We have a new apartment in Florence for this month of April, thanks to my initial ignorance about the immigration policies of the Schengen Area. Until recently, I was only vaguely aware of the Schengen Agreement, which has been around since 1995.

We initially planned to spend four months in Florence. I knew I was not technically allowed to stay more than 90 days in Italy without a visa, but figured I could get one easily, being a mere 5 miles away from the Italian embassy in Washington, or I could, perhaps, fudge it a bit. Really, who would care, or even notice, if one little middle-aged American woman stayed a few extra days? It’s Italy. They have a pretty casual approach to law enforcement and rule-following, right? My brother-in-law Bill says that not paying taxes is a national sport here. Have you seen these people on the autostrade? Anyhoo, I booked one place in Florence for February and March, and a different place for April and May. What could go wrong? In the worst case scenario, we could hop over to Spain or something for a few days and re-start the 90-day clock. Problem solved!

Um, … no.

First of all, trying to get a visa from the Italian consulate in Washington during a pandemic turned out to be a major rookie mistake. That was never going to happen. Second of all, thanks to the Schengen Agreement, I can’t stay more than 90 days in Italy without risking being kicked out of most of Europe.

Most of the EU countries are signatories to this Schengen Agreement, and even four non-members (Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland) have signed up to participate. Ireland has opted out, and Croatia, Bulgaria, Cyprus and Romania have yet to join. The UK never joined, so Brexit isn’t much of a factor (at least for an American).

Essentially, there is no border control within the Area. On the plus side, it allows for truly free travel between and among the signatory states, meaning that I showed my passport when I flew into France on the way to Italy, but did not have to pass through immigration in Italy. Once you enter the Area, you can travel throughout without showing a passport. On the minus side, as a foreigner, I can only stay within this “borderless” region without a visa for 90 days in any 180-day period. If I screw this up in Italy, I fear I could end up on some Schengen Sh*t List, which would be sub-optimal because we plan to spend two months in France later this year, and also I want Europeans to like me and invite me back.

For a brief period, I thought I might have an ace in the hole to avoid all this potential unpleasantness. I’m married to a citizen of an EU country! Steve has Irish citizenship and an Irish passport. Yes, Ireland has opted out of the Schengen Agreement, but surely he could go anywhere within the EU, and I could go with him? Well, let’s just say that would be a great exam question for an international law class, and I am not enrolled.

Happily, we were able to drop our last month in Florence and replace it with a month in Croatia. That month, plus our time in Ireland this Summer, will keep me on the correct side of the Schengen enforcement line. As my friend, David H., would say, I won’t even get chalk on my shoes. I’m kind of bugged by the fact that, after spending a mere 89 days in Italy this Spring, I will have to stay out of the entire Schengen Area until the end of July, but here we are. My mom, sister and niece are going to visit us in Croatia in May, then spend a few days in Paris. I had hoped to join them there, but ce n’est pas possible. Steve and I had talked about going to Iceland in June, given its proximity to Ireland, but now we can go in August. Okay, I know what you are thinking … thoughts and prayers, right? I crack myself up.

Speaking of the EU, France and international law … I’m reminded of a story from my law school days that did crack me up at the time. It was 1991 or 1992, the Maastricht Treaty creating the common currency was just coming into force, and a visiting professor was offering a course on EU law. Along with my friend, Andrea, who actually became a professor of international law, I decided to sign up. The professor talked about the difficult negotiations among the would-be member states about how they would regulate this and that.

This particular story was about the infamous “Cognac and Whiskey Case.” As the Europeans attempted to develop a common market, the debate over the regulation and taxation of wine, beer and spirits was apparently robust. The production and consumption of alcohol often play an important role in the social, cultural, economic, religious and political identities of particular countries, and patriots do not take this stuff lightly. Think French wine, German beer, Scotch whiskey and so forth, to name a few. Harmonizing all of that across the continent was always going to be a huge challenge.

Several European countries objected when France tried to tax whiskey at a higher rate than it taxed cognac. The French insisted that being the world’s largest producer of cognac had nothing to do with this situation, and how dare you suggest otherwise! After all, said the French, cognac and whiskey are two distinct products that do not compete head-to-head. One is made from grains and the other from grapes. The production processes are different. Most importantly, in France, one drinks whiskey before dinner, wine with dinner and cognac after dinner. The other countries took the position that a distilled spirit is a distilled spirit, and they should all be taxed at the same rate. France lost the case, which supposedly prompted one member of the French team to remark that, “One is an aperitif and one is a digestif. Anyone who does not know the difference is a philistine.”

Well, I don’t plan to drink any whiskey when I finally get to France with my impeccable immigration documents; it is not and never has been my particular brand of poison. I may sip some cognac, though. Après le dîner, naturellement.