As of March 28th, 2017, I’ve been a graduate student for one year at the Université catholique de Louvain, funded by a fellowship from the Erasmus Mundus Joint Doctorate program in the European Union. This post chronicles my journey of obtaining a visa, moving to Belgium, and the experiences from the first year of my Ph.D.
The expectation was that I would quit my job at Basho in August 2015, which I did, take some short-term contracting assignments while preparing to move, obtaining the required paperwork, and generally wrapping up my life in the United States before setting off. This didn’t go exactly according to plan, because of complicated circumstances around obtaining a visa.
I took a job at a company in San Francisco as a temporary assignment – they knew I would only be there for few months before I obtained my visa for Belgium – and subsequently moved immediately to San Francisco from Paris, where I had been living for a few months at the end of my time at Basho, given they were a remote company. With a quick stop over in Providence, I sold and donated all of my belongings (to various charitable organizations, friends, etc.) which included a very large vinyl record collection, four turntables and recording equipment, over 1,500 novels and literature, a bunch of vintage computers including a several SparcStations, a SGI Indy, and my original Commodore 64, and my car. It was sad to see it all go, but it was time to start a new life; a new life abroad!
I was both excited, and naive.
Given that I thought I was leaving San Francisco in a few short months, I arranged to stay in an Airbnb in the Tenderloin when I arrived, and then later find a longer-term apartment that would be somewhat cheaper if I needed to stay longer. This ended up turning into a situation where I was switching Airbnb’s every week, because I couldn’t find something that was both available and cheap enough to stay in for an extended period of time.
Once I arrived, I began working on obtaining a visa for Belgium. It’s actually unclear if this visa was actually needed as it’s mainly required for entry only if your country doesn’t participate in the visa waiver program, but when I went to obtain my resident card, I was not required to show it to any one in my commune, nor did I need to have the visa renewed when it expired this March. Alas, I followed the university’s instructions.
Getting the visa ended up being a complicated process. I arranged to see a doctor in SF on Russian Hill who does immigration exams and went through a rudimentary physical examination. The form he was instructed to fill out, that I printed from the Belgian consulate’s website, looked so fake that he didn’t believe the form was real at first. He then went to the website himself and found out that the form was, in fact, a real form and proceeded to fill it out and gave it to me. I took this form to a notary in SF to get it notarized, and they didn’t accept it; they needed the doctor to sign it. I told the doctor this and then arranged to have the form notarized; they scheduled an appointment and then were visited the notary who obtained the signed forms.
This also wasn’t enough. I later found out that I needed the form designated from an international notary (keep in mind, this form states that I didn’t have tuberculosis or the plague) and I’d have to repeat the process. I took the form to an international notary, who was mobile and wasn’t there when I arrived in the office, and later had to schedule an appointment. I was then informed that this form needed to go to Sacramento, that’s the only place where the officiant was, and I’d have to supply an overnight postage prepaid, or have the courier drive there themselves to pick it up, as I didn’t have a car, if I needed to get it in the following days.
[So far, we’ve spend $500, given FBI fingerprints, overnight background checks, and a medical report that wasn’t covered under insurance.]
I received the notarized report a few days later and schedule a single day flight to Los Angeles to visit the Belgian consulate to apply for the visa. I arrived in Los Angeles about 4 hours before my appointment, which had to be scheduled 72 hours in advance [I had schedule the appointment before receiving the notarized forms, in the hope they would arrive in time – the first time I did this they didn’t and I had to cancel my appointment with the consulate.]
The Belgian consulate was extremely nice – there was no one there when I arrived early and said I would wait, so they saw me immediately, didn’t care that I had not provided enough copies of one of the forms and had incorrectly filled out a section of another and I was out of there within 25 minutes. They said I would receive the visa back the following day, and that they would send it overnight postage, which I provided to them when I arrived.
In the mean time, I’ve been moving from apartment to apartment, saying week by week in private rooms in different neighborhoods: the Tenderloin, Mission, etc. I eventually ended up leaving my suitcase at work instead of moving it from location to location and bringing clothes home in a smaller bag. Eventually, I landed a place to stay where I no longer needed to move.
I tried looking for something more longer-term or a sublet, but I either received no response, they didn’t want someone with such a short-time frame, or someone who was traveling quite a bit for conferences and to obtain the visa. One of the places I stayed with Airbnb, the renter was extremely irritated [for some reason, in that I just wasn’t there or coming and going too often] that I was traveling a bunch: I was gone for a trip to Sweden for a conference, and then a conference in Las Vegas, both to present work-in-progress or peer-reviewed published work.
[Total expenditure on the visa: roughly $1,500, with flights, exams, and paperwork.]
The day after I receive my visa, I receive an email from my advisor stating that if I’m not in Belgium to sign the forms by March 28th, I forfeit my fellowship. I’m about to book a trip to Belgium, waiting for a response from my advisor that states I can only be reimbursed for the travel to Belgium and not prepaid even though I’m provided with a “moving” allowance, when the Brussels airport is attacked by terrorists.
I have three days to book a ticket to Charles de Gaulle, travel to Belgium by train, and make it there with one day to spare. I arrive and find out I don’t have to physically sign anything after all, and check into my university flat.
[Last minute one-way flight to Charles de Gaulle: $1,800]
Meanwhile, I had quit my short-term job and was told that given I didn’t stay a year, I would forfeit all of my stock options and have to repay my relocation benefits, even though they knew before I started I wouldn’t be there for more than a year because I was going to grad school. We ended up coming to an agreement around this, but this is what I get for not being more diligent with reading employment contracts.
My first year at the university was decent. Let’s look at what happened during this year.
It’s been a whirlwind year, but I’m still feeling stressed out, overwhelmed, and upset. Why is that?
Now, those are all academic complaints, but let’s talk about more practical complaints as an international student in Europe:
My time has been wonderful, but I sometimes wonder what it would be like if the environment was more conducive to ensuring, first-class, that Ph.D. students had the time and resources to perform good research without feeling like they were running against the clock.