*Note: Names have been changed. I didn’t actually plan to post this, either, it was requested, and I’m pretty sure that The New Yorker isn’t calling 🙂 Also, be warned… It’s like 10,000 words.
It’s happened. Despite all my best efforts, I have become an illegal alien in Romania. Again. And I’m not unusual. Nearly every American living in Romania that I know that isn’t a dual EU-American citizen or attached to the American Embassy in some way has had it happen to them. So I suppose that the upside is that I’m not unique, that this isn’t something personal against me. We all run afoul of the complicated combination of bureaucracy – for which the Romanian government seems to have a unique talent – and the complicated and often contradictory mire of seemingly ever-changing immigration laws.
Most Americans will never know what it is like to be an illegal alien. Indeed, most people the world over will never experience the strange combination of fear, pain, confusion, betrayal, and a plethora of other emotions that arise from the knowledge and realization that you aren’t welcome in the country that is your home – at least on paper. So my main goal in writing this is to try and impart a glimpse of what that is like.
We used to joke about it. We still do sometimes – humor helps as an outlet for some of the stress. I, and a handful of other Americans that I worked with, arrived for our new jobs on 90-day tourist visas. We’d all lived abroad before, so this was nothing new, nothing unusual. Our company had assured us that they would help us through the immigration process. We supplied our company with anything they asked for for immigration purposes, and thought we were fine. But the requests seemed to get stranger and stranger over time. I was told, for example, to obtain a copy of an FBI background check. I complied – only to be told when it arrived that it wasn’t valid. Not valid? I asked. It’s from the FBI, among the best law enforcement agencies in the world! Did they not know what the FBI was? Did they not watch Tom Clancy movies and the X-files? I was reassured that they did indeed know what the FBI was – that wasn’t the problem. So what was the problem, then? I stood there, confused, as I was told by my coordinator, with a completely straight face, that it didn’t have a stamp. A stamp? I stood there in shock, and picked up what to me looked like a very official paper. No, I explained, it didn’t have a stamp, but… It was an official paper. From the FBI. She shook her head. No stamp, it can’t be official. She gave it back to me as though it were nothing more than… A completely useless piece of paper. I was still in shock and asked her whether she wouldn’t like to make a copy of it. For my file. You know, since I had gone to all that trouble to obtain it. A deeply sad look came over her face at that point. She shook her head. She had already tried to copy it. But when she did, a security feature would plaster “DO NOT COPY” over the copy. I stood there, incredulous. “Yes,” I said, “that’s because it’s a real document.” We both stood there basically looking at the other person as though they were completely, certifiably insane. That was my first experience with stamps. I’ve come a long way since then… But more on that later.
The process was long, and apparently complicated. But we didn’t really know, because nobody seemed to be able to explain to us what was going on. One day, we were told we would have to go to a lawyer in about an hour and sign a power of attorney so that the lawyer could do a background check on us. Huh. I was still puzzled about the FBI background check that was apparently useless – but apparently some random lawyer could do a better job? I already at that point had the distinct suspicion that many of these “lawyers” would do, say, sign – and most importantly, stamp – pretty much anything in exchange for money. Apparently I was already well ahead of the game on that one (this isn’t saying that that’s the case with ALL Romanian lawyers, but it does seem to be the case for a large number of them). Six hours later, at 4 pm, our coordinator came in and declared it was time for us to go. One of my colleagues, however, replied that he had a meeting at 4:30 and couldn’t go. The look of confusion on her face was priceless. But – she had told us we would be going, she stammered. Yes, my colleague replied, but that had been six hours before, and she had said “in about an hour.” She continued to stand there, looking puzzled, and he stared her down. He had to go meet his landlord and pay his rent. He had an appointment. And he walked out. She stood there, looking very confused, for several minutes. About three hours later, at home, I got an e-mail asking us both if we were free to go at 9:30 the next morning. Apparently, it had taken three hours to realize that things could be rescheduled. This, unfortunately, is not in any way unusual in the labyrinth of Romanian immigration. And when we did get to the lawyer’s office, I got to witness how very seriously they take their stamps for the first time. Because if you don’t have a stamp, you don’t have any power. And a document is not a document unless it has a stamp. Obviously.
As my 90 days approached, I did start to get a little nervous. I asked other American colleagues, now in the States, how the process had gone for them a few years ago. I was given a plethora of advice – everything from “go to Moldova or Bulgaria for a day” to “start your own company.” The one thing I did keep hearing was “You’re American, don’t worry, they like us.” I went out to the Iron Gates and toyed with the idea of taking the ferry over to Serbia – but it seemed so silly. And anyway, we must be in the system by now – we’d been supplying strange pieces of information for weeks. And once the application was in the system, my colleague who had done this before explained, you can go in and out. The 90 days doesn’t apply – because you are in the system.
And then one day my boss came into the office with a big smile on his face and sat down next to me. “Good news!” he said, clapping his hands together. “You’re going to Greece!”
“Huh?” I asked. I mean, I’m a translator. We don’t typically get sent on a lot of business trips – although another colleague (dual EU/US citizen) had just been sent to a trade show in Germany.
“You’ve been doing a great job lately. So I’m sending you to Greece. You’ll stay in a five-star hotel –“ he produced the booking – “and I’ll cover the flight. Spending money will be your own. It’s in Plaka. Have you been to Athens?”
“Nnnnooooo….” I stammered.
“You’ll love Plaka, Plaka’s great, it’s right below the Acropolis. Lots of restaurants and bars. Great night life. You’ll go Wednesday night, work from the hotel on Thursday and Friday – it has a great business center, it’s where I stay when I go to Athens – and then Saturday you can see the city. You’ll fly back Saturday night. OK?”
I looked at my other colleague across the room, who looked every bit as confused as I did. But strange things we weren’t expecting happened all the time at our office – we were still getting used to the very, very different Romanian office culture. We often wondered where the reality television show cameras were hidden. “Ok… But you know… I’m over my 90 days…”
“Yes, yes, that is why. We have to get you out and then get you back in. But don’t worry, it’s just a formality, everything is taken care of.”
“OK,” I replied, still slightly confused, but placated. “Thank you!”
The next two days, I happily looked forward to visiting Athens, planning things to see, looking at the map, excited for this trip. I love to travel, after all – I probably wouldn’t be living in Romania if I didn’t love to travel, obviously. And my boss had said all of this with such debonair confidence that I had no choice but to believe it was all taken care of! On Wednesday, I brought my luggage, carefully packed for a fun-filled four days in Athens in early October. As I was leaving the office, I popped my head in to say goodbye to one of the project managers. “Bye,” I said with a big smile, wheeling my suitcase, feeling like a jetsetter. “See you Monday!”
She smiled. “Have fun in Greece, see you Monday!”
In reality, I wouldn’t see her for the next month.
I got to the airport and checked my bag in. Everything was going smoothly. Security was a breeze.
Then I got to pass control.
Big smile on my face and crisp, American passport in hand, I waited for the border guard to stamp it. Except he didn’t. “Wait one moment,” he said, walking away with my passport in hand. He went into a little office with a glass window a few feet away. I saw him give my passport to another border guard sitting at a desk. And then they closed the blinds.
I always get nervous at border control, I reminded myself. It’s a lot like how it took me about 5 years after turning 21 to not get nervous buying beer legally. It’s OK, I’m in the system. They’re just checking. They’re just doing their jobs. I’m in the system. I must be in the system. All that paperwork, I must be in the system. I think they even asked for my grandparents’ maiden names at one point.
The original border guard came back, grave look on his face, and got into the booth. “There’s a problem,” he said. “You’ve overstayed.”
“No, I know, but… But you see, I work here. My work is handling all of this. I’m in the system.”
“You work here?”
“Yes, I work here. They’re handling the immigration. I’m in the system.”
He looked at my passport again, then stood up. “Come with me. But if you’re not in the system, then we have a problem.”
He led me back to that office – notably on the other side of pass control, I think, so they must be going to let me go through. At the time, I didn’t actually realize that that wasn’t necessarily a good thing. There were two chairs outside the office, and I sat down on one. He went into the office, behind the blinds, and I couldn’t see what was going on in there even though the door was wide open. I twiddled my thumbs, wondering what kind of “system” could possibly exist in this communist era-looking airport corridor. I glanced at my phone to check the time. I remember clearly thinking that they had better hurry up, that I didn’t want to miss my flight.
And then the border guard came back, my passport in hand, an even graver look on his face than before. “You are not in the system.”
“Bbbbut… That can’t be… I work here…”
“You work here?! Now we have an even bigger problem.” As he spoke, I noticed other border guards accumulating around us, what would eventually become a grand total of about twelve. He took out a notebook. “What is the name of your company? And your boss’s name?”
I stammered out the company name as I looked through my phone and found my coordinator’s number. The border guard pressed for more information, my boss’s last name. I stammered that I didn’t know. He grew angrier. I didn’t know my boss’s last name? I shook my head no – he didn’t come into the office very often, and I wasn’t yet used to Romanian last names. As he yelled at me, the fear was really, truly setting in, and my finger hit the call button next to my coordinator’s name. “Ana?” I stammered, real fear gripping me. “I’m at pass control, I don’t know what’s going on. I… I think I’m… Being deported…” As I said the words, the fear got even worse. Because I knew that that was actually pretty much exactly what was happening. And my voice broke a little and tears started to well up in my eyes.
“That is your boss?” barked the border guard.
“One of them…” I stammered.
“Give me your phone,” he barked, snatching it out of my hand before I even had the chance to offer it. He walked into the office with my phone – now one more thing in addition to my passport that he had taken from me and wasn’t giving back – and I could hear him literally BARKING at my coordinator in Romanian.
I can’t really describe the feeling of being deported. If you’ve felt it, you’ll never forget it. It’s heavy in your chest and sad in your eyes. It’s shortness of breath, it’s anxiety. But it’s so much more. It’s feeling unwanted, of feeling less human. It’s feeling violated, yet knowing you were the transgressor. It’s feeling incredibly stupid, of feeling naive. It’s knowing you knew the rules but for some reason thought they didn’t apply to you. It’s when you come face-to-face with your own willful ignorance. I started to hyperventilate, and tears started to fall down my cheeks. The group of uniformed and presumably armed border guards that surrounded me continued to grow, and I felt small, smaller than I actually am. It made me feel like nothing more than a little girl.
These new border guards were much nicer than the one that barked the orders at me. One of them, probably about my age, sat down on the chair next to me and assured me that it would be OK. I would go to Greece, that had to happen. I would get on the plane. And Athens was a good place to go – I would go to the Romanian Embassy. There’s a Romanian embassy there. See? It’s convenient. They will sort things out at the Romanian embassy, and it will all be taken care of. After all, you’re American. These are just silly rules we have to follow, we want you here, nobody WANTS to be sending you out of the country. We just have to. Stop crying, it will be OK.
I nod and compose myself. His words had helped. The barking into the phone has stopped, and I see the border guard filling in a form of some sort. He brings me my phone back, Ana still on the line.
“Um, so what’s – what’s going on, exactly?” I ask her.
“Don’t worry about it, you just need to get on the plane. I’m sorry. I’ll get it sorted out tomorrow – I need to call some people.”
“But – But they said I wasn’t in the system…”
“No, they’re right, you’re not in the system.”
True confusion washed over me. They had known I wasn’t in the system? “But…”
“Just don’t worry. I will sort it all out tomorrow. They are going to give you a fine. When you get to Athens, go to the business center and ask them to fax it to us – we will need to pay that tomorrow. After that, it will all be fine. OK?”
“But you have to get on the plane. Do you have time to make your flight?”
“Um…” The flight had been far from my thoughts for quite some time. I checked the clock on the phone – “I have about 20 minutes, so if they hurry up, I will.”
“Perfect. I will call you tomorrow in Athens. Do you have international minutes?”
“Um… I have no idea. I don’t think so… It’s prepaid…”
“Alright, I will call the hotel then. Just go to Athens and don’t think about it, everything will be fine.”
This wasn’t my first experience with that sort of Romanian optimism – there’s a very prevalent belief system here that revolves around thinking positive thoughts and that will make things happen. The more positive, the better. And don’t EVER think about bad things or consequences or god only knows what…
The barking guard walked past me to his original, now-empty booth with my passport and the fine. The comparative silence was broken by the sound of a very loud exit stamp marking my passport. He returned and handed the passport and the fine to me. “Go to your plane. Hurry.”
I look over past the border control booths, back into Romania. This isn’t Romania, where I am, but over there is Romania. “But… But… Can I just run home and get a few things?” I simultaneously understand and do not understand what is happening.
“No. You must get on the plane. Hurry.”
Three of the assembled border guards escort me at a fast pace through the duty free shop and to the gate. I didn’t see anything – I couldn’t visually process things at that time. Then I’m struck by a thought – my friends at work won’t know what’s happening. What if nobody but Ana knows I’ve been deported? What if my phone doesn’t work in Greece? I was so out of it because of the situation that I apparently had completely forgotten about the existence of the Internet. I just needed to tell someone. I frantically dialed the number of a friend and colleague.
“Tom? Tom? Oh my god, I… I don’t know what’s going on – I’m being deported!”
“I’M BEING DEPORTED! Oh my god, I’m being deported –“ the tears started again. “Anyway, I’m being escorted to the plane. I just wanted to make sure someone other than Ana knows – Can you tell the others?”
“Of course! Of course. Just- just don’t worry, OK? They caused this – they have to fix it. Just don’t stress out about it, OK? Try to enjoy Athens.”
“Ok, ok…” We were at the gate, and I was apparently the last. “I’m at the plane, I have to go.”
I boarded the plane and looked out at Henri Coanda International airport. The only other time I had ever been there was my arrival. Suddenly, I thought of a colleague who was always “checking in” to the airport on Facebook. And so I pulled out my phone and posted my very first-ever check in on Facebook: Jeanette Brickner is at Henri Coanda International airport – Being deported.
As the plane climbed into the air and the lights of Bucharest faded into the distance, a strange calm set over me. Tom’s words were right. They had to fix this. This was their mistake, not mine. They had known that I wasn’t in the system. This was all a part of some bizarre half-assed plan that had quite simply not worked, AT ALL. And the best part about blaming this on THEM was that there was no one specific THEM. THEY were anybody and everybody. THEY were the higher-ups at my office. THEY were the company hired by my company to sort out our immigration. THEY were anybody and everybody I wanted THEM to be. It didn’t matter. It was THEIR fault, and THEY would fix it. And the best part about blaming THEM was that I never had to even CONSIDER that maybe some of it was my fault – that maybe I should have pushed them a little harder for details on the immigration process or done a little bit more research or pressed a LITTLE harder about why I was suddenly being sent to Greece for three days during the work week to do… the same job I do, except from a hotel, not from my office.
It was dark when I got to Athens. I took a cab into the city, and this cab driver was much friendlier than most Bucharest cab drivers as he pointed out sites in this city that he was obviously proud of. I checked into the hotel, which apparently had a tree theme. I had never stayed in a 5-star hotel before. It was surprisingly underwhelming. I reaffirmed myself in my long-held belief that if you are spending that much time in the hotel while traveling, you’re obviously doing something wrong. I went up to the rooftop bar, took in the amazing view of the city and a few beers, called some friends back home on Skype. “You won’t believe where I am! I got deported!”
And all those conversations had a singular theme: I was deported, but whatever. It was THEIR fault. THEY had to fix it. And hey, I’m in Greece. There are worse places to be deported to than the Schengen zone, am I right? Whatever, it’s no big deal, I’ll go to the Romanian embassy in the morning and we’ll get it all sorted out. I’m in Greece!
The phone rang the next morning at about 9:30. It was Ana. Could I fax the fine over? Of course. I’d forgotten about that. I’ll go do that right now, then I’ll go to the embassy. No, she said, don’t bother going to the embassy. We’ve already sorted everything out, we just need to pay the fine.
Huh? I explain to her that I’ve looked into the visa situation a bit now, and that just getting a new stamp won’t work – U.S. citizens are limited to 90 days out of the last 180 on a tourist visa, and… I can count. I’m somewhere around 104. Maybe I should go to the embassy and see what I need to do to get a visa? No, she tells me. You don’t need to do that, it would just be a waste of time. Just think positive thoughts.
I’m still a little puzzled, but at that time, I didn’t know the “think positive thoughts and they will happen” thing was how many Romanians actually think things work, and so I didn’t realize that that – apparently – was literally the ENTIRE extent of her plan. I just assumed, based on her confidence, that she knew something I didn’t know. I did resist just a bit more, saying that the border guards had said that I needed to go to the embassy. “They told me that too,” she said. “But they’re wrong.”
They’re wrong, I wondered? I mean, they’re the border guards… Isn’t it kind of their JOB to know? “Just stop worrying about it,” she told me. “We’re taking care of everything here. It’s already taken care of.” I look at the clock – offices have only been open for the past half an hour. They were able to take care of everything in HALF AN HOUR? I’m skeptical, but I’m back to the old line of thinking – I’m AMERICAN, they must want me in their country, there’s been some mistake, it’s just that I’m special, but that border guard didn’t know that I’m special. Clearly it’s all just a big mix-up. He just didn’t know that I’m special.
It’s easy to put it out of my mind since I have a big, rather urgent, complicated order to work on. And so I go to work on that, because I want to explore Athens and so I need to get my work out of the way. At some point, the hotel staff knocks on the door with the faxed-back receipt for the fine, which I can only assume is marked “paid” somewhere in Romanian. Around 150 Lei, if I recall – less than 50 bucks. If it were serious, I think, the fine would be higher. Whatever. This is all just silly. But now, I guess, I can say I’ve been deported. I’m going to get so much respect for having been deported! Every time somebody in the bar back home goes off on illegal aliens, I can say I’ve been one! I will win every argument on illegal aliens for the rest of my life!
But in the background, on Friday, I started doing some real research. And it wasn’t looking like everything was fine. Ana called, and I voiced my doubts based on my research. She just kept saying everything was fine. I was exchanging e-mails with my fellow American colleagues, who all felt quite badly about the whole thing, and one American colleague, who was in exactly the same illegal position I had been in save being deported, was freaked out. Interestingly, I have a pretty good idea now of how that must have felt, because I have since had a different experience where it turned out I had been an illegal alien for some time without having known it. But we’ll get to that later. The American colleagues reminded me of some of the more… questionable decisions Ana had made over the months and, in one case, years they had known her. They told me I should go to the embassy no matter WHAT she said.
So I got on chat and asked her if I could go to the embassy. In retrospect, I don’t know WHY I even asked. As though I needed her PERMISSION or something. How bizarre. “If it will make you feel better, go ahead,” she said. Also, in retrospect, a very odd answer, as though it was some strange request to want to know the immigration laws of the country I was immigrating to. As though I should just take her at her word over the word of the border guards! But like I said, at that time I simply didn’t have that much insight on that particular variety of Romanian cultural thought. I really did think there had to be more to this than just her convincing herself that everything was going to be OK and spending a lot of time thinking positive thoughts to help make that happen.
So I got a cab out to the Romanian embassy, which was pretty far from Plaka in a residential neighborhood. I remember being annoyed at the expense of the cab and the lost productivity. Having never been to a non- US embassy abroad before, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. Someone came up to me outside and said something to me in Romanian, and I tried to explain that I didn’t speak Romanian but this was my problem. He indicated a line to me, and I stood there listening to everyone ahead of me in line speak in languages I didn’t know. Finally, it was my turn. I started to explain to the clerk at the window – who looked puzzled. Another colleague came over. You do not speak Romanian? No Greek? Nope. Please wait over there, we’ll send someone out for you.
I sat down at a rickety table. A man came out. I explained my situation. I showed him the fax that said we had paid the fine.
He shook his head. “No. It’s not ok. You can’t get back in on Saturday night.”
“But… Ok… But how do we start the visa process? Can I do that here?”
“No. There is no visa. There is no visa process. You can’t do that here.”
“What? I mean, I obviously need a permit to get back into Romania. How do I get a permit?”
“You can’t do that here. Talk to your company, they will have to do that there.”
The bad feeling, the feeling that yes, this is serious, and no, you really aren’t getting back in returned. “But my company said –“
“Your company is wrong. Look, it’s simple – it’s 90 days out of 180. You can get on that plane on Saturday if you want, but you won’t be able to leave the airport.”
“But… But my boss says…” I stammered. He took down Ana’s number and promised to give her a call.
I got a cab back and called Ana immediately. “Oh, yes, the man from the embassy called. He said everything is fine.”
“WHAT? No…” I repeat to her what he had told me.
“But he said something totally different to me,” she insisted.
I didn’t even know what to say. I was dumbfounded. This had only been 20 minutes ago. And the embassy worker had been clinically clear. How was it possible he had said something different to Ana?
“Maybe it was his English,” she suggested, trying to be helpful. “But to be safe, I’ll meet you when you land. And then we’ll grab a drink and laugh about all of this.”
I didn’t even know what to say. I was just dumbfounded. Did she only hear what she wanted to? I started talking to my colleagues again, updating them, and we had a few laughs, but the tone of the humor had taken on a distinctly gallows character. And the laughs weren’t relieving the tension anymore.
Saturday morning came around. I was about to check out. I knew I didn’t want to get on that plane that night, but I really didn’t see any other option. It looked like I was going to have to sleep in the airport like some sort of Edward Snowden fan girl. I was about to leave the room, though, when the phone rang. It was my boss, the owner of the company.
“Jeanette. Change of plan. Some new information has… Come to our attention. You can’t fly back tonight.”
Good, I thought. Someone is finally listening to me. “What new information?”
“Well, um, this… This is all a bit more complicated than we thought. Long story short – you said you have friends in Germany you can stay with?”
“Yes, my host family. My host mom said it’s a good idea.”
“OK, don’t check out of the hotel. You will stay in Athens one more night, then fly to Germany tomorrow. Just so you know… This could take up to two months.”
Two MONTHS? That sunk in slowly. Two MONTHS? He continued. “I personally guarantee you that it won’t take more than two months. And if it does, then we can send you to the States…”
“No, don’t send me to the States,” I said reflexively. “I want to stay in Europe. This is fine, Germany is Schengen, I have 90 days in Schengen.” I DID know the Schengen laws like the back of my hand.
“Right. Now. Everything is OK. Just relax and enjoy the rest of your time in Athens.” He hung up, and I just kind of sat there for a second, processing this. All my things were in my apartment. I looked at the bag I had packed, ready to bring back to Bucharest, full of summery clothing and Mediterranean trinkets from Plaka and a particularly distasteful t-shirt that referenced Oedipus that seemed much funnier that it was after a few drinks. This couldn’t be happening, right? October and November in Germany? I would need all new clothes. I would need… New everything.
I spent the next month with my host family from when I had been an exchange student in High School in the Spreewald. It was… not exactly a happening town. I exchanged a series of e-mails with some colleagues that usually ended with “Well, the only thing I really miss is you guys…” because up until that point, I had not really warmed up to Bucharest much and still thought the city was a confusing, ugly, patched-together concrete jungle with absolutely appalling food (to be fair, I still mostly think that about the food). At some point, I started getting e-mails from a new employee, Raluca, whose job it apparently had become to fix this. She was a lot better at keeping me informed of progress than Ana had been. And at some point about three weeks in, I got an e-mail from my boss explaining that we had two options.
The first option was to continue to stay out until my 90 days were over. Which was in January. That… Did not sound ideal. I love my host parents, but the nightlife in Lübben is not much to speak of and not particularly appealing to 20-somethings like myself. I think one time while I was there the local watering hole closed as late as 11:00 pm on a Friday night, if you can believe that!
The other option was to cross the border by land. It wasn’t legal, per se, but it apparently worked in practice. The logic apparently was that all the good border guards were at the airports, and all the not-so-good border guards got the land crossings. I wish I were joking. My boss assured me that, while it was risky, it would probably work.
But what if I go to the Romanian embassy in Berlin and try to get a visa? I wrote back.
There are no visas, he replied. You need a work permit. You have to be physically present in Romania to get a work permit. They can’t give them out at embassies.
Well, that seems awfully stupid.
If you come in by land border, we can get you legal the next day, he assured me. But I had to be physically present in Romania for the photo and the fingerprinting.
So in order to comply with the law, I have to break it? I asked.
Exactly, he replied.
Well, that sure makes a lot of sense, I thought dryly.
So he set a date. I would fly to Sofia, Bulgaria the day before Halloween, and he would pick me up there and we would cross the border by car. My host parents were not exactly thrilled with the plan. Why did I want to go back to Romania so bad, anyway, they kept asking me. I wasn’t entirely certain myself. But I did miss having all my stuff. And I did miss my colleagues. And it sounded like they were having a lot of fun without me, like I was missing a lot of things.
So I got to Sofia. After a month in Germany, it was striking to see Eastern Europe again. All those street dogs. I got an e-mail from Raluca. Instead of my boss, she and Viktor would be picking me up at the Grand Hotel Sofia at noon the next day. She had my phone number. Great. I went out and had a few drinks and contemplated that this last-minute change of plans did not bode well, then turned in early after wandering around Sofia searching in vain for anything I wanted to eat.
I woke bright and early the next morning and checked out. Plenty of time to find the appointed meeting place, I figured, as we weren’t meeting until noon. I had already noticed the night before that I had a great deal of difficulty finding my way around the city, as all the street signs were in Cyrillic script and, well, I just plain don’t know how to decipher Cyrillic script. So I dragged my small rolling suitcase that had become my best friend over the past month and was now stuffed so full with all the new, cheap clothes I had acquired from Kik and New Yorker (the only two clothing stores in Lübben of much note) that it threatened to explode, and headed off. I found the Grand Hotel Sofia with great ease, though, much more than I had expected, in fact, mainly due to some helpful strangers, its strategic location right in the center of town, and in particular, the absolutely gigantic sign on its roof that could be seen for blocks away that read “GRAND HOTEL”, then hunkered down to answer a few e-mails during the wait.
Noon came along. I was starting to get nervous; Raluca hadn’t called. Why hadn’t she given me her number? I wondered briefly. Oh, well, I thought. I wasn’t exactly in a gigantic rush to do this illegal border crossing, anyway, after all. About a quarter after 12, my phone did ring. I answered it. “Hi, are you chill?” Raluca asked. “We’re just having a little trouble finding the place, but we’ll be there soon. Just stay where you are.”
So I waited some more. And waited some more. And since my work was all caught up, I ordered a mimosa to calm my nerves. They didn’t know how to make a mimosa, though, so I actually ordered orange juice and bubbly. I skyped my parents. I skyped my best friend. I wondered what the heck was taking so long. It was almost 2. The phone rang, this time a different number, probably Viktor’s, I figured. I answered and Raluca was on the line. “We’re here, where are you at?”
“I’m in the café. On the first floor. If you go in through the lobby, it’s to the left. But I can come outside, it’s a little bit hard to find because of the construction in the lobby.”
“No, no, just stay where you are. I have everything handled. We’ll come to you.” I appreciated her confidence, but felt a little bit like I was being given the “princess” or “celebrity-like” treatment I sometimes experience in Romania.
I went back to Skype. But 20 minutes passed. I watched out the window, mainly for Viktor because I had only met Raluca a handful of times – she’d only been in the office for about a week at the time I was deported. I looked for the familiar white Volkswagen Tiguan, the same one Viktor had picked me up in at the airport when I had first got to Romania. Nothing. The phone rang. “Are you sure you’re in the café?”
A rather odd question, I thought. I verified that my surroundings definitely were indeed a café. “Because we can’t find it.”
I again explained the rough location of the café with relation to the rest of the hotel lobby. Surely they must be finding me soon. Another 20 minutes passed. Thinking I must be losing my mind, I asked the waitress to verify that this was indeed the Grand Hotel Sofia. She did indeed. I called Raluca. “How about I go out to the lobby and meet you there?”
No, she said, just stay put. A few more minutes passed. She called and asked me to describe what I could see out the window. The archeology museum, I told her. I’m right across from the archeology museum. With great confidence again, she told me to stay put and not to worry. Ten minutes later, she called and asked me to take a walk around the archeology museum and look for her. So I dragged my suitcase around the block across the way. Still nothing.
She called back. “OK, stay in the café.”
At this point, I couldn’t even begin to fathom what could be going on. I checked, again, that the sign on top of the hotel said “GRAND”. It did. Utterly exasperated, I ordered another mimosa and Skype-called my best friend in the States again. I told her what was going on. “At this point,” I remarked, “I really have basically no faith that I’m going to be let across this border. It’s like everything that can go wrong already has,” I recall remarking.
“But what will you do?” she asked, incredulous.
“I really don’t know. I really don’t know,” I muttered, looking around my surroundings. Sofia did not exactly look like the greatest place to spend a few months of my life.
I had just ended the call, because my battery was running low, when Raluca startled me by sitting down across from me. “We found you! At last!”
Viktor came and sat down, too. Raluca explained that apparently there are two Grand Hotel Sofias. This is a factoid that I have never actually been able to verify. But fair enough. Once they had figured that out, they had had to figure out how to navigate to the other one – not an easy task if you don’t know Cyrillic, apparently.
We went off to get something to eat. During the meal, I kept asking if she was sure this was going to work. Was there a backup plan? It will work, she said with full confidence. Don’t worry. Everything is going to be alright.
By the time we left Sofia, it was well after 5. I watched the Bulgarian countryside go by. We talked about everything under the sun. We listened to loud techno pop. We stopped every hour or so for a cigarette or two. It was all normal. Just another road trip.
As we approached the border, though, which I now know to be at a place called Ruse, I could feel my nervousness increasing steadily. Every kilometer closer intensified it exponentially. And Raluca started to give me instructions. Don’t talk to them. Let her do all the talking. Just give them my passport. Don’t talk to them. Maybe you should stay in the car. No, wait, that might be worse. Maybe you should smoke a cigarette to calm you down. Maybe we’ll both smoke a cigarette together. Then they can’t talk to you. Just don’t look nervous. Whatever you do, don’t look nervous.
That was the point where I finally realized that all that confidence, that 100% certainty that this was going to work that she had exuded the entire journey, had all been a show. This was real. This was illegal. And at this point, it was too late for us to really do anything about it. We were there, and there was no way to go other than forward. It was almost 11 pm Halloween night. I thought about all the other Halloweens, the fun Halloweens, the hay rides, the parties, the trick-or-treating with the kids. This was definitely not one of them. We were crossing the Friendship Bridge, and I looked down at the vast, dark expanse of the Danube below.
At the border, we pulled into the appointed area. A guard came up, and Raluca handed him all three of our passports through the window. After he was well away, we got out of the car, sat down on the concrete, and chain smoked. We didn’t say much. There wasn’t much to say. This was outside of our control. The only thing that mattered at this moment in time was what kind of mood the guard was in and whether or not he had any strong feelings about Americans or possessed any attention to detail.
Twenty minutes later, he returned. My heart was pounding, but I did everything I could to not look nervous. Don’t look nervous, don’t look nervous. I looked at Raluca and realized that she was kind of going through the same thing. The stakes were high for her as well – this had been a big expansion of her role in the company, and I imagined that at least some of her job security was hinged on it. Viktor seemed pretty relaxed, though. Wordlessly, the guard handed Raluca our papers. She thanked him, and we got back in the car.
We drove off, and none of us said anything. Until about a kilometer up the road. And then we all gasped at the same time, just an instantaneous lightening of the mood. We high-fived. We cheered. We had done it. It had worked. All of this had worked. And then Raluca shouted with joy and confidence, “It’s God that did it. All my prayers for the last week. That’s what did this. You should thank God.”
And suddenly, despite being happy that it had worked, realization washed over me. Terrifying realization. The curtain had fallen. And there was the man behind the curtain, not the Great and Powerful Oz. This hadn’t been the result of careful research and planning. Oh sure, I’m sure that was done too. But the crux of the entire plan had been that if we hope – in this case, pray – hard enough, then that will make things happen. I felt a wave of betrayal for a second. But OK. It had worked. Whatever. I might not like how it had come about, but at least it had worked.
I went home to a home that didn’t really feel much like home anymore since I hadn’t been there in over a month. The fridge was a disaster – loads of spoiled food – but I had at least had the presence of mind to leave a couple of beers in the vegetable drawer. I drank them, then slept in my “own” bed, but I felt like a stranger in my own apartment. A very large part of me had not expected to be here tonight, had not expected this whole thing to work.
The next day, Raluca and I went to the Office of Romanian Immigration, or ORI, as we would come to know it, first thing in the morning. They fingerprinted me and photographed me. Raluca did some paperwork. I sat on the bench, rather bored. The most important part of the process was the line on the form that asked when the last time I had entered the country was. And now that that read October 31st, suddenly everything was magically OK. I was legal. I was mystified and incredulous, but I was apparently legal.
And everything was fine. A few weeks later, I got my blue card, my work permit. Another American colleague got his on the same day. Puzzlingly, the expiration date on his was five months before mine – but hey, whatever. If anything, then that meant I could stay until May of 2015 if I wanted, when he’d have to sort things out in January, right? Sounded like a good thing for me!
One very puzzling aspect of it all was that everything seemed… normal. Aside from my American colleagues, no one asked me anything. They were all of course very happy to have me back – but no one asked me any questions at all about where I had been or why. No one seemed to wonder why they hadn’t seen me in person in the past month. If anything, they seemed to get annoyed at all the trips – four in total – that I had to make to ORI, or the trip to the doctor’s office for the physical, etc. They mainly seemed annoyed by this for no reason other than that it affected them. I found it curious, and a little annoying – did they think that this had just been one big month-long working vacation for me? Really? – but I fell back into our normal office environment fairly quickly. At the Christmas retreat, one Romanian colleague and I did get to talking about it – and she expressed shock and surprise. She had had no idea I’d been deported, she exclaimed. She’d had no idea it was that bad! We were a bit tipsy at the time, so I didn’t call her out on it, since I had forgotten it myself at that time, but she and I had actually had an extremely long Facebook conversation detailing what had happened while I was in Greece. I really don’t know what to make of that, how she could possibly have forgotten that I had been deported. I still don’t know if it’s purposely pretending that everything is fine and going smoothly, or if she somehow actually forgot. Then again, on the same Christmas retreat, I noticed in the car ride that there was a genuine lack of curiosity about the world in general. As we were leaving Bucharest, we went past an antique plane situated in the center of a boulevard. I pointed and asked my four Romanian colleagues what it was and why it was there. All of them had lived in Bucharest for a big chunk of their adult lives. None of them knew. And none of them wondered. It was just something that was there. They didn’t need or want to know why. And they thought it was strange that I did.
And so Christmas went by, then January and February. I went through border control at the airport three times during that period without problems. But once you’ve been deported once, it’s never the same going through border control. Each time, I would stare at that office with the window and the blinds, stare at the chairs next to it, the one that I had sat on, crying, surrounded by border guards, confused. I knew now what that office and those chairs were for. Other people probably never even notice they are there. For me, they are permanently etched into my memory, the location of a life event. My first deportation. And once, the border guard spoke to me as he looked at me quizzically. “Don’t I know you?”
“Oh, I remember you. You were the one that was crying. A few months ago.”
Embarrassment. I turned to humor to try and relieve it. “Yeah, um, does that happen often?” laugh.
“No. It doesn’t.” Flat tone. He’s not joking. It DOESN’T happen often, I am indeed special, but not for the reason I thought I was. And not for a good reason. “I see you got one of these now,” he added with a very slight smile, though, almost mocking, as he indicated my blue card.
“Yep, I fixed all of that, see?” I say with a big smile. He nodded, stamped my passport, and handed me my papers back.
“Was that what I think it was?” my American colleague I was traveling with on business asked me after I cleared the line and met him on the other side.
“Yep. Apparently they know me now.” We walked into the Duty Free Shop in silence. He didn’t know what to say. It was awkward. It could have been him. It really had been a flip of a coin. A real “there but for the grace of god go I” moment. He had had the same problem I had had, he just hadn’t been sent to Greece. That was the only difference. It did seem to sink in for him. But hey, we were legal now. It had been sorted. We were fine.
I was fine. I went off to Italy in February for a quick weekend. A nice, whirlwind, enjoy life kind of trip. But the Tuesday I returned to the office was when the slowdown began. Business had dropped off and cuts, changes, etc. had to be made.
I started making preparations for losing my job, which could definitely be seen coming from a long way off. We Americans were at the top of the expense list, because we’d had to get “high-quality” status work permits which required a much higher minimum salary than the other employees and, correspondingly, higher taxes on the employer. I consulted several friends who had a good understanding of the system, and hired a facilitator to assist me in setting up my own business (I wanted to build my own freelance business anyway, and was in the process of finding my own clients). Everything seemed to be on the right track.
My facilitator advised me to visit Bulgaria to get a fresh stamp in my passport. I knew I would have to do so, but we also were working on the assumption that because the expiration date on my work permit wasn’t until May of 2015, that it wasn’t entirely necessary until we had everything set up.
And then, one night, I was sitting on the terrace at my favorite bar in the Old Town, enjoying a friend’s going away party. My facilitator came up to me. “You’re going to get a letter. They canceled your work permit effective immediately. I’m sorry, you’re an illegal. I just found out today. But the good news is, it’s all taken care of with your company. Pick up the letter. You’ll have to go to Bulgaria. Take all your paperwork for the company with you. We’ll talk more on Monday.” He headed off into the party in the basement club.
I sat there, stunned. I was sitting at a table with three other Americans. The two girls we had just met; they were relatives of Embassy employees. The other was a good friend who had been in Romania illegally for nearly a year and knew very well that his situation had become pretty bad. The ice cream in front of me melted. My beer got warm, untouched. I was an illegal alien again. And I hadn’t even known it.
I did my best to enjoy the party, and eventually I was able to drink beer again. But there was a distinct feeling within me that something had changed, that something had been taken from me, that nothing really made any amount of sense any longer. The feeling that we had done everything right, and it somehow still wasn’t good enough.
I waited for the letter. A week passed, and nothing had come. I thought maybe someone was playing a practical joke on me. We made a lot of jokes about it. “Here comes the criminal,” some of my friends would joke when I would approach them at the tables on the terraces. I got a lot of advice, some good, some bad, some confusing, most of it inconsistent.
Late in the afternoon the next Friday, I found a slip in my letter box. Something to be picked up at the post office. It was already closed, so it would have to wait until Monday. I spent much of the weekend hoping that it was just a non-disclosure agreement from Germany that I had been waiting in vain for for the past two months. The city was deserted; everyone was on vacation, at the sea, or at the Summerwell music festival. I made plans to go to Vama Veche, a seaside resort on the Bulgarian border, where I would do the crossing. I had asked my facilitator how long I had to be in Bulgaria for (I wanted to spend as little time there as possible, obviously, with the main concern being what would happen when I crossed back into Romania – I didn’t want to spend any longer than I had to sitting in a foreign country by myself worrying that I might not be able to go home again); he said at least overnight, that the stamps had to be from different days.
Everyone assured me it would be fine, I probably wouldn’t need to use my business papers at all, I still had my blue card, which said it didn’t expire until 2015.
So Monday morning came along, I took my luggage for Vama, complete with all my business papers, and went to the post office, which is never a pleasant thing to do in Romania in my experience. It was hot, and people budged in line in front of me, as they often do at the post office here for some reason. I got to the counter and handed them the slip. The woman asked for my passport and filled out some paperwork in what appeared to simply be a regular notebook with hand-written column headings, then asked me to sign it. I pondered at the advanced state of certified mail in Romania. And finally she handed me the letter, after stamping a great number of things.
I took it outside and called a cab. Then I sat down in the parking lot under the scorching sun, excited for the beach, and looked at the envelope. It had five stamps on it, I noticed right away. That probably wasn’t a good sign – the more stamps on something here, the worse it often is. I opened it, and began to read the English translations of the Romanian text.
All thoughts of watching out for the cab flew instantly from my mind as I read the words. “…you shall be bound to leave the Romanian territory 30 days, starting the date of being informed on this order because your staying right in Romania was revoked…”, “This document is also a notification on your immediate removal under escort, in case that you do not leave the Romanian territory within the term provided by this decision…”
I sat there in complete shock. The taxi arrived, I got in, and read the letter several more times. I had not been prepared for the wording to be so harsh. I had thought it would say something more along the lines of my status being returned to a tourist visa status effective from the dissolution of my contract. We had all thought that I had 90 days from then, at least. This wording didn’t reflect that. This wording was terrifying, in fact.
I went to Vama Veche by bus, getting some work done on the way down. Many of my friends were down there for the week, so we partied a bit and enjoyed the beach. I tried everything I could to take my mind off of that letter, off of the wording it contained. The next day, I spent all day putting off going to the border. I appointed 4 pm as my cutoff time for leaving. Around 3 pm, I called my facilitator and asked him if there was anything I should know last-minute. He reassured me everything was in order, that they would certainly let me back in if I showed them my business papers, etc. That I would probably only need the work permit. I also called another friend who had some experience with these things. “Everything will be fine,” he reassured me. “But where is the letter?”
I told him it was in my suitcase. “Oh, no. You need to leave the letter. Don’t get caught with the letter.”
“You think they might actually search me?”
“They might, and if they do, you don’t want to have that letter on you.”
So I arranged for one of my friends to take charge of the letter and bring it back to Bucharest if they didn’t let me back in. I still didn’t want to do this, but was somewhat reassured by both of their confidence. At 4:30, after procrastinating long enough, I announced to my friends that I was going to the border. They all reassured me that I would be fine, that this whole thing was crazy, that they’d see me tomorrow, that we’d all have a beer and a big laugh about it all.
I set off for the border, dragging my suitcase. It was much further than I expected, and extremely hot. I tried to hitchhike a few times, reasoning that the only place this road went to was the border and that I was unlikely to be in much danger over the course of four kilometers, but no one picked me up. By the time I approached the crossing and exchanged some Romanian Lei into Bulgarian Leva, I was covered in sweat.
As I searched for a door, two border guards seated on a park bench flagged me down. I had almost passed them, as there were no clear fortifications or barriers to indicate precisely where Romania ended and Bulgaria began. “Sorry,” I laughed backtracking. They seemed nice enough. I handed over my passport and my blue card, and one of them took them into an office across the road. I sat down on the park bench with the other.
I was still a little buzzed from the handful of beers we’d had on the beach, so while I was somewhat nervous, it was dulled. And anyway, if there were problems, they were supposed to be coming back in, not going out.
But as the minutes ticked by, and the cars that drove up to the crossing passed through with almost instant approval, I knew something was wrong. Dread started to build.
And then the guard came back with my papers in hand. “You stole this,” he announced, indicating my blue card.
“No I didn’t,” I replied, confused. “Look, that’s my picture on it!”
He took another look at it and seemed to agree it was obviously me. “Look, I’m a business owner here,” I told him as I pulled out my business papers, which he looked over carefully.
“Wait one moment.” He walked back to the office, my passport and blue card still in hand.
I twiddled my thumbs. This time, I didn’t feel terrified – but I did feel exasperated. It really felt like there was nothing I could do that would be good enough for the Romanian immigration process.
Several moments later, he returned. “The problem is, your last stamp is from February. Which means you have overstayed 119 days.”
“But I was legal. My contract was only dissolved on July 1st. So shouldn’t it start then? Then I’m not illegal.”
He shook his head. “That’s not what the system says. The system only cares that you are illegal now and what the last entry stamp is.”
“But… That’s retroactive. How can it be retroactive?”
“We are just doing our jobs.”
“I understand that.”
“But now we have… Something of a problem. You see, you can leave… But we can’t let you back in.”
“Can I stay?” I know he’s not supposed to let me, but I have the feeling he might.
“You want to stay?”
“Yes, I’d like to go home to Bucharest and get this sorted out.”
He nodded sympathetically. “OK, one moment.” He returned to the office with my passport and my blue card.
The other guard looked at me apologetically. “We’re just doing our jobs, you know.”
I nodded. “I know, and thank you for letting me stay. It’s just so crazy. I own a company here. I pay my taxes here.”
He nodded. “I know. We’re just doing our jobs.”
Shortly after, the other guard returned with my passport and two pieces of paper. No blue card. “This paper indicates that I have confiscated your blue card. Please sign it.” I did so. But this was all so bizarre to me. Particularly the retroactive nature of the cancellation. He had taken away much, much more than just my blue card – it felt like he had taken away all proof that I had ever been legal. I consoled myself a little with the knowledge that I had copies of it; they couldn’t erase all proof that it had once existed that easily!
I signed, and he gave me my copy. As I started to walk back toward Vama, I turned around and asked them if there was any way they could call me a cab.
The blank looks they gave me said everything. I was now an entitled princess in their eyes. “It’s right up the road.”
I sigh. “I know, but it’s hot, the suitcase is heavy, and I already walked it once to get here. But OK, I’ll figure something out. Sorry.”
At the exchange shop a few meters up the road, I also inquired about a taxi. “No taxis,” they told me. “But the bus stops here about every half hour.”
“OK, I guess that will do.” I ordered a Radler and sat down to contemplate my fate.
We joked about it back in Vama, but I knew deep down that this was no joke. This was a long and twisted bureaucratic nightmare. There was a chance that the authorities were going to send people to my house in 28 days and escort me out of the country. And there was pretty much nothing I could do about it from Vama Veche.
So, back in Bucharest, I am still an illegal alien. Things are different. We are going to try a few avenues at the immigration office next week. I am going to do everything I can to resolve this, as I have tried to from the beginning. There’s some comfort in hearing the success stories. There’s some comfort in hearing the stories that got very, very bad before they got good again.
But nothing will ever be the same. The first time, the first mess, the deportation to Greece, that was an adventure in a way, because it hadn’t happened before, because it was just an outlier, because I could reason that it was THEIR fault, and because I had had the security of knowing that my employer was actively backing me throughout it. Now, this time, with the stress of establishing my own business already quite high, it feels in some ways as though I’m alone. I do have the support of my friends, which of course helps and which of course means the world to me and in fact is probably the biggest reason I am fighting so hard to stay – my work is location-independent, but my life is here, and my friends make it a life worth fighting to keep.
And I’m not the only person this happens to, nor is Romania the only place it happens, obviously. A friend of mine who is an expat in Poland, for example, has expressed frustration with the apparent lack of a proper immigration path for Americans there as well. I know a handful of Americans who have had difficulty with the immigration process in Germany and England, as well (though at least there, the paths are well-established and the rules a lot easier to figure out with some proper research). The main thing that I am trying to communicate here is that no one chooses this. And also that the experience of being an American illegal alien has left an impact and a wide array of marks on my life that will remain a part of my psyche forever. I feel in a way that it’s something unimaginable, intangible for those who have never experienced it. I’ve done my best to explain it here, to share what I can, to bring this to the table. Thanks for listening – it helps alleviate frustration of feeling as though the authorities don’t!