It’s been a while since I wrote anything about my day-to-day life. There’s been plenty of other stuff to take care of, and I’ve not really had the inclination to write much at all. But long story short, I took five boxes, filled them with books, photographs, a handful of cherished CDs and DVDs, notebooks, and things of sentimental value, and got rid of the rest of my stuff. Sold my collection of books to a book store, and gave away everything else to friends. My compact discs: gone. My digital versatile discs: gone. Furniture: gone. Apartment: someone else lives there now. Those five boxes are in a friend’s cellar until I find the place where I want to live. Right now, I’m in London, but only for a week. Moving back to Berlin was the best option last summer. My life in the States came to an end, and my stuff was stored in a warehouse in Berlin. It seemed like the best option. But after the initial joy to be back, to be in a new apartment, to see old friends; after that had settled down into regular life, the reasons that I left Berlin in 2007 quickly came bubbling up to the surface: I just wasn’t happy there. And the shelves full of stuff felt oppressive. It was time to get rid of them. So I did. All gone, apart from those five boxes, and the backpack and suitcase I have with me. It feels very liberating. Of course, I’m lucky. The work that I do is done on my laptop, and I can do it anywhere. Other people stuck in a rut aren’t so lucky. It’s not other peoples’ ruts that I’m stuck in, though, so next week I’m flying to another country to spend the summer there, and beyond that… well, I have a vague plan, but there’s no point in talking about it until I’m there. My immediate future, though, isn’t in Germany, Great Britain, or the United States. In a way, it was the United States that was the catalyst that kicked me into leaving Berlin.
I will explain. When I got married last year, I was in the US on a regular I-94 visa waiver thing. After the marriage, we set about filling in the paperwork needed for me to get a residency visa. We had a meeting with an immigration lawyer in Seattle. He made us aware that it is a lot of paperwork, and can take some time to fill that paperwork in. I had just two weeks left on my I-94 at the point, but he told us that a few weeks overstaying my tourist visa wouldn’t be a problem if I was applying for residency because of marriage. Fast forward past my wife and I splitting up, and the withdrawal of my residency application, and my return to Europe, and we arrive at a point where I would like to return to the States for the summer so I can see some baseball and do some research for the book about the sport. When I left the States last time, I contacted the same lawyer, filled him in on the details, and he advised me to apply for a visa this time, rather than using the Visa Waiver Program, just to be upfront about it, because of those few weeks of technically being there illegally. Fine. So, on a Tuesday morning in March, I had an interview at the US consulate.
If you’ve read this far, you’ll undoubtedly have guessed what the end of this story looks like. Because of the cluster headaches I was having at the time, I was worried the night before. If they were on schedule I was due to have one around 2.30am on Tuesday morning. My appointment was at 8.30am, meaning I’d have to get up around 6.30am. I’ve found that a way to head the headaches off it to stay awake. If I’m asleep at half-past-two, I will more likely get one. If I’m awake, I can feel one coming on earlier, and head it off with the various methods I’ve detailed before (Red Bull, pure oxygen, masturbation). As it happens, I didn’t get one. But, it still meant I was awake at 3am. Fear of a headache, and nerves about the interview mixed together into an insomnia cocktail, and when I last looked at the clock it was nigh on five o’clock. No sooner had my eyes closed than they were opening again to the sound of my alarm clock.
The US consulate is a big compound, and there’s a sign outside telling visa applicants to queue next to steps up to the entrance. Outside. There was only a few other people around, and we were shepherded in through the airport-style security five at a time. We were told to go through the next door and through another. Then we were buzzed in. A security guy looked at my passport, checked it against a list of names, and drew a line through my name and told me to go over there. Another woman checked my passport, and that I have the other items needed, then told me to join the queue over there. I was called over and a very pleasant woman behind a glass window asked me a couple of questions, took my passport and paperwork, and told me to sit and wait for my name to be called.
There were two people doing the interviews. Both of them behind glass. One was a pretty, young-ish, blonde woman who’s window was open to the room. We could hear everything being said by her and the applicants she interviewed. She seemed to be flying through applicants. Every one of them had their application approved. The other person doing interviews was a guy. I couldn’t see him, cos his window was mostly concealed by a three-and-a-half sided wall. It was like a doorless-cabin. The applicants that he was dealing with seemed to talk more, and take longer. My assumption at that point was the the young woman was given the no-brainer applicants. The thought never really formulated in my head, but it was there that I wanted to be interviewed, by the woman.
“Craig Robinson.” said the man.
I walked into the cabin, we exchanged hellos, and I sat down.
“It says here you overstayed your visa; why did you do that?”
I explained. He typed.
“What’s the reason for your trip to the States?”
I told him. He glanced at my cap and asked if I was a Mets fan. I was wearing my Montreal Expos cap. You have no idea how long it took me the previous evening to decide which cap to wear. I didn’t want to wear something too obscure (no Homestead Grays, no St. Louis Browns, or Kansas City Athletics), I didn’t want to wear a Yankees cap (too obvious, and off-putting to fans of 29 other teams). So I went for the Montreal cap. It’s Canadian, thus not too needy. Plus whenever I’ve worn it in the States, it has often brought a smile from someone nostalgic for a defunct team with a groovy logo.
“No, I’m a Yankees fan,” I said.
He kinda mumbled that he meant Expos not Mets and after a pause said, “They’re in… Washington… the Nationals now.”
My eyes stayed un-rolled, but the sentiment went through my head.
“Are you going to the All-Star Game?”
“I’d love to, but it’ll be tough to get a ticket.”
“Where is it this year?”
My mind went blank. How can something so obvious slip from my head. C’mon Craig, find the name of the city, it’s in your head somewhere.
“Phoenix.” But as soon as the words came out, I knew that was wrong. I knew that Phoenix is where the 2011 All-Star Game will be held.
He continued typing, then returned to the main topic: “Why didn’t you apply for a visa extension?”
I told him the truth, that I didn’t know it was possible, that the immigration lawyer didn’t tell me I could or should do so, and that if I’d have known that was the case, I would most definitely have done so. He continued typing.
Then he said one word. I don’t know if it was followed by a verbal ellipsis, but it felt like it was. “Unfortunately…”
He went on to tell me that due to previous violations of US immigration law blah blah blah blah blah.
Bad news is often easiest expressed by cliches. I felt like I’d been winded. Is that true? I’m not sure. But something physical did happen in my stomach. A sudden hollow feeling there. “Oh.” He gave me my passport and a piece of paper. I thanked him, got out of the seat, and the piece of paper slipped out of my hand. I bent down to pick it up, then caught the eye of another applicant waiting to be seen. I looked away, and stuffed my stuff back into my bag, and walked out of the building. I got a cigarette out of my pocket, but my matches had been confiscated on the way into the building. I put the cigarette back. It felt unreal.
Did that just happen?
I bought a lighter at the kiosk at the subway station and went back outside to smoke. I spent the journey back to my apartment staring into the middle distance.
I love the United States, but they don’t want me there. I’m writing a book about their national pastime, but they don’t want me there. I’m technically still married to a citizen, but they don’t want me there. I’m not being melodramatic when I say that I was slightly heartbroken. But, with a couple of months’ distance between that day in early March and where I am now, it’s not that bad. It still makes me sad, and the effect it will have on the book is frustrating (no longer will there be written passages about each of the ballparks in the major leagues), but I am over it and determined – even more so – to create a fucking awesome book about a sport primarily played in a country that won’t allow me in for an undefined amount of time.
The idea of working on a book about baseball, and specifically watching baseball games on the Internet in the early hours of the European morning was not appealing. I’ve flipped my schedule before for baseball and you miss so much of the summer if you are up until 4 or 5am every night and sleeping until noon or so. So the plan to sublet my apartment for the summer evolved into a bigger plan; a plan to get rid of my apartment and try and do something new.
Age is something that has been on my mind recently. I guess it’s something to do with this being my last year in my thirties. I had a similar thing when I was 29; back then I managed to bypass too many annoying thoughts about the odometer clicking into two new digits because I’d just started doing freelance illustration work, just started feeling that I could leave my office job behind, which by June 2000 I had done. Three months later I moved to Berlin. As I entered my thirties life felt fresh. As I approach my forties, though, life feels the opposite. This tediously long blog post is hopefully just a way to remind myself to keep my pecker up. I look at the facts and really I should be feeling better about things than I am. I’ve just had an exhibition, and Bloomsbury are paying me to work on my Flip Flop Fly Ball book. I absolutely realise that getting up at midday, having no boss, and spending my work days researching baseball and making infographics about baseball is a charmed life. I should really be very grateful. But my general mood since returning to Berlin has been one of flapping around. But the problem isn’t Berlin. The problem is me. But I’m not sure the foundation of being in Berlin is a foundation that can be built upon. There are lots of things I like about being there, but my fundamental feeling for Berlin is a negative one. I’m in the same mental place I was at the end of 2007. That needs to change cos I’m four months away from my fortieth birthday. Just a number, but no matter how much I tell myself that, I don’t really fully believe it.
I recently spent some time doing an entirely unhelpful thing, and something I’d never suggest you do: looking at other peoples’ ages. John Cleese was my age when he was doing The Life of Brian. I’m just a few months younger than Paul Thomas Anderson. And Bill Watterson had already done his ten years of Calvin and Hobbes by the age of 37. Now I’m not ridiculous enough to be comparing my life with some of the most creative people alive, but the thing that I can’t get my head around is how rounded their work seems. I wonder how that much cleverness can come out of the heads of people my age. I am happy with what I’m doing, and as I’ve said, I’m incredibly lucky to be doing this sort of stuff for a living, but it all feels a bit insignificant comparatively.
Enough of my introspection. I’m going to enjoy this next week in London; hanging out with friends and seeing stuff (I went to see two wonderful things yesterday: the Céleste Boursier-Mougenot zebra finch thing at the Barbican, and the Magnificent Maps exhibition at the British Library). I’m going to hope that somehow I don’t wake up tomorrow to find that the UK has David Cameron as its Prime Minister, and I’m going to continue researching my book. Life could be a hell of a lot worse.