We PhD students and postdocs frequently move around the world, often in 2- to 3-year intervals. That is wonderful, people say, and I would not disagree. But we also have to face personal, psychological, administrative, financial, or professional obstacles each time we fly into a new life.
I’ve moved to three new countries so far. And I am currently in the process of moving to the fourth, namely from my first postdoc in Paris to my second in Philadelphia. So I’m taking the opportunity to share my experiences, starting with a story that Kafka would probably be proud of. It’s the story of how the post’s loss of my visa and passport resulted in me still eating baguette instead of burgers (and it’s developing into a personal, psychological, administrative, financial, AND professional obstacle, despite the fact that being forced to continue drinking wine in sunny Paris is not the worst fate in the world).
Due to other delays in the application process, I only had my J-1 visa interview on Friday April 15th, which happened to be my official starting date, thus the date where I should actually already have arrived in the US and started working. After my visa was approved, I was told the documents (J-1 visa and passport) would be sent to me by post during the next week. “Me”, that was in fact my lab address, since I had already moved out of my apartment, optimist me having had assumed that I’d be in the US by the official date.
After my interview, I finally could book a flight and look for a place to stay in Philly, in short, start planning the next two years of my life. Even though the embassy had assured me my documents would arrive by the end of the following week, my previous experiences made me cautious enough to not take any chances and to book my flight for the latest possible date. My US host university told me that the mandatory orientation session on April 29th, thus 14 days after my official arrival date, would be the latest session I’d be allowed to attend. So I decided to fly in on April 28th.
With that I’m safe, I thought, since it gave the documents almost 2 weeks to arrive. On Tuesday April 19th, I already got a tracking number saying that my mail had been dispatched. It had not arrived by Friday, but I did not yet start to worry, on the one hand because I knew that the French post is not famous for being fast, and on the other hand because I was busy finishing things up at the lab before departure. Over the weekend, nothing happened. I did my farewell party. Monday 25th – the post lady arrived, but still had no letter for me. I checked my tracking number. It said that my letter had been delivered on April 20th. That’s strange, I thought. I asked our lab manager and the central post service of our university whether they had received anything, but both assured me they hadn’t.
I called the post. Or rather, I let a colleague that speaks a very good French call the post, since I already sensed this would get complicated. The post said but yes, we have delivered it, to Sho T., 29, Rue Abc, Institute Marie Curie! But no, 29, Rue Abc is the Ecole Normale Superieure, my institute, and Institute Marie Curie is at 25 and 26, Rue Abc. They’d mixed up institutes and house numbers.
The hotline guy suggested to go and pick up my letter at the Institute Marie Curie. I went to both locations (25 and 26), which are actually hospitals, so I had to queue both times behind a long line of patients only to find myself in front of a bored receptionist who didn’t know anything of my letter. After several minutes of begging with the second receptionist, she handed me a number with the central post service of the institute. Upon calling them, they told me that they would always return unknown recipients to the post the next day, so whatever had arrived on April 20th was not with them anymore.
Meanwhile I had met a Parisian colleague on the street with all the institutes and street numbers, who was nice enough to spend the afternoon with me hunting for my precious letter. He called the post again, telling them they’d made an error and I’d need the documents within 3 days to catch my flight. After trying to send us back to Marie Curie once more, they agreed to file a complaint, telling us they would get back with a confirmation of the complaint within two days, and an answer within five. They politely asked us whether we wanted to receive the confirmation and answer by post (!!!) or email.
Although the hotline person had discouraged us from doing so, my colleague suggested visiting the actual post office where the letter had likely been returned to, on the off-chance it was still there. After another long round of discussion with the staff at the post office, my colleague succeeded in having her typing my tracking number into her system and getting a printout documenting the fate of my letter. This printout told us that my envelope had briefly been back at this post office, but was on its way on to a central distribution center far out of Paris. My colleague, insistent as you might need to get if you’re a Parisian, further ventured into the delivery hall, where the employees assured him that (likely) the letter was not with them anymore, but gave us the number of someone in the central distribution center (a number they assured us we would never get through an official channel). The person on the other end of the line told us that he couldn’t say for sure, but if our printout said it was on its way, it would already be in the center or arrive by tomorrow, and in any case the letter would certainly be sent back to the embassy within two or three days.
So I called the embassy. I fought through 10 minutes of automated menu and waiting loops until I reached an actual person. The person listened to me for 30 seconds before telling me: “I cannot help you. I will play you a recording with an email address you can write to”. “But…”-“No.””But…”-“No.””But…”-“No.” And gone she was, and I found myself in the menu again. She didn’t even play me the email address directly, but I had to go through another menu before I could actually listen to the cheerful male voice telling me the email address for “all other requests”. I wrote my email, explaining the situation and adding that it was quite urgent since my plane was leaving in 3 days, and also that that was the latest I was allowed to enter the US. Instead of a reply to this email, the evening brought me a late arrival alert of my university visa office, saying that I was on the late arrival alert list because I hadn’t informed them I was late, which I certainly had, though.
The evening of the next day, a short reply came from the embassy email address (signed Nicolas in Belgium), explaining that they had sent the documents to the address I had provided (which I had never doubted) and that they would get back to me should they be returned. I replied that it was really urgent and should they find the envelope until Wednesday afternoon, could they please call me so I could come pick it up immediately to be on time for my flight Thursday morning. Nicolas in Belgium never replied.
In the afternoon of Wednesday 27th, another French friend called the post and the embassy several times for me, only to file another complaint with the post and to get cut off short by the embassy, respectively. After 6 pm I figured I’d never catch the flight next noon, and tried to reschedule my flight (not possible – several hundred euros lost) and my Air B’n’B (the owner was very nice and allowed me to push back my reservation for a week so I didn’t lose much; however, as I’m writing this story another week has almost passed and I fear I’ll have to cancel my reservation and lose another couple of hundreds of euros). I also wrote to my contacts at my US university department administration (who are, by the way, the only but grand heroines of this story, ever so efficient and helpful) and asked them to issue a late arrival form to avoid losing my visa and to getting actually justified late arrival alerts.
So I did not fly on Thursday 28th. On Friday 29th, I got an email from the post with the conformation of my first reclamation. In this email, they promised me that they were doing everything to find my mail, and specifically that they would send someone to the Institute Marie Curie, where the letter had been falsely delivered to. This was absurd. My perfectly eloquent French colleague had explained to them four days ago that the letter had already left the institute when we made the reclamation. In addition, in the address line of the email attachment they managed to write ‘LSCT’ instead of ‘LSCP’ – which is the abbreviation for my lab. Granted this is a little error, but given the complaint included a reference to my tracking number, which should link to the original letter in which the address was perfectly spelled out, and given this was a response to a complaint about a wrong delivery, I did not find this mistake very funny.
Over the weekend, nothing happened. Paris was sunny. I played boules and drank rose at the canal. Monday May 2nd was greeting me with another reminder of the university visa department, again telling me I was late and hadn’t told them (which again wasn’t true, plus IT’S REALLY NOT MY FAULT!!) I started into the week with another round of calls and emails to post and embassy, to no effect. In the afternoon, my colleague told me that a letter confirming my second reclamation had arrived at the lab (this time by post). In this one, they called me Cho instead of Sho and Monsieur instead of Madame. Again, these are small errors and of a kind I often get. But they also called my workplace Ecole Supaerieur instead of Ecole Normale Superieure – which is really quite sloppy, since even if one wouldn’t know my workplace (which, however, really is a rather known higher education institution in this country), the word Supaerieur does not even exist in French (but to let the post score at least one point – this full-of-error-letter managed to arrive!) The letter was signed by the same person that had previously sent a letter to Madame Sho at the LSCT. The person promises to do everything in his power to find my letter.