a travel points credit card, and that is a totally necessary thing! I have this plan that if I put all my expenses on a travel rewards card it'll pay for my domestic flights during my trip. It could work! I talked for a good hour with an RBC person about this! So I let Good-news-Kayla down and tell her I have to wait until my credit card comes in the mail  
Then Christmas Happens.
So I apply for the card, I'm waiting and waiting and I can't get ahold of Good-news-Kayla cause she is on vacation like everyone else who doesn't work in retail. I find a really great price for a round trip ticket, exactly what I need, and I NEED to buy it now! My credit card won’t arrive for a while, so I borrow my Mom's credit card. Very grown up. Very Independent. That night I stay up way too late assembling all my pieces because I am going to send it off the next day because the year is ending soon and MAYBE if it's there before 2012 it won't take as long to process!!! (Good-news-Kayla forgives me btw)
I label everything and its copy. There are a bajillion pieces of paper and a bajillion yellow tabs with "Proof of $" and "COPY" and "Insurance!" written on them sticking everywhere. In certain documents there’s only one important line in it: On the original I tab it with yellow, draw an arrow pointing at the precise words on the tabs and write a description on another tab. In the copy I do the exact same thing but also highlight it in case it isn’t clear enough. Also to show off my very precise highlighting skills. I attach my hideous passport photos (2) which were taken during my AMA trip, check the documents over 20 or 30 times, staple copies and paper-clip originals, made triple copies 'for my own records' and everything is ready to go! 
Here is what’s in the application package:
Application form with photos (one glued, one paper-clipped)
Checklist form 
Cover Letter (Who I am, why they should take me)
Copy of Passport and actual Passport (So they can stick the Visa sticker on it) <-- That made me nervous, mailing that
Round Trip Ticket and Copy
"Proof of Sufficient Financial Means": ALL of the not-quite-documents I had acquired and their copies
Letter from Health Care and Copy
Travel Insurance Proof (receipt, policy brochure X2 with highlights and tabs)
Affidavit saying I'll get 'Personal Liability Insurance' once I'm in Paris, because it doesn't exist here
Next morning I check everything again a thousand times and panic to my Mom about how I'm going to be late for work because life is SO STRESSFUL! She drives me to the post office where I pay every fee for rush shipping, signing upon delivery, prepaid postage and extra packaging because maybe that will make them approve me faster. My Mom and I bicker in front of this post office boy who doesn't even look amused at my frantic nature or our adorable argument: "Yes I'll pay for rush shipping" "But is it really worth it?" "Yes" "Are you sure, I think maybe --" "YES I WILL PAY THE RUSH CHARGE BAAAAAAH!". My Mom can be very patient. 
I go catch a bus and for the 40 minute ride I Google other peoples' accounts of the application process. This person needed electronic fingerprints. This person needed to send credit card info. Oh dear god, THREE passport photos? Anxiety all day, I couldn't even appreciate that I'd sent this behemoth away FINALLY! My Mom calls me to notify me that my credit card has arrived in the mail 2 weeks earlier than the guy at RBC said it would. 
Yesterday it comes in the mail, and a mysterious French receipt is tucked into my Passport (complete with visa + Schengen transport permit) stating something like "Fee: 99 Euro, You owe: 0, You paid: 0" which I have yet to figure out. I tried calling the French Consulate in Vancouver but they don't talk about visa's on the phone so ... another day!