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London is absolutely chock-a-block with gorgeous, historic buildings.  Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament, the Tower of London, St Paul’s Cathedral, come immediately to mind, though just about any building in central London can knock your socks off.  Sadly, the US Embassy isn’t one of them.

The US Embassy looks as if it were built in the 1960s by a German architect with an overabundance of concrete and a lamentable paucity of imagination, though this may be unfair to the 1960s and also to German architects, though I very much doubt it.

It completely dominates a very nice green square (Grosvenor) that has some very nice-looking embassies for other countries.  Luckily for the aesthetics of the square, the US Embassy is primarily hidden by trees. The trees are London plane trees and they are giving off masses of pollen, so everyone in line is sneezing up a storm. “What’s with this park?” an American man behind me says between sneezes.

We’re here in this queue with more Americans than I’ve seen in eight months because my 9-year-old daughter Meg needs a passport.

She hasn’t had one since she was four, and now that she’s nine she needs a new one.  Unfortunately, her passport was held by the UK visa people for almost six months, so by the time it was returned to us my joy at getting the UK visa completely blinded me to the fact that her US passport was about to expire.  And expire it did, on May 12th, two weeks ago.

It would be a simple matter to get a new one, I’d thought.  I’ll mail off her old passport to the US Embassy and await the return of the new one in a couple of weeks.  And then I went to the website.

And what a hoo-ha it promised to be!  Despite the fact that I have her old passport, my passport, and her birth certificate, and she looks reasonably similar to the way she looked at age 4, there is much documentation that must be provided along with a personal interview at the Embassy.  A statement from an absent parent if both parents are not able to accompany her to the Embassy.  A regulation US-sized head-and-shoulders photograph for which the website shows a list of “approved photographers,” none of which is in Cambridge.  And the worst:  age-progressed photographs of Meg for the years 4 to 9.

Except for the birth certificate and passports, everything is back in America or impossible to provide, such as the absent parent declaration.  It’s that father thing again that stumped me when I tried to get a UK visa for my kids through the UK Embassy in Washington, D.C. before we left in September.

All the memories from Border Control on September 10th of last year–being stopped at Heathrow and held for 2-1/2 hours, being accused of lying, being threatened with my kids being put on the next flight back to Boston, trying to explain why it was impossible for me to complete the online form before leaving because of my carelessness in not providing my kids with a father, and then spending six months worrying that we could be thrown out of the UK at any moment if the decision on visas went against us–came flooding back, and not in a good way.

As we got to the front of the line outside the Embassy, the woman on duty demanded “Passport!”, so I showed her Meg’s.  The woman said, “I need the passport of the responsible adult,” and I handed her my passport saying, “If I were the responsible adult, we wouldn’t have to be here!” meaning here in line in London after Meg’s passport had already expired when I could have done it months ago via mail in America.

We wended our way through the line of US citizens–thankfully much shorter than the line of people wanting visas to travel to the US–were questioned, searched, had my camera taken away, walked around the building past two men with submachine guns, up the stairs, to a large room consisting of a children’s play area and many many chairs.

It was the start of the late May heatwave, and it was brutal in there.  I went to the cold drinks machine to quench my raging thirst where I discovered that the only drink that was not already sold out was not the US standard-bearers known throughout the world, Coke and Pepsi, or even something called “Drench” for which there were four different offerings, but Britvic, a kind of orange-juicy sort of thing.  It struck me as deeply ironic that the best the American Embassy could do was “Britvic.”

So we sat and waited among all the screaming babies and the young children in their school uniforms and tried to hear our number being called over the cacophony.  There was one sign at a wonky angle above the counters that said:

TERRORISM

BOMBS

BE ALERT!

which I wished I’d been able to photograph but couldn’t because my camera had been confiscated.

We finally went up, showed our documentation, paid for the passport and also for a courier service, then waited for our “interview.”

Another hour passed.  At one point I thought I might have heard our number, but wasn’t sure, so I waited for them to call it again.  This second time I heard it, and Meg and I went up to window 7.  The man questioned Meg as to her name, my name, where she lived, and she nervously answered, then I had to sign and swear that everything I’d said was the truth.  I was glad I hadn’t had to deal with the “absent parent” thing, but I read the form upside-down and saw that he’d written “father not present at birth.”  OK.  Whatever.  I’m not going to argue with officials.

But the place was just so minimalist and, well, disorganized and un-American, that I felt it was my patriotic duty to make a suggestion for improvement.

“It’s very hard to hear the numbers being called over the noise,” I said to the man at window 7.  “It would help if you could post people’s numbers, and the counter they should go to, on a screen.”

“Over there,” he said, pointing behind me to the backs of two big screens.

I went to look at the screens, and they were as I had remembered.

I returned to him.  “One is completely black, and the other’s not working either.”

He grimaced and said something that sounded like “Oh, for God’s sake!” and I left him to it and walked out of the Embassy where Meg did a cartwheel on the grass in Grosvenor Square to show her joy that we were finally out of there and back on the streets of London.

One of my favorite columnists, Tim Dowling of the Guardian, an American living in London with his English family, has recently written about his own experience getting a passport for his son at the US Embassy.  You can read it at:  http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2012/may/04/tim-dowling-american-officialdom-phobia

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