I thought the French were bad…

…that was before I met the Swiss.

After a crappy circus school experience in France1, I packed my bags and travelled around Western Europe searching for my next circus/dance/theatre home. To my surprise, I found it in a place where I least expected to – Switzerland. When I think of Switzerland, I think of giant banks funded with money looted from foreign (mostly African) countries, unwelcoming citizens and punctuality. What does not  come to mind is  the circus or any kind of seemingly frivolous activity. In fact, the school I found isn’t so much Swiss as it is merely located on the Swiss side of the Swiss-French border. In any case, at the beginning of July, I spent a week in a circus school there, and over the course of seven days, I fell in love with my new school. I planned to be there at the end of the summer for the start of the new session. Unbeknownst to me, Swiss bureaucracy had a different plan.

I arrived in Nigeria in mid-July exhausted and glad to be home. After a few days’ rest, I got on to applying for a visa. This shouldn’t be too bad; I’ve done this for several countries I thought. Too bad none of them was Switzerland.

At first, everything went well; I found their website, I read all the info, I located their embassy, and I booked an appointment. However, what I was supposed to bring to the visa interview wasn’t 100% clear from their website. So I drove down to the embassy to ask questions… but they didn’t let me in, and no one came out to answer my questions. The guard at the entrance gave me a sheet of paper with the very same instructions that were on the website. When I told him that this wasn’t helpful, he pointed to their helpline telephone numbers. Which I called, and no one answered. When it became quite clear that I was to get no assistance, I left and decided to wing the interview. What choice did I have?

On the d-day, I went to the embassy, armed with documents they’d asked for and documents I thought they might ask for. On their website, they’d said to bring documents in triplicate. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the phrase “documents in triplicate” means an original and two photocopies, making three copies in total. I figured that since an institution as hoity-toity as the Swiss embassy had used the word, they would have at least looked it up. How wrong I was. What they put on the website was “triplicate”, but what they meant  to say was “an original document plus three photocopies”, i.e. four copies in total. Since I had gone with the dictionary definition, I apparently was one copy short of each document. In addition, because I had decided to use my aunt’s corporate bank statement to show that I wasn’t some penniless nobody planning to defect to their country the moment my plane touched down, the interview lady also needed proof that my aunt’s business was registered with the Corporate Affairs Commission (this wasn’t on their list of instructions)… even though in Nigeria you can’t open a corporate account without registering your business with the CAC so the bank statement was proof enough – but I didn’t argue.

I wouldn’t have gotten upset over my apparent lack of adequate documents if the lady on the other side of the glass window hadn’t been an ill-mannered twig2. She was very condescending, sighing exasperatedly, rolling her eyes and making comments about me to the guard who was standing behind me, like I wasn’t there. Still, I kept my calm, as she went through my documents, trying to unearth what else this dimwit standing before her had messed up. When I could trust myself to talk again, I mentioned that the instructions on their website weren’t quite clear, and that I had come by 3 days earlier to clarify some things. If, perhaps, someone attended to me, I would probably not be in this bind. Her response was “Well, you need to get over that – I’m telling you now what you need”. Charming. So I stood there quietly and waited for her to finish. I needed to edit and reprint a statement I’d written, make more copies and bring the proof that the business was registered. And oh, yes, after waiting 2 hours for an appointment that was originally at 9.30a.m., I had to re-book another appointment which would cost me another week.

I left the embassy more than a little pissed off. If I’d met that same woman outside the embassy, I would have punched her. Fortunately (for her) I didn’t meet her anywhere else. Still, I planned to go back for my next interview with a print-out of the dictionary definition of the word triplicate and wipe that smug look off her face. I did go with the print-out the following week, but I never got the satisfaction. Apparently, madam was not satisfied with the certificate of registration that I’d brought for my aunt’s business. She still didn’t explain exactly what I was supposed to bring, just that what I brought wasn’t correct. I kept trying to ask for a sample of what I was supposed to bring, when she said “I don’t know! Bring whatever you want!” I felt like I was in some kind of twilight zone or like I had fallen down the rabbit hole. Did this woman recognize me from another life where we’d quarrelled? I hadn’t raised my voice, but she was raising hers with each sentence. Finally I suggested I’d bring my own bank statement (though I had very little money in it) and she said fine, but I’d have to get back before 11.30am. Which made no sense because it was already 11.40 (once again, I’d had to wait 2 hours to see the interviewer). When I pointed this out, she said smugly, “well, you’ll have to book another interview”.

I think some people’s lives are so empty, that the only high they get is from using what little power they wield to oppress others. This woman was definitely one of them. During the wait till the next appointment, my family used proclamations, declarations, prophecies, and curses to command the earth to make sure I wouldn’t meet the same woman the next time I went to the embassy. And would ya know? It worked. I met a different lady who was polite and professional and accepted all my documents. But I wasn’t out of the woods yet – apparently it would take at least two months to process my visa, and my school was starting in two weeks. She said they’d mark my file as “URGENT”, and she gave me the contact info for the immigration office in Geneva where my file was to be mailed, and wished me luck.

In the 21st century, in this age of supercomputers and instant messaging, it baffles me that an embassy would need to send paper copies of a visa application to the host country, and that it would take two months (at least) to get a response. Were they sending the file across the Sahara by camel? It was a student visa for heaven’s sake, not a request for citizenship. And what was worse, they hadn’t given me a specific date to wait for. I asked the director of my school in Geneva to contact the immigration office there. Apparently, my file only arrived there two weeks after my interview date (my theory about the camel starting to look really good). He gave me weekly updates, which, though comforting, didn’t really give a clear timeframe for my departure. On my end, I had rounded up all my summer jobs and was just sort of floating, not daring to commit to anything in case my visa came through. It could have been insanely frustrating, but I wasn’t going to see this as a glass-half-empty situation. I used my time to really reconnect with friends and my family (whom I don’t see most of the year), to read new books and re-read old ones, and re-watch all the old episodes of Downton Abbey while waiting for Season 6. I took the time to simply live and enjoy living. I took walks, listened to music and made lots of origami. Some days, I got angry at the ridiculously long waiting time, but I figured it would be wise to quickly let go of the anger since it would change nothing. Besides, the director of my school completely understood the situation; last year, a guy from Chile and a girl from Brazil arrived in November and December respectively for the same bureaucratic reasons.

Six weeks after I sent in my application (and nine weeks after I’d gone for my first interview), I had some news. It wasn’t good. Apparently, some guy at the top of the immigration office hierarchy had decided that I was probably going to illegally defect to Switzerland and so he planned to deny my application. I was… nonplussed. I’ve travelled to a bunch of countries, and lived in three, and each time I returned home once my business there was finished. Besides, I was already in Switzerland in the summer and I had every opportunity to just stay there illegally. Going back home to apply for a student visa just so I could outstay my visa seemed like a really REALLY dumb plan. I was careful to point this out to the officer. Three days later, he reconsidered (I think perhaps he just saw that I was Nigerian and decided to reject me without reading my dossier) and my visa was approved. This was a Monday. I was to pick up my visa from the embassy in Nigeria on Friday of the same week.

On Wednesday I emailed the embassy to verify this since I’d heard nothing from them. No response. Thursday. Friday. On Friday, I called the embassy several times, but as usual, no one answered. When we contacted the office in Geneva, they claimed that they’d finished everything on their end and it was now in the hands of the embassy in Nigeria. It was at this point that I snapped. I was tired of being a puppet on a string, pulled and pushed about by the invisible powers of the Swiss bureaucracy. If they didn’t want to give me the stupid visa, they could shove it up… well, they could shove it. I’d pursue my circus dreams some other way. I was in a foul mood that weekend and so I retreated to a friend’s house. I knew she wouldn’t resent my bad mood; on the contrary, she understood (Thank God for friends who understand).

On Monday, I marched up to the Swiss embassy and asked for an explanation. They claimed that there was no message from Geneva that said my visa was approved. Then I contacted Geneva with this message. While waiting, I spent my day in a café where I could pretend I was some intellectual or journalist or writer, sipping my one bottle of malt (everything was so expensive) for five hours while freeloading on their Wi-Fi. I got a response on Tuesday afternoon from Geneva. Apparently, there was a document they were supposed to send me that they hadn’t (it took them a week to realize this?). I picked up the visa on Wednesday. I was off to Switzerland on Thursday. I am there now.

How I wish that was the end. The visa they gave me lasts only six weeks. In that time, I have to get a residence permit. I’ve already been to the immigration office to pay the 237 Swiss francs necessary to get the permit (I had to borrow that money). And now they say it will take four weeks to get the permit… in that time my status here is somewhat undefined.

If you’ve read up to this point, I applaud you. I get tired just thinking about this whole episode. But I felt I ought to put it in writing and publish it in case anyone else who isn’t European or from a White country is considering studying in Switzerland. Apparently Europeans, Amurricans, Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders don’t have to jump through the same hoops as everyone else. But we live in a post-racial world… Perhaps if I had been prepared for the utterly absurd roller-coaster I’d be faced with trying to come and study here, I might not have been as stressed. So this is me, informing you.

  1. I will write about this soon.
  2. Apparently, I’m not the only one she’s been rude to. Since my interview I’ve met three separate people who’ve also been insulted by this woman. She really is a piece of work.

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