© 2010 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.
Recently, I was sitting in the waiting room of an embassy in order to get a visa, and I started thinking about all those times I'd stood in line or taken a number and waited my turn. After 15 minutes, I had recalled quite a number of such occasions, and I decided to describe some of them in this essay.
In 1979, after seven weeks of travel through Asia and Europe, I arrived in London. The next day, I fronted up at the US Embassy to get my 1-year work visa with the very naïve attitude that I would be "in and out" in double-quick time. [Measured in geological time, I was!] After a considerable wait in line, I got to the end of a corridor, which opened out into a huge room populated by many hundreds of people waiting in lines that snaked back and forth across the wide room. I discovered that my little line was now at the very end of another very long line. Hours later, my paperwork was accepted and I was told to come back in four days, which was about three days longer than I'd expected. [That was my very first time getting a visa in person; 31 years and a million and a half air miles later, I'm much wiser.]
In 1991, I received an invitation from a professor at a university in St. Petersburg, Russia, inviting me to go there and present a series of lectures over a 2-week period. After some dialog via email, I accepted his kind offer and decided to combine it with a holiday and to take my wife and son the following summer. I contacted the Russian embassy in Washington DC to see how to go about getting visas. They said I needed a letter of invitation on letterhead from the sponsoring organization. Less than a week after I conveyed that information to the university by email, I received a letter in the post from New York (where it had been hand-carried by someone on a flight from Russia) written in both Russian and English. I went to the embassy with my filled-out application form, photo, and letter. There were quite a few counters, but only one was open, so I got in the long line. When it was my turn, the officer took my papers and told me to sit and wait while the papers were examined. Sometime later, I was informed that everything regarding my application was okay, but where were the invitations for my wife and son? I explained that while I wanted a business visa, my wife and son would be going as tourists, but the officer insisted they still needed invitations. Two weeks later, I returned with said invitations, and was promptly issued three business visas. Yes, my 8-year-old son was apparently going there on business.
[By the way, I had to pay my own way to get to Russia, but the university provided me with housing and a translator/guide, and paid me an honorarium (which turned out to be 9 Rubles, less than US$10 at the then rate of exchange). Also, like the then just-passed Soviet days, we were issued loose-leaf visas that were handed in when we left the country, which meant that we had no permanent record of having been there. I was actually in country a day or two when I noticed on the visa, text that said I had to report to my local area authorities to let them know my movements; however, that was another Soviet-era holdover, and I ignored it.]
I've traveled to South Korea twice now, and both times, I got a visa from the Washington DC embassy after the usual waiting in line and having them send me my passport by mail a week later. The Korean embassy on-line website rules are clear; I needed to have a visa, yet few of my colleagues got one and they were admitted. And when I went through immigration each time in Seoul, no one seemed interested in checking if I had one. It was all quite odd.
My most recent experience was at the Chinese Embassy. On arrival, I took a number and sat, and to pass the time I made notes about this blog essay. Rather than come back and go through the whole process later in the week (the embassy required in-person pickup) I decided to pay for same-day service. I had arrived at 10 am, to discover than only those applicants with a number issued by 12:30 pm could get their visa on the same day. An hour went by then two, and I feared I'd been waiting for nothing when all of a sudden, a whole series of numbers that were called went unanswered, and I was at the counter lodging my application. I was told to be back at 2:30 pm sharp, and I was, to find a shiny new visa.
Waiting in Airports
Almost all of my flights have run pretty close to schedule and I've never lost permanently any checked luggage. However, I have had some delays at airports. Fortunately, none had any truly serious implications and all have made me appreciate the success that occurs most often. You know, if you don't have bad times, you really can't appreciate the good times either!
I was flying from Linate, the old airport near downtown Milan, Italy. It's located in a low-lying area prone to fog, which contributes significantly to flight delays. And I fell victim. I was connecting in Frankfurt, Germany, and soon after we touched down at FRA, we taxied past the very plane on which I was to go home to the US. However, FRA truly is a huge airport, and by the time we got to our gate in a completely separate terminal and I then got to my departure gate, my connecting flight had been gone 20 minutes. After a long wait in line, the airline took responsibility and checked me into the airport hotel. [I didn't mind getting home a day late, but my next trip was to Australia—in three days—so I didn't want to miss more than one day. As it happened, I slept through my alarm the following morning and nearly missed my make-up flight. Don't you hate that when that happens?]
After a grueling pair of flights from Washington DC to Sydney, Australia, via Los Angeles, I spent eight not-so-wonderful hours in an airport business lounge waiting for a flight to Singapore. And although that flight departed on time, the audio and video equipment was not working, which was a major embarrassment to the Asian airline staff. As a small token of appreciation for our understanding, they handed each boarding passenger a box of chocolate-covered macadamia nuts. I thanked them for the nuts and then promptly crashed for four hours of sleep. I awoke to find a flight attendant hovering near me waiting to get my attention. Using her flight manifest, she confirmed I was who she thought I was, and then asked me to follow her to the galley for a private chat. There, she apologized for the lack of facilities en-route and that as a distinguished Star Alliance customer I was entitled to more compensation than a box of chocolates, and she gave me a $75 voucher to spend in-flight from the duty-free catalog. [On the return flight, I remembered the voucher and looked in the catalog to find something I might actually use, a 4GB computer memory stick, and for exactly $75, don't you know! However, when I ordered that the flight attendant came to apologize that due to currency exchange rate fluctuations the price had increased. It was would now cost $76 instead! I cheerfully paid the dollar difference.]
Many years ago, when my son was still quite small, we had an unexpected 8-hour delay, due to fog and low clouds. Being regular travelers, we always had a Plan B (even for Plan B), and we put that into action. We took out our Uno card game and started playing on a large table in the waiting area. Soon after, kids started noticing us having fun and they wandered over to take a look. Now the game requires no knowledge of any particular language, and soon, I was like the Pied Piper of Hamlyn, leading a whole bevy of kids from different countries, cultures, and languages enthusiastically calling out "Reverse", "Skip You", and "Draw Four". [To this day, I continue to be astounded by the high percentage of parents who don't take activities for their kids when a wait of any kind is possible, be it at an airport, a train station, on a flight or train trip, waiting at the Doctor's office, and so on.]
Probably the worse delay-related event I witnessed at an airport happened on the way home from Puerto Rico one Christmas. We had to change planes in Orlando, Florida, and our airline—which had gone bankrupt some months earlier—had been taken over by a cruise line, which, it appeared, knew nothing about running an airline. Everything about the process from start to finish was quite chaotic. There is nothing like a disenchanted crowd to increase the stupidity level of some people. Once a series of delays and extended delays was announced, the natives got very restless, and policemen riding mountain bikes around the terminal arrived to "deal" with the situation. A super-aggressive woman traveling with several kids was arrested in front of us and her kids were taken away and placed in protective custody. Right about then, I steered my family out of the boarding gate area to the main check-in desk where we could reschedule our flight for the next day. Although we were second in line, the woman in front of us (who was stranded for the same reason) was so abusive to the gate agent that when her business was completed the agent went into the back room and didn't come out again for 15 minutes. The passenger's husband (who was minding their three kids nearby) was so embarrassed by his wife's actions that he apologized profusely. My son could not believe his eyes and ears that night.
At this point, I'm reminded of the story about the self-important person whose flight was cancelled as he waited in the boarding area. A gate agent announced if everyone would form several lines at the counter they would be placed on the next available flight. This insecure VIP-wannabe pushed his way to the front demanding he get special treatment, but the woman agent asked him politely to "Please get in line". He responding by saying, "Do you know who I am?" The agent calmly picked up the PA microphone and announced to the waiting throng, "There is a man up front here who doesn't know who he is. If anyone can identify him, please come to the counter." The angry passenger replied, "F**k you lady!" to which she calmly replied, "Sir, you'll have to get in line for that too!"
In the late 70's, I landed at Bangkok's international airport. As martial law was in force, there were uniformed and heavily armed soldiers throughout the terminal. While I cannot honestly say there were lines, I'm pretty sure that if there were, I was quietly lining up in them with all the other also-very-quiet international tourists.
Several years later, I had my first trip to Germany at the height of the activities of the Baader-Meinhof Group, an offshoot of the Red Army Faction, which according to Wikipedia was "one of Germany's most violent left wing groups". On my departure, I had to put my checked luggage through a full X-ray scanner, which was a rather new idea at that time. German shepherd guard dogs also gave me a good sniffing over while heavily armed Federal Police scanned the crowd with watchful eyes. It certainly was no time for levity.
Perhaps the most extreme case I've experienced with airport security was at Helsinki International in 1992. My family and I had been in Russia for two weeks, and when we got back into Finland on the train, we sent one large case on to Helsinki to be stored at the main train station while we toured the country on a 1-week rail pass. On our day of departure from Helsinki, we retrieved our case from storage and went to the airport. When asked if our luggage had been out of our control since it was packed, I answered in the affirmative and explained it had been in storage at the train station. That triggered the Mother of all Searches. The three of us were herded to a cubicle big enough for one person, and were directed to empty the large case, which was then X-rayed empty several times. The staff was not at all friendly, and seemed disappointed not to find anything suspicious. Sometime later, we re-packed that case, and checked it in. We then settled in to the lounge at the check-in gate; however, when the in-bound flight arrived we were removed from the boarding area to an imaginary separate area, so we could have no contact with the passengers deplaning. It really was quite silly. The reason for all this was there was a G7 (or some such number) summit about to start in Helsinki, and world leaders were flying in to attend.
Customs and Immigration
My first memorable experience was in Bombay (now called Mumbai), India, at about 1 am, which is when many international flights arrive. [As a result, they depart again around 3am.] After we deplaned, we seemed to go from one line to another exchanging a token of one color for one of another as we moved. At the end, we finally got our luggage, but not before one customs agent came across a nice pen I had and, clearly, he wanted it. When I played dumb, he offered me a drippy cheap Indian ballpoint pen in exchange, and in the interest of getting processed sooner rather than later I accepted reluctantly. As best as we could tell, the whole multi-line thing was simply to give people employment. There certainly was no obvious practical value to it.
At the very next stop, Rome, Italy, we had the most arrogant customs inspector. I had purchased a new briefcase in Hong Kong, and it had straps that allowed it to be expanded several inches, and the inspector figured it had some sort of false bottom. So rather roughly, he tipped out the contents on a table and searched the case for a secret compartment. When he found none, he threw up his hands in disgust and walked away. We didn't know where he was going, but after waiting a while and his not returning, we simply packed up and left.
I wrote in the April 2010 installment (The Road to US Citizenship), 'I flew back to the US [from Peru] with a Peruvian airline, and came in through Miami, Florida, at around 6 am. There were three immigration agents, two handling American citizens and one handling the 150+ foreigners, me included. Once the handful of Americans had been processed, the two agents started chatting to each other. Eventually, they decided to help their colleague with his long line. But instead of taking the next person in line, one of them waved to me, where I stood about 50 people back in the line, and beckoned me to approach his desk. I told him that I was neither a citizen nor a permanent resident and he leaned over and spoke quietly in my ear saying, "I didn't think you looked like you belonged in that line!" Welcome to the US of A, the land of equality. Apparently, some people are more equal than are others!'
Thirty days after I applied for US citizenship, I fronted up to a Federal Government facility to be fingerprinted. There were several hundred of us in line, and we were seated. As people were served off one of the lines of chairs, the rest of the line shuffled down to the end of their row or around to the next row. It was the only time I ever recall being in a seated line, and it worked remarkably well. The really amazing thing is that we all knew in advance that we'd have a 1–2-hour wait, yet very few people brought anything to do. And to top it off, mobile phones were banned. You had either to lock them in your car, or leave them at the desk when checking in. It was a very sorry looking, bored, fidgety group.
The White Man Cometh
My son was born in Washington DC, a federal territory of the Unites States. [For the purposes of this story, it is important to know that the majority of DC's population is black, and that my family is white.] Three months later, to get him a passport, we had to go to the District's "Births, Deaths, Marriages, etc." agency for a birth certificate. As he was born in the US of parents who were Australian citizens living legally in the US, he was entitled to dual citizenship, so we planned to apply for both US and Australian passports. As it happened, the Australian application required something special, a birth certificate that stated explicitly that it had been a live birth.
I recall clearly the day we went to get the two certificates, one for the US State Department, and one for the Australian embassy. It was a typical hot and humid summer's day and there was no air conditioning in the waiting room. There were a number of counters, but only one was open. And it looked like people had been waiting "forever" to get served. (As is often the case, you turn in your paperwork, then sit, and wait to get the results some time later.) We got to the front of the line without much of a wait, and expected to have to sit for a good while afterwards while the paperwork was processed. However, the person at the counter had never seen a request for a live-birth certificate before, so she called her supervisor. Well, the supervisor knew exactly what was needed and promptly opened up a second counter, processed our application completely in double-quick time, and then closed the counter again. For about 10 milliseconds, we were very happy, until we turned around to see the faces on the room full of black people who had not heard anything about our "special circumstance". As far as they were concerned, once again the white man had gotten special treatment. It was a very humbling experience.
Foreign Languages and Customs
I was in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1992, only a couple of years after things there had opened up. Although most things could be bought at free markets or on the street, the government controlled some staple things like bread and sugar. To buy these, one needed to go to one of a number of special outlets. So off we went, but we had our guide and translator, which was absolutely necessary. First, one had to get in a line to pay and get a chit for the purchased item. Then one had to get in a line at a counter to get the item. To try and avoid the cashiers selling things the store had run out of the cashiers were constantly calling out what they were selling, so the servers could keep track of what was popular. A similar thing occurred when I went to a department store to spend my 9-Rouble speaking fee on fine chocolates for the administrative staff that had supported my lecture series. Being an up-scale store, there were no lines, and I could go to the chocolate counter and see the items I wanted and their price, but I didn't know the Russian to go to the cashier way over on the other side of the floor to buy them. It's the only time in my international travels that I couldn't simply point at an item, hold out some cash, and have the salesperson take what they needed. Of course, the way they were doing it made no sense whatsoever; it simply was a holdover from the old Soviet days.
In the spring of 2009, I was at the main post office in Prague, Czech Republic, wanting to buy some postcard stamps. I waited for some time trying to figure out the line system when a helpful local took pity on me and led me to a machine that dispensed numbered tickets. It really is easy when you know how. So don't you know, I was in a train station in Tokyo, Japan, and there were two quite separate lines both needing tickets to enter. However, as I couldn't read the writing that explained the difference between the lines, I stood there with a puzzled look. And it worked; very soon, a young Japanese man approached me, bowed, and asked in heavily accented English if he could help me. And help me he did.
Bypassing the Lines
If you are a regular traveler, you might have enjoyed the perks of frequent travelership. In my case, my airline gives me a priority line at check in and at boarding. And my local airport gives me priority security processing (as do many others for First-and Business-Class Passengers). And having membership of the airline's business lounge, I get to wait in comfort, only going to the gate at the last possible minute. My rental car company provides express delivery where the airport bus drops me at my car, which is running with air conditioner or heater on, as appropriate. The US Immigration service even has express lanes for passengers re-entering the country from abroad. But, of course, all things come at some sort of price, be it an annual fee or membership in a travel club.
One facility that has been around now in my area for several years is self-service checkout at some supermarkets and a large hardware chain. Basically, it's an honor system. The customer swipes each item's barcode over a reader, pays by credit card, gets a printed receipt, and bags the purchases, all without staff intervention. Although the process is wide open to theft, it's encouraging that companies are willing to take that risk, and it must be paying off or they wouldn't continue with it. As for me, I try not to be in a hurry when I'm shopping, and I prefer the social dialog with the staff.
One such line comes to mind, people waiting to visit a toilet. Now this was no ordinary toilet, and the people were lined up to look at it, not use it. After a day of meetings in the beautiful city of Montreux, Switzerland, at the eastern end of Lake Geneva, a group of us took the funicular railway high up a mountain to a café for some drinks. Someone used the toilet there and, soon, the word spread about this state-of-the-art potty, so the techies amongst us just had to go and take a look. Well, it was quite a performance. At the end of one's business one pushed a button and watched the system go through its paces. The seat retracted into the body where it was washed and sterilized. The bowl flushed, it was washed, and the seat slid back out for the next person. Although my story might lose something in the translation, I must say it was worth the wait to see.
There's a famous Monty Python sketch in which a department store's customer service/complaints counter has a long line of people waiting to return or exchange things. One man has a defective flamethrower, which, from time to time, shoots flames all over the place. I'd say that was definitely an unusual line.
The Shortest lines
If you have to have a line, better it be shorter than not. Two kinds of short-line scenarios come to mind: using a small airport and flying international First Class. And I have had the privilege of doing both on a number of occasions. The international airports on the Dutch Caribbean islands of Saba and St. Eustacius are 1-room huts. They take informality to a whole new level. You know, the guy who loads your baggage, stamps your passport, and issues your ticket, well he also gets in and flies your plane!
I flew in a jet aircraft from Helsinki, Finland, to Ivalo 200 kms north of the Arctic Circle in Finnish Lapland. Only a couple flights a day departed and arrived and the terminal was a small log cabin. The plane carried its own retracting stairs, which were lowered as the cabin door opened. We were on the ground and reunited with our luggage within minutes. And to top it off a reindeer with a full rack of antlers wandered out of the woods to welcome us to Lapland. He sniffed around a bit and then went back into the trees.
As for the international First Class experience, my first time with that truly was outstanding and has yet to be repeated even though I've travelled First Class a number of times since. I was one of only two First Class passengers in an overnight flight from Chicago to Buenos Aires, Argentina. On arrival, I was met by a customer service agent who greeted me by name and took me to the First Class lounge to wait for my connecting flight to Montevideo, Uruguay. Sometime later, they announced Economy Class boarding and then Business Class boarding. Just when I thought the plane was going to leave without me (I could see it boarding 200 yards out on the tarmac), they collected us First Class passengers, took us down a ramp to a waiting limousine, which drove us to the stairs leading to the plane. The chauffer was careful to arrive only when all the other passengers had boarded, so we could go straight up the stairs without delay. As soon as we were seated, the doors were closed, and the plane took off. Now that's what I call not waiting! [And, don't tell anyone, but I was flying on a free ticket.]
If I understand correctly, when one has one's own private jet the lines are non-existent; however, I have yet to have that experience.
If you have never seen Mel Brooks' wild-west movie, "Blazing Saddles", I highly recommend it. The scene that is relevant to this essay is the one in which a gang of crooks is riding across the desert and they came across a tollbooth and have to form a line to pay and then pass through. As to why they simply didn't ride around the booth—there was no fence either side—is beyond me, but it was wickedly funny to watch.
I am also reminded of a joke about the Australian Prime Minister in the early 70s. He claimed to have a solution to shortening the unemployment lines. When asked what it was he said that the people should all just stand closer together.
Finally, I don't understand all the fuss with respect to lining up for services; my recommendation is simple, tallest-to-shortest is fine with me. And I'm not just saying that because I'm 6'4" tall either (although that does help). Happy waiting now, y'hear, and for Heaven's sake take something along for you and your family members to do.