The consular clerk looked dispassionately at the pile of passports and papers in front of him, and started the task of unfolding, checking, shuffling and refolding. Rosanne and I anxiously observed the whole process from behind a glass screen to see whether the clerk would accept our visa application. This pile of papers was, after all, the culmination of months of checking websites, filling forms and getting a previously-unheard-of approval from an opaque Dutch government agency.
After a long couple of minutes during which the clerk continued to perform his bureaucratic ritual, he finally indicated that everything was in order, we could pick up the visas next week, and if we could please pay the fees at counter #6. Having done so, we exited the Russian embassy via the same winding corridors that had led us to counter #7, visa applications. The sunlight that spilled over the yard outside was in stark contrast with the embassy’s interior, in subdued tones of green, cream and dark wood furniture, a combination not seen in any other Western-European building since the seventies of the previous century. But the sunlight reflected our moods: we looked at each other triumphantly, congratulating each other at having taken another hurdle in the preparations of our sabbatical. The clerk’s behavior was sufficiently encouraging that we believed things would work out. We went our separate ways, with Rosanne continuing work in her office in The Hague, and myself returning home. It was Thursday, June 25th, 11:30, and I had yet to realize what the next 24 hours would hold in store for me.
“Damn my over-compartmentalized brain”
Enter the business trip. In the previous weeks, I had been planning a 1-day visit to Singapore to introduce the company I work for and prepare a proposal for a subsequent assessment. That Thursday afternoon I decided it was a good moment to verify if I had completely prepared for my trip. Presentation, check. Tickets, check. Departure time: this Sunday, check. Passport, check. Oh wait. Only then I realized my passport was stuck at the Russian embassy and it was not getting out of there until after I returned from Singapore. Damn my over-compartmentalized brain. But I was not going to let a missing passport stop me from getting on the plane that Sunday.
“Yes, I can answer questions on emergency passports” said the callcenter operator. By now it was 13:50, and I had just called the Military Police information number after having spent a frantic hour trying to figure out how I could still enter Singapore without a passport. Apparently, emergency passports are a regular thing for people who arrive at the airport realizing that their passports are stolen or expired. But naturally, my particular situation was never discussed anywhere online. Fortunately, the operator assured me that having been stupid enough to leave your passport in an embassy was sufficient reason to be given an emergency passport. However, I could only do so three hours before my flight departure, at the airport itself. And I should bring with me the necessary documentation, including exotic-sounding papers such as a “RAAS form”. Still not very reassuring. Yet I decided to build the dossier necessary to argue my way towards that coveted piece of travel paper.
“I was first subjected to – admittedly well-meaning – advice on a number of procedures I should have followed but now was unable to complete in time”
First order of business: prove that my passport was actually at the Russian embassy. That proved harder than you might think. After all, the only proof I had was an amateurishly printed slip of paper with some Russian text and Rosanne’s surname “Dubbeld”. Conspicuously missing: my own name and passport number. So I added the visa application to the dossier, containing both our names, thus indicating we applied together. And scans of both our passports. And for good measure, a notarized copy of our living agreement to show we were actually a couple.That would have to do. Next thing, an extract from the municipal register in a sealed envelope. How to get that in time?
The typical mix of alcohol, tobacco and human scent wafted towards me as I passed the local cafe in main street Hillegersberg, a 30 minute journey from our home. Hillegersberg was home to a service office of the municipality with friendly opening hours, and my only shot at getting an extract on short notice. I passed the throng of people chatting, laughing and drinking in the sun, feeling like a stressed-out outsider looking in on a simpler life. Shrugging off the feeling, I continued my walk to the municipality office to make my appointment at 18:45. This was going to be the last hurdle in completing my dossier, no time to feel sorry for myself.
“You are a bit late, to be honest”, the clerk said. After having explained my situation, I was first subjected to – admittedly well-meaning – advice on a number of procedures I should have followed but now was unable to complete in time. Apparently, there is the possibility to request a second passport for exactly these circumstances. “Thank you”, I said. And if I now could please get what I asked for in the first place, which was a simple extract. “A sealed and signed extract? We cannot do that, and we do not even have envelopes here.”. Figures. However, after visiting the back office for a couple of minutes she returned with a signed and taped envelope. Good enough for me. And who said that bureaucrats cannot be flexible? I returned home with some measure of peace, knowing that my dossier was as complete as I could get it before Sunday. However, I would only find out if it was sufficient mere hours before the flight, and that uncertainty was eating at me.
“The tram is packed with tourists on their way to the beach, the indoor temperature is 35 degrees Celsius, and my suit feels decidedly uncomfortable”
Friday morning, 9:05. The train rumbled, creaked and whistled as it rolled over the railroad switches and entered The Hague Central Station. I was on my way to present conclusions of a recent assessment to a client of ours in The Hague. I still had ample time, as the presentation was scheduled from 10:30 to 12:00. So I was toying with the idea of liberating my passport from the embassy somehow. I decided to try my luck at calling the embassy and finding out the possibilities. I got off the train and found a quiet spot on one of the platform benches. A rather confusing conversation ensued.
- Operator: “Hello, Russian embassy.”
- Cathal: “Yes hello, I submitted my passport in a visa application but I need to get it back. How can I do that?”
- O: “Yes, you can submit an application at the visa center”
- C: “I know, I already did. But now I need my passport back to travel.”
- O: “No you cannot get your passport, it takes five working days.”
- C: “I realize that, but can’t I stop the procedure, get my passport, and re-submit later?”
- O: “That is possible. But you will need to re-submit your application”
- C: “That is fine. What time can I pick up my passport?”
- O: “You can pick it up from 9 to 12″
- C: “Can’t I pick up the passport after 12?”
- O: “Yes, you can pick up the passport from 12 to 13″
The conversation left me slightly confused, and annoyed at myself for having to restart the visa application. At the same time I was even more relieved I would be able to circumvent the whole emergency-passport-hassle. I put my phone away and continued on my way to our client to start the presentation. Realizing there was just a small window of opportunity, some 30 minutes travel time, and a tendency for presentations to run longer than planned, I knew I was in for a race against the clock. And I got one.
- 11:57. I finished my presentation, having arrived at the last slide.
- 12:02. I cut off the last question to be able to exit the building in time for the first bus towards the embassy.
- 12:05. I realize I cannot leave the building via the back entrance, and will have to go the long way around to the bus stop.
- 12:08. I arrive at the bus stop just in time to see the bus leaving. I’m not worried yet, since a bus leaves every 8 minutes.
- 12:22. Frustrated that no bus has arrived yet, I decide to leg it to the nearest tram stop, a 10-minute walk away.
- 12:27. The regular passage to the tram stop is blocked by police due to some incident. I’ll have to take the long way around.
- 12:28. The tram is four minutes early, but I manage to catch it by a desperate clumsy sprint-on-dress-shoes.
- 12:29. The tram is packed with tourists on their way to the beach, the indoor temperature is 35 degrees Celsius, and my suit feels decidedly uncomfortable.
- 12:45. The tram drops me off just in front of the embassy.
Never would I have thought that the sight of winding corridors and the bland mixture of green and cream would make me happy. But a small yet palpable feeling of triumph washes over me as I make my way through the now-deserted embassy building. I reach counter #7 to find it completely empty. Opposite the counter three bored-looking applicants linger in their chairs. Restraining myself, I take a seat next to one of them and feign patience while I wait for someone to reappear behind that counter. Just minutes later, a familiar face appears as the dispassionate clerk from yesterday takes his seat. He drops some passports on the counter that are quickly picked up by one of the waiting applicants. When my turn arrives, I approach the counter slowly, my mind conjuring up all the possible ways the clerk is going to deny my request. He hears me out, manages to somehow acknowledge his understanding without any verbal or non-verbal sign, and disappears through a door in the back. I’m left there behind the counter, imagining him gone for hours on a wild goose chase through a labyrinthine succession of winding corridors and shady back-rooms, having to sift through piles of unfinished applications to find my passport. Yet he reappears just seconds later with two passports in his hand. That was quick. He hands over the passports, while I offer: “I just need the one. The other can remain in the application process”.
He fixes me with a bored stare, practiced by bureaucrats since time immemorial, and says: “the visas are ready”.