Sunday, January 26, 2014

Random Aspects of France Life - Week 1!

So happy to report that I made it exactly one week without any major mishaps!

I am settling into my life in Besancon. Each day, I try to accomplish one more thing (i.e. acquiring a bus pass, activating a SIM card, buying a plant!).

My new plant! My room is now alive!

This week, I have…
- Navigated a bus system by myself for the first time ever
- Been locked inside of a bathroom (the lock was faulty and would not open!)
- Watched “La Reine des Neiges” (Frozen) in French
- Walked up and down the hills of Besancon for hours
- Learned that I will be eating a lot of cheese and potatoes this spring (this region's specialty!)
- Tried figuring out the confusion of placement tests, orientation, and French health insurance!
- Traversed a slippery train bridge to be fenced in on the other side
- Continued to find no record of my old passport's location
- Eaten so many baguettes - with almost every meal!
- Noted many similarities and differences between French and American cultures
- Started to improve my French skills, I have a long way to go, but each day is better than the day before!
- Discovered the true extent of French wine and cheese choices!

So many options? It would take years to try them all!

Classes start tomorrow! I am ready to see what I have really gotten myself into! Looking forward to making new friends and improving my French!

Then, there is this little girl, Juliette! In less than a day, she has just melted my heart, just like Judy did in Kenya! With her blue eyes, pink pea coat, and gray shoes, she is as cute as a doll! She is a great distraction in church, too! She loves plants, just like me! And she gives the best, cutest little kisses on the cheek! She is one of the Vinsu’s grandchildren, and I cannot wait to watch her grow during the rest of my time here!

Sunday Mass

Girl #1 who melted my heart - Judy (left in blue)

Girl #2 - Juliette! Laughing and eating her lunch!

Juliette adoring those plants! :)

Sunday, January 19, 2014

More bumps in the road...

After the struggles to get to Europe, I chose to take a taxi rather than trying to navigate the public transportation when I landed in Krakow, Poland. Even though it was dark, as I peered out the window, it flashed me back to the taxi rides of Tanzania, Kenya, and Uganda. In the dark, the world looks the same mostly everywhere. It felt like the entire semester at UNI never happened, there I was again in an unknown land filled with possibilities and unknowns. While my brain knows that many events happened between my plane taking off in Uganda in August and my plane landing in Poland in January, it is still confused! 

My time in Poland was very short, but sweet. I visited my Polish friend, Karolina, who studied at UNI my freshman year. She showed me around the Old Town of Krakow and took me to the top of the castle. We also visited Auschwitz, which as anyone can imagine was incredibly eerie and sad. To see and walk on the ground where thousands died, in a place where you have studied many times, was an unreal, shiver-down-your-spine feeling. I applaud the museum's effort to retell the story for without education, history will surely repeat itself. I also enjoyed my time with a new friend, Kamila, who was able to show me many interesting aspects of historic and modern Jewish culture in Krakow. Besides one bus that never came, sadly receiving the news of family deaths (maybe I should stop traveling...), and suffering from jet lag, it was a smooth visit...until I tried to leave, of course!

After all of the stress of my passport and visa, I thought the worst was over, but Saturday brought more bumps in the road! Once again, I paid the expensive rate for the return taxi to the airport. Upon arriving, I had to rearrange my bags, because it was a full flight, and they were unable to safely allow the normal carry-on bag size for everyone. I have been through security many, many times, but this time was definitely the worst. Long line, pushing and shoving, rescanning, etc. I am sure you can imagine! Everything was flying out on time, and then I started hearing the dreaded flight delay and cancellations (in 3 languages!) over the intercom! There was dense fog in Krakow, and the planes that were already there from the night before were able to take off, but none of the incoming planes could land. An airport packed to the brim with unhappy people (who did not speak English, of course!) and screaming babies was not exactly how I planned to spend my day! Five hours later, the plane from Paris-Krakow was able to land, and an hour later, we were on our way to Charles de Gaulle! I was in the middle seat, in the last row, next to the bathroom with turbulence and the other passengers screaming at the flight attendants about their bags not being able to fit...probably my worst flight ever! With this delay, I missed my train to Besançon (which was to leave four hours after my flight was supposed to land) and I was unable to exchange it for a different one (even with insurance!), because more than an hour had passed since my train had departed. So after all if the Krakow airport drama, I had to forfeit my old ticket, and pay for a new one that of course costed twice as much as the first one! I am hoping my overall travel insurance will kick in to cover it, but only time will tell. Relieved to finally be on the train and happy to not be spending a night in Paris, but I could not sleep after the super exhausting day in fear that I would miss my stop! Finally in Besançon, I was so relieved that my host parents were still able to pick me up that late at night! They were right there with hugs and kisses to take me on my way, and everything was better then! :) 

My quote of the day yesterday was, "Sometimes getting the wind knocked out of you is the only way to remind your lungs how much they like the taste of air" - Sarah Kay. It could not have been more fitting, so cheers to being able to taste air again! :)

In the last 24 hours, I have been figuring out how the Vinsu family operates - a good challenge! I am unpacked and starting to practice my French! The Vinsu family is very big - 8 children! I am learning the family tree and each of their professions! Their home is similar to many that you would see in the United States, so I am grateful for some continuity! I also attended mass with them tonight. Each country's religious ceremonies amaze me as to how people all over do the same traditions - it's beautiful! I am looking forward to more discoveries in France throughout the next four months! 

The Vinsu family tree!

A UNI mug in their kitchen! We do not know where it came from, but it is a little piece of Cedar Falls all the way in Besançon! :)

Even though the events of the last two weeks have not been fun, I am grateful for the many newly strengthened relationships that it has given me. It means the world to me to have my extended support network there throughout all of these challenges! I hope that I can be there in the same way for each of you, in life's greatest triumphs and trials, as you have for me! 

My placement tests are in the morning, so that is all for now!

Bonne nuit!


Wednesday, January 15, 2014

"It always seems impossible until it's done."

"It always seems impossible until it's done." That is the quote on the bedroom wall of the girl who I am staying with, and I do not know any words to describe the last 10 days any better.

To be honest, during this time, I traveled to hell and back, in the most challenging situation I have ever been presented with. This is a documentation for myself and anyone interested to remember the emotions and events of the last week. 

Reflecting on it, each international trip has started out rough -
#1 - all financial cards wouldn't work for first 48 hours
#2 - bag lost or stolen on flight 1 of 11 going to East Africa, never been found to this day
#3 - passport and visa lost or stolen between the French Consulate and USPS

Let's back up a bit, so that everyone can be caught up on the same page on the story behind #3.

I decided a long time ago (freshman year of college) that I would study abroad at the CLA in Besancon, France, in my junior year. I made many course and leadership adjustments a year in advance to make this possible. My dreams of studying in France began much earlier - middle school, maybe even before. After spending the last two summers abroad, I was not sure if I would still go to France or not. It was going to be expensive, I would be away from everyone, my list of excuses could go on. However, my mother strongly encouraged me to still go, because she did not want me to regret it later. Following wise mother's advice and reevaluating my situation, I knew she was right; I had to go.

Now the events that followed certainly had me questioning my decision.

I had heard from previous students that obtaining a French visa is a nightmare. I took their advice and expected the worst, but I did not know that the situation I was placed in was even a possible outcome - neither did anybody else.

Without giving every minute details (hard to believe, but there was more than what is written below), here is what happened. My CampusFrance file in Washington, D.C. ended up being delayed by several weeks. By the time this was resolved, the required in-person appointments at the French Consulate in Chicago were filled until December 26. This was really nerve-racking because I was to fly out on January 14, and the long-stay French visas can take up to two-three weeks to process. Knowing that I may have to wait to receive my passport and visa in the mail on the 14th, I booked the last possible flight on the 14th. Luckily, a spot opened up on December 20, which would buy me a couple more days. I knew this trip to Chicago would likely not be an enjoyable one, because it was the Friday after finals, and I knew that I would be exhausted by that point. Being just a few days short of 21 also meant that I had to pay double for a hotel room in downtown Chicago. Then, I got the flu mid-finals week, and I had to postpone some of my finals. Throw in having to beat the winter weather for a wedding in the QC that night, not sleeping or eating well because of finals, paying for expensive Chicago everything, still worrying about post-visa appointment finals, and recovering from the flu, all in all, Chicago trip number one did not go that well! Luckily, my best friend, Britney, toughed through all of it with me (I convinced her to come along by promising we could go ice skating outside in Millennium Park...well, it was raining, so that did not even happen)! She was a good sport, and I was glad to spend some time with her, since she was going to be gone for most of break.

I was relieved to have the visa process over. Now, all I had to do was wait for my passport with my French visa inside to come in that precious Priority Mail Express envelope. The holidays passed, and I spent my time preparing for the trip ahead. I called the French Consulate on the afternoon of Monday, January 6. I was relieved to have the lady tell me that everything had been processed at the end of last week, and that it should be to me very shortly. I would not have to wait until the 14th for my passport! However, I had been checking online, and there was no tracking information on my package. Priority Express mail is the fastest, most tracked, and insured service that USPS offers, and it is the only mail service that the French Consulate allows. I figured that maybe with the extreme cold, it was delayed somewhere, but even so, it should have been scanned and tracked at its pick-up point. Semi-worried, I asked my mom, "What if it is lost out there?" She thought I was being ridiculous, but that gut feeling stayed with me. Wednesday came, and I drove back to Cedar Falls, where I was to spend the rest of the time before my departure. Anxiously opening the mailbox, my heart stopped when nothing was there. Even without Priority Express, a letter from Chicago should have made it in four mail days. I started making phone calls to the French Consulate, USPS, Cedar Falls Post Office, etc. Everyone I talked to thought that this was very strange. The French Consulate triple-checked, and they no longer had it in their office. USPS never had any record of that tracking number as being mailed in their system, and I called everyone who handles their mail (Chicago branch, airports, Cedar Falls). Don't forget to mention worrying about identity theft with my passport floating out there!

After these phone calls Wednesday and even more on Thursday (adding in the Study Abroad Center, State Department, Senator Harkin and Senator Grassley's offices, three insurance companies, and many more), I did not know what to do anymore. I knew I could not get on a plane without a passport, and I could not stay for more than 90 days in Europe without a visa, which I could not have it issued there. I had called everyone I could think of, and these are what I was most commonly told: "I don't know what to say," "I am so sorry that this is happening to you," and "I have never heard of this before/this doesn't happen!" With still no tracking record, I knew If I was going to board that plane, I had to do something else. How in the heck was I supposed to get a new passport and a new visa in THREE business days?! At that time, I was told that the fastest I could get a new passport was five business days and up to an additional ten days after that for my new visa, both requiring in person appointments in Chicago. To change my flight was going to cost a minimum of $300, likely much more. These costs were adding up so fast, and no insurance agency would cover them, because "this kind of thing doesn't happen" and "it occurred domestically before my departure date." So I was looking at missing my placement tests, orientation, and likely the first week of classes in France, and having to pay $2000+ for this "one-in-a-million+" situation. If the new passport/visa did not work out, I would be two to three weeks behind in classes at UNI. As anyone, college student or not, this is not cool to hear!

Everyone had done everything that they could, and the same answers kept turning up. The French Consulate did not have it, USPS did not have it. Both parties were tired of getting calls from Party A, Party B, etc. The US Government cannot do anything to persuade foreign governments' decisions. Some curse words, talks with Jessica Moon, and a major meltdown later, all I could do was trust everyone's words that it was going to be okay, and it would work out how it was meant to. But what was God's plan, was I going to France on time, late, never? Only time would tell, but the clock was ticking very, very quickly, especially with two of my four and a half days as non-business days.

I made appointments in Chicago with the State Department's Passport Agency on Monday afternoon and the French Consulate on Tuesday morning. All I could do was hope and pray that these would work, and in time! I did not know what the officials would say when I said, "I need a new passport today" and "I would like my student visa reissued this morning."
In this world, everything is about who you know, so I decided to turn on connections any place I could - Facebook, church, neighbors, etc. to see if together, we could pull this miracle off!

Thanks to Eric O'Brien, I talked to Senator Grassley in person at UNI's women's basketball game on Friday night. While all he was able to say was that he could not do anything with foreign governments and that his people were doing all they could, I heard later that he had been calling his people on Monday and Tuesday asking on updates from me. Talking to him in person likely helped make the situation real and not just something written on paper.

My parents and others thankfully also called upon everyone they knew with any sort of possible connection.

After running last-minute errands on Saturday in hopes that I was still leaving on Tuesday, I decided to email many former professors and UNI administrators. Where this idea came from, I do not know, but it worked. Luckily, this email brought some inside connections and many kind thoughts. With a special kudos to Craig Klafter, who was able to contact the French Consul himself, there was more certainty that I would be able to go to France. However, there was still the question if I would be able to go in time.

After a stressed Sunday of re-filling out my passport and visa paperwork, attempting to see some of my friends, and finalizing packing (and filling out the baggage claim form in advance!), I was more than ready to be able to sleep and eat again, but that was not yet the case. Too exhausted to make it all the way home Sunday night, special thanks to Renee Bockstahler for letting me stay at their place. 

Monday morning came, and I made it the rest of the way home. After dressing as business professional, my dad and I were ready to head to Chicago for hopeful good news from the US and French governments. January 13 is a traditionally unlucky day for the Poppe clan, so I was especially nervous! Luckily, the Passport Agency allowed me in early, and I had a new passport in three hours! Elated with some good news, my dad and I did our best to enjoy the rest of the day. But the next day was the real test...

Tuesday morning - I had no appetite, I did not feel well, I was shaking. It was indescribable, unlike any stress ever encountered from competitions or papers or final exams. I knew that whatever the French visa officer decided that morning would determine if I could not only leave for study abroad in France today, but ever. It was downright terrifying. It did not start well either when the security guard did not have us in the books for being in the building that day. Once actually let up, I was relieved to not have an overflowing waiting room like there was in December. I did not want more people who had to hand their passports over freaked out! The officer asked my name, then said, "Oh... my co-worker informed me on this." He asked a few simple questions, and I re-submitted my paperwork. All he said was, "I will take care of this right away," and he left. Within 10-15 minutes, I had my new passport with my new visa inside. All by 9:45, and my appointment was to be at 9:50! He did not even ask me to pay for it to be re-issued! Seriously, a complete miracle. Able to breathe and feel alive for the first time in over a week, my dad and I elatedly rode the elevator 37 floors down. 

On the road back to Cedar Rapids to catch my flight, I received a phone call from Senator Grassley himself in Washington, D.C., asking if I had any updates yet, and I was glad to report the good news! At this point, I did not care if my flight was delayed or canceled or my bag did not make it, because at 9 AM, I could not have been able to go at all! I made it safely back to Cedar Rapids with FOUR hours to spare. My mom, brother, and roommates, Britney, Sarah, and Sarah, were able to join my dad and I, so that I could have a much more enjoyable last hour in the United States than what the horrors of the last week had been. 

I barely made my connecting flight, so I guessed my bag would not either! But stuff and all, I am now safely in Krakow on my original schedule staring at the quote on the wall still smiling. Tomorrow and Friday, I am visiting a friend who studied abroad at UNI, and then on Saturday, I will be off to my homestay family in France! :)

While I do not know why I was placed in this "one-in-a-million+" situation, I know there is a reason out there somewhere why it was me. If anything, it tested my will power, reconnected me to others, and strengthened my relationship with God. I will likely never know where my old passport, with all of my visas and stamps! :(, ended up and the story of what happened to it. However, if I can survive through all of that, I can make it through the semester and just about any life challenge thrown my way.

I asked for a miracle, and to do the said to be impossible. With a lot of help from God and hundreds of people, two of the most strict governments in the world issued me my new travel documents in less than 24 hours. I do not know who to give the credit to except everyone, both to those who I do and do not know, because without everyone who was there to make phone calls, double check systems, make exceptions, provide encouragement, lift me up in prayer, etc., I would still be in the States and not be making this almost decade-long dream a reality.

With gratitude from the bottom of my heart,


P.S. - For all of the plans and arrangements that I had to cancel this last week, I deeply apologize, and I would love to reschedule once I am on the other side of the pond again! Thanks for your understanding and encouragement!