July 20, 2004
What A Difference A Day Makes
DAY 269: July 14th may just be a random summer day to others in the northern hemisphere, but in France it is Bastille Day, the independence day of the French republic, a day of national celebration and, as Let's Go so eloquently puts it, "a time of glorious firework displays and equally glorious alcohol consumption." Paris, the governmental center of France had no inhibitions of celebrating the national holiday in a big, big way -- so big that the huge Bastille parade on the Avenue des Champs-Elysées altered the normal morning rush hour Metro service.
My big Bastille Day plan had nothing to do with France, but with Russia and China, as I woke up early to get my passport with new Russian visa at the Russian embassy in one part of town in time to rush over to the Chinese consulate in another part. A straightforward plan, but with one possible glitch: I had applied to be in Russia exactly July 30th to August 13th, forgetting that my travel agent reserving train tickets for me couldn't get me out of Russian and into Mongolia without a night stay over in a town on the way -- the direct train must have been full -- meaning I'd technically be in Russian until August 14th. Whether or not that one day of being in transit made a difference or not I wasn't sure. I crossed my fingers and hoped they'd just give me a standard 30-day tourist visa like my Lonely Planet Trans-Siberian Railway guidebook said.
"We're full tonight," she said, explaining that a big school group was arriving later on. "But wait until later to see if someone checks out." I put my name on the waiting list and prayed I wouldn't have to sleep out on the street that night (or worse, pay 50 euros for a place to stay). I moved my packed my bags as everyone else was still sleeping, and put my valuables in a locker in case my stay there was over.
Bastille Day festivities closed some roads down, even for pedestrians, and I had to walk around the block just to get to my closest Metro stop. Some Metro stops were closed en route to my transfer point, but it didn't really affect my commute to the Russian embassy. I transferred at Etoile Charles de Gaulle and got off at the Porte Dauphine stop, at the end of the No. 2 line, the closest stop to the embassy, still about a quarter of a kilometer away on foot. The one advantage to it being Bastille Day was the visa line wasn't nearly as long as the day before; I simply went to the passport pick-up counter with my receipt and got it in fifteen seconds. Inside my passport, on a visa sticker taking up a full page, the ink from a dot-matrix printer spelled out: "30.07.04/13.08.04." I went back to the tourist visa line to investigate -- this time around I was only fourth in line with no travel agents cutting head with groups of passports.
"Hi, remember me?" I said to the same Russian immigration officer as the day before.
"Yes," he said in his Russian accent.
"My visa is only until the thirteenth, but my agent couldn't get a train out of Russian until the fourteenth. Does it matter?"
"Yes, you must have the exact dates, but you can extend your visa in Russia," he said. "But if you do you will be at the hands of local police and it will be at their discretion. It's probably better to get it before you enter Russia."
"What can I do? Can I get a transit visa for that one day?"
"You can't have two visas at the same time. You will either extend your visa in Russia with local police or apply for a new visa."
I opted for the safer option. "Um, can I have an application?"
"Just get a photo at a machine at the RER station," he said. "All the RER stations have photo booths."
With two hours before closing, I ran off.
Tapped out of RER stations within walking distance of the embassy, I hopped on a commuter train outbound towards the suburbs with less than two hours to spare. I ran upstairs of the next stop to found a photo booth -- but with a taped note on it. "Ne functione pas." I was really starting to hate Paris.
Fuck! What should I do, what should I do... Go one more stop into the suburbs or back the other way beyond the first RER station I checked? Not much time to think, so I decided to go back towards the city, three stops away in a neighborhood across the Seine. The frequency of RER trains was half of the Metro (if not less) and I paced back and forth like a guy with diarrhea waiting for a public toilet to open up.
On the north side of the Seine I finally lucked out and got my picture taken by a machine. I dashed back off to the embassy with less than an hour before closing time. Lucky for me, there was a pair of scissors and some glue in the security office and in no time I was back in front of the young Russian immigration officer.
"You got the photo?"
"Yeah," I replied, still catching my breath. "All the photo booths around here were broken."
The Russian took my documents like he did the day before when it was a lot more crowded -- I was just one of five civilians this time -- and he went through the mental process over again, flipping through my documents. "It says here the fourteenth," he pointed out as if we never had a conversation before about my dilemma of extending my visa a day. "You need to have a detailed itinerary for more than two weeks." He also pointed out the other discrepancy -- my host invitation only had me in Russia for three days -- which he let slide the day before.
"But I just need the extra day because of the train," I begged, pointing out that I already had a visa up until the thirteenth. I showed him a printout of an e-mail from my Siberian travel agent in Boston with the confirmed date of the departure on the fourteenth.
"Sorry, anything beyond fifteen days requires a detailed itinerary."
I caught him on his slip of English (or inability to do math); he said fifteen, not fourteen.
"But it is fifteen days! The thirtieth to the fourteenth is exactly fifteen days."
The Russian counted out the days on a calendar. "Okay, I'll give it to you," he said with his stern Russian accent, "but next time, you should know to have all the documents and details."
"I know, I know," I said with relief. "It's just because of the train situation." He handwrote "14/8/04" on my host invitation form, initialed it, and told me to go to the other window. That window took my passport and my documents and directed me to another window where I shelled out a whopping 122 euro for one-hour service -- sixteen more than what I paid the day before for 24-hour service. The Russians let me wait in the waiting room beyond the 12 o'clock visa office hours to wait for it, and in 60 minutes I had an annulled old visa and a new one on the next page.
As I left the waiting room, I saw on the television that the parade was over. I had missed all the big Bastille Day festivities. It was passed noon so my plan to rush off to the Chinese consulate went bust. Half an hour later, I went back to the hostel to check on the room situation -- nothing opened up and I was evicted. I really hated Paris.
"Hey!" called a familiar face from the other hostel in the Latin Quarter. It was Evan, my Mexican dorm mate from the dorm I just got kicked out from -- he had been evicted too and was forced to find another place in town. Luckily for us we had managed to snag the last two male dorm beds in the place. For Evan, moving around would only be temporary; he was waiting for an apartment because he was to live in Paris for a couple of months to study at the legendary Cordon Bleu culinary arts school. We chat for a bit and made tentative plans to meet later that night.
I went for a sightseeing stroll that afternoon, seeing some of the standard sights in the city on the Seine: the outside of the Sorbonne, one of Europe's oldest universities; the solar-responsive metal iris windows of the Institut de Monde Arabe; Notre Dame and the bateaux mouches cruising up and down the Seine nearby; the crowds lining up for the other big event of the day, France's opening day for Spiderman 2; and the Quartier Mouffetard, Hemingway's old neighborhood and home of arguably the city's best ice cream at the Octave parlor. A scoop of chocolate and sesame made me happy, and Paris started to grow on me again after a crazy morning.
There were a couple of small Bastille Day-related celebrations around town as I wandered. An army band played amidst tanks parked in front of the Pantheon (other picture above), which houses the tombs of some of France's great heroes, including Victor Hugo, Louis Braille and Voltaire. Another smaller band played in a gazebo in the Jardin de Luxembourg, home of the eponymous palace, trees cut into rectangle shapes, and kids' little sailboats floating around a fountain.
But surely there was some other big Bastille Day celebration I could witness since I missed the big one that morning dealing with Russian bureaucracy. Yes, there was one place left to see to go out of Bastille Day with a bang.
I was planning to meet up with Evan for the fireworks, thinking I'd just run into him on the Champs de Mars, the park fields underneath the famous tower -- until I arrived and saw the mob of people. I gave up on looking for him and snagged a perfect spot for the show, which started at nightfall. Light beams shot out of the tower as fireworks lit up the sky with tremendous booms, all in sync with Oriental-influenced new age music. After the final boom, the tower continued to be lit, with additional sparkly lights like chasers in a Christmas tree. After a crazy, depressing morning over matters of a day in the future, the nighttime sight that day revived the good in Paris for me all over again.
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