Free! Ben Ward
It should always be in the back of your mind when you take a job in another country that you aren't actually moving there to live. A friend once recounted a tale of passing though US immigration where upon being asked where they lived, replied “Here, in America!”
“No you don't,” came the reply, “you only work here.”
So it is that I find myself starting 2013 in London, rather than my regular location of San Francisco. Back on December 19th I stopped into the US embassy for a routine update to the H1-B stamp in my passport, but I'm still here, having been held up in additional processing with no specified duration, and very little information upon which to estimate the delay.
I missed my flight back to the US on January 2nd, and now I'm holed up, nearly a month later, waiting for the column that reads “Pending” to instead read “Send Passport.“ In time I have every confidence that it will.
Since December 19th I've been through a handful of emotional reactions to this. Upset was a big initial one, and continues to recur regularly, but as the helplessness of the situation sank in I also found a rush of relative excitement.
I am supremely privileged, above and beyond everything else that's gone well in my life; I have a job that I can perform to a competent degree from anywhere, given a laptop and an Internet connection. Furthermore, this job that I love now operates an office in London, filled with a fine bunch of people. Beyond that, I have dear friends and family in and around London who welcome me, look out for me, and will put a roof over my head if it comes to it.
With all of that, I'm in a position to try and make the most of living in London for a second time, however briefly. Far from being the captive of the United States immigration service, I am free.
It's not really so clearly optimistic in my head, but that's the pitch. In reality there's a lot to drag me down. Lovely as it is to spend time with my London friends, it comes at the expense of seeing those in San Francisco, multiple of whom I have known for many years, right now packing to leave for whole new adventures of their own, in new cities. By the time I get back, they will be gone. That hurts. It's enough of a reminder of my ‘non-immigrant’ status to be held away from the place where I keep all my stuff, but the separation from dear friends in moments of big change is many degrees above that. I'm going to get back and they just won't be there any more.
The second thing is the denial of decompression. Christmas is a time of year that I enjoy immensely. I'm blessed with a large family who I love, and I make an annual trip at Christmas because we all come home for it. Siblings, grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles, all in the space of a few days. Plus visiting London as well, sleeping on those floors and temporary beds for a couple of weeks makes for a busy time.
Previously when returning to San Francisco, to the apartment I rent by myself, I don't rush out to see people. I take a few days and a weekend to unwind, sleep in my own bed, and breathe out. I'm lucky that Christmas is mostly a relaxing time for me, but still, my own space in my own company is rather cherished.
I can't relax like that here. I'm in a perfectly fine AirBnB flat which I've rented for two weeks. Enough to settle down and take a little time to myself I hope, but not so long as to wipe out my savings paying double rent. Its fine, it's functional, but it's certainly not my space. New noises, different neighbourhood, strange smells and the overbearing awareness that I don't know how long I'll be here doesn't relax me. I'm getting there slowly, establishing a slightly dull routine, but I wish I could lie on my floor and play records.
Music. There's a thing. The lack of loudspeakers is a little maddening. Kudos to Apple, the speakers on the iPad mini are remarkably capable for their form, but I miss being bathed in sound.
Besides the big thing, I'm worried about having to figure out how to do ‘Bill Pay’ with my American bank to cover next month's rent. Also about the expense of a new airfare to get back. I worry that as the weeks drag on I'll find myself isolated from my team at work, that despite everyone's best efforts and intentions I won't be able to contribute to the exciting new projects we want to build. I worry about how long it's going to be before I see all those far away friends again.
I worry about spending my birthday here. Not that it would be bad to, just that it's not what I expected to happen.
I guess, while there's an excited twinkle at some of the opportunities in London—lunches in pubs, the architecture, parks, museums that I never visited before, Indian food and an ample supply of Crunchy Nut Cornflakes—the reality is that it isn't home any more. I can pretend to live here, and that will be fun, but I can't pretend to recover and relax. Much of the mental wellbeing of being in the place where I'm settled will be deferred.
“Home” is a weird concept now. I'll save that to write about another day. But regardless, here I am. I'm mostly happy, most of the time. And though the drinks are really very expensive, I'm resolute to make something fun out of this snafu.
This is my reminder to you to try and make the most of where you are.