When I submitted my application to teach English in France for a year, Covid wasn’t even a headline. In January 2020, I turned in the last recommendations, documents and transcripts. And I waited until what was supposed to be “early April.” Alas, February brought headlines of this mysterious virus, March ushered in global panic, and April introduced a new way of living. I became anxious that this pest of a virus would interfere my post-graduation plans.
And I worried a lot about it. And the toughest part? There was nothing anyone could say, recommend or even predict. Should I apply for another job? Should I wait it out? Alas, I decided to wait for the green light on moving to France, and it has paid off.
In September 2020, I flew from Missouri to France to start my teaching job in Marseille. And understandably, many people have been asking me: Kristin, how did you get into France? You’re American, and I didn’t think Americans were allowed into France.
So, here’s my humble attempt at explaining how I, as an American, got into France — legally, of course.
There’s an exception to every rule
When I was accepted into the Teaching Assistant Program in France (TAPIF) in June (finally!), the email came with a caveat. And it was this: you’ve been accepted, but Americans still aren’t allowed into the E.U. That meant we had to wait for borders to open or for an exception.
As y’all know, Americans still aren’t allowed into the European Union, except under special conditions. And after a long two months, American language assistants for TAPIF received an exception to then apply for a visa. Some other exceptions on the list: diplomats, healthcare workers fighting Covid-19, flight personnel, students and people seeking medical care.
The visa process
Oh là là … The visa process is already stressful enough, but a pandemic only makes it more interesting. I already wrote a full post detailing exactly how I applied for my visa, but in short, it was crazy. Long story short: there’s only so many visa offices we can visit to apply for our assistant visa. We fill out an online application but must go to a center in person to hand in our passport and documents. At the visa center, they also take finger prints and head shots.
But because I’m from what some consider a “high-risk state,” I couldn’t go to the centers in Boston, New York, Chicago or D.C. So that meant I had to travel all the way to Los Angeles for a 20-minute appointment. My mom and I made the most of it, and I’m grateful for parents who are generous with their airline and hotel points. (Love you, Mom and Dad!)
My visa was shipped overnight about two weeks later. Once I received the visa, I had the right to enter France, even as an American. However, due to La Covid, France has several other restrictions in place for Americans (and other nationals) entering France.
More paperwork and a Covid test
Along with a valid visa, France currently requires two completed forms: Attestation de déplacement dérogatoire vers la France métropolitaine depuis les pays tiers et déclaration sur l’honneur. What a mouthful! In essence, these two forms verify that you don’t have Covid symptoms and specify which visa you have to enter France. It sounds a lot more complicated than it is! I printed several copies of these forms both in English and French and showed them to the airline when I boarded in New Jersey.
France also requires a negative Covid test from Americans entering France. And it must be swabbed and returned within 72 hours before international departure. This doesn’t sound too complicated, but depending on where you’re from, this can prove to be quite the challenge. France requires an RT-PCR test, meaning it’s sent a lab. From my understanding, they don’t accept Rapid tests, but honestly, this whole process has been extremely murky.
The week before departure, I asked my doctor for a script to get a Covid test and asked her where to get my test done. My flight was on a Tuesday, and I told her my 72-hour dilemma, as that’s a short window of time. She said it would be virtually impossible because labs aren’t open on the weekend.
But my flight had already been rescheduled twice. The first time, the airline canceled one of my connecting flights. The second time, the embassy recommended to me that I fly directly to France from the U.S., not through any other country. Although many countries are part of the E.U., they all have different Covid restrictions for travelers. It would minimize stress to fly directly to France.
I didn’t want to reschedule my flight a third time. So I took it upon myself to call multiple urgent care and testing centers to see what their turnaround times and lab hours were. Finally, I found out that Total Access Urgent Care’s lab is open 7 days per week, and I gambled. On Saturday evening, I pulled into the parking lot around 5:25 p.m. — just 72 hours and 20 minutes before my international flight.
I had them wait to swab me until exactly 5:45 p.m. (And yes, they are that particular at the airport.) I didn’t need an appointment; I simply walked in and had zero wait. My Covid test was free through insurance, but I know of other Americans who paid a hefty price for the guarantee of results delivered in less than 72 hours.
About 52 hours later, on Monday evening, I received an email with my results. NOT DETECTED. Hallelujah! I didn’t sleep much the night before my flight, but at least it wasn’t from waiting on my test results. I am beyond blessed that my Covid test results came back in time, but other assistants also struggled to find places that could promise good turnaround times.
The big day
I thought that the least of my worries were over with. The valid visa? Check. The paperwork? Check. Negative Covid test? Check. Oh, how wrong was I! I showed up to the airport several hours before my flight, and when I told the man at the airline desk my final destination, his attitude soured. “Well you know that Americans aren’t allowed in France.”
Not true, Brian.
My mom and I showed him all my documents including my valid visa. He made a call and asked his coworkers, and the airline operating system said I wasn’t approved to fly. We argued — ahem, spoke sternly for about 30 minutes before he finally handed me off to another woman, who wasn’t kind about the process either.
He told me that I shouldn’t be surprised if the Newark airport makes me fly home that very afternoon, as in “I told you so.” After I paid an outrageous amount for my overweight luggage, they told me good luck, and I know they didn’t mean it one ounce. Sure, I understand they were just doing their job, but they needn’t be snarky about it.
I like to think I’m pretty good under pressure. I mean, my dad is a lawyer, I survived a rigorous journalism school. But the moment I left that desk to head to security, I started bawling. (Don’t worry; they didn’t see me.) The whole process to move to France had already been chaotic, and I’d been unnaturally calm leading up to departure, at least for me. But after that heated conversation, I completely unraveled. I gave my mom a hug and cried the whole way through security. I had no idea if he was right. Would I be back in Missouri that same day?
Like everyone and everything these days, I didn’t know.
The flight to New Jersey was fairly full, and once I landed, I immediately went to my gate to ask about the necessary documents to board the flight. Jennifer was an absolute angel and told me I had everything I needed. I found my gate and ate a big dinner before my international flight to Paris.
When it was time to board, I approached the gate to show them my documents. The lady stared at them for a long time and eventually made a mark on my boarding pass, indicating I’m good to go. However, as I left the desk, I overheard her fussing about the fact that my Covid test was almost exactly 72 hours prior. Another flight attendant basically told her to quit her whining because it’s nearly impossible to get tested and receive results in less time than that.
The flight was eerily empty. I had rows and rows and rows to myself. I had one seat to sit in, another for my backpack, a tray for my snacks, a tray for my trash. I’m not going to lie, it was really nice. There were maybe 30 passengers on the flight, and it was still a massive jet, three sets of three seats wide with two aisles in between. As for the people on the flight, one was a French national returning home. I also chatted with a handful of American men who had gotten visas to go work at the French Open for about two weeks.
After our 6-hour flight, we landed and immediately were met by people checking our Covid test results. The woman didn’t look too closely and was very kind. Then we headed to border control where I handed them my visa and held my breath. The man looked at it, asked me to remove my mask and stamped it. I even made a joke about how terrible I looked. Getting through border control was actually so easy compared to all the other junk I went through in the previous hours.
All across the board, the French were much kinder and chiller than all the Americans I encountered along the way.
We done made it
Waves of relief. I was so jet-lagged and dirty, but I hadn’t fully allowed myself to get excited about moving to France until I saw it with my own two eyes. And even those first few moments in the airport reminded me why I went through all this chaos. I love France, and it’s been my dream to live here. And that’s why I held out as long as I did.
I had no idea how long it would take to get through border control, so I scheduled my train for that afternoon. After a 6-hour layover, I finally boarded my 4-hour train to Marseille. And about 20 hours after my first flight took off, I made it. I had really done it.
French life in Covid
I’m so grateful I got to my city with a week to spare before my contract officially started. That meant I had time to settle in and get adjusted. People have been asking me about what life is like in terms of Covid. Keep in mind, I’m in Marseille, and my experience doesn’t represent all of France. But my schools are meeting in person, and only the teachers wear masks.
I find it interesting that many Americans are quick to point to Europeans and say how obedient and good they’ve been with the virus. And I’m here to tell you it’s just not true. It is not a utopia. Honestly, I see more people here not wearing a mask than back in St. Louis. Most do wear a mask, but everyone is so much calmer and kinder about it here.
Even before Covid, I’ve noticed how much Americans live in fear. And it’s just not like that here. Most everyone wears the mask, but they don’t seem as paranoid about it. Life is very much still happening here. Currently, restaurants are supposed to be take-out only, but the Marseille mayor is extremely against shutting down. So, some restaurants are still open even though they’re not supposed to be. And from speaking with the locals, many have told me how hard it is to get a Covid test here.
All that to say, it’s already been a wild ride, but I’m so excited for this year. Even with Covid, I am still ecstatic to be here. There is still so much to see, do, eat and drink. I have trouble falling asleep every night because I am so excited to be here.
I am grateful that my program wasn’t canceled and that God has opened so many doors for me to be here. Here’s to many more adventures this year.
Curious about what my life in France looks like? I hang out a bunch on the ‘gram: