Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Customs of Customs

Little strikes fear into the desiccated husk that is my heart like the prospect of dealing with Customs and Immigration. This is odd for a Canadian. In my youth, we would make the odd foray over the border, usually to eat at the Clarkson House in Lewiston, NY. Every border transaction followed a set script: “Citizenship?” “Canadian.” “Buy any alcohol or tobacco?” “No.” “Okay,” accompanied by a waving hand. Easy. And visiting Europe as a young adult was a revelation: no border stops at all! Just a little sign welcoming you wherever. How civilized.

But of course, children, we all have to keep in mind that visiting a country is by no means equivalent to trying to stay there. Because... Then Came Germany.

Germany is a delightful country with excellent culture, people, meats, and the meanest bureaucrats I’ve yet had the misfortune to encounter. Erik and I moved there for work a decade ago. The messy details aside, it wasn’t easy. Not even for Erik with his EU-appropriate passport. My dear counterpart, when attempting to register in town, was actually chastised for having a wholly inadequate birth certificate. When Erik suggested that the information on his birth certificate was perhaps the responsibility of the Government of Canada and somewhat outside his control, he was huffily told that it would be allowed this time, but he shouldn’t expect to be allowed to be married, die, or perform any other paperwork-intensive task while on German soil, because his documentation simply would not do.

I should have known moving to Germany would be difficult. When we were contemplating the move, I called the German Consulate in Toronto to find out what I needed to prepare in order to move there. “No,” was the answer. “What do you mean?” I asked. “No, you can’t move there.” No explanation of my skills or situation would suffice. You can’t move to Germany – period. As a confident young person with advanced degrees in the sciences, I was mystified. Someone didn’t want me? Me? Impossible.

But they didn’t want me, and how! So vexed was the German System that I’d somehow made it over the border that they began a six-month-long saga attempting to a) keep me from staying, and b) failing that, keep me from useful work. (How dare I want to find employment and pay an outrageous percentage of tax on my income! Even now, I wonder how I had the gall.) This escapade featured highlights such as You’re Married According to the Fourth Floor of City Hall, but Not the First Floor; and Translate This!,wherein one pays through the nose to have a professional translate basic forms, eg. English word “Name” to German word... Name. My favourite was, of course, being made to sign a piece of paper that made me Erik’s property, and gave the government the right to boot me out of the country the moment we no longer cohabited. Charming.

Not to make a long digression longer, but suffice it to say that wending my way through the Kafka-esque world of German government made me, shall we say, gun-shy. I learned the hard way that trying to enter another country depends as much on the humour of the person on the other side of the desk as it does on The Law.

When we arrived in Mexico, Erik and I did the usual form-filling and fancy-stamping via the marina, as is typical. Then Erik casually informed me that, since he would be away this week, I would have to go to Puerto Juarez to complete the Boat Importation. The catch was, since Erik is the captain (sorry, The Captain) of Papillon, by rights he had to be the one to import the boat.

Wham! I was immediately back in the mildew-scented hallway outside the Bad Homburg Foreigners’ Office, waiting in that windowless, chairless place with thirty other lost souls for someone, anyone to please let us in, or at the very least remind us why we wanted to be here because the memory was growing pretty dim.

There was absolutely no way this was going to work.

Nonetheless, I would try. I dutifully completed the reams of badly-photocopied and useless paperwork (Do you have a hand dryer on board?). Clutching these and a letter from Erik explaining why he couldn’t come in person, I squared my shoulders, packed up the girls, and took the world’s noisiest ferry to Cancun. (And don’t get me started on the thirty minutes of Mexican television we had to endure, 28 minutes of which was “Celebrity Nip-Slips”. I kid you not.) Dusty, hot and newly enlightened about the wardrobe malfunctions of Pamela Anderson and co., we walked the short way to the CID.

Bad news already. The CID was empty. Crumbs. My chances were falling by the second.  Experience told me that bored officials are much worse than busy officials. When one has nothing to do, a civilian walking through the door is a gift from heaven. Making any transaction long and slow is key to breaking up the boredom. Prolongation could mean 7.3 minutes fewer of staring at Manuela across the way, who still hates you for eating the last cruller a week ago. And how to we prolong? We obstruct. This gives the triple joy of a) annoying and confusing the applicant, b) ensuring said applicant will have to return, thus killing another 13 minutes of future time, and c) running out the aforementioned present-time clock.  Perfect.

Imagine a white, circular room of perhaps fifty feet in diameter. Around the perimeter stood eight white desks. Behind the desks sat eight people who have had nothing to do since last Thursday.  Spines straightened and all eyes were on me. I turned to Adriana at the Banjercito; the other seven hopefuls slumped back into their chairs. I smiled my most non-threatening and compliant smile, explained why I was there, and handed her my paperwork.

Then something odd happened. Adriana processed my boat importation.

To be sure, there was waiting to be done and more forms to be filled out (Mexicans apparently really do take those pernicious hand dryers awfully seriously). But in the end, she gave me a pleasant smile and handed me a fancy blue certificate to post on the boat. It... worked. I did it. Even though Erik was supposed to. And I didn’t have to return, or get supporting documents, or my third-grade report card or a note from my mom or anything.

I’m still puzzled.


bunny9 said...

Well done good & faithful. Hopefully having the girls with you, helped somewhat!

Carol P said...

Dear Co-Captain,
Job well done! We sit here in rainy Ontario, living adventures vicariously through you, awaiting your next post. I hope you are planning to write a book archiving all these great tales. All the best.