Nostalgic Lisbon had been a sun-dappled dream, but my 90 Schengen Zone days were rapidly coming to an end.
I couldn’t bear the thought of parting with my morning pingado and pastel de nata, but as a non-EU citizen without a long-term visa, the rules in place allowed me only 3 months of basking in the European lifestyle.
But unwilling to accept defeat, I did some investigating and quickly discovered the website of the CNAI, a very thorough and detailed immigrant assistance service (with offices in Lisbon and Porto) and the SEF (foreign police). With an appointment, I could quickly and easily extend my tourist stay for another 90 days, and possibly a second set of 90 days, for a grand total of 270 days in Portugal.
Of course, as it might be assumed, that last set of 90 days is difficult to get, and you need to show stronger evidence of your reason for extension. After making an appointment and getting some basic documents together, I was granted my 90 day extension and managed to stay in the Schengen zone—legally and visa free—for a total of 180 days.
But there was a catch: in order to procure that juicy extension, I needed to show proof of departure—not only out of Portugal, but out of the entire Schengen zone, which includes most of western and central Europe.
I finally had to come to terms with the idea of truly leaving the Schengen Zone, that strict but border-free zone that has become the basis of a love-hate relationship between non-EU citizens who desire to live and work in Europe.
Blessing in disguise: Leaving Schengen behind
Not even two months into my time in Lisbon, as the summer was just starting to bring out the chilled bottles of vinho verde on Principe Real’s rooftop cafes and the sidewalk sardine grills in Alfama, I had already booked my tickets out of Portugal–to Bulgaria, still an EU country but not a member of the Schengen Zone.
The bus from Lisbon to Madrid was 42 euro and would get me to a low cost Wizz Air flight from Madrid to Sofia (150 euro), where, after a few days of Couch Surfing, I would move on to my village destination to begin a two-month long volunteer exchange that I discovered through the excellent and well-organized Workaway website (one of my favorite travel sites to browse through for inspiration!). This work exchange experience offered free room and board on a poet’s peaceful property occupied by an old two-story house, the grandest walnut tree in a village of 800 people, cats and dogs and nocturnally active pine martens and an ever-changing and international community of travelers and artists.
The inspiration from this encounter with fascinating local villagers and travelers was unforgettable and moved me to complete a novel I’d been working on for a couple years (not surprisingly, it will be entitled “Homeless”). For all this and more, I have only the Schengen Zone to thank, whose stringent rules pushed me to see that staying within its comfortable borders would have kept me from experiencing an entirely different world.
After spending two tranquil summer months in Bulgaria, I still had one month left before the Schengen Zone would let me return. Where to next? Istanbul was practically next door with its dizzying cityscape of river and sea, ancient spice markets, legendary fishermen and fantastical mosques—I would be a fool not to succumb to its lure. One nine-hour bus ride and one $15 visa sticker at the border later, I was welcomed into Istanbul in the middle of an evening rush hour traffic jam. During the next week and a half, while staying with one of the most gracious Couch Surfing hosts ever, I devoured fresh figs and pomegranates under enormous red Turkish flags and even more enormous statues of the nation’s widely hailed hero, General Ataturk. He’s quite a guy, as it turns out…
For a little over a month, I wound up volunteering for another Workaway host–a little cozy bed and breakfast that has its own piece of beach right on the Sea of Marmara—a new sea discovery for me! Chatting with the local guests enabled me to learn quite a bit of basic Turkish, try out a range of hearty, traditional sweets and dinner dishes, but best of all, to linger over the ever fresh and diverse beauty of the classic Turkish breakfast, a celebration in itself: Turkish cheeses, toasted sesame breads (simit!!), fig jam, carob and tahini spread, pumpkin jam, slices of pastirma and local kielbasa, olives—all accompanied, of course, by limitless black tea served in sexy, curvaceous glasses.
All this while, I was pondering, where next, where next. But why was there a question, when my Schengen Zone curse was soon to be lifted, in a matter of days, and I could once again return? Because I had discovered the infinite universe of house sitting. The house sitting positions that I found on MindMyHouse.com could take me almost anywhere in the world, though some for only a month or just two weeks. I needed somewhere a little more long term, somewhere to stop traveling and start living again. This all led to the adventure of a lifetime: a house sitting position in the isolated and little known region of north Cyprus on the sunny Mediterranean island of Cyprus. After experiencing this undeveloped and unspoilt space, its raw wild beauty, the many empty, golden beaches and sea and mountain views that never failed to astonish, I was forced to question the reasons for ever again returning to the almighty Schengen Zone.
What might be interesting to see in the future is a generation of non-EU travelers who also find themselves in the same situation and realize that there’s more to travel than the Schengen Zone countries, and soon become experts on more non-EU friendly countries in the Middle East, Asia, Africa and South America. After all, the work situation is not currently optimal for locals in parts of western Europe, let alone foreigners, and yet rental and food costs are on the rise. So why go through the hassle of trying to stay in such a place? The Schengen Zone just might be over-rated—there’s a lot more world to see outside of Europe.