Wednesday, November 28, 2012

World traveler

Oddly, despite the fact that I've traveled quite a bit (or at least I'd like to think so), I've actually never been to a US Consulate/Embassy. Or at least if I have it's not been in conscious memory. Which perhaps is not saying so much, given how frequently I've taken to forgetting things recently.

Anyway, when recently I looked into my passport and realized that I was on the verge of running out of the appropriate pages one must have to keep traveling as a valid passport holder, it dawned on me that I should really do something about this, and soon. Multiple holiday trips were put on the books and oddly, it seemed I was going to run out of pages well before my passport is set to expire (which isn't until the middle of 2015).

So. It seems I've become a World Traveller (WT). One of those pretentious people who needs to apply for additional pages in order to correctly boast to the public how many places they've gone in their sumptuously filled and exotic lives. Yes, I'd earned my stars as at least a ruby member in that club. I have to admit I was rather surprised. Pleased, but surprised. 

This then put me in the awkward situation of having to reach out to my local consulate. As all of my upcoming travels made it impossible for me to take care of this additional pages business while I was abroad/in my home country, it seemed I would have to do it while I was here in Finland (in other words, stopped the longest in one location). Oddly this count is somewhat less than two weeks, if you can believe it. But it is what it is. (Yes, please do the math - from here until mid-January that is the longest time I or my passport will be in one place).

Armed with this pertinent information, I went on the interwebz and found out the contact info for the local embassy - luckily (and understandably) located here in Helsinki, near Kaivopuisto Park (where the drunken picnic of Labor Day was held several months back). The website, dreadfully lacking in detailed information, said that appointments were necessary to get anything done, and to call or email to make an appointment.

Okay. So I wrote the number down and then noticed that their open hours were Monday thru Friday 2-4pm. 

You have got to be kidding me. There's a consulate open for only two hours a day?!

Well, if that's what it is, that's what it is.

So I patiently waited the next day until 5 minutes after 2pm and faithfully called the number provided on the website for making appointments.

What was I greeted with? A pre-recorded message saying nothing but "Mailbox full."

And then I was hung up on.

Jesus Christ. I could see where this was gonna go.

There was one other number on the website, so I decided to call that one too, for good measure. This one was a little more hopeful; a pre-recorded male voice with a very American accent (which was strangely comforting) answered, saying it was the consulate line, etc etc, and to press 1 for English, 2 for Finnish, etc etc. So I pressed 1 and continued to go through the options.

I was on this line for about 2 minutes before I went through all the different options. They all led me to three different paths (I called the number about 6 different times to confirm all the different variations):
  1. Call the number that I had called before (which I did call again, still said "Mailbox full" before hanging up on you).
  2. Email them to set up an appointment.
  3. Hold for the operator (which then put you into a loop where you are redirected to another operator, which was really just the first operator, so it was continual ringing and then a message that said no one was attending such and such line so you were being transferred to a different operator...I think you get the point).
After a rather frustrating 25 minutes I decided I was going to write them a goddamn email.

So I did. It was...blunt.

About 2 days later I received a reply stating (not asking or requesting) that I had an appointment the following Monday at 9:30am sharp. It had extremely hilarious and specific instructions.

First, the address they provided was different than the normal embassy/consulate. But it said specifically that I needed to go to this address. It had 5 different steps for how to get there. This was going to get interesting, especially considering I'm considerably navigation-challenged.
Second, they made it extremely clear that you were to arrive at the exact time - early or late comers would not be permitted in. No exceptions.

Well, okay, at least I had an appointment. Improvement in the situation.

On the given day I left my apartment half an hour early to make sure I could find the place and still have enough time to potentially get lost and find my way back (just in case).

Luckily, having fabulous mobile technology at my disposal, I found the place with no problem. In fact I was 10 minutes early.

Knowing their instructions and having read them carefully, I waited the 10 minutes before making my presence known. But I'm skipping ahead of myself just a little bit.

First observations - this was no ordinary consulate. Not only was it not in the ordinary location (otherwise known as Embassy Row - next to the park, as I mentioned earlier), this "consulate" that I had been guided to was located between a coffee shop and a dry cleaners.

...that's not suspicious at all.

As per the instructions, there was a buzzer at the door, which looked extremely nondescript. In fact, it looked like the door of an apartment building. One of the doorbells there said, "CONSULATE." After waiting the 10 minutes outside, this was the button I pushed to get in. Someone answered on the loudspeaker and asked if I had an appointment, what my name was, and what time said appointment was at. After answering all of the questions appropriately, I was buzzed in past two doors and told to go to the second elevator down the hallway and go to the fifth floor.

As soon as I stepped through the door I was certain - this was definitely an apartment building. Normal people were living here and going in and out as part of their normal daily routine.

This was getting weirder by the minute.

I got to the elevator, safe and sound, and made my way to the fifth floor. As I stepped out I got out into a spiral staircase. There was a short landing with two doorways. One of them had a plastic plaque on it that said, "CONSULATE." Two people were already waiting there.

Now you have to understand that this was no real hallway - it was literally a stairwell. Like enough space for maybe three people to fit cross-wise. So we all stood there awkwardly, trying not to touch each other and to move out of the way of real people coming down the stairs going outside.

Eventually the door opened and a woman in full police uniform stepped out, motioning for one of the people waiting before me to step in. She noticed me and asked if I had an appointment. I said I did. She asked for my passport. I pulled it out and gave it to her. She took it and immediately went back in, closing the door behind her.

Oh, okay.

I asked the guy (now the only person in the stairwell with me) whether or not his passport had already been collected. He said yes. I felt a little better about the situation. A little. 

I then noticed the cameras all over the entrance. One point toward the door, one taking an entire view of the stairwell, one that very obviously would get more angles that I couldn't even imagine.

I also noticed some graffiti on the walls. I wondered to myself if that kid was immediately caught the next day and jailed, completely unaware that he was defacing something outside of the US Consulate. Poor sucker, probably had no idea what kind of hurt was coming to him.

Another guy arrives on the elevator and waits with me in the hallway. It's silent. He doesn't ask me anything and I don't feel like offering him any advice.

The door opens again and the guy next to me is motioned inside. Still no sign of my passport. The new guy is asked if he has an appointment and he explains that he went to the other address by accident and his appointment was 20 minutes before. The police officer frowns but still takes his passport. The door closes and locks again. Inside my head my Tiger Mother shakes her head about how this boy clearly didn't read the instruction email carefully enough and how he should be more diligent.

Finally it's my turn and I am ushered inside. Immediately I am asked if I have any electronics. I say yes and am asked to turn them off. I turn off my cell phone and have to prove that my ipod is indeed completely off. I'm then asked if I have any documents for my appointment - I take them out and they're placed in a clear plastic box. Do I need to pay for something in my appointment? Yes. My wallet is taken out and put in the clear box with my documents. Am I wearing a watch? Yes. I'm asked to take it off and put it in the box as well.

Then I'm asked to take off my coat and scarf and put them in a separate box with my purse and the electronics that were taken out and turned off. These are stored and I'm given a claim tag so I can pick them up after I'm done with my business.

I'm asked to walk through a walk-thru metal detector. Even though it beeps I'm pretty sure I have no metal on me except my earrings and another guard then metal-wands me, back and front, up and down. I'm asked to spread and every inch of my body is appropriately wanded. There are three policemen total in the room at the time. The room is as big as half of my apartment.

After this I'm allowed to take my documents, wallet, and watch and told that I can sit in the waiting room until I'm called by name for my appointment. A guard opens a locked door and I walk through. He shuts and locks it behind me.

The waiting room. A clear glass room where about 20 people sit. It's clear they didn't count how many appointments they would have at once and I get the last seat, located under a tv that is droning some sort of bad Finnish TV. The shelf that holds some sort of electronic is set too low and I have to duck under in order to sit all the way back in the seat. I decide to perch on the seat instead, making the people sitting around me slightly uncomfortable because the seats are so close to one another.

Since no one has their phones or bags they all sit there nervously, unsure what to do with themselves. Some try to watch the Finnish tv, but considering it's something boring and we're all Americans this is pretty useless.

That's when I spot the rack of magazines. I walk over to it. It's mostly Finnish publications, which again have no meaning to me. There are two Nat Geos (National Geographic magazines), one nondescript Sports magazine and one house decorating magazine of some kind. I decide to look at the Nat Geos.

I look at the dates for them and one is from February of this year. The other is from September 2011. I blink and look again. You've got to be f-ing kidding me. I think to myself that it's someone's idea of a really sick joke and decide to reach the Feb 2012 edition.

As I sit there with my Nat Geo I actually get fairly engrossed in it. I've been reading a lot lately (20 books to the count so far since I've moved to Helsinki) and I've always loved the photos in Nat Geo. I read about endangered fish species and the evolution of the human teenage brain. I wonder to myself how much Nat Geo subscriptions cost nowadays. I think to myself I should get myself a subscription when I'm grown up.

It's at this point that I notice that someone is calling my name. I throw my Nat Geo in the general direction of the magazine stand (it's entirely likely that I missed it altogether).

The reason I almost missed hearing my name is quite practical - as with many governmental functions interactions with people are limited to face-to-face conversations separated by glass with a magnified loudspeaker between. There is about a 10 foot hallway space between these windows and the door to the waiting room (which is propped open). The distortion alone should count for something. 

As I step to the glass that contains the man who called my name he starts talking to me, asking me for my extra passport pictures.

What extra passport pictures?

Oh sorry, you're here for extra passport pages.

Yes, sir.

I hand him my documents and my passport. He gives them a cursory glance before asking me if I brought a prepaid envelope to have them send it back to me.


Nothing about this on their stupidly nondescript and unhelpful website. He starts to tell me I can go to the post office a few blocks away and leave it with the guards before he realizes that I can pick it up two days later from them. I am relieved. I had already started to ask if I could just throw more money at the problem (this is sometimes a solution to many problems).

He asks me to follow him to the first window, where I go to pay.

The man there asks if I want to pay by credit card or cash. I say credit card. 

It's then he realizes that their system is down (not sure how he wouldn't have realized this before, considering every other window I can hear the conversation that the system is down and they have no access to anything) and that I need to pay in cash.

I ask him how much it is. He looks it up.


I have that in cash, so I pull out 70 and start handing it to him.

He said they can't open the cash drawers because the system is down so not only can he not give me a receipt he also can't give me change.

I stare at him blankly. Can this really be my country's consulate? My country? The one that is so anal about security and documentation that you need to include donation receipts if you're claiming anything as a tax write-off? Am I somehow being scammed?

The woman behind him asks how much change I need. I say that I could give her a euro more to make it 5euros if that makes it easier, and slip that through the window slot. She rushes away to get her purse.

Her purse.

And comes back with my change.

They then say that I'm done and can come back Wednesday morning to pick up my passport.

Against all reason I am thinking that this is probably the safest place I could leave my passport and expect to get it back. Because you wouldn't get scammed by your own consulate...right?

As I leave the guards are very friendly (instead of official and stone-faced, as they were when I came in) and ask me how things went. I tell them the systems are down and things are confused in there, that I'll be back on Wednesday. They wish me a good day.

And thus ended the strangest morning I've ever spent. 

I guess we'll see if I actually get anything back on Wednesday morning or if this strange apartment consulate has strangely disappeared by the time I go back...


  1. I had trouble posting so I'm trying Firefox this time...but if you see three posts from me you know why...

    Wow. That is a crazy experience. It sounds like a speakeasy from back in the day. Was it dark when you went? Then it would have been even creepier. I'm glad you followed the rules though, unlike that other guy.

    I hope you get your passport back. I wonder if they are going to make you a whole new one--I don't know how they would attach the pages. I just think it's great you filled up a passport. You're an inspiration!

    1. p.s. This is from American M. ;)

  2. OMG I loved this story. I should send you the one about my jury duty. :) Esp enjoyed Tiger Mom reference. :)