Great Moments in Bureaucracy (Part 1: A Fistful of Euros)

So, we drove Alma to the US Consulate in Frankfurt today to file for her US Passport. This proved, unsurprisingly, to be a bit challenging. We wouldn’t want just any old kid claiming to be a US citizen, now, would we?  But before I get ahead of myself…

1. On Friday, we tried to take a passport photo of Alma.  The requirements of the passport photo are minimal: it just has to be 5x5cm, on a white background, with the head taking up between 25 and 35mm of the frame, and the eyes positioned between 28-35mm from the bottom of the photograph, and the infant facing straight ahead, eyes open, with a neutral expression, and both ears showing completely.  As we quickly learned, this is a nearly impossible set of constraints to satisfy, especially when your infant, upon being placed on her back, starts to squirm in every possible direction (if she is in a good mood.  We managed to take several hundred photos on my iPhone, out of which one (or possibly two) met all the qualifications.  It then took us another two days (and a few failed trips to the local DM store) to actually get the photo printed on glossy paper in the right dimensions, with the help of my student Georg and his own private photo printer.  The picture we ended up using is not the most glamorous photo of Alma (see below), but it’s a passport photo, so I guess that’s to be expected.  In any case, many of the other pictures we took were very cute, so this wasn’t an entirely pointless effort.

alma-passport2. We had to fill out multiple different forms (with totally redundant information on each form) in advance, and also bring evidence, above and beyond our US passports, proving that “we have been in the US for at least one day”.  I’m not sure who invented the one-day rule, but it’s a great rule: it is seemingly designed to make life as hard as possible for expats who have been away from the US too long and forgotten where they keep all their important papers, while simultaneously making said expats feel like idiots for not being able to prove they were in the US for even one day.  As for myself, I felt very smart because my birth certificate was sitting in my “Important Papers” folder (or maybe it was in the “black envelope” with other mysterious papers — I can’t remember).  But Rose couldn’t find any immediate evidence.  We had her mother email her a scanned copy of her birth certificate and college transcripts, and crossed our fingers.

IMG_15863. Today, we drove up from Saarbruecken to Frankfurt (about a 2.5-hour drive during rush hour).  This went very well: Alma slept basically the whole way.  When we got there, they warned us up front that their credit card machines broke.  Or they were not accepting credit cards today (“sorry for the inconvenience”).  Or something like that.  Despite the fact that we were told to bring a form with our credit card information on it.  What me worry?  I had brought $200 in cash!

IMG_1585Initially, things seemed to be going fine.  Everyone was pretty friendly.  But then the passport officer gave me the bill.  It turned out there was an extra charge of $100 for “Report of Birth Abroad”.  Report of Birth Abroad?  I’m the one reporting the birth, they should pay me!  And the website never mentioned any $100.  [UPDATE: Actually it does, under “Report of Birth Abroad”, but it was not clear to me that this was a separate charge on top of the US Passport Application.  OK, I’m an idiot.]  Anyway, this would have been fine, except that of course that $100, on top of the $105 I was expecting to pay, came to $205.  And all I had was $200.  Did they accept euros as well?  Yes!  Great — I had 5 euros in my wallet.  Problem solved.  I went to the cashier and presented her the money.  She was a very friendly-looking person, who said hello in a very friendly way, and proceeded to explain in a very friendly voice that this wouldn’t work.  They could not simply accept $200 and 5 euros to cover a $205 bill.  Before reading on, take a minute to see if you have any idea why that would be.

IMG_1548So you might have thought that the problem was they could only accept payment completely in dollars or completely in euros.  That was not the case.  They could accept payment with a combination of dollars and euros.  But: each individual charge on the bill could only be paid completely in dollars or completely in euros.  The minimum subcharge on the bill was $25 (for the passport book or something), so she could take $180 in payment for everything else, plus 23 euros for the passport book.  But I only had 5 euros in cash.  And Rose had already spent her remaining euros on buying a self-addressed envelope at the consulate for them to send us the passport in.  (As it turned out, she may have had enough change in her pockets, plus the spare change in the car, to cover the 23 euros, but we didn’t think of it at the time.)

IMG_15904. Of course, the consulate, in their non-credit-card-accepting state, did not have an ATM machine on the premises.  So I had to go out looking for an ATM.  I asked the security guards and they sent me to a gas station around the block, but the first gas station I found had no ATM, and the second one had an ATM that was broken.  The cashier there said (in English!) that she “hoped” there “might” be a working ATM at the gas station a kilometer or so down the road, but she wasn’t sure.  Eventually, after several U-turns, I found a gas station to get cash at, but at this point, I was getting nervous that the consulate was going to close for lunch.  (We had arrived at 10:30 and now it was close to 12.)  Fortunately, after this (at least) 45-minute detour, I made it back in time with a fistful of euros.  The place was almost deserted at this point, and it didn’t take long this time to get through security.  The cashier took our money, the passport officer had already approved all our paperwork, there were no problems with our passport photo or our corroborating documents, and so everything was over in a flash.  The officer then told us we could go file our paperwork for Alma’s social security card at door 26 down the hall.  If there wasn’t anyone there, he said we should ring the bell and someone would come.  We went there, there was no one there, and we rang the bell.  No one came.  The sign said their hours were Monday-Friday 8-11 AM.  It was now after 12.  We asked the security guard for help.  He went away for a few minutes, came back, and said everyone was “out to lunch”.  “Would they be back after lunch?” we asked.  “No, they don’t process any new paperwork after lunch.”

I think I now understand the true meaning of the phrase “out to lunch”.