One more storm…

I got notified by email that a decision had been made about my latest visa application, but the email did not say whether the outcome was positive or not. I would have to wait until I got my passport back to find out. Time was ticking, I had already missed the official induction and first few weeks of my PhD programme. I was in Porto Alegre with my mum and my sister, waiting.

I had been provided with a tracking number for the package containing my documents, including my current and expired passports, and the answer to end my agony. I would check the Brazilian postal services tracking system every day, until this one day when I logged on and the status of the package was showing as DELIVERED. Except that I didn’t have it. I rushed downstairs to check the letterbox, only leaflets from restaurants and bills. So I did what a sane person would do and rang the Brazilian mail customer service, a generic number to a central in Sao Paulo. The attendant on the other side helpfully informed me that the package was showing as delivered in their system, which I obviously knew, but kept trying to explain that I didn’t get it. Delivered where, then? I don’t know, madam. Ok, can you give me the contact details to the Porto Alegre distribution centre, please? Sorry, madam, I’m not authorised to do that. Great. Next stop, Google. I called the main distribution centre in Porto Alegre, they said they didn’t have it and gave me the number to another distribution centre. I rang that many times and no one was picking up.

This was a Saturday, so the chances of sorting this out over the weekend were looking increasingly unlikely. I was narrating the saga to friends online, who justifiably wondered how many things could still go wrong with my attempts to move back to Scotland. At this point, I started thinking that either the postie would still deliver the package on that same day, or they had delivered it the day before to a neighbour. I had been out most of the day with my family, so that was possible. I also thought that if that was the case, said neighbour would have given the envelope to me by then, but hey… Saturday mornings.

While I waited, I began thinking… if this envelope was lost, I would have to report 3 passports lost (including the expired ones), ask QMU to re-issue my BA diploma, report my US visa lost and apply for a new one, and then try to find out somehow whether or not I had been issued a UK visa and apply for a new one AGAIN! And get a new passport, obviously. Meaning that would result in a whole year wasted. Granted, it looked like this could be the Brazilian mail system’s fault, but I couldn’t help thinking that all the hassle could be avoided if the UK hadn’t given their visa business to a third-party agent and operated in a similar line to the US, who deliver passports to your nearest consular unit and you just pick it up from there. I never thought I’d speak highly of the USA, but there. Although I only applied for a visitor’s visa with them, my experience was way better.

It was approaching 11am and still no sign of the mail. I was planning to start knocking on doors soon, deeming that an acceptable time. I began to assess my neighbours and the likelihood of them holding my envelope hostage: my favourite neighbour was a retired Art lecturer across the hall, who knew I stayed up late and had my number, so even if he had received the envelope but had to go out or something, he would have sent me a message about it. Next door, a guy I never spoke to much, who seemed a bit odd but not crazy. He wouldn’t have any reason to withhold the package. Downstairs there was an empty flat, a girl I’d never seen, only heard about, and another guy who had passed me in the hall the previous night and said hello – presumably, if he had the envelope, he’d have mentioned it/given it to me then.

I decided to go and camp out downstairs, waiting for the postie. Art lecturer across the hall went out, I told him about the drama, he said he had received a parcel he’d been expecting the day before, but nothing for me. I kept on waiting. Guy next door went out with his dog, said he hadn’t been at home either so he hadn’t received anything on my behalf. I waited some more. Eventually, a random car pulled over and a guy wearing normal clothes came to the front gate holding an envelope. I ran towards him and lo and behold, it WAS MY FUCKING ENVELOPE! Given that this guy was clearly not a postman in service, I believe there was a genuine fuck-up somewhere in their delivery system. But all that stopped being important because I dashed upstairs to open the envelope and find all my documents intact and MY SHINY NEW UK VISA in my current passport! Words can’t describe the relief that overcame me. It was only buying time, but I was finally going home.

Advertisements

A USA Visa in Three Acts

ACT I
scene i

Santana do Livramento. A large living room, Flav sits at the laptop and types.

Typetypetypetypenotaterroristnevertraffickedhumanoranimalswholeorinpiecesnotacriminalneverbeenneversupportednevernevernocheckallthenoboxescheckcheckchektypetypetypesignsubmit.

I do wonder if anyone ever answers ‘yes’ to any of these questions. I mean… you’re kinda fucked either way, aren’t you? If you are, or have ever been, a criminal and you say so, they’re not going to let you in their country. If you are, or have ever been, a criminal and you deny it, they’ll find out you’ve lied and they’re not going to let you in their country.

scene ii

Same. A few days later.

Currency exchange rate win – US dollar down – thumbs up for cheaper fee! Book appointment – they say Brasilia is never busy, but I don’t have free accommodation there. It would be cool to go to Belo Horizonte for the first time (remember that time when I wrote a BH travel guide without having ever set foot in the place? Lol), but again, no free couch. Rio or Sao Paulo, then? Not been to Sao Paulo in a while (remember that friend I keep promising to visit there?), aye, go on then. Booked. Flights. Booked. Ouch.

Facebooks friend in SP.

O hai, remember how I said I would come visit at some point? So how about this date? Yeah, I mean 31st May, June doesn’t have 31 days. Yeah, already booked flights. Oh… crap. Chile, huh? That’s… awesome. Love Chile. Beautiful country. New girlfriend? Oh, fab. In Chile? On the 31st May? Excellent. Ach, well. (surely there will be hostels in SP) Flatmate? Ok. Sorry… but thanks!

ACT II

scene i

Porto Alegre. Big glass building on busy avenue surrounded by corporatey-businessy-type buildings. USA flag, motherfucking bald eagle staring down at you.

No queues at all. Really nice, polite people. Open bag, lemme see, rummage, rummage, that’s great thank you, on you go. Metal detector, no beeps. That’s lovely, thank you, on to the first desk, please. Appointment? Yes, everything seems to be ok, would you like your passport posted back to you or to collect here? Collection is quicker and you can do it on Sundays. Postal services not guaranteed. Collection it is. Thank you, please take a seat and they will call you shortly. Shortly. Please, look into the camera – click – thank you for your soul. Please, fingers on the pad – BRIGHT LIGHT – thank you for your identity forever. Sticker on passport, appointment in Sao Paulo confirmed. Kthxbye.

ACT III

scene i

Sao Paulo. Paulista Avenue, outside the Art Museum, phone in hand, confused look, wandering back and forth to the back of the Museum esplanade.

How the fuck am I supposed to get down there to get the bus? Flying?

scene ii

Gets off the bus, follows the various signs indicating ‘American Consulate? Park here’, ‘American Consulate? Take passport photos here’, ‘American Consulate? Have a coffee before you go in here’. Finds American Consulate. Takes a while to find the entrance.

DOOR LADY: Good morning, do you have an appointment?

FLAV: Yes, I do. Here’s the confirmation. Hands sheet with printed bar code over.

DOOR LADY: Great, thanks. You are not allowed to go in with any weapons, lighters, or electronic equipment, including mp3 players and your phone.

FLAV: Can I just turn my phone off?

DOOR LADY: No, you’re not allowed to go in with your phone on you.

FLAV: Ok. Do you have lockers?

DOOR LADY: No, sorry.

FLAV: Right… I can’t go back home and re-schedule this, so what do I do?

DOOR LADY: There are lockers outside that you can rent.

FLAV: Fine. Where can I find them?

DOOR LADY: Sorry, can’t tell you.

FLAV: Fantastic. Turns around in despair and sees the parade of ‘American Consulate? Rent a locker space here’ signs across the street. Chooses one of the garage spaces, places phone inside a mini locker and pays R$ 10 to the girl at the makeshift table with a card machine.

scene iii

FLAV: I’m back. No phone.

DOOR LADY: Lovely. Scans bar code on paper. In you go.

SECOND DOOR MAN: Can I have a look in your bag, please? Ok. Go ahead.

THIRD DOOR LADY: Do you have an appointment? Scans bar code on paper. Thank you, please join the yellow line.

Stands in the yellow line for 45 minutes.

FIRST DESK LADY: Can I have your passport, please? Any other passports? Thank you, please join the security line.

Stands in the security line for 20 minutes.

SECURITY MAN: No jackets, no phones, no jewellery, no phones, no lighters, no jackets, no jewellery, all papers in the plastic folder, no phones, no weapons, no jackets, no belts, no mp3 players, no lighters, papers in the plastic folder, nothing in pockets, no jackets, no phones, no jewellery, no lighters, no weapons, no jackets… ad infinitum

X-Ray. Metal Detector. Clear. Go.

scene iv

A bunker in the back garden of the American Consulate SP.

SECOND DESK LADY: Can I see your passport, please? That’s great, thank you. Please join line number 8.

Stands in line number 8 for 10 minutes, eavesdropping on people’s interviews.

LINE LADY: Please go to window number 3.

WINDOW MAN: (in Portuguese with an American accent) Bom dia! Mão direita aqui, por favor. Sim, direita. Obrigado. Qual é o motivo da visita aos Estados Unidos? Oh, do you have an invitation letter or something? Boston? February? What kind of conference? Art? But the computer says you’re a translator. Hm, ok. What type of art? Theater? What type of theater? Hahaha. Present a paper on what? Oh, that makes sense! How long did it take you to pick up a Scottish accent? I can’t understand it sometimes. Married? Ok. Well, good luck. Your request has been approved and here’s some more information. It will take about 10 days for your passport to be returned.

scene v

Three days later.Still in Sao Paulo. Email pops up on screen.

Your passport is ready for collection in Porto Alegre.

Collect passport with visa a week later. Celebrate. 

THE END

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.

The Spanish Adventure part 1 – flying

The Edinburgh Fringe 2013 was the first Fringe I attended as a mere audience member. It had a good side to it, it was nice being able to see everything I wanted for a change, and not having to stress about flyering, get-ins and reviews. It felt very strange to not be a participant for the first time in 7 years, though. So I decided that despite the difficulties of my immigration status, I would bring a show to the Fringe in 2014. I hoped I would get a new visa and be a resident by then, but I knew that I would need to take advantage of technology to actually put the show together. With that in mind, my friend and collaborator Eli agreed to be directed via internet on our new piece, La Niña Barro.

Eli recruited Alex, another talented Spanish performer, to join the project and we were kindly given a free rehearsal space in the form of an artistic residency at contemporary culture centre Las Cigarreras, in Alicante. For good part of a year, the girls received tasks and notes from me via email or facebook, worked on them in the studio and filmed themselves doing so, dropboxed the videos to me and I would send more tasks and notes each week. We would also have skype meetings regularly to discuss things. It wasn’t an easy task, but an interesting challenge at the same time. We worked like this between January and June this year, and then the time came for me to go to Spain and work with them in person.

Many Brazilians, particularly in the southern regions, have European passports due to their Portuguese, Spanish, Italian and German ancestry (these are the most common ones), so I have often been asked this question by people sympathetic to my visa drama. Although it is quite obvious that I have European blood (being white enough and having a string of Iberian last names), I can’t trace my family tree back to whichever great grandparent would make me eligible for double citizenship. I have, however, done a bit of research into potentially moving to Spain as an alternative to Brazil (where I don’t want to be) or Scotland (where I’m not allowed to be).

Spain would not be too bad an idea – I can speak the language, I have friends and professional contacts there, it’s close enough to allow me to visit Scotland more often, and although I still require a visa/work permit to live there, the process seems to be far easier and cheaper than the UK (€ 160 for a Spanish work permit application that can be done in Porto Alegre X £850 for a UK Exceptional Talent visa that has to be done in Rio or Sao Paulo). I just needed a job offer, and my goal was to try and find something in Spain during the 5 weeks I was going to be there rehearsing with Eli and Alex. And thus on the 22nd June 2014, I travelled in the opposite direction of all those mad keen international tourists flocking to Brazil to celebrate one of the ugliest forms of nationalism shaped as the FIFA World Cup.

It’s funny how traumatised you can get once you’ve had a visa application denied. I now feel paranoid that I will be interrogated every time I try to board a plane or arrive somewhere. At the check-in in Porto Alegre, I had my new passport thoroughly checked by the lady behind the desk. She was suspicious because I didn’t have a visa and my return flight was on the 22nd September, exactly three months after departure. Problem was I would leave Madrid on the 22nd, but have an overnight stay in Lisbon to catch an early connection back to Porto Alegre, and that would mean that I would overstay my Schengen tourist visa for OMG SHOCK HORROR  7 hours. After reassuring the airline attendant that I was well aware of regulations, that I wasn’t actually going to be in the Schengen zone for 3 consecutive months (I would nip to the UK for a bit), that I was allowed to be in transit for those extra hours if I didn’t leave the airport in Lisbon, and that I had no intention of doing anything illegal, she agreed to check me in. And all that was BEFORE even leaving Brazil.

I flew from Porto Alegre to Lisbon, where I had no problems getting my Schengen tourist stamp (see older post on my Portuguese experience) and managed to spend a lovely afternoon with one of my best friends ever (who has also had her fair share of immigration drama) before flying to Madrid. But I’ll leave it there now, as I will expand on the Spanish adventure that ensued in future posts. ¡Hasta luego!

Singing gauchos

About a week after Sophie left, another accordionist that collaborated with my theatre company came to visit. Gwennie worked with me in Fronteiras Explorers last year, when she first came into contact with the gaucho culture of southern Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina. She became highly interested in this, as someone who works with Scottish folkloric dance and music back in the UK, and wanted to come back to my home state to do a bit of research on the gaucho folk music festivals we have. Her folk group, The Nest Collective, have a radio show in London and her aim was to do a radio special about gauchos, highlighting an aspect of Brazilian culture that is little known abroad – seriously, hands up who doesn’t automatically think of samba, capoeira and carnaval when they hear ‘Brazil’. Our own bloody fault, but yeah… I thought so.

Anyway, she flew to Porto Alegre, where Patricia and I met her. We also met her friend Phil, a photographer that also had an interest in doing some work about gauchos. Phil had decided to take the BUS down from Rio, and after 27 long hours, we picked him up from the bus station and shoved him in the car for another 3 hours to São Lourenço do Sul, where a folk music festival awaited. São Lourenço is a small town south of Porto Alegre, sitting by Lagoa dos Patos, the largest lagoon in Brazil. Despite being historically important and culturally diverse, it isn’t a highly popular tourist destination. Few non-Brazilians know this, but there was a civil war between 1835 and 1845 during which my home state of Rio Grande do Sul declared itself an independent republic from Brazil. São Lourenço was a strategic point during that war, where Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi (look him up, he’s a super cool dude) set up his shipyard to build the fleet that would be used against the Empire. In addition to this nautical history, the town also offers an interesting insight into immigrant cultures in this part of Brazil, including the amazing contrast between Pomeranians from Germany, encouraged to migrate to find work in the New World, and Africans brought by the slave trade.

The festival itself, Reponte da Canção, is a long-running event and one of the largest in the area. We watched all three nights of the festival, spoke to a few musicians, organisers, local government representatives, and TV hosts. We were interviewed by the TV guys too, you can watch it here (warning: it’s all in Portuguese). Throughout the weekend, the project became to unfold into several projects, as we discussed the many layers that there are to gaucho culture and traditions – don’t worry, this is way too long a discussion for a blog post and I won’t bore you with that, but feel free to get in touch if that is something you’re interested in.

After São Lourenço, we headed back to Porto Alegre to dig a bit further. We took Gwennie and Phil to the Gaucho Institute of Folklore and Tradition, and to a nearby farm to see some gauchos in action. Phil wanted to see even more action, though, so we ended up heading north to the region of the Italian colonies up the mountains, to the even tinier town of Flores da Cunha for a rodeo (special thanks to Pati and Mateus for being delightful hosts over there).

The state of Rio Grande do Sul is bigger than Scotland. There were other things we wanted to do but didn’t have the time, like going to a mate/chimarrão festival. We managed to gather enough material for a couple of decent projects though, and you can see the first of these here, just published by the BBC. I think we did alright taking the road less travelled there, aye?

Charlie’s Angels gone wrong & The Ghost Beach

The main objective of this blog is for me to rant about draconian immigration laws getting in the way of, or influencing my theatre work, and share my border-crosser experiences. But it is also a blog about travelling, so occasionally, I will post stories about interesting places I’ve visited just because. Like this one.

A few days after Neale’s visit and our jaunt around Uruguay and Argentina, another friend came to visit from Scotland. Pam had been here before, so Porto Alegre and Livramento weren’t new to her, but I like taking people to different places, so my sister and I had the idea of taking her to Cambará do Sul, a tiny town on the north of the state of Rio Grande do Sul famous for its national park Aparados da Serra. My sister and I had never been there either, so that would be new to us as well. The most famous thing in the park are the Jurassic-like canyons. We spent two days getting ready to go, checking weather conditions, activating the FlavNav (you know, memorising Google Maps as we still don’t have a GPS), choosing the right clothes for the occasion, and packing bags with enough supplies to survive in the jungle in case we got lost. We ended up looking like a poor version of Charlie’s Angels that didn’t get the brief, which the picture below confirms:

DSCF4163

So we got to Aparados, and stood at the top of trail leading to the main canyon, took a deep breath and trekked into the wild, ready to face the unknown. 45 minutes and hardly any effort later, we were at the canyon. We sat and ate our packed lunches laughing at our OTT prepping and admiring the view.

We spent a couple of hours there just basking in some nature and then went back, took the car and drove across the border (sorry, I had to!) into the state of Santa Catarina so we could U-turn and cross again into Rio Grande do Sul to go to the beach for a few days. We spent one night in Torres, the northernmost and my favourite beach in the south (shout out to Pousada Aventura, the excellent hostel where we stayed), and then went a bit further south to Capão Novo.

Capão Novo is a district of Capão da Canoa, the closest coastal town to Porto Alegre (and it feels like a suburb of Porto Alegre too). My brother has a house in Capão Novo, so we went there for sheer practicality. This, however, was November. Summer hadn’t kicked in yet, and I had never been there out of season. The place was a ghost town. Just a couple of the shops were open, and there was absolutely no one else at the beach apart from me and Pam. We did have a chilled week watching a lot of crap telly – the best show was this Jeremy Kyle-style thing in which a guy was keeping a MASSIVE secret from his girlfriend, and we were trying to guess what it was. We settled for a sex change, but it was revealed (after about 3 hours) that he had signed up to join the mission to colonise Mars!

Oh yeah, we also had a near-death experience when some loony drove straight at our taxi, but our driver managed to swerve and we escaped unscathed. A thrilling week indeed.