Paperwork it out

d'Lëtzebuerger Land du 11.12.2020

In a stuffy government office, I watched a visibly overworked Portuguese civil servant rifle through the documents dearest to me in the world: my passport, diploma, rental contract, bank account info, and acceptance letter for a teacher-training program. This was in Lisbon, eleven years ago. I had moved to Portugal to obtain a teaching certificate and snag a job as an English instructor, but first I had to establish my legal right to do these things as a non-European. The civil servant sighed, produced a slip of paper, and slid it over to me. On it was an address. “You’re in the wrong place,” he informed me. “Go here.”

I got up before dawn to catch a bus to an underpopulated industrial zone outside town. My directions were written down in pen; even though it was 2013, I had no smartphone or data plan. I’d arrived in Maastricht just a fortnight before, and after two nights in a riverboat hostel had nabbed a lease on a studio apartment. My job was lined up on the condition that I achieve legal status in the Netherlands. In my backpack was, again, my stack of precious documents. I walked twenty minutes from the bus stop, found the office, waited my turn. After a short and emotionless interview, the Dutch bureaucrat explained that a paper was missing. “Come back after you get it,” she said.

The Gemeng, earlier this year: I was presenting, in admittedly rehearsed Luxembourgish, an encyclopedically gigantic trove of documents I was hoping to employ in the acquisition of Grand Duchy citizenship. Among the documents was a freshly minted birth certificate, expensively translated into Luxembourgish after having been wrangled from the private American company that processes such requests for the state of Michigan. The civil servant, dressed in a clothing style I can only describe as “powerfully casual,” frowned over my documents but agreed to pass them on to the Justizministère. “Four months,” he said, by way of explanation.

At a new immigration office that was nevertheless uncannily similar to the last, I took a ticket. At the window, they told me to disappear for at least three hours, so I went outside into the brightening city of Lisbon and wandered the streets. When I got back, I waited another two hours in a dingy room roughly the temperature of Venus before a slightly altered version of the same overworked Portuguese civil servant checked over my documents. “This is the wrong type of bank statement,” he said, almost instantly. “And this is the wrong office.”

At the city hall of Maastricht, a modern building on the banks of the River Maas, an extraordinarily tall – evident despite that fact that he was sitting – man thumbed through the latest booklet of my institutional history. He asked me why I didn’t have the certificate that I’d tried to get from that place out in that industrial zone, especially when the list of required items so clearly requested it. “They said I needed a tax registration first,” I explained, “and the tax people say they need this document from you first.” The man shook his head and quietly told me that it didn’t work like that. Goodbye.

A letter from the Justizministère informed me that the affidavit I had sworn about my criminal history wasn’t permissible, and that I had two weeks to obtain a criminal background check from the FBI. The FBI? Like, the real FBI?

The third Portuguese immigration office was definitively hotter than Venus and the civil servant found a new error that none of her predecessors had found. She was almost proud of that.

Back in the industrial zone outside Maastricht, a bored official told me that the city hall could prepare a paper that would act as a stand-in for the document that the tax office needed, a sort of non-document document.

I printed out an FBI fingerprint chart and went to the police headquarters in Hamm. A man, dressed in a powerfully casual sweater, stuck my fingers in ink and then on the page. We did two versions of the same form, “because if one of the prints is muddied, they can’t process the request.” I mailed this artwork to an address across the Atlantic.

My Brazilian roommate listened to my complaints. “Any of these goddamn knuckleheads can give you the permit,” he said angrily. He accompanied me to a fourth immigration office and proceeded first to speak, and then to scream, at the civil servant in a beautifully vicious cadence of Portuguese. After three minutes, we walked out of there. I held the permit in my hands.

I got the stand-in non-document document no problem – all I had to do was ask specifically for it at city hall, like dropping a codeword to get into a speakeasy – and then, eventually, got my status in the Netherlands.

Can any cultural patterns be drawn from all this? In Portugal you yell for what you want, while the Dutch need an insider codeword. The USA does things as theatrically as possible (FBI fingerprints? where am I, a Netflix series?) while in Luxembourg… well, all I see here are well-worn grooves of functionality. Is this how my long tango with European immigration bureaucracy will end? Not with explosive dissonance, but with a music drably harmonized by a class of the powerfully casual?

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Jeffrey Palms
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