I had cause this week to head up to the US Consulate in Amsterdam. We had received a phone call from Harry whilst we were on vacation that his US passport had expired 3 months ago.
Why he was even checking his passport I have no idea as he uses his EU one as his ‘official’ ID in the Netherlands. I don’t want to follow this train of thought too closely; anything Harry does tends to leave me confused and in need of rest in a darkened room.
Nevertheless something had to be done about the passport so on returning home we hit the internet to find out what we had to do. In the US renewing a passport is a matter of downloading forms and mailing everything to the passport elves. It’s not quite so straightforward overseas.
Our search revealed that as Harry was under 18 and exchanging his minor passport for an adult one, we would have to appear in person at the Embassy of the country in which we were living. No problem, the Embassy is a ten minute drive in The Hague. Except things are never that easy.
The interesting thing about the Netherlands is unlike most countries it effectively has two capital cities; Amsterdam and The Hague. Amsterdam is recognised by everyone, here and overseas as THE capital, but The Hague is the seat of government.
This means that everything important – International Court of Justice, International Criminal Court, OPCW the UN’s Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, (the city regards itself as the world’s fourth United Nations city, after New York, Geneva and Vienna), Europol, Monarchy, foreign embassies, international companies and anything else of national and international importance is in The Hague. Along with a big prison for the international bad guys like Mladic.
Amsterdam is party town but The Hague is where the real business gets done.
The US have both an Embassy and a consulate in the Netherlands; embassy in The Hague and consulate in Amsterdam. This is actually a great idea as I’m assuming the important stuff gets done in The Hague but the place most Americans visit in the Netherlands is Amsterdam so it makes sense a consulate is there for them and anyone who needs US paperwork / passports etc. It’s also the place where non-Americans can file for visas too.
We set off for Amsterdam with rain hammering down like a tropical storm and despite missing our usual exit for Amsterdam on the A10 due to bad visibility, we found a parking garage a mere 100-yards from where we needed to be and were half an hour early for our appointment. Result.
We headed on over to the consulate and although wearing heavy-duty rain gear, arrived at the line by the security gate drenched. Having read the website comprehensively we knew, for security reasons, not to take cell phones, purses, bags or anything else likely to result in a lock-down of the consulate.
Without cell phones and clutching a rather damp and limp print-out of our appointment, unlike most in the line, we were fast tracked through the 20-foot high security gate by a smiling, efficient and very polite security man. He ushered over to the security hut; a small white shed outside the main building whose door unlocked to let us in and locked again behind us.
It was the two of us, three security guards and a scanner.
The fact my cell phone was in the pocket of my jeans not the car as I thought, was no problem. I was asked to remove the battery and leave it with them for the duration of my visit. Thank goodness for Harry – I had no clue how to get the darn thing out.
They went through everything we had, calmly efficiently and with good humour. They roared with laughter at Harry’s old passport photo, aged 12, which bears no resemblance to the 6 foot drop-dead-gorgeous (I’m biased) 17-year old. There was some consternation at the discovery in my Barbour jacket pocket – only worn for dog walking and severe rain conditions – of soggy, mashed up dog treats which resembled semtex but that was quickly resolved.
As we left security I realised those innocent and innocuous questions and idle chat were very sharp and incisive ways of getting an awful lot of relevent information out of us. My respect for what these guys have to do everyday to protect the people they work with increased no end.
Once inside the building we were faced with a room full of people and a wall full of interview booths, like arriving at the DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles) on a Monday morning. Fortunately that waiting room was for visas and we were directed to a small, quiet room with only three booths and even fewer people.
The lady who dealt with us was bright, smiling, helpful and calm. She cheerfully but kindly admonished Harry for not completing the paperwork himself and made him read through it to check it was correct. He did so with a huge grin on his face; he appreciated being treated with respect. I noticed his manners went up a notch while we were there, it was great to hear him ‘yes, ma’am’ and ‘no sir’ when appropriate.
We were in and out within half an hour, seen ahead of our appointment time. It was stress free, straightforward and just plain nice. While we stood waiting for everything to be processed I was almost overcome, it felt so darn good to be somewhere with people I could relate to without thinking, who were nice to me and made me feel welcome. It almost felt home.
Too quickly we were finished and on our way out, back through the security hut to pick up my phone, and out of those huge, black, clanging automatic steel gates.
I stepped through them, my back turned on the warmth and comfort of the familiar, facing into the slashing rain, biting wind and cold chill of a country that is my home, but which doesn’t hold my heart.