Tuesday, 1 June 2010

It's a good thing I was a hurdler... (Pt. 2)

January 2010. I knew, or thought I knew, that immigration would not be easy. Where I got this knowledge, I don’t know—movies, news reports, comments from visiting internationals and ex-pats, my own imagination, and who-knows-what else. Regardless, I anticipated that I would have to fight tooth and nail to rejoin my husband in the UK. I was chomping at the bit to get the process started since I anticipated that it would take months, during which I would pathetically mooch off the hospitality of my parents:

(Here I am mooching...but, as you can see, I am being mooched off, in turn.)

All the same, I was a little overwhelmed by how big and intricate and scary it all seemed, so I hedged for a good two weeks before I finally sat down to tackle the form.

The best thing about immigration forms is that, for citizens of most countries, you can fill them out and turn them in online. The worst thing is that they do require an awful lot of information. At about the same time I started the forms, my husband left for Kenya, where, unsurprisingly, there aren’t all that many places to get cell phone service. Thus, he had to leave me a list of all the information I would need to complete the form. This includes the obvious things—full name, ID numbers, birth place, address, occupation—and some less intuitive things, as well—how much he makes each year, how much he pays out each year, proof from his employer that he really is employed, etc. I had to supply similar information, as well as our marriage certificate, proof that we had met before our wedding (this is where all our Facebooking and Skyping records came in handy), and information about every international trip I’d ever made. Since I have traveled a fair amount, this was fairly stressful, because I remembered that I’d been places but I didn’t know specific dates, and I was quite paranoid about getting everything perfect.

You might think it’s silly to get paranoid, since if your application is rejected, you can just submit it again after fixing the mistakes. However, you have to pay approximately $1000 to submit your application, and the UK keeps the processing fee even if they don’t grant you admission—that means one little error could lead to having to pay a grand all over again. For someone who just received her last paycheck and wasn’t sure how much her new freelance editing job would pay each month, that was a scary prospect. Thus, when it came time to write the letter of support, wherein you can state any information that needs to be considered in addition to what you have already provided within the form, I produced an epic manuscript explaining pretty much every answer I provided, just to be sure. The consulate people probably either loved it for being so amusingly earnest, or hated it for being so annoyingly long.

In order to start the application, I had to provide information about when I wanted to travel to the UK. Herein lay a problem: I had to have a plane ticket in order to start the visa process, but I couldn’t travel until I had the visa and I didn’t know how long it would take to get one. Since the UK immigration website said that applications like mine typically took a minimum of 50 days to process, I booked my flight for early March. This seemed reasonable to me because my husband had been forced to pay a small fortune to repeatedly change his departure date while waiting on the US embassy to grant him a visa to work in the US for a year. This was not to be my fate. A week after submitting the electronic paperwork, I reported to a stark government office in Columbus, OH, in order to have my fingerprints scanned and my picture taken. This information would also be sent electronically to the consulate, so that, if my application was approved, they could enter all these identification details into a database and screen me each time I entered the UK. Imagine my surprise when I entered the nearly-empty office and was processed in under 10 minutes. Imagine my even greater surprise when, 2 days later, I received a letter from the consulate saying that my application had been approved—no interview demanded, no additional details requested. I got my passport back the day after that, and was ready to go meet my husband…

…except I couldn’t, because the starting date of the visa was 9 March 2010, and it wasn’t even February yet. Obviously, I had been a little overly-cautious. We investigated the possibility of my entering the country on a regular visitor’s visa until 8 March, taking a brief vacation to, say, Ireland or France, and then returning for the “official” start date of my spousal visa, but this was not to be. We were told that, theoretically, this is legally possible, but that it would be up to the individual border control official to grant or deny me entry. Basically, it would be a big game of roulette, and if I lost I’d have to pay for a return ticket home PLUS a new ticket back to the UK. What a pain. The up side was that this gave me more time to visit with family before my departure, as well as prepare to deal with the next big hassle of the relocation experience: shipping my many possessions abroad.

Mid-January 2010. As soon as I sent off my visa application, I began the process of organizing my move abroad. You would think that the internet would be very handy for finding out whom to contact to arrange an international move, but it is not—or, if it is, it only yields the relevant information to people who enter a password that I obviously didn’t know. I eventually found a website that contacts multiple international movers simultaneously, prompting them to respond to you with information and estimates. After corresponding with several international movers, I narrowed my focus onto the three with the best prices. Figuring that the cheapest one was too good to be true, and that the most expensive one was absurdly overpriced, I chose the middle. The man who had written me was quite prompt with e-mail responses, and the company (named Global Forwarding, just for the record) generally seemed quite helpful. Oh, what deception.

I have now learned the lesson that no company can really make an accurate estimate about the cost of your shipping unless they actually send a representative to see what you have. No list that you send will adequately convey the size/weight of your things, because terms like “dresser” and, Heaven help me, “kayak” encompass items that come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Having lived on my own for several years, including one year spent filling the space of an entire two-storey house, I had accumulated quite a lot of stuff—furniture, decorations, books, clothes, jewelry, collectibles, dishes, sports equipment…you name it, I probably have it. I had this much stuff even after deliberately downsizing when moving from Virginia back to my parents’ house, and downsizing again when packing for the move to the UK. Thus, while my shipping costs had originally been estimated at approximately $1500, they ultimately ended up being $3500. Ouch.

The other major problem was that, shortly after agreeing to take my “case,” Global Forwarding converted from doing domestic and corporate shipping to doing only corporate shipping. They moved people to new departments and they let go of some workers, and I was left to fall through the cracks. I had to write and call multiple times to get every single question answered, including basic questions such as, “When will the movers be picking up my items?” I also had to deal with local movers who rescheduled multiple times before finally showing up to pick up my shipment on 1 March. They were quite professional and efficient and I started feeling hopeful again, but this was unfounded. I had been told that my shipment would take about a week to get to the dock, then another week to get to the UK, plus another week to go through customs and get to me. So—a week after my arrival in the UK, I could expect to be joined by the precious and irreplaceable things I had collected over a lifetime.

Three weeks after I watched my belongings ride away in the moving truck, I started contacting Global Forwarding, looking for updates. Multiple e-mails to multiple people were ignored, and I was beginning to get quite nervous. Had I been robbed? My dad talked to our lawyer and, at his advice, I got down to business. I contacted the company one last time with a scathing letter detailing how I would be reporting them to the departments of commerce of the states in which they operated, and how I would be pursuing legal action to get my belongings back—or, if not my belongings, then a whole lot of money to replace them. I cannot express how hard it was to write this letter, because I usually complain about nothing to anyone’s face, and I loathe kicking up a fuss (for this reason, my husband judges me to be more British than American). However, it sometimes pays to be a bitch. Lo and behold, I finally heard back from the manager of the company (GKrates International) that was wrapping up my order after Global Forwarding had switched to corporate-only orders . I was told that not only was my shipment not in the UK, it was not on a boat to the UK, and it was not even at the dock ready to be loaded onto a boat. Instead, it was sitting in a warehouse in Albany, Ohio, 20 minutes away from my parents’ home. Because it contained some things that could not easily be palletized and shrink-wrapped, the local movers had freaked out and had simply let the stuff sit around...while nobody at either Global Forwarding or GKrates had followed up on my behalf to spur them into action.

At this point, I was just glad to know that someone knew where my possessions were, because, frankly, I had pretty much written them off. [Side note: Oddly, I wasn’t disturbed at the loss of most of my things. What really bothered me was the irreplaceable pictures and other family heirlooms, as well as the unique and beautiful pieces of art and antiques I've collected--I didn't want them to fall into the hands of someone who would not care for or appreciate them properly.] Over the next couple weeks, the movers were fairly good about correspondence, and I was eventually told that everything was loaded onto a ship and was on its way to the UK. Hooray!

Or not. When will I learn to stop thinking that progress will lead to more progress? Two days after my shipment was scheduled to arrive in the UK, on 10 May 2010, I wrote the movers to find out if, in fact, it had safely reached British soil. Miraculously, it had. I was given some paperwork to fill out and asked to return it that day, almost as an afterthought. What information did I need to provide? Only a complete list of everything in the shipment. Luckily, I had kept the original packing list from the local movers, but this contained only a tally of how many boxes/bags/pieces of furniture were included. I then had to estimate how many of these contained books versus decorations versus dishes, etc., and got the paperwork turned in as soon as I could. I could almost feel my belongings in my hands.

Except, here I sit, almost in the month of June, possessions-less. I wrote several e-mails, both to my local moving “agent”—J.A. Coles Removals, the company that provided my packing list to the customs people and will deliver my goods here—and to the international moving company in the US, to find out what was going on. After about a week, I was told that my stuff was still on the dock at Felixstowe Port, Surrey, UK. Customs people haven’t even gone through it. A process that was supposedly going to take only a week has now taken three, which I am told is not totally unusual given the post-9/11 climate. Plus, my stuff is sharing a crate with other stuff, which could be more suspicious and theoretically slow down the clearance process. Even after everything is cleared, it will take another week for the shipment to be taken to the main warehouse in London and then be driven from London to Cornwall. At this point, I’ll be lucky if it arrives before my parents visit in August.

Again, though, as much as I complain about the absurdity of this whole process, I know I’m lucky. There are people who are denied entry to foreign countries, and thus can’t be with their children or spouses or other family and friends. There are people who are too poor to pay for visas and shipping for their possessions, and are so desperate to relocate that they swim across raging rivers with deadly currents, or set out across the ocean with only a flimsy raft between them and death by drowning. Some of these people don’t just want to relocate, but need to, else they and/or their families will starve to death. It kind of puts my problems in perspective.

Still, those desperate cases aside, for people who are in the position to go through the same process I went through, it is quite a stressful time. It certainly eats through the bliss of the “honeymoon” period and provides a harsh reminder of the practicalities of real life. Not to mention, this is only the beginning. Once you get to your destination, you have to do other practical legal things, like open a new bank account and find employment and sign up for health care…but those are all topics for another day.

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