How I got my visa (and sort of survived the process)

When last we left our intrepid poet, an appointment had been made with the Italian consulate in San Francisco, and plane tickets had been purchased, amid much trepidation. Not being entirely certain how long the process would take but needing a (one way) ticket anyway, I’d purchased my ticket to Venice for a few days after the 60-day window the consulate website proffered.  My appointment was scheduled for October 9th and my ticket to Venice for December 12th.

One of the things I was a little uneasy about for the appointment was my appearance. I’ve had green hair for the better part of twenty years. I have a nose ring and an eyebrow piercing. I’ve got multiple earrings. What passes for my wardrobe tends toward stuff you’d go camping in, geeky fangirl clothes, or casual steampunk. I didn’t think any of that was necessarily the best choice for meeting someone who had the power to determine which course my life was going to take during a very short appointment. Regardless of who I am as a human being, that first and probably only impression was going to be part of the decision of whether or not I’d be granted a visa. I had to de-freakify myself.

I decided I had to approach the appointment the way I’d approach a job interview, at least visually. I had to look like the sort of moderately well off middle aged woman they might want to actually let into their country. I didn’t have any clothes that I thought fit the bill, but I hate clothes shopping. I usually do it when what I’ve been wearing is threadbare and desperately needs replacing. The thought of having to go through several stores to deliberately look for clothes that I would look acceptable in was slightly horrifying. Fortunately, one of my girlfriend’s friends is a fashionista. He’s got a degree in looking fabulous and works at a menswear shop in downtown Seattle, and he said he was willing to help out, and so it was that Operation Impress an Italian Bureaucrat was born.

We picked a day when all of us had a few hours, and Kent hauled us off down the hill to shops that I had never once stuck my nose in during my entire life. He talked and waved things at me and stood me in front of mirrors and I occasionally nodded and allowed as how this particular thing or that might work. At least I wasn’t going to die of alterna-geek embarrassment whilst wearing the items: grey dress pants, a white shirt, and a dark blue blazer with black trim aren’t entirely out of the realm of wearable under other circumstances. I had acceptable shoes to go with them. It was possibly the least painful clothes shopping experience of my entire life. Once the clothes were chosen, he hauled me down to his tailor, who did things with measuring tapes and pins. The alterations would take about a week. She gave me her special friend of a friend rate on her work, for which I am very grateful.

Even with the still-green streak in my hair, I have to admit I looked good. If I actually had a resume that meant anything, somebody might even have hired me. I looked like some greying mid-level executive you might encounter in the streets downtown. My girlfriend thought I looked hot. So, apparently, did Kent, whose preferences generally run in other directions. I figured I’d hit the fashionista jackpot. Not my favored appearance, but exactly what I was going for in terms of making bureaucrats think I was just the thing to let into Italy on a long-term basis. A haircut happened next, and that got rid of the rest of the green. I’d recently purchased new glasses for other reasons, but they looked good, too. Shoes got polished. Seams got tucked.

I grew more anxious as the date approached. I’d given myself a couple of days in San Francisco so that I wouldn’t chance my plane doing something weird and being late for the appointment. I was able to spend time with some very dear friends, who hauled me back and forth and fed me and dealt with my fretful hand-waving and minor anxiety attacks. In the morning when I got dressed in my bureaucrat-impressing suit, I took out the nose ring and the eyebrow jewelry. I left in the earrings because they weren’t particularly over the top and one of them is a larger piercing that would have left a visible hole in my lobe without the plug in it anyway.

My final visa application packet included:

Cover letter
Completed application form
Passport photo
Declaration for Mailing Passports (absolves the consulate of responsibility if the passport is lost in the mail)
Passport, along with photocopies of passport and drivers license
FBI criminal check
Health insurance cover sheet and photocopy of insurance card with information showing amount of coverage
Statement of annual benefit from Veterans Administration, 3 years
Statement of annual benefit from Social Security, 3 years
Verification of Non-Filing from IRS, 3 years
Letter of reference from my credit union, notarized
Copy of email from the consulate noting that these financial documents were sufficient and appropriate
Document from the credit union showing information about monthly VA and SSDI deposits
Credit union account statements, 6 months
Flight itinerary, Seattle to Venice, for December 12th, arriving December 13th
Dichiarazione di Garanzia from my brother, filled out according to the advice from his local Questura
Copy of his Permesso
Copy of his Certificato di Stato De Famiglia Cumulativo from his town
Copy of his Carta d’Identita
Account summary statement from his credit union on the base
Copies of his W-2 forms, 3 years
Prepaid self-addressed USPS priority mail envelope for the passport and visa

Not all of this was strictly required, but when dealing with a complex and byzantine bureaucracy, it is always better to be armed with too much information than to walk in with too little. Needing to fly back to San Francisco to hand someone one missing piece of paper would have been a bit extreme, I think, but quite possibly required had the application been incomplete. I included the email from the consulate just in case wires had got crossed and I’d been told by one person that my documentation was sufficient but I was interviewed by someone else with a different view of this process. The return envelope for the visa was required to be US Post Office priority mail. They do not accept UPS or FedEx for shipment.

The Italian consulate in San Francisco is in a nice older building with a lovely interior courtyard. The day was mostly sunny. Lorrie and I located the building without too much trouble, though parking was problematic. I went into the lobby to check in and wait my turn. There were only a couple of people ahead of me at the front counter, though they were not there for visa appointments. I was ushered in to my appointment before Lorrie got back from parking her car. The woman who took my application was very nice and quite pleasant; actually, everyone I spoke to at the consulate was, which helped considerably in putting me at ease.

My appointment took a little over fifteen minutes. The woman interviewing me said she had been the individual who’d answered most of my inquiries through email in the couple of months previous, and was familiar with my case. She asked how my brother was doing. While she entered information from my application into her computer, she asked me for various papers and pieces of information. I was prepared and knew where everything was in my packet. The website had said I should bring an extra photocopy of everything, so I had one of those in hand as well, but it wasn’t needed. She told me that they ask for this because sometimes the paperwork isn’t clear and they want a second set to work with, and I got to carry the photocopy back with me. One of the websites I’d seen noted that it is possible that the border/immigration authority at the airport may want to see my documents associated with the visa application upon entry to the country but, from what I’ve been told, that’s not terribly common. I’ll have them in my carry on bag anyway.

The only bobble was the application fee. I’d brought along a cashier’s check from my credit union for the amount noted on the website. Apparently, that amount had changed by $2.05 a few days before, due to an adjustment for the exchange rate from US Dollars to Euros. She said that the Euro amount remained the same, but the dollar amount shifted every couple of months. I’d have to get a cashier’s check or money order for the $2.05. My advice if you’re applying for a visa is to contact the consulate directly or consult the website the day before and make sure that the amount is current so as to avoid this. I’d got my check a couple of weeks prior to my appointment and the amount had changed in the meantime.

I texted Lorrie, who went on a quest for the required gap amount. She went to a bank down the street, who would only do a cashier’s check if you had an account there (she didn’t), and then had to go down to the Post Office for a money order. When Lorrie told them why she needed it, they said, “Oh, yeah. The Russians and the Italians are always sending people down here for that.” So, while inconvenient, I was at least not the first person to whom this had happened and I will undoubtedly be far from the last.

While Lorrie was questing for the money order, I wrapped up the actual appointment. I was told that they should hear back from their home office within a few days of receiving my application, if all the paperwork was in order. The woman taking my application handed me a little piece of paper with information about getting my paperwork in Italy. “When you get to Italy, you have to get your Permesso di Soggiorno within the first eight days of arriving,” she said. “Enjoy Italy!”

And then I waited in the waiting room for another 15 minutes until Lorrie arrived with the money order. I handed it through the window and off we went to have lunch with my friend Michael Rafferty, a fellow poet, over at Samovar. The weather was glorious, and the food and the tea were excellent, as was the company, but my friends are fantastic people so the good company was only to be expected.

I felt pretty good after the appointment. I didn’t think I was going to be told to enjoy Italy if there was no chance at all that the visa would be granted but, given how my life has often worked, I didn’t want to assume that it would go well. It couldn’t be real for me until I had my passport back in my hands with the visa affixed. For all I knew, something would hiccup and the whole thing would fall through.

I flew home the next morning, glad to have that part of the process over with. I had to stop by Laughing Buddha to have the nose ring and eyebrow piercing put back in, because I couldn’t get them back in myself for the life of me. At least I won’t have to take them out again. That’s a relief, because getting them back in is painful.

Then came the waiting. And the biting of nails. And the pacing. And the frantic worry that they’d say no, or that it would take weeks, and that I’d have only a few days to finish dealing with my life here before I had to get on a plane. Have I mentioned that I am a professional worry wart? Do not try this at home.

I checked almost every day on the USPS website to track the return envelope. Less than a week later, I checked and found notice that the envelope had arrived. I ran out to my mailbox.

Nothing in the mailbox.

I was pretty sure the envelope had been put into the box of one of my neighbors. This has happened occasionally. I didn’t doubt that they’d get it to me when they got home from work, but I had to be certain that the envelope hadn’t simply been misplaced, so I called the local post office and explained the situation to them. Half an hour or so later, the postal carrier was back. He got the envelope from my next door neighbor’s box and handed it to me.

I suspect my shrieks of excitement could be heard in the next county when I saw the visa affixed to my passport.

For lunch that day, I had Chinese food. In the cookie I got the message Traveling to a new place will lead to a great transformation.

Fortune cookies. Completely random until they’re not. Let’s hope the transformation is a positive one.

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33 Days

Calendars are inexorable things.  There are times when I think they hang on walls just to mock me. The one beside my desk is a Hark, A Vagrant! calendar, so at least I’m being mocked by the best. They remind me how swiftly time moves. My only work is my writing, when I have the focus to do it. It’s not on a schedule, so half the time I don’t even know what day it is unless I have an appointment scheduled. When I look up at the calendar I’m surprised, because wasn’t it just June a few days ago? Was I supposed to be doing something today?

I check the calendar on my phone. No, today really is November 8th. I have 33 days to wrap up my life here, tie up my loose ends, say goodbye to those I can actually see before I get on a plane. 33 days to make sure my apartment is empty. 33 days to deal with utilities and notices and sorting and selling the last of my things.

33 days to wonder who I will be when I step off the plane.

Many years ago, I wrote a poem called Reefs.

we grow in reefs
like coral
moment on moment
image on image
touch upon touch

we are congregations of experience

each memory leaves its sign
its fossil trace
we are colonies of memories armored with our past
your eyes
the way you breathe
the twining of your fingers with mine
at dusk

we grow in rings
like trees
encircled by time by stars by the moving
breathing sea

we are touched by fire

each memory bends us
shapes us
like fingers in clay
strong as moving water
we mould ourselves around them
our shapes are the shapes of trees on the rocks of a deserted shore
bowed by the hand of the hard north wind

we are spells of making we are words
we are ancient magic
the sum of memory
we grow like roots in stony ground turning
on rough pebbles
we are shaped by love and terror and the sweet depth of longing
we are memory

below the surface of our  lives
we grow in reefs

This place has shaped me and left its mark in me and on me. The friends I have made and the people I love and my experiences here have been the wind and water that have formed what I have become in the last three decades and more. But when I step away from this place that has so strongly affected me, who will I become? When the context in which I have spent so many years is removed, who is left? What remains? What part of me is defined by Seattle and what part is defined by the core of my being? What part will be defined by Italy, reshaped and sea-changed? Will my eyes become pearls? Will I become coral, sharp-boned and beautiful?

I hope this blog can be a conversation with you, who are reading my words. I have so many questions and muddled thoughts, so many hopes and fears, so much formless, breathless excitement, and very little knowledge to go on right now. I’ve had a short visit to Italy, conversations with my brother, and a lot of poking around on the internet to shape my initial perceptions. I know that my experiences when I step off the plane will be different than what I might imagine right now. I’m trying to go into this with as few preconceived notions as possible. Consider this an invitation to sit with me, to have a cuppa, to speak around the table and be heard.