Monday, June 26, 2006

How the other half lives

Last Thursday, I was privileged to take part in a ritual normally resevred for Romanians, laid on by my own trusty British Embassy.

I have previously had two occasions to deal with the Embassy in Bucharest - both times with the passport office. Now the passport office is a very nice little room, where you go along (once you've got through the security check) and deal with someone whose job is basically to help you. It is the section of the embassy specifically designed for helping British citizens in Romania, and since there are not that many of us, they seem very happy to see you and to do your bidding.

To get to the passport office you have to walk through this large waiting area, lined with chairs. The one time I had to do it before, this room was empty, and I wondered what it could be for, since the little ante-chamber of the office itself had three chairs in it, and some magazines and stuff, and this seemed like it would be enough.

Last Thursday, I found out. That large waiting area opens up into an even larger one which I had not seen before, and at around noon the day I was there it was utterly jam packed. This, then, is the visa waiting area. Romanians need visas to visit the UK. I have no idea why, since they don't need visas to enter any other EU countries (except Ireland maybe), but there you go. For whatever reason, the Uk government requires that Romanians need a visa to enter our hallowed isle, with its streets paved with gold and last night's vomit. I had two tasks to perform on Thursday - one was to apply for a UK passport for Paula, which was predictably easy and hassle free, and the other was to get a visa for Bogi, so that we all could come together as a family to the UK this summer.

The system works like this: You have to show up at 7am outside the gates of the embassy. A bloke comes out and hands out numbered tickets to all those who have done so, and that's the order you get seen in (you need to have an interview, as well as filling in all the forms, and providing the vast reams of paperwork, all in an attempt to ensure that you won't be so enraptured by a life of drizzle and binge drinking and decide to stay). Then at some stage you get let into the building (at 9 I'm guessing), and so begins the long wait.

For some lucky people there is a seperate system, known as the "drop box". This is for use by those who are deemed low risk - people who've had visas before and come back to Romania, people with work permit applications that are already totally in order (including the employer letter), and various others. The "drop box" is open from 10 - 12. I was informed on the phone that Bogi would be eligible for the drop box, though I wasn't clear why. Whatever the reason, I was profoundly grateful to not have to somehow engineer a way to be in downtown Bucharest at 7 am.

However, the drop box is not quite the simple breeze that is implied by the innocuous name. I expected (understandably given the title) that I would show up with my forms, put them in a box and then be asked to come back later when the visa had been issued. No. You have to queue up (for quite a while, possibly around an hour I was waiting) in order to give your forms to a bloke who checks that you've got all the bits and then issues you with a number, and tells you to go and pay the fee at the cashier's window. Only th cashier's window is closed and you have to wait another hour until they open it and deign to accept your flipping great wodges of cash. This whole thing took me significantly over two hours (just to make a deposit in the drop box). I was then told to come back at 4pm, to get the visa. I nipped into the passport office and was dealt with in ten minutes (remember the mission statement of the passport office is "Helping British Citizens in Romania", while the mission of the visa office is "Dissuading Romanians from entering Britain"), and left the building for my hour long lunch break.

At this point, I should make it clear that I had it dead easy. The place was packed with people, most of whom had presumably been there since 7am. They didn't get an hour off for good behaviour, they just had to sit and wait and wait and wait. The only positive thing you can say is that at least the waiting area is air-conditioned so the wait is not carried out in the 35 degree heat that was stifling Bucharest that day.

So, at 4, I rolled back up and was told to go back inside and wait. Once again I waited, along with various others who I'd seen in the drop box queue earlier. Finally at 5, my visa was ready! Only there was a mistake and in fact the visa had been issued for Erika and not Bogi (Erika already has a valid visa). I handed it back, and the bloke swore in frustration, and took it back inside. Finally at 5.30 Bogi's visa, correctly issued, was ready. There were still some people left there waiting from the morning.

In all honesty, the staff were very helpful and fair, in what must be very trying circumstances, and they must have processed 250 visas in the one day I was there, a scenario that presumably repeats regularly. I have to hand it to them, really. It's clearly the policy that's at fault, or something about the system. Why people can't just hand stuff in and then come back later, like with most visa processes is beyond me.

Still, I feel like it's worth me seeing what it is that Romanians have to go through to get a visa for my country. Thankfully, for me, the Romanian government doesn't reciprocate and insist that Brits attempting to come here are not subjected to a day spent in a small room in London first, and in fact they let us in without a single question. It's got to be tempting though.


Irina said...

Hi Andy,
I've been reading your blog (and enjoying it) for quite a while now; several times I even thought on replying, but somehow I gave up. This subject however brings back memories and I feel I must say something.
First of all, I was born in Csikszereda myself (half-Hungarian, half-Romanian) and lived most of my life in Bucharest; that was until I decided to start a PhD in your country. I won't bore you with the details, let me just summarize on my visa experience.
First, at the embassy - as you noticed, it is always packed; for me it was a cold, windy and snowy day in February. Been there at 7 am, left my mother outside waiting for me, got the visa around 3:30 pm. the lady interviewing me decided that I'm not really trustworthy (apparently, a highly qualified person's biggest wish is to become an immigrant), so she granted me the visa for only one year, although I should have remained there for a minimum of three. That was okay, I thought - at the time the rumour was that by summer, we Romanians won't need visas; so I bought my plane ticket and took off into my life's big adventure. 'Till I landed on Heathrow; I missed the first two busses because of the immigration people - they seemed to consider that we are the biggest danger to the nation, along with Brazilian nationals, and they sent us for a health-check first. It was just a stamp, but I had to queue for that too, for more than an hour because of the lunch-time... So, to make a long story short, it took me around 20 hrs, from my house in Bucharest to Leicester. My biggest wish right now is not to need a visa and be able to queue on the other side, where people just show their passports.
BW & have a good holiday!

Andy H said...

Thanks for writing Irina. Do you ever make it back to Csikszereda?

Sorry, but not surprised, to hear of your experiences. Romanians are obviously not quite as persona non grata as Brazilians, as you don't get shot trying to get on tube trains.

How long ago was this rumour by the way? I suspect it's one of those things that will never go away, even when Romania joins the EU. After all the embassy must employ a lot of people whose sole job it is to deal with dangerous people like you :-)

Anonymous said...

Apparently, by the end of the year, Romanians will be able to go to the UK without the need of getting a visa.

Probably because they're forced by the EU, not because your government started loving us. :-)

Irina said...

Thanks for the reply, Andy.
I'm actually quite surprised that nobody else had anything to say on the subject... Might people be afraid or something?!

The rumour was in early 2004, but during the same spring, it was a huge (at least for us and Bulgarians) visa-related scandal. If I remember correctly, the embassies from Bucharest and Sofia were issuing work-permits to people obviously not able to perform the jobs they were applying so; the outcome of it all were some resignations - in the British government - and more severe check-up here at the embassy - for us.
I was in the US a couple of times since returning from the UK, and I have to tell you that crossing their border was lots easier (took less time and questions).

I do my best every year to spend several weeks in Csikszereda; next time will probably be late July early August, and I can hardly wait. I'm actually jealous of you for living in a way cooler place, not to mention the cleaner, fresher air:-)


PS: on the recycling subject - I have to admit that I do miss your recycling system... It seems here's such a waste of paper; but are collecting points where you have to take the bottles, paper etc. When we were in school - b4 '89 - they (as in the system) were making us collect huge amounts of paper, glass-jars and even horse-chestnuts every trimester, so people might have had an adverse reaction towards this.

Anonymous said...

Just read your June 26 blog. My wife is from Csikszereda, where we met. My first trip was in 1998 and I was granted a free visa at the border - I had gone overland with a group on a humanitarian trip. In 2000 another free visa seemed automatic. In 2001 it was just an entry stamp, and Edit was easily able to leave the country with me to visit B-Pest. Then, after a few more visits by me, she sought to come here. We got together lots of documents to show I was of good standing [a teacher with my own home, etc] and to show we had an ongoing relationship. We travelled on the night train from Csik to B-rest, queued and waited for hours inside and out. Edit returned a month later for interview, with a friend to act as interpreter [they will only speak to you in Romanesc or English, NOT magyarul] and was refused a visa. Thanks a bunch, compatriots, I thought. We did get a visa in 2002, allowing a visit of up to six weeks, for a fee beyond the reach of the average Szekely lass. Then, in 2003, after providing a dossier of evidence, we got a settlement visa at great expense. This required her to marry me within six months or go home. Then, we had to pay a whole lot more to obtain permission for two years. After the two years, more paperwork [some of the questions are hilarious or very badly worded] providing evidence that we still are together and another huge fee secured long-term permission for Edit to stay. Getting a passport for our infant daughter was a breeze, and it is good for five years, by which time she will look nothing much like her photograph. Incidentally the Romanian passport has long been far more secure and difficult to forge than the good old British one. John

Janosbacsi said...

The queue numbers are not at all official, apparently. The last time we were there quite early, so went off for a hot drink and then failed to see the numbers being given out somewhere down the far end of Str Jules Michelet. When I asked one of the Brits at the gate about the numbers he said that they were unofficial but condoned lest the locals should get restless [my paraphrase]. I guess that in theory having a number might allow you to take a break, but being too early seems to be a mistake. John