A Southerner in Europe II: Leaving Home

January 13, 2012

News, Travel

Joshua Gray

The ultimate fantasy, for anyone wanting a true escape, primarily involves severing all ties to responsibility and unfolding wings to wind. This concept is one that I have often enjoyed entertaining solely in the mental arena. When such an opportunity presented itself to me six months ago, I was unprepared for most everything that would be entailed. Having traveled some in the past, I was not prepared for the most obvious factors and consequences. One of the most overlooked of these was the sense of safety, comfort and relief we as human beings relate with the word home.

Josh's rose garden at home

from Josh's rose garden at home

My dear friend and musical companion, Rachel, approached me in June of 2011 with what I thought was a joke. Rachel is a professor at our hometown university, Mississippi State. We met while working on a music project with a mutual friend. She informed me that she was taking a year-long sabbatical to research for a book that she is writing. We had enjoyed our time working together, and she on several occasions commented on how much she would like to incorporate music into her regimen for the next year. Rachel knew that I was undergoing a major change of circumstance in my life, and asked me what I would think of traveling with her for the next several months. I didn’t take her seriously, of course, and responded that it would be an absolute delight. As Rachel began to give me the details of her plans and the facts therein, I realized that she was indeed serious and honestly offering me the chance of a lifetime. The excitement started to build.

Rachel is a very smart person. I could go on and on about just how smart, but that would take too much time. What is important, however, is that she attended Cambridge University in England. While studying there, she purchased a home which she now rents to students at the University, so she is able to vacation there every year. The plan at this stage was for us to stay at the home in England rent-free, so Rachel could have access to the library at the University for her research; and together, we would have access in proximity to the rest of Europe. Rachel wanted to make music and show me the world. I was in.

The first important detail that I need to share here, is that when you travel to another country you are subject to its national laws.  This, most would agree, is common sense. Details that are not so readily apparent are the laws concerning immigration. As Americans, we can travel to most countries around the world and stay for a short time with only a valid passport. Most people who have traveled out of the country know this. Where the details start to get tricky is when a person wants to stay longer than the allotted amount of time granted for a visitor. The length of this period varies from country to country, although three months seems to be the standard. When a person wants to stay longer, they have to secure some kind of visa. A visa is a document issued to a foreigner that allows the government of the issuing country to track your movements while staying in that country. This to insure that you don’t take up residence in a foreign country, take advantage of any social services that may be available to residents, and to make sure that you are doing what you said you would be doing while you are there. Also, this is to insure that if you are making money while away, that all of the appropriate taxes are paid to the appropriate offices. Cool, no problem… That thought would count as my first mistake.

Applying for a visa is a serious business and should be treated as such. I can’t tell you how long it would take you to obtain a visa to any country, but I can tell you this: give yourself a six-month head start. From what I have heard since I have been abroad, some countries are particularly difficult in this department.

Travel tip:

Visas 101 – There are several types of visas offered by any country at a given time, and these offerings are constantly subject to change. Make sure to do your homework before you begin. All countries will have the answers to questions on their national websites.

Keep in mind we were just starting to apply for visas at the end of June, and planning to leave in August. That was not really enough time. Honestly, I had no idea what to expect. Rachel had no problem finding the correct type of visa and application for her visit to England. She applied for an academic research visa, as this was the nature of her visit. Mine, however was not so easy to figure. I was planning on performing music. On the British Immigration website I found a type of artist’s visa — which is no longer offered anymore. I should have taken this as a sign. After the two of us could find no visa that would fit the specific purpose of my stay, we were forced to call the British Immigration Help Line to ask questions. You are not allowed to speak to anyone from the consulate for some bizarre reason, so British Immigration has set up a middle man Q & A phone service. This service costs three US dollars per minute. After ten minutes of wading through the options, we finally got an operator on the line who instructed us, “Look on the website.” After doing so for the thousandth time and calling back again we were informed that he “can’t help decide which application to choose.”

As some of you may know, I have a small recording studio in Starkville. We decided that I should apply for a visa that would allow me to “expand and network my business in a new market.” Why not?

The application was unbelievably detailed. Every kind of information you can imagine was required, including copies of bank receipts for two years, my actual physical passport (not a photocopy) mailed to the consulate with the application, as well as an essay describing in detail my intentions. Needless to say we had little time to handle this and had to expedite the process, which cost an additional $350 per application, regardless of whether a visa was issued or not. We also had to include another check to have our passports returned in time for our August flight.

Another picture from Josh's rose garden

Another picture from Josh's rose garden

Once the applications were in the mail, I had to figure out how to pay my mortgage for the next year while away and decided to rent my home. In doing so, I had to take care of every detail that would allow the home to be self-sustained while I was away and also put into place fail-safes to handle inevitable problems. There was much to keep in mind. Who would take care of the rose garden, for instance? I also organized a garage sale and got rid of extraneous items and sold my car, so that I would have some extra savings for the year. I rented my home furnished, so I only had to store personal items — thank goodness. It was at this time that the packing began.

Have you ever packed to go away for a long period? What did you take? How much did you take? I have only ever been away for a month at a time — never for a year. How do you pack for this? I can tell you today that I did it wrong. I was under the impression that I would be living the next year of my life in the same room with a closet and a bathroom. I packed a total of three suitcases, which included, among other things: five pairs of shoes, three suits, music books, blank paper (really), a laptop, numerous pairs of socks in every color, multiple ties, three pairs of jeans and every nice shirt I owned. All of that plus two guitars and three winter coats, I was pretty much moving. That is a lot of gear! This would count as my second mistake.

In the weeks that followed, I hardly had a moment to catch my breath. I had several projects in the studio which required constant attention to complete. There was a list of things to do that seemed to grow instead of diminish. I was constantly finding odd job projects around the house that had to be fixed for my future tenants. With all of these responsibilities, I also had to make time to visit with family members and keep all of my friends in the loop. It was quite daunting. Try to leave home for a year; it is hard work. I ultimately came to the realization that there was no way to possibly do it all, so I simply had to do what I could.

As a promise to my good friends Val and Stace in New York, I had also committed myself to an entire week of helping their band ‘America’s Sweetheart’ write for an upcoming record. This week was scheduled a little more than a week before the flight to London. The plan was to return from New York to Atlanta for four days and then head off to Europe for a whole year. My passport was to be mailed back to my home where Rachel would pick it up and bring it with her when meeting me in Atlanta. While in New York, news came that my application had been denied, and that Rachel’s, of course, had been approved. This was upsetting, but not as upsetting as what else was happening.

My passport had been recalled to the embassy in New York. It was supposed to have been mailed overnight back to me but took a week to arrive, which was worrying. When the passport finally arrived, the UPS driver handed it to my tenant then turned around and took it away from her. It seemed that the British Consulate found a problem and wanted it back. That is all we were told. We called the Consulate, and they could disclose no information. It finally took calling a Senator’s office to get in touch with these guys. The story we got from them was that someone at the Consulate noticed that it had taken so long for the passport to arrive, and they thought someone may have tampered with it. This all happened because someone there did not check the overnight delivery box on the shipping slip.

By the time the package arrived in Mississippi, we were supposed to be in Atlanta, so we changed the shipping details from my address to the address of some friends in Atlanta. We were scheduled to leave on a Sunday, and when Saturday came, I had no passport. After another frustrating round of phone calls, we discovered that the package was in a shipping hub near Atlanta. We called UPS to ask if we could just drive there and pick it up. They told us no, because the shipper did not check the Saturday delivery box. We had to push our flight back an extra day. I wound up getting my passport back the morning of my flight.

My entire life up until this point was one full of imagination and anticipation for the day when I would be able to travel to faraway places. I had read so many stories full of adventure, and had wondered that I would be very anxious when I got my big chance. These stories had captivated my mind as a child and fueled an intense wanderlust inside me. The excitement that burned in my heart was enough to leave me blind and numb to the frustrations that had presented themselves up until this point. My time had come. I was really doing it. It felt so wonderful to be on a major path of discovery that I thought would never come. The events that had taken place thus far were only colorful details that would soon seem far from me and even laughable. I wasn’t worried about the visa denial, as I could still travel to England as a visitor and stay for the allotted number of months, then go somewhere else or just come home — no big deal. The worst behind me, I knew that it would be smooth sailing from here on. This thinking would count as my third mistake.

Joshua Obleo Gray is a musician and permanent resident of Starkville, MS, who is currently travelling overseas in Europe.  He studied at Mississippi State University and is also the owner of a local recording studio in the Golden Triangle.


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One Comment on “A Southerner in Europe II: Leaving Home”

  1. Christine Workman Says:

    This article was FANTASTIC!!!! From beginning to the end you had my attention…Can’t wait till the next chapter…..


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