As the clock ticks forward, my anxiety and dread increases. No, no, not about my return to Rome —it’s all about my return to the Italian Consulate to obtain a visa for my son.
Our first experience at the visa office was cray cray (I feel obligated to use slang that is so two minutes ago as my son has begged me not to use slang because it’s embarrassing), but as it turned out, it was merely a solid introduction into life in Italy:
For reasons far too long and complicated to get into other than to assure you it was not my fault, John’s visa expired. And it expired before we had renewed it. Which meant we had to apply for a new visa.
This could not be done in Italy because it had to be done at the Italian Consulate. Which is in America. And is open only three days a week for three hours at a time. So the competition to get an appointment is fierce.
We made an appointment to apply for a visa while we would be in America. The first available appointment was two weeks before we would return to Rome. “We will call you if an earlier appointment becomes available,” said the visa office.
And they did. They called three separate times. “Good day, we have an opening in ten minutes. Can you be here in ten minutes?” “No, we live two hours away.” “Okay, so you will be here in ten minutes?” “No, we cannot.” “Okay, we will see you then.”
We knew from our previous visa obtaining experience to bring every document in every connotation on every possible color paper. We made copies. We had two sets of every document: one set notarized, one set not. I packed John’s hospital ID bracelet from when he was born and the lock of hair from his first haircut. I packed my favorite mixed tape from high school and ticket stubs from a Metallica concert.
And now for the kicker: Mike had to return to Italy before our appointment was scheduled. So I was faced with the Getting the Visa all by myself. This was not good. I am not charming. I am socially awkward. And my bad Italian would not win me any points.
I abandoned my summer-in-America uniform of a tank top and cut-offs and dressed in what passes for dressy in my small American town but still looks slovenly in Italy. I put on make-up. I wore heels. I drove to a parking garage and walked to a train station. People stared. I was wearing a scarf in the 90 degree heat. I got a cab to the Italian Consulate. I was 40 minutes early.
The visa office had been moved from the room we had been in on our last visit and had been changed into a space half the size. There were three seats as though it was a game of musical chairs that was winding down and all the other chairs had been removed and many many many people standing. It would seem that the visa office had figured out how to make the experience a wee bit worse. There were no clocks in the room, like a casino, so that no one knew how long they had been floating in Purgatory.
There was a woman with a briefcase and a folder bulging with documents who was speaking to the lone woman behind the bullet proof glass. I could already tell it wasn’t going well. I couldn’t decide whether or not I should check in for my appointment. I looked to the waiting masses but no one would risk meeting my eyes for fear of provoking the Great and Powerful Oz (GPO)and having their visa application rejected. I joined them and kept my gaze firmly on the ground.
The woman in line kept protesting and trying to hand the GPO more papers. “No,” said the GPO. “But-“said the woman in line on the verge of tears. “You’re done,” said the GPO.
I decided that this would be an excellent time to announce my arrival lest my appointment be given away. I approached the counter and the crowd behind me murmured in alarm. I told the GPO I had an appointment and wished only to check in.
“You’re early,” said GPO coldly.
“I absolutely am. You’re right. I’m so sorry-“
“Where is your husband? I spoke with him and told him what he needed to do…there was a crying baby in here earlier. Was that yours?”
“No, no!” I could feel the sweat start building beneath my scarf.
“Where is your document?” she asked. I started to ask which one and bit my tongue just in time. I handed her one written in Italian. She didn’t object so I slowly handed her another piece of paper. And another.
“Do you have your son’s original birth certificate?’ I handed it to her.”No!’ she crowed triumphantly. “I wanted a copy of it.” I handed her that as well. She seemed disappointed. “Where is your husband?” she demanded again. I explained he was in Italy. “How did he sign these and have them notarized in the United States?” she asked suspiciously .
“Um..he was here?” I quaked.
“Where is your passport?” she demanded. I handed her both my passport and proactively, a copy of it. “Not yours! I only need your son’s! And where is your husband?”
She asked for my plane tickets. “And you will be arriving on the xx of August?” I knew that one was a trick question because it was an overnight flight. I answered correctly and moved on to the bonus round. “Sign this,” she said. I.Couldn’t.Find.My.Pen. And just as there were no clocks in the office, there were no pens. I suspect this was a test of your endurance and resourcefulness. Like being in a Tom Hanks movie where he has to fight for his life because is being kidnapped by pirates or stranded on a desert island or has to get to the top of the Empire State Building at closing time to kiss Meg Ryan.
I turned to the crowd, “Pen! Pen! Stat!” My comrades in battle hastily thrust pens at me. I was leading the troops. I was William Wallace. I was thisclose to being the first person to successfully obtain a visa.
I signed and handed the paper back to her. She pulled the old switcheroo and handed me a different sheet of paper. “I thought I told you to sign this!” she snapped. I’ve watched the Tudors. I knew not to protest. “You are absolutely right,” I relied,”I’m so sorry.” I signed.
“Sit down,” she commanded. I sat.
The next contestant was a man studying language at a university in Italy. His father accompanied him and spoke to the woman in Italian but it was very clear that he was American because he was wearing shorts and a golf shirt. She did not like this. The conversation went as followed:
Man: I was never told that was required. I spoke with the visa office and they said I had the correct documents.
Great and Powerful Oz: I am the visa office. You deal with me. This is unacceptable and insufficient.
Man: It was fine last year.
GPO: No it wasn’t.
Man: Yes it was. This is my visa from last year. This is the same paperwork I submitted last year.
Man: I don’t understand.
GPO: That is not my problem.
Man: Do you have a pen?
The man’s father turned to the crowd and said, “Non gentile, huh?” I don’t think anyone else understood him because I was the only one who sucked in my breath and ducked. His son kicked him and turned to the GPO, smiled and reiterated everything he had already said but this time he said it in Italian.
GPO: Why didn’t you tell me this was your visa from last year and that you had already spoken to the visa office? You should have told me.
Man: I know, I know. I’m so sorry. I should have told you. I apologize Signora. It is my fault.
Boom! And that’s how you get your visa and go on your way. We all subtly gave the man the thumbs up and high fives as he left, triumphant.
The GPO called my name. I stood up. “Where is Mrs. xxxx?” she demanded again in exasperation.
I moved the one step needed to reach the window as she obviously could not see me. She handed me my paperwork. “You’re done. You can go.”
“Grazie, grazie, grazie mille, buona giornata,” I replied, bowling and scraping. I ran to the elevator and closed the doors as fast as humanly possible. I threw my temporary visitor badge at the security guard and jumped into the path of an oncoming cab, looking in terror over my shoulder lest the Great and Powerful Oz change her mind. But I was safe. It was over.
Oh, and the train broke down on the way home and we sat on the tracks for over an hour before a rescue train arrived to take us back to the train station and inside the train it became hotter and hotter and people became angrier and angrier. And because I had successfully obtained my son’s visa and emerged unscathed from the office of the Consolato Generale D’Italia, it was the very best train ride I could possibly imagine.