It’s the last Friday in January and my body’s as tense as a bow string. Sunday is the last day we’re allowed to stay in Switzerland and we still haven’t heard any news about our visas. Can we stay? Will we have to pack our things and cross a border by Sunday? Will they give us an extension here and, if so, how long?
I have no answers, and so I’m trapped. I can’t go to the grocery store because am I buying groceries for one day or a one week? I can’t tell our landlord if we’re staying, and I can’t send the rent.
When I haven’t heard anything by lunchtime, I finally call the visa office. Our contact sounds annoyed with me. She reminds me that she said she’d let me know by the end of the day. But sometimes things fall through the cracks, and it seems reasonable to me to follow up. I apologize, but I wish she understood that the follow-up wasn’t about not trusting her. It’s about the fact that last time we applied, they lost our applications altogether and I need to do everything in my power to make sure we don’t fall through the cracks again.
By the end of the day, the confirmation is in my email, I’ve hurriedly sent the rent, and our life of uncertainty has been drawn out for another four weeks. We have a one-month extension while they continue making their decision and by the end of February I’ll be sick to my stomach all over again, wondering if we get to stay or have to go.
By this time, it’s already been more than three months since we re-applied for our Swiss visas. Thirteen months since we applied the first time.
With the first visa application, it was disaster after disaster. We sent our application and then covid hit. There was no clear information on how it would impact our wait. And every time we called the office, they got upset with us for following up. Told us to call another office. And then that office told us to call the first.
After over six months of waiting, we finally learned that they’d lost our application altogether.
We applied in December 2019 and didn’t get an answer until September 2020.
The answer: We don’t understand self-employment. You need to get a Swiss job.
We were told that the misunderstanding, the lost application, the irritable visa people were because we’d applied in Ticino. “The other cantons aren’t that disorganized,” people said. And because I’d previously had a visa in Canton Bern, I believed them. Ticino must just be a particular mess.
Which is why we re-applied in Bern in early October and found ourselves in anxious limbo in late January.
The decision process is supposed to take less than 90 days. In fact, here they said the average is six weeks. Even worst-case scenario, we thought we’d have an answer by the end of the year.
Instead, in late January we waited. And in February, we waited. And it wasn’t until late February, nearly five months after our re-application that we got our answer.
The email came in a few days before the end of February. “I’m sorry we don’t have good news. Please come meet with me in person on Friday at 10:00.”
There was no additional information. No clarity.
What does “we don’t have good news” mean? That we’ve been rejected outright for our visas? That I got my visa, but they won’t let Chad stay (I met their requirements more accurately)? That we’d been denied but there was an appeals process? That we needed to reapply and spend another three months in this horrible state of waiting?
There were no answers offered. Just: come in for a meeting.
There were two days between the email and the meeting and my body revolted. My stomach felt full of knives. In the evenings, I’d climb into bed and fight off panic attacks. I was sick every few hours, stuck at home to be near the bathroom. The anxiety ravaged me.
When it rains, it pours, of course. So this is when the universe decides to dump on me from every direction.
I got a ten-page legal-jargon-filled email from a lawyer trying to scam me out of 5,000 euros. Even though it was clearly either misunderstanding or outright scam, I spent a morning bawling my eyes out, another literally wishing I could scream, and many days on edge.
At the same time, several other major difficult life and work things happened, each of them too complicated, private, and fraught to discuss here. Nothing in my life felt stable. Everything was waiting. Every answer was no. Every feeling vacillated between anxiety and numbness.
Our visas have been declined.
Here’s what happened: When I had my visa here five years ago, the cantons made their own decisions about freelancers. It was up to Bern if they wanted me to stick around and write a book. And they did. My visa was approved. Twice.
Now, with an avalanche of work-from-home visa requests due to covid, the federal government took over from the cantons. No more canton-by-canton autonomy. All work-from-home visas were denied. Even those from European citizens.
There’s nothing we could have done differently.
It had nothing to do with us.
And yet we were the ones in the crossfire. The ones who spent over a year longing for a home and being strung along at every turn. The ones who now had to leave the country in the middle of a pandemic when the world had shut its borders to people with our passports.
If Switzerland had made a decision in their 90-day timeframe, things would have been different. We could have applied to one of our backup countries. We could have requested an extension on our visas or residency in Estonia, where we’ve been living.
But because they took five months, our Estonian visas expired. And now: we had a month to get out of Switzerland and, because of covid, only a handful of countries were accepting American passports at the border.
The news was bad, but I felt better having it. The knives in my stomach dulled. The every-few-hours roiling sickness in my gut faded. Knowing is better than not knowing. Even if the thing you know isn’t the thing you want.
The next week was frantic. In addition to normal travel planning (flights, accommodations), we had to go to Zurich the day before our flights to get the fast-tracked covid PCR test that would allow us across the border. We had to book an overnight near the airport for that same reason. We had to figure out which country would take us, which we felt safe in. Decide which of the things we’d bought, tentatively hopeful, would stay behind and which we could fit in our bags. Leave behind the winter boots; take the bulky dog vitamins. Leave behind the French press; take the tarot cards.
I’m frustrated because people keep telling me how lucky I am.
You’re going to Croatia! Oh, I wish I could go to Croatia!
They don’t seem to understand that this is not a vacation. This is not wanderlust. It’s not a gift. It’s finding the place you feel most at home and being told: Sorry, we don’t want you here. Sorry, pack up everything you own and get out. Now. In the middle of a pandemic.
Yes, Croatia is beautiful and sunny and comfortable for us. Their new digital nomad visa means we can apply to stay up to a year. So many other people have had worse years than us. And I’m grateful that this one wonderful border was open to us when the news came down.
But unless you think being kicked out of your home with little notice is a fair trade for a little sunshine, maybe just say “man, that sucks” instead of “man, you’re lucky.”
March was hard.
A whirlwind of planning, a low level of anxiety about whether the borders would stay open for our pre-booked flight, emotions stuck in my throat, unexpressed, because I needed to get through this before I could process it fully. I couldn’t allow myself the space to cry and rage while I also needed to research visas and book flights and deal with the personal disasters that didn’t let up in the midst of all this.
I pre-booked hours with my therapist in April. I went over budget on a super nice apartment. I promised I’d give myself space to breathe. But not yet. Not in March. In March, I was in survival mode, waiting for the worst to pass.
It’ll be okay. As with so many other disasters in the last couple years. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a horrible 15 months. It’ll take time to rest, to let the bone-deep exhaustion seep out, to find my equilibrium again. The good news about being in my thirties is that I believe this too shall pass in a way that I couldn’t in my twenties. I see the light at the end of this tunnel because I’ve been through darker ones.
And so I’m living in the tension, between hopeful plans for getting my zen back and the knowledge that there are at least two more visa processes ahead of me before I can land somewhere more permanent, settle in and start to put down some roots.
The tunnel’s getting lighter though.
I can see balance in the distance.