I had a week before I left for my new life as a teacher at an international school in the Middle East …
…but no passport, as it had gone missing after I’d applied for a Syrian tourist visa via Federal Express.
I had to move quickly, so I went down to the United States Customs House at 2nd and Chestnut Streets in Philadelphia, where I applied for a temporary passport.
You could do that in 1995.
I arrived at 9 am, but there was already a massive line waiting outside the doors. I got in line, took a deli ticket, and spent the next three hours hoping to resolve this issue that day. Finally, just before lunch, I was called forward and interviewed as to why I needed an emergency passport.
“Sir, how did you lose your passport?”
“I didn’t lose it. It was stolen by the Syrian embassy.”
“Fine sir…how was it ‘stolen’?”
She mocked me, then admonished me for “losing” my passport, as they were worth fifty thousand dollars on the black market.
I hope, whomever he was: H. Mahmoud was living his best life as a result of my passport.
At around 2:00 PM I drove home, then called the Syrian Embassy again and asked that they fax a new application for a tourist visa. A few minutes later, I had a copy of the same application I’d filled out seven weeks earlier, with one key difference:
The original fee of fifteen dollars was crossed out, and a “$20” scribbled in its place.
Those bastards. First they steal my passport, and now this.
The next day, I drove to Washington DC and walked my application/passport into the Syrian Embassy.
A few things about the culture I first experienced that afternoon.
First: tea is the solution to everything.
- Breakup with the girlfriend? Sit down and have some tea.
- Stomach isn’t feeling great? Sit down and have some tea.
- We stole your money and passport, and you still need to do business with us?
Sit down and have some tea!
Secondly: Negotiating is key.
Anything can be negotiated, and like many parts of the world, is expected. I’ll admit – I’m terrible at negotiating. It’s something I’ve never done well, and these days I let my wife handle the purchasing of cars, the one aspect of the American economy where negotiating is acceptable.
Mr. Marc, malesh (sorry) – one minute please. More tea?
This went on for the better part of an hour, with different employees sharing their apologies and asking if I wanted more tea. Finally, I had enough, and I stopped the latest man from leaving.
“I need a visa!!”
The man huddled with two other people stationed beyond the waiting room, whispering with each other before they nodded. He returned. “Mr. Marc, we are very sorry for what happened, so for twenty-five dollars we can give you a visa today.“
It takes a while to get me to blow a fuse, but it happened then.
I went off, yelling that they’d already stolen fifteen dollars, and cost me another eighty in getting a new passport.
I wasn’t going to pay $25.
Malesh, malesh…more tea? I need to discuss…
After a minute, he returned. This time, he apologized in English. “Very sorry, very sorry…twenty dollars…”
I couldn’t believe I was being asked to negotiate the price of a tourist visa.
Worse yet, I caved.
Five minutes later, I had my visa…and four days later, I was on a flight to Damascus.
…to be continued…
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Yikes! Did you ever get your original passport back?
Sounds like a real bargain you got there – $5 discount plus all those cups of tea!
You should have negotiated some diplomatic credentials into the deal.
If you look at the whole of Kazuo Ishiguro’s oeuvre, the reader notices cultural similarities between Japan and England. The Remains of the Day could take place in Japan. And vice-versa in An Artist of the Floating World. His debut, A Pale View of the Hills, references both his place of birth and the place where he grew up.
Tea is very Japanese, very all-purpose, too.
Cecil Fielder was probably offered a cup of tea when Hanshin’s front office lured the ex-Blue Jays bench player to play in the Japan Central League.
No doubt it was ridiculously stressful at the time thegue, but my goodness does it make for a fun read now. 😆
One would have thought the school you were going to work for would have handled all this logistical stuff for you.
For as much as I abhor negotiating as well, MrDutch completely balances us out. It’s fun for him. We’ve kept car lots open past midnight because he was totally in ‘Negotiating Mode’, I joke I’ve used him as my agent when starting at a new job. His favorite go to place to haggle over the years?
No joke. Best Buy!! Tvs, floor speakers, woofers, you name an entertainment component, he’s managed to score a deal on it somewhere along the way. From a big box chain!!!
His all time winner? No money out of our pocket at all getting the mortgage and closing on our current home, and in fact, we got cash back from the bank at closing. The title attorney was even impressed, she’s just like – gotta say, haven’t seen it play out like this in quite awhile!