I left Pakistan four years ago to pursue my bachelor’s degree in English from the UK. One thing led to another and now I am pursuing my master’s here too and, thus, haven’t lived in my home country for four years. The decision that I made in the beginning still stands, however living in the UK and only visiting Pakistan in the holidays has led me to discover new things about the UK, Pakistan and myself.
If you’re travelling abroad for an extended period of time one thing you really want to get right is your visa, especially if you want to avoid a trip to the interrogation room.
To study abroad in America for a year I am required to have a J-1 visa which costs around $300 and lasts for 12 months. There are two US embassies in the UK located in Belfast and London; I chose to head to the capital for my appointment. To do this I had to get the Megabus at 2:20am (although it actually arrived 50 minutes late.) Six hours later I was dropped at Victoria coach station wondering where exactly to begin upon the streets paved with gold.
The embassy is in Grosvenor Square and is easily reachable from Bond Street tube station. As a typical Northern girl I was worried that the whole TFL network would confuse me – I’m still not 100% sure that I know what an Oyster card is. Instead I purchased a day travel card for £8.90 and discovered that Grosvenor square is only a ten minute walk from Bond Street.
When I reached the embassy I did not find the traditional Star – Spangled Banner that I had expected waving from the roof but instead each one of the 50 state flags. I am ashamed to admit that I did ask a passer-by where I could find the building and received a very patronising point. It was here that I joined the 20 minute queue at the front of which I was asked for my DS-160 form and my appointment letter – the only documents that I had forgotten.
The look of sheer panic was clearly apparent on my face because the officer calmly sent me to a shop around the corner, told me to walk up a thin staircase and ask for Phillip. I followed her instructions and for a minute genuinely thought that there was a possibility I would never again see the light of day. Once I reached the top Phillip (or Phil as I call him) logged onto my visa account and printed out the two sheets of A4 paper. I was charged £6 for Phil’s services but my relief way out-weighed my anger at being ripped off. However, my fellow international students, this does go to show that if you keep calm during the process it’ll be alright on the night.
I rushed back to the embassy and proudly presented them to the consulate officer like a mama bear showing off her cubs. Each applicant has to put their belongings in a clear bag and pass them to a towering armed guard. Then the fun begins. I was given a numbered ticket and sent to a waiting room. The number that was being served when I entered was 113. I was 495. I can tell you right now that sitting in that heaving, stifling room in the middle of July it did not feel like I was heading to the Land of the Free.
For two hours I sat in front of an enormous screen that played endless videos of America and blurted out lines of their national anthem from time to time. Eventually 495 was called out and I ran to my assigned window like a kid after an ice-cream van.
The first part of your visa interview involves scanning your fingerprints and handing over your passport. Then, you are dealt the crushing blow of being sent to sit back down. After buying a £1.50 can of coke I sat back down for what turned into another two hour wait, repeatedly staring at images of family walking around Yellowstone Park and teenagers roller-skating near Miami Beach.
Eventually my number was re-called and I was sent to a cheery fella named Hank with a slow Tennessee drawl. Ever since I booked my appointment I had been imagining a threatening and darkened room where I was interrogated viciously under a single dangling light bulb. In reality I just stood at the window and told Hank what I study, where I am going and confirm that I receive a student loan. It was all over in 90 seconds and my visa was approved.
I skipped down the stairs and let my eyes adjust to the sun, even giving the guards a jaunty nod. Despite the agonising wait being approved for my J-1 Visa was actually really simple, and it arrived in the post four days later.
So, for all you future international students getting approved to go across the pond is easier than you think. My recommendations would be to print off any documents that could possibly be useful, but if you forget Phil is just two minutes away with a cleverly thought out business and a working printer. And maybe check the prices of trains before you commit to the Megabus.
The approaching months before my departure to Amsterdam gave me a preconceived perception of what it would be like. Upon hearing the word ‘Amsterdam’, many people I spoke to about my study-abroad destination would come up with similar responses: ‘Red Light District’, ‘Cannabis’, ‘Heineken’, which led me to become bored of the place I had chosen before I had even arrived. I expected a tourist-filled city congested with stoners and garish neon windows. However, now I have come to the end of my time studying abroad here, I have discovered many things about Amsterdam which have gone against my previous assumptions.
The best thing I learnt from living in Amsterdam was that the Dutch really know how to have fun. For such a small city, there is so much to do. The weekdays in Amsterdam provide a relaxed routine: a smooth cycle ride to work followed by a drink at a cosy bar in the evenings to unwind. Gezelligheid is a Dutch word meaning ‘cosy and inviting’, which neatly sums up the chilled attitude to life which I easily adapted to during the past six months. Amsterdam is packed full of quaint bars all with individuality yet similar stylishness. My favourites to visit by far have been ‘Winkel’ and ‘Cafe Tabac’ which line Amsterdam’s prettiest canal, Prinsengracht.
(For an original bar, head to ‘Winkel’ lining Amsterdam’s Prinsengracht. www.modernehippies.nl)
Come Friday, the weekend is in full swing in Amsterdam which becomes full of music and food festivities. I was never bored of music festivals, including those at NDSM or elsewhere in the north of the city. The north of Amsterdam reveals a completely different atmosphere to one you would expect to find; catch a free ferry across the sea to enjoy a fresh scene away from the well known and over-photographed old historical centre.