Friday, 25 May 2012

Applying for a US student visa at the Brussels Embassy: things they don't tell you

1. You should try to get there as early as possible: the earlier you get there, the less you'll have to wait. 

My appointment was at 8.30, and I was there around 8.10. (A minor miracle in itself.) But there were already nine people ahead of me in the queue. You stand outside, and after ticking your name off on the list they let you in one by one to have your passport checked and your bags scanned.

2. If you ask, you can take a wallet in with you, or a book, or a magazine, and there is somewhere you can leave the rest of your things safely.

The call-centre guy had refused to tell me anything about whether there would be anywhere I could leave my bag, and the website had insisted that I could only take the relevant documents in with me - absolutely nothing else. Hence much panic about what I would do with my stuff and how I would pass the hours that I had been warned I would spend in there. 

3. If you don't take in your book or magazine, never fear: CNN is on. 

However, in the mornings, it's all the international stuff, which is terribly disappointing if you're me and you just want to hear about Mitt Romney's latest gaffe on the campaign trail. (But of course it's in the middle of the night in America, so even he is relatively safe from gaffing.)

You can also admire the photos of Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden and President Obama hanging on the wall. I liked them - their smiles seemed to say "welcome to America". That's what I liked to think, anyway.

4. Like everywhere else in Belgium, you take a number as you walk in, then wait for it to come up on the screen. 

At this point, they'll ask you to hand over most of your documentation, then take your fingerprints. Then you sit back down and wait for your number to flash up again, at which point you go round the corner to a different booth. I was expecting interview rooms, for some reason. But no - just a booth. 

5. They probably won't ask you anything you've prepared yourself to answer. 

For example, I had a whole list of reasons why I have enough ties to Belgium to come back when my course is over, and a whole speech prepared about why the MFA at American University is perfect for me. I wasn't asked any of that. But when I said I taught French, the guy switched into French - just to check, I think - and he also asked me what my father's job is. (He's contributing financially, so it's not as random as it seems.) The first question was "what's your background"? A little vague, perhaps. The second was "what makes you want to write"? and I blanked and totally forgot to mention Aaron Sorkin, thus squandering a nice little anecdote about how it's thanks to him that I got my visa. Instead, I'll have to tell the story of feeling a little treacherous, as I walked away, for not having given credit where credit is, in fact, due. 

6. They tell you there and then whether you've been approved.

I was expecting a nail-biting wait. I was very glad not to have one!

7. You walk out realising you still have various pieces of documentation that you took great pains to find or print, and checked multiple times. 

I'm not sure what that's about. I mean, if they wanted a photo of me, why didn't they ask me for it? But whatever. I'm approved. I don't care anymore! It's over.

8. It's nowhere near as scary as all the stuff you've read might suggest. 

When I said "oh, I wasn't expecting that question", I didn't get a black mark against me or my head bitten off, but rather a friendly joke. The people are nice and not at all intimidating. Don't be scared!

3BT: well, seven, really...

On the way into town for my (ridiculously early) visa interview today, I was thinking about three beautiful things, and how Clare of the original 3BT blog manages to do it every day. It must take a lot of creativity and determination and discipline. But then today was one of those days when beautiful thing after beautiful thing kept happening...

1. The poppies on the disused train platform seem to come alive in the early morning sunshine.

2. The people at the American Embassy were not as scary as I had been led to believe by the website.

3. Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden all smiled at me from the wall of the waiting room, seemingly genuine welcome-to-America smiles.

4. My visa got approved after not that many scary questions!

5. Fresh orange juice, almond croissant, and a coffee to celebrate.

6. Politico's Senior Editor is in town for a lecture on the American election. I overcome my fear and speak to him about internships, and start to dream.

7. The Brussels metro is, randomly, playing a song by one of my favourite Spanish bands.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

"Going up" to AU

The first time I went to University, I learned a foreign language: Spanish. I also learned a quaint version of English in which, at the start of "Michaelmas term", you "went up" to college, where you "read" a subject with a strange-sounding name like MML, SPS, compsci or natsci. The weeks started on Thursdays and sometime in November everyone took to their beds (or, more likely, the bar) with Fifth Week Blues. (Term started in October and lasted hardly any time at all, but the academic year did go on until June.)

The second time, I'll be learning it all, all over again.

For a start, I'll have to get used to calling it "school", after spending three years telling my language students that, in English, you leave school at 18 and after that it's called university. 

I won't be choosing papers for my course or writing essays for them; instead I'll be choosing "courses" for my "program", for which I will write "papers", some (but not all) of which may be "essays", since I will be, after all, studying creative writing.

The whole thing starts not with Freshers' Week but with "Welcome Week", which includes an "Involvement Fair", which is what I used to call a Freshers' Fair. The main event of the week is not matriculation but "Opening Convocation", during which undergrads (who may or may not be called undergrads) wear matching tshirts rather than gowns. 

And that's just the beginning! Confused? I will be. 

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

4BT (because sometimes three just isn't enough)

1. The pigeon on the roof opposite my window looks like he (she?) is doing handstands.

2. All the way home I hope that the new edition of The Writer magazine is waiting for me in my postbox, and it is.

3. Seeing "The Iron Lady" a while back sent shivers through me but also made me realise that the 80s were a fascinating decade, whose magnitude I was too young to understand but would now like to. It turns out that next term I get to study 80s literature as one of my options.

3. A brand new photo of my brand new goddaughter smiles up at me from my iPad.