Visa grumblings

My passport has hoarded ten visas in the last ten years. Most of these visa processing have been smooth, including two American visas, mind you. So naturally when I walked into the Spain embassy, around mid August, I expected the visa processing to be a cake walk. Boy, was I mistaken. Now remember, this is not my first Schenghen visa experience, not even my second. This was the fourth time I’m applying for a visa to a European Union (EU) country. Of course, by now I thought I knew all about applying to visas in the EU. Therefore applying for a visa to Spain was the least of my worries.

After my plans were fixed, tickets were bought and hotels were booked, I proceeded to book an online appointment for the visa. This was at the beginning of August. I go online to their visa appointment scheduler and the website said the next available date was August 22nd. What?! Americans don’t even need a visa, so who are all these people who are frantically applying for visas to Spain? Spain’s unemployment rate is so high that I can’t even imagine anybody going there on a long term visa from the States. Reluctantly, I grab the first available appointment on 22nd which was at 8.20 a.m. Earlier the better, right? They even made me pay $6 for scheduling my visa appointment.

The day before the appointment, I rechecked all the paperwork required for the visa processing. Passport..check, F1..check, 2 photos..check, Invitation letter..check, Hotels/Flight/Itinerary…check, Insurance..check. Great, I was feeling accomplished already ready to take on the Spaniards early morning next day.

On the day of the appointment, I woke up at 6, did my daily ablutions, got ready by 7 and left for the Embassy. Now unlike the Netherlands embassy which is in some godforsaken part of Los Angeles, the Spanish embassy was right in the middle of the city. I got there around 8, smiled at the security guard of the building, wrote my name on a piece of paper, and took the elevator 8 floors up to the Embassy. Now, in all the previous visa appointment dates, we were told to arrive 10 minutes early because there was a security guard to check our belongings. Anticipating this, I walked into the Embassy (10 minutes earlier than my appointment) to find 3 people sitting around (in no particular order) inside the embassy. The visa counter was open. The other two counters were closed. Wait, where was the security guard? Was there no token system? Where was I supposed to sit? Guessing there was no real order in figuring out where to sit, I find a nice, cozy chair and make myself comfortable.

A young couple was at the counter. They were going on a cruise in the Balkans and their first port of entry was Spain. They were talking to a woman at the counter. She, honestly, looked like Ms. Trunchbull from Enid Blyton’s Matilda or Kamal Hassan’s  “Chaachi no: 420” (choose the picture which is best suited to your imagination). She cross questioned the couple and of course, they didn’t think about bringing a copy of their itinerary for the visa interview. The young lady finally had to pull the itinerary up on her phone and Ms. Trunchbull looked a little convinced though she insisted having copies of the itinerary mailed to her. After some another 5 minutes of questions, Trunchbull finally asked for their visa fee, which is £ 79 (per person) and has to be in the form of cashier’s check. The young couple looked bewildered. They said they had paid the money online. Trunchbull looked like she was going to get up, catch them by their ears and throw them out of the embassy. Poor couple. Tch, tch, they had thought the £ 6 fee for setting up an appointment online is the visa fee. If only the EU was kind enough to charge all of us the $10 which the samaritan Japanese embassy charges for a visa. So now the young couple is being packed up and all to go and get a cashier’s cheque. Trunchbull looks at a sheet of paper and calls out my name, wrong pronunciation of course K

I trotter over, smile at her, and hand her my documents one by one. She is being extremely nice till it comes to my medical insurance letter. I see a frown on her forehead and a scowl, she looks up at me and says “You need to get another letter, this doesn’t say the amount of money you are insured for. We need atleast £ 30,000.” Great, now I need to call Aetna again, my medical insurance company provided through USC. Trunchbull gets up and gives me a paper stating what they want and highlights it with a marker. I tell them I’ll get the documents to them the very next day, pay up my fees and leave.

The next day Aetna faxes me another letter which states my coverage ($750,000). Ah, much more than what EU wants. So I’m all elated and all that. I ask a friend to scan it for me and I send it to the embassy. Now weekend comes and goes (I’m still feeling jubilant about my day at the Spanish embassy) and I get a mail from them on Monday saying they don’t open any documents through mail or fax, only snail mail. Ouch. I trot over to the post office, find an envelope, get some stamps, and mail the letter to the embassy.

Now, a week and a half goes by. I haven’t heard anything back from them. So, now I’m a little panicky. My departure date is approaching and I have a ton of work to get done, including my handout for the semantics conference. The last thing I needed to worry about was my passport at that point. So, I send them an email. Earlier they had replied to my mails, right? No reply. I sent another one, no reply again. I called the embassy, nobody picked up. Hmm, panic mode! Now, I have made up my mind to storm into the embassy and demand for my passport.

I walk in to the embassy the next day. Remember they don’t have security. I could just walk up, straight to the counter, and ask them for the passport. Sweet. They told me to wait. A guy was sitting next to me and this was his 5th time at the embassy. Oh no! They needed some documents from him and only wanted to see originals, and so he had to come down with them each time they wanted an additional document. Talk about harassment. Finally, I was called back again to the counter. The woman was not Trunchbull this time. This lady was much younger and pleasant. But she was not the carrier of good news. She told me I still didn’t have the necessary documentations needed for them to process my visa. Omg! I asked her why they hadn’t made any attempts at contacting me to let me know. She said the person who was supposed to review my documents didn’t review them. Great, I could feel my blood starting to boil. I asked her what is it that they exactly want. They told me the insurance letter needs to clearly state that I don’t have any deductibles in case of an accident or emergency situation. She said the best way out is to purchase travel insurance and resubmit the letter to them.

A friend of mine had thankfully accompanied me to the embassy. After I came out, both of us frantically searched online for the best travel insurance option for the 12 day stay in Spain. We found a couple, and finally settled on one. We called them up, gave them the relevant information, and took the policy. They sent me a 21 page document stating the policy coverage. We took print outs and slipped them under the embassy door (oh remember, they work only 4 hours a day, so obviously they were closed by the time we figured out all this). Phew, now for some lunch. So my friend and I settle on getting some Indian lunch from a restaurant nearby. We drive there, park the car, order some Indian grub and then my phone rings. Normally, I don’t pick up unknown numbers. For some reason I had a feeling this was from the Spain embassy and I picked up the call. They had received my travel insurance but they regretfully announced that even those 21 pages don’t serve the purpose!! Okay, now I’m ready to shoot myself.  First they made me run around on the hottest day in Los Angeles, spend a couple of dollars getting print outs and insurances, and they still don’t want to process my visa when I had only a couple of days left to travel?

It was already too late to do anything now. Weekend was already here and I was at a cul de sac. This time I decided to take my time and research options available for travel insurance. I finally found one which looked like exactly what the Spanish wanted. By now I tell you, I’m disgusted to go to the country. I’m all like, no you can keep the money, just return the passport, I just want to stay back in the States kind of mood. Anyway, since I really had to go to Spain for work, I decided to give it one last shot. I took another travel policy, printed out a letter where they clearly state my deductible is zero and decide to head to the Spanish embassy at 8 a.m on Monday morning ( a day before I travel to Spain) and plead them to stamp my visa.

Another Monday morning arrived and I reached the embassy by 7.50 a.m. They open only at 8 a.m, so we weren’t allowed to go upstairs. Finally, the clock struck 8 and I dashed up the 8 floors to the embassy. I was first in line. The lady behind the counter was neither Trunchball, nor the lady I had spoken to on Friday. Great, so now I have to rant all over again about the urgency of the matter. The woman looked at the letter and gave me a thumbs up sign. Hallelujah! I tell you, the feeling I had was as if I found diamonds in a mine or something. I now begged her to stamp the visa, since I had to leave the next day. Unfortunately, I was teaching at 10 on Monday, so there was no way I could come back and pick up the passport. I had anticipated this situation and authorized a friend to pick it up for me. Thankfully, on Friday, the embassy had told me they want the authorized letter to be notarized and me and my friend had done all this on Friday itself. I tell the embassy the situation and they tell me not to worry and by afternoon, I miraculously receive my passport back!!! Yay! All it took for the Spanish embassy to stamp a visa afterall was a matter of 4 hours :D. So much for efficiency.

This was one big drama now that I think about it. In retrospect, it was totally worth it in the end. Spain is exquisitely beautiful and I’m glad I decided to go back for the third time to the embassy to hand in my documents. I would have regretted it if hadn’t come. More on this in future posts. Adios!