1993. The smell of human flesh and colors of the outfits reminded me of a hot, humid Brazilian bus, any joyfulness dampened by Lusitania dourness, dolefulness? Gloom? While spending more than enough time in a line to conceive an entire family, I mused on the best adjective to describe the Portuguese spirit.
Slowly, the currents of skintones ebbed and I drifted within earshot of the desk protecting Bureaucrat 1. I listened. Anticipatory socialziation, the sociologists call it. Conclusions? Information had to be mined, was never offered. Furthermore, the nuggets of information, names of documents, form numbers, numbers of copies appeared to my fluent if uniniated ears to vary. No system. No procedure.
That was my introduction to Portuguese public service.
2003. The capture pens had increased tremendously in size. Air conditioning had been invented. It had been realized that the livestock, I mean ‘applicants for immigration’, should be humanely treated.
The wait remained the same. My musings had evolved from the frisson of anticipating a new life and a new culture to the pondering of strategies on how to survive a disintegrating marriage while working in a less-than-friendly job.
A shiver of interest ran through the crowd. It was election time. A modern, leftwing, firebrand orador of a polictician came through the office, distributing handbills with information about immigrants’ rights every which way, except my way. I wasn’t brown enough, I suppose.
2008. I’m still awaiting my latest residency authorization card. Hadn’t needed it until I wanted to buy a condo. Had to have my divorced status on my id.
I needn’t have dreaded my trip to SEF. The modernisation of the services had continued unabated for the last 15 years. One could now get an appointment to come and wait in line for four hours. The staff had received training in customer service.
“Here is your card but I’m afraid it’s not valid.”
“Not valid. Your address isn’t correct.”
(Mind you, I had come to pick up the residency authorization card – which I had felt not an iota of use for in the previous years - in preparation for the Deed Signing for the purchase of my new condo. The address of my rental would be valid for no more than 6 weeks or so.)
"But I need it next week to sign the deed on my new house."
“So why didn’t you come to pick it up earlier?” asked Politeness Incarnate.
(“I don’t live in Alabama” an anachronistic thought.)
“I was told to await noticification before coming to pick it up.”
My standard joke for those two years had been that it takes, on average, 3.9 minutes for a civil servant to perform the data entry necessary to inform The State of my change of address and marital status. It then took 1 year, 364 days, 7 hours and 56.1 seconds to press the enter button.
I neglected to share my joke, instead taking, politely, the offensive.
“I want to complain! I waited 2 years for this document and it was sitting here, waiting for me the whole time?”
Superior Politeness was summonsed. She listened. She proffered a semblance of empathy. She would carry the document directly to the Supreme Boss.
“Shall I wait?”
“No. We’ll contact you within two days.”
Which, in fact, they did.
It was the last working day before a public holiday. There were very few candidates waiting to be attended. After almost an hour of waiting for them to call no numbers I went and asked someone.
Politeness Incarnate 2 said, “I’ve got your card! I told you on the phone to come directly to me and not to wait in line.”
Blame my going-on-fifty-year-old-ears, blame my bargain quality technology. I had not heard that I was to skip the line and go straight to her.
(She most definitely had not instructred me to wait patiently for 45 minutes between Senhor Passive-Aggressive’s finishing with one client and calling the next number).
Politeness again effused.
Card was apprehended.
Back turned upon Immigration office. Home regained. Photo on card investigated and dismay exclaimed, “They’ve mispelt my name!”
There go another two years of my life!