Apocalypse Now Pt 2: Heart of Darkness

Ten minutes had passed.  Ten whole fucking minutes and the guy manning the Air New Zealand Check in Counter was still not back with my passport.  We could see him. Oh yes. He was only twenty metres away talking to his supervisor.  The supervisor was on the phone. Both of them were very deliberately not looking at us. FFFFFFAAAARRK! This was it. Make or break time.

To be honest, I was amazed we had made it this far.

By now I had a passport. A real one. Not some dinky ‘Emergency Waiver’ that had to be combined with fifty bucks and a hand shandy to get me through Border Control, but an honest to goodness biometric, fully authenticated 10 year legit Aussie travel document.

Even more amazing, it had happened in less than 4 hours, which in bureaucratic terms is the equivalent of fucking time travel.

Australia House, The Strand, London

Australia House, The Strand, London.

Normally, even a priority passport takes 48 hours to produce, and that’s IF you have proper identification, a reliable guarantor and don’t turn up to the interview reeking of Amsterdam’s finest Afghani #1.

I of course ticked none of these boxes and so, just to ratchet up the spacer on the old prison purse, had been required to obtain not one but TWO guarantors to verify my identity. Fortunately, I did know two people who both qualified and were currently in the Greater London Area (thanks Tinder!).  We had a whole day to catch up with them both and get the various documents signed! Piece of cake.

However, as always, the capricious nature of the Travel Gods determined that was not to be. If I wanted that passport and the accompanying visa I had to earn it.

And not the easy way like I usually do.

And not the easy way like I usually do.

My embassy contact Lisa had advised that both the Air New Zealand Check in Counter as well as US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) at Heathrow should be made aware of our situation ASAP in order to maximise our chances of boarding on Wednesday.

Great, we thought. A phone call to Heathrow should sort it and we can spend the rest of the time getting the guarantor signatures for tomorrow’s passport interview! Maybe walk up to London Bridge and look at Stonehenge. Yeeeaah…..no.

A wasted hour on a public phone trying to get through to the Air New Zealand Check in Counter proved that the title ‘Heathrow Airport Help Line’ was quite the misnomer. (Though it was almost worth it for the fascinating discussion I had with Derek in Airport Janitorial Services whose knowledge of New Zealand was limited to the handjob he had once received during a DVD screening of The Two Towers, of which he was immensely proud)

We realised there was nothing else for it but to physically go out to the terminal and try and get it sorted there.

However just to add an extra arse raisin to the shit pie Life had spontaneously decided to bake for us, earlier that morning Safka decided to contract a nasty flu. By the afternoon she looked like she was auditioning for The Walking Dead. On the upside, this meant that people gave us a wide berth and so we always had somewhere to sit on the train.

#TickettoRide

Ticket to ride.

Nevertheless, settling things face to face certainly proved to have its advantages. Within only 3 hours of our arrival at the Terminal,  I found myself talking on the internal phone system to someone in CBP (sitting metres away in a nearby office) explaining our situation yet again. But this time I managed to elicit an acknowledgement that yes, I had a valid (albeit missing) Immigrant Visa and that Air NZ could potentially let me on the plane. We still weren’t guaranteed of anything but now it seemed that the various agencies were talking to each other and aware of our situation. Progress!

Back to the race for passport guarantors!

With now only a very brief window in which to catch up with my two guarantors, a deal was struck with my desperately sick wife. She would travel to the other side of London via public transport and meet up with one of my guarantors, the lovely Kristi. I would go to the theatre.

Before you howl at the injustice of me swanning around the West End while Safka acted out the Black Plague’s Greatest Hits via the London Underground, let it be said that Saf gets enough live theatre in her life just by having me around. Consequently her tolerance for watching actors ‘playing silly buggers in other peoples clothes’ is understandably low.

She may have a point

She may have a point

Back in the carefree happy days when I had held a less tenuous grip on both my passport and marriage, I had booked two tickets to see Zoë Wanamaker (no relation) and Kenneth Branagh (also no relation) tread the boards at the Garrick Theatre.

So that night, accompanied by lovely guarantor Sophie, I enjoyed a theatre experience everything a London Visitor’s Guide tells you it is. I laughed, clapped, drank overpriced wine out of a box and for an all too brief measure, forgot the Damoclean worries hovering above me.

Stress and worry never looked so cultured.

Stress and worry never looked so cultured.

I returned to our Shoreditch digs to find Safka conveniently still alive and, even better, in possession of the other guarantor documents required for the morrow’s passport interview.

We were staying in Shoreditch as friends had recommended it, insisting it was just ‘so us’. On reflection this indicates our friends believe we are poverty stricken Dickensian guttersnipes with a desire to live somewhere that rates marginally below ‘utter filth’.  Give me Chelsea anytime. Brick lane can suck a dick.

Greetings from Shoreditch

Greetings from Shoreditch

Anyhoo, despite my pressing lack of documentation, the following day I passed the passport interview with flying colours. Which to be honest, had more to do with the insanely awesome staff at Australia House. They were all so incredibly understanding and empathetic that it makes me tear up writing this even now. Big ups to everyone involved, especially my interviewing officer Janet. An additional shout out must go to Adrian at the Aussie Consulate in The Hague who displayed the same kind of support and willingness to help a pair of distraught tourists out. Gold stars all round.

My interview was at 11.30am and they told me to come back at 3.30pm to collect my passport. As mentioned earlier, this is unbelievably fast and I can’t even comprehend the arcane rituals required to expedite the passage of my application in such a manner.

Australian bureaucratic process at work.

Australian bureaucratic process at work.

Wednesday dawned dreary and British. Saf and I elected to head to Heathrow four hours early and lashed out on a mini-cab to ensure our prompt arrival. Lucky really, as the traffic getting out of Shoreditch meant we arrived half an hour before Check in closed. Fucking Shoreditch.

The guy from the Check in Counter was laughing with the supervisor now. Bastards! No. No. Don’t think like that. Positive thoughts, positive thoughts. See the light in every soul. See! He was coming back! It works! No, no he stopped and went back to the supervisor. Bastard! Fuck! No! AAAAARRRRGGH.

Saf and I stood there, trying to be calm and collected when all we wanted to do was scream, cry, kick people and beg to be let on the plane.  More and more people casually checked in to the flight, dropping their luggage and passing through to Security like it was the easiest thing in the world. I hated them. I hated them because I wanted to be them.  I wanted to be boarding this flight, bouncing on air with the excitement of finally arriving in the Land of Uncle Sam and starting a new life. Instead I was sweating like Gary Glitter in an orphanage, watching two guys in suits discuss my future while they joked about the football results. (Probably.  I may have been projecting this on to them but I’m sure it’s accurate.)

The guy came back. A decision? No. Turns out he wanted to see Safka’s passport too.  He went back and talked to his boss. Another ten minutes. WHAT THE FUCK WERE THEY TALKING ABOUT?!?! Surely they were just dicking with us now.  I saw another guy in a suit come up to them. He had a question about something unrelated. No! Fuck off! This is our time!  I don’t care who’s had a heart attack on the baggage carousel nothing is more important than this!

Our man came back again. This time he very casually told us to put our baggage on the conveyer belt and head through Security. I’m sorry? That’s it? Put our baggage on the belt and just go through?! Do you not understand the pressure we have been under?! You just saunter back here like it ain’t no thang and tell us to dump our bags and go and get on the plane?!?! HAVE YOU NO SENSE OF OCCASION MAN?!?!

Safka punched me, told me to shutup and pushed me towards Security before he changed his mind. When she’s right she’s right. (And she’s right a lot)

NB - She's right a lot.

Fun Fact: She’s also a keen equestrian.

Sixteen hours later we stumbled blearily out of LAX and into the sweaty fug that passes for air in this city. Getting on the plane hadn’t been quite the end of the saga. Once we landed I’d spent 3 hours in LAX Immigration waiting to get a temporary Green Card. They’d told me straight away that it was going to be fine and I just had to wait it out. Unfortunately, by that stage they’d separated Safka and I and hadn’t told her any of this. She spent the final few hours stressing her guts out and wondering whether all those body cavity search jokes I’d made on the plane were coming back to haunt me. (Hah hah no. Of course not. Ridiculous. Hah hah…hah…aah.)

When I emerged sometime near midnight, six days of constantly peaking stress levels finally took their toll. Saf burst into tears. The tipping point had been that while waiting she had realised that one of our bags was missing, the one with all her roller derby skate gear in it.  That was the fucking limit. The Travel Gods had finally gone too far and made my girlfriend cry. Filled with righteous rage combined with the confidence that as I had already been cleared by Immigration what the fuck could they do, we raced down to the Air NZ baggage handling area. We blithely ignored several  ‘Authorised Personnel Only’ notices, buttonholed a poor unfortunate baggage handler and forcefully described both the bag in question and what would happen if it was not found. There must have been an edge in my voice that promised either violence or a ginormous foot stamping hissy fit. (Hint: it would have been the hissy fit.) Whatever, our demands met with immediate success! Despite it being about to be loaded on a plane scheduled for fuck knows where (which is apparently in Wisconsin), our bag, skate gear intact, was located and returned to us.

After all this, stepping out into the land we had chosen to immigrate to was a definite anti-climax. Too tired and emotionally exhausted to really celebrate what less than a week ago had seemed like an impossible task, we stumbled out of the terminal and collapsed on the kerbside.

Our friend Carter arrived to collect us. The sight of his rusting blue shitbox of a Toyota pulling into view was better than any stretch limousine. Seemingly against all odds, we had arrived. Battered, heart sore and with a certain degree of PTSD yes, but still, we were here. The adventure continues.

Apocalypse Now – Part 1

In the words of the Immortal Bard, ‘When shit goes wrong, it goes really wrong.’  (Hamlet I think. I’ve not actually read a lot of Shakespeare.)

TL;DR

TL;DR

And thus it was that less than one week out from our arrival at LAX, I found myself Prince of Denmarked up the arse in Amsterdam following the theft of not only my laptop, camera and other technological accoutrements but all my ID, cash, credit cards and the coup de grace, my fucking passport with the DV1 Visa that was my golden ticket into Wonka World.

In short, I was fucked.  I couldn’t leave the country I was in, I couldn’t enter the country I wanted to and, if I didn’t make it to the United States before my entry visa expired in just over a week, there was an extremely probable chance that the last 18 months of methodical bridge burning I had engaged in back home was about to come back and bite me on the arse.

That dump I took on your car - we're cool about that right?

Hey Barry, that dump I took on your car  – we’re cool about that right?

Once the stress vomiting, tearful recriminations and futile bargaining with an uncaring deity had subsided, serious thought needed to be given about what the fuck to do.

Contact the various US and Australian consulates? Yeah, about that.  As anyone who has ever tried it knows, phoning a US Embassy ensnares you in Inception-like levels of automated number option loops and if you do make it down to the lowest level of Limbo you get a recorded voice message politely informing you that ‘All your base are belong to us’ and would you kindly fuck off and go look at the website. It’s like the shittest ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ book ever.

CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE

What followed was one of the most stressful and testing weeks of my existence (and as a white middle class male I’m no stranger to adversity). Compound the situation with no phone, unreliable wifi and no ID to prove who I was, and I get to use this picture again:

Once more with feeling

Once more with feeling

So with no real idea of what to do, I embarked on a slow and desperate investigative process involving days spent on phones, in train stations and internet cafes revealing small nuggets of useful information hidden amongst canfuls of red herrings and bureaucracy. Kind of like Sherlock, if Sherlock was less smart, with worse dress sense and had lost his fucking passport in Amsterdam.

Everyone looks good in Burberry you cunt

Everyone looks good in Burberry you cunt

But Mick, I hear you say (I have ears like a frickin’ bat) surely US Immigration had your visa electronically registered in the system? Surely they were just be able to dial that shiz up and see that you were the recipient of a genuine DV1?

You’d think that wouldn’t you? But nooooooo. That is definitely not the American Way™.

It seemed the only real record of my visa was the visa itself and so I needed a new one. However US Visas can only be reissued by the consulate that issued it in the first place, in this case Sydney. Where it was now the weekend #winning. Additionally, the visas can only be issued into full passports not emergency ones. The only place to get a full passport outside of Australia is London, where I currently wasn’t. I’d use the Scanners/Exploding head pic again but I’ve worn out the pixels.

Another part of the problem was that as I hadn’t actually entered the US yet on my visa, I was outside the jurisdiction of US Customs and Border Protection so they technically couldn’t help me. The Kentucky Consular Centre was also a dead end as they only deal with the application processing and once that’s done, so are they.

And where was my loving wife Safka during all of this? Well, right beside me to be honest. To her eternal credit, Saf was hugely supportive and never once mentioned divorce or threatened to abandon me while she went off to start a new life in the Land of Milk and Honey sans Mick. I may or may not however (hint: I did) have mentioned to her in passing that as I was the primary recipient of the visa she was technically unable to enter the US without me and so for better or worse, had to stick it out. Love you babe.

Winning on a technicality is still winning.

Winning on a technicality is still winning.

But Friday afternoon, I finally caught a break when someone in the US Embassy in London broke the first law of bureaucracy and answered the phone. Lisa as we shall call her, was amazing. She patiently listened as I sobbed and dribbled my story down the phone before laying out a plan of attack that began with ‘get to London on an emergency passport’ and ended with a promise to make some calls to see what she could do for me.

For the first time in 24 hours, there seemed a glimmer of hope. There was still the very real possibility that I wouldn’t be allowed into the US or even onto the plane at Heathrow, but at least now I had a direct phone number I could call and a feeling that someone in the labrythine clusterfuck that is bureacratic process was on my side. Go Team Me!

By Friday night, I had an emergency passport courtesy of the Aussie Consulate in The Hague and an appointment at Australia House in London on Tuesday to get a full one. 

But with all the embassies now being closed for the weekend and our ferry to London not leaving till Sunday, all we could do was try and enjoy our remaining time in the City of Thieves Amsterdam, albeit beneath a cloud of tumour-inducing stress and worry.

That was actually the weirdest thing about the whole experience.  Saf and I couldn’t think or talk about a future beyond the next Wednesday when we were supposed to get on that plane to LAX. The excited conversations we’d been having about ‘what we were going to do when we got to the States’ had been very abruptly curtailed and all we could discuss was what had to happen in the next 5 days and how fucked we were. That’s not a lot of conversation to fill the time with.

Analysis of our situation continued ad nauseam until, unable to comfort each other with any realistic expectation of a positive outcome, long stretches of wordless isolation began to overtake us.  This was terrifying on a relationship level and brought its own cornucopia of stress and worry. The silences punctuated by only the most mundane conversation starters (‘What should we eat?/Should we get a hooker? ‘), our minds finally rebelled against the constant redlining of our stress levels and began to paddle playfully in the shallow end of the insanity pool. We laughed overly loudly and longly at the most childish of jokes, and ridiculous attempts at humour became de rigueur, which to be fair, pretty much sums up our entire relationship anyway.

Case in point

Case in point

These are the times that put immense strain on a relationship, but can ultimately serve to make it stronger. Hopefully that is what’s happened to us, and I will let you know once Safka moves back in with me.

So 48 hours in Amsterdam. What to do? What. To. Do?

Windmills and cheese can suck it.

Windmills and cheese can suck it.

It wasn’t just Hindu Kush and remorse though. We saw some Rembrandt, visited a town with the same name as Safka (which I think technically makes her king of that part of Holland, though it still didn’t help our visa situation) and generally tried to avoid being run down by the multitude of cyclists that rule the Low Countries with an iron fist.

Sunday evening found us at the Hook of Holland boarding the UK bound Stena Brittanica.  Ensconced in our cosy cabin, I mused that there really is nothing quite like an ocean cruise (and three bottles of shiraz) to take the edge off your worries.

Some of us steeled ourselves more seriously than others

Some of us had less edge to take off than others

The gently rocking waves lulled us to sleep as the boat carried us ever onwards on our own personal Journey to the West and Part II of our Trial by Bureaucracy.

END OF PART I

 

 

 

Goodbye-ee!

I’m writing this from however high it is that planes fly above the ground, somewhere over the Great Sandy Desert, in seat 68F. The seatback display informs me I’m two and half thousand miles from Sydney and, this being Etihad airlines, six thousand miles from Mecca. Winning. Allah is on my side. (My left side to be precise according to the handy ‘Which Way to Pray’ Mecca Pointer™ that comes standard in Economy.)

He went thattaway

He went thattaway

So apologies on the absence of blog for the last few weeks. This next entry was supposed to be a scintillating indepth tell-all of the actual visa application but instead I got sidetracked by, oh I don’t know, PACKING UP MY ENTIRE LIFE AND MOVING TO ANOTHER COUNTRY MOTHERFUCKERS, and it’s been a little bit stressful.

Because as I’ve discovered, if you randomly decide to emigrate countries after winning a visa in fucking lucky dip there will be SO MUCH TO FUCKING DO! It’s not like going on a holiday. You’re not just backpacking around for a year getting drunk and pretending to like art galleries so you can nail that Danish bird you’ve been hostel stalking for three weeks.

Total booty magnet

Total booty magnet

No, this is some serious shit my friend. It’s time to put on your big boy pants and make some hard decisions. There’s utilities to be cancelled, goodbyes to be made, a cat to euthanize (it’s ok, he’s pro-choice… Was. Was pro-choice) and a shitload of stuff to get rid of.

Cos of all the advice I have got from the various threads and message boards of Stateside emigres, the common refrain seems to be GET RID OF YOUR STUFF. Stuff is expensive to ship, it’s expensive to store and if you do store it you will inevitably return and wonder why you have paid $250 a month for the past two years to house stuff that you no longer need nor care about. You won’t give that homeless guy on Highland a fucking dime but you’ll rent a warm space for the 1970’s sideboard you found in Vinnies on Lygon Street.

homeless_guy

If I can’t take you on Antiques Roadshow then fuck you.

However, this is easier said than done. For me anyway. Cos I have stuff. Lots of stuff. Some of this stuff is really nice and I like this stuff a lot. Some of this stuff I have carried around for years, from house to house, move to move, not really knowing what this stuff is anymore, just feeling that there might be stuff within this stuff that could be important so I can’t throw it out until I go through it. Which I will. Someday.

But that is the WRONG ATTITUDE my friends. When you’ve got to get rid of almost everything you own in preparation for the move, my advice to you is start early and be ruthless. Utterly, utterly ruthless. Or you will end up in a nightmarish hell trying to get everything done in the last week.

Eh, shouldn’t take more than an afternoon.

So we ended up in a nightmarish hell trying to get everything done in the last week. This was partly my fault as a vigorous regime of ball scratching combined with an unwillingness to part with anything of any vague sentimental value along with utter denial of the sheer scope of the job at hand meant that by the time my wife got back from her extended job away in Queensland with Pistol and Boo, I had pretty much done fuck all. Which went down about as well as you can imagine.

Get in the fridge

Get in the fridge. Fast.

However, while she was mad I didn’t think she was ‘throw away a Green Card’ mad so I figured I could weather any not-so-oblique suggestions of divorce and by the time we got to the States there’d be a pretty good chance she would like me again. Some people say marriage is about compromise. I say it’s playing the odds.

You got to know when to hold them...

You got to know when to hold them…

So this last week has been a nightmarish hell of throwing, selling, burning, swearing, crying, threatening, pleading, bargaining, grieving and eventual acceptance as we’ve culled a three bedroom house full of (mostly my) crap down to something that can fit into three suitcases and a sponge bag.

How?

This is how.

This is how.

And when I say we got rid of everything, that also meant the cat.  I might joke about it, but having to put down our much loved Zzyber Cat was one of the hardest fucking things I have ever had to do. It’s said that ‘No tears in the author, no tears in the reader’ but seriously you can stick that shit up your arse as that kind of heart rending pain is something I’d just not rather do. OK, he was a cantankerous, taciturn street fighting moggy who’d as soon as growl at you as cuddle, but he’d been a part of my life for 13 years and Safka’s for 17. He had this raspy little meowl like the post tracheotomy Marlboro Man, a purr like a rotary mower and was fearlessly methodical in his destruction of the local rat population, often considerately leaving me half of one on my pillow during the night like a message from some terrifying feline Godfather.

Love takes many forms

Love takes many forms

Diagnosed with lymphoma last December, he was on chemotherapy pills which I dutifully stuffed down his throat three times a week while he scratched my face and yowled and spat the pills out about half the time. The vet assured us he had mere weeks to live but here we were ten months later and the little bastard was still roaming the streets and taking spontaneous diarrhoeic shits all over the house. I loved that fucking cat. He refused to die. Death would just not take him. (It was probably the diarrhoea put him off.) Zzybes was holding on to his ninth life with the same grim determination he set about destroying any leather furniture we had dared to acquire. However, two days before we left, and after much agonising and deferring of the inevitable, Dr Sam was booked to come round to do the job that Nature was just too pussy to do.

On the morning of the event, I fed him some prime scotch fillet, went to shower and discovered he had shat on me in the night as we cuddled in bed. In a weird way it kind of made me feel better, like he was saying ‘It’s all right dude. I get it. But, fuck you too, you know?’

The vet came and Saf and I held him as he passed from this mortal world. I buried him in the garden next to my other little black cat Annie, who’d had the decency to die of a heart attack in her sleep about the same time last year because she was a fucking lady and brought up right. But no more pets. It just hurts too fucking much. I read somewhere that it’s the unconditional love you get from a pet that can make it hurt more than losing a person. I don’t know if that’s true but a pet never pissed me off when I was a kid, or made a pass at my girlfriend or stiffed me in the will or any of those things that can temper your feelings towards a person, so maybe there’s something in that.

Valé

Valé dude. Valé.

So that’s it. We’re off Australia.  Traumatised, excited and more than a little heartsore, but on our way. We’re putting off the inevitable dance with Immigration at LAX for a couple of weeks as we’re doing a short jaunt via Europe to visit my sister. But soon.  Soooooon.

You Have Been Selected…

Flashback: May 2014

You have been selected…

Holy shit. Holy shit balls. Holy motherfucking balls of shit. With balls. Shit.

You have been selected for further processing in the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program…

Like the Last Starfighter, I’ve completed the game but have no idea about the journey that lies before me. And no prosthetic faced Robert Preston to pick me up in a spaced up 1983 Corolla and whisk me away from my backwoods trailer park (Sydney) to a fantastical alien world either. No. Just a buttload of paperwork and an 18 month ticking clock.

FFFFFAAAARRRRKK!

FFFFAAARRRKKK!!!

Actual file photograph

What to do? So much to do! What first? Call the girlfriend and tell her we need to get married? Yes. Good idea.
Line’s busy. Decide to propose via text. She says no. I tell her I got a Green Card. She says yes. Romance.

Tell the folks? No. Can’t deal with the inevitable nuclear level of guilt that will entail. No need to put the maternal Enola Gay on the runway just yet.

Get on Facespace and broadcast it to the world? No. Haven’t got it yet. Long way to go before that visa puppy becomes reality. Text a few choice actor friends instead who’ve religiously entered the annual DV lottery for nigh on ten years. Receive back an understandable litany of curses and congratulations. Schadenfreude. Feels good. Very Australian.

I haven’t really thought this through. Entering the DV Lottery is easy. Takes 5 minutes. Done it twice before. Hadn’t really given a lot of thought to what I would do if I actually got it. FFFFFFAAAARRRRKK!

Nurofen: Targets the pain.

Nurofen: Targets the source of the pain.

Flashforward to Now: 6 weeks out from Departure.

So I’m leaving on October 10th with a wife, 32kgs of luggage and not enough money or vegemite. So far, so standard.

In the past fifteen months I’ve got married, had to remember every address I’ve ever lived at since age 16, been poked, prodded, jabbed, zapped, turned my head and coughed, got treatment for RSI from typing a million forms and still I feel massively underprepared.

Should I buy a car? Rent a car? Steal one?  Where will I live? How does the tax system work?  When can I make jokes about Obama? What do I do with all my stuff? Where can I watch AFL? How do I get a license? A social security number? What is a social security number and why do I need it? Why is everyone so fucking uptight about a goddamn credit rating? Is Patrick Swayze really dead or just in a career lull? WHAT SHOULD I HAVE DONE BEFORE I LEFT?!?!

The stress levels are peaking as the enormity of what I’m doing is really kicking in.

But how did I get to here? What was the process? What advice have I had? Well I’m going to try and outline that over a series of posts that will hopefully help any others going through/wanting to go through the seismic emotional shift that is moving to the USA. Comments, questions, suggestions, advice, tips, jeering sneers at my naïveté and propensity for poor decision making are warmly welcomed.

And hopefully along the way I’ll answer my own sixty four million dollar question: what the actual hell am I going to do in LA?

Third time's the charm.

Third time’s the charm.