I recently had to use the Notary Service at the US Embassy Paris. My strategy to transfer funds from our US bank to our account in France has been to use a 3rd party company, Venstar Exchange, to provide a better exchange rate than we could get through the bank. A US bank might charge 3% above the spot exchange rate (plus a wire fee) to transfer funds. A 3% premium is also what you might pay for Euro purchases with your US credit card. On fairly large transfers, such as $25,000, the difference in the quoted exchange rate (Venstar charges a little over 1% above the spot rate quoted at 10 minute intervals) can amount to a significant amount of money. Previously I had been able to initiate wire transfers by sending wiring instructions to our US bank using secure email on their web site.
Recently I sent a funds transfer request to our US bank, and they told me that their procedures had changed. I would need to complete and have notarized a new form with two parts, one authorizing the Venstar account where we send the funds (which they convert to Euros and forward to our French account), and a second part that specifies how to handle recurring transfers so I could complete future transfers with just a phone call verification of my identity. Where do you get a US Notary in France? You have to go to the US Embassy.
We’d been by the American Embassy before. It’s on 2 Avenue Gabriel, just off Place de la Concorde and close by the Elysée Palace where the President of France lives. One day after hiking the Champs-Élysées we were passing by, and I tried to take a photo from the sidewalk outside the security fence. I was immediately whistled down (you know you’re in trouble when guys start to whistle at you) and informed that photos were not permitted.
To see a notary, I made an appointment on the Embassy web site – they had one available in 5 days. The consulate sent me a couple emails asking me to confirm the appointment and assuring me that correct completion of the form was up to me and that they could not in any way help me interpret my paperwork. Fair enough. I sent the bank a list of questions and then used their answers to make sure that I correctly filled out their form, which was an internal bank form not really set up for use by a notary. Their answers also provided instructions about how Embassy was to notarize the form.
Armed with my passport, my appointment form, and all my other paperwork, I set out for my appointment at the Embassy. The weather was cold – windy and in the mid ’30s (yes I know that would be a heat wave in Minnesota). The guard outside checked me off on his schedule and directed me to go stand in line outside the security building behind about 20 other people. We all stood there for about 15 minutes until they began to invite people one at a time into the secure guard building nearby for a security check. Eventually I got to go inside, where they used procedures similar to what you experience at the airport to clear me for entry. After the security check, they took away my cell phone and keys and directed me outside, across a courtyard and into the visitors area in the Embassy itself.
While I was waiting in line, I could see Embassy employees coming and going through a different entrance, but the area where visitors were sent was completely isolated from all embassy staff. Visitors can interact with staff to address their needs through 15 bullet proof glass windows with pass through slots. Perhaps a hundred visitors were waiting in the large seating area. I took a number and followed the instructions they gave me to sit and wait for my turn.
When my number was flashed on the monitor, I went to the designated counter and described what I needed to the woman behind the bullet proof glass. She took my form and passport, issued me a bill for $100, and sent me over to the cashier to pay. The employee taking my credit card laughed when I remarked that the service was “très cher”. Then I went back to wait some more. I was called back to sign the document and swear that the information I was providing was true and accurate, and I was done – it only took a minute.
I left the visitors area and returned to the guard building to recover my keys and phone. Then I exited the security perimeter and headed for freedom, reflecting on how the politics of our world has so restricted many aspects of our lives. I guess we really wouldn’t want it any other way, but what should be a “friendly home” to Americans in France has been transformed into a foreboding and unwelcoming space. I made my way into Place de la Concorde, looked back, and furtively took a photo.