This is a story Kafka wrote when he applied for a study permit for Canada. Except it wasn’t Kafka, it was me. And it isn’t a story, it is a TRUE TALE of painfully inefficient bureaucracy. If you’ve ever moved to another country for work or study (and many of you have) you’ll probably enjoy this.
I first wrote it in 2003, published it on an old blog in 2005, and then took that entire blog down a while later. I promised Cath I’d blog it here, so here it is once again on the web, as a tribute to everyone who ever had to deal with immigration. It’s slightly rewritten from the original version for style (and to add an epilogue), but the plot remains the same.
It was the summer of 2002, and I was having a blast. I had graduated from two masters programs that spring, and was working a temporary job as a secretary for the finance and control department of the international branch of the Dutch postal service. I learned about international postage and office politics in a summer entirely devoid of science. In September I would start my PhD in Toronto, and I was preparing for the move.
I needed a study permit, but the Canadian Embassy in Holland doesn’t handle immigration issues. Instead, I was referred to their Immigration Department in Berlin, which handled Canadian immigration for several European countries.
According to the website, applying for a study permit was a pretty straightforward procedure: I had to send in an application form, together with copies of UofT’s acceptance letter, proof that I had enough money to move to Canada, proof that I didn’t have a police record, and some other things. It was not _entirely_ clear which papers they needed, exactly, because different sections of the website claimed different things. No problem, I’d just give them a call.
The embassy’s phone number was only open for calls between 2 and 3 in the afternoon, so I had to call from work. Whenever I dialed the number, I got a tape that said that my call was important to them, but unfortunately nobody could take it and I should try again later-click. I tried calling again. I tried ten times per day between 2 and 3 for about two weeks. I never got through. Until one time… I got put on hold!
I waited for 50 minutes, meanwhile working at the computer with the phone clenched between my shoulder and my jaw, like they do on TV. Nothing happened, and I hung up.
I e-mailed them. Several times. I never got a reply.
I tried calling at the wrong time, not between 2 and 3. That gave me another tape that actually had more information than the tape they played in the hour they were supposedly open for calls.
But I was still not sure about some things, so I sent them another e-mail. An angry e-mail this time, saying that it was ridiculous that they were not answering their phone, that I was having no more of it, and that I would just have to come all the way to Berlin, from Amsterdam, eight hours by train, to personally ask them my questions.
I didn’t tell them that I had been planning a “Farewell, Europe” three-week train trip, with the first leg of the trip taking me straight to Berlin anyway. So I packed all my forms and documents in my backpack, and Interrailed it up to Berlin that very next week.
The building where the Canadian Embassy’s immigration department was, was a pretty regular-looking office tower from the outside. Once inside, it looked more serious, and my daypack and I were treated as if we were about to get on a plane: No cellphones, through the metal detector, and lots of rules and corridors to maneuver.
A brightly-lit elevator, a hallway with landscape calendars, and there was the immigration department. For all the importance the department radiated through the tape I had heard hundreds of times on the phone, I was disappointed to find that it was nothing more than a small waiting room with a service window. There were a number of other people in the room, some politely nodding as I sat down. An Irish woman with her Canadian husband, a Bulgarian woman recently married to a Canadian but both living in Switzerland, a Surinamese woman, two middle-eastern men, and a few others, all waiting patiently for their turn.
We watched one person after the other be called up to have their fate determined. The woman at the service window got increasingly more frustrated with people bringing the wrong documents and forms. That was my biggest fear going in, so I had made sure that I had everything with me. Every once in a while the immigration officer shouted into the waiting area “Make SURE you have ALL your forms and documents! I won’t help you if you don’t have all your documents!” Every time she said that, we looked at each other in slight panic, wondering if we had the right forms with us.
The middle-eastern men were up. One wanted to travel to Canada, and the other was his interpreter. Unfortunately, the traveler had brought nothing but his interpreter with him. No passport. No papers. No contact phone number. Absolutely nothing. After he had been yelled at for about fifteen minutes in two or three different languages, he was finally sent away, and the rest of us got another angry lecture about how we really needed to have all our documents!
People started talking about why they were there. It turned out that everyone had traveled miles to Berlin just because nobody answered the phone between 2 and 3. We bonded over the hilarity of people from four different countries trying to call that one phone, one hour a day, clogging up the line for each other, and not getting anywhere. Did anyone ever pick up the phone at all?
There was one absolute worst story. It was the story of the Bulgarian woman and the Canadian man. They just got married, and were living in Switzerland, but wanted to go to Canada for their honeymoon. She needed a tourist visa for Canada, and they applied well in advance, because you know it’s going to take a while. As the day of their trip approached, they got more and more nervous when the visa still hadn’t arrived yet. They had the tickets, everything was set. Finally, the day before they would be leaving, a letter arrived from the embassy. It read “Dear Mrs. Fernandez, we’re sorry to tell you that you’re not eligible for a travel visa to Canada”.
Her name was not Mrs. Fernandez.
She seemed to have gotten another person’s letter, which also makes you wonder if the real Mrs. Fernandez, who didn’t qualify, did get a visa. On the day they were supposed to go on their honeymoon to Canada, they got in the car and drove from Switzerland to Berlin. And there they were now, in the waiting room.
In the mean time, the Surinamese woman was up at the window. She was well prepared: she had all her documents with her! We gave her a good chance of getting through unscathed.
The immigration woman looked at the big pile of papers that this lady had brought in. She turned to her, and said “Could you please step aside for a moment?”
Baffled, she took a step to her left, and the embassy worker held the pile of paper in the air and yelled at all of us: “And when I say ‘Bring all your documents’ I don’t mean ALL your documents, only the RELEVANT ones. Not like THIS lady who brought her ENTIRE BIOGRAPHY!”
A silence fell over the waiting room.
It lasted two seconds, maybe three. Nobody dared to breathe. Then the Irish woman whispered “And this is just the Canadian Embassy. Imagine what the German Embassy must be like!”
*Epilogue* – As you know, I got my study permit. I didn’t have the right papers with me, of course, but my dad faxed the missing documents to the office, and when I returned from my trip my permit to enter Canada had arrived. Renewing the study permit from within Canada was a breeze, and just a matter of mailing a form. In 2007 I started a procedure to apply for my permanent resident card, so that I could work freelance in Canada after my eventual graduation. That was a much more complicated process than getting a study permit. It had me do odd things like taking an official French language exam and getting tested for HIV. But, other than the medical doctor who had me say “Scheveningen” when he heard I was Dutch, that was a far less surreal experience than getting my study permit.
Last year two of my friends from Holland had to get their work permit for Canada through the office in Berlin. They called, between 2 and 3, and nobody picked up the phone. They got on a train to Berlin, visited the office with all their right documents (!) and got their papers right away. They celebrated at a cafe with coffee and cake. An hour later, they went back to the cafe, to ask the waitress if she had maybe found an envelope on their table… She dug it from the trash, and nobody at the Canadian border questioned why there were cake and coffee stains on their papers. They’ve probably seen it all by now.