“Those who do not move, do not notice their chains.” – Rosa Luxemburg
My wife and I left Berlin as winter set in.
Our residence visas had expired. We were broke. Bailiffs were at the door. We had just enough money to make a run for it. I gave notice to the utility companies and our health insurer, forwarded our mail to a cancelled mailbox, and closed our bank account.
Leaving was easy for me. I didn’t give it much thought. It wasn’t the same for my wife. For her, leaving anywhere that had been a ‘home’ for us was hard.
At the airport, an immigration officer examined the spill of rubber stamps and pasted-in visas in our passports. He reprimanded us for not leaving Germany earlier.
“Don’t worry. We’re not coming back,” my wife told him.
“Good,” he said. He stamped an exit date beneath our expired visas.
With that, we were homeless, residents of nowhere, no longer migrants but aliens — temporary, transient, a status resisting coherent definition.
We had thought about going home. But ‘home’, for us, is complicated.
My wife is an American citizen. I am not. I have no right to live with her in the USA, even after thirty years of marriage.
I can apply for US residence while outside the country. Approval might take as long as a year. During that time I would not be allowed to visit there. If I want to apply from within the USA, I have to travel there on a visitor’s visa and wait three months – until my visitor’s visa expires – before I can apply. I cannot leave the country until my residence is approved. This might take as long as eighteen months. It might be nine months to a year before I am given preliminary permission to work.
Until this preliminary permission is granted, I would be regarded as ‘undocumented’. I would risk detention if any border patrol officer questioned my status, a possibility even if I am nowhere near a US border.
I don’t think of anywhere as home. I am a sixth generation Australian. I hold an Australian passport. I have lived there less than a quarter of my life.
My wife has been granted two Australian permanent residence visas in the past twenty years. With recent changes to immigration regulations, obtaining a third might be difficult. She doesn’t care. She dislikes the country. And it’s too far from her family.
Besides, neither my wife nor I are healthy enough to sustain a 27-hour flight, especially in thrombosis-inducing economy seats.
The moment we left Berlin, our world shrank. We did not just leave Germany. We left the 21 other European states that comprise the Schengen zone. We could not now re-enter the zone for 90 days. If we did return after 90 days, we could only remain within the zone, regardless of the country, for a total of 90 days.
We still had the UK, Ireland, Cyprus, Morocco, and chunks of Eastern Europe. We chose the UK. We would be allowed to stay there for 180 days. We would be prohibited to work. We would not be allowed to lease a long-term apartment.
We would still be near to our three adult kids.
I had work I could do remotely. Whether I was allowed to was a grey area. A bigger problem was how I might be paid. As I was no longer legally resident anywhere, I had no right to a bank account.
I learned all I could about offshore banking — in the Caribbean, the Seychelles, the South Pacific, and Georgia. I was the type of prospective client that even banks with loose oversight were at pains to discourage: no permanent residence, no tax number, no referees, no consistent (nor substantial) income. A cautious manager carrying out a KYC (Know-you-client) process would view everything on my application form as a cause for suspicion. Even online banks that touted their services to so-called tech’ nomads didn’t want my money.
I remembered I had an Australian tax file number. I didn’t remember what it was so I called the Australian Tax Office. A clerk there refused to answer any questions until I mailed him notarised copies of various documents, including a birth certificate and a passport, to identify myself.
A week later, he told me: “The good news is, I have a tax number. The bad news is there’s not enough information in the file to identify whether it’s yours. There are, um, several addresses, a change of name…”
“Would you mind me asking, are you a member of the security services?”
No residence, no tax domicile, no tax number, no bank, no health insurance – my wife’s and my applications to some well-known international providers were refused because of “pre-existing conditions” – and no travel insurance, not any more: “Underwriters require that the insured are resident in the country in which they apply for it.”
We are adrift in an economic no man’s land. We are non-persons.
To apply for legal residence anywhere in mainland Europe or Ireland, we have to return to both our native countries to do the paperwork. We can’t afford that. Pre-Brexit Britain is a non-starter. Morocco used to be a possibility but three months in the southern half of the country, this summer, between the Sahara and the sea, dissuaded us. Eastern Europe, Georgia, even a couple of the ‘Stans have been mooted and dismissed.
So we keep moving. We track our allotment of days wherever we are. We rent short-term.
We live like fugitives: careful of residue, leaving no trace, always on the run.
We are so fucking tired. We have been on the move for nearly a year. We haven’t found anywhere or any way to come to rest. It feels like we are running out of road. Last month, my wife turned 59; I turned 65.
We are running out of money. I lost my one source of regular income two months ago. We have enough savings for one more month’s rent. Then we’ll have to get by like earlier generations of outsider-travellers in Europe — the Roma, Irish travellers, and Jews — selling the few things of value we carry with us or that we happen upon on our journeys. It’s enough for groceries and medicines, maybe. Nowhere near enough for rent.
We thought about buying a van to live in. But we would have to have a legal residence to register and insure it.
Our identities as settled people are slipping. The emotional threads that bind us to close friends and family have frayed. The reality of our precarious indeterminacy is, we are beginning to realise, burdensome to them.
“Where are you now?” an exasperated daughter asks in a voice message. “How long will you be there?”
Our children, all now adults, still long for fixedness, for somewhere to assemble as a family from time to time and invest attachment. They worry that we are lost. In every sense.
And maybe we are. Without some kind of intervention — a job offer or financial windfall, a change of government, death — we’re unlikely to find our way out of this. It’s a deteriorating spiral. It scares the shit out of us.
Every day, we are further from home.
C.C. O’Hanlon @ccohanlon has been, among other things, a musician, seaman, smuggler, gambler, photographer, magazine editor, film-maker, web entrepreneur, and government adviser. Now, in his 60s, he has managed turned an unsettled life into a kind of performance art. His words and images have been published widely and he is listed as an editor on the mastheads of Minor Literatures (UK) minorliteratures.com and Sultan’s Seal (Egypt) yrakha.com. He has also been a guest editor of Burning House Press.
Image banner: Artwork by Finn Lafcadio O’Hanlon