Nothing useful

3 months into my PhD, I got the chance to attend my first conference as a doctoral student, TransCultural Exchange in Boston. Though my paper had been accepted almost a year prior, I was chuffed to have received support from the RCS to help with my travel expenses. Getting funding and presenting a paper at an international conference made me feel like this whole PhD thing was actually not a bad idea. I had sorted out my USA visa before moving back to Scotland, I had my accommodation sorted (staying with a good friend, US citizen, and a letter from her to prove it), I had a letter from the conference organisers to show at immigration. More importantly, I had a UK visa to allow me to come back. As always, I took care to book my connecting flights via somewhere in continental Europe, avoiding Heathrow like the Plague. The fear was there, though. This was months before Donald Trump got elected, but it’s not like the USA ever had a reputation for being nice to Latin Americans arriving at their shores. Additionally, this Latin American in particular had been refused visas to the UK and been branded for at least the next decade. The trauma has spread across my group of friends in Edinburgh, too – I can feel them holding their breath every time I leave the country. But a successful academic career hangs on going to conferences and disseminating research, so I had to brave it.

I flew from Edinburgh to Paris, and from there to Boston. It was February and I’d been checking the weather reports telling me to expect temperatures as low as -20°C! I packed my thickest winter clothes and set off.

It’s a good thing that I don’t actually remember much about going through immigration in Boston. What I do remember is the officer asking me what me PhD was on, and my reply being an apologetic and giggly “nothing useful”. Unmoved by the joke, he stamped my passport and let me through the gates. I collected my suitcase and made my way to meet my friend. It was snowing.

In hindsight, I get angry at myself for that reply. It just gets drilled into us that the arts aren’t useful, and although almost all of my peers will disagree with that, I often wonder whether they have to be. Surely they are valuable in many aspects, but do they have to be useful? It reminds me of a cartoon I saw doing the rounds on the interwebz some time ago (I am not entirely sure about its origin, but it has been attributed to the College of Humanities of the University of Utah):

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I have seen some scientist blogs being offended by this, but my own bias quite likes it. Perhaps this is where the utility (if we must) of the arts lies, in complementing the sciences in a fun and humane way. Of course, I wouldn’t have time to have this discussion with an immigration officer, and although I understand that my reply was also charged with feelings brought about by immigration policies not putting the arts in a place of usefulness or value in society, that conversation would be less to do with arts vs sciences and more to with arts vs business (mainly in the US and the UK).

It’s also good that the immigration officer didn’t have the time or inclination to ask me what my paper was about. I can’t imagine that a chat about a site-specific theatre piece exploring ideas of borders in South America with a multicultural cast would have gone down very well.

I had a lovely week in Boston, a city I had never visited before. It was great to visit such iconic institutions as Harvard University and the MIT and to meet interesting new people. It was also fab to catch up with my friend and collaborator Sophie, a talented musician and puppeteer that I had met and worked together with in Edinburgh.

My first post-visa nightmare entrance back to Scotland was smooth. The immigration officers at Edinburgh airport were kind as they always have been with me, but my possession of a Tier 4 visa card still raised the question on arrival: “what are you studying?”. I always feel like I have to crack a joke in these situations, but this time, I proudly said “I’m doing a PhD in theatre at the RCS. Formerly known as the RSAMD, as taxi drivers in Glasgow will never let you forget”. The officer giggled, stamped my passport, wished me all the best, and let me through.

P.S. In addition to the link posted above to a summarised version of the paper, I did a video interview about my project for Black Sheep talks when I was in Boston, which you can watch here.

 

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The smell of hops and chips

I have a few friends who first moved to Edinburgh because of a loved one. That’s not what brought me here, but I wrote about the reasons behind choosing Edinburgh in the first place in another post. This one is about what made me want to stay.

It’s a question I get asked often – twice the past week. So here’s why.

After the mad rush to get everything ready and fly back which followed getting my latest visa and 3 days of airports and airplanes and very little sleep, I landed.

I felt a lot of tension, but unlike previous times, with that validation on my passport, I swiftly breezed through immigration, only a couple of easy questions asked. As ever, the immigration officer at Edinburgh Airport was welcoming and polite. I pity people who have no choice but to enter the UK via Heathrow. On the other side of the gates, two of my most loyal friends awaited patiently and the reunion was joyful. They were also going to welcome me in their home for the next wee while.

It was Halloween. We got back to the flat, had some dinner, I took a shower and slipped my semi-improvised Typhoid Mary costume on and headed out to meet the rest of the gang to celebrate our favourite holiday, but also the date we have defined as our friendship anniversary. 9 years before, the first big night out we’d had together as a group was on Halloween. This was when, during a West Side Story-esque dispute against the Acting department, we decided we’d call ourselves the DTA MoFos (short for Drama and Theatre Arts Motherfuckers, obviously). The name stuck and the bond only grew stronger. I don’t know many groups of friends as large as ours that have manage to stick together for so long. Together, we’ve been through bereavement, illness, exile, divorce… but also travels, the most hilarious nights out, a whole degree and a half (in the case of people who took a year out or who were the year below us anyway), multiple theatre projects, lavish weddings and weddings on a shoestring, a lot of silliness… and now we have added partners, a couple of extra-university friends, and we are starting to train the next generation to cause havoc with the third MoFo sprog on its way. Some of us have moved away from Edinburgh for a few years, but eventually gravitated back. A couple of us were still away but always kept in the loop and coming together for important events. It feels quite magical, actually. This group of friends is the greatest part of my wish to stay in Edinburgh. I’m not afraid of being OTT and confidently claim I can’t live without them.

Then, there’s Edinburgh itself. Edinburgh is highly addictive. It’s the safest city I’ve ever been in. It’s small enough and compact enough to allow you to walk everywhere and to get a real sense of community from it, but also large enough to find everything you need and never get bored. It’s the capital city of Scotland. It’s the festival capital of the world. There’s always stuff to do in Edinburgh. And it’s SO PRETTY! Fucking hovering castle right in the city centre, to begin with. Loads of lush green areas to frolic around in the summer. We complain a lot about the cold and the rain, but the truth is Edinburgh is beautiful in any weather. It’s mysterious in the rain and fog, and breathtaking in the sunshine. The topography of the city is incredibly dramatic and confusing to first-timers. And this is one of the things I love the most – although walking tour guides will tell you that the Old Town tenements were the first skyscrapers in the world, there are no skyscrapers of the kind modern cities get now, so you can always see the vast sky above. And what skies! The quality of the light in Edinburgh is fascinating – it yields the most amazing sunrises and sunsets and does bizarre things in between. It goes from deep purples and intense oranges to the darkest greys that contrast wonderfully with the bright green of Princes Street gardens and bring out the hues of Castle Rock and Arthur’s Seat. And the sky feels bigger and closer up here.

I usually tell people that the typical smell of hospitals/formaldehyde that most people hate makes me feel comforted, because of my medical family. Hospitals and surgeries smell like my parents, so I feel at home when I’m in one. Edinburgh smells of hops and chips. And I noticed when I headed out in my corset and fishnets, covered in fake blood and carrying a plastic sword that night, that as soon as the zesty and greasy whiff hit my nostrils, I felt comforted, at home.

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Dramatic Edinburgh sky – photo by my lovely friend Kit Millar, who kindly authorised me to use it for the blog

A Turkish detour

At such short notice, the cheapest flights I could find were via Sao Paulo and Istanbul with long layovers at both airports.

My bags never properly got unpacked since 2012 and I had left a number of boxes with some of my belongings scattered around friends’ houses in Edinburgh, which I couldn’t wait to get reunited with (friends and boxes). Within a week of getting the new visa, I was ready to go.

I said my goodbyes to family and friends in Porto Alegre once again and flew to Sao Paulo, where I waited for 10 hours overnight. There was no point trying to leave the airport and I had some translation work to do, so I took as much advantage of the free wifi signing in with different email addresses as possible. Your passport and visa gets checked before leaving the country, so I went through security and immigration there and finally boarded my flight to Istanbul in the morning.

I’d never flown with Turkish Airlines before – they were actually quite a good company. I loved flying over the Sahara Desert in the daytime – it’s a bizarre thing, but you can see the desert moving from above. Truly amazing. I’d never been to Turkey before either, but regrettably, I’d get to Istanbul quite late and although I’d have to wait there for 8 hours, I wouldn’t risk going into the city centre at night so that would have to be a holiday at some point in the future.

I never felt insecure travelling by myself, but I did have a couple of odd moments after landing. First, as soon as I got to the lounge, I noticed that there was a guy following me. I wasn’t sure if he’d been on the same flight or not, but I kept walking and took a few turns and stops to see if he’d go a different way or keep going and he turned when I did, stopped when I stopped. I was under the impression he’d said something about me quietly, but I couldn’t make out what. I then spotted a large group of backpackers sat near one of the shops and made my way there, pretending they were my friends. The guy then disappeared. I saw an empty spot on the floor next to the group and sat there. I took my purse out of my rucksack and started sorting out my money to get some food soon and then another guy approached. Smiling, he took a bag of sweets out of his bag and offered me one. I declined and thanked him, he insisted, shoving the bag in my hand. I lied that I was diabetic and couldn’t eat sweets, which made him give up thankfully. He could be just a genuinely nice guy offering a random some sweets, but again… wouldn’t risk it!

After those two occurrences, the rest of my night at the Istanbul airport was fine. I had some food and some mad ice cream, worked a bit more, drank lots of coffee and eventually made my way to my departure gate, where they checked my visa and my backpack for a third time since I started my journey. The woman doing that was a bit confused about the visa, because the actual stamp on my passport had an expiry date in 7 days because the system changed and I now needed to collect a residency card upon arrival in Edinburgh. I appreciate that the card has biometric data and can be used as ID, which means I don’t have to carry my passport around with me and that’s good, but they could have informed all the people conducting checks that this is how it works so we avoid suspicion and embarrassment. I suppose that’s asking too much.

After all explanations made and accepted, I was allowed to board and head to my final destination – my beloved Edinburgh! This was end of October 2015, when after 3 years in limbo I was allowed to return – not permanently yet, but it was the best shot I had.

Studying in the UK – part 02

I flew to Sao Paulo the day before my interview.

Getting to the place where I needed to hand in the documents was fairly easy from where I was staying. UK visa applications are not handled by the British Consulate directly anymore, but by a third-party contractor, which I am sure is one of the reasons why the process is longer and more expensive now (incidentally: there seem to be a lot of people making a good deal of money out of this whole thing, like legal firms and other companies and freelancers offering specialised visa application services). This company is located in a highly posh business area of Sao Paulo called ‘Brooklin Paulista’, on the ‘United Nations Avenue’, adjacent to a designer furniture shopping centre (I don’t know why I find all of this kinda funny).

I checked in at the reception desk on the ground floor, but I wasn’t allowed to go to the office until my specific appointment time, so as I was about 20 minutes early, I went for a wander around the shopping centre to see things I will never buy. When the time came, I went back to reception and was given a visitor’s pass and allowed to go up in the lift to the 18th floor, where the VSF Visa Application Centre is. There were two offices there, one processing visas for Canada, and the other, for the UK. I walked into the latter, where a nice lady at the door in security uniform asked to check my appointment confirmation and then instructed me to take my documents out of my bag and leave bag, phone, and all other personal belongings in a locker (at least this one was free, unlike the ones across the street from the US Consulate). Following that, I was ushered to a bright, smaller room with two attendants sitting behind bank clerk-like desks and a line of chairs. I was told to sit down and wait for my name to be called.

I stood up and went to the attendant who’d called my name and gave her my documents – a hard copy of the application form I’d completed online, a copy of my CAS statement, a letter from my bank manager confirming I had the funds to support myself for the first year and its translation, and my passport. She asked me whether I had booked my flights yet and I replied that I hadn’t. Then she asked me when I was meant to start my course, I said induction was scheduled for the 21st September (exactly a month after this day). She scribbled some things down, ticked some boxes, and asked me to take a seat again and wait to be called for the interview.

About 10 minutes later, she emerged from behind her desk and asked me to follow her into an even smaller room with a desktop computer set up with headphones and a mic on a small table. The attendant left the room and I sat down, put the headphones on and said hello to the lady on the screen, speaking to me from one of the Home Office cubicles in Sheffield. She introduced herself and explained that this would be a short interview, then asked me to confirm that I was in good physical and mental health and fully aware that my answers would be recorded. I did so, and without a smile or any small talk, she began the interview. She asked me to confirm the name of my intended place of study and when I said the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, she looked puzzled. Cue her faffing about for a couple of minutes, presumably trying to find information about the place, asking where in the UK this ‘conservatory’ was. I wondered if whenever they get someone who isn’t aiming for London, they get confused. She eventually found it on her list and proceeded to ask me why I’d chosen this course. I began: “well, I attended Open Days at other…” and then she interrupted me, saying she didn’t need my life story, just straightforward answers. Taken aback by the sudden rudeness, I replied that I wanted to pursue an academic career and develop my practice further. Her next question was whether I had considered other places of study, which made me a little bit angry and I started my answer with, “as I tried to tell you 30 seconds ago, yes… I attended Open Days at other universities”. I don’t think she liked that. It might have been stupid to give her backchat, but come on…

The interview went on for another few minutes with more roundabout questions such as how this course would benefit me and why it had to be this one. She concluded the chat and asked me to leave the room. I sat outside again, with a terrible feeling that I’d fucked it up. Clerk girl came back and ushered me into another small room, where she took a picture of me and my fingerprints. She explained that everything would be sent to the UK Embassy in Bogota, Colombia, where all South American applications were now processed, and I would be getting emails informing me of the progress of mine. After that, I was done. I collected my belongings from the locker and left.

I was feeling tired and discouraged, but on the way back to my friends’ flat and to Porto Alegre later on the same day, I tried to not think too much about it and focus on La Niña Barro, which was going to a festival in Uruguay in a few weeks’ time and I would only get the visa decision after that.

 

 

 

No place I’d rather be

Back in 2005, when I started planning my escape to Scotland, my first plan was to go to Glasgow and study at the (then) RSAMD. My first attempt was neutralised by a rejection letter after a terrible audition tape – bitter as it may sound, I didn’t fancy myself as an actor anyway and only applied to that because it was the only course I had knowledge of at the time. The good thing about being rejected was that it prompted me to expand my research to Edinburgh, which led me to a course that sounded more like what I was after (and turned out to be pretty shit, but that’s another story). I also found out I was allowed to apply to up to 6 courses through UCAS and spread my wings across Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberystwyth and somewhere in England that I can’t remember. Second time round, I get unconditional offers from all of them. I quickly dismissed most of those, giving myself a couple of weeks to decide between Aberystwyth and Queen Margaret University, and although the Welsh course sounded more convincing, I accepted QMU’s offer because of Edinburgh. I had never been to Edinburgh before in my life, I didn’t know anyone who had lived or been there, but I had a good feeling about this place. Also, I’d read about this Edinburgh Fringe Festival thing, “largest performing arts festival in the world”, and for someone wishing to pursue a career in theatre, it just sounded like it was the right place to be.

I arrived in Edinburgh for the first time on 31st August, 2006, just in time for the fireworks concert. I did not experience the Fringe until the following year, when I was invited to be stage crew for a couple of my lecturers’ show. I was there for the first 10 days of the festival only, as I had booked a trip to Brazil to attend a cousin’s wedding, but it was enough to give me a good taste of what the Fringe actually was and I promised to myself I’d be there for the whole thing next year. In 2008, I got a flyering job with a company producing mostly Irish comedy shows. That was the year I decided that, no matter where I were living or working, I absolutely HAD TO be in Edinburgh every August and enter this magic interdimensional portal that opens in the city every summer. Cue 5 consecutive years of mad parties, indulging in theatre from all over the world, A LOT of hard work and stress, fringe flings, ridiculous amounts of fun, the best show I’ve seen and been part of ever, very little or no sleep at all, and wonderful memories which will get re-told endlessly until the day I die. And then September 2012 came and, as you know if you have been following this blog or if you actually know me in real life, I was forced to leave the UK and was subsequently refused an Exceptional Talent visa to come back.

When the Fringe programme was out in 2013 and I was in Brazil, I had a huge breakdown. It was the first and only time in my life that I needed to be given tranquilisers. For a week, I felt I could do nothing but sit and watch TV, from early morning to bedtime. I avoided the internet for a few days, as I couldn’t bear my friends’ updates about the Fringe that year. Then, I realised there was nothing preventing me from just coming to visit as a tourist. My best friend from home would get married in Portugal in September that year, and I was one of her bridesmaids, so I’d be travelling to Europe anyway. May as well go a month earlier and experience the Fringe as a mere audience member for the first time (I wrote about that here), and that was actually quite nice. With re-invigorated stubbornness, I returned to Brazil after that, applied for the Exceptional Promise visa and was refused again, but I had such a great idea for a show. Determined to not back down, I started working on La Niña Barro with Eli, Alex, and Marta over skype and email and boom – we had a show in the 2014 Fringe. We had our problems with it, but it felt good to be back in the game.

Fast forward to the Fringe 2015. I wasn’t planning to put on a show of mine, but I offered my services to a couple of theatre companies I know and was very excited to be invited to work with both during their Edinburgh run. Only problem: the new student visa I was about to request would only be valid from 30 days before the start of my course, or the end of August. But I had a cunning plan. If I could get my new visa before August, I would travel to the UK and enter under a Visitor Entertainer stamp to work during the Fringe, then come September hop across the water to Spain/Portugal to check on my girls for a few days and return to the UK once the validity of the student visa started. I wrote to the Home Office asking if this would be acceptable, and they confirmed I would be ok to do that. Sorted. But this is me and nothing would be easy, right?

Right. So, due to a much more complex and unnecessarily roundabout system now, my student visa application was delayed (I will write about this part of the saga on another post), making me miss the Fringe for the first time in 9 years! I can’t even begin to tell you the level of rage and frustration I achieved when I realised this was happening. It wasn’t a sad meltdown like the one I had in 2013, it was an angry one this time. Although the companies I had committed to had been warned that this might happen, it was still embarrassing to have to tell them they couldn’t count on me to help with the run. This is what this immigration policy does, ultimately: it generates angst, frustration, shame, stress, self-doubt. If I hadn’t already received an offer and confirmation of a research studentship at the RCS, this would have been the point of throwing in the towel.

I felt the need to vent about this and wrote a long email that sat in my drafts folder for about a week, as I didn’t even know who to send it to. Eventually, I fired it in all sorts of directions: politicians, journalists, arts organisations, bloggers, education councils… I received two replies agreeing that yes, it was terrible. There, there. That was it. Powerlessness wins.

There is no definite conclusion to this post. I am writing this 8 months after the events and it still makes me bitter. I can only cling on to the ridiculous glimmer of hope and optimism that I don’t know why I still have deep inside that things will change for the better eventually.

 

A Trial Run of Curitiba

I had been to Curitiba, capital of the Brazilian state of Paraná, only once before, roughly 12 years ago. Back then, I was at uni in Porto Alegre, studying to become an EFL teacher, and the reason of my visit to Curitiba was a TEFL convention. I didn’t remember much about it, as I was only there for a weekend and spent most of my time at the convention, but the few memories I had were of the good kind. I started paying attention to the city again in the past few years for a number of reasons: a couple of my cousins moved there, their official twitter account is absolutely hilarious (Portuguese speakers only, soz), and they have the largest and oldest theatre festival in Brazil, Fringe included. In addition, it’s famous for having a colder climate than the rest of Brazil year-round and for having a decent public transport system. It sounded like a good place to live in if I ever decided to move back to Brazil, so I thought I would give it a trial run. I got a job as a venue manager at the Fringe and went to Curitiba for a month.

I stayed with one of my cousins for the first week and couchsurfed the rest of the time. I was in charge of Solar do Barão, a gorgeous listed building that houses the Museum of Photography, Museum of Engravings, and a comic books library year-round. This 19th-century manor house was the family home of Ildefonso Pereira Correia, Baron of Serro Azul, whose intriguing story I learned from the staff and some audience members while I worked there. A yerba mate lord back in his day, the Baron once saved the city of Curitiba from being pillaged by rowdy gauchos (my ancestors), but entered a complicated political tangle that got him assassinated on a train en route to Rio. After his death, the Baroness moved next door and donated the manor to the Army. It was used as a barracks until about 30 years ago, when it was passed on to the Curitiba Cultural Foundation.

As cool as the story of the venue is, it has its problems as a place to host fringe theatre shows. Having to create a performance space where there isn’t one wasn’t the issue – building the truss and putting the dance floor down was the easiest part. The hard work included shifting a baby grand piano (which allegedly belonged to the Baron and no one is allowed to touch) and accommodating pieces that involved liquids being spilled on stage. The venue regulations stated that the use of liquids, food, and fire was strictly prohibited, due to the risk of damaging the historical structure. Also, with no accessibility, no trained first aiders anywhere to be seen, no emergency lights, and only one possible exit down a wooden staircase, the venue was a death trap.

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We took a group of 20 blind people and one wheelchair user up and down these.

Thankfully, we didn’t have any emergency situations, but I was kept on my toes throughout the full run. I was also fortunate to be working with a tiny, but very good and attentive team.

What of the result of my experiment? Well, it’s unfair to compare this with the Edinburgh Fringe – it’s unfair to compare anything with the Edinburgh Fringe. Some negative aspects of the festival were the relative dullness (it was way quieter than I expected), unclear relationship with performers (a few of the ones we worked with didn’t seem to understand what a ‘fringe’ was), difficulties with the venue (they have an interesting festival-funded venues system, but it’s full of restrictions), and the ‘Ticketless Movement’, which seemed like a good idea at first, but annoyed me to no end, and could be used in a more productive way. On the plus side, I met lots of interesting people and got a dose of some good acting. As for my expectations regarding the city, it was all lies. I think it rained only once in the whole month I was there, temperatures stayed between 30 and 35°C, and getting a seat on a bus is just impossible (well, having enough room to breathe on buses was a laborious task). It has its perks: it’s pretty, it’s clean, and it’s cheap, but I have stopped considering it as a possible base. I would definitely like to go back to visit, though, and potentially to participate in the festival again.

On Holding it Together

DSCF5622As I walked down the Royal Mile aiming for the fudge shop, it didn’t feel that it was my last day in Edinburgh again. It even felt like it was business as usual later on when my friends and I did a mad dash out to Falkirk to see the Kelpies before I left (which are magnificent, by the way), and after that, when we all had dinner at Toby Carvery in Corstorphine. I wasn’t ridiculously drunk this time and I wasn’t flooding the place with tears, declarations of love and promises to return soon. I was angry, though. I was fuming inside. The however many stages of grief, I suppose. If I keep going back and leaving, it will eventually turn into resignation acceptance.

So I came back to Brazil, I lost and recovered my luggage, I went to the beach for a few days, saw my relatives, etc. And then I had to have a haircut and I freaked out. See, my family and friends are now used to hearing about my struggle with the UK draconian immigration laws, but people who don’t know me aren’t, and the prospect of having to explain the story of my life for the umpteenth time to a complete stranger filled me with dread. Not just having to go over painful details that were now swept under the rug again, but to be seen as a failure. You might say this is not true, but this is how I feel when I start telling the story and people question each one of my moves. I obviously failed as a theatre maker because I didn’t get an Exceptional Talent visa – that means I’m not good at what I’ve chosen to do. I also failed at doing something else because I never got a ‘real’ job that would lead to a work visa – that means I’m not good at anything else. I failed at being a seductress because I didn’t score a British husband/partner that would get me a spouse visa – fuck knows what that means and that’s a different can of worms. I failed at being a smart ass rogue Brazilian and never got a fake EU passport – that means I’m not good at being dishonest. Please understand that I don’t necessarily think those things about myself, but I can see that thought process happening inside the heads of people I talk to.

I still needed that haircut. I kid you not, I rehearsed a slightly different life story at home before booking my appointment. When the inevitable ‘so what do you do’ and ‘where do you stay’ questions came up, I’d tell them I was a freelance translator and lived between Porto Alegre and Livramento, where I often visit to check on my mum. That’s all. Uneventful. I work from home, have few friends, I don’t go out and don’t travel much, only been to Uruguay a few times. Unmarried, two cats. No, never lived abroad, only studied English over here at language schools and then at uni. Yep, that’s it. We’re just trimming the ends today, nothing radical. That’s lovely, perfect. Thanks, bye.

It didn’t happen like that. I can be a good liar, but this whole situation and my angst about it are stronger than me. I ended up telling the hairdresser I lived in Scotland but had to come back for a few months to work on a project. So I managed to avoid the immigration chat, but I couldn’t bring myself to saying I lived in Brazil permanently. Maybe it feels that if I do, I will then be finally giving up and resigning to it. Maybe I just really couldn’t be bothered with the whole saga. In either case, this type of reaction worries me. It probably is only natural in the course to acceptance of a personal tragedy, but it can’t be right for someone to panic because they’ll be asked two ordinary questions at a hair salon. I realise how much of an overstatement that sounds, but trust me, it messes with your head.

I remember a conversation I had once with someone close to me that suffered from actual mental health issues and they asked me what my disorder was, assuming no one is ‘normal’. I said I didn’t have anything, or at least had never been diagnosed, or ever felt the need to be checked over. I have been ‘accused’ by a couple of exes of being ridiculously self-sufficient and aware, and maybe that is an indication of something. I get anxious and sad, but I believe those things happen at a level considered normal – I’ve never stopped functioning as a result of anxiety, sadness or even fatigue. I have no intention of hijacking attention from, or disrespecting people (including friends and family) who really suffer from mental health conditions, and I think I’ve generally been good at handling those (if you are one of my crazies and you’re reading this, I’m sorry if you ever felt I didn’t treat you right, I’m still learning). What I’m trying to say is that, although I didn’t lock myself up at home, I’ve close to having some sort of breakdown a couple of times since this started, and sometimes I’m not sure how I am still holding it together. Maybe self-sufficiency and awareness do come in handy, after all. I’m just not sure if they are everlasting.

Synergy – When the Universe is Stage Managed

I’ve long now stopped being a mystical person or a believer in any sort of dogma – which, contrary to what some might think, has made me much happier, calmer and more understanding. And despite a recurring in-joke that I make reference to in the title of this post, I do not believe in fate or that “things happen for a reason”. I mean, they do happen for a reason, but generally that reason is right here, in our world, and it tends to simply be other people. People make good and bad things happen (well, nature does as well, but we all know by now that people have influenced nature an awful lot). So I’m writing this post about one particularly good week I had in Edinburgh, when some of the good people in my life provided me with much needed positivity at that point.

I was supposed to leave Scotland a couple of days after the Referendum, but considering that my Visitor Visa allowed me to stick around for six months, I decided to change my flight back and stay until January. I wasn’t allowed to take up employment and the money I had brought with me for my time away since I left for Spain in June was running out, but with the help of my ridiculously generous friends and some cash I made from working for a translation office back in Brazil, I managed the extra months (the internet is a wonderful thing). And this week at the start of November made the effort worthwhile, because everything felt normal for the first time in ages.

To begin with, I got to direct a short piece for Collider, an event organised by fellow theatremakers at Discover 21. I hadn’t planned on taking part, but I was asked to stand in for a friend who was ill, and I had no idea that a short, simple thing would make such a big difference. It was so refreshing as well, as I hadn’t worked with scripted theatre for a couple of years and it was great to flex those muscles. A couple of days later, I was invited to participate of the audition panel for Charioteer Theatre‘s upcoming show, A Bench on the Road. Again, it was something I hadn’t done for a while and it was incredibly gratifying – particularly because I got to meet dozens of talented Scottish actresses of all ages. Finally, I had a special friend visiting from London at the weekend and we had a great time out and about in Edinburgh, during which the photo below was taken. This is relevant because I posted the photo to facebook and it was my all-time most liked picture there, with many comments stating how happy I looked. It’s just a photo of me drinking a cup of tea, but I think facebookers were right – I did feel very happy then, and I think it just showed.

Choosing to stay a little longer in Edinburgh was the right decision. I spent a lot of time at the computer working on my translations, which I could have done back in Brazil, but there is a massive difference in being able to do it while Jen throws Jaffa Cakes at me and Mark makes endless cups of tea, and then signing off to go meet Pam and Jenni for dinner and cinema, or Dawn and Leila for drinks, or Julia for coffee, or drop by Fiona’s work, you get the gist. Synergy is when different parts combined achieve an effect that is greater than the sum of their separate effects, and that is definitely what I experience when I am in Edinburgh with these people.

 

tea

 

A Spanish Preview and a Nervous Flight

We reached the end of our rehearsal period and scheduled a preview of La Niña Barro for family and friends at Las Cigarreras, to run the show in front of an audience before taking it to the Edinburgh Fringe. After much negotiation with the venue and a tad stressful tech run, I’m happy to inform it went rather well. It also went very fast. I think we were all inevitably anxious about test-driving this piece we’d been working on for months, working through broken limbs, family illness and immigration problems, and all that bottled up energy suddenly came out on stage and the girls rushed a bit. It still went well.

The day after our preview, I was even more of a nervous wreck. I would be flying to Edinburgh that afternoon, a few days before Eli and Alex. I also spent an extra £90 on my flight to go directly from Alicante, avoiding a London stop. You see, all the horror stories I’ve heard happened at London airports, so I avoid them if I can. In my experience, Edinburgh immigration officers are much more polite and understanding (i.e. they will treat you as a human being). Besides, if I have any problems in Edinburgh, I know all it takes is one phone call to have half the city at the airport to help me (I’m not being smug, I just honestly know A LOT of people).

Despite taking measures to curb my anxiety, I can’t help feeling massively nervous every time I fly to a different country now, and I think this feeling will linger for a long time. But flying to Scotland, back to Edinburgh, is so meaningful to me that it provokes butterflies akin to those you are meant to get at the most special moments in your life: your 15th birthday party (if you’re a Latin American girl – if you’re not, wikipedia explains what this means), getting your exam results, your graduation, your wedding, that sort of thing. So I am in this state of mind when Carlos and Eli drive me to the airport in Alicante, on a very warm Sunday afternoon.

I’ve done the online check-in but need to take my suitcase to the counter. Before they can check in my luggage, however, I need to go to Jet2’s sales counter so they can start verifying my authenticity before I even leave the Schengen zone. The attendant asks to see my reservation and my passport and then, flicking through the pages, asks me: “just to confirm – you don’t have a visa for the UK?”. I say I don’t, but that I’m coming as a tourist, so I don’t require one. He looks me sideways, types stuff into his computer, looks at my passport again, asks me how long I’m going to the UK for. I reply that I will be there for 2 months and offer to show him my return ticket from Madrid to Porto Alegre, explaining that I just haven’t booked my return from Edinburgh to Madrid yet because I’m waiting to hear back from a couple of events I might be attending. He finally agrees to stamp my boarding pass and let me finalise my check-in. Eli just shakes her head in awe that I have to go through this.

I say goodbye to Eli, go through security and finally board the plane, but the pressure on my chest only gets worse. The plane lands and there I am, completed landing card, passport and my folder with a stack of paper to prove that I have no intention of illegally settling in Scotland. The queue wasn’t too bad, I got to the counter much more quickly than the last time – maybe because this time I arrived a few days before all the festival malarkey kicked off. Now, I wasn’t sure whether my passport would make the alarm bells sounds or not this time. My old passport expired at the start of the year, so this was a new one. I’d been refused a visa on my old passport, but I didn’t get to apply for the actual visa on this one, having only been refused the Arts Council endorsement. Turns out the refusal is actually attached to your name, not to your passport. The lady who served me at the immigration desk looked at her screen for a few moments while flicking through the pages and then smiled and asked if this was my first time in Edinburgh. I said no and proceeded to telling her my potted life story and visa saga, showing documents as they were mentioned, including the letter from the Fringe office confirming I was bringing a show this year. This allowed me to ask for an Entertainer Visitor visa, which differs from a Tourist visa only in the sense that I was allowed to take payment for the performances we did at the Fringe. She took all the paperwork from me and went into the back room, asking me to wait. She came back in less than 10 minutes and stamped my passport, explaining that I was allowed to stay for up to six months. She then asked me if I would be looking for a job during my time in Edinburgh and I said I intended to, but did not have ay interviews lined up yet. She stressed that it would be fine for me to go to interviews, but I was not allowed to take up employment on this visa, I would then need to change to a Tier 2 or Tier 5. I reassured her that I was well aware of that and had no intention of working illegally. She gave me my stamped passport back and wished me luck with a smile.

NB: Preview and pre-flight nerves aside, this was a fast and pleasant experience, if compared to last year’s visit, or to this story of a Malaysian photographer who was in a very similar situation but wasn’t so lucky – arriving in London two days before I arrived in Edinburgh this year

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Alicante: Politics, Desert and Theatre

I arrived in Alicante, but my suitcase did not. Not a great start. But ok, at least I had made it this far, I was back in Europe and felt one step closer to get things back on track. No stress. I was also lucky enough to be staying with friends that could lend me clothes for the first few days until the luggage arrived. None of that was a problem.

Alicante is an interesting city. Of all places in Spain, I thought it was hilarious that I ended up in the one that kinda looked like Edinburgh, with a similarly shaped castle on top of a rock towering above the city centre:

Edinburgh Castle, by Duncan Smith, lovingly stolen from http://www.lastminutecottageholiday.co.uk/visitedinburghscotland.html.

Edinburgh Castle, by Duncan Smith, lovingly stolen from http://www.lastminutecottageholiday.co.uk/visitedinburghscotland.html.

Castillo Santa Bárbara, Alicante, by Juan Carlos Soler, lovingly stolen from http://www.lastminutecottageholiday.co.uk/visitedinburghscotland.html

Castillo Santa Bárbara, Alicante, by Juan Carlos Soler, lovingly stolen from http://www.lastminutecottageholiday.co.uk/visitedinburghscotland.html

The two cities are also about the same size, even though Alicante has a slightly smaller population but looks slightly more like a big city with its shiny shopping centres and beach resorts. Alicante is also a popular spot for Brits, so it’s common to hear English spoken on the streets and see English menus in bars and restaurants. Similarities end there, and the biggest difference is: it NEVER rains in Alicante!

In fact, when you get out of the city and go to the surrounding towns or villages (like the one I was staying in, San Vicente de Raspeig), what you see is a desert with dunes and mountains of red earth that are much more akin to a Moroccan than to a Scottish landscape. It is still beautiful, in spite of all the problems caused by the constant state of drought in the region.

Politically speaking, Alicante is part of the Generalitat Valenciana, and therefore somewhat removed from Madrid-centered politics. Most of the people I spoke to were very much in favour of a Spanish Republic, a feeling strengthened by the recent abdication of King Juan Carlos. However, there didn’t seem to be an organised enough pro-Republic movement there, and even less so a movement for independence like in Catalunya. Curious thing I learned: Valencian and Catalan are pretty much the same language (which I can sort of understand when spoken and written, but haven’t learned to speak).

So it was in this new context that I was reunited with Eli and first met Alex in person, the two performers working on my (now itinerant, but still officially Edinburgh-based) theatre company’s new piece, La Niña Barro. Sociopolitical and cultural contexts shaping artistic creation is a rather obvious thing, but less discussed and perhaps more intriguing is to analyse how a geographical context can influence devising a piece of theatre (that is not site-specific). We hadn’t thought about that until the three of us got together in real life – Eli and Alex were born and bred in Alicante and therefore stopped noticing their surroundings. I had never been there before and therefore couldn’t have a clear idea of what the place looked like. Inevitably, the sensations gained from long, warm, dry afternoons spent on the porch of Eli’s house gazing up at the mountains and arid land of red clay around them, made their way into the aesthetics of the piece and helped us define colours, movement and sound.

This might be the best argument against the digital/virtual, theatremaking that we initially used, flagged by a few peers as a potentially detrimental thing to our art, and something that could easily become a good excuse for the issuing of even fewer artist visas. There are, of course, many successful theatre productions that make use of technology, and in our case, it was the only possible way of getting the project started, but I agree that it shouldn’t be seen as a suitable replacement for presential work. After all, this is theatre/performance’s “unique selling point” against film – it is the live experience that makes it so special.

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