February 28, 2008


Jumping right into this topic.

As an American, I am allowed to stay in Holland - and the entire Schengen Area - for three months with just a passport. I know three months isn't enough time for me to figure out if I can make my desire to live in Amsterdam a reality, so I'm applying for a long-stay Schengen Visa, valid for about eight months. Because I'm flying into Paris, I need to apply to the French Consulate - France is my "port of entry" into the Schengen area. This visa won't allow me to (legally) work or declare residency anywhere, but it will serve one very important purpose - I won't get deported for staying in Europe for more than three months if someone asks to see my passport.

Since right now my plan is to stay in Europe from 21 April - 22 December 2008 (at the very least), I need to cover myself. If someone stops me on a street in Amsterdam come October, I need to be able to show that I was granted permission to travel within the Schengen area and that I'm just another tourist.

It's not exactly a fun process to get this visa, which shouldn't come as a surprise. First, I need to get a police report that says I have no criminal record (if you do, I don't know what that means, but I assume it makes things more difficult). To obtain that report, I have to go to the police station in the county where I reside (which is currently Los Angeles). The police just need to see a valid ID that indicates I live in the county that they serve, then they look me up and print out some kind of official letter stating I'm not a criminal. However, as of this morning, I did not have any ID that shows I live in California - my drivers license is from New York (pay attention, Americans, this is important for you to know). So that meant that this morning I had to go to the Department of Motor Vehicles and exchange my New York ID for a California ID. It took about two hours, cost $26, and they required me to provide a thumb print, pass a 36-question written test, take a vision test, and tell them how much I weigh. California is strange.

Now that I have an ID that clearly indicates I live in Los Angeles County, my next stop is the Records & Identification Division of the Los Angeles County Police Department for the police clearance ($15). After that is accomplished, I just need to gather every single piece of documentation imaginable (birth certificate, social security card, etc.) and take all of that to the French Consulate in Los Angeles this upcoming Tuesday, 4 March. Here is an important thing to keep in mind if you don't live in a major US city - there are exactly ten French Consulates in the entire United States. There are just five Dutch Consulates. It is possible to do everything by mail, but be aware that will take much longer than doing it all in person.

What exactly do you need to prove to get a long-stay visa? The most important thing is finances. Somehow you need to convince your Port-of-Entry country that you are not going to seek any paid employment or government services, and that you have enough money to support yourself for the duration of your stay. You also need to have already purchased your flight tickets that clearly indicate your return date to the US (yes, before they grant you a visa, you need to spend the money on the plane tickets). You need to have health insurance that is valid in your port-of-entry country and be able to prove you have a place to stay when you arrive. You will also have to write a letter stating why you want the visa and promising not to seek employment AND if you've done any traveling in the past three years, you need to be able to list that (just go by the stamps in your passport).

Health insurance is easy - there are a million places to buy "Travelers Insurance," and it's not terribly expensive. France requires coverage of up to 37,000 Euros, and Specialty Risk is just one place that offers very comprehensive policies at about $30 a month for European travel (not that I'm surprised, but rates double if you wanted to be covered in the US). As far as a place to stay - I'm lucky that I still have very close friends in Paris that will host me and submit the information I need... and it's a lot of information. They need to write a letter stating they will host me, provide a copy of their lease and proof of income, and explain their relationship to me. If you know people that might help you out like this but don't have a real, legit, legal lease/housing contact - it won't work.

My flight tickets have been purchased, so that's done. Now the only issue is money and my letter - which will be almost entirely honest. I will say that I plan to travel through Europe for 8 months to visit friends, be a tourist, and check out graduate schools. I'm going to leave out the part where I hope to stay in Europe and live in Amsterdam. Because who knows? Maybe I'll change my mind, right? As far as finances go, I can show my recent paystubs and prove that I'll have enough savings before I go.

It does seem a little weird to be doing all of this through France when the idea is to live in Amsterdam. If I was flying into Amsterdam, I would have to apply for the same type of visa, but to the Dutch consulate. Even though it's hard for me to believe, the Dutch immigration laws are even more strict and rigid than they are in France in a lot of ways, and I would rather avoid Holland even knowing that I exist until I figure out a legal way to live there. I also don't have any friends in Amsterdam that I would feel comfortable asking to vouch for me the way my friends in Paris will. The couple in Paris that is helping me out have been my friends for several years, and know and trust me.

I hope this isn't too confusing. I know that not everyone who is looking for advice on this type of thing will find all the details I provided helpful, but my point in explaining it is to point out that there are a lot of ways of staying in Europe, even if it doesn't seem obvious right away. An Australian friend of mine who moved to Berlin over a year ago recently told me a couple things I never heard before (if Amsterdam doesn't work out, I think I really will try Berlin). These are her words, which I edited down a bit just to get to the end of this post already:

In Germany, there are multiple visa options.... A) the Freelance visa. This is the magic ticket for most Americans/Australians/etc. in Germany. It's name might not be obvious... on all official websites etc. in Germany, this looks like a visa for people who want to set up a business, but in fact you can get it for any freelance work. B) the Student visa. Magically, in Germany, student visas aren't just for people enrolled in degree courses. You can also get a student visa for up to two years to study German. You need proof of enrolment at a language school (but you don't need to enrol more than say 3 months to get a two year visa).

This long-stay visa is something I've done before, and this time around I actually got guidance from an immigration lawyer. If I run into any trouble along the way, I'll be sure to write about it. I have received so much assistance from friends (and strangers!) over the years when it comes to this type of stuff, and I hope that I can help others learn through my experiences. Plus, keeping a blog is a great way to procrastinate when I really should be gathering my paperwork, updating my resume, and finding my plane tickets.

And thanks to all of the folks who have gotten in touch with me lately to offer encouragement or advice. It's always great to hear from anyone who is reading!

February 21, 2008

Deadlines are approaching

The 15th of March is the deadline for my Binger application - a date that has always seemed very far away, until I realized yesterday that it's only another three weeks! The more I learn about this school, the more I think I'm not qualified enough to make it in, which only makes me want to get in that much more. The biggest part of the problem in getting a good start on the application was how to approach the essays - the questions are simple and annoyingly vague - "the reasons and motivation for applying at this stage in your career" and "your key goals in following the programme." The reason I had a difficult time getting started answering is because there are two options for applying to the Creative Producers Programme- as a producer with a project i.e. participating in the programme with a writer engaged on the Script Development Programme OR as a producer without a project who participates in the programme to develop his/her skills in working with writers and directors while enhancing understandings of dramatic forms, style and structure.

The thing is, I do have an idea, and I'm quite serious about making it happen. However, I also realize that it's just simply not developed enough at this stage to sell anyone else on what it is I want to do (I will come back to this in a minute). It's a nice thought that I could take my brilliant idea to Binger, and they would say "welcome, let us help you realize this!" But realistically? I don't have a writer - I'm the writer. And the film is a documentary, and Binger does not seem to turn out a lot of documentary work. I considered just giving up on the idea of Binger altogether, but then I thought... well, why not go for option two? I mean, option two describes me a lot better anyway. So I am applying as someone without a project who wants to develop my skills. If I get in, whatever I can learn is only going to benefit me.

In the past several weeks, I have been soaking up everything I can (with what limited time I have) on video blogging, and getting a lot of great information from sites like Moment Showing, Ryan Is Hungry, and the Semanal Project. All of these places have links to tutorials for putting video up on the web and making better use of blogging software, and there's just something about this medium that is really, really speaking to me right now. I spoke about this a few weeks ago, and the reason I mention it again is because I'm starting to think of all of the different options I have as a future "documentary filmmaker." I don't need a team of writers to accomplish my goal. The project I want to work on is very, very close to my heart. I want to make it my way - and of course get help as I go along - but I don't necessarily think that workshopping it for 5 months at a school is really something that would help, in the grand scheme of things. My ultimate goal isn't to make money with this film, it's to try and change the world. And it's selfish as well - it's giving me a reason to stay creative and to start taking on more responsibility, and it's the driving force behind me moving back to Europe.

However, it's not going to be my full-time job or my only mission. I also want to work on other video projects, and honestly, I would welcome the opportunity to work on a film that is a bit lighter in subject than what I'm used to thinking about. One of the reasons I chose Amsterdam for my next home is because even just as a visitor in that city, I've noticed the very vibrant, creative, international community of people that populate the area. I know I'll find my place somehow, and as I work on my application to Binger, I'm also thinking about essays I'm going to be writing for graduate schools. I'm thinking about any other skills I might have, like working in tourism (I gave walking tours in Paris for close to a year), that might be worth considering again. I'm thinking about not actually settling down anywhere, but spending 3 months a year in NYC, three months in Sarajevo, six months in Amsterdam or Paris - everything is a possibility right now.

But ideally, Amsterdam will be my home base. And since I have plane tickets that put me there from April 23 - December 22nd, I'm going to have to work on how exactly I'm going to do that without getting deported. I have a plan for that (even if everything else fails) that I will go into in my next post.

February 15, 2008

Let's talk details: honestly, how am I really going to do this?

With just sixty-five days left (not that I'm counting down or anything) until I'm back in Europe, it really is time to start thinking very seriously about exactly how I'm going to do this.

I know I want to establish myself there. And while I talk a lot about Amsterdam on this blog, I do want it to be known that I'm not married to the idea of living there for the rest of my life. I don't have a very good track record of sticking around, so as much as I'd like to think that me and Amsterdam belong together - that has yet to be seen. But I am sure that I want to be in Europe. First and foremost, because I am committed to the idea of making a documentary in the former Yugoslavia. I want to put filmmaking/videomaking first, everything else second. I want to combine my insatiable curiosity and passion for European history and politics with my love for documentary work, and hopefully find a community of people who share similar interests.

So I'm clear on my passions. I know I love Amsterdam and I can't wait to try and make my life there. And yes, I am very, very, very nervous and anxious about doing all of this on my own. I think I get a lot of undeserved credit for deciding to make this move, but the thing that just outright confuses me is when people say "you're so lucky!" I don't get that. Anyone - certainly any American - could do exactly what I'm doing. It's easier because I don't have kids, a house, or a family to support. But otherwise... luck? I decided to quit a really great job in New York City and leave most of my friends and family to move to a country that is already too crowded, where I hardly know anyone, I don't know the language, and the weather sucks. If I succeed in making Amsterdam my home, then maybe one can say I'm lucky ... but if I do succeed it will be because I worked my ass off on making it happen.

I'm trying to think in terms of a five-year plan. If I really, really want to make this documentary the way it should be made, I need at least five years in Europe. If I want to establish any kind of professional life, I'm going to need a lot of time to meet people and make connections - way more time than I would need if I moved to some random city in the US. As much as I wish that I could just live anywhere in the world that I want simply because I like it, that's just not the way the world works, and I need to accept that reality. So how does a 28-year-old American go about re-establishing a life in Europe?

There's still a shot at a job in Amsterdam, working in post-production for an American-owned company. If that doesn't work, then there's the Binger Filmlab. If I don't get accepted into Binger, I need to think of other ways to fill my time and eventually make some money... savings are only going to last so long. Well, I started dusting off an old idea, which is going for a Masters degree at a European university. I'm the first one to say that for just about everything I'm interested in (film, history, current European politics), I don't need a school to give me a degree in order to learn about the subject. To learn about filmmaking, I can make films on my own. To learn about history, I can read books. If I want to talk politics, there's a zillion places for that. So is it really worth it, o spend a bunch of money to get a degree in something just because I like it? Someone who gets a Masters in Law, or Business, or some kind of Computer Science... they'll likely go on to make a lot of money and be able to justify the expense. Me, I want to make documentaries and try to change the world. Last time I checked, that is not exactly a lucrative business.

But perhaps - if the job and the Binger filmlab don't work out - thinking about grad school in Europe isn't such a bad idea. It gives me a valid reason to be where I want to be. It may make me more appealing to future European employers ... I don't think it could hurt. I've been doing a lot of research on this lately and opened up my search to just about anywhere in Europe that isn't the UK or Ireland (nothing again those countries, they're wonderful places to visit but I wouldn't want to live there). Of course, because I seem to enjoy making life difficult for myself, I eliminated every native-English-speaking country from the list of places I would want to live - even though English is the only language I can speak fluently (I can get by with conversational, informal French and have some high school Spanish, but that's about it). So what other country offers an impressive list of graduate programs that are all taught in English?

The Netherlands, of course. "The Dutch higher education institutions together offer about 1,300 international study programmes and courses which are taught entirely in English. This makes Holland the front-runner in continental Europe." Even when I open my mind up to going somewhere that isn't in the Netherlands, I get pulled back. There are plenty of English-language programs in Germany, and even in the Czech Republic, Poland, and Estonia - but nothing quite compares to the options offered at the various universities in Holland.

Not to worry (in case you were worried, you, the random person reading my blog), this is not something I'm rushing into. It's just an idea, and I'm in the information-gathering stage. Even thinking in the long-term is a pretty scary idea for me, but I acknowledge that it might be nice to live somewhere for more than two years. Who knows, maybe Amsterdam will be that place.

When I check in on the visitor stats to this blog, it excites me to see that more than half of the people are from European countries. I really hope to use this blog as a way to meet people once I'm back in Europe, and maybe even help someone else who is considering moving abroad. When I first moved to Paris a few years ago, I didn't know anyone there. I honestly attribute most of the reason I ended up living in Paris to one woman named Fran, who without knowing me in person (we met in a move-to-Paris online community), agreed to host me and my then-boyfriend at her apartment for a few nights back in 2004. Beyond just giving me a roof over my head, she also introduced me to some of her friends - so by the time I moved there, I had a few people I could call up for a cup of coffee or glass of wine. I have met so many incredible people from Hospitality Club, social networking sites, blogs, travel forums, and message boards - this way of connecting is really very important to me. Nothing beats just going out to a party or a bar and striking up random conversation in person, but it sure does help to know of one friendly person who will invite you out to that party or bar to help get you started.

Comments are always welcome, and I'm also very reachable by email or through my website, which is in pretty desperate need of an overhaul and update. So much to do....

February 8, 2008

A little dose of Los Angeles, a little bit of late-night contemplating

After a few lovely days in Portland, Oregon, I headed south to my new home - Los Angeles, California. My life here is drastically different than my life in New York City. I drive to work instead of taking the subway or riding a bike, I haven't heard a single car alarm, I go to sleep relatively early, and I work in an accounting office. I also feel like I've been tired for the last two weeks straight and am craving a weekend where I don't have to work, celebrate, travel, pack, move, or plan to travel or move or work.

Once I sleep for twelve hours straight and get some decent coffee, I'm going to sit down and start focusing on the not-too-distant future. In just two and half months, I'll be back in Europe! That's starting to seem not too far away, and there's so much to do. I have been thinking about a new direction I want to take with the documentary I plan to produce, which is something I know I mention from time to time on this blog, but haven't really elaborated upon the details. If you're a new reader, all you really have to know is that I'm planning to make a documentary in Eastern Europe and trying to use the idea to get accepted into the Binger Filmlab in Amsterdam, a "a post academic training facility for film professionals." While the application process isn't all that complicated, it does require all kinds of serious thinking and writing and commitment. I haven't had the mental energy for any kind of serious writing or thinking lately, but I need to focus. As soon as I get some sleep.

I finished reading "Amsterdam: A Brief Life of the City" by Geert Mak, and ever since I've been randomly dropping Dutch history tidbits in my conversations with friends and family (a word to the wise: unless you really, really care - never bring up Greenland with me, especially if I've had a few drinks, because I will go on and on). Sometimes I think about getting a masters degree in some area of European history, if it wasn't so expensive - the last time I researched that idea was in 2006, when all I wanted to do was devour every book on French history ever written. But it would cost about triple the price for me to attend a university in Europe (versus an EU citizen). Besides, understanding European history and politics is a passion of mine - maybe something a little more than a hobby or interest, but is it really something I would want to study formally? Actually, the answer to that is yes, I'm just not willing to go into debt in order to make that happen. Then again, my grades in college weren't so bad, so maybe there would be scholarship options available?

Now I'm just thinking out loud, which means it's time to stop writing. My first choice is to get into Binger, but I should start thinking more about alternative plans.