Live or Love?
This is a love story. A story of impossible coincidences, love at first sight, profound connection and mutual support.
It is also a story of 90-day limits. Of closed borders and lists of requirements.
A love story fighting its way through an injust system built on monetary rule and geopolitical power.
Have you ever met that someone who robs you of all rational thought? Someone who reveals your formerly unkown capacity of sweetness and need for PDA to an extent that leaves your peers half mindblown, half gagging? That someone who always puts you first, disregarding whether you’re calling to say you are having an emergency or simply just a bad day? That someone who respects you, but at the same time balances that fine line by making fun of your weak sides, until your weak sides are no longer so overwhelming? That someone who you picture yourself waking up with, every single day, for the rest of your life?
In 2013, I was lucky, and I met my someone. But turns out I was unlucky to meet my someone in a so-called Third World country – in (sí sí) Colombia.
Let me paint you a picture of Colombia’s economic situation: Out of a population of 48 million people, over 13 million people live in poverty. The minimum wage is currently 645.000 pesos per month (that’s about 220 US Dollars a month, guys). Over half of the country’s workers live on such a minimum wage or less. Ten percent of the county’s richest people hold more than 40% of the the total wealth, while the poorest ten percent hold 1%. Long story short: Colombia ranks among the ten most inequal countries in the world, and the vast majority (around 78%) of the population is defined as belonging to “lower middle class”, “low class” or “lower low class”.
But hey, my someone is far from the unluckiest: My someone has a job to which they go six days a week, 9 hours a day. My someone has higher education and about eight years of professional experience. My someone goes to work despite having a fever, despite vomiting on the third day in a row.
Still, my someone does not have a bank account, does not have a credit card, does not have a passport, does not have medical insurance, does not have a single peso left at the end of the month, does not have parents able to help out in an economic emergency, does not own a house nor a car.
What then, if that someone, falls in love with me – a citizen from up North (with a capital N) on the geopolitical world map? What then, if my someone wants to visit, or – as radical as it may sound – create a life together with me over there?
Paila, as they would say in Colombia. Bummer.
The European Dream
Here are some examples of requirements Colombians need to meet in order to enter the Schengen area (of which Norway is part) on a tourist visa (that is, a visit lasting between 1 and 90 days, for example a Christmas vacation):
Monetary comparation is made to my someone’s monthly wage, imagining a situation in which their monthly income was freely available, and nothing in fact spent on say rent, food, transport, clothing and services
– Must hold about 50 euros as subsistence per day for the intended travel (price for two weeks: 2.3 million pesos, about three months’ wage)
– Must hold airline tickets (price: ranging from 2 to 3 million pesos, about four months’ wage)
– Must pay for the visa application (307.000 pesos, about half a month’s wage)
– Must hold a valid passport (price: 157.000 pesos, about a cuarter of a month’s wage)
– Must hold a special Schengen coverage insurance (price: 195-226.000 per month, about a third of a month’s wage)
– Must document that one has a place to stay throughout the whole stay
All mentioned requirements must, of course, be documented with officially legalized stamps and copies, costing an additional amount of time and effort. At the time, the number of documents required for a normal tourist visa is 16, adding up to about 30 pages of data when filled out.
Skimming through the above list, one can easily figure that for my someone, travelling to Europe is all but realistic. And even if the subsistence requirement was to be met after years and years of saving up, the proof, say, cash itself, would not be enough.
A Bum Dressed in Red and Gold
Let us compare for a moment, my situation:
– I was lucky to be born in the social democratic oil nation of Norway.
– When I was a kid, my mum studied, while my dad worked. Worked hard indeed, but usually got home at four. Never worked on Saturdays. Had five weeks of vacation per year.
– I have had a bank account since I was born. I got a visa card at 14.
– Backed by government supported student loans available to all, I left home at 19 to live on my own. After, of course, spending a gap year on the other side of the globe, financed by money I inherited from my grandparents.
– I studied for about five years, while working and travelling in between. Casually travelling to places like India, China, New Zealand, Morocco, South Africa, Cuba, Jamaica, Ecuador and Mexico. Only a small handful of those countries required entry visas. However, I was never in doubt that I would obtain such, and I don’t remember ever filling out more than a single page of personal data. I assumed, rightly so, that my red and golden passport would do the speaking for me.
On all my travels, including the first one that I made to Colombia, hell, even the current one, I could have entered the country without bringing a single dollar. Nobody have ever asked me to document my financial situation, my work situation, my family details, my relationship status, whether I have insurance or not, nor whether I have a return ticket within 90 days. Thanks to my red and golden passport, I can travel all around the world like a bum. Actually I am doing it right now. And nobody cares.
Then why, oh why, make such a hassle if a Colombian wants to do the same? The Colombian can be self-sustained in relative terms, even. Or willing to work hard in order to create a different life up North, led by cultural interest, by family bonds or simply by the coincidences of love. Why am I even mentioning this? Beacuse to migration authorities it doesn’t matter.
Now, show them the money.
Some people in this world inherited violated lands, corrupted colonial state structures and the long-lasting effects of slavery and economic inequality. Is it not absurd that those people are the same ones that are denied access to the countries that were able to prosper due to these very mechanisms that left such burdened heritage behind? How on earth can one justify these imbalanced rules applied to human mobility? If there was such a thing as justice and positive discrimination in place, the ones given priority should be the ones who are victims of the structural economic violence that colonialism and neoliberalism left behind.
Out of the 24 months I have known my someone, I have spent about 12 months in Colombia. The other 12 months I have spent on Skype, Facebook messenger, e-mail, and on the phone. From Norway. It is, of course, I, with the red and golden passport, who travel. But you know what? I am sick of building temporary lives on 90-day visas in and out of Colombia. I want to live with my someone while working, contributing and creating a future back home in Norway.
Instead I find myself commuting from North to South, not committing to a stable job, not contributing as a tax payer, not taking part in long-term community building nor here nor there. Thing is: I want to contribute. My someone wants to contribute. That thing, however, does not trump a guiding line very dear to me:
always choose love
Because to me, love trumps building a career at home. Love trumps being a tax payer at home. Love trumps participating in the public debate at home. I just wish my home would see that if they allowed for love to live wherever it prospered, they would in fact not lose, but win.
Below, you can follow our journey. Will authorities let us live and love in Europe?
Colombia: We’ve been gathering papers, signatures, stamps and numbers for about two weeks. I’ve drawn my economically stable parents into the whole visa circus by getting my dad to run around town getting papers from the police station, copying things, confirming his awareness of rules, regulations and risks associated with bringing a foreigner across the borders of his homeland. In between moments of formal terminology confusion and itchy anxiety sweat, I sit down and feel grateful for having parents. As I am not in an economically stable situation, my dad will be the person guaranteeing for my partner. If I did not have parents in an economically stable situation, we would not be able to meet any of the requirements. Luck: check. I repress the inner voice shouting injustice! Global class divide! Mobility is a lie! For my own well-being’s sake.
Last night we did a final revision of the 31 papers in the application, making sure everything was in order. We were both stressed, and almost got into a fight over how to get to the visa office early next morning: by walking or by bus, goddammit?! Breathe, relax. I’m sorry. Me too.
I checked the list of “updated rates” on the internet. The price listed for the visa was 207.000 pesos. We withdrew 250.000 pesos, just to be safe.
Outside of the visa office, there is a long queue. Applicants must have a pre-ordered appointment, and the office only operates during normal working hours, which means every applicant has to take time off from work. In my partner’s work situation this is not well perceived, and being here at 08:00 on a monday puts their work security in jeopardy. One can not carry a bag nor a backpack while entering the office – only an envelope with the application.
The visa interview goes without too much hassle. Being transgender is not made into an issue. So far, so good. Upon payment, however, my partner is informed that the price is now 305.000 pesos. A change of about 100.000 pesos was made about two months ago. “Sorry, the webpage is not updated yet”. Pay up, or get out. My partner is allowed to leave the office for a short while to go get the extra money. Only thing is: he has no extra money. He does not have an account from where he can withdraw such money. 100.000 pesos extra is not something he would just have, ever. In desperation, he calls his mum, although knowing she rarely has spare money either. Could she possibly do a money transfer of 50.000 pesos like, right now? Luckily, she just received some money from a client that she was to handle over to someone else, but not quite yet. He would have to pay her back quite fast, but she would do the transfer. We walk restlessly around the neighborhood for half an hour or so, waiting for the money transfer to go through. We are able to get the money out from a money wiring service, and my partner pays the fee.
Words cannot describe how arrogant I think it is to treat clients in this manner. 100.000 pesos might sound like nothing. In a country like Colombia, I can promise you that it is quite something. I am left imagining the desperate faces of people who have saved up over time, only to bring the exact sum of money required. I imagine the slow fading of a nervous smile, carrying the 30 paper envelope, a newly printed passport, two photos on a white background (no smiling), wearing an ironed shirt and who-knows-what, when they are told that they lack what must seem an infinite amount of money.
“If we robbed someone, would it indirectly be the visa service’s fault, thus leaving us innocent?” jokes my partner. I cannot make myself laugh, because the only ones left robbed, are the victims of a bureaucratic violence that assumes its users to be fully integrated in a capitalist system that generates money whenever needed. An illusion, a truly blind assumption. But in fear of rejection, we comply with the blind’s demand.
Now, awaiting the answer.
Colombia: At eight something in the morning, visa delivery service rings the bell. A uniformed man asks me to sign some papers in return for the sealed envelope. “Can I check if everything is okay before signing?” I ask. The man shakes his head – “qué pena” – there have been incidents of clients scolding delivery servants when faced with a negative answer. For his personal security, I must sign first, and open after he leaves. I sign, he drives off.
My hands tremble as I open the envelope, desperately searching for a brand new sticker inside my someone’s passport. There it is! Visa approved. Three months on a tourist visa granted. Relief.
But, relief of a transient kind, as I recall that this was only a first of many steps. What follows?
First off: Wedding papers
Will Norwegian authorities approve our application to marry, and will we be able to gather all the required papers while stationed here in Colombia?
Will we be able to book a wedding date in early January, permitting us to marry and move to neighboring (not-so-unbelieveably-strict) Sweden while my someone’s Schengen tourist visa is still valid?
3rd: New home
Will I be able to find a job and an apartment in Sweden?
3rd and a half: The cat calling
Will said apartment allow for the presence of a furry baby?
4th: Swedish papers
Will Swedish authorities accept my status as a Swedish resident, and will my Swedish identity papers, work contract and proof of residence be granted in time to apply for family reunification before my someone’s tourist visa expires?
5th: Extended temporary permit
Will my someone be granted permission to stay in Sweden while waiting for the application to process?
6th: Extended (almost) permanent permit
Will the family reunification application be granted, allowing my someone to stay in Sweden/EU legally for a period of five years?
7th: Homeland return
Will we, after having lived and worked in Sweden for a longer period of time (tentatively 6-12 months) be able to resettle in Norway as legal and permanent residents?
8th: After the storm
Will we live happily ever after?
I reckon number eight is the only one that cannot be planned for. Thus my main priority remains that love must not be lost in the planning of plans and the papering of papers. After all, this whole bureaucratic bulldozer, however injust and silly it is, does run on love.
Marriage. It was never a word that resonated with me in the past. These days, however, it is the magic word that may allow me to be with my someone without fear of the future. Without hyperventilating every time the thought “when will we have to say goodbye again?” strikes.
I never imagined myself proposing to someone drenched in tears. I never imagined myself being giggly and nervous to tell friends and family. I never imagined myself browsing for wedding rings. But here we are, my someone and I. And to be honest, the whole thing now resonates a lot! Oh, and I never imagined myself going soft. Guys; I am beyond silky soft. And it feels kinda great.
But. There’s always a but. Actually, from now on I think we can rename this but “governmental authorities”. Or maybe “immigration control”, or “state institutions”. You can pick the one you’d like, cause the point is that they are all making my silky softness harden. I harden when the good old “but” gets overly involved in my love life.
Don’t get me wrong: I understand that some paperwork must be handed in to avoid, say, that people marry a bunch of people at the same time without informing the involved parts, or for the simple reason that governments want to keep track of the legal and relational bonds between their citizens. I get it, I do. It is just the quantity and level of detail of the requirements that make this little high-pitched voice inside my head shout “for the love of GAWD, is there no such thing as TRUST? Could this not possibly have been done in a more efficient, economic and less ridiculous way?!”. These last few days’ happenings may help you find some justification for my frustration:
A requirement when someone is to marry in a country other than their country of citizenship, is to bring proof that nothing hinders one from marrying. In Colombia, such proof is called “certificación de soltería” – roughly translated “certification of singleness”. Very well. My someone went to the Notary’s Office to get such a paper. But to their surprise, my someone did not only have to confirm their relationship status and history: When signing the document, one must also approve that one finds oneself in (and I quote) “perfect physical and mental state of health” and that one has not had “infectious diseases or mental illnesses that have required medical treatment”.
Hang on, hang on, haaang on. Who in this world can honestly confirm that they are and have always been in a “perfect” physical and mental state? And why should this have anything to do with a person’s right to marry?
Has suffered depression? Sorry.
Has HIV? Bummer.
Needs a wheelchair? Next in line.
You do not deserve a love life.
Oh, wait, actually you do. Actually it is a freakin’ human right, and it reads:
“Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family […]” (Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights)
My someone signed the paper. However, my someone hesitated, thinking about problems suffered in the past and present. Thinking about depression, about dysphoria, about hormonal treatment. But then again – who could legitimately sign this? What would happen if one did not sign? Easy peasy: No paper. No marriage. No love.
Utopian confirmations aside, the paper mill did not stop there. This very same paper then had to be brought to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the (“foreign”) person’s country. Then, one had to go to a very specific bank and pay a fee, which in return generated a stamped and signed paper saying that the first paper (also issued by an official government actor) was actually a valid paper. As this first paper was, of course, issued only in Spanish, we must now provide a translated version in order for it to be valid in a non-Spanish speaking country. This translation must be carried out by a certified translator, but afterwards, the translation must still be re-validated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, repeating the same validation process (and subsequent fee payment). And that, kids, is how you get a valid certificate of singleness!
As soon as translation is done, my someone will send all the wedding papers to Norway, where they will be further processed by my dear folks. In the meantime, I will travel to Mexico for a while. Why, you say? Because I have to get in and out of Colombia before my 90-day limit is reached. Crossing fingers hoping they’ll let me back in!
So, I got out of and back into Colombia without problems. I never really thought they’d stop me at the border, even though I have spent way over 180 days in the country during this year. They glimpsed at me, they glimpsed at my passport. I saw the immigration clerk go sweaty, lost in the moss of too many travels, too many stamps. Did I live here? No. Why was my Spanish so fluent? Practice. Stamped and in order. Welcome to Colombia.
In the meantime, my someone has sent all our pre-wedding papers to Norway. International shipping services charge between 150.000 and 200.000 pesos for the shipment of such papers. That’s about a quarter of a month’s wage here. Anyway, from Norway, my lovely little helpers have sent the papers further to the tax office, who informs that the current processing time of wedding papers is “at least three to four weeks”. At least. What is that even supposed to mean? I’ll give them a month before plausibly indulging in the role of difficult citizen.
In other news I am looking for jobs in Sweden, which is where we will have to live for a while, before hopefully settling permanently in Norway. A terror- and fear-struck Europe, however, is not the most fertile ground for hope: My gut wrenches every time I read about increased inter-European border controls, and the planned rise of economic criteria for family reunification. The backdrop to the latter changes, is the growing number of refugees heading to Sweden and the rest of Europe. The consequences, though, will possibly strike all non-natives longing to live close to their loved ones.
But hey, Sweden is pretty great. I have always thought of it as Norway’s progressive twin, as public debates on close-to-my-heart-topics such as feminism, gender, immigration and diversity, often transcend the ones taking place on Norwegian ground. Let us hope that such oases of public debate, followed by brave humanitarian policies, can remain in place even in a wounded, paranoid and angry Europe.
Good news! Our wedding papers have been granted – only about two weeks after we delivered them! A tiny tad of faith restored in bureaucracy.
Now what is left of the wedding part of this great evil plan, is confirming a time and date. I’m hoping we will get that as soon as possible, assuming most couples don’t get married in the darkest of all dark months (Norwegian January), unless they kinda have to. And we kinda have to, although the eventual love party will take place when guests are done suffering their way through their winter depressions.
On another wedding note, the former non-believer (that’s me) is picking up our custom-made rings in a few days. Wait, what? Rings? For constant wear? On left ring fingers? I have never worn a ring for more than a day. Maximum. And those were like dentist rings, you know the ones you get for being a good kid at your primary school check-up. And I wasn’t even a good kid – I suffered from dentist fear to the degree that they had to drug me GHB-style to make me open my mouth. But they still gave me a ring, and I wore that ring from time to time. That’s my only ring experience, guys! I am maybe, just maybe, freaking out a little.
Fortunately, this is just as absurd to me as it is to my someone. Our nervous laughs synchronize when wedding scenes appear in movies. The hands we hold sweat simultaneously when we try out if we are ring-size six or five point five. Two pairs of eyebrows tremble as we call each other “future spouse”.
But, as I told my someone upon proposing: In a world that demands papers and formalities as proof for what we simply call love, one has to adapt a little. And really, adapting never felt so wonderful as when I am adapting with you.