March 25, 2008

Moving ahead

Through a series of coincidences, I ended up having coffee with a new friend on Sunday. AP is exactly my age, and came to the US in 2003 from Kosovo. I was able to record our (almost) three-hour conversation with my macbook and a funny-looking snowball microphone, which I refer to as my spaceship mic. I didn't know what I should do prior to our conversation in terms of research, and ended up not doing that much besides figuring out (roughly) how to use the Garage Band program to record. It was a great meeting - I learned so much that I would never hear about just by reading newspapers or watching videos, and I'm full of new ideas for the direction that I want to take with the documentary.

At the end, I gave her a copy of my film treatment. It's just a page and half, and if my blog entries are any indication of my writing style, you might be able to guess that keeping something concise and brief is not my specialty (but I'm trying!). If there's one thing I learned from working at a production company, it's how necessary it is to be able to describe an entire series/film in one page, so after a bit of a struggle (and a deadline that made me do it), I finally got something down that I don't mind showing people.

That being said, it has been very, very strange for me to share my ideas on this documentary with ex-Yugoslavians. The best I can compare it to is the feeling of nervousness that happened when French people would take my (English language) walking tours of Paris. I was never more nervous about my A) pronunciation of French words and B) getting the facts completely wrong (for the record, one particular French family had such a good time on my tour of the Marais, they specifically took all the walking tours my company had to offer). So when I write a documentary treatment describing what it's like to live in a society that has been devastated by war - even though that's not something I have ever done - and I hand it over to a woman who was forced out of her apartment at gunpoint ... that's a bit nerve racking. And obviously, this topic is a lot more serious than whether or not I could properly translate French plaques correctly into English. Anyway, AP read my treatment and told me "you are in the right direction, you are talking about what we (former Yugoslavians) actually think and you are not a Yugoslavian." It meant so much to me to get that feedback, and I feel more motivated than ever to keep this project moving ahead.

Speaking of moving ahead, I came up with even more backup plans and if-this-than-that type of scenarios for my life in Europe, and I'm feeling pretty confident about everything. With just twenty-three days left in Los Angeles, I'm going to try to spend as much time as possible at the office to save up money. This upcoming weekend I'm taking a trip to REI - one of those outdoorsy type stores - for a new backpack (something that will hold my laptop and a few days worth of clothes) and sufficient rain gear for biking around Amsterdam. I have doctors appointments and haircut appointments and dinner plans on the horizon for New York City, and it does finally feel like my time in the US is winding down. That is not a bad thing.

I found a new favorite hobby - looking through "biking in the Netherlands" types of websites. I haven't been on a bicycle in over two months, and it's killing me - spinning classes are a good workout, but not the same thing. I can't wait to bike all over that country and not feel guilty for not wearing a helmet.

March 18, 2008

Remembering why I want to go

I have just over a month left in the states. That gives me too much time left to start packing or making final goodbye plans, but it's getting to the point where there's not much left to do to prepare. I'm either going to find a way to live in Amsterdam or not, and the next step is to just get there and figure it all out. So I thought I would allow myself the luxury of not focusing on too many details right now.

A huge part of why I want to move back to Europe is for the ease of travel. While I was living in France, I did a significant amount of traveling - mostly with the help of Hospitality Club. In fact, I used HC during my third visit to Amsterdam (in September 2007), when I stayed with this really friendly Dutch guy (Marcel) for a few days. I remember how happy I was during that trip, even though I didn't do anything particularly special. I rented a bike, read books in Vondelpark, took pictures, and probably ate a lot of stroopwaffles. I had to buy allergy medicine, and I still remember how friendly the man was who worked at the pharmacy. I was in the middle of the red light district on a busy day, and the pharmacist took the time to find me exactly the right medicine for my particular allergies at the cheapest price. I met a new friend who took me on a long boat ride around the canals, giving me the chance to see Amsterdam from the water (the picture I included is from that day). I remember thinking how strange and wonderful it was to get a coffee to-go whenever I wanted - something that doesn't really exist in Paris. I felt unbelievably lucky and in love with the world during that short trip, and I didn't want to leave. It was one of the only times in my life that I didn't look forward to returning to Paris.

It is quite possible I'm starting to get too old for hostels and the "so, where are you from, where have you been?" conversations that go along with that whole backpacker scene, but I'll never feel too old to travel. The people I met through Hospitality Club ... some of those people have become my very best friends. I never paid for lodging in Budapest, Sarajevo, Prague, or a million other places - I stayed with real people leading real lives, all because we share the same basic philosophy: that traveling is important. That's it. It doesn't matter how little money you have or if you can't afford to go out to dinner and pay for overpriced museums. You can still go, learn about a new culture, try out a few words in a new language, and explore. I remember in Sarajevo, there was a day when about 20 of us HC members came together to explore the city for a weekend - something we had planned out on the internet. Along the way, we would run into other random travelers and invite them along to lunch, dinner, for a drink, whatever we were doing. It became so natural and easy to meet people, invite them to stay at my apartment in Paris, give them keys, and never even find out their last name. Hospitality Club isn't unique - there's also Couch Surfing and probably a bunch of other similar organizations. If anyone out there reading is interested in travel but thinks that lack of funds is a reason not to go... please check out HC or CouchSurfing.

I recently noticed that my favorite band of the moment - Kaizers Orchestra - is playing in Amsterdam ... 23 days before I arrive. If you live there, please go see them play at the Paradiso on 1 April and tell me everything about the show.

March 10, 2008

Taking the weekend off

I spent a really lovely long weekend in Portland, Oregon with some good friends. It was great to see Portland start to come to life with flowers blooming, sunny skies, and clear views of the mountains.

As I continue to look into my options and try to get a real answer on the visa and traveling situation, I'm feeling much more relaxed about the whole situation. The situation with the job in Amsterdam has moved in a good direction, (maybe) isn't such a long shot after all. I have met with two people - one who runs the NYC office, and one who runs the Portland office (and frequently travels to Amsterdam). The more I get to know about the company the better it seems, and the people who work there are absolutely great - any interview that includes using the word "fuck" at least ten times and bitching about the US health care system is the type of interview that makes me happy. Working for them would be a great career move, I would get to be in a creative environment, put my hands on some really great technology, and continue working in post. Just the fact that this option is even on the table at all feels great. Having one meeting in Amsterdam means gaining one contact.. and from one contact comes another.. and so on. I was actually offered work in Portland if I wanted to stick around, and as tempting (and flattering) as that is, I'm sticking to my Amsterdam plan. But I won't forget how happy I was in Portland, and that city goes on the "Places I could live happily" list. Just like in Amsterdam, I couldn't stop myself from taking pictures of all the great bikes...

Still, that job is just a possibility, so I'm continuing to think more seriously about other options (keeping in mind that the Binger application has already gone out, but I think it's a long shot that I would make it in). Several days ago, I wrote a pretty informal email to the International School at the University of Amsterdam, saying that there were two programs I was interested in and wondering if I should apply to both or pick one - and I was surprised that someone actually took the time to email me back and throughly answer my questions. The first program is a Master of Arts in European Studies: Identity and Integration, the other is Master of Science degree in Communication Science, with a specialization in European Communication Studies. The Communication Science/Studies degree relates very closely to my undergraduate education, so it makes sense for me to go that route - though I think I'm more interested in the courses offered in the European Studies degree. It turns out I can apply to both programs if I want (and only pay one application fee), though I have to chose a preference. I have time to think about it and gather opinions (and change my mind), since there's no way I'll meet the April 1 deadline for the September 2008 semester. I actually briefly considered trying to get it done in time for the deadline before I realized I might actually lose my mind if I take on one more project like that. Plus, it might be nice to actually visit the school first before I go trying to get accepted.

For the next few weeks, my spare time will be filled with putting together a new video project, making some changes to my website, and best of all... playing with my new mac! That was another highlight of my Portland trip - I am now the proud owner of a brand new 2.4GHz Macbook, along with a few new accessories that I couldn't resist while I was in the store (and getting hooked up with a discount).

New computer, great potential job meeting, great food, good friends - a very lovely weekend all around. Now, back to work.

March 7, 2008

In an ideal world, Schengen Area rules wouldn't be open to interpretation

Several days ago, I had one of those experiences that just about any expat could relate to - you prepare your documents, make your appointment, triple-check everything - and then get confronted with "Oh no, that's not how it works." It's funny how very real, important issues like visas and immigration are ultimately the decision of a single person. If that border guard or that police officer or that consulate official decides they don't want to grant a visa... that's bad news for the expat/tourist/traveler/whatever. Even as I type this, tons of stories friends have told me are springing to mind - and now I have one to add to the pile.

Since this blog exists to track my expatriate progress, I feel obliged to write about it, especially because I would like to think that someone else might learn from my mistakes. So even though this story only proves that I don't know everything and I kind of hate that, I will explain what happened when I got turned down by the French consulate for a long-stay visa (see the previous post for the whole story as well).

All of my paperwork was perfectly in order and I made it to the French consulate in LA on time. The man I dealt with there... I'll call him FC. I had already filled out a Schengen Visa application form and bought in three copies, but FC told me I needed to fill out a long-stay visa application (note: these forms are 99% identical - the only difference was that everything was in French on the forms he gave me, and I had printed my copy from the French consulate website). I explained my situation to FC, told him about my friends in Paris and showed all types of proof that I could stay with them. FC told me "you don't need this visa at all, you can just use your passport."

Well, I replied, I am traveling for 8 months, and my US passport only allows me to stay in the Schengen area for 90 days...

No, no, he replies. You have 90 days in each country, and you can, for example, go to France for say, 10 days and then take a week off and go to Spain... when you return to France you will still have 80 days left. Stay in France for 20 more days, and go to Italy for 10 days. When you get back to Paris you will still have 60 days left. And every six months, this renews, so as long as you don't spend more than 90 days in France in a 6-month period, you can just keep doing this forever (that's me paraphrasing his words).

Sounds great, but it's just not true. In the most polite way possible, and without accusing him of being wrong, I said "it was my understanding that Americans get 90 days in the entire Schengen area, and I was advised to get a visa if I wanted to stay for 8 months." He tried to talk me out of it. It was the most surreal experience, to have the "administration" talk me out of following the rules, while I tried insist that I really only had 90 days to stay in the entire Schengen area with my US passport. If I leave the Schengen area and come back, I think I can do that once in a 6-month period. The law is set up so that I can't just keep flying to Turkey every three months. So in the end, my visa was denied - because FC said it just didn't apply to my situation. He still encouraged me to go to France, travel as I want, and just use my passport.

I was flabbergasted. I got in touch with an immigration lawyer in the states, and she backed up everything I know to be true, and confirmed that what FC told me is wrong. Could I fight it? Maybe. Do I want to? No. First of all, getting turned down for this visa cost me $175 USD, which still aggravates me. Secondly... France isn't even where I want to live. I know that schengen visa/long stay tourist visa would have come in handy and backed me up during my time in Amsterdam, but my passport already has a French visa, and a French titre de sejour from 2005-2007, and if I stuck another one in there and then eventually tried to permanently relocate to Amsterdam, things could get confusing.

So that's that for France. I emailed the lawyer and put forth this situation. "Let's say I arrive in Europe on 21 April and stay anywhere in the Schengen area until 20 July (three months). On that date, I'll fly to Belgrade or Sarajevo or somewhere that is not an Schengen/EU country and will stamp my passport. I'll stay in that area until say, 28 July (which I wanted to do anyway to research the documentary). Then when I arrive back in Schengen-Area-Europe, I'll have another three months. So I'll have to go back to the US on 28 November." The lawyer told me my plan was perfectly safe. I'm also pretty sure that I will find something else out there that contradicts this advice, and yes, that is frustrating.

I'm obviously not thrilled with the way the situation turned out, but that's mostly because my ego was a little bruised, since I had been confident that this would work. But honestly, the more I think about it, the less worried I am. More and more I think that my best way into Amsterdam, and into a real life in Europe, is either school or work - simple as that. My Binger Filmlab application went out a few days ago, and I am really pleased with how it came together. Even if I don't get accepted, the application process gave me a good kick in the ass - I spent many nights staying up until 2 or 3am after a long day at work, writing and re-writing my documentary treatment, researching everything I could about my topic, writing my essays, and updating my resume and website. I also learned more than I ever wanted to know about how to wire money from an American bank account to a Dutch bank (for the application fee). In addition to Binger, there are two Masters Programs at the University of Amsterdam that really, really appeal to me, so I'm going to go ahead and apply once I decide which one suits me better. And there is the possibility of a job at the editorial company in Portland/Amsterdam - I have a meeting on Friday morning to talk about that very topic.

I feel very fortunate to have such great friends all over the world that are rooting me on. The other day, I wrote an email to some of my friends that live in Paris and Amsterdam, telling them what had happened with the French consulate. I received some really sweet replies and more offers of help, suggestions on how to do things differently, or just to say "don't worry, you'll figure something out, you always do, and we can't wait to see you in April." Well, I don't always have everything figured out, but as long as I learn something important from the experience, it's worth it.

But I'm still really annoyed about that $175.