Friday, July 22, 2011


I went to the US Embassy in Tirana yesterday just past noon to renew my passport, which will expire in December, inside the six months recommended. As I walked up towards the high yellow walls along Rruga e Elbasanit, I could feel the sweat start to trickle down my back, and I couldn’t help but think how different this was from my visit last November, when I went for an affidavit of something or other as part of my residency visa application. Then it was cold, wet, and windy; I was wrapped up in warm woolen layers (scarf, hat, sweater, coat). Yesterday was a warm, clear summer day, and this change of seasons more than anything else makes me feel like we’ve been here for a solidly long time.

So I arrived at the back entrance to the complex, the entrance for visa and citizen services, and had to wait in a narrow alley in the hot sun with about thirty other people – all Albanians, as far as I could tell – since the office was still closed for lunch. It was moderately interesting to see how different people reacted differently to the situation; the woman whose swollen feet strained in her cheap black shoes humbly took her place in line; the woman carrying an expensive purse and the prosperous-looking man with his cell phone in a belt holster stood in the shade near the wall until the security guard told them to move; then they stood at the edge of the sidewalk (still in the shade) about six inches closer to the rest of us but nowhere near the rest of us, on the other side of the alley where they’d been told to go.

At five minutes to 1:00, the guard (heavy night-stick, but no gun) motioned me over towards the entrance and asked “citizen?” I said yes, and he nodded and opened the heavy door for me. At the security booth I relinquished my cell phone, went through the metal detector, and was in. As I walked across a small, shaded courtyard, I could see obliquely the long line of Albanians watching me through the gate.

It’s a weird feeling, getting shunted to the front of the line. I remember the same thing happening to me in Peru when I was 19 and had to renew my US passport while there on a break from college. The difference is that I am also a Peruvian citizen, and the long line of people I walked past that time were all Peruvians. And it felt wrong. It felt wrong to have a privilege that these men, women, and children didn’t have, as I walked past them feeling in the pit of my being “I am one of you, too!” and knowing at the same time that in many ways I am not.

If you think the DMV is a strange place, the visa application office at the US Embassy in Albania is even stranger. It’s a small room, with six glassed-in windows. 1-4 are for visa services, 5 is for citizen services and the sixth is the teller where you pay the fees. There are eleven chairs, but the ebb and flow of people means that up to 25 or so can stuff themselves in at once. Framed photos on the wall of Barak Obama, Joe Biden, and Hilary Clinton smile with shining teeth across from a painting of an girl in traditional Albanian costume holding a sheep, her long flowing brown hair enveloping a dove. You wonder if staunch Republicans waiting in this room for citizenship services feel more, or less, at home when they see the photos.

There is no real privacy. You can hear every conversation that takes place. The woman trying to explain to the visa officer where she actually lives, since she spends part of the year in her home in Albania and part of the year in her home in Macedonia (where her husband lives and works); the man applying for a visa for his young wife and three-month-old baby who is told he has to “bring proof that you were in Albania during the dates you say you were,” even though he has everything the web site said he should bring; the family of three who talk in nearly-perfect English with the visa officers but in Albanian with each other; the man answering extremely personal questions about his relationship history with his American wife; you can hear everything they say, and it feels awkward and wrong to be privy to the complexities of these strangers’ lives.

You think about the performance each interaction entails; wondering how people decided what to wear that day; noting body language, tone of voice, the phrasing of responses. You notice yourself acting more American – using colloquialisms, making unabashed eye contact with a strange man to show you are a liberated American woman. Even with the security guard, you say “thank you” when you retrieve your cell phone, not “Faleminderit.” Like every other applicant there, you are extremely polite.

I left the Embassy just short of an hour after I had arrived, with a receipt to pick up my new passport in a couple of weeks. I realized I was hungry since I’d left for my 1:15 appointment (which is kind of a joke, since up to four people can have an appointment for the same time slot, and they just take you in the order you show up; but since everybody wants to be on time, it’s a weird mad little scramble as all four jockey for their place in line) without eating. Dealing with bureaucrats is always unnerving, even when you have in your hand that magical talisman, that blue and gold passport; even when you know that the minute you open your mouth to speak the American officer behind the window will smile and you will see him relax just the tiniest little bit and he will meet your gaze with friendliness and regard, and you know he will be thinking “oh, she’s American; she’s an expat in Albania, like me,” and you will let him think that you are just like him, because it will help you get what you want.


E. Phantzi said...

and Mom, I was totally thinking about you the whole time.

Anita said...

You're a great writer. I would notice all the same things, but I would never take the time to write about it.