A Day at the Embassy
This is MY country…!
I can’t help myself. I start singing that song as soon as we catch sight of the American embassy, which takes up an entire city block on Henrik Ibsen’s Boulevard and is ensconced behind a wall of ten-foot high wrought iron bars. We are going to get the girls’ passports renewed. Since both passports were issued before age 16, Kazi and Bia need to appear in person at the embassy. Our appointment is for 10:30 a.m. and we left our hotel by foot about an hour ago. In the rain. The pouring rain. I have a raincoat. Kazi has an umbrella. Bia has neither.
About twenty people with identical blue umbrellas are lined up on the sidewalk outside the embassy. The line stretches farther than we can see. It is roped off behind a sign that says Visa Applications. Next to it is another sign: U.S. citizen services/passports. No one is standing there so we duck under the rope. “Maybe there are advantages to keeping your citizenship,” I quip to the girls who are a bit in awe of the sign that is so clearly aimed at them. I am in awe of the sight of so many Norwegians actually queuing single file. It helps that they are corralled in by a rope.
We huddle under a bit of awning that extends from the security hut over the signs for the citizen and non-citizen queues. A young guard appears from beyond the iron bars and nods in our direction. “Snakker dere norsk eller engelsk?” Begge deler, I say and he continues speaking to us in Norwegian, reaching through the black iron bars over the heads of the waiting visa applicants to take Kazi and Bia’s passports.
He disappears for a few minutes then returns saying Appointment for three people, right? I am relieved that he has found us on the appointments list. I have been planning this visit for months, scouring the embassy’s website for information, filling out forms, emailing consulate services. Having to appear in person makes this is a very expensive appointment, and before coming I made sure there would be no glitches.
When we got here, the blonde Norwegian at the front of the visa line was putting her cell phone and billfold into a white plastic container. She explained to me that when it was your turn you had to empty your pockets into one of these boxes. Now the guard reaches through the black iron bars and points to the stack of white plastic boxes next to the visa application sign. He ignores the blonde girl who is waiting there and tells us to empty the contents of our pockets into one of the containers. Hmm… are we going to get to go in first?
The guard gives my black shoulder bag a long look.
–Do you have a pc in there?
Of course I have a pc in there. I am a writer. I have visions of spending a long day, once we are done with this appointment, sitting at a cafe tapping away at any number of half-finished writing projects while the girls run off to shops, popping back at intervals to show me their purchases.
—Well, you can’t bring that in here. You have to go put it away somewhere before we can let you in.
—You have to go put your computer down before…
He can’t be serious. We are in the middle of … Well, the closest thing is the small forest that surrounds the royal palace across the street. Where am I supposed to put my computer? I inform the guard that it doesn’t say anywhere on the website that I can’t bring my pc into the embassy.
—I’m sure it does.
I’m sure it doesn’t. I have scrutinized that blankety-blank website during my months-long correspondence with citizen services about how to renew children’s passports and why the girls as Norwegian citizens can’t travel to the U.S. on Norwegian passports, and why the embassy counsel has not once in ten years appeared in the northern two-thirds of the country but appears twice a year in southern cities that are a considerably shorter distance away from Oslo, from which you can fly to Oslo in under an hour, while we in the north have to take two days off work and stay overnight in order to meet up during the embassy’s teeny weeny opening hours of 8:00-12:00 weekday mornings.
Believe me, the website does not say anywhere in conjunction with passport applications and appointments that when you have traveled the length of a continent to appear at the embassy for your fifteen minute appointment you must not have a pc with you.
The guard takes a deep breath, readjusts his stance and recites a line he has most likely learned in a public relations course.
—The fact remains that you have a computer in your bag and with a computer in your bag you cannot enter the U.S. embassy.
What am I supposed to do?
–Leave it somewhere.
I can’t! My head is swimming with impossibilities. The hotel is miles away. Our appointment is in ten minutes. I glance at the endless queue of visa applicants… Could I leave it with someone at the start of the line? By the looks of things, they’ll still be here when I come out… Maybe the girls should go in by themselves while I wait out here in the rain? But I have to pay for Bia… Could she fake my signature on a check?
–You can try leaving your pc at the Nasjonalteatret train station…
The guard is being helpful. But Nasjonalteatret is not close by and there aren’t even lock boxes there. Not since George Bush, I want to say to the guard. As if that would make a difference.
–There’s a 7-11 up the street, and uh… well, lots of people do come here with computers and… um… they often leave them at the 7-11… we consider it a fairly safe alternative.
–It will cost you 25 kroner.
It sounds like a good deal, or at least the best I will get. I take off for the 7-11. In the rain. A downpour. Ankle deep puddles. The 7-11 is “two blocks” away. That is two city blocks. Each the length of the royal palace. I trudge down the long black pavement with all the forward progress of being on a treadmill. I wonder if I could have gotten one of those blue umbrellas. The people in the visa line had identical pale blue umbrellas. Was it U.S. embassy issue? I wonder if the girls will already have gone in for their appointment when I return. I wonder if I will slip and fall on the slick sidewalk in my masai rubber shoes. I wonder if the only person in the store, a tall skinny kid bending over a display of candy bars, is the person to whom I should hand over my best leather bag containing my MacBook air, with all my writing files. It is. The lad digs up a piece of cardboard and asks me to write my name on it. Then he gives me a cash register receipt for 25 kroner and I’m out the door before it occurs to me that anywhere else I have lived this exchange would be absurd, a sign of poor judgment if not downright insanity. But not in Norway.
I splash my way back to the embassy and am somewhat surprised to see that the girls are still waiting behind the sign. I duck under the rope and notice the blonde Norwegian with the contents of her pockets dumped into a white plastic box is still waiting at the head of her line. The guard is still leaning against the wall on the other side of the iron bars, waiting. No one has budged. Has the embassy been at a standstill while I was on my errand at the 7-11? The guard motions us into the security gate house where our purses, phones, everything but our paperwork is taken away from us. Why couldn’t they have taken my pc away from me and held it along with the phone and the rest? I don’t ask. A pc poses a security risk to the embassy for reasons we little people will never know.
As we walk around the side of the building to reach the small waiting room (where about fifty people are already waiting) the girls tell me that the guard told the people in the visa application line that nobody was going in until we had our turn… “After all it’s theirembassy,” he told them, much to the girls’ embarrassment. Further privilege is afforded us in the waiting room. People are waiting in chairs and lined up along the walls. We stand in line for a few minutes, but it becomes clear that no one is going up to window number 4 that is reserved for citizens. We move to the head of the line once more and go to window 4. We slide our papers underneath the bulletproof glass to a young woman who informs us that Bia’s cheekbones aren’t showing on her picture so we need a new picture. Kazi’s last name in her Norwegian passport is Sjøvoll but that is not proof that her name actually is Sjøvoll, so we need a name change history from the state department. Bia’s Norwegian passport isn’t here so we need to fax a copy. The functionary says she will talk to the consul about these things, but in the meantime I should go ahead and pay at window number 1: cashier – visa applications.
“Just go over there and cut in line in front of those other people. Then come back here,” she says. I eye the line of tired souls who have been standing in line clutching their paperwork in one hand and cash in the other. I dare not disobey, go to the end of the line, and make the functionary at window 4 wait while I wait in line. Asserting my American privilege I cut in line without meeting the gaze of the man behind me and whip out my checkbook.
–You can’t pay with a check, says a voice behind the bulletproof hermetically sealed glass.
Um. The website said I could pay with a check… The passport application form specified in fine print that the passport fee could be paid with a money order, credit card or a check drawn on an American bank. In fact, before leaving the hotel I had read this paragraph out loud to the girls as a double check.
–You must pay with a credit card.
Okay, but the website said…
She obviously doesn’t believe me, but has been trained how to ward off people like me who think we have read the website.
…We’ll have a look at it, but for now you must pay with a credit card.
I half believe they will have a look at the website, put themselves in the place of someone making a two-day trip from the arctic regions at a cost of a thousand dollars for a 15 minute appointment. Double check if it does indeed say no PCs and no checks. But I doubt they will.
At least they don’t make us go home to retrieve our new photo and missing material, Kazi 6 hours by train to Bergen and Bia half a day by plane to Bodø. We are told to wait for the consul to call our name. Fortunately we aren’t told to make the seated visa applicants give up their seats for us.
When the counsel calls the girls to window number 3 he reiterates the list of deficiencies in the applications, followed by: Do you swear that the information provided here is true and correct to the best of your knowledge etc. etc.
Bia starts giggling. This sounds like a line out of a TV show. Kazi wants to verify her eye color, hazel or green? Hair color … natural or dyed? Bia says she doesn’t even know what it says. “Mama filled it out.”
“Just sign here,” says the counsel, sliding the papers beneath the glass. “My colleague will give you each a list of what needs to be sent. We will hold your applications for 90 days…” He motions us back to window 4 where the functionary is waiting: “Here is a list…” We get the papers and retreat through the waiting room that is still teeming with visa applicants. Maybe they are all the same people as when we arrived, maybe not. I glance around but don’t think I see the blonde woman who was at the front of the line outside the embassy…
We are ushered back through the security hut where our coats and bags and single umbrella are returned to us, along with phones and wallets. As we leave a guard counts our heads and moves toward the entrance. Maybe three people will be allowed in as we exit. Outside it is pouring rain. The street is a river. We head off to find a cafe in which to get dry and have a nice coffee.
After we stop off at the 7-11 that is.
If you are reading this, that means my computer was not pawned off by the skinny kid behind the cash desk, but was indeed retrievable for a mere 5 bucks from 7-11’s low risk security storage (on the floor below the locked tobacco cabinet) two blocks away from the American embassy. What a system. It ran like clockwork.
The kind you have to keep winding up, but still clockwork.