Sunday, September 28, 2014

Adventures in Residence Denial Part 2: In Which Bureaucracy Isn’t As Scary As It Seems

Due to the fact that my decision letter was written entirely in Swedish, I couldn’t read it right away. After a sufficient amount of panicking I came back to the dorm and turned to Google Translate (for as much shit as I give Google Translate for being truly sub-par, I figured it would serve well enough in this situation).

Google Translate helped me to confirm that the folks at the embassy had, indeed, decided I had not adequately proved sufficient funding to survive in Sweden, sans bridge and pan-handling. The specific cause for this being that my evidence of financial aid from my home university was “unclear” as to how much of said aid would be going to tuition and how much would be left over for living expenses. I would like to note that it was quite clear, in the little section where it listed a break-down of how the aid would be dispersed, including tuition and estimated living expenses. However, the embassy disagreed with me, so I had to go about proving them wrong. Which, considering the fact that my financial aid had since been revised to include studying abroad, I figured couldn’t be too hard. (Aside: at the time of my application submission it had not accounted for studying abroad, as the University of Oregon is currently in the process of perfecting the art of dragging its feet. This whole experience has, I believe, given me the authority to say that they have, in fact, damn near perfected it).

I went to see my contact person at Uppsala U. the next day, sitting down at her desk to find myself in one of the very rare situations where a person genuinely hopes they are not, indeed, a special snowflake and they are, on the contrary, one of at least dozens if not hundreds of people this has happened to before. “I figured I can’t be the only person this has happened to,” I said after explaining the situation.

She assured me that this has happened before and went on to explain that, for reasons she could not comprehend, the embassy always sent her copies of all of the letters of acceptance for Uppsala students but never sent copies of the denials. Unlike the lovely gentleman at Migrationsverket, she seemed utterly unsurprised that I had not been contacted with the decision.

Because I hadn’t had my visa in hand when I moved to Sweden, I had printed out a copy of all of the documents that I had submitted with my application, just in case something went wrong while I was trying to get into the country. This included a copy of my revised financial aid statement, luckily enough since I didn’t yet have access to a printer (the statement needed to have my name on it to be considered valid, but I could only get my name on a printed copy, not, say, if I saved it onto my computer to be attached to an email later. Because logic). So my contact person was able to scan the paper and email it to me.

“Just email them with this attached document,” she told me. “Put in the subject of your email ‘appeal’ and include your case number. If you know who looked at your case, email them directly, because they will already be familiar with your documents.”

I did this. I found the person’s name on the bottom of my letter and I emailed them directly. Along with the embassy in D.C. And Migrationsverket. And basically everyone else I thought might possibly have a hand in making a final decision on my appeal. I wrote them a very nice email – almost an entire page long email, since I no longer trusted them to actually read the documents for themselves and see how much was going to tuition and how much would be left over. I wrote out in excruciating detail where on the document you found specific figures (tuition, books, scholarships, living expenses) and proceeded to explain in further excruciating detail how to do the math with all of these figures to determine how much exactly was going to be left over to keep me from living under the aforementioned bridge. From there I explained yet more math to calculate whether or not I had the approved amount of money (I did) and then I did all of the math for them, explaining step by step what I was doing and why, to show that I, in fact, exceeded that amount by a couple hundred dollars.

Well, after reading through the email a solid four times, my heart racing like a gazelle with a lion on its heels, I wiped the sweat from my brow and hit “send.” Then I forced myself to walk away from the computer and do something else. Probably watch a movie or something, I would assume based on my astounding inability to be productive unless absolutely necessary in my early weeks in Sweden.

It only took two days before I received an email stating, more or less, “OK fine, you can have your goddamn visa.” (I am, of course, paraphrasing.)

And thus I became a totally legit, wholly legal foreign exchange student at Uppsala University.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Adventures in Residence Permit Denial (or, That Time I Just About Shat Myself in a Government Office)

I applied for my residence permit, or visa, just over two months before moving. I applied as soon as I could (within days of receiving all of the paperwork I needed for the application from my home university) and I applied through the worldwide internet, which expedited the process quite a bit compared to sending in a paper application. (The visa application for Sweden doesn’t require a personal appearance at the embassy like some other countries do so yay for that!)  When I hit the “submit” button to send in the application, I was struck with anxiety about the adequacy of said application as though it was a lightning bolt thrown by Zeus himself.

Pretty much everyone around me assured me repeatedly that it would be fine: “You’re such a good student, you’ve never been in trouble, why would they deny you?” “Well, did you give them everything they asked for? What are you worried about then?” “Goddamn Tahni, it’s gonna be fine. Have a little faith, will you?” and the like.

Two months passed and I didn’t get any word about my application. By then my flight date was creeping ever nearer and I was quietly panicking about my visa on a daily basis. I emailed the embassy to inquire about the decision but I never heard back, so when the flight date arrived and I still had no answer my options were pretty limited: play it safe and skip the flight (having wasted the entirety of my savings on the ticket) and wait to hear back from the embassy, or get on the goddamn plane and sort it out when I arrived.

I opted for the later. After all, I had three months that I was permitted to stay in Sweden without a Visa, so what the hell?

When I arrived in Sweden and explained the situation to the kindly passport-checker-lady, she told me where I needed to go, and within a couple of days I had booked an appointment to go to Migrationsverket and sort all the bullshit out.

Upon arriving at Migrationsverket, I explained my situation to the (once again very kindly) man behind the glass, who looked up my case on his Computer of Infinite Wisdom and then – devastatingly – blinked at the screen.

“You never got a decision letter?” he asked.

“No.” I refused to feel my heart sinking.

“Well, I can print it out for you,” he said. “Just a second.” I watched him bustle around, printing out my decision letter, stapling all the pages together, and slide them through the slat under the glass. “It’s all in Swedish, but you can call the embassy in DC and they’ll explain everything to you…basically your residence permit application was denied.”

If you think this is the point at which I absolutely lose my shit, you would be right.

In my head it sounded an awful lot like this: “Denied? DENIED? What am I supposed to do – I don’t want to go back to shithole Eugene! I have classes I need to finish – I have things like personal growth and spiritual questing I need to do here!  Three months isn’t enough! I DON’T WANT TO GO BACK TO THE UO TO FINISH MY DEGREE!! Oh dear baby Jesus in Heaven – oh holy fucking shit, how did this happen? HOW DID THIS HAPPEN? ARE YOU KIDDING ME? YOU FUCKED UP THE APPLICATION THAT’S HOW THIS HAPPENED! You should never have listened to all of those coddling people with all of their reassurances! You knew better! WHAT HAVE YOU DONE???

In real life:

“Oh.” I take the paper and look at the Swedish, which has never looked so intimating. “Well. That’s not good.”

Kindly Man Behind the Glass: “Basically it says you didn’t adequately prove your funding.”

(Aside: to be granted a residence permit you need to prove you have enough money to do things like pay rent and buy food and generally NOT end up panhandling and living under a bridge somewhere.)

Me: “Oh. I thought I did. But, I mean, they said they take financial aid from the university, and since I applied by financial aid has been revised to take study abroad into consideration, so I actually have more money than I did when I applied.”

Kindly Man Behind the Glass: “The good news is you can appeal the decision.”

Me: “I can? How do I do that?”

Kindly Man Behind the Glass: “You’re going to have to call the embassy in DC, they can explain it much better than I can.”

Me: “Oh. Okay.”

Kindly Man Behind the Glass: “Appeals usually go pretty well. It sounds like you should be just fine. Just call the embassy and they’ll tell you what to do.”

Me: “Okay. Well…uh, thank you?”

Kindly Man Behind the Glass: “Good luck. Have a good day.”

I’m not gonna lie. I took my decision letter and went outside and paced and pulled on my hair for about five minutes, trying to sort out what to do next. Calling the embassy in DC, assuming they behaved like most US-based government agencies and put you on hold for half an hour to forty five minutes, was going to cost me something like $200 – which was, quite plainly, counter-productive to my ultimate goal of having all of the funds and not panhandling or living under a bridge. Getting in contact with people back home was, at that moment, complicated for various reasons, which mostly boiled down to my being out of communication with the most important people, especially the ones who could be of aid in that particular situation.

The best I could do was send my mom a message on facebook. So, after sending my mom a message on facebook with my almost-fancy Swedish phone, I got on my bike and cycled away from Migrationsverket. For a while I just kind of took turns as I pleased, with little care for navigation or thought for where the roads were taking me. Oh, and I cried while I did this.

Eventually I realized I was lost and stopped being sad/anxious/stressed/encapsulated in a cocoon of doom and horror and started being angry instead. I stopped, got out my map, figured out where I was, pointed myself in the right direction, and by the time I had arrived at the campus I had moved solidly into the emotion-less void that signals it is high time to get down to business and kick some serious ass.

Next time: Adventures in Residence Permit Denial (In Which I Get Down to Business and Kick Some Somewhat Serious Ass)

Monday, September 8, 2014

A Pagan Among Us (or, going to Catholic mass in Sweden as a non-Catholic foreign student)

Uppsala’s domkyrkan is the biggest church in Sweden and you can see the spires reaching for the sky from just about anywhere in the city. If you can’t see them, it’s usually because there’s something else standing between it and you. In the course of its existence it has also been burnt down and re-built something like three or four times and despite the assurances of one of my fellow foreign friends that domkyrkan in Lund is more architecturally pleasing and generally more beautiful, I, personally, find the place to be stunning (though the one in Lund does have giants carved into the pillars in the basement – I must be there).

When I went to mass there on my second Sunday here, it was not my first time actually going inside domkyrkan. It must have been my third or fourth day here that I went in for the first time, and it was the first time ever walking into a cathedral that I didn’t feel some sense of…well…threat.

 Often when I walk into cathedrals I feel a very strong sense of walking into the mouth of a gargoyle – going literally into the belly of the beast. While part of this is likely a reflection of my relationship with the church as an entity and idea, a bigger part of it probably has to do with the fact that the architecture is designed with the intention of being intimidating. I’m not sure if the lack of this threatened sensation is a direct response to my own shifting attitude toward the Christian God or if there’s something different in the architecture (rather than gray stone the exterior of the building is adorned with red bricks, giving it a warmer, earthier feel) or if there’s just something different about the place.

Similarly as I walked in I felt a greater sense of warmth and invitation than I usually experience in cathedrals – once again this could be the result of many different things. Domkyrkan is half museum these days, with the smaller rooms to the side once reserved for shrines to the saints now converted into exhibits if not tombs (many of the tomb rooms have, in fact, become exhibits themselves, displaying statues of the seemingly-sleeping departed). When I entered the first time there were only a scattered few in the pews praying. The majority of the people in the cathedral were following a guide who lead them through each room and explained the history and significance of what was contained therein. The main area displayed many old pieces of artwork – statues of Mary and saints, old crucifixes paused mid-decay and hung to be admired for their artistry and age, and a red neon sign reading “WHERE ONE IS THE OTHER MUST BE” at the foot of the primary crucifix not only warms the room but bring a touch of modernity to it as well.

I had already well familiarized myself with domkyrkan and its contents, it sounds and smells and feels, by the time I attended mass there. I had already, in fact, prayed there – if praying is what you want to call it. I had sat in the pews and closed my eyes and listened to the sounds of people’s voices rising to the domed ceilings, a continuous murmur whose words couldn’t be made out, and breathed long and deep and counted off beads on the rosary I made months before coming here. The rosary is dedicated to one of my gods, a little-known Norse goddess in fact, and while I meditated in domkyrkan it was to her I spoke. Twice, actually – the first time all she told me was to take in the beauty of the place, to listen to those voices and really look at the artistry of the building and all that it contained. And there is so much to look at – so much fine detail in the paintings on the walls, the wooden carvings adorning the stone, the arches of the ceilings. There is a never-ending feast for the eyes in that place, and, of course, that continuous murmur that sounds almost like music when you clear your mind and just listen. The second time is another story for another time.

The point is, there is something about that place that resonates in me, something beautiful and powerful. I do quite like simply being there. I wanted to go to mass there to say that I had been to mass at domkyrkan, this old landmark which bears all of this history. I wanted to go to mass generally for a couple of reasons – one of the primary being that I wanted the exposure to the language (it can be difficult to get people to speak Swedish to me here, in part because I get shy about my abilities and in part because, when I do try, they can often tell I’m having difficulty and usually just switch into English at that point). I wanted to have an opportunity to listen to the words being spoken without expectation – just to hear the voices and the words and see what happened.

So I went to mass at domkyrkan, and as I came in and picked up a psalm book and sat down in the (what I thought would be significantly more crowded) pews I started to feel that slightly uneasy feeling of the severely out-of-place. Not only am I not Catholic, or Christian of any recognizable variety, I really only have a very basic grasp of the language. I am not familiar with the rituals of mass or the level of interaction that’s expected of me or the songs that are sang. Not only do I not know the songs that are sang – I don’t know most of the words in the psalm book I was given to read out of.

The sensation was never as great as it had been at home the few times I went into a church after leaving Christianity – I never felt a fear of all the eyes turning on me and pushing me out with their judgment. In fact, despite the title of this entry, I had very little concern about my status as a religious misfit in the room. I was worried, mostly, that someone would notice that I didn’t belong because I was unable to keep up with the rituals – that I lost track of when I was supposed to stand up or sit down and I couldn’t find the right hymns in the book.

I glanced around often, hoping no one would notice, until I realized…no one cared. No one gave a single shit about whether or not I knew what page to turn to in the psalm book or about whether I stood up a few seconds too late. No one was going to notice me because – if they weren’t here as tourists observing the rituals (I could tell there were a couple at least, from their camera flashes) then they were here to worship. They were here with their loved ones, with their priests and clergy, with their god, and I was not a part of that equation. And that eased the tension in my shoulders substantially. It made me feel more comfortable with not adding my voice to theirs, with fiddling with my pagan rosary while I stood there in my blue and white dress, dark blue sweater and new fancy shoes. I could just listen and it was all a-okay.

I even got away with minimal interaction. The only other person sitting in my pew turned to me to shake my hand at one point, and smiling I shook his hand firmly and muttered a quiet “hej,” hoping he wouldn’t notice how little I knew about what I was supposed to do, and then – in the tiniest spurt of courage there ever was – I turned around the shake the hand of the woman in the pew behind me. And that felt…quite nice, really.

After mass I was able to creep out, returning the psalm book to the shelf and slipping through the doors and the gathering museum goers, my fancy new-used shoes clicking on the cobblestones as I went. I’m not going to say mass changed my life or that I’m even particularly eager to go do it again (though I plan to) but I was surprised. The experience of even being in the cathedral was different than it ever had been before, and the experience of the mass was different than the one I’d gone to in high school, or any of the church-going ventures I’d attempted after leaving Christianity. I was tired after, but not with a bitter taste in my mouth. It was a pleasant, peaceful kind of tired, and as I walked out in my dress and sweater and clip-clopping shoes into the gray, over-cast day, my goddess’s rosary still in my hand, I felt strangely beautiful and buoyant.