Right when I thought the saga of the visa was about to come to a successful close, fate in the form of my passport threw a wrench in the spokes and sent me spiraling into a highly unusual (seriously) state of hyperventilation, stress, and swearing at inanimate objects. Last Friday at 11:30 a.m. was my visa appointment at the French Consulate in San Francisco. Last Thursday at 2:55 was my flight to San Francisco to go to my visa appointment at 11:30 on Friday morning. Last Thursday at approximately 11:00 a.m., I neatly packed all of my paperwork into my bag and double-checked that I had my passport.
I didn’t have my passport. At first, I was completely calm. “It was just sitting right here on my bed, it must have just fallen somewhere,” the stable side of my brain reasoned. But thirty minutes later, having stripped the sheets off my bed, army crawled through the entire house, scoured the backyard and even checked inside every single box in the freezer, my hope was waning and my stress was mounting.
I called everyone who might be anywhere that may have possibly seen my passport and at one point even enlisted the help of the three contractors remodeling Haylen’s bathroom in the hunt for a small, black passport case. No avail. At this point, I realized I hadn’t packed, hadn’t showered, was thirty minutes away from needing to leave for the airport, and was one hundred percent convinced that I was going to have to skip my flight, get a new passport emergency issued to me, and run and/or hitch-hike down the 5 to my appointment. I was in tears, my room was in shambles, my parents were on a hunt for my birth certificate and poor Dave was clicking patiently through the auto attendant’s menu at the Seattle Passport Agency trying to find out what my options were while I continued to crawl, dig, tear, and throw things in my quest.
At this point, I was literally seeing red and could not have made a reasonable decision if my life depended on it. I had somehow gone from “Oh, I’ll find it and figure it out,” and made the irrational leap to, “If I don’t find this in the next two minutes everything I have done in preparation for France will be in vain and I will not be able to go and I won’t get my Masters and I’ll never get a job teaching French!!!@*^!”
Thankfully, someone was still in capable-of-problem-solving-mode, and Dave suggested I call the Consulate to see if maybe, juuuust maybe, the French would grant me my visa without a passport.
And you know what? The French really came through on this one. Let me come, flipped through my Encyclopedia Brittanica of application papers, smiled and said merci and I was on my way. All that remains is to send them a passport, which I’m not ready to assume will go smoothly just yet.
We enjoyed the rest of our San Francisco weekend, and then came the next adventure: acquiring my new passport. If French bureaucrats are the masters of unnecessary paperwork requirements, US government agencies are the masters of the interminable waiting room, the robot operated phone system, and the strange ability to employ an astonishing percentage of seriously incompetent employees.
Yesterday, after spending some time on the website (confusing) and figuring out what exactly I needed (confusing), I called the Seattle Passport Agency (confusing). Ah, the auto-attendant. I was on the phone for THIRTY ONE MINUTES with a robot. I’m pretty sure it went something like this:
“For English, press two. You have reached the Seattle Passport Agency, located at 915 Second Ave. Our hours of operation are blah blah blah…. These are the services we provide: blah blah blah… “
“… Now we will give you a ten minute explanation of what the Seattle Passport Agency does [as if the name wasn’t sort of a give away?] with no way to skip to options or speak to an operator…”
“If you need a passport for travel within the next two weeks, or for a visa, press two.”
Me:(pressing two) Yay! We’re getting to the end!
Then came the appointment scheduling, which went something like this: “For the next available appointment, press one.”
“The next available appointment at the Seattle Passport agency, located at 915 2nd Ave in the Federal Building in Seattle, WA, is Wednesday, July 28th, at 9:00 a.m. If you would like to accept this appointment, press one. For the next available appointment, press two.”
I’m thinking I’ll go by on my lunch break.
“The next available appointment at the Seattle Passport agency, located at 915 2nd Ave in the Federal Building in Seattle, WA, is Wednesday, July 28th, at 9:15 a.m. If you would like to accept this appointment, press one. For the next available appointment, press two.”
Keep in mind, now, that this robot speaks particularly slowly. And so for every single 15 minute increment of time between 9:00 a.m. and 11:00 a.m., I had to listen to her recite the same two minute sentence.
Which is why I made my appointment for 11, instead of noon. Because I literally could not be on the phone anymore.
I shouldn’t really have bothered with a specific appointment time, though, since once you pass through security at the Federal Building, pass the security guards on the 9th floor outside the passport office (where, FYI, they make you throw away your coffee because “there is no coffee allowed on this floor”) and enter the agency office itself, it is an absolute cluster of understaffed waiting room misery. It felt like some form of purgatory, like being trapped in the foyer between the DOL and Jury Duty.
I checked in, got my number, sat down. A0041. Surprisingly, getting all the way to A0040 took less than the hour that they had predicted it would take to actually be seen. It was A0040 that really did me in.
The girl in front of me stood up when they called her number. Shaved head, gauged earrings, a sweatshirt with a red star on it. Then her whole family stood up with her, and they walked to the window.
Man behind window: “Can I see your driver’s license, birth certificate, and passport application please?”
Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: “Well, I might have to have my family help me explain this one, but…
And then she launched into one of the most absurd stories I have ever heard. Apparently she has lived her whole life in West Seattle. But she was not born in a hospital. She was born at home, and the mid-wife whose responsibility it was to file for a birth certificate never did so. Seemingly, her parents never noticed, because she was home-schooled until she went to community college and so never, apparently, had need of a birth certificate. The passport man did a complete electronic file search, and said that he could not even find any record of her existence until she was close to ten years old, because she never had any interaction at all with any sort of state-sponsored organization before that point. In lieu of legitimate documents to support her identity, her family was there as her phone-a-friend-fallback, and they each spoke up in turn.
Brother of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: “I was actually there for the birth, and witnessed it, in our house. I can say so on oath or whatever.”
(concerns about a young boy watching his mother give birth at home?)
Mother of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: “I have an article that I wrote about this… I mean it was never published, but I sent it out to be published, but I didn’t bring it. But I could.”
Father of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: “We also have this journal we kept through my wife’s pregnancy, detailing everything through the birth.”
Aunt: “I also have this birth announcement I made to send out to our friends, back when she was born.”
(all very legitimate sounding)
The man behind the counter looked unconvinced, and graciously said he did not need to read the pregnancy journal.
When I left, they were still sitting in the waiting room, attempting to scrap together evidence that this girl had, once upon a time, been a baby that was born in this country.
And so for all of my visa-related angst, I could at least say that someone in that room was worse off than I was.