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.