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.