Goodbye, New York: A One-Week Saga

I’ve written the previous post on my subway rides here and there in New York City last week. Now that I’m far from that reality (geographically, at least), I can see the big picture of my saga—moving out of there and getting to Europe in less than a week. I invite you to read here the editor’s cut of that story, which, to me, is one of the finest examples of how blessed I have been my whole life. I’m writing this especially for the friends that were part of this saga in one way or the other (helping me out, praying for me…), and to the future me—my memory is already weak, and at some point I would start to forget the details if I didn’t write them down.

If I have to pick a date, I’d say that the complicated and painful process of saying goodbye to New York started on the weekend of September 18‒19. I spent the Saturday with my sister’s mother-in-law, who came from upstate New York to visit the Bronx Zoo and to see Roosevelt Island, where I lived for five months or so. Sunday was my Confirmation anniversary—I always remember the date, and this year it had an extra bit of significance, because it happened to be a Sunday, just like 11 years ago. I attended worship service at City Grace Church like I did almost every Sunday for more than a year, but it was certainly different than the average 2009‒2010 Sunday for me, and not only because of the anniversary. The pastors announced I was leaving to Geneva, told stories about my year being part of the community, and prayed for me. I got a special photo CD, a farewell/thank-you cake, and an unusually large (but by no means inappropriate) amount of hugs. Later in the evening, my two good friends Dana and Natasha hosted a farewell party, which many other friends attended. Each of them shared a short but endearing memory about me, and I gave a (wordy and uninspired) farewell speech.

Then I went home and sighed—why did I tell everyone that that was most likely my last Sunday in New York? Yes, my internship in Geneva was supposed to begin in two weeks, and that Sunday was indeed supposed to be my last Sunday in New York before I left to Geneva via Frankfurt. Still, I could not picture myself leaving. Although my sponsoring organization had applied for my visa and work permit long before, it still hadn’t received the final letter of approval from the Swiss government. I would need to take this letter to the Swiss Consulate General in New York, which would stamp the visa on my passport. It could take an extra month for the letter to come—or it might even not come at all. This blocked everything. Since I had no visa, I couldn’t make any plans. I didn’t want to buy plane tickets without knowing for sure when (or even whether) the visa would come through, and hence had no motivation to pack my belongings. What is worse for a control freak like me, there was absolutely nothing I could do to expedite the visa process, and it was difficult to follow up on it, even.

Fortunately, I’ve learned a couple of lessons about visas. I had already had problems with nerve-wreckingly lengthy visa application processes—in 2008, when I applied for a German visa, and in July 2010, when I was waiting for the extension of my American student visa. First lesson: freaking out doesn’t help at all. Although that’s quite obvious, it’s unfortunately not that easy to avoid freaking out. Second lesson: if anything helps, it’s following up on the application process with the sponsoring organization and, to the extent possible, with the foreign government to which you’re applying for a visa.

In addition, through both visa-related and non-visa-related experiences, I’ve learned many lessons about my God. An important one is: He never lets me down. Even in instances when I initially thought He did, for example when something I really wanted and prayed for never happened, sooner or later I ended up realizing that He didn’t actually let me down—He gave me something that I hadn’t even thought I could have and that was much better than what I originally desired and prayed for. In a way, I think I can accurately say He spoils me.

Like any control freak, I need to have a plan, but I tried to be a better person by applying those three lessons and making them the core of my plan, like this:

  1. I shall not freak out about this visa application.
  2. I shall insistently follow up with my sponsoring organization.
  3. In order to accomplish (1) and to the extent that I will do (2), I shall trust this visa matter to God.

(3) + (2) = Augustine: “Pray as though everything depended on God. (= 3) Work as though everything depended on you. (= 2)”

Please don’t think I’m a hero. I’m still pretty new at this, and I have to struggle against my control-freakiness to be able to think like that. It’s not a superpower I was born with.

In line with my plan, I went to the Swiss Consulate General in New York on Monday, September 20. The idea was to ask how I could follow up with the Swiss government on my visa application process, why it was taking so long for my sponsoring organization to get the final letter from Bern, what my options were if I didn’t get the letter before my American visa expired (which would happen soon, in October). I won’t dwell on the details of how poorly I was treated initially, so I’ll just say that, at some point during the intricate dialogue with the consular officer, she said, “your name is in our system, and we’re authorized to issue you a visa.” That surprised me. It made absolutely no sense—wasn’t I supposed to bring the letter that my sponsoring organization would eventually receive from Bern? It was an unexpected miracle that my name was in their system. I went to the consulate again on Tuesday to drop off my passport and once again on Wednesday to pick it up—with a Swiss visa stamped on it!

The news that I would get my visa on Wednesday prompted intensive preparations for immediate departure. Tuesday I found a reasonably priced one-way ticket from New York to Frankfurt for Saturday. After I finished a translation work that was due Wednesday afternoon, I started packing, a task that I would only finish by Friday afternoon. After selling, donating, shipping, or throwing away many of my belongings, I managed to fill up two suitcases to check in. Each weighed the maximum the airline would accept to carry, even paying excess luggage (which I unavoidably would have to do). My carry-on bag had twice the allowed weight. Then I looked around… and there was still a lot of stuff to go! I decided simply to throw everything into the two large suitcases and hoped that the airline wouldn’t be too strict.

In the midst of all the packing craziness, I still had a chance to say private goodbyes to many friends, including some who I hadn’t seen at the farewell party. Tuesday, I had proper Italian lunch with Maurizia from NYU, late dessert (and what a wonderful dessert) with chef Christine from City Grace, and a memorably fancy dinner with Leslie and Stephanie from City Grace. Wednesday, I had dinner and ice cream and a wonderful chat as usual with Kyle from City Grace. Thursday, Isabela from NYU offered me Bahia-style food and hospitality, and later I met Leslie and Stephanie again at a fundraiser Leslie helped to organize. Friday afternoon, Natasha came to visit me from New Jersey, giving me a huge incentive to finish packing (including coffee, which I really needed at that point). Friday night, my last night in New York, I attended Kyle, Lee, and Ryan’s loft-warming party, where I got to see once again most of the good friends I just mentioned, as well as so many others (who I won’t name here because it would be a long list). It was the perfect way to end a wonderful year in New York.

At all times, but especially when things didn’t seem to go well in my preparations, it was evident that I remained under the care of God.

  • I had never had problems getting to Roosevelt Island with the F train—except, of course, on my second to last day in New York, when I wasted a couple of hours because of unexpected delays, accidents, and service changes. But even MTA couldn’t stop me: in spite of the waste of time, I was still able to get ready to go in time.
  • Saturday, the cab I took from Roosevelt Island to the stop of the Midtown-Newark shuttle bus couldn’t get quite there, because of temporary traffic changes in Midtown. Fortunately, God sent me one of His angels, my friend Naoki, who helped me to carry my luggage to the bus stop.
  • When I got to Newark airport, I was shocked when the shuttle bus stopped and dropped me off at arrivals, not departures. So frustrating! I had to move one step forward with one of the suitcases, then go back to get the other two suitcases and catch up with the first one—and so on and so forth. There was no humanly possible way I could carry all of them at once, and there were no carts nearby. Out of the blue, an airport staff member approached me and brought me a luggage cart!
  • Then I went to the airline counter to check in. Both my large suitcases went through—miraculously, even, since I knew both of them weighed more than the maximum allowance. Plus, not only they didn’t ask to weigh my carry-on bag, but they offered to check it in free of additional charges. Unbelievable! Finally, they offered me an aisle seat (my favorite) at the emergency exit row (the space for my legs was so huge I could waltz there). And I didn’t even have to ask.

Everything seemed to be prepared for me. Only God could have done it that way. He took care of details I didn’t even think of.

When I landed in Frankfurt, Germany, my parents were already waiting for me at the gate. I told them this whole saga as we drove to Limburg, just in time to attend worship service at the evangelical church to which my sister and brother-in-law belong. As I calmed down, I finally realized I had arrived. On the previous Sunday, my Confirmation anniversary, I was in New York, saying goodbye to my home community and to my friends, but I had no idea I’d get the visa and leave so quickly. Only one week later, I was in Europe, with my parents. My sister and my brother-in-law, who I was so excited to see again after one year, would arrive soon with my niece and my nephew, who I was so excited to see for the very first time! I felt accomplished, although exhausted from the trip. I had had no sleep on the plane. Plus, I had to reconcile the excitement of encounters and reencounters with the sadness of abandoning a reality that I truly loved—I was no longer living in New York, that church was not City Grace Church, and none of my friends were there.

I only have beginner’s German (not being modest here), definitely not enough to understand an entire sermon in German. I pick up some words here and there, infer some from the context, and that allows me to get to an understanding of 65% of what’s being said. And I have no idea how I’m coming up with those 65%, because it’s probably much less than that. Still, for some divine reason, I understood very clearly when the pastor said the Bible verse of the week was 1 John 5.4:

“…for everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith.” (New International Version)

I was paralyzed. I immediately interpreted the verse in light of the recent events in my life—overcoming earthly challenges through faith and trust in God. But that’s just the tip of an iceberg of meaning. Tears instantly started to jump out of my eyes when I heard it. I only managed to turn to my dad, who was right beside me—”Dad, do you remember? That’s my Confirmation Bible verse!”

I had already dropped some tears in three occasions in the process of leaving New York, and I had already failed in my determination to weep only when I got on the plane to Europe. First time: when I went back to Roosevelt Island after the loft-warming party. Second time: as I entered the Holland Tunnel on my way to Newark. Third time: during the flight, especially when I read the farewell cards Naoki and Stephanie wrote me (well, Naoki intentionally drafted his as a “weeping aid,” in case I had forgotten an onion to chop, as he put it, and Stephanie said hers was very “emotional and crap,” in her own words, so no surprise they made me weep). But those times were different. I had control over the situation, and I didn’t let anyone see I was weeping. This time, in Limburg, I simply couldn’t stop. I guess I only did when I remembered I would meet my two-month-old niece and nephew afterwards, and when I realized that they would have behaved better during worship service than their 25-year-old uncle.

In all seriousness, I don’t know why exactly I was crying—maybe because I was so relieved that I had arrived safely here after my saga, or because I was sad to leave New York, or because I was happy to be in Europe and to see my family again, or because of a mix of all those reasons. You can always rationalize and think that I was exhausted and particularly sensitive and whatever, but another possibility is that I was moved by the Spirit. It’s hard to explain or describe. It was just very intense.

I never thought I’d post something this personal on this blog. On the other hand, I don’t think I had ever been this grateful to God! My gratitude explains my boldness. I simply needed to share this. Sorry it took me almost 2,500 words! 🙂

Uma ideia sobre “Goodbye, New York: A One-Week Saga

  1. Stephanie Nikolopoulos

    What a great story of learning to trust God, even as everything seems to go wrong and as emotions get the best of us. I think just having that perspective, just knowing that God is the one in control, can make all the difference sometimes. Sure, things might not go as smoothly as we’d hoped, but God sees the bigger picture and has a plan. I say this in light of all the drama with the visa and the luggage, but also because I’ve seen you and two other friends of mine leave this month and sometimes it’s frustrating and sad that the world doesn’t revolve around me (haha) and that people move on to new adventures and experiences and opportunities. But, I am so happy for you and I know that you are going to have many, many more inspiring and heart-felt stories.PS: “emotional and crap” haha! You can see I’m very eloquent and good at dealing with emotions.

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