A visa to Mars

[Version française sur le site de La Recherche]

When I received the results of the selection I was in Sicily, attending conferences and climbing the Etna.  I was of course delighted. I celebrated it at night, on the beach, with other young scientists. But I quickly understood that the most challenging part was still to come: paperwork.

I was French, working in Italy and trying to go to the US. I several times thought that I had faced an administrative dead end, mostly because of my previous US visas. But I kept learning about immigration rules, kept contacting people and got some help from friends in different countries.  Finally, after nights spent emailing, reading and giving phone calls, I received… the Form 2019, which allowed me to apply for a visa. Now, another tricky fact: I could not go to an embassy in France because I would then be stuck there until my passport would come back. So I would have to apply to the US Embassy in Rome. Bummer, the first appointment I obtained was after the starting date of the mission. After a couple of letters I obtained an earlier appointment, but there would be no second try: if something went wrong, the doors of the dome would close before I could come back to the Embassy.

So, I had to make sure that my paperwork in Rome was perfectly in order. I looked for the paper that showed that I had declared myself in the country, but could not find it. Naively confident, I drove to the immigration center – a few kilometers but more than an hour away, given Rome’s traffic. My first interlocutor had no clue what I was talking about. I went to someone else, who sent me to another office. There, I was sent to another office. Where I was told that I didn’t need the paper I asked for but another one, whose prerequisite was a third paper – available in another office. At this next office, a lethargic bureaucrat told me that he could not give this third paper – I needed to go to another address. I drove for another hour. There, I was told that I needed to go to an equivalent institution in another area. Driving again. After queuing for an hour, I was sent somewhere else. Where I was told that the paper I was looking for was not the one I needed; I had to go to another place to get another one. At this other place, I was given different information. Then… well, you got the idea.

Zaphod, Ford, and Arthur on Vogsphere (from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, 2005). There, you must be careful not to think: the ground is infested with shovel-like creatures which smack you in the face if you do so.

This lasted for two days. Finally, after arriving to a new office and asking for the tenth (or so) time what I really needed, I received the most relevant piece of information so far:

“So, what do I need to do to be a legal resident here? Do I need A, B, or C?

– Oh, you can get A or C. Or D. I can try to get you B, if you want. But for that you have to go to…

– But what do I HAVE to get? What is the RULE?

– Well… Hmm… There isn’t really… a rule… But if you want, we can work on B. Or A…”

I understood that I had been there in perfect legality from the beginning. At least, as much as one can be. I almost kissed the bureaucrat.

But I wanted a paper that showed ties to this country – besides my work contract. I decided to ask for permanent residency in Italy, to be on the safe side. Even though I did not plan to stay in Italy for decades, I had no short-term plan to come back to France and I would be in Italy for at least a year after coming back. So, why not.

After another day walking from office to office and driving from building to building, gathering random papers and still not getting what I was looking for, I told an Italian colleague about it. He offered to come with me the following day – the last working day before my appointment at the Embassy.

My colleague unveiled the mysteries of Roman administration. When we entered the last office I had visited the day before, my colleague came to the bureaucrat with a large smile, shook his hand and made a joke. He asked for his name, started asking questions about where he came from and about his family. The bureaucrat reciprocated, and both started a friendly conversation. Then we spoke about the mission, about Hawaii, and the bureaucrat asked space-related questions – before coming back to his personal life. Half an hour later, he asked: “So, what can I do for you?”. A few minutes later, I was officially a permanent resident.

I arrived at the Embassy with approximately a kilogram of paperwork. Even though I had done all I could, I had no idea whether I would get a visa. I was first called to the person who would go through my paperwork, before the interview. She looked at the papers and stopped on one of my previous visas. She stared at it for what felt like several minutes. Was something wrong?  Phew, she looked at another paper.  But… she came back to the visa. She finally looked at me and opened her mouth. I felt adrenaline rushing through my blood. “Oh, you have worked at NASA? That’s great! OK, you can go to the interview.”

I went back to the waiting room until my name was called. Or, something close enough: “Sioupri… SSSpuian Viersouxx, window 3”.

Behind the window was a young woman. I could not resist: “SSSpuian Viersouxx?? Seriously?” I joked, faking anger. She blushed, looked at her feet and apologized. “You know, I don’t speak French and…”. I smiled, making her understand I was not serious. She looked at the papers in her hand; “So, you’re going to Hawaii?”. I made a few bad jokes, she politely laughed and we talked a few minutes about the mission. My visa was accepted. I was almost disappointed by how easy it was; most of the paperwork I had gathered had not even been looked at.

The mission became real. It was going to happen! As promised, I informed my colleagues of the outcome: “If you hear about a crazy Frenchman dancing and laughing alone in the streets of Rome… Well, that’s not me. I have no idea what you’re talking about”.

A Vogon. According to the Guide, a Vogon “wouldn’t even lift a finger to save their own grandmothers from the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal without an order, signed in triplicate, sent in, sent back, queried, lost, found, subjected to public enquiry, lost again, and finally buried in soft peat for three months and recycled as firelighters” (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, 2005).

A few days later, I realized that I had to renew my health insurance to cover my last two weeks in Italy. I went to the health center, waited for two hours and was told: “To renew your insurance you have to go to this other office, but you’ll need this paper, this paper, this paper and this paper. For the first one, you need to go…”. At this time, I was already passing the door. I would be careful not to hurt myself in the following two weeks.

11 thoughts on “A visa to Mars

  1. Sean says:

    Hi Cyprien, it’s Sean! I can’t get the ANSIBLE thing to work lately and Peggy Wu has not been answering my emails about it, so I thought I’d say hello here (I notice you are able to read and answer the comments). Sorry about not having been able to interact in the virtual world – I hope I can get it fixed.

    I enjoyed this blog post. It was mean of you to make fun of the embassy worker’s pronunciation! I’ve never been entirely sure how to pronounce your name myself (is it sip-ree-UN- or sip-ree-ON or something else?) But you do write very well (though you repeat a large section of this post by mistake).



    1. Cyprien Verseux says:

      Hey, Sean! Great to read from you.

      I’m glad you enjoyed this post.

      Yes, my blog is one of the websites I can reach. But I have my emails forwarded, too, with a 20-minute delay; feel free to write there! I will write about communications here later on, but in the meantime you can translate Christiane’s blog post (from German) on this topic: http://www.scilogs.de/leben-auf-dem-mars/internetzugang-auf-dem-simulierten-mars/

      Thanks for letting me know about Ansible. I will ask Peggy Wu to answer your emails.

      My name is pronounced [sip-ree-UN] (the French “UN”); I don’t remember you calling me by my full name, but your “Cypi” [sea-pea] is perfect!

      How are things going for you? Still at Yale?


      1. Sean McMahon says:

        Yes, still at Yale! Tonight I am having dinner with a group of students after some discussion about Mars. They may well have some questions for you which I will pass on – I hope that’ll be OK and fun for you.


  2. D Whatley says:

    Really enjoying your blog and have recommended it to others. I was almost crying with laughter at the paperwork debacle (and wincing with heartfelt empathy) and loved the Hitchhiker’s references!


  3. Valérie Verseux says:

    Hello CIP i iou !! May be you don’t recognize me but i know you very well indeed!

    One idea; why not to make a movie about yours contacts throuhg the italian administration when you’ll come back at the air?

    Bravo anyway, you are a real “conquistador” even in the administration’s labyrinth….


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s