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Monday, December 17, 2007

Out of South Africa, Part I

The travel trials and tribulations of international stylist Haidee Findlay-Levin...

A lot of people commute to work. In New York City, that could mean going from Brooklyn to Manhattan, or from downtown to uptown, or vice versa. But when I, a South African stylist living in America, commute to work, it means going to JFK, Newark or LaGuardia and flying to another country. Don’t roll your eyes with mock pity and think I'm bragging here. It's a strange fact that I live in New York, but seldom work here. The magazines I work for are all foreign and the photographers are mostly European or British. We often need to meet somewhere else in the world, so they have it in their heads that I must like to travel and will gladly go to any far-flung destination to meet them.

Besides going to an airport, working for me also means going to the respective consulate in search of a visa. This can take up a day, sitting among nannies and their charges, and often a week or two preparing and waiting. And even then, a flat out refusal can be expected. I have missed the shows in Paris some seasons and I missed Munster and Documenta in Germany last summer, all because that simple yet frustratingly illogical “No.”

Any job I accept or trip I make starts with the not-so-simple question: “But do I need a visa?” France, Italy, Germany, Belgium, Spain, Sweden do Japan do—and the list goes on. Despite that South Africa has eliminated apartheid for more than ten years and now has one of the most liberal constitutions in the world, the stain remains. Finally we have been forgiven and even welcomed into the hearts of fellow Africans, but this in itself is a reason for the rest of the world to panic. At each embassy visit I feel like an African refugee nodding in camaraderie with my fellow Africans. With documents piled high, I must swear not to disappear within their country and drain their local funds.

Brazil has become a favorite destination—not just because I love Brazil, its delicious food, its magnificent beaches or those beautiful Brazilians, but because they are friends of South Africa and I don’t need a visa. In addition, my mother called me the other day with good news: “You no longer need a visa for India!” Quite a feat for a country that would not let us in at all, understandably, for treating their fellow Indians as second-class citizens in our sordid past. Note to self: must plan that trip to Rajasthan or propose it as a possible location for next year. So now I have two friends in Brazil and India. Things are looking up.

My season began with a shoot in London. This time I was prepared, armed with my five-year entry and work visa, my right as the granddaughter of a British-born subject. It had taken some work over the summer gathering birth and marriage certificates from parents and deceased grandparents, but a task well worth the effort. I confidently, even nonchalant, stood at the immigration desk until I was briskly escorted to the health department. Apparently there were already two warnings on my passport and they needed “to be sure.” Sure of what? That I wasn’t harboring some exotic disease, smuggling some rare plant or animal? I flew in from JFK on a Thanksgiving weekend to work—what more did these Brits want of me? After a few questions about chest examinations, I was released, no examination provided. I left the airport with that familiar sense of unnecessary panic and fear, guilty before proven innocent for some crime unknown, a discomfort that accompanies me to every immigration point in the world.

The season was short, so fait accompli. I decided to fly back to New York for the exhibition and launch of Exercise at Home, a book I worked on in the summer for photographer Luke Smalley. As his home is in Pennsylvania, it was my only ”local” job all year. Yet it still involved ten hours of driving each way, but happily no passport required. I was on a mission to make the launch party before closing, but with the inevitable delays (i.e. foreigners traveling in droves to shop with their strong pounds and euros), the line at immigration was endless. One woman was so determined to make it worth her while that she arrived with only an empty suitcase and a toothbrush.

So I was held up, this time by an immigration officer who was not (this time) visibly suspicious of me, but held me as his captive audience anyway. He was so delighted with my involvement in the so-called glamorous world of fashion that he took the opportunity to discuss his familiarity with Naomi Campbell, Gemma Ward, Petra Nemcova and every possible Victoria's Secret model. I'm buddies with the guys from DNA and Marilyn Models, but naturally I couldn’t rain on his parade, so I listened politely to his top five picks, all while the clock ticked and my weary feet swelled. Apparently all the girls wanted to marry him, not only for his Italian good looks and ability to cook a mean pasta, but because they hoped to squeeze a Green card out of him. I assured him that was not my interest. I was, in fact, in the process of reaching Green-card status myself, though pending for three years.

I finally arrived in New York and, with car and luggage waiting, I ran into the exhibition as it was ending, then home to switch out suitcases, travel itineraries and a lot of clothing samples for the next job, in Mexico. (Well, officially, anyway.) What could possibly go wrong?

to be continued...

—Haidee Findlay-Levin

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