|Story of a Wedding|
Issue #44 (April 1985)
I met Danielle in November, 1984, when she was vacationing with my old friends, Paul and Madeleine Gregson. We spent several weeks together, fell in love, and corresponded after she had returned to Paris. The following February we rendezvoused in London and flew down to Egypt for two weeks. It was there that we decided to get married.
Babes in the Woods. Before parting in London, we went to the American Consulate to ask about the formalities required for me to marry Dany (a French citizen) and bring her to live in America. In the visa section, behind the counter, sits a veritable clone of Alistair Cooke, who hands out forms and information. Later we learned that he is known locally as the "Information Man." He described two very complicated procedures and one simple procedure, which he recommended. Since Dany already had a permanent visitor's visa that permitted unlimited entries, he said, she could come to the US as a visitor and we could get married there. Then I could apply by mail to the Immigration Service to change her status from visitor to permanent resident. He showed us the places on the form that you fill out to change the status of someone who is already inside the country. He said that 95% of the time they would restamp her passport with no difficulty; 5% of the time they may require her to leave the country for a few days and re-enter. We figured that since her 14-year-old son, Stephane, was to join us in July, she could use that opportunity to return to Paris and re-enter the US. Thus we left the American Consulate in a pink cloud of ignorance, thinking how wonderfully straightforward our immigration laws must be.
Wedding Plan Number One. So Dany went back to Paris and started packing. She gave up her apartment, quit her job as a bank officer, and crated up her books. In Sunnyvale, meanwhile, I planned our wedding. Since it was a second marriage for both of us, we chose the simplest route–an instant wedding in Reno with a show at the MGM Grand afterward. But we scheduled a big reception on April 27th and printed up 300 invitations. Our friends pitched in to help welcome Dany to her new home.
On Saturday, April 13–two days before the wedding–Dany flew to London and boarded a World Airways flight for Oakland. A few hours later the plane touched down in Baltimore to clear US customs before proceeding onward. Dany, who speaks very little English, handed in her passport with a smile.
The Big Bust. At this point, the reader needs to understand some of what we later learned about US immigration regulations. Unlike all other visas in the world, a US visitor's visa does not attempt to regulate one's travel to the US. You can go in and out as much as you want. Instead, it regulates one's state of mind at the instant one enters the country. If you're thinking of your foreign home at the moment you hand in your passport then all is OK, even if you subsequently decide to stay in the US forever. If you are thinking of staying, then you are committing a serious crime; that state of mind requires an immigrant visa. The form for changing a visitor's status applies only to those who enter the country while thinking of home and then decide to stay, even if this decision occurs only five minutes later. We were utterly unaware of these dialectical niceties when the bananas hit the fan in Baltimore.
The immigration officers looked at Dany's ticket, which included no return flight. Suspicious now, they asked her questions in English which she didn't understand and couldn't answer. They seized her purse and went through her personal papers. Among them was a printer's proof of the marriage announcement. The great wedding conspiracy was revealed!
From that point on, the US Immigration and Naturalization Service behaved like a Balkan secret police dealing with a common prostitute. They subjected Dany to a humiliating body search for concealed narcotics. They pushed her around and ripped out the linings of her clothes and baggage. They asked her sarcastic, intimate questions in broken French and sneered at her answers. They refused to let her make a collect phone call. They bullied her into signing papers she couldn't understand and wouldn't give her copies. They locked her up for 24 hours in a room with a light burning so she couldn't sleep. Finally they dumped her onto a plane back to London.
It was thanks to the kindness and concern of World Airways that I found out what was happening. They managed to get my phone number from Dany and called me at 5 pm Saturday afternoon. One of their employees, who spoke French, smuggled to Dany my promise to meet her plane in London. They gave me the phone number of the Immigration Service in Baltimore. I phoned them with offers to go to Baltimore, post a cash bond, take personal responsibility, cancel the wedding, etc., but it was like talking to a stone wall. Dany was being booted out and that was that.
Au Secours. Paul and Madeleine Gregson were magnificent. While they were driving to pick me up, I grabbed my passport and credit cards and packed a knapsack. I just made a 7 pm flight from San Francisco which landed me 12 hours later in London.
Monday morning I met Dany at Gatwick Airport. After hearing what my government had done to her in Baltimore, it was easy for me to promise that I would not return to California without her. We went again to the American Consulate. This time we talked to a genuine Foreign Service Officer. She was most apologetic. What we had tried to do was common practice, but carried out by people more wily than we. In effect, we had been caught by our own honesty. The Information Man should never have given us only half of the story. Steps Would Be Taken, etc. However, now that Dany's passport was stamped with big red warnings the damage could be repaired only in Paris.
Tuesday we checked out the possibility of getting married in Britain (two weeks residence required) and took the boat train to Paris. Bright and early Wednesday we were banging on the doors of the American Consulate in the rue St Florentin. Under the circumstances, all things considered, and so on, they advised, our best bet now was to get married in France and then apply in Paris for an immigrant visa. Nothing could be done until we were able to show a valid marriage certificate.
The French Connection. So that is how we came to stay for two weeks with Dany's mother in the village of Santeny, where Dany was born. In France, civil marriages are performed at the mairie, or mayor's office, of the village where one party lives. But when we first talked to the mayor of Santeny he had his doubts. Marriage to an American? There were regulations, forms, publications attestations,–he waved his arms and his voice trailed off. We scooted back to Paris and hired an English-speaking attorney. He started drawing up papers to establish my existence under French law.
In the end, we negotiated the mairie down to four documents: an extrait d'acte de naissance in lieu of a French birth certificate; a certificat de coutume stating that I had no other wives stashed away; a certificat medical and an attestation sur l'honneur to tie up loose ends. The coutume was particularly gorgeous–our Paris lawyer pulled out all the stops for that one. Friday afternoon, April 19th, we handed in all our papers and they posted the banns on the public notice board in Santeny.
Under French law, one can marry on the morning of the 11th day after the banns are posted. This gave us more than a week to get Dany's visa going. At the same time, we dropped Stephane's application into the mill. With some glimmerings of sympathy, the consulate in Paris agreed to start their background checks ahead of time. Meanwhile, they handed us a four-page list of required documents, all to be presented in duplicate. We rented a car and started tracking down papers.
Bureaucracy Rules. About this time I started lying awake nights with spooky thoughts. My government had told me to get married first, then ask them for permission to bring my wife home. If all the required forms and attestations had any meaning, then they must have been able to refuse. What would we do if they said no? I wondered whether my Silicon Valley skills could earn me a living in France, Canada, or England. I also wondered whether my government had the right to put me in such a fix. I still wonder.
Nevertheless, we played the game with diligence. The police report, certifying that Dany had never been in jail, required a nine-hour drive to Nantes. I had to produce recent tax returns and my 1973 divorce decree. Blood tests, fingerprints, and a chest X-ray for Dany. Passports and birth and marriage certificates all around. Finally (I kid you not), three color photos of Dany's and Stephane's right ears. By Friday, May 3rd, we had all our documentary ducks in a row and presented ourselves to the American consul.
During this period the banns had ticked away. At 10:30 on Tuesday morning, April 30, we gathered in the mayor's office. Dany's mother, two sisters, and a girl friend served as witnesses. The mayor donned his official tricolored sash of office and recited the marriage sections of the Code Civil. He asked us each if we were ready to provide mutual fidelite secours and assistance We answered "oui." He produced two impressive documents in blue binders, looking like international peace treaties, which everybody signed. Finally he broke out a splendid speech in English, welcoming me to the community of Santeny. He handed us the customary livret de famille, a booklet with spaces to record the vital statistics of up to ten children. Curiously enough, there is a period of a few days after an American marries a French citizen during which he may elect to change countries. With the events in Baltimore still rankling, I discussed this possibility with the attorney in Paris. Cooler heads prevailed. But we now agree that Dany should always retain her French citizenship.
Love Triumphs. Back at the consulate, we handed in our stack of papers. I paid $270 in fees. Dany solemnly swore that she was not a communist, drug addict, or professional beggar. I swore that I would keep her off welfare. At the last minute they demanded one more paper, a letter of permission from Stephane's father. Again, we didn't stop to ask if this was right; Dany just went barreling out to a Paris suburb and got it. We waited nervously all day. Finally at 3 pm they handed us the precious visas.
The next day, Saturday, was wedding feast day. The trestle tables groaned as the family gathered, 36-strong. We ate from noon until midnight, with recesses to play petangue on the gravel driveway. There were beef roasts, fat chickens, and gigots of lamb; two kinds of rich country pate; great round loaves of bread; rice and corn and salads, with olives and cornichons on the side; nine kinds of cheese; a strawberry wedding cake complete with plastic bride and groom; and a selection of gorgeous fruit tartes. All was liberally washed down with aperitifs champagne, and a hearty Cotes du Rhone. In the eyes of Santeny, we were well and truly married.
The Bottom Line. After spending an extra three weeks and four thousand dollars, we arrived at our original goal–married and living in Sunnyvale. Most of our time, money, and anguish was devoted to transporting papers between French and American bureaucrats. The whole experience has left me with two strong criticisms:
First, I believe the regulation that nabbed Dany when she tried to enter America is, like most thought-control measures, a lousy law. It tries to control an act by punishing an intention. The result, however, simply encourages people to lie. If (as I suspect) the INS is constitutionally unable to prevent foreigners from getting married here, then they should not try to circumvent this block by punishing the intention to marry. In any event, they should make their rules clear when they issue a visitor's visa.
Second, I am still furious at the way the storm troopers of the INS in Baltimore treated Dany. Apparently foreigners who are physically present in America but not "officially admitted" exist in a sort of constitutional limbo. They are protected neither by law nor by common decency, and are regarded as fair game by sadistic immigration officials. I spent a lot of my time in France apologizing for the insupportable behavior of my government.
On the positive side, Dany and I strengthened personal ties in a way that might otherwise never have happened. Going through hell together is not an entirely bad way to start a marriage. I got to know the family in Santeny and they got to know me. Our friends in Sunnyvale responded nobly when I abruptly dumped my house, dog, and business on them. They took care of everything during my involuntary exile, in a way that only the best of friends will. So this story has a happy ending, although neither of us would care to live it again.
George Towner was born in Reno and grew up near Berkeley. As a teenager he began making gangster movies using an old 8mm camera, one of which featured a car being pushed over a cliff off State Highway 1. He has started and sold two successful technology firms, and currently works for Apple Computer, where he is the most senior in age. He lives with his wife in Sunnyvale. They have two daughters and a son.