Europe 2004, Part I.

Visas and Consulates 

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Sunday, May 16, 2004

10 Countries, 11 Capitals, 2 Visas

Ladies and Gentlemen,

This is the trip (adjusted on Aug 1, 2004):

New York -> Brussels -> Luxemburg -> Köln -> Amsterdam -> Hamburg -> Copenhagen -> Malmo -> Helsinborg -> Oslo -> Bergen -> Stockholm -> Uppsala -> Helsinki -> St. Petersburg -> Moscow -> ъПНЯКЮБКЭ -> Vilnius -> New York!

Friday, May 14, 2004

We got them!

  • After the long and exhausting process Zara and I finally got our Schengen visas and now nothing can stop us from embarking on our next trip - to Europe!

    However I am still shaking after wasting the whole week dealing with bureaucrats. To think of it, the Schengen legislators did something incredible - they abolished the borders between their countries with the intent to make travel as seamless as possible. One would think that this bold act would mean pink slips for the whole army of now useless officials... But never underestimate "apparat". Even though Schengen agreement makes it easy to move from country to country, the bureaucrats secured their seats by passing the whole slew of dumb instructions that control and usually prohibit even moving to another hotel.

    In fact, a clerk in Netherlands consulate asked us:

    C: Are you *really* going to stay in Hilton?
    Me: Yes, why?
    C: Because we are going to call and find out whether you stayed there. And if you didn't we won't give you visa next time
    Me: And we can't move to the hotel across the street?
    C: No, we are giving you visa only because we assume that you'll stay in the declared hotel
    Me(saying): Ok, we'll be staying in Hilton.

    Me (thinking): Well, you can call Hilton, if you have no life and can't think of better use of your time and money. But do you think I give a damn about your next visa? Don't you understand that as a green card holder I'll be applying for US Citizenship soon, and in few years I won't need any visas at all? I'll be going in an out of Europe at will, without even giving you a call... So what's the value of making us to go through this humiliating experience? Are you enjoying the exercise of your short-live power while you still can?

    But I don't believe they understand how ridiculous their job appears to a disinterested observer. And for the normal, thinking person who applies for visa, the comic side of the experience is also not apparent. In fact having to deal with so may idiotic rules one after another is very traumatizing, it drove me almost to the edge of depression. It's already the second or third time that by the time I get my visas I no longer feel like traveling at all. At least not to the country represented by this consulate. Of course, once I actually get into the country things are so much easier. When I arrived to Paris in 2001, nobody even checked the visa that cost me so much effort to obtain. And then as time passes by I start recognizing the funny side of these consular experiences and eventually they turn into travel stories for everybody to enjoy.

    Here for example are some scenes observed in various consulates over the years:

    1) Belgium. A middle aged Chinese gentlemen has to travel on business.

    Clerk: Your application says that your home address is in San Francisco.
    Gentlemen: Yes, but I work in New York
    C: We can only process visa applications for New York residents
    G: But I live in New York 4 days out of 7!
    C: However since you indicated that home address is in San Francisco, you must apply for visa in Los Angeles. Next!

    2) France. A cop guarding the consulate says to a visitor who goes out for a smoke:

    "You were walking in and out too many times. If you walk out again I'll not let you to come back"

    The cop is American, so it doesn't directly implicates French in any wrongdoing. However it shows the kind of atmosphere people have to endure in consular establishments. Same day consul ordered the cop to throw out Chinese girl who was complaining about some of the procedures.

    3)Netherlands. An elderly Indian lady, US Permanent Resident, is flying from New York to Delhi through Amsterdam. Needs a transit visa. Perhaps elderly ladies from US are particularly likely to violate Dutch laws, so the clerk is extra careful:

    Clerk: Your ticket has open date - how did you get it?
    Lady: My daughter bought it for me, she works for an airline.
    C: Do you have your daughter airline ID?
    L: No...
    C: Then you daughter needs to come here and confirm that she bought you this ticket.
    L: But my daughter lives in Houston!
    C: Unfortunately we cannot issue visa for people with open date tickets. Next!

    (However they can and do issue visas to the holders of fully changeable and refundable tickets where the date can be changed in a single phone call -MM)

    4) Japan. I was applying for a visa on Wed, October 23 for an arrival to Japan on January 27.

    C: We can't issue visa for more than 3 months in advance
    M (begging): But it's only 4 days difference...
    C: No we can't accept it today, come back next week.
    M (cautiously): But next week there will be less than 6 month of validity left on my passport (expires on April 26)
    Will you overlook this fact?
    C: No we can't issue a visa if there is less 6 months of validity left on the passport.
    M: So what do I do?
    C: Let me talk to my boss...

    He comes back few minutes later:

    C: You can come back the day after tomorrow, on Friday (Oct 25th).
    M: ???
    C: On Friday your passport will still have 6 months left, so we accept your application. However we won't be able to process it until next business day, which is Monday, Oct 28. And by Monday when we issue the visa it will be already less than 3 months before your arrival!

    Perfect coincidence of dates and hence a triumph of human ingenuity! How many useful things this person could have accomplished if he applied his brain in some other occupation!

    Well these were experiences of the past. Over the last 3 years things have improved a lot. It's enough to say that now some Schengen consulates can issue visas next day, as opposed to 3-4 weeks it took them in 2001. Yet bureaucracy is far from dead.

    5) Netherlands. Here is my most recent experience: Zara and talking to a clerk at Netherlands Consulate. This conversation is particularly interesting that the clerk attempted to justify the idiotic instruction from a logical standpoint:

    Clerk: You can submit your applications tomorrow
    Me: Do both of us need to come?
    C: Yes, application must be submitted in person
    M: But you already saw us at least twice
    C: But what if I am not here tomorrow?
    M: Your colleague also saw us.
    C: What if she's not in neither?
    Z: Ok, we'll both come...

    So why do I say that requirement to submit applications in person is idiotic? Well, because they also accept applications by mail! Anybody who applies in the city that doesn't have Netherlands consulate never appears before the clerks in person. So if the postman brings application it's cool, but if somebody else brings it - it's not!

    Are there any positive experiences I had visiting consulates? Yes, aside from Schengen countries and Ukraine missions, every other country I've been dealing with was reasonably efficient. (Although Japan was very close to becoming a disaster). However my best experience yet was with the Thai Consulate:

    When applying:

    M: There will be less than required 3 months of validity left in my passport upon my second arrival to Thailand...
    C: This is not good, you need to apply for new passport
    M: I already applied, but US Gov-t sent me a letter which says that it takes them 6th months to renew it (in fact it took them over 2 years!!!)
    C: Ah, ok, than you'll need to explain it to customs officer in Thailand if they ask you...

    When picking up visa:

    M (in horror): You stamped wrong month in my visa!
    Clerk: Give it back to me... (He takes the white-out, clears the old date and stamps over new one!!!) Here it is!

    I wish other consulates can adopt this relaxed attitude. Even if you are stuck with stupid job that should be done by robots, don't turn into one! Try to remain human and learn to apply common sense...

In defense of the bureaucrats

Any thinking person who has the great misfortune to deal with consulate officials, inevitably comes to the conclusion that they are exceptionally stupid. However it is not necessarily so. One of the readers provided the inside information:

Не знаю почему, но у них очень жесткие правила - и сами девочки, которые выдают визы, не виноваты - если они не будут следовать правилам, они вполне могут потерять работу - без возможности найти другую, так как у нас в консульстве, к примеру, практически ни у кого Green Card нет. Поэтому все и боятся сделать что-то "не так":((

This reminded me the classics:

Свою подпись поставить и визу (Да, именно визу! -ММ)
Все равно что пройти по карнизу
Мы сгораем когда разрешаем
И поэтому все запрещаем!

Ok, I remove the charge of stupidity. But instead I charge them with complacency. Ok, these girls are only soldiers of the Organization, but why did they pick this line of work? Not everybody would agree to do the job that requires following stupid instructions. I would have slammed the door the next day (like I've done in the past).

Of course, Green Card is a serious incentive, but remember that these girls are not from some poor African, Asian or Latin American country, not even from Russia or Ukraine - they are Europeans, and the worst thing that might happen to them is that they'll go back to Europe (any place in Europe!) and receive generous unemployment pay. Some people, including myself, would consider it a promotion!
In fact, during my stay in Paris in 2001, I visited apartments of some of my unemployed friends. I don't know whether every French unemployed lives like that, but I haven't yet seen any hard-working Manhattanite who had apartment of the same size and quality.


Anonymous said...
I'm back defending the bureaucrats:)) You're saying that if the girls at the consulate find their work stupid and degrading, they should just leave. Well, actually, it's not that simple - most of them are in New York because their husbands/boyfriends are here. So they cannot just up and go back to Europe. There are other things to consider here...

But I do agree on the principle - consulate rules are indeed stupid. And they are basically made in order not to encourage people to apply for visas and visit Europe, but to prevent "wrong" people (liable to stay in Europe as illegal immigrants) from getting there. Pretty much the same as in the US - or everywhere, for that matter. C'est la vie:))

Inna, "the insider":))
9:03 AM  
MM said...
First I'd like to reply to the previous comment:

I understand the purpose of the visa rules, but I make a distinction b/n the rules themselves and the way they are implemented by bureaucrats. The Schengen requirement that people "without sufficient means of support" should be denied visa makes sense. Yet I read Schengen rules many times and nowhere do they require that applications for "through-Belgium" visa are sent for approval to Brussels! The bureaucratic implementation of Schengen agreement looks to me more like sabotage.

And from my experience the consulates are not so much concerned with the merits of the applications but with the adherence to their self-invented procedures - i.e. which office should be responsible for issuing a visa? Belgium, France or Netherlands? New York or Washington? Is this application brought in by a postman or by a relative? Does passport have 6 months of validity AFTER the person plans to leave their country? etc.

Both times I needed Schengen visa I didn't have any issues with demonstrating my eligibility for visa, yet I had to go though lot's of pain to convince consular officers that I need to apply for visa in their particular consulate and not in the consulate on the other side of Manhattan.

And finally to your defense of the girls - I did partially accept it. But only partially. These girls are the interface of the bureaucratic machine and it is in their power to make this interface more human. I.e. taking the example with the gentlemen from San Francisco who works in New York, they could have simply told him to refile the application with his New York address instead of sending him to Los Angeles.


Monday, May 17, 2004

More consular stories

Here are few more stories from Consulates:

1) 2001, German Consulate. Being a stateless person (at that time) I am applying with US Travel document - a perfectly legal passport which already has few visas from other countries.

Frau: It says here that you were born in Ukraine
Me: Well, I was born in USSR, Ukraine didn't exist back then
Frau: You need to apply with Ukrainian passport
Me: But I can't have Ukrainian passport because I am not an Ukrainian citizen. I am stateless.
Frau: Then you must go to Ukrainian consulate and apply for passport.
Me: But I don't want to apply for Ukrainian citizenship...
Frau: Next!

It's actually the craziest thing I've heard - I never knew that to visit Germany one has to be an Ukrainian! Good thing that she didn't requested that I become Chinese.

2) 2001, French Consulate

Clerk: The visa approval takes 3 weeks
M: But my flight leaves in 18 days...
C: Well, you should have applied earlier... by the way, what are you going to do in France for 1.5 months?
M: I am going to take classes of French...
C: If you are going to study you need to apply for student visa
M: But it's not an official college, it's only private language classes
C: It doesn't matter, you need to apply for student visa. But don't worry, it's very easy, easier than with visitor visa
M: Ok...
C: You need to get a letter from your school. Once you get this letter you take it to our culture office [address, hours of operation]. They will confirm that your school is legit. Then you bring this confirmation to us along with all the other documents required for visitors visa. And we'll issue you student visa.
M: And then, how long will it take to issue student visa?
C: 3 weeks.

To give French credit, next day they accepted my application and issued the visa in only 2 weeks, in time my flight. But I had to tell them that I no longer want to learn French.

P.S. Today I applied for Lithuanian visa and for the first time I saw a bureaucrat who seemed to be ashamed of his job. I.e. he profoundly apologized that I'll have to refile the application on the new blank - because 2 weeks ago Lithuania became part of EU the form has changed. Than he apologized again that the processing will take the whole week - he explained that they haven't yet learned how to use new computer programs... I'm certainly not happy about the processing time, but at least he talked like a human being and not like a part of the machine.

Things in comparison

After all this complaining about European bureaucrats I must say that they still have a long way to retard before they match the incompetence of their US brethren. After all, when we needed to extend our visa by 3 days, it took Netherlands only 1 day to process new visa (after we spent only 2 days to resubmit the same mountain of paperwork we gave to the Consulate only few days earlier)

However even after 4 years of correspondence with INS, I still couldn't get them to correct the wrong date they stamped in my Green Card!

The way I see the difference b/n European and US bureaucracy is that, although both have stupid rules, if you play by these rules with Europeans - the things will be done. However when dealing with US INS you can follow every rule in the book and yet your documents will still end up in the middle of Nebraska, without any chance of returning back to New York. Yes, I am speaking from experience.

By the way, isn't it a wonderful example of Gov-t logic that major immigration offices are located in Nebraska and Vermont - the two states that have practically no immigrants? Was it Gov-t's way to ensure that millions of pissed off clients don't show up to smash their windows?