Friday, June 29, 2007
In an ideal world, there'd be no need for travelers to waste their time and money obtaining visas: buying a plane ticket and booking a hotel room would suffice. Thanks to various international treaties and conventions, there's a fair number of visa-free oases - though, unfortunately, many people all around the world are still doomed to wait in embassy lines and have their passports stamped with visa denials.
Among the unlucky ones are those citizens of Ukraine who wish to travel to what's widely considered "the West."
Tanya Kremen, a Ukrainian journalist, studies Spanish but feels that a plane ticket to Latin America costs too much. So she decided to go to Spain. She had a valid Schengen visa - unlike the two of her friends who wanted to go along.
What follows is a translation of the story of their frustrating visit to the Spanish Embassy in Kyiv (RUS), posted by Tanya on her blog at Korrespondent.net on June 25:
Have you ever tried to go to Spain? This wonderful, sunny country with friendly people, sandy beaches and delicious food?
No, I don't mean going through a travel agency, but on your own, developing a route, booking hotel via internet, buying tickets - and, a trifle, obtaining visas.
Give it a try.
I happen to have a valid Schengen visa, but two of my friends (let's call them Vova and Dima, because these are their names) don't. So what's the problem, you'd think - don't we live in Ukraine, a country bordering the European Union, a country aspiring to European integration. Vova and Dima, who've been to various European countries more than once, gather all the required paperwork and at 10 A.M. arrive at the Embassy of Spain to apply for their visas.
One of them is a commercial director of a large trading company, the other is the external relations director at an equally large company. They've downloaded their applications form from the embassy's internet site and filled them out, they have all the documents that are listed on the embassy's site. Earlier, they paid 35 hryvnias [$7] at the Call Centre and were assigned the time - a date, 10 A.M.
For starters, they find out at the embassy entrance that the preliminary sign-up at the Call Centre has nothing to do with the way things really are, because those people who were signed up for 9 A.M. are still awaiting their turn. And you have to get in line - into the crowd, that is - and it's not allowed to stand in front of the embassy's windows - because the consul doesn't like it when the view is blocked - and that's why one has to mix with the crowd at some distance.
Vova and Dima stand in the crowd by the embassy and await their turn. [When it arrives], the guard, one of whose responsibilities is, in his own words, to "yell," would yell, "ATTENTION!" and then announce in a thundering voice the last names of those whose turn it is to enter - shamelessly distorting these names.
They stand there, smoke, chat - because there's nothing else to do there - and after about an hour and a half of waiting under the burning Kyiv sun, the guard cries out their last names. They come inside and find themselves in a room of 20 square meters, where about two dozen people sit and wait for their appointment. A receptionist girl [...] and a guard keep them company. There's no air to breathe in the little room, because they've chosen not to spend money on air conditioning, and this is why [the receptionist] asks the guard in a seductive voice: "Misha, open the door, let them breathe," and then, in half an hour, "Misha, enough of breathing, close it." The waiting has to be done in silence and without smiling - at least this is what the [receptionist] says. "Everyone stay silent while I speak," she addresses the public. "I don't recommend laughing here," she says strictly to Vova and Dima, who are giggling nervously.
In this friendly atmosphere, Vova and Dima spend an hour and a half more, and then they are finally allowed to approach the window where they have to submit applications and the money - exactly $46 each, and only in new bills. By the way, since $46 is a somewhat uneven sum, most local currency exchange points have long ago run out of small dollar bills.
They give their papers to a blond girl [...], and she, having barely glance at them, asks patronizingly:
- Tell me, how long have you been sitting here?
- Three hours, - reply Vova and Dima honestly.
- Then you had plenty of time to study the right way of filling out the application! - the blond switches to yelling and throws the papers back.
The papers fly apart like a fan, but Vova and Dima make a peaceful attempt to find out what exactly it was that annoyed the girl like this.
- Excuse me, but could you introduce yourself? - Vova asks.
- We were taught not to introduce ourselves! - replies the girl haughtily [...].
- But still, what's wrong with our papers? - Vova and Dima try to find out.
- I'm not an inquiry office. We aren't answering questions here, - the girl utters a classic line of a Soviet bureaucrat.
This prompts Vova and Dima to insist on speaking to the girl's bosses. The boss does come out - a Spanish employee named Cesar - but the result of their talk is that Vova and Dima are told to go back to the reception and fill their forms anew. They try to explain that they got the forms from the embassy's site, and Cesar says the following: "This site is in no way related to the embassy. It was created by the ministry of foreign affairs of Spain. Go ask them."
Rather exhausted but still eager, Vova and Dima return to the reception. They take new forms and try to understand how different they are from their forms - because the papers are absolutely identical. After a while the receptionist [...] takes pity on the obtuse ones and explains: the forms are printed out on two separate sheets of paper, and the correct way is to have them printed on both sides of one sheet.
And so, five and a half hours since their appointment time, Vova and Dima fill in the forms, return them to the blond and pay the money. Then blond informs them that they may call in two weeks (!) to find out whether they'd be given their visas or not and whether any more paperwork is required of them.
- And what if we aren't given visas? What happens with the money then? - asks Vova.
- The money remains at the embassy, - the blond replies.
- What for? - asks Vova.
- For having us talk to you, - the blond explains politely.
After this, Vova and Dima - tired, having missed all their meetings, having killed the day to submit a visa application - walk out of the embassy and stage a tiny protest: they sit down with their backs to the embassy building and smoke. Soon, the guard runs out in panic:
- What are you doing??
- We are protesting, - Vova and Dima say.
- What do you mean you're protesting? - the guard is taken aback.
- We'll hold a hunger strike here, right by your windows, - Vova and Dima say.
The guard shrinks and then asks cordially:
- I understand you, but I'll have problems. Please.
And Vova and Dima leave.
Do you think it's a singular case? It's not. How about a refusal to accept papers because of a smiling face on a photo? (the French embassy). How about a refusal to issue a two-week business visa - because, according to the consul, one week is perfectly enough for business negotiations? (the Austrian embassy). How about a refusal to issue a visa because... Who knows because of what. A consul of a European state is not obliged to explain why he doesn't want to give you a visa. He doesn't owe anything to anyone. He doesn't even have to be polite.
Polite? With Ukrainians? With these third-rate citizens? Oh please.
There are 66 comments to this post so far. Some readers offer practical tips, others share their own stories of dealing with embassies. A few people suggest that Tanya should instead travel to a country that issues visas on arrival at the airport - a country like Turkey or Jordan. Some appear angry with the Spaniards - and with Western Europeans in general, but theirs is clearly a minority view on this blog: most readers agree that the problem is, above all, with the embassies' unqualified and rude local staff. Here's what Tanya Kremen writes on this:
And I do like the country. I've been there already. A good country, and the people are good.
Only the embassy is brainsick.