Last week, on Monday 16th August 2011, we had our appointment at the US Embassy in London for our Visa Interview. Until we passed this stage, nothing was certain – the interview was the final tick in a long list of official boxes and, until we’d been approved, the machine that is the Microsoft Relocation Team refused to launch into action. So, it was a big day for the Peppers, to say the least.
“Our” appointment was at 9.30am. On hearing this news, you might think we’d rock up to the Embassy at about quarter past, wait for our scheduled interview, maybe chat with a nice Embassy employee for half an hour, and then skip out of there somewhere around 10am with a nice shiny new visa. Um. No. Actually, around 200 other people have the same appointment. And, from reading various ranting posts around on the internet, if you’re really unlucky it could be a lot more than that. And it could be raining. Have a Google – there are multiple tales of anguish, reporting 4 hour waits in the pouring rain, while paperwork gets soggy and bladders come close to bursting!
So, the Pepper story…we were lucky enough that Evie’s “Auntie” from nursery offered to come and sit with her for an hour on Monday morning and then take her down to nursery at 8am. It was, thank goodness, a gorgeous day, so we hopped on the 7.30 train to Victoria, strong coffee and chocolate croissant in hand, and sat with nervous trepidation for the next hour – not helped at all by the fact that you are not permitted to bring any electronic items into the Embassy. Including mobile phones. Whiling away a train journey with no Gmail, Facebook, text messages or music? Ye Gods – we were going to actually have to talk to each other!!!!
Fortunately, we arrived at Victoria with our marriage still intact, took the tube over to Green Park, then just a short walk through stunning Westminster and Marylebone to the Embassy at Grosvenor Square. The posh parts of London really are so beautiful on a summer morning…it’s just a shame you have to wade through all the crap to get to them!
And this is where is gets…unexpected! You walk around the corner and there is the Embassy, a huge boxy monstrosity of a building, with a huge gilded bald eagle perched on top (Wikipedia tells me it has a wing span of 35 feet), the Stars and Stripes fluttering in the wind behind him. There’s an armed roadblock on the street approaching Grosvenor Square, and policemen casually chatting in front of the entrance, guns in hand. And, milling around in front of a great statue of General Eisenhower, around 60 people, paperwork in hand, trying to work out which queue to join, and which end is which.
There were three queues: one for US Citizens (I’m not really sure what they were queuing for!), one short queue that led to a door marked “Visas”, and a looooong queue that led to a lectern where two women – one cute, tiny American, and one stern-looking, older Brit – stood checking paperwork and asking if you had any electronic devices or metal items on you. Once you were past these ladies, you could join the queue in front of the “Visas” door, which led to the security scanners like the ones you see in airports, which then, of course led to another door, which led to another queue, but more on that later…
None of these queues move particularly quickly; despite the fact that the US Embassy website and the letter you receive informing you of your appointment time clearly state that you cannot bring any electronic devices into the building, some people apparently believe that the rules don’t apply to them. They are wrong. And they are quickly dispatched. NOOOO, not by the men with guns – good grief, what TV shows have you been watching? Off to the local chemist they are sent, where the happy manager rubs his hands with glee and charges a tenner for every mobile phone he’s asked to guard. Cushy little number, huh? I bet this scam alone is paying for his retirement….in Hawaii!
So we queued, we checked our paperwork a dozen times, and then the stern British lady (because of course we wouldn’t get the cute, friendly American) checked it too. I admit to being slightly disconcerted that she didn’t immediately fawn over the most adorable passport photo she’d ever seen (or Evie’s, for that matter), but I’m sure she was melting inside. She asked us to remove any jewellery or belts and put any keys in our bags, and then we were waved through to the security queue.
We were allowed into the smoked glass box building (there’s a theme here!) in groups of 4, and subjected to the most apathetic, rude and ignorant security service I’ve ever come across. The Japanese man who came through with us had his bag scanned and they found a small USB cable, about 3 inches long. They pulled it out of his bag and mumbled (because I certainly couldn’t understand it) something about going back. When he laughed nervously and asked them to repeat, this ignorant little shit yelled in his face “I. Will. Say. It. Slooooooowwwwwlllly. Then. This? THIS?! This is not allowed. You have to go.”. I felt so terrible for the poor guy, he was treated abysmally, not exactly the “God Bless America” first impression I’m sure the Embassy would hope its visitors are treated to.
But, once Damyan actually remembered to remove his belt so he could get through the metal detector, we were finally through the magic gates, past the armed guards and onto Embassy property, hurrah! Another step closer…or merely out of the frying pan and into the fire?
* Darling husband has pointed out that the man was not, in fact, Japanese but “Malaysian, or Indonesian or something”. My apologies.
** I should point out that the arsehole security guys were actually English. Every single American we met on the day was nothing short of polite and charming.