Thursday 11 June 2015

Please Sir, may I have a visa?

Ah, the U.K. working holiday visa. Or the Tier 5 Youth Mobility Scheme visa as it's called now; a much catchier name, said nobody ever. The hoops to be jumped through in the application process are numerous and metaphorically on fire so precision is vital. Don't get me wrong, applying as an Australian is significantly easier than most other nationalities. To apply as an American, for instance, is so impossible it sounds more like some kind of secret club only found and entered by visiting a back alley and knocking three times on the second door to the left and knowing the password and secret handshake. It's like the unicorn of visas. Then again, if a country's reciprocal visa policy is basically a blanket "no" like the U.S.'s, you can't expect your citizens to be made very welcome, from a visa standpoint, elsewhere. I can only imagine what the process would be like if you were applying from somewhere like...Nigeria...Iraq...any of the many countries not known for their travel/visa opportunities.

Now, having just undermined my own point let me proceed to tell you about my Australian passport holder process of hoop jumping. Or rather...the ring master. Sorry, that metaphor is tired. Basically the official U.K. visa website is shit. Of all the governments in the world you would expect to have a clear, eloquent official website the U.K. would pretty much top the list. But you (meaning you, my naive past self) would be wrong. The visa website content appears to have been written by an indifferent person whose fourth and most tenuously grasped language is English. The content refers back to things it never told you, asks you for information, then doesn't provide you with enough space to enter said information (been to more than ten countries in the last ten years? How foolish of you, prepare to get involved in a very coy game of save and refresh to illicit enough 'Add More' options) and is so full of typos and oddities you half expect the final page to thank you for your financial assistance to a Ghanian prince with temporary money woes. If I had just come across the website, rather than linked to it from the official U.K. immigration webpage, I would've suspected it was a fake. A defensive little missive in the top left corner, stating that this is a prototype system (they just recently added an online application option) and they're still working through some issues, follows you throughout the application process.

For additional novelty, once you complete the online application you have to print it out and take the paperwork into a biometric appointment. Unfortunately, I live in the little viking outpost of Australia-Hobart, in the state of Tasmania, and we're too much of a back water (despite being a capital city) to have nice things. Like official offices for biometric scanning for example. So off to Melbourne I went, basing my appointment time around the good airfares.

I arrived for my appointment at a small office which had then been subdivided into multiple tiny offices with individual locking doors for each. I was greeted by a security guard who took his job very seriously. There was a system for how things must proceed, a system which I was about to accidentally confound, but he soldiered on. He let me into the office, I said "hello", he said "hello, please sit down". I proceeded to start removing my many layers of coats, sweaters and scarves so that I could sit down, chatting about the weather, how cold it was... He stared at me and repeated "Please sit down". Right, apparently we can't go through the rules until I'm sitting, so I sat down, one arm in a sweater, one arm out. He informed me all I could take in was my wallet and my application paperwork and no it could not be in envelopes, no envelopes! Everything else had to be placed in a locker there in the first room. So I proceeded to try and stuff all my things into the little locker and lean on the door to shut it. "A quarter turn to the left, then all the way around to lock it, follow me please". "Oh sure!" I say cheerily, pressing on the locker, turning the key. It doesn't lock. I turn it the other way, still not locked. The guard stands awkwardly by... "No, the other way.. No you have to..." "got it!" I declare with a triumphant little thump on the locker, far too gregarious an action for the solemnity of the occasion, his unamused expression tells me. 

 We proceed to the next little room, empty except for a table in the corner. He instructs me to lay my application out on said table, then he looks at it. "First page of the application on top please" he says gesturing to the pile. I step forward and move the covering first page off the pile and step back. Then he picks the papers up anyway to better see the application number on it which he duly records on his clipboard next to my name and appointment time. "Stand on the red dot please". I scan the room. On the floor, across the room and a little to the left, is a red sticky dot carefully reenforced by a layer of tape over it. "Ah, right sure. Red dot" I stand on the dot and he security wands me front and back, then I'm permitted through the next door.

We're in a waiting room with counters you're called to when it's your turn. There's no one on the far side of the desks. On our side is a girl having a bit of a nap. Two other people sit in the line of chairs the security guard gestures to and asks me to wait. I sit down and he leaves out the exit door. I wait. I shuffle my papers. I wait. Then the guard reappears and gestures to me "please, come with me. The door! The locker door is, is open". I go through the exit door with him back into the first room where my locker, not locked correctly as it turns out, has popped open and has scarves and coat sleeves hanging out of it all disorderly like. The guard seems a bit flustered and instructs me to use a second locker as well. Then, having flouted his linear system, he just lets me back in through the exit door. The waiting recommences.

I'd been feeling nervous about this appointment, it was such a process to get to that stage, an expensive process. But the lengthy wait is a good cure for that. After being nervous and hyper vigilant
for awhile my brain tires of it and I space out, looking at the mural on the wall of London Bridge, Stonehenge and other British icons. A little red double decker bus wends its way along the bottom of the mural....

There's no clock in the room and phones were not on the permitted items list. I'm guessing they're even more of a no-no than envelopes, even when just for checking the time. After awhile a lady pops out a door from the inner sanctum office and announces that the system is down and the support centre is working on it, then she disappears again. Then another lady pops out and comes over, asking to see just my application. I hand it to her. "And your letter from the bank stating your funds?" She asks as she looks it over. I hand that to her, she reads it. Then she hands it all back to me, smiles and says "Good, that's all going to be good", then disappears behind the door again. I'm not sure what the point of that preemptive look was, but it's reassuring all the same. Who doesn't like to have an official looking person look at their paperwork and declare it vaguely, generally good?

A while later the same lady comes out and officially calls me over to the counter. She whizzes through my application in a very blase manner, stapling, highlighting and telling me were to sign. She asks if I'm flying into London and if I want to purchase an Oyster card right then and there. I tell her I don't want to count my chickens. "Pardon?" "You know, I just, don't want to count my chickens...before they hatch...I'll wait until I actually have the visa I mean" She smiles at me like "silly girl, of course you're going to get it". This lady's cavalier attitude certainly has a morale boosting quality to it, misplaced or no. She puts my paperwork in a big vacuum seal bag thing and hands it to me. "All finished, please have a seat, you'll be called shortly for your biometric scan". I sit down, the security guard reappears and stands poised with his hand on another door handle, looking intent. I'm called almost immediately and he sweeps the door open, gesturing me in, then he disappears again.

This room looks like they were really scraping the bottom of the barrel in the partitioning spaces process and appears to be a converted broom cupboard. Once sitting, the illuminating light for photos is so close to your face it's almost touching and feels more like an interrogation lamp. My finger prints are scanned, my photo is taken, I had over the vacuum seal bag. When I'm done the security guard is peering through the tiny window on the far side of the exit door and whips it open the moment I appear. I thank him and he formally bids me good bye and a good afternoon. Then has to stand there and wait awkwardly while I put all my layers back on and collect my stuff. I think he was kind of relieved to see me go.

Now my passport and application are on a little trip to Manila to be processed and I should hopefully be seeing them again in my mailbox in a week or two, my passport having acquired the new bling of a shiny British visa inside. Fingers crossed!  

Wednesday 3 June 2015

Then more things happened which I also neglected to write about...

So now eight months in Australia have passed. I got to be here for my maternal Grandmother’s 94th birthday, Christmas and NYE, my cousin’s wedding and lots of other fun events. It was a revolving door of visitors through the spring and summer season which included friends from both Seattle and Steamboat. This was a great excuse for lots of visits to my Grandmother’s beach shack on Bruny Island for lazy days of reading, beach walking, barbeques, campfires and the discovery of the best scones I’ve ever tasted, served at a cafe on the island. 

There have also been some great walks at places like the beautiful Mt Field National Park, camping at Narawntapu National Park where I got to get up close and personal with wild wombats who cast squinty and suspicious glances at me crawling up to them on all fours while they grazed, a drive to the most southern point in Australia and many other enjoyable adventures. 

In amongst these happenings Laura and I also managed to plan our next overseas adventure. Originally, when we arrived back from the States our plan was to head over to New Zealand for the winter to work and ski at a resort there (which you can see was the plan when I wrote the last post). But the more we thought about it the more we shared the feeling that that plan just wasn’t quite ‘gelling’. Something just didn’t feel right about it. Not that we don’t want to go to New Zealand and do a ski season there, the whole place sounds amazing and I’m sure I’m going to love it when I make it there, but we don’t need a working visa to go there (such is our fortunate position as Australian citizens) and Laura is running out of time to get working visas. I myself am also no spring chicken in the world of visas, the cut-off age of thirty is coming for us both with alarming rapidity. So what would be a better plan? We asked ourselves one lazy, late morning chain-drinking cups of tea in our bathrobes. “You know what we should really do?” I said “Really we should move to the U.K. and do the working visa there” “Yes!” Laura said. So that’s what we’re doing. We spent the rest of that day hashing out the general details and the rest is history.  
Hahahaaa! I laugh at my own past naive optimism which actually did think it would be that simple! Because really that was just the beginning of a long, expensive, convoluted process of unexpected passport renewal and online visa application wrestling which has only now, six months later, really come together. The process even got its own separate blog post written about it which I will maybe post here one day, possibly when I’m eighty-five, given my track record. But now the bureaucratic paperwork side is shored up (almost... Laura’s visa arrived yesterday, if I’m lucky mine will be here in two weeks) there comes the bit where we have to actually travel to the U.K. and find jobs and a place to live and all that. Which anyone who read my post about our arrival in Steamboat will know can be a harrowing affair of living on the edge of destitution and crazed optimism. Crazed optimism generally taking the form of smiling brightly or even laughing hysterically through bewildered tears while sobbing “it’s all going to be just fine I’m sure of it!” But I’m getting ahead of myself. Right now I’m pretty much just excited! Time for something startlingly new! 

Then I wrote this...

Brain: God, what are you doing with your life!? You’re so lame!

Me: I’m trying to figure it out, I’m just not sure okay?

Brain: You can’t even eat baked beans without getting them on your face, how do you even function in life??

Me: Baked beans! Wha—What does that even have to do with anything??!

Brain: Whatever. It’s true. Loser.

So here I am, back in Australia. Back in Tasmania thinking, as I always do at the end of big trips, what should I do with my life? This is a question that comes up a lot for me, including in the midst of exciting trips and adventures, but then it can often be silenced with ‘Oooh, what’s that over there?! Yes, lets try that new food/hike/activity/sport, I’m having new experiences and that’s what really matters in life right, yey!!!’ But then you ‘finish’ a trip, categorized in my mind by a relatively stationary period in a familiar place, often your parents house, in which you see a lot of family and work to scrape together enough money for another plane ticket, and suddenly seem to have more time and space in your life and brain to think, ‘what am I really doing here?’ 

Now, follow me down this rabbit hole for a minute, in Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma (a great book, well worth a read if I may say so) he points out that with modern growing and distribution practices removing many limitations of seasonality and geographical growing suitability, and the fact humans are omnivores which means a vast swath of things are edible to us and can be considered food, we are faced with the question, if you can eat almost anything, what should you eat? Personally, I find that this question has wider application as well. I am very fortunate to have been born a white, middle-class, post-feminist movement, woman in western civilization (this also makes the previous question about food applicable to me, sadly most people in the world do not have the reliable access to food that allows them to ask themselves that question), to two very supportive and encouraging parents; as a result of this I have been brought up with the idea that I can do/achieve/experience pretty much anything as long as I’m willing to put my mind to it and work really hard, and I genuinely believe this as I am both privileged and determinedly stubborn when I want to be. While this is a blessed situation to be in, it still raises the dilemma, if you can do virtually anything, what should you do? 

Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben knew what he was about, with great power, comes great responsibility (Just kidding, I know it was originally Voltaire, fascinating man that he was, who said this). I have the ability to fashion my life into something wonderful and meaningful, hooray! I’m so fortunate! Many people never get this chance, so don’t fuck it up, gaaahh, debilitating fear of choosing wrong, wasting opportunity, maybe I should just eat a lot of ice cream, hide under my covers and feel guilty..... You see the trouble.  

So here I am, trying to remember I’m very fortunate and also not to panic and also trying to decide on a meaningful direction for my life. In the interest of full disclosure I should probably let you know that the answer will not be at the bottom of this post, there will be no “and then the great epiphany struck and all was clear, and thus... I began”. So if you’re one of those people that likes a neat and conclusive ending to things you devote time to reading then you should probably cut your losses now and stop reading, it ain’t going to happen. Sorry. I’ve spent my entire adult life and a good portion of my childhood asking myself what I want to do with my life and regrettably I don’t seem to be the epiphany type. But that’s life, apparently, I don’t really know, I’m just living it and muddling through, pretending to be a capable grown up, it’s hit and miss. The best I can do is voice some ideas I’m currently toying with on the ‘what should I do next’ list, which include: a ski season in New Zealand (I’ve pretty well locked that one in, but I’m trying to figure out what to do after that so I don’t have to go through this bit again if possible), getting my TEFEL (teaching English as a foreign language) certification and moving to Turkey for a year to teach English because Istanbul sounds fascinatingly wonderful, moving to the U.K. for a year on a working holiday visa and hopefully finding work in the industrial hemp growing industry because I think it can kind of save the world, flying back to the Seattle, U.S.A. again, getting my motorcycle license, buying a motorcycle and riding it solo up the coast of British Columbia into Alaska where I would then stay and work for a summer because I’ve never even driven a motorcycle but why do things by halves right? Or, moving to Nicaragua for six months because apparently they’re mad into poetry as a culture and it looks beautiful and totally different than anything else I’ve done. 

Back-burner, secondary ideas under vague but nagging consideration are moving to Melbourne to get my Masters degree in international development (maybe?) or attempting to find some kind of respectable, well paying job that doesn’t make me want to poke my own eyeballs out and working at that like a responsible adult who wants to save up to buy land to build a house on so I won’t be a homeless bag lady ranting about the good old days of Nicaraguan sunsets and Turkish coffee one day. But I might not be quite mature enough for those options yet....

I'm a terrible blogger, let me tell you some things that happened and I neglected to write about...

In light of my pathetically long and inexcusable silence I think it’s time for a travel synopsis of past activities to bring this blog up to date... after my last post I carried on having fun skiing and drunken shenanigans for the remainder of the winter and beginning of spring in Steamboat. These included improving my skiing enough to do black runs (for non-snow sport enthusiasts the classifications for the various runs/trails of the mountain are green=beginner/easy, blue=intermediate/more difficult, black=advanced/difficult and double black=expert/most difficult) and discovering a love of powder tree skiing which my Mum assures me is like discovering a love of lobster and French champagne, but we were blessed with a lot of lobster and French champagne skiing over the winter. This time also included my birthday (when I got a massage and thought I was made of clouds and all was right with the world for about an hour afterwards because it was so amazing) gaper day, when all the Steamboat locals and staff ski in ridiculous outfits, often with an eighties, retro ski gear flair, and go on a major pub/party crawl of the mountain which, in myself and friends case ended with climbing a fence into the outdoor hot tub area of a hotel and going in in our underwear before being gently kicked out by a kindly security guard, going skiing in Winter Park for a few days with terrain above the tree line so you’re skiing in a giant bowl of snow with incredible views, and much more. 

Post winter season I embarked on a road trip, first with my sister and parents, heading from Colorado, through Kansas to visit friends, through Missouri where we stopped in Mark Twain’s home town of Hannibal, through Illinois with a visit to Chicago, and into Indiana, the land that time forgot, to visit my paternal grandparents, some of the coolest and most delightful and amusing people I have the privilege to know. Then we headed east, through Ohio and Pennsylvania to New Jersey to visit other family, then up to New York for a few days (where we saw Mamma Mia on Broadway-something I’ve wanted to do since I was a kid, it was fantastic), then back to Indiana. Then Laura and I headed back to Chicago and there reunited with our old friend the Greyhound bus, which took us up through Wisconsin to Minnesota, land of the friendliest of people with one of the best and funniest accents going. We stayed with our friend Leah (a friend from Steamboat who would also be returning there for the summer season, as we had decided to do) and her family for a night, then Laura, Leah and I embarked on a road trip across Minnesota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, and into Washington where we met our friend Elise for Sasquatch Music Festival, a three day, four night joyous musical extravaganza, before carrying on to Seattle to visit friends. Then Laura, Leah and I headed down along the Washington and Oregon coast, visited Portland, then headed back to Steamboat via Idaho, Utah and a little of Wyoming. 

During the summer season in Steamboat I resumed my job in the cafe, plus got a second job working as a front desk receptionist for a large vacation rental complex on the mountain. The small portions of free time were well spent river tubing, at the pub, camping, hiking, and going to rugby practice which I joined because it seemed like something I would never do and why not? My friend Jo came to visit from Australia, we befriended genuine cowboys who completely changed my outlook on horses for the better, my friend Naomi came for her 30th birthday celebration during which we river tubed during a thunder and lightening storm, which I do not recommend, and I stood on a tiny, thin land bridge called the Devil’s Causeway at 11,800 feet and looked out over the incredible Flat Tops Wilderness Area. In other words, general merriment and good times were had by all. 

At the end of our summer season Laura and I bawled our way out of town on a shuttle bound for Denver where we got on a flight to Seattle. We stayed in Seattle for a couple weeks before flying back to Australia in a higgledy piggledy, patchwork manner. Thus ‘concluded’ (it’s never really done) our extraordinary trip.