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What in the World, Indeed – A Response to Fareed Zakaria

In this weekend’s edition of his show GPS – Global Public Square on CNN, the usually insightful Fareed Zakaria has delivered an over-simplified assessment of political mood swings in Europe and the United States in relation to the current economic crisis.

In his What in the World segment (video below) he notes in surprise that, rather than as one might expect moving sharply to the left in response to the most severe economic crisis to hit Western economies since the Great Depression, European and American electorates have moved to the right in elections following the onset of the economic collapse. As examples  in Europe he lists the election of conservative governments over their liberal predecessors under the leadership of Nicolas Sarkozy in France, David Cameron in the UK, and Mariano Rajoy in Spain. For the US, he bases his argument on the rise of the Tea Party in 2008 and the – perceived – failure of the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2012, and the transformation of voters’ perception of Mitt Romney as a moderate rather than conservative presidential candidate between the 2008 and 2012 election cycles.

While that, for the most part, might hold up chronologically it does not, however, provide a completely honest assessment of what happened.

For starters, the economic crisis hit in earnest with the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September of 2008. Nicolas Sarkozy was inaugurated as France’s new President in May that same year, 4 months before Lehman’s spectacular bankruptcy. While the subprime mortgage crisis was indeed gaining strength, and economists were discussing potential consequences of that process already as Sarkozy was being elected, the looming difficulties had hardly penetrated the mind of the average French voter at the time. While Sarkozy overcame an “anyone but him” attitude from left-leaning voters to beat out Sénégolène Royale, the electoral campaign dealt in large part with issues of immigrant integration, fears of a political stalemate with another co-habitation between a conservative Prime Minister and a socialist President, high unemployment (a stalwarth in European elections in most of my lifetime), and law and order issues in response to violent rampages in minority dominated suburbs of Paris. Royale for her part was punished for an overall lack of organization in France’s political left following the election loss by socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin and the ensuing circular firing squad. The election of Sarkozy had therefore very little to do with a global economic crisis or any electoral reaction thereto.

The election of David Cameron as Prime Minister of the UK in 2010, on the other hand, did happen as the nation was wrestling with the fall-out of the 2008 economic collapse. Still, his success is probably more attributed to the fact that his party was not in power  during the 10 years preceding the dark days of economic insecurity, than the fact that he was a conservative. Gordon Brown’s unpopular tenure as Labor Prime Minister trying to follow in the footsteps of the far more charismatic, and politically agile, but increasingly scrutinized Tony Blair, combined with a collection of ethics scandals did much to present Cameron as the fresh face British voters were yearning for. It should also be noted that, in contrast to his most recent conservative predecessors Thatcher and Major, Cameron did not win an outright majority, but needed to form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats in order to gain power. Hardly a ringing endorsement of conservative policies by the British electorate in times of economic crisis.

As for Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, it should be remembered that in March 2008 Rajoy as the candidate for the center-right People’s Party lost to the socialist party candidate José Luis Zapatero exactly BECAUSE he warned openly and bluntly of the coming economic crisis looming on Wall Street and its impact on the Spanish economy, while Zapatero claimed to have the policy tools required to safeguard the country from such harm. In November 2011 Rajoy was finally elected as disillusioned Zapatero voters grudgingly had to admit that he had been right in his warnings. Still, in recent regional elections in Andalusia, while winning the majority of votes, the People’s Party still does not hold the majority of seats, as voters grapple with tremendous unemployment, unpopular social service cuts and the worrying prospect of further austerity measures, to avert a situation comparable to the deep crisis in Greece.

In the U.S. meanwhile it is true that the Tea Party was an important factor in the 2008 presidential and 2010 congressional elections, reflective in the popularity of Sarah Palin following her vice-presidential candidacy, as she fully embraced the Tea Party platform and helped a wave of Tea Party candidates get elected to congress in 2010. The Republican 2010 congressional election victory came after two very hard years for Americans with significant job losses and little prospect of a prompt recovery. 29% of voters in an ABC exit poll conducted on November 2nd 2010 said that someone in their own household had lost their job in the two preceding years while only 14% of those polled said their own economic situation had improved from two years ago, and voters needed someone to blame. With the Democrats holding the Presidency and both congressional houses, and even a supermajority in the Senate, that really only left one logical target for an angry electorate.

As for Occupy Wall Street, to call it a failure at this conjuncture is premature. Yes, the movement has slipped out of the headlines over the winter, as it grappled under the weight of its own success and increasing push-back from local police departments. However, the explosive manner in which the movement gained national and global attention last fall points to several important factors:

– A growing number of Americans and Europeans are looking for alternative approaches as they fail to see how current leaders can bring about lasting relief from the ongoing stream of austerity measures and the lack of economic opportunity. Republicans themselves have added fuel to the fire with their disastrous strategy surrounding the debt-ceiling increase in 2011, which brought the United States to the brink of economic default and both Ryan budgets with their proposals for cuts in the social network while increasing military spending and cutting taxes on the rich. Prior to the debt ceiling negotiations, budget austerity was all Washington talked about. Since then, the national debate has moved to one of social inequality and Wall Street excesses. The upcoming general election seems to shape up to be fought along those very lines.

– The political left in America has been in serious disarray since the 1980’s and the rise of Ronald Reagan to the Presidency and has, under the guise of Occupy Wall Street, only recently begun to recongregate and reorganize. Many say that in the case of Occupy the horse had left the barn before the barn had a chance to be built, as pent-up frustration of a new generation of college graduates inspired by the uprisings they had witnessed overseas joined forces with an array of seasoned leftwing campaigners suddenly recalled from the political wilderness and thrust back into the middle of an all-American conversation. Meanwhile, the Tea Party movement has fomented slowly and over time during Ron Paul’s four presidential runs and conservative uproar over democratic presidents Clinton and Obama.

– Occupy Wall Street as a movement is a process and not a targeted protest, as it is a collection of people who meet in public places to figure out how to get a fair shake in a society in which, in their assessment, the political and the economic elite have joined forces for the benefit of the few at the expense of the many. Indeed, at this stage the movement has no singular message as its participants are still busy formulating the questions they want their message to answer. Occupy is a collective effort to find comprehensive solutions to complex problems. Try and fit those onto a bumper sticker.

Several important outcomes however can already be seen from the emergence of the Occupy movement:

Occupy Your Homes: A nationwide alliance of grassroots organizations dedicated to help homeowners stand up to their banks to prevent foreclosures and renegotiate mortgages. The group also promotes affordable housing policies. In several states the movement has formed foreclosure defense teams, where entire neighborhoods work together to prevent evictions, legal teams assist home owners in negotiations with the banks, and protesters apply public pressure on politicians and bank managers by disrupting foreclosure auctions and demanding for them to be more responsive to home-owners’ needs. Detroit, a city where the devastation of job losses and foreclosure are extraordinarily evident, has been a hotspot for Occupy Your Home activities. Read more here.

– Recall elections in Wisconsin and Ohio. While not directly an output of the Occupy movement, voters in Wisconsin and Ohio have succeeded in forcing re-call elections of a number of government officials that tried to push through bans on collective bargaining rights. With the return of social inequality to the national conversation, these effort gained significant steam.

– Occupy Your Workplace: A working group helping non-unionized workers collaborate to collectively bargain with employers for better work conditions.

Healthcare for the 99%: A working group pursuing the creation of a universal publicly-funded system that guarantees affordable, comprehensive, high-quality healthcare for all  under the premise that healthcare is a human right and not a privilege.

– All in all, over 90 working groups are working on strategies to combat rising student debt, job creation, food safety, alternative banking options, labor outreach, prison reform,  and other important issues.

The presence of three conservative challengers in the Republican field did not only pull Mitt Romney to the right in his own policy proclamations, but also made him appear a moderate in comparison. Obama however, did not have to face a primary election process, so the re-emerging political left has had little opportunity to challenge his positions and voice their discontent at the ballot box. However, the base which elected Obama in 2008 has shifted, and may well require Obama 2012 to run to the left of Obama 2008 to motivate them to come out to vote in November, as many on the left are disillusioned with his perceived weakness in the face of Republican opposition on social security and medicare cuts and his signing of several controversial laws such as the National Defense Authorization Act and H.R. 372, which many argue undermine the Bill of Rights as well as the First and Fourth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.

Meanwhile, as Mother Jones wrote in March 2012 at in at least 10 congressional districts, incumbent democrats will find themselves challenged by opponents running on the Occupy platform in primary elections. The road to the 2012 November elections is still long, but promises to be an interesting one.

Across the pond meanwhile, as Zakaria rightly points out, France’s Nicholas Sarkozy is struggling mightily to secure his reelection, as left wing politician Francois Hollande has consistently lead in recent polls. UK’s David Cameron’s popularity has travelled a somewhat rocky road since his election, as his austerity measures and economic reforms have not found unanimous applause at home. Still, in January 2012 his poll numbers have reached a 22 month high despite a looming fight with the House of Lords over welfare reforms. Elsewhere in Europe the fear of austerity measures and social security cutbacks is currently battling for supremacy with fears of outright sovereign bankruptcy as the Eurozone is dealing with the fallout from economic instability in Greece, Italy and elsewhere. So, at this point it remains anyone’s guess whether electorates in those countries will choose the devil they know or throw the bums out next time they head to the ballot boxes.

I usually enjoy Fareed Zakaria’s program and look forward to his return to his habitual in-depth analysis of global matters and economic policy. In this particular case, however, I found the depth surprisingly lacking.

Free the Press

Even though my active involvement in news dissemination is fairly recent, the subject of freedom of the press has figured on my mind for many years. As a news consumer, I am affected by attempts of government and corporations to control the flow of information just as much, if not more, as is the journalist looking to report on a story.

As someone looking to be informed on current events I am dependent on reporters’ ability and legal headroom to pursue critical questions and report on facts and news that may not always please the powers that be. If journalists gets thwarted in their attempts to ask the tough questions I don’t get to know what I need to know to make a full and comprehensive judgement on that story. If I know where and how information is being controlled and withheld, such as a former communist regime’s own newspaper raining praise on the politbureau’s latest pronouncement while conveniently forgetting to mention that the plan is grossly underfunded, or an Arab state TV channel running endless footage of pro-government demonstrations in summer while there are currently no leaves on the trees, I can adjust my assessment and factor in those blind-spots. However, it gets tricky if I am presented with the semblance of a free press, that in fact is truly not. And any attempt to stand between me and the facts I do take personal.

In places like Syria suppression of the press is very much a matter of life or death. Local journalists who have dared to question the judgement of President Bashar al Assad have suddenly disappeared and were later found dead with their eyes gouged out; their bodies sending a simple, yet very unsubtle message. Foreign press is either kept out or closely monitored and restricted in what they are allowed to see. Reality is forced to subject itself not to what is, but what must be.

In America efforts to corral the press are less brutal, but the attempts to bend reality to a predetermined narrative still prevalent and important. Politicians want to project an image of their choosing and not have their true motives questioned or analyzed. Why else would GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich complain about the ‘elite media’ at every opportunity he gets? As dumb as John King’s question about extramarital affairs at the opening of a presidential debate hosted by CNN was, the forcefulness and vitriol of Gingrich’s response (video clip here) amounted to outright intimidation; and it worked. Rather than standing his ground and reminding Gingrich that it was he who had made personal character a campaign issue, King rolled over and moved on as quickly as he could; probably handing Gingrich his victory in the South Carolina primary.  As the saying goes, sausages and politics are best made out of sight; the outcome of both often equally difficult to stomach for the critical mind.

In the wake of 9/11 police forces, in fact every rent-a-cop in a uniform, have developed a habit of restricting access to public space whenever it countervened their perception of security, whether that restriction was reasonably justified or not. A gradual process at first, restrictions have become more pervasive and prevalent, the enforcement of the reprisals more blatant and brutal. On paper, the law still grants access to members of the media behind police lines and in private spaces to report on what is happening at crime scenes, protests, political events and much more. In reality however, in the same manner NYPD has tried to constrict protests to so called ‘free speech zones’, journalists have found themselves more and more pushed away, corralled into ‘press zones’ often outside the line of sight and far away from the actual events, making them reliant on what they hear rather than what they see. I can’t imagine that the founding fathers imagined creating a zoning law when they wrote the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Many reporters have struggled to get support from their management in pushing back on the subject, as corporate owners don’t want to jeopardize their close relationship to police and politicians. As far as news publishers go, no news became increasingly good news. Some publishers have threatened they would fire  journalists, should these choose to legally pursue their harassment at the hand of police. I know of at least two cases, but since the reporters involved don’t want to talk about this in public, I am not going to name their names.

This past Tuesday I attended a very interesting event at the New York Press Club on the subject of police suppression of the press. Over the course of the past ten years, journalists working in New York City have encountered increasing difficulties with gaining access to government officials, public information, crime scenes, and even public protests. Government buildings and the officials working in them, formerly easily accessible, now resemble fortresses, guarded by metal detectors and grumpy security guards with restrictive admission policies. NYPD tried to have the press room at their headquarters, from which journalists filed their reporting on police and crime related stories, removed from the premises, restricting access and the free flow of information between cops and reporters. Whistleblower cops, who shared information of internal misbehavior were locked away in mental institutions, smeared, and persecuted (the Village Voice has an extensive report on such a case here). The harassment and arrest of several credentialed journalists reporting from Occupy Wall Street protests since November 2011 have set an exclamation point on that issue; both implemented reportedly for the security of the reporters involved. No surprise then that the event was heavily oversold and passions were running high in the room.

Led by veteran reporter and former WCBS and WNBC anchor David Diaz, the panel also included Don Mathisen (City Limits magazine barred from interviewing students on a public sidewalk), Carla Murphy (freelance reporter arrested at OWS protest), Robert Stolarik (New York Times photographer harassed and ejected by police from an Occupy protest), Murray Weiss (New York Post and Daily News journalists reporting from inside NYPD headquarters for over 20 years), and Karen Keiser, attorney for the Associated Press.

A detailed account on who said exactly what can be found in my next post here. Meanwhile, I leave you with my key conclusions from that event:

1) A concerted effort of news publishers and reporters is needed to push back against the increasingly suppressive efforts of law enforcement authorities and politicians will bring an end to the tactics and to their ever increasing and forceful use. Norman Siegel, a civil rights attorney who was present that evening is currently looking for reporters to join his class action. Siegel mentioned he needs 16 or more cases to establish a pattern of systematic behavior to take NYPD to federal court on their transgressions. Reporters can file their information here with the New York Press Club, who is supporting Mr. Siegel’s efforts.

2) Journalists are angry at what’s been happening. I think the blatant mistreatment of their colleagues at Occupy Wall Street protests has crystalized the issue in many writers’ mind. There was much energy and passion in the group to do something, even though some worry that their employers won’t support their efforts. They will need reinforcement and encouragement to go through with their push back. We need this as much as they do.

3) Remember these immortal words by Edward R. Murrow: “A nation of sheep will beget a government of wolves.” — time we grew some claws.

Watchful Eyes No Longer See

It’s been a rough week for news reporters, the kind that goes out to unsafe places to report back to us on what they find. Veteran war correspondent Marie Colvin died yesterday, along with French photographer Remi Ochlik. The day before, Rami al-Sayed, one of the main sources of video material coming out of Baba Amr, was killed while filming yet another atrocity committed on his city by Assad forces. A week earlier, we lost Anthony Shadid, probably one of the most insightful writers on the Middle East in his generation. Reports from Afghanistan indicate Samid Khan Bahadarzai, a local journalist, was beheaded on Monday by members of the Haqqani network when he started to ask the wrong questions.
Sure, war reporters know the risk of their profession. Many of their colleagues have died before them. And, unfortunately, many will undoubtedly follow. Still, with each of their passing we loose yet another set of eyes into the world, eyes we need and rely upon to make sense of what is happening around us.
I have never had the privilege of meeting any of these journalists, but following their work has been an important part of my ongoing process of digging beneath the surface of current events, trying to understand what’s really going on on my quest to get a grasp of that elusive big picture. From the safety of my home I followed along on their journeys, seeing parts of the world and aspects of a story I would not encounter otherwise. Theirs were voices that did not engage in the daily chorus of breathless breaking news reporting. They often did break important stories, but took their time to piece together a thoughtful and contextualized report of circumstances and life on the ground in places many of us knew little about. With their help I wouldn’t get bogged down on minutiae of a story, but keep the larger context in mind as I followed a variety of new sources on the matter. They made me look when I didn’t really want to see, and had me pay attention to stories and events that truly matter. I am smarter for all the questions they have asked.
There are reports that Colvin and Ochlik were deliberately targeted by the Syrian army. Other news reporters operating in Homs, amongst them Stuart Ramsay from Sky News, have reported on having their satellite signals blocked when they tried to file their reports. Rami al-Sayed is said to have been tracked down by the cellphone signal of his livestream, one of the few ways we had the possibility to a real-time view of the situation in Homs. Last year I remember reading of a Syrian journalist who was found dead with his eyes gouged out. And then there was French reporter Gilles Jaquier, whose death by mortar round in Homs in January still leaves many open questions. Shooting the messenger is not a new phenomenon, but Assad’s forces seem to have elevated it to an art form, and according to an article in the Guardian, even declared it formal policy.
It is a confusing world out there, especially regarding Syria, given its wider implications for the region, and in particular, regarding the tensions surrounding Iran’s regional influence and its nuclear programs. I don’t always see all the pieces on that chess board, who is a proxy for whom exactly, and why are particular pieces being moved in any given way. Therefore, having reporters on the ground who can help me make sense of these questions is more important than ever. This is why the loss of such experienced voices like Colvin and Shadid, and even al-Sayed with his intimate knowledge of the people of Homs, is particularly devastating. It also explains why governments like the Assad regime really don’t want reporters around seeing anything but their approved version of reality, reiterating once more just why the work these journalists did was so important.
My heart goes out to the families of these reporters, who all have gone way before their time. Meanwhile we wander on, partially blinded, because their watchful eyes no longer see.

Don’t Go Changing

In my wanderings around the “Interwebs”, I recently came across a video of an interview the Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg gave a few days after Anders Breivik launched his extraordinary attacks on Oslo and Utoya in the summer of 2011. In it, a visibly shaken leader of a peaceful country discussed just how this tragedy might affect his government and his people. While he said that he didn’t want his country to change, he ultimately saw himself confronted with the fact that it most likely would.

I was not far away from Oslo when the attack happened, a mere 100 miles south, vacationing with my family in a sleepy fishing village across the border on Sweden’s west coast. I remember watching in disbelief as the extent and the viciousness of the violence slowly unfolded itself on our TV screen. Swedish TV was simulcasting the original coverage by their Norwegian colleagues and tried hard to keep up with the subtitles. SVT didn’t have their own, Swedish speaking, reporter on the ground for several hours, and when one finally turned up, she happened to be an intern in one of the regional offices. All the staff reporters were on vacation. This was, after all, the middle of a beautiful summer. But the terror of violence, the despair of its victims, and the struggle of ordinary people to grasp the momentous occasion needed no translation and no expert commentary. Death and grief spoke a universal language and quite clearly expressed themselves, drawing a stark contrast to what, at least outside my window, was a bright and breezy summer day. 

The immediate reaction of Norway leaves room for hope: Joint Christian-Muslim funeral services, politicians and ordinary people alike declaring solidarity to each other with a determination to preserve the openess of their society.

The interview also reminded me of a speech George W. Bush gave shortly after 9/11. In his address to the joint session of Congress on Sept 20, 2011 he, too, expressed the desire that life in America should not fundamentally change: “I ask you to live your lives and hug your children. I know many citizens have fears tonight, and I ask you to be calm and resolute, even in the face of a continuing threat.I ask you to uphold the values of America and remember why so many have come here.We’re in a fight for our principles, and our first responsibility is to live by them. No one should be singled out for unfair treatment or unkind words because of their ethnic background or religious faith.”

I had moved to New York a little more than a year before 9/11, and had just started my second year in my MBA program at NYU when the bright late summer morning was suddenly torn apart over Manhattan. I had come to this country on the tail end of the Clinton presidency and found a society that was open and welcoming to newcomers in a way I was not accustomed to from home.

Switzerland is a rather reserved and inward-oriented society, and while many of its people have traveled extensively around the globe, newcomers integrate slowly and are often viewed with suspicion. What a contrast to when I arrived in New York, where many generations of immigrants had landed before me. People were extraordinarily good to me, helped me to figure out how things worked, how to find a job, and how to meet people. So when I heard President Bush vow that the country would not change, I felt a great sense of relief. The country’s entrepreneurial spirit and the freedom to agree and disagree with each other truly make America a special place.

Right after 9/11 the spirit of togetherness surged around America, and especially in New York. The day of the attacks I lined up outside Trinity Hospital in lower Manhattan with thousands of others looking to donate blood, A call had gone out for donations stating that with the many wounded that were expected to be brought in, existing supplies would be used up very quickly and more were urgently needed. As I could hear F-16s circling above the city, around me I heard many conversations between my neighbors on what we could do for each other and the determination emerged in many of us that we would not go on living our lives in fear. As we know now those wounded never came and our donations had to find other injured they could help. But it gave us something to do and a cause to rally around, a brief cure of sorts for the helplessness many of us felt in the face of sheer terror.

We needed more of that: A common cause that would bring us closer together, finding strength in the knowledge that those around us had our backs no matter how ugly things got out there, a platform we could rally around with the purpose of working together to strengthen our union and celebrate our freedom. The outpooring of sympathy around the world was enormeous and could have served as the cathalyst to a new era of constructive collaboration. It was America’s great opportunity to prove that it was indeed that shining city on the hill.

Yet, while New Yorkers will always be New Yorkers, the country has turned inwards and against itself over the decade that followed the attacks. Not immediately, and not abruptly, but in slow, gradual steps. It first became apparent to me with the build-up to the war in Iraq, where asking the questions “why” and “why now?” were suddenly linked to a lack of patriotism. It continued as the war dragged on, and a nation billed as the land of the free, started wrestling with having to explain why it allowed the torture of detainees, the indefinite detention without due process of some it captured, and the indiscriminate spying on its own people. The location of mosques became a political flash-point, advertising on a TV show on a perfectly assimilated muslim-American family a corporate liability. Continued attempts by terror groups to wreak havoc, a collapsing economy and an increasingly shrill political discourse didn’t help, and finally culminated in a political environment, where the indefinite detention, killing, and deportation of naturally born U.S. citizens by its government are now all measures sanctioned by existing law. Who decides what is an anti-American viewpoint? What recourse does one have to appeal such a judgement? Who watches the watchers? Home of the brave? We think so. Land of the free? We hope.

I truly hope, America can find a way to stop being afraid of its own shadow. The place I found, when I landed on its shores was a beautiful one, both in spirit and by nature. And while it clearly has lost its innocence, there is still much to admire. Communities are cropping up around the country, groups of people looking for a way to re-establish public discourse and a more open exchange of ideas for a society not built on fear of the unknowable, but on common strength they find in each other. Meanwhile, Congress is debating ways to censor the Internet, police departments around the country are beating up protesters, and politicians throw mud at each other in the upcoming election; the government once more lagging several steps behind its people.

Norway meanwhile is still working on processing the aftermath of its attacks. It, too, has received enormeous outpoorings of sympathy from around the world and its leadership has taken them in with great dignity. But like America before it, the country is struggling to balance the need for security with an open society, where there ultimately is no fail-safe defense against a skilled and determined attacker. Contrary to its customs, proceedings against Anders Breivik have occured partially shielded from public view, out of fear to help him spread his hateful message and inspire others to follow in his steps. One can hope, that his claim of him belonging to a wider network of like-minded haters is mere self-agrandisment and that the external threat to Norway’s society subsided, opening the path to a nation’s internal healing. Ultra-rightwing views, however, are on the rise in Europe, nazi sympathizers not uncommon for example in neighboring Sweden, where a steady sequence of shootings, fire attacks, and murders in the muslim community has shaken its southern-most city, Malmö, in the past year. Multi-culturalism was decleared dead last summer by non other than Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel. Despite all that, I hope that Jens Stoltenberg can find a way to preserve the spirit of his nation. The beautiful country he leads deserves no less.

The Hitchhiker’s Survival Guide to US Immigration Proceedings

Well, it’s been a while since my last post. Hard to follow the act of a round-the-world tour. However, I’ve recently completed another journey, that of permanently immigrating to the United States. And, by now a veteran of dealing with US immigration procedures in a post-9/11 world, I thought I’d share some of my insights.

Let me begin by saying that I don’t mind that a country wants to know who I am when I come visit, or even want to stay there for longer. I’m ok with filling out application forms that ask me if I’ve ever planned on murdering their president and answering questions about the shoe-size of my grandmother. Still, I do expect some form of rhyme-or-reason to the proceedings, and that, at times, I’ve found blatantly missing. So, to help you preserve your own sanity if you ever plan to travel or move my way, here’s my Top Ten Rules of Dealing with US Immigration:

10. Understand the process! Getting a visa to the US requires two steps: 1) File the visa application with the USCIS, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security. Once your visa has been approved you now have permission to be inside the United States pursuant to the conditions attached to your visa (more info on visa types and requirements here). 2) Once the visa has been approved you need to apply for an appointment to your nearest US Embassy to get the visa stamp placed into your passport. That visa stamp is your permission to travel to the United States. The approved visa from USCIS alone will not suffice to board a plane to the US! Also, you can’t get the visa stamp from the Embassy without the approval notice from USCIS. Most visas have a time limit. Make sure to leave the country or file for renewal before the visa has expired. In today’s digital age, USCIS will know if you’ve overstayed your visa. Getting caught can get you banned from the country for 10 years.

9. Don’t overthink! Just follow the instructions on the application form to the letter, and I mean TO.THE.LETTER. Don’t ask why or try make sense of the questions you’re asked. You’ll only mess things up by thinking too hard, and you’ll get an unnecessary headache.

8. If you’re applying for a work visa or a green card, get a lawyer. Not a cheap hobby I agree, but you will be taken more seriously when things go awry, applications go missing, people don’t understand the meaning of “Diplomingenieur” or other questions arise. Especially if your career hasn’t followed the most straight forward path, or the employer sponsoring you for a work-visa isn’t a widely known (i.e. American) global brand, your lawyer will be able to help you figure out a way to present your case in a way that may actually prove successful, and be a good guide to what’s possible and what’s not. Interview your lawyers before hiring a firm, make sure they have successfully handled a case comparable to yours, and particularly, make sure they have successfully filed applications for the specific visa type you’re looking to get. Also, it’s always good to have a shoulder to cry on … :-)

7. Never assume. Just because you know what you’re talking about when explaining your life’s history through a visa application, don’t expect the immigration to have any prior knowledge of your country’s educational system, work environment or even to know any company you might have worked for, unless the company is on the Forbes 500 list, and sometimes not even then. So, over-explain everything like you would to a five year old. The more information you provide, the fewer questions the agent will dare to ask.

6. If you can afford it in any way, file for premium processing. This way, your lawyer will get a receipt with a case number and have a number to call when the answer doesn’t come back in the expected time frame. If you file regular processing, you cannot inquire about your case, you just have to sit and wait. My first work visa application was lost three (!) times before it was ruled upon. If I hadn’t had a premium processing case number, I’d probably still be waiting on an answer 8 years later …

5. The early bird catches the worm! Don’t handle visa applications or embassy appointments at the last minute. If you’re allowed to file an application 6 months before your travel date, file on the first day of that six months period. Since US immigration offices are the living proof of any law Murphy ever wrote, expect to need every single day of that six months period to straighten out your paperwork. If things clear ahead of schedule, count yourself lucky. If you procrastinate you WILL get in trouble. Also, some visa classes underly annual limits, and for some (especially the H-1B) demand is far greater than supply. New visa contingents start on October 1st, the first day of the US Government’s fiscal year. So, make sure you know the latest rules on when you can file your earliest application for the visa you want AND MAKE SURE YOU FILE YOUR APPLICATION THAT VERY DAY.

4. If anything can go wrong, it will! Misfiled or lost applications, missing attachments, mislabeled fee payments, rulings or follow-up letters mailed to the wrong address, wrong appointment dates or times, incomplete list of documents needed for embassy appointments? Been there, done that. Keep copies of everything you file and be ready to resubmit multiple times, if needed. If there is a way for things to get messed up, be prepared that they probably will.

3. Plan well for the embassy visit! First you’ll need to make an appointment. You can’t just show up. Different embassies have different procedures so check the website of the embassy you’re planning to visit for their specific instructions. Some locations, such as Stockholm Sweden, allow for booking the appointment online, others, such as Berne Switzerland, make you call a 1-900 number, which you can only call from within that country, and you’ll have to pay $2.50 / minute while you wait your turn … When making the appointment make sure to get a complete list of documents you’ll need to bring to that appointment (some forms need to be filled out, submitted, and printed on a computer BEFORE you get to the embassy). Also, processes do change. So just because you were told to things a certain way the last time you applied for a visa, doesn’t mean the process will be the same this time. Again, the early bird catches the worm. You can no longer obtain a visa stamp inside the United States. You HAVE to visit an embassy abroad. So, if you’re planning to integrate your embassy visit within a travel route, book the embassy appointment before confirming your flight. Also, once you have the date, the earlier in the day your appointment is, the shorter your wait will usually be. And don’t be surprised to be given an appointment time one hour before the embassy even opens. Nobody will be there to see you at that time, but at least you’ll be ahead in the queue …

2. What to bring to the embassy:
a) You will be made to wait outside the embassy until it is your turn to pass through security. During that wait you will not be provided any shelter from the elements what-so-ever. Whether you’ll be sweltering out in 100 degree heat or freezing in zero degree windchill, be ready to withstand the elements for up to two hours and dress accordingly. Don’t forget sunscreen and a water-bottle and a hat (NO umbrellas). If it’s hot out, bring a sweater. Once you’re inside you’ll be freezing from the airconditioner.
b) Bring a fat (PAPER) book to entertain you while you wait (your ipad or kindle WILL be confiscated). It’ll be a long day.
c) Bring some small US$ bills, $1 bills are best. Most likely you will find yourself awaiting your turn for several hours, and you can’t bring a back-pack or handbag inside to the waiting area. The embassies usually have a vending machine dispensing snacks and drinks in the waiting room, but more than once I’ve found these contraptions not to accept local currency.
d) make sure you bring EVERYTHING you’ve been asked to bring. If anything is missing, you won’t be let into the embassy. You’ll have to go elsewhere to print out any missing forms or retrieve any other documents. Particularly, check whether you need to bring a pre-addressed, stamped envelope to get your passport back and make sure you address it to someone who actually has an ID they can present at the post office to retrieve your envelope (i.e. if the passport you’re about to hand over to the embassy employee is your only state id, don’t address the return envelope to yourself, as it will be sent with registered mail.)
e) Bring your sense of humor but don’t expect any in return! Especially your security guards but also most embassy employees you will encounter are under a lot of pressure and most likely will not get your jokes. So, just take a deep breath and hang in there.

1. What not to bring to the embassy: No gadgets (especially no electronic items such as cell phones or ipads), no bags, no nothing other than a book, a bottle of water and your documents! I was once sent away to dispose even of a clear and transparent plastic bag in which I had kept my documents protected from the rain (I was told the bag posed a security risk … And my question as to what threat profile might possibly emanate from a demonstrably empty plastic bag was not a welcome one …). Electronic gadgets will be confiscated at the door and kept there, but stuff has gone missing, so don’t bring anything you’re not ready to lose. If you bring a bag you WILL be sent away to have that locked up somewhere.

SMILE :-) You’ll have some good stories to tell, once you’ve been through this process a few times.


It Might Be A Little Hilly ….

Went to the Bay of Islands, all the way up north on New Zealand’s Northern Island. Captain Cook landed here in 1769 and claimed the Islands for England. That was before he got eaten, of course. Apparently, in this spot on the island the maori tribes also signed the treaty with the English that allowed for the founding of the state of New Zealand. So, justifiably, kiwis are mighty proud of this area. It’s plenty beautiful, too.

I rode up here on an intercity bus that cast some interesting figures: The bus driver had a penchant for old “Schlagermusik” (not only ballads, but downright schmaltz) that he played on the bus’ PA system and sang along with it … loudly, unfortunately, and out of key. Right behind me a maori mother with her three year old son. No matter what the mother said, the kid just did whatever it wanted, including walking up to the driver and trying to crawl onto his lap … and these New Zealand ‘highways’ aren’t all that straight or wide .. and then there’s the compulsory couple of German backpacker girls that can be overheard discussing in a whining, nasal tone everything they think is wrong with this country … Thank God for my ipod …  Still, on the roadside in the middle of nowhere we passed a little piece of architectural marvel: The Austrian builder and artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser left his traces by building a toilet in one of the little places along the way up north.

Once in Paihia, the little town in the Bay of Islands, I landed in a backpacker place where the room came with a free bike. I gladly used the wheels to ride around town and towards the waterfall. Before I left, my backpacker hostess told me that the road to the water falls “might be a little hilly” …. I should have known. “A little hilly” turned into a never ending sequence of steep inclines, a big part of the way on a slippery gravel road and this on a bike with only one gear and a lousy break … Well, I’m stubborn and I made it both to the falls and eventually back; exhausted, thirsty and after dark. The water falls weren’t worth the trouble, but I did get a good workout in …

Tried to see dolphins the morning after I spent a night freezing my buns in the backpacker place. Lovely people, but I do wish they had heat in their place. From the photos you’ll see what a tremendous difference the presence of sun can make in the colors you’ll see. The sea can be a color of deep and vibrant jade, or some rather uninspiring grey.

Off to a 28 hour flight back home tomorrow. Enjoy the pictures for now.

Bay of Islands

Welcome to Middle Earth

Walking through Auckland I found myself in a very otherwordly scene. Bizarre-looking trees, unusual light with the sunlight decidedly coming from the wrong direction, and an intriguing mix between old and new, provincial and metropolitan made for a place that not only was, but also seemed to be a very, very long way away from home.

People were extraordinarily friendly, stopping in the street whenever they saw me fumble with a map, asking how they could help me find what I was looking for. I’ve visited many places, but such proactive helpfulness I have rarely encountered. In fact it reached a level after a while where I found myself wondering whether I might have ended up in an alternative take of the Stepford Wives. But the local Aucklanders all were entirely genuine in their helpfulness. I suppose living in New York untrains you from friendly people ….

Took a walk through their “Domain”, Auckland’s equivalent to Prospect Park crossed with a walk on the wild side. Five steps into the park I found myself in midst of thick greenery one would usually expect to encounter deep in the bush. After working my way through the thickness of green I suddenly found myself thrust into a park landscape filled with strangely shaped trees one might associate with Middle Earth. The movie double for Middle Earth of course were parts of New Zealand …

After my excursion through the bush I ended up on top of Sky Tower, apparently the tallest building in the Southern hemisphere … higher than Sydney Tower, I was told, noticing a distinct tone of pride in the narrator’s voice. Be that as it may, the view was spectacular. Some nutters were bungy jumping from the tower … apparently you CAN have too little to do for your own good ….

Here are the pictures:


The Day The Music Died

Today I walked by an HMV store in Sydney, and obviously couldn’t resist walking in. It’s a store in the process of being shut down, with their entire stock piled randomly onto large tables with people digging through. A very depressing view. I had spent a better part of my youth in HMV stores in the UK listening to music and learning about the latest trends and artists, and now all that was reduced to piles of CD cases nobody seemed to want anymore. Is that how things will look like the day the music dies?

Tokyo was a more uplifting experience. They still have a Tower Records store just outside the Shinjuku metro station that seems very well frequented and still has the deep catalogue the chain had been known for in the past. I found the only ever official solo release by Neil Innes from the Bonzos, Ruttles and Monty Python, an early live CD by I Am Kloot, the first CD by Jamie Cullum and yes, my guiltiest of pleasures, a remastered version of ELO’s 1981 album Time. I know …

Obviously, the decline in music sales is a global phenomenon, so it’s no surprise that record stores are affected everywhere. But as someone who’s spent part of their youth getting thrown out of record stores for listening to too many records before buying one, it’s sad to see such an integral part of my formative years slowly die away …

Thin Lizzy

Australians are very eager to discuss their history as an independent country as I could realize every time I spoke to a local, but they’re still part and parcel good subjects of Queen Elizabeth II. It’s in the little things in which you notice this, such as the road signs that look exactly as in good ol’ England, the habit of serving afternoon tea in cafes (including the compulsory cucumber sandwiches) or Lizzy’s counterfeit on their $5 note (what? She didn’t rate the $100 bill???)

Still, food here is far more exciting than in the old motherland. The Aussies have mixed good things from many of their immigrant communities into their traditional food and made it into something unique and very edible. Chicken Cesar salad here comes with Satay, Pizzas have curry sauce and their kangooroo steak ala mode is quite delicious. Also, it’s nice to have English language menus again.

Ordering food in Japan was more of an adventure: Either you had to find a restaurant that had menus with pictures or plasticized copies of their dishes in a window, so you could drag the waiter outside and point to the dish of your choice, or then you had to use the “point and shoot” method in the pricier places that didn’t come with the visual aids for non-Japanese: You point onto a random item on the menu and then shoot yourself if something turns up you don’t like … I had to sometimes revert to that second method and was confronted with an interesting variety of dishes I would have never ordered had I been able to read their language: Eel rice, quails eggs and something brown I really don’t know what it was, but it tasted quite ok after that trepidatious first bite … But hey, everyday you should try to do something that scares you, an old business saying goes. Well, I certainly took care of that …

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