This time estimate was admittedly optimistic. The named embassy lay on the opposite side of Central London and would take over 30 minutes to cycle to, traffic lights permitting. I wasn’t really making contingency plans though. Most of my embassy visits in the past – and that makes MANY – were relatively speedy. I’d cycle over from work, locate the appropriate flag above the entrance, make my way in, get into some form of a queue (electronic numbers, vocal inquiries and physical groupings of people all qualify), wait for a few minutes, hand in my documents, get an encouraging nod of approval (my documents tend to be flawless, you see), save a reference number and – voila – collect my visa a few days later.
Now, it goes without saying that certain embassies deviate from this general pattern. The Indian High Commission outsources all consular services to a gang of true professionals; my tourist visa was ready in a record 1.5 days. In a manner much more nonchalant, the Cuban Embassy issued me a Tourist Card on the spot, without bothering to see my passport, travel bookings or insurance cover. The Russian visa application painfully involved showing up in front of the Embassy at 7am and realising that the queue was already too long for most of us to hand in the application on the same day. At its most extreme, last November I found the Omani Embassy’s consular section unlocked but intriguingly deserted, without a single member of staff (or the general public, for that matter) in sight. When one member of staff finally appeared, she looked positively surprised that someone had actually showed up for a visa. But issue it she did; the embassy stood just as peaceful when I came to collect my passport three days later.
So I was not particularly worried when I set off for the Tunisian Embassy today. Not even the facts that (i) the establishment’s advertised website wasn’t working and (ii) no-one seemed to pick up the phone to reconfirm the list of necessary documents – gave ground for serious concern. After all, I had already seen (i) and (ii) in the case of Cuban and Omani embassies, respectively.
But not all embassies are created equal
The first part of the usual visa application algorithm went well. I cycled over from work and parked my faithful vehicle bang in front of the embassy building. The consular section was in the basement, as these typically tend to be in the embassies in that part of London. The door was wide open, and I walked in – if a little shyly, for the semi-lit interior looked anything but particularly inviting.
Suddenly the resonating echo of voices to my left almost made me retreat in a hurry. The public area of the consular section sounded like it had been hijacked by a gang of arguing males. What’s a gang of arguing males when anjči is concerned, I told to myself, took a deep breath and marched in, trying to look as triumphant as I could. Most men I have met in my life abandoned all or part of their argumentative side when confronted by a confident looking female. And don’t you argue with me.
Right in I walked, and the voices suddenly stopped. About a dozen males (whose gender I had absolutely correctly identified) stopped talking (no-one actually looked like they were having an argument, but I shall be excused for, once again, mistaking a casual Arabic conversation for a shower of insults) and stared at me bluntly – albeit, in their defence, not without a certain degree of interest.
In the whole awkwardness of the situation, I couldn’t help noting to myself that one of the company stared visibly more than the others. He was also the only non-Arabic looking person present. In fact, he looked kind of Indian. It flashed through my mind that I was wearing an Indian cricket shirt. Together with a short-ish skirt, shiny ballerina shoes and a groovy bicycle helmet, this made a powerful combination. I sighed and mentally excused every man in that tiny room for staring at me so curiously.
And the fun began
Without further ado, I walked over to the counter to ask for the missing bit of my application: the application form proper. But the counter was empty. Reading the silent question in my eyes, several men around said that the person behind the counter was coming “back in a few minutes”. In the background, I heard the phone, ringing violently without any chance of ever finding relief. This must have been the same line I had spent days trying to reach. Oh well.
I sat down next to the Indian looking guy. The corner of my eye wandered over to the passport he was holding in his hands; no, it certainly wasn’t from India. The person next to me was Pakistani. It felt a bit comical to be wearing an Indian sports shirt in his company; I only hoped my neighbour, too, would see the humorous side of things.
At which point the mysterious person behind the counter came back and, as if by command, everyone present rushed towards the little window slot in front of him. This could only mean that the queue concept so well embraced in Britain had not yet reached this particular basement in a faraway corner of London’s fancy Knightsbridge area. Playing my female card, I used elbows to fight my way towards the counter where I demanded – and, to my surprise, promptly received – the hapless application form. Finally this was looking encouraging. I fought my way back to the Pakistani guy – who, in the midst of action, was the only one to continue sitting rather phlegmatically on his chair – reclaimed my original seat and put pen to paper. That application form was about to be filled duly in!
Meanwhile, my neighbour continued to stare at my t-shirt. I was about to ask him, in my most sarcastic tone, if he was an Indian cricket fan – when a more serious problem interrupted my stream of thoughts. The application form in front of me was such a poorly made photocopy that only half of the English text was legible – the other half looking mysteriously Arabic. Moreover, they were in fact two identical application forms stapled together, possibly meaning that not even the luxury of a copy machine had yet been introduced to this Tunisian establishment, and that each repeat document had be filled in manually.
I raised my eyes in silent despair and met the look of my fellow Pakistani applicant. Simultaneously, we smiled. We were no longer cricket rivals – we were buddies brought together by the gross inefficiency of the Tunisian visa application red tape.
He pointed at the paper in my hands. “I have waited for over a month”, he said, “and no visa. I’m flying out tonight, need my passport processed, and it seems that nobody here has even seen my application yet”.
“Which one’s your passport?” I asked sympathetically. Sometimes it isn’t the best idea to tell people you’ve been peeping at their documents for 20 minutes while they were not looking, and in fact knew their nationality already.
“Pakistani. The US Embassy gave me a visa in three days. So did the UK Embassy. Not sure what’s wrong with the Tunisian one”.
And, as if to pre-empt my next question, he added “I have diplomatic status. Visas for Pakistanis take ages to process otherwise”.
My counterpart’s deep brown eyes – let alone the alleged diplomatic status – made me wonder if the two of us had better left the basement and set off exploring Knightsbridge instead. But the lunch break was dangerously nearing the end and the same group of ceaselessly interacting men were tightening their grip of the narrow strip leading up to the visa counter. I gave my Pakistani brother a sympathetic look, once again went through the ordeal of pushing several much taller and decidedly wider men out of my way and reappeared in front of the counter – a bit battered but with plenty of dignified rage written all over my face to compensate.
“What’s your gender, young lady?”
Semi-politely, I explained to the man-behind-the-counter that I could not read half of the text in the form and if he could please help. He didn’t understand the question; thankfully, one of the other applicants stepped in to translate from Arabic. In went my mother’s name, my father’s name, my profession and my country of residence during the past two years.
One little unchecked box remained, which, I figured, had to be the applicant’s gender. I turned to my helper and asked which of the two boxes I had to tick. His eyebrows went flying up. “What’s your gender, young lady?” he asked, and burst out laughing. Blushing, I said something along the lines of not every woman in the world being able to read Arabic, and how many of us relied heavily on gentlemen like him in ascertaining our actual gender.
Now everyone in that tiny room seemed to be accompanying our conversation with (rather) good-hearted laughter. Everyone except for the Pakistani guy. That fellow must simply have had enough of the Tunisian visa drama.
The man-behind-the-counter disappeared again. The time was already well past the opening hours, but the number of applicants around only ever grew. Everyone continued to crowd around the counter in no particular order; the counter itself was covered in people’s passports, scattered baby photos, stamped Arabic documents, forms of various shapes and sizes, passport copies and coloured folders. I blinked several times; the amount of “stuff” in front of my eyes was certainly overwhelming.
I should have just gone to Morocco instead
Ten minutes later, the elusive counter servant reappeared again. Without missing a beat, he called up the person standing behind me. Excuse me? Then a curtain pulled and another counter opened to my left. The second man-behind-the-counter waved at the Pakistani guy –announcing that his visa would be processed at 1pm (you should have seen the poor fellow jump at the news) – and then invited another man behind me to come over. There seemed to be some kind of dubious order to that queue, but it just escaped me.
After waiting patiently for another ten minutes (one of which was spent watching a counter servant manually pull out a staple from a stack of paper), my emotional side finally prevailed. I loudly announced that this was the “most inefficient embassy in the world”; when a man next to me subtly suggested that I looked for a different embassy, I gave him a murderous look and said I should indeed have chosen to visit Morocco instead. Which would have the added benefit of skipping all embassies altogether, as I did not need a visa to go to Morocco. Thank you very much, Sir.
The mention of Morocco seemed to have brought a much desired effect. Or it could have been for the fact that I looked positively near my explosion point; but my “gender adviser” made a quick sign to the counter man, explained something in Arabic and pointed at me. As if by magic, the civil servant made an inviting gesture, I walked over to the counter, handed in my documents and was told to “call back in two weeks”. The application process was over –for now, at least.
What can I say? At least no doubts remain about my gender after all this.