Saturday, February 28, 2009

American Style

We had to renew our children's passports yesterday. We thought we were well-prepared.

Wes is usually very prepared for something like this. He had done his research online, even filling out the correct forms online so we'd be saved that time at the consulate. We arrived early, even though our appointment time allowed a few minutes to clear security. I hadn't thought about security, but it makes sense that not just anyone could walk into the consulate of any nation, especially not the US during a time of war. So. We parked about 1 1/2 blocks away because weren't sure if there was parking near the building. We walked that block and a half, and there was a parkade right across the street from the building. That figures. We just chuckled and chalked it up to being extra careful. No biggie - so we had to walk an extra block!

We come to the entrance of the consulate, confident that we have everything we need. And we're American citizens, so there should be no problems, right?! Well. Never assume anything. The man inside the glass doors motions for us to come in, since there is a sign outside the door that says "Wait here to be admitted." My husband spent 10 years in the US Air Force, so we know how to obey signs. We go in and tell the two guards that we have an appointment to renew our children's passports. That's where the fun began.

First they ask if we have cell phones. Of course we do. Mine was turned off, so I thought I was fine. Wes's rings at this point. The guard in charge yelled, "Do not answer that!" He then asks if any of the rest of us have cell phones, and we admit that we do. "You cannot take them upstairs," he barks. What are we supposed to do with them? He asks if we have our car; yes, down the street. "Put them in the car!" At this point, my memory is a bit fuzzy because of all the commotion. The guard could not speak in a normal, calm voice, it seemed. And we, who felt quite confident going in, suddenly feel quite stupid. After the guards search Wes's bag - everything in it just dumped back in - he is ordered to take all the phones and Beth's camera back to the car. The head guard asks if we have any other electronics; we all assure him we don't, so Wes takes off for the car. Remember, it's a block and a half down the street, underground.

Just as Wes is leaving the building, another couple approaches the door and starts to come in, ignoring the sign not to come in. Wes tells them they have to wait, but apparently they don't care what the sign or the guy in front of them says, because they just came right on in. The guard goes ballistic. He shouts at them to get out - Jack Bauer style, over and over again - at the top of his lungs. They back out and stand right in front of the door. He yells, "Get away from my door!" They argue with him. He goes out to them and straightens them out. When he comes back in, he resumes his search of my purse . . . while the couple tries to come in again. So he's yelling at them, barking instructions to us, and searching my purse . . . when he finds my MP3 player in a zippered pocket. I wish to disappear. I had totally forgotten about my MP3 player being in my purse. So Andrew grabs it and runs after Wes for him to put it in the car too. By this time I'm beginning to sweat.

The guard sends Beth and me through a metal detector and upstairs. In my hands I have my passport and Andrew's and Beth's, and the papers to renew the passports. There is a lady waiting on the upper floor who uses a key card to operate the elevator for us. We step out on the 20th floor to find three more guards, who search our purses and coats again and send us through another metal detector. Apparently we had a chance in the elevator, that was opened and operated by a real human, to slip something into our coats. But these guards are more calm (one of them was quite elderly, but he is apparently being trained?). When Beth hands her jacket to the last one, though, he freezes and asks, "What do you have in here?" Both the guard and Beth stare at each other. Then he grins and hands her jacket to her. If he had known the state of my mind just then . . .

We enter the 20th floor: a narrow hallway lined with service windows on one side and folding plastic ball-park style seats on the other. We make our way to Window 11, which is at the far end of the L-shaped hallway, to check in. The lady behind the glass gives us a number, tells us to be seated, and to watch the electronic sign for our number and which window we need to report to. Within seconds, our number is called, and Beth and I step up to the window. This lady is very nice, but very soft-spoken behind her protective glass window. So I lean in closely to hear what she's saying.

I am grateful that my husband has prepared each child's information in separate folders, since he is still running to put away our phones and my MP3 player; I can just open the folders and hand the information to the lady. The first thing I notice is that Beth's passport pictures are neatly attached to her folder with a paper clip, but Andrew's aren't there. Oh dear! I decide to wait till she gets to Andrew's folder before I point this out. The lady asks if we have our ExpressPost envelope to mail the new passports to our house. Ummm . . . I'm sure my husband must have it in his bag. I'll call . . . nope, can't call, because we can't have our phones! She cheerfully says that's ok, 'cause there's a post office nearby where he can go get one. He still isn't back from the car yet, and then he's going to have to go to the PO - he's really gonna be thrilled about that. Yep. Then she notices that Andrew's pictures are missing. She suggests maybe they fell out in the car, and Dad can just run by the car again when he goes to the PO. Ok. So now I am doing all this by myself (a job my husband usually handles, so I don't worry my little princess brain with the details) while Wes is running the streets of Vancouver, and now I have to worry about telling him he has to go back out.

I do know how to pay for the passports, however, so I do that, and the lady begins to process the two passports (minus Andrew's pictures) while I nervously wait for Wes. He arrives thinking he is done, and the first thing the lady asks is if he has that envelope. He didn't know he needed it, because that little bit of info is buried somewhere in the website with no indication that it is important. So he says, "You mean I have to go back out?" The lady gives him a printed copy of the street (a literal picture of the street!) and shows him exactly where to go to find the PO. Apparently this mistake is a frequent one. I wonder if they might consider highlighting the text in red on their website that gives this information? She also tells him that Andrew's pictures are missing and there's a photo place right across from the PO where he can get more made if he can't find them in the car. How handy! Wes takes Andrew and they run in opposite directions - Wes to the PO and Andrew to the car, because, yes, they are in opposite directions in equal distances from the consulate!

Ok . . . I pay for the passports and am allowed to sit down and wait. Wes and Andrew get back with both the envelope and the pictures (the guards had shaken up the things in Wes's bag so thoroughly that the pictures had gotten tossed out of his folder and into the pages of a book, and Andrew just happened to see the corner of the packet sticking out of the book!). It was pretty smooth sailing from that point on. Andrew and Beth solemnly swore, with their right hands raised, that all their information was correct and accurate to the best of their knowledge, signed their new passport papers, and we were on our way. I think I finally breathed when we emerged from the elevator into the lobby and out to the sidewalk. Where we walked the block and a half to our car. I felt like my hair was standing on end, like I'd been through a whirlwind. I'm glad that the next time the kids need new passports, they will be adults and can take care of it on their own. But Wes and I will have to renew ours in five more years . . .


  1. oh that's so crazy!! Sounds just like all the wonderful processes they make us go through. :) I am an American living in Canada too, and this post is REALLY making me look forward to renewing my passport in 2012. I'm sure I'm going to have even more fun, since I hope to change my name on it. :)

  2. Susan - your post makes ME nervous just reading it! I'm glad you got through it. Knowing me, if I'd had to go, we would definitely have to take an additional trip to get something I forgot. As it is - it took me two trips to the Department of Motor Vehicles to register my van. :O)

    Glad it's over with for you!

  3. Oh my goodness! What an "adventure"!!!

  4. Hm, the information exchange sounds a little like the Mexican Consulate; You never have what you need when you get there. Ryan said the American Consulate in Mexico isn't as high security as that though.

    I feel for you!

  5. Oh, my! I'm glad that security is in place, but it seems like the guards could have been a little more civil. Too bad that law-abiding citizens like yourselves have to be treated so rudely. At least you have five years to recover . . .

  6. Melissa ~~ When I first got married, I forgot to change my name on my Social Security card. What a mess at tax time, which was 6 months after we got married. Good luck!

    Melody ~~ Wes is very good about not forgetting things when it's something like this. I'm the forgetful one!

    Tammy ~~ It was an adventure I hope to never repeat! LOL

    Sarah ~~ I'm amazed that the consulate in Mexico is not as secure as the one here! It's kinda scary too.

    Ginny ~~ I'm not sure why the guards were so brusque. It's like we irritated the first one really bad, so he just kept getting louder and louder. Yes, five years . . .

  7. What a day! This sounds familiar. When we went to change our license in Montana, I had to have my birth certificate,marriage license and social security card. My husband didn't have his card. We had to drive to the nearest SS office (about 50 miles), then back just so he could get his license.

  8. Hi Susan ~ I enjoyed reading your story--I'm sure more than you enjoyed living it! :)

  9. Boy, I don't think I'll be wanting to get a passport any time soon! You did make it sound humorous, but I know these kinds of things are only funny AFTER the fact. :)

  10. Whew...we have been through similiar things like this, especially when we lived in Turkey, it is overwhelming to me...
    Glad you survived it .....


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