Wednesday 18 April 2007

How the World has Changed

A year or so after I moved to the UK, the Home Office lost my passport. I had sent it to them so that they could insert an extension of my work visa. 3 months later I was still waiting and I needed the passport for a trip to the USA. I had to make an appearance at the US Embassy swearing I was who I said I was and begging for a temporary passport.

This was my first trip to the embassy. It is located just around the corner from where I used to work in a green leafy part of London called Mayfair. The Embassy is considered actual land belonging to the United States of America. So technically, when you are there, you are in America. I thought this was kinda cool. Still do.

I walked in at 9 am and took a number and sat and waited. The waiting room was crowded with all nationalities waiting for numerous services, eg visas to enter the USA, passports for American babies born abroad, lost passport applications. The entire process took just about the entire day. There were no vending machines and I was sooooo thirsty when I left.

The next time I went was after the Home Office returned my original passport and I needed to have it invalidated and my temporary passport made my permanent passport. This visit went much like the previous visit. Although now they had vending machines.

The next visit was with my newborn son, Sebastian. This was a major undertaking for 2 new first time parents, packing up for a whole day. There were no nappy changing facilities and I breast fed off in a corner where I turned the chair against the wall and hung a blanket over my shoulder. One change I noticed that day was that there was a metal detector like they have at airports and we had to carry the pushchair up the stairs. Boy, was I annoyed? It was another all day wait but we managed.

And then 9/11 happened. And the world changed. And the American Embassy changed.

Our next visit was when Abigail was born. We had to make an appointment and queue up for 2 hours outside in January with a new born baby and a 2 1/2 year old. The Embassy was surrounded with 5 feet wide concrete barriers and 12 feet high metal fences topped with barbed wire. More than 25 machine gun armed guards patrolled the perimeter of the building. We had to go through a outside security facility and we had to walk all the way around the building from the security facility to the entrance. Regardless of our appointment we had to take a number and wait with everyone else. This appointment seemed to take longer than any previous visit. Maybe I was just in a bad mood. I had wanted to visit the memorial to the 9/11 victims in the green leafy park next to the Embassy but was so exhausted from the days activities I just wanted to get me and my family home. The good news is they had nappy changing facilities and a private breast feeding area available. Still this was the worst visit EVER!

Today we had to return to the Embassy for the renewal of Sebastian's passport. The outside of the building is still scary and nothing is cool about it. There were more police than I had every seen. I tried to explain to Sebastian that these big scary men carrying guns were there to protect us not shot us. Not sure how convincing I was since I wasn't all that convinced. The Embassy is longer a beautiful building because you can't actually see it anymore. It is surrounded by high metal fences. You cannot bring any electronic devices so no phones. Even Marc electronic key fob for unlocking the car door was confiscated. He had to remove his belt and keep it in a plastic bag until we left. Just like in airports that had to check the bottom of my shoes.

Some improvements have been made. But these also reflect our changing world. There was a separate line for Americans. We went straight through. Americans enter through a different door now. One just opposite the security facility. Our appointment was for 9:30 am and by 11:20 am we were done. They had a little play area for children. The area was clean. But notably, the Americans were kept separate from the other people of the world seeking to enter our country. Not a foreigner to be seen (unless of course, like my husband, they were accompanied by an American).

I feel threatened and saddened by these changes to the Embassy (although I am happy about the reduction in processing time) and to the world. When I was trying to explain to Sebastian the role of the guns, I felt myself choke up at the thought that we live in such a scary world. That I have brought children into this world. That I subject my children to the fears associated with living as a foreigner in a foreign land, although with his posh English accent no one would ever mistake him for an American. No, no, that's his mother's fault. I don't want him to be afraid of the world but at the same time I want him to be vigilant about those around him that want to cause him harm. I want him to learn about the entire world and not just one nation's version of the world. I want him to love the USA and all its promise and potential. I want him to understand the USA is one nation in a world of many, each offering differing perspectives and dangers. This is a tough line to walk. Not sure I did it very well.

But the memorial to the 9/11 victims was very touching from afar. Can't quite bring myself to look at it up close. That would be looking the face of change in the face. Just not there yet.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Oh, dear one,

Remember the armed soldiers in Florence and other Italian cities, even Paris and other places, now America?
I always felt guilty about going to the head of the line in Darmstadt, but I did it none the less.

America could be less arrogant.

Love you, Clare