September 13, 2006

Want A Canadian Passport, eh?

This story may not be about life in Israel but it has taught me a lesson. When I first arrived in Israel, I used to get frustrated by Israeli bureaucracy – not any more!

I am a Canadian citizen and I have a passport. Problem is, it’s expired. So I downloaded the forms, filled them in, had a picture taken and collected the necessary ID. As for my guarantor, it turns out I actually know one person in Israel who can be one - and even though he lives far away, I am able to get him to sign the passport and pictures.

I am in good shape, I think, as we drive along the Ayalon Expressway into downtown Tel Aviv. I grin as I sail into the empty consulate, remembering the queues and usual three hour waits back in the hectic Toronto passport office.

The clerk looks at my form. He looks at my ID and said, “I cannot accept this Quebec birth certificate. The law has changed and you nee a new one, a longer one.”

“A longer one,” I repeat in disbelief. “You mean this card that I have carried my whole life is no longer valid?”

“That is correct. Fill out this form and fax it to Quebec City. Once the certificate arrives, come back. And by the way, these pictures are not valid.”

“But that is my photo.” It was. It was a miserable picture that showed deep dark bags under my eyes, lines, furrows, and a bad hair day to boot. I thought it was rather perfect.

“I can see that. But your mouth is partially open. Unacceptable.”

He threw the photos and the application and the documents in his window scooper and returned it back to me as if it were dirty laundry, then walked off.

I collected my forlorn pile, my heap of failure and walked out dejected, taking a second look at my picture. My mouth was open so slightly, it looked as if I had taken an opportunity to inhale. According to the Canadian consulate, it was a bad time to choose to breathe. But that tiny aperture displayed teeth and one would assume that teeth could serve as a good identification marker – but not according to the Canadian consulate.

Back to square one. I filled in my birth certificate form and faxed it in, paying for an expedited service. I went to a different photographer and brought along the form that showed exact distances between chin and forehead, cheekbone to cheekbone. The poor photographer had to get out a ruler with millimeters and measure, then measure again.

I froze for the picture and wore my most stern look, much to the photographer’s consternation.

“Be happy,” he yelled at me from behind the lens.

I waved the Canadian documents and explained that in Canada, it’s a law to look suicidal on your passport.

I then waited and waited and waited for my new birth certificate. I checked my mail box every day. After two weeks, I started to call. Due to a combination of our time change in Israel and the few hours that government offices actually answer the phone, I had a very small opportunity to call. And when I called, I would either get onto a queue and wait and wait and wait for a person to come to the phone – or, I would get a busy signal. After a week of this, I actually got a live person, a real Quebecois.

I gave him my name and mailing address, which is Israel. He was extremely rude and incredibly unhelpful and had no sense of humor – at least not in English.

“And what is the postal code on the form?”

I gave it to him.

“Sorry. It does not match.” He then asked me if I was sure that I was me.

“Yes, I am sure I am me – at least the last time I checked, I was.”

I gave him the postal code again and was so aggravated that I said it in a very loud voice. To make sure he heard every detail, I spelled out the dash in the postal code.

“D. A. S. H.”

Click. Silence- the only sound I could hear was my pounding temples
Since I had no one to scream at, I turned to the nearest being. Amir.

“He hung up on me. I have been trying for two weeks to find my expedited birth certificate and have been dialing this number for hours. And no this bureaucrat thinks that I am not me. But one thing he knows is that I, whoever I am or not, live in Israel.

I decide this is a job for my father. He can call from Canada and he does not spell out postal codes when aggravated. He looks into the matter and relays the following. Turns out my certificate was sent out but since it did not arrive, the matter has to go to another department. That other department cannot issue a new one until they issue a letter but they cannot write a letter for another two weeks.

The weeks go by, the months go by. I give up. I even start to question whether I am really me. I mean the bureaucrat does not think so. I also have an invalid birth certificate and a new certificate that went elsewhere.

My father then suggests that since I am hopelessly passportless, I should renew my EC passport. I download the forms, fill them in, get a picture taken and get it signed. I go to the British consulate, hand in my old EC passport, my form and my pictures. I am in a sweat but try to look calm.

“Thank you. It will be ready in five days. Do you want it mailed to your home or do you want to pick it up?”

Traumatized by lost mail, I eagerly agree to pick it up.

I walk away incredulous. I have never lived in England and am a British citizen through my father. I have an expired EC passport and to get a new one, I merely produce the old one! The logic is befuddling.

And our Canadian government will not give me a new passport even though I have held one for close to forty years – aside from the fact that I have a Canadian driver’s license, OHIP card, pocket size birth certificate……

I do pick up my EC passport and give up hope of ever having a Canadian one. My parents come to Israel to visit and my mother, the optimist, goes to the mailbox one day. With a flourish, she produces a letter from Quebec: my long form, long lost birth certificate!

Armed with this new birth certificate, forms and morose pictures, freshly signed by my guarantor, I make my way back to the Canadian passport office. I sit there patiently while he pours over the documents and the ID. It is looking quite good. And then he points to the back of the pictures.

I cannot accept this signature. It does not match the guarantor’s signature on the form.

“But it is the same person! He signed it at different times.”

“Not acceptable. The Canadian government will reject this for sure.”

“Do you want me to call him? Can he send in a letter? You see he is the only professional in Israel that I know who has known me for over two years. And now he is living in a bomb shelter.”

This is sounding a little too tragic, too ‘dog ate the homework’ like. But it is true. I am so new in this country, I really have no long-term relationships. And my poor guarantor is a doctor living in a shelter in Nahariya.

“If you pay extra, and fill in this form, we can do this for you.”

I feel like throwing my entire wallet at this guy. Anything just to get this over and done with. You see, this saga started last December and it is now August.

“Would you like us to mail to you or would you like to pick it up?” he asks me innocently.

At this point I would have paid for a ticket and flown to Canada to pick it up. Problem is, I don’t have a Canadian passport…..

P.S. It is now September and I just picked up my passport. And no, I could not whip into the Canadian consul to pick it up. There was no convenient pick-up line - just a Russian guard with a gun who did not care whether your business would take one minute or one hour. I had to hand in my cell phone, take a number and sit waiting with all of the other visitors who were nervously clutching their documents. I got to see the Canada movie again, marveling over all that huge, unpeopled space with its towering snow-capped mountains, sheer cliffs, vast prairies and lonely herds of buffalo grazing on cool, purple tundra. My turn came. Clasping my brand-new Canadian passport, I descended down the elevator and went out into the blinding sunshine and intense heat. I was immediately gobbled up by the chaotic traffic on just another hot, sticky day in Tel Aviv.