After getting prepared academically and applying to go abroad with the Rotary, steps that are likely pretty similar for any other students from our area, the last big step for us was obtaining a visa for J to spend the academic year in Italy. This is where experiences vary, because all countries have different procedures. For us, this was the most difficult and stressful part of the process, and honestly? I may have blocked some of the memories out, like you do with childbirth. But, if you do this, you can potentially have a much better experience than we did if you follow my number one piece of advice: if you are required to make an appointment at a consulate, make the appointment as soon as you know what country your child is going to, because it’s easier to reschedule later than it is to get an appointment sooner. Beyond that, be ultra-prepared and persistent, and if it feels like you’re doing a massive amount of work, console yourself that you won’t be cooking any meals or doing any laundry for your child for ten months.
Once you’re this far along, the local Rotarians who have advised you take a step back, because rules are different for different countries and they can change at any time. Instead, you’re assigned a contact at a travel agency who instructs you a bit more on the visa process, reviews your visa application materials to ensure that you’ll get your visa, and makes your travel arrangements once you’ve been approved to enter the country. You are required to work with this travel agency. For us, we found our travel agency contact to be minimally helpful. She was helpful, but it really did feel like she did only what was absolutely required. She was slow to answer our emails and her emails did not demonstrate particular care or concern for us as individuals. I’m sure she was busy. While she did offer guidance on collecting our visa materials, she couldn’t offer any assistance with making the visa appointment, and at one point, she told us that the Italian forms we’d need to submit must be originals, not copies, an error that threw me into a panic until we got it straightened out.
It was frustrating, because we have bought plenty of overseas airline tickets, and when it was finally time to purchase tickets, the cost of purchasing the tickets via the travel agency was significantly more expensive than tickets we could have bought ourselves online. I think that the difference was about a thousand dollars. Now, if we had received a thousand dollars’ worth of helpful advice and reassurance, it wouldn’t have felt so bad, but it felt like we’d received, meh, about $200 or $300 worth of service on top of the tickets themselves. Still, we were saving a huge amount of money on the entire exchange by working with the Rotary instead of a private company, so it was hard to be too terribly bitter about it.
For an Italian visa, we were required to go to our region’s Italian consulate in New York City in person with all of our paperwork; our traveler, J; and, if I’m remembering correctly, I believe it was both parents to ensure that we were both on board with the travel plans. I believe that we were advised to plan for an appointment about 4 to 6 weeks prior to our estimated departure date, which we expected to be at the end of August or beginning of September. We really couldn’t get going on the paperwork until we had the details from the Italians on where J would be living, which local club would be sponsoring her, and where she would be attending school. So we waited until we got that information to make an appointment with the consulate, which meant that it was, hmm, about late May or early June when we first tried to make the appointment for the end of July or early August.
This was a huge mistake. I can still remember the first time I logged into the Italian consulate’s website to make an appointment and I saw that the schedule was entirely booked through the spring and summer and into September. Somehow my stomach dropped while all the bile that usually resided there rose up my throat. I was in denial, reloading the page, squinting at the calendar and hoping that I was misinterpreting what I was seeing. I was not.
I had completely F%#ked up. (Phew, aren’t you glad that you know it all works out? That she made it to Italy and everything was absolutely fantastic? Oh, reader, I envy you! Because this was happening in the spring of 2022 and after all of our preparations, I had no idea if my baby would actually make it to Italy!)
We had been told that people cancel and that slots can open in a completely random way, so I think for the first day or two, Cute W and I just fretted on our own and logged into the site roughly a ga-jillion times each in hopes of getting a better offer. Finally, we had to break it to J, so she started logging into the site, too. To make things worse, the website was not super-friendly and would sometimes just… crap out on us. Finally, Cute W scored a decent appointment: late August. It would still delay J’s departure and mean that she’d arrive after school started, but it was much better than the mid-September dates that were currently getting booked.
Meanwhile, I was pursuing other possibilities. Could we call instead of booking online? (No.) Or just show up at the consulate? (Absolutely not!) Did we know anyone with connections? (Nope.) Could our Congressman help? (He’d try.) Could we go to a consulate in another state? (No; NYC only.)
Okay, so time out for a bit from our efforts to score a better appointment, because, meanwhile, we had to be ready for an appointment if we got one. The fact that we knew that we desperately needed an appointment and that if one, by chance, opened up tomorrow, we’d need to be ready heightened the urgency of insuring that all of the paperwork was prepared in perfect order. How much paperwork are we talking about?
A lot of paperwork. Just to give you an idea of how much, I’ve recreated a list from my notes. Of course, this is different for different countries, and it may have changed since we did it, but this list is just to give you a vague idea of what a massive project this was:
- Visa application form, notarized
- Copy of notarized visa application form
- 2 passport-style photos
- Passport of student
- Photocopies of student’s passport
- Photocopy of student’s driver’s license
- Photocopy of student’s school ID card
- Letter from the Italian school on letterhead confirming students’ acceptance and specifying where student would be residing
- Letter from the high school in the US on letterhead confirming enrollment in Italian school including complete details on Italian school (address and duration of program)
- Affidavit of financial support from parents
- Letter from bank on letterhead confirming funds in parents’ accounts
- Personal credit card statement indicating credit limit
- Notarized affidavit of parental consent that the minor can travel
- Notarized copy of the student’s birth certificate
- Notarized copies of both parents’ passports
- Notarized form confirming that health insurance has been provided
- Copy of travel health insurance ID card
- Copy of Rotary form from Italy filled out by Italians confirming that they were assuming responsibility for J
- Copies of the adult host parents’ Italian passports
- Copy of Italian Rotary representative’s Italian passport
- Visa application fee
All the while that we were collecting these various pieces, we had settled into a new routine with the appointment situation as well. Cute W had a firm appointment for the end of August, so he was in a holding pattern, but as J’s other parent, I could add myself to a cancellations waiting list that we had located somewhere along the way. So I added myself to the waiting list. And every 3 or 4 days, I would get an email notification that I had reached the top of the list and that there was an appointment that I could take. And the appointment would be, say, for September 6th, and I would click the “No thanks” button, and then I would remove myself from the waiting list, and then I’d add myself to the waiting list again immediately. And then I’d get another notification that I’d scored an appointment for September 17th, and I would repeat the process.
I think that I was on the 5th or 6th round of coming up to the top of the waiting list when the notification read that the I was offered an open appointment on July 27th at 11 am. I just stared at it for a minute, stunned. Trying to make sure I wasn’t reading it wrong. And then I started yelling for J to come look at the computer with me. And J came over and looked. And then, we both started jumping up and down and screaming for joy. We freaked out. Like, later my throat was sore and my next door neighbor asked me what had been happening to cause such a ruckus. We called Cute W to give him the good news and freaked out some more. When it was time to click the “confirm appointment” button, I was so nervous about messing up our One Big Chance that I had J watch me and confirm with me that I was clicking the right button (I had spent so much time on the site clicking “cancel” that I was paranoid that muscle memory would kick in by accident.) We successfully confirmed out appointment. Then we spent the next week randomly saying to each other, “We have an appointment in July!”
When the actual date came around, we were taking absolutely zero chances. Even though we’d normally drive down in the morning for an 11 am appointment, we decided to play it safe and book a hotel the night before. I distinctly remember thinking, as Cute W drove aggressively down the West Side Highway (I always find this scary and usually shut my eyes for most of it), that if we got into a serious car accident and one of us was injured or killed, the other one would leave them to make sure we got to the consulate with J, because J had to get to Italy. Luckily, that didn’t happen.
Instead, we arrived about an hour early for our 11 am appointment and joined a small crowd of anxious wanna-be travelers. We were not actually allowed into the building yet. Instead, we clustered outside and reviewed the signage about the documents that we’d need and waited for an attendant to open the door and call a few names at a time. What made this especially confusing was that the sign explained that we absolutely had to have a very specific set of documents in a very specific order, but it wasn’t correct for us. Because J was 17 at the time, we were required to provide additional documentation, and our Rotary travel agent guide had given us those specifications in a slightly different order. And so I was frantically double-checking and re-ordering everything, plus I had multiple copies of just about every possible form. And that tree-hugging Cute W had made copies double-sided, which had me more confused. So I was practically shaking as we reviewed and re-shuffled all of our pages. I was so afraid that I’d missed something or done something wrong.
When our little group was finally called into the building, we first had to stop and turn in our phones to an attendant who also asked if we had a few of the most basic items. Some young man in our group had forgotten something and had to leave and go get it. The rest of us were ushered into a joyless waiting area that had serious old-school DMV vibes. We were told to stay very quiet. In fact, we struck up a conversation with a college student who was waiting for an appointment, and we got shushed.
At long last, we were called up to a window where J took the lead in pushing forward papers and surrendering her passport while Cute W and I hovered at her shoulders trying to act unbelievably friendly, helpful, and grateful. Finally, the representative said that we had everything and told us we’d get the passport with visa in the mail.
We were positively buoyant with relief. We went out to lunch and took a walk through Central Park, where J purchased a couple of touristy painting of the city to offer up as gifts to host families. Then, it was time for the long ride home and the wait for the visa to arrive. All that was left for J to do was pack and go!