2018-09-13 / Around Town

A Legal Alien in Newport

By Igor Išpanovic

Igor Išpanovic (R) chats with his landlord, longtime Newporter Rui Reis, about Išpanovic's summer as a J-1 visa student in Newport. “Rui taught me to cherish life and always honor your work,” Išpanovic says. “And that every friend you have was once a stranger.” (Photo by Joseph T. O'Connor) Igor Išpanovic (R) chats with his landlord, longtime Newporter Rui Reis, about Išpanovic's summer as a J-1 visa student in Newport. “Rui taught me to cherish life and always honor your work,” Išpanovic says. “And that every friend you have was once a stranger.” (Photo by Joseph T. O'Connor) As our spaceship hovered over the Atlantic Ocean, it felt like nothing was moving, not even the clouds. I couldn't force myself to sleep, no matter how much I tried, because I knew that my first day at work was only a few hours away. The moment felt like forever.

But that was in May. September has come sooner than expected and I, like many other J-1 visa students from around the world, am about to depart from my temporary U.S. hometown and head back to my country.

“Where’s home?” people would ask me. My home is in Serbia, not Syria, nor Siberia, but Serbia: a rather small but beautiful place in southeastern Europe, formerly part of Yugoslavia. And my name is Igor, a 21-year-old student of journalism, who is fortunately old enough to buy drinks here legally, with the right passport, of course.

Besides trying a dozen different brands of beer and being nostalgic about the same (though Serbian beverages are, in my humble opinion, better), I was also working here in Newport for the past four months. That is, of course, the essence of the program, not the drinking.

The program I took part in is called “Summer Work Travel,” and it enables anyone who can call himself or herself a student to spend one summer in the U.S., usually in the town of his or her preference. I chose Newport, but Ocean City, Maryland, is one of the most popular places for J-1 students, and Alaska is as well.

The process of actually getting here is simple but it’s time consuming. You just have to deal with a lot of paperwork and a certain amount of money. After paying approximately $3,000, a sum for which my father had to work at least six months to earn, I had to go through the process of gaining the visa.

I knew there was a decent chance of being rejected, for Trump's administration is being ever so ruthless to immigrants. That's why one thing matters most for others like myself: you have to go back home. You need to have something that will tie you to your homeland, whether it is university or family, because the standard of living is at a low point in Serbia and almost everyone is looking for that greener grass on the other side (of the ocean). Maybe that is one of the reasons we are called “legal aliens” on the documents.

Fast forward and I’m in a bus heading down East Main Road with a few of my future roommates whose names I keep forgetting, as I only met them for the first time at the airport. Newport is in sight, although not in mind. I slept through the majority of the ride, exhausted from the trip. In front of our soonto be home, we were greeted by 12 pizzas and one hippie-looking man in his 50s, with a goatee, our landlord who goes by the name Rui Reis. The pizzas were only appropriate since he used to own one of the most popular restaurants in town called “Firehouse,” even though this Italian food was from Nikolas Pizza. Nevertheless, I have to mention that this man made our, or at least my, experience as pleasant and fulfilling as possible and he shared his knowledge and local anecdotes with anyone who was eager to listen.

During the course of the four months I spent in Newport I had two jobs, but one of my acquaintances even had four at one point. I worked approximately 60 hours a week, but during the busy part of the season the number was sometimes even 80.

My first and primary job, the one that lured me across the pond, was working as a housekeeper, and eventually a busser at the New York Yacht Club. This castle-looking mansion overlooks the entire harbor. It’s a lovely view, though as a housekeeper I would only see the inside of the room I was cleaning. I have to admit that everyone on the staff there is very professional and kind, from quartermasters and managers to gardeners, always oriented toward the needs of the employees, even though the guests are always right.

My second job was as a bar back and busser at the Surf Club, which I often hear people refer to as the best pizza in town. I especially loved Saturdays there. During those busy nights, even the manager joins the bar staff and you are required to move both like a snake and a cheetah at the same time.

I chose Newport as my preferred destination because it looks like a place of dreams. It’s a small fishermen’s town by the sea near the huge urban centers of New York and Boston, but Newport somehow manages to preserve its history and legacy in the midst of all that modernity, a legacy engraved in every wooden house in town. I learned to respect that history is where we all begin and end, and if you lose that you will lose yourself. And I learned to love Serbia even more.

One thing I found particularly interesting about the local Rhode Island people is that they really nurture the environment and the nature around them, appreciating every sunset like it’s a once in a lifetime event, even though they’ve seen it a million times. On the other hand, I find it funny how Fort Adams, a structure meant to repel enemies and foreigners, a wall to protect Americans seems to have lost its purpose along the way. Maybe there’s a lesson there.

My landlord told me that 99 percent of the U.S. doesn't look like Newport. I don't know what he meant by that, whether it was the architecture, the sense of community or the political issues, but I do wonder what the rest of America looks like.

Igor Išpanovic wrote this guest feature about his experience with the J-1 visa program and his time in Newport. He’ll visit New York City before he returns to Serbia later this month.

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