I have officially become an ‘Alien of Extraordinary Ability’

An emigrant’s life: I am so grateful to be back in the US, and excited for what’s ahead

Documentary producer Marie-Therese Garvey is from Meelick, Co Clare, but now lives in Chicago

Documentary producer Marie-Therese Garvey is from Meelick, Co Clare, but now lives in Chicago


Marie-Therese Garvey is from Meelick, Co Clare. She left for what she calls part one of her life in the US in November 2019 and returned to Ireland in 2020. She returned to the US for "part two", which she calls “the forever part” on July 4th, 2011. She lives in Chicago and is a documentary producer at Kartemquin Films

I’ve had a deep love for the US since we spent family summer holidays here back in the 1980s and 1990s. Those holidays were full of New York chaos, Disneyworld, malls and Californian backyard pools. It was a dream for myself and my sister, two Irish kids from Co Clare. Since then, it has always been somewhere I thought I would end up. I am endlessly curious about a country where the Bronx, New York coexists with a place like Murdo, South Dakota. So, after a few years in Sydney and London, it was time to give the States a whirl.

I started on a J1 visa, which I was eligible for after doing a Master’s in 2019. At 44 I might well have been the oldest J-oner. I arrived in Chicago in October 2019 and stayed until November 2020. Perfect timing, right? I had picked Chicago for its thriving film scene and the laid-back vibe of the Midwest. Folks are very friendly there. They are always offering you food (usually fried) or beer. And of course there is beautiful Lake Michigan, which is basically an inland ocean, and all its beaches.

The year started off full of possibilities, then quickly descended into Covid mayhem, racial unrest and the presidential election. I had to leave by Thanksgiving, November 26th, my favourite American holiday. We have no equivalent really, but just imagine Christmas day without the pressure of presents or an hour-long Fair City special and you’ll be close. Very luckily I got to experience an early Thanksgiving celebration a few days before I left for Ireland. There was a football game, turkey, pie, the whole shebang, it really was a wonderful end to such a bizarre year.

Abroad during Covid

Despite all the craziness of 2020, by the time the J1 year was over, I knew absolutely that the States was where I wanted to settle down and so I set about coming up with a plan to come back.

Kartemquin Films offered to keep me on and very generously agreed that I could work remotely from Ireland while I sorted the visa. Remote work was definitely a Covid upside! I applied for the O1 visafor individuals who posses extraordinary ability in a number of areas or who have a demonstrated record of extraordinary achievement in the motion picture or television industry and worked with an incredible lawyer, Fiona McEntee of McEntee Law Group here in Chicago. Fiona is Irish herself and fully understood my love for the United States, which she shares. After a very anxious few months, in a very locked-down Ireland, my visa was approved in May and I officially became an “Alien of Extraordinary Ability”. The notions!

The final part of visa approval is an interview at a US embassy. Unfortunately all the embassies in Ireland, the UK and Europe were closed due in the main to the travel ban, which existed then. So we had to get creative. Long story short, I eventually arrived in Chicago on July 4th after three weeks in South Korea - 14 days of which were spent in a room at a quarantine hotel.

I am incredibly grateful to be back and reeling with excitement for the possibilities ahead. That being said, some days have been tough. A word of warning: it is actually difficult to make new pals, as an adult, in a new city, in a pandemic. I met some exceptional people here last year, but it wasn’t easy, not like when we were kids. You can’t go up to someone in a park, ask what their favourite dinosaur is and head off for a ham sandwich together. Especially if you have to wear a mask and shout at them from six feet away. I mean you could, but it likely wouldn’t end well. And what to do when all the places to ordinarily forage for friendships are off limits - concerts, theatres, bars, gyms, offices etc? It was definitely a challenge.

But there’s always comedy to be found when things are off kilter and it is important to keep a light touch. It is a cliché to say that Americans have a positive can-do outlook, but it is a fact. People here are boundlessly optimistic. Even the most pessimistic Americans I’ve met are just vigilant optimists. They’re open to the ridiculous, I love that.

Of course I miss home, I miss my niece, Rosie (11) and nephew, Paddy (9) terribly, they’re the brightest lights of my life. I am not saying I keep the United States Postal Service afloat, but I’m a very frequent user of their international parcel delivery service. We’ll “do” Disney when they visit next year.

Despite the challenges I am so glad I made the move. The US is my place. As things start opening up again, not knowing who I will have met or what I will have seen by this time next year is thrilling. Never ever say no to an adventure! And if it doesn’t go as planned you can always go home, get Mam to put the kettle on and regroup.

If you live overseas and would like to share your experience with Irish Times Abroad, email abroad@irishtimes.com with a little information about you and what you do