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Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The final chapter in stylist Haidee Findlay-Levin's green card saga...

Birthdays are great if they're someone else's. If mine, I enter a three-month tailspin leading up to it. From the end of the previous year, through the holidays, through Valentine’s day (otherwise known as Singles Awareness Day!), right up to the fateful day in late February is like a mini Vesuvius waiting to go off. So many resolutions not met, so many expectations not fulfilled.

And this birthday had particular significance: the day of my final U.S. green card interview in London. I had built this whole fantasy around it, as if some big hand would come down and wave away the years of aggravation and frustration, the years of standing in long embassy and immigration lines and the mountains of paperwork and those endless letters of recommendation. Perhaps most importantly, this might finally be the end of being called an "alien," which has to be a psyche-bruiser.

I didn't want to be late and it was my birthday, so I treated myself to a cab rather than endure the intense squeeze of a rush-hour tube. A familiar route, yet something was up. The usual line at the embassy was not snaking around the usual path. Barricades had been put up and I realized the massive crowd congregating on the opposite side was a mass of agitated visa applicants. I soon discovered the source of the discontent: there was a power failure at the embassy and ALL appointments had been canceled! Nowhere else in London but here. Mercury was clearly not out of retrograde.

My heart sank as I realized the implications. I had flown all this way and had been couch-surfing at a friend's place for days, disrupting both her life and mine. I had turned down work. I had arranged a birthday/green card celebration, a gathering of old and new friends now all too familiar with my ordeal, despite my commitment to ignore such celebrations. And all in anticipation of this one event that was no longer taking place. What are the chances of something like this happening? One in a thousand, one in two thousand? The chances of something like this happening to me? Inevitable.

"Go home and relax" was the advice offered by an officer. Relax?! How could I possibly relax when a time bomb had just been flung in my direction? Where exactly was home anyway? I have been in the wilderness for years, an alien for heaven's sake, waiting to have more than a place of employment, waiting to be given permission to stay.

Not sure what to do with myself, I slumped away resolved to redo my passport picture for the umpteenth time. This had to be the irrational calm before the storm, the weird behavior of someone who was about to lose control in a big way. I handed over another 12 pounds (for the fourth time) and the photographer handed me another set of pictures. I dared to look at them and saw the stress and anger so clearly visible in my face, so much so that I realized I looked like an assassin. Certainly not the look that one is trying to achieve for this ten-year travel document.

As I made my way back to base, the utter disappointment, the anticlimax and sheer bad luck I had experienced over the past few months—my Haidee Karma—began to hit me. By the time my friend asked how it went, I had already broken down into a blubbering mess, my earth shattered, and there was just no stopping it. There were offers of tea, suggestions of a walk in the park. My friend was at a loss. Finally, I opted for Hyde Park and walked laps and laps around Diana's pond in the cold, letting off steam and contemplating jumping in. Well-wishers and blasts-from-the-past called, texted and emailed me with birthday wishes and to congratulate me on my long-awaited green card achievement. There were even a few invitations to celebratory tea and cake at Maison Bertaux or Patisserie Valerie. Unlike me to turn such an offer down, I ignored the lot. With nothing to celebrate, I canceled my own celebration that night, and eventually went with some close friends to Lounge Lover in the East End for commiseration instead. This non-drinker even resorted to a glass of sake. An anesthetic was really what I was looking for.

As Mercury finally passed through retrograde, I gathered my courage to return to the source of my misery, the U.S. Embassy, to see what could be done. The next day looked more promising, as endless lines of people made their way through the cattle barricades. After much resistance, they honored my canceled appointment and finally granted me my much-anticipated interview. I was stuck there forever, due to the previous day’s backlog, presenting everything from birth certificates to marriage and divorce certificates, even police reports from all the countries I have previously lived in.

But ultimately, I was granted immigrant approval. My passport would be returned within five working days by courier, hopefully in time to see the latter half of Paris Fashion Week. Sure enough, a Darth Vader-looking character, fully-kitted in black leather and helmet, appeared at my door one early morning. His face and hands completely concealed, he handed me a black sealed bag complete with my passport and a mysterious sealed yellow envelope which was to be handed to immigration when I entered the U.S. Pretty weird, but whatever. I was now, finally, officially, triumphantly a Resident Alien, not just any alien!

I had been warned by my lawyer not to be alarmed when coming through immigration with my sealed package. I would be taken to a back room that might be strewn with people in handcuffs. But after the fetish references at Paris Fashion Week (yes, I went), I could have handled whips. My passage through the last stage of this endless event was pretty uneventful actually: a signature, a fingerprint and I was waved through and told that my precious card would be in the mail. In the next room, however, my agent, who was on the same flight, was in tears! They wanted to deport her back to the UK for problems with her visa. I suddenly felt like I had passed the baton onto someone else. But five hours later she was released into the U.S., thankfully!

Later, the reality of my success really sunk in when my mother told me, with my newfound green-card status, I was finally eligible for marriage. What a concept! It was only then that the realization hit, this alien finally had a place to call home.