A swirling vortex of bureaucratic misery

I have always loved the comic Asterix and Obelix.  Two independent, funny-looking characters defying entire armies with a grin and then stopping to smell the flowers on their way home – what’s not to love?  One of my favorite strips is from The Twelve Tasks of Hercules.  “The place that sends you mad” is the epicenter of Roman bureaucracy, a vortex of inane paper-pushing designed to suck the life out of any soul that tries to traverse its tangle.  Their only task: obtain Permit #838.  Seems so straightforward … oh, how little they know!  If you’ve never seen the clip, you should watch it.  Here is the link.  Go ahead.  I’ll wait ten minutes.

And there you have it – my life for the last month.  Caught in an endless circle of “in order to do this you need that, and in order to do that you need this” – up, down, back, forth, stay there, don’t move.  Don’t believe me?  Here we go …

In order to study in London, you need a student visa.
In order to get a student visa you have to fill out an application, gather all manner of marginally relevant documents, take some photos, and make an appointment for an interview and biometrics session.  DONE.

I book the appointment and show up thirty minutes early.  The security guard stops me before the front door.
“Where is your proof of appointment?”
“Proof of appointment?”
“Yes, the paper with the barcode on it.”
“I don’t know which that is.”
“Well, you’ll need it to get inside.”
“I don’t have a way to print at home.  Is there somewhere close I can go?”
“Yes, the travel agency in the building next door.  Just ask them.”
I nervously make my way to the building next door.  The polite man at the counter nods knowingly and opens up the website, asks me to log in to my account and prints the page for me.  I thank him profusely and hurry back to the visa interview office.  It is now ten minutes before my scheduled 1:30pm appointment, and this time the guard lets me in.  I get to the front door and another guard has me sign in on a large ledger before pointing me to the appropriate line.  After about 15 minutes, I’m at the front.
“Do you have your application?”  I hand the young man my packet of documents.  “Where is your TB screening certificate?”  TB certificate?
“I … I didn’t know I needed one … what exactly do you mean?”
“If you are going to be in the UK for more than six months, you must be screened for TB.  And where is the self-assessment form?”
“What is the self-assessment form?”
“It’s a form that looks like this,” he holds up an example, “You can ask the guard back there to help you with that.”  He looks down again and studies the passport-sized photos I had attached.  “This photo is not on a white background.”  I furrow my brow at the picture and he looks up at me.  “Would you say that is white?”  It’s almost white, but more cream or beige.  Not as white as the counter it was sitting on.
“Mmm … I thought it was … but I guess not.”
The young man looks up at me with an air of tired finality.  “You will need the TB certificate, the self-assessment form, and new pictures.”
I stare at him, my mouth slightly open, a hopelessly bewildered look in my eyes.  “And how am I supposed to do that?  My appointment is for right now.”
“The TB must be done at the IOM.”
“What is that?”
“Hmm, not sure.  International … don’t know.  Anyway, you have to go to the IOM in Gigiri for the screening.  The self-assessment you can do here.”  I glance at the clock as he sighs.  “If you really hurry, sometimes – not always, but sometimes – they can do the screening in fifteen minutes.  If you are back before three, we can still get you in today.”
“And if I’m not back before three?”  He didn’t answer, just smiled.

And so began the swirl of the vortex.

Find the International Organization of Migration (IOM).
Find a place to park.
Get inside and find the right window.
Have you paid?  No.  Payments are made at a bank in the mall up the street.  (WHAT?!)
Go to the mall and find the bank.
Get cash and make the payment.
Get some new passport pics while in the mall – make sure the background is really white.
Go back to the IOM.
Submit the bank receipt to the cashier.
Wait for a counselor to call my name.
Listen to a short counseling session on TB screening.
Wait for the doctor to call my name.
Get my chest x-rayed.
Wait for a different doctor to call my name.
Go over the x-ray results while he signs my new certificate.
Wait for the nurses to finish preparing and explaining the documents
Go home … because all of that did NOT take fifteen minutes.
By the time I was done at the IOM there was no point going back to the visa office – it was most certainly closed.  I went home and spent a night stressing that I had missed my appointment and that there was no way to schedule a new appointment on the website and that maybe I would have to resubmit a whole new application. Sleep did not come easily.

The next morning I went back prepared to beg and somehow it worked.  The guards eventually let me back in and the young man behind the white counter recognized me, gave another tired sigh and asked why I hadn’t come back before three.  Then it was take a number, wait to be called, go over papers, give fingerprints, go home, come back later, take another number, wait to be called, answer interview questions, go home, and wait for an email saying when to come back and pick up the finalized passport. The visa in hand was a huge relief, and once I picked it up I thought the worst was behind me. I should have known it was only the beginning.

I landed in London two weeks early just to get settled.  I wanted to get a phone and a bank account, begin organizing my room and exploring my neighborhood, get a student Oyster card (for London transit systems) and go exploring central London all before classes started.  However, no matter which end I tried to tackle first, I hit new and frustrating roadblocks.

In order to get a monthly phone contract (cheaper than top up), I need a bank account with a local address.
In order to get a student Oyster card, I need BOTH a local bank account and a student enrollment number.
In order to get a local bank account, I need a proof of address.
In order to get a proof of address, I need my school to send me a proof of enrollment through the mail.
In order to get a proof of enrollment from the school mailed to my new address, I need to complete my enrollment – pay the school fees and register for classes.
In order to finish my enrollment, I need my bank in the US to send the money to the school here … which they won’t do by wire transfer because I am not physically present at one of their branches.

Discovering each of these pieces took several days.  I would request one piece and wait for it, only to find out several days later that there was a prerequisite piece.  Then it would be the weekend and I’d have to wait until Monday to continue.  At the end of the two weeks I had allotted to “settling”, I had gotten only as far as exploring my neighborhood and poking around central London.  This last week has yielded a bit more progress though – I finally figured out how to pay my school fees.  Now I’m waiting on that pesky “proof of enrollment” to come through the mail.  Once that lands on my doorstep, I hope I’ll be able to quickly knock out the rest of the pieces of the chain.  Oh how I hate the bureaucratic logistics of life!

Classes start tomorrow and I am very much looking forward to the relative simplicity of that piece of life – go to lectures and seminars, read books, write papers, take tests.  So straightforward.

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