Applying for a UK Visa

The UK visa process in Toronto changed literally the day after I applied, so nothing I say can be taken as gospel. That said, here are my observations on things that are unlikely to change:

1. For those that know psychometrics – the application form was almost definitely designed by an ISTJ. For those that don’t know psychometrics – it needs a brain-hurting level of detail about everything. 

Do not attempt to fill this form out in ten minutes or even half an hour. I recommend looking through the form once, gathering all the stuff you need, and then filling it out in one sitting later. (Do you know your investment details well? Your parents’ DOB’s, birth towns? Your UK relatives’ home phone numbers? Exactly.)

2. You’ll need to have the Wikipedia entry on Commonwealth countries open, as well as your passport. The form asks you to list every CW country you've visited in the last five years, with dates. And then the non-CW ones. I won’t get into how pointless I thought this was.

(This was actually the only question I answered. The husband filled out the rest of the form for me, reminding me again what a great decision it was to marry him. The last time I went to the UK, my dad filled it all out. I am extraordinarily spoiled.)

3. As with the Schengen visa, check the site for the list of documents you’ll need. Book free-cancellation hotels & flights, plan on insurance, and check your bank balance, because the UK needs a whole lot more than most Schengen countries.

4.  Speaking as someone who’s paid a lot of money for visas over the years, the UK one’s shockingly expensive. They also cross-sell like it’s Domino’s – you can pay extra to schedule an appointment before your office hours, or to expedite processing time, or to have the visa shipped back to you. Or all three. 

On the bright side, you can pay by card. Most people don’t carry around hundreds of dollars in cash, anyway.

5. Again, keep in mind any other travel plans you have before scheduling an appointment. You can’t do international travel without a passport, and you’ll need to check with airlines if other proofs are accepted for domestic travel. You could just pay to expedite the process if you need your passport back sooner.

6. The visa office does not conduct an interview, or even go through your documents, so triple check them before you get to the office. If you leave out anything, you’re going to have to pay that exorbitant sum twice.

7. You’ll be fingerprinted at the appointment. Note the date because you’ll have to note it in future applications. You’ll also be photographed, so dress for posterity.

8. The UK visa typically took between 10-20 days to process. I don’t know if that will change, given VFS Global’s in charge now, but their new site isn't fully updated yet.

Frankly, I wish I was travelling to Ireland as well as London and Scotland on this trip, because I can’t imagine going through the UK visa process again. Sadly, there just isn't time, so I’ll probably have to do this all again in a couple of years. Who could watch PS I Love You and resist Ireland?

(PS: The movie is, unusually, much better than the book. Gerard Butler, we love you.)

Applying for a Schengen Visa

I didn't want to jinx it by offering visa gyaan before I had my duly stamped passport back in my hands :) Being Indian, I've to re-apply every time I want to travel to Europe. The rules keep changing, so it's always freshly nerve wracking. Here are some tips that worked last month:

1. You need to apply for a visa with the consulate of whichever Schengen country you plan to spend the most time in. If it’s a fairly even spread, apply at the consulate of the country you’re flying into. In my case this was Italy. Given how well Indians treat Sonia Gandhi, you’d think we’d be waved into Italy, no questions asked, but nooo.

2. If you’re flying out of the Schengen zone to a country which requires a visa, you need to have the latter visa before applying for the Schengen one. 

3. Go to the relevant consulate’s site to see what documents & bank balance you need. This is a bit of a pain because several websites claim to be the 'official' one. Look for the one that slips back into Italian despite your clicking 'EN' at the top right several times.

4. I highly recommend booking flights & hotels with free cancellation. If your company doesn't cover insurance, you’ll need to buy your own, and Travel Underwriters was the cheapest (reliable) one I found. You'll need to give them 72 hours' notice for a 'proof of coverage' letter.

5. Filling the Schengen visa application form: You need to list all the Schengen countries you’re visiting in the ‘Member State of destination’ field. Similarly, hotel details for all countries are to be listed later in the form. Also, don't stick the photo in the box, just carry it along.

6. Remember you’ll be giving away your passport for 7-20 days after your visa appointment, so don’t schedule international trips in this time. For domestic travel, check if other ID proofs will be accepted by the airline. 

7. Most consulates need you to make an appointment before you show up. I wholeheartedly commiserated with the security guard at the Italian Consulate* who had to futilely open & close the door ten times in the five minutes I was there. And no, he can’t answer any of your questions. 

8. Bring photo ID along when you come. Keep it out if possible. The queue of people behind you will greatly appreciate this, especially when it’s -10 out. Cell phones & laptops may be confiscated at the gate, so leave them at home if possible.

9. Bring the visa processing fees in cash. No discounts for those who've received Schengen visas before, tragically. The nearest ATM to the Italian Consulate in TO is past the AGO.

10. The Italian Consulate in Toronto is notoriously slow, so factor in 1.5 hours for the appointment. They are super-fast at giving you the visa though – I got mine in 6 days’ time.

11. You can either pay to have the visa couriered to you, or go pick it up. I recommend the latter, because it’s important to check your name & the dates for which the visa’s been issued.

12. FYI, you needn't bother with the nice heels when it’s slippery-snowy out, because the officials can’t see them from behind the tiny window anyway. Lesson learned. 

* Did you know the IT consulate in TO is in a historical building dating back to the 1800’s? The Italian government bought the house constructed by a British-born tanner in 1937, and it was confiscated by the Canadian govt in 1939 when WWII began. It was given back to the Italians later, obviously, and they've owned it for over 40 years now. This being Toronto, the building sits right where you’d expect it to – in Koreatown, rather than in Little Italy. Oh, Canada.

She said it better than I could

From the book group material at the end of Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips (which, incidentally, is a quirky, charming novel which far too few people have read):

'When I meet people at parties and I tell them that I'm a writer, the first question is always the same. "Are you very disciplined?" "Oh yes," I say. . . . And it's almost true – about the discipline, I mean. My approach to writing is like improvised acting: I lose myself in my characters and let them do all the work. So I can write large amounts over long stretches of the day. However, I try as far as possible to avoid conscious thought while I'm writing, because it interrupts the flow and pulls me out of my characters. Before I start on a novel I have to do a huge amount of thinking, for months on end, without writing a word. I don't like to begin until I have a destination in mind and at least a vague idea of how I'm going to get there, otherwise I am liable to write around in circles.

I'm not a comfortable thinker, however. What am I supposed to look at while I'm thinking? What should I do with my hands? Research is my favorite way to think, as it gives me something tangible to do. I like spending the entire day reading, and then sounding like a harassed intellectual to friends in the pub ("God, I've been reading all day, I'm knackered"). 

. . . But reading is ultimately distracting as I'm dealing with other people's thoughts, so sometimes I have to put the books down and just think. I think in the shower, doing the shopping, tidying the house, and I get vast amounts of thinking done on the bus. I think in bed, last thing at night and first thing in the morning, because being half asleep pushes open the door to my subconscious just that little bit wider. Mostly, though, I lie on the sofa and think (I have a special sofa in my study for this purpose – chosen by stretching out on all the sofas in Ikea to find out which one was the thinkiest). This causes untold problems in the pub ("God, I've been lying on the sofa all day, I'm knackered").

I think until I can't bear it any longer and then I start writing, but it's never long enough. I get myself stuck and have to take weeks out in the middle of drafts just to think some more, and then I get furious with myself for "not doing any work," force myself back to the computer too soon, and end up with writer's block, which is basically just thinking plus self-loathing.'

I love it when I pick up a book I've never heard of, and find something unexpected.

Wanderlust 2014: Western Europe

It's March! My big trip's a month away. I'm going to India for a month; Italy, Austria, Munich, and Paris for the next month; and meeting people in London & Scotland for a couple of weeks after that.(The things you can do when you're unemployed! A-ma-zing).

It'll be the first time I vacation solo. I'm excited, and more than a little nervous. I've become obsessed with trip planning, which is... uncharacteristic. I am not a planner. I typically only realize I didn't note down the measurements for a recipe when I'm midway through cooking it (it rarely matters. My mum doesn't think to spell out the details sometimes, and I don't think to ask. This reliance on instinct is genetic).

Yet, regarding this vacation, I told the husband, and I quote, "There's a time and a place for spontaneity!" I really mean it too.

It started when I was cross-checking something random and came across a cool bit of trivia in a book. I've been keeping my eyes peeled for lesser known facts about the places I'm visiting and nifty time/money saving tricks ever since. At least one good thing will come out of this - I won't dump a generic mass of photos here when I come back. 

Instead, I'll put down some of those fun stories which are buried in some book somewhere. I'll also link to the relevant sections of my copious online notes, because hey - I consolidated it anyway, and some of this stuff is surprisingly hard to find.

Hopefully, the former will inspire you to travel to these places. And the latter will help if you decide to. Happy travels!