While this was not precisely what happened, I should have known better than to attempt to renew our passports.
I had planned everything carefully. We had filled out the documents, included new photos and old passports. I had birth certificates for the three of us. All this carefully tucked in a ziplock bag with the bus itinerary I had printed up to get myself from our house in north-east Ottawa to the new (to us) passport office somewhere near the Hog's Back. I checked and re-checked while standing at the bus stop, removing and replacing my mittens. My fingers were pink as I took my seat. I stuffed my mittens down the front of my parka to take the chill off and tucked my hands against the skin under my sleeves until my thumbs ached less and my cuticles burned only a little.
The Passport Office is a long, low greyish structure sticking out incongruously from an older small mall. It looks like a bunker. It's not much better inside. Rows of plastic benches painted a metallic silver in the centre, numbered kiosks on two walls with desks for filling forms along another wall. The queue is by the remaining wall, of course.
I joined the line-up to have my documents grouped and my number assigned, then took a place on a stretch of empty bench, listening to the howls and squeals of half a dozen infants and toddlers. I would have listened to my iPod, but I was in the midst of a recording of the 2011 BBC radio dramatization of Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman, set in the Soviet Union of World War Two and rife with bleak institutions, heartless bureaucracy, and snow. Appropriate listening perhaps, but I was feeling alienated enough. The only natural light came from the skylight, which was largely covered with - well - snow, of course.
I kept my eyes on the lighted panels waiting for my combination of letters and numbers to flash up. After a bit more than half an hour, they did and I made my way to the indicated gate. No one was there. I peered around the partitions and double-checked the number at the station. My processor appeared suddenly from beneath the counter where she had been filing or rummaging. She looked rather like Tina Fey on a grim day.
I carefully laid out my documents in front of her: three filled-out applications with the newly expired passports.
"Do you have photo ID such as a driver's license?"
I stared at her momentarily. I may have gaped a little.
"I don't drive. That's why I use my passport for ID."
"Do you have something else with your address on it? Maybe a bill?"
I rummaged in my bag, but knew it was no use. I don't carry my bills around, and the Ontario Health card stopped including an address years ago, presumably for "privacy" reasons.
"Is there anything about this on the web site?" I asked in despair.
"Well, I'm not sure, but there should be. Who are you submitting these applications for?"
"My husband and daughter."
"Do you have letters of authorization?"
My heart sank even further. The last time we renewed, the Resident Fan Boy went in for all three of us and was done in a jiffy. No one asked for authorization.
I had put my health card back in my bag, but she asked to see it again and typed figures into her machine, popping a small sheet with my new passport photo pasted to it for me to sign. I suspected she was going to accept this as identification, but said nothing. Years of dealing with school secretaries have taught me to shut up when something appears to be going through.
I made notes of the requirements for these letters of authorization which would need to be faxed, and finally tottered away, feeling squished and processed. I quickly texted the RFB, and headed for the bus stop. If I didn't hurry, I would miss the connection and be late picking up younger daughter from school.
My cell phone went off as I peered down the road through the snow blowing in my face. It was the Resident Fan Boy in full and disbelieving fuss. I gave a few more details, then told him the bus was coming. I don't do well with multi-tasking.
In my seat and rechecking where I would need to change buses, the phone went off again. This never happens. No one calls me; they always text. It was elder daughter phoning from Halifax, so this had to be an emergency.
See, she learned last week that her internship for her fourth year journalism degree was going to be with with CBC in London. The one in England. The longed-for dream. This is set for April and gives precious little time to fulfill the requirements for a British visa.
She had had an appointment with a Bank of Montreal manager that day to acquire an official letter (with letterhead, according to the stipulations) assuring the powers that be that she has sufficient funds -- especially since this is an unpaid position. The reason she needed an appointment is because when she went into her local bank last week and made the request, the lady at the counter thought a photo-copy with a business card stapled to it would do the trick.
However, this was not why she was phoning. The visa application also requires "biometrics" (fingerprints) performed at an appropriate lab. Good thing there is such a lab in Halifax -- except there are no slots available until April and the application has already been submitted.
"Well," the lady on the phone told my incredulous daughter, "we have offices in St John's, Montreal, Ottawa, and Vancouver." (For those of you unfamiliar with Canadian geography, all of these cities are in different time zones from Halifax.)
I had to make that transfer, and hastily told despairing daughter that we'd work something out.
Trudging up the long avenue in the wake of a cortège of roaring snow-trucks and ploughs, I thought of the radio version of Life and Fate again, with its mournful bayan theme music, and a character applying for a residence permit, only to be told by the authorities that she must have a letter from her employer. Her employer can't write the letter without permission from the office that supplies the permits and the authorities refuse to give permission, yet demand the letter.
"How's your day going?" inquired the vice-principal at younger daughter's school.
She looked blank. She teaches social studies and P.E.
When I explained, she nodded. Ministry of Education officials had just been in.
It was only when I got home that I realized one of younger daughter's given names was misspelled -- although spelled correctly on the application, the expired passport, and her birth certificate which I had provided. The Resident Fan Boy made a note of this in the letter of authorization.
Elder daughter flies in from Halifax tomorrow. Her appointment at the Ottawa lab is on Friday. She flies back Sunday. I wonder if she's considered committing a crime in Halifax so that they'd take her fingerprints. Of course, that would probably negate the visa....