Category Archives: Bureaucracy

Ticking all the boxes

As you’ll have gathered from my last post, The Special One and I are currently filing various papers to prove that our marriage is bona fide, and not an ill-disguised sham in which I’m using her to gain access to a country with no universal healthcare and no ready access to HP Sauce. I feel like writing on the forms “do you really think I would be associated with such a lifelong duvet hog if it wasn’t for the fact that I love her” but somehow my better instincts kick in, and I dot i’s and cross t’s appropriately.

What I object to is not necessarily the amount of information that the immigration authorities want, or even the pictures, bank statements and lease agreements. It’s the fact that they want to charge me more than $1000 just for the privilege of putting my metaphorical hand in the air and asking “please Miss, can I stay here a bit longer?” And that’s not even taking into account various other forms that have to be filed, or attorney bills that have to be paid.

Bear in mind that this is a process that can take anything from 4-12 months to be completed. And that’s if you’re lucky. While falling in love may have been a whirlwind affair that involved all the speed of Usain Bolt, visas through marriage are very much handled by asthmatic marathon runners with a penchant for chipsfrench fries.

See, if I’m paying a four figure sum for anything, I kind of expect a certain level of service. For $1300, that should include having your tears wiped away by a nubile model, and your forms collected by the sports or musical hero of your choice.

When I am running my own republic, I’ll be offering drive-‘thru’ immigration services, and naturalization tests that include pop quizzes. You won’t necessarily get a higher class of citizen, but anyone who can name three members of New Order is fine by me.

Excuses excuses excuses

It may not have escaped your notice that America is a pretty large country. You could probably fit the UK inside New York state (if you borrowed a bit of New Jersey, perhaps?), and I’ve seen bigger aubergineseggplants than Wales. And like any large territory whose population has migrated for work and family over the years, America has developed an extensive, environmentally friendly and efficient public transport system.

OK, that last bit’s a lie. The occasional subway system and local bus network aside, most Americans’ idea of public transport is giving a neighbour an occasional liftride in their car to Walmart. The train network is woefully underdeveloped, serving only a relatively few cities. British readers will sympathise when I say that the trains here are enough to make you pine for Network South East or the West Coast Main Line.

All of that leaves the wishful traveller with predominantly two options when he or she wants to travel long distances: take the car (and experience the dubious sheet-stained delights of the American motel system), or take a plane. Not surprisingly, when faced with such a choice, most Americans put their latent environmental concerns (stop laughing at the back, please) behind them, and fly.

Domestic flights are like buses in many ways. Largely because there’ll be no planes for three hours, and suddenly four flights to Charlotte will come along at once. Delays are pretty inevitable, and the sky above La Guardia (New York’s ‘domestic’ airport) generally look like the M25Long Island Expressway on a bad day. Except with more wings.

With so many flights and connections, the logistics involved in the checked luggage system must be pretty involved. And given the (often speedy) turnaround between connecting flights, it’s amazing that suitcases and rucksacks don’t go missing more often.

Of course, that doesn’t make it any less annoying when your bag is one of exceptions. Especially if your flight has already been delayed by two hours, and you’re standing in a deserted airport with two exhausted children. Still, United Airlines promised to get it to me by 1pm the next day, so it couldn’t exactly be described as a great hardship.

At 4pm, three hours after the deadline, I took my life into my own hands and called the United helpline. After a few abortive attempts at getting through the voice recognition system (see the comments on my last post for more insight), I finally got through to the dreaded call centreer.

The man I spoke to could not have been more friendly, and at absolute pains to insist that he was sorry for my inconvenience and woud be doing everything to resolve the situation. Given that he was in India, he’d even been given phrases to ensure that he connected with me on a more colloquial level. Admittedly I didn’t necessarily need to visualisze him ‘bending over backwards’ to help me, but it was a nice try.

Talking the talk is one thing, but walking the walk is quite another. I was put on hold while he called the delivery company who would be bringing my bag back, and after a short while he returned to say that he had been unable to reach them, and that – as a result – I would just have to sit and wait for a little while longer, and hope that my bag turned up.

After a little pressing on my part, and ‘polite’ enquiries into why I couldn’t get more information, I was finally given what I believe to be the greatest excuse ever given by a call center operative. Ever.

“I’m sorry sir. I really wanted to help you with this, but the delivery company is really busy and so I was placed on hold. But the hold music was so irritating that I couldn’t wait any more.”

And with that he was gone.

Interestingly, my bag turned up an hour or so later with this tag on it. I believe the phrase is “you couldn’t make it up”.

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Out with the old, in with the new. Eventually.

I haven’t passed comment on the election since the historic events of November 4. After all, I don’t even have the vote, let alone an inside track on the political machinations that led to the Democrats winning Virginia, so sometimes it’s just best to keep quiet. All I can say is that I stayed up on a sofa in Brixton until 5.15am watching events unfold thousands of miles away, and went to bed happy in the knowledge that America had given itself a new start.

But after an interminably long election process that seemed to begin shortly after Bush robbeddemocratically defeated John Kerry in 2004, we’re now faced with two and a half months of sitting around waiting for the dawn to break. It’s like ordering a sofa for a brand new house, then having to sit on the floor for nine weeks while you wait for it to be delivered. Call me old fashioned, but since when were the supply chain problems of Sofa Workshop a good model for the democratic process?

In the meantime, The Squinty Little Man With The Former President For A Dad gets to experience a lame duck session as he goes through his cupboards to find all those weird scrappy bits of legislation he’d forgotten about over the last eight years. Any suggestions that lame ducks should be shot to put them out of their misery is not for this blog, thank you very much.

Of course, if the experience of the Clintons is anything to go by, he’ll have his beady eyes on some souvenirs from the Oval Office as he starts packing up his boxes. Although given that George Bush Jr (as he apparently hates to be called) has spent more time on holidayvacation than any other President in living memory, one of his aides will first probably have to point out where the Oval Office is.

The sadness is that by having this weird interregnum, America is denied one of the great delights of the British political system. Every time a Prime Minister loses an election, or is forced out of office by his own party, they’ve essentially got to get out of 10 Downing Street that day to make room for the new arrival. Nothing brings a politician back down to earth quicker than the arrival of a removals truck with a few hundred boxes to be filled full of tin sculptures (gifts from the Mongolian government) and framed pictures of the family standing with Bono and Richard Curtis.

Rumours that Gordon Brown was spotted picking up packing tape and bubble wrap at the weekend could not be confirmed at time of going to press.

Over the Hil

Incredibly, after more than 500 days of campaigning, it looks like the race is over and Barack Obama is the chosen one for the Democratic party. Personally I think it’s a shame to see either one lose, given that the electorate has paid much more attention to this clash of the titans than they probably will to the presidential election itself. Interest-wise, it’s kind of like following the season-ending edge-of-the-seat cliffhanging finale of ‘Lost’ or ‘24’ (or – shudder – even ‘American Idol’) with a four year old episode of ‘When Chihuahuas Attack’.

The process of selecting a figurehead for the party is about three times as long a procedure as the presidential campaign. It’s also in direct contrast to the UK major party system, which sees a new leader chosen in less than two months through the combined vote of elected MPs and the party membership. Barack Obama’s campaign has so far cost more than $130 million, while a leadership campaign in the UK generally costs less than $500,000. I appreciate that this country’s bigger, and the system’s different, but nothing has to stay the same forever folks. As I believe somebody may have said, it’s time for change.

Interestingly, the Obama campaign spent $738 on bagels from Einstein Bros, while the Clinton campaign laid down a mighty $2493 with the same supplier. Clearly when the going gets tough, the tough get bagels.

So now we enter five months of back-and-forth between McCain and Obama as they battle for the right to clear up the mess created by the least popular politician on the world stage in living memory. As soon as the whole affair’s over, it’ll be time to start up the Obama 2012 re-election/’I promise I won’t f**k it up this time’ campaign.

Clearly, I am one of the disenfranchised many (no taxation without representation, my arseass) and so I have no say in what happens on November 4. It’s probably for the good of the nation that I don’t have a vote in any case, as there’s only one issue that I want to hear the candidates’ view on. And since neither of them currently seem willing to announce that they’re going to outlaw peanut butter, I guess I’m going to have to keep on waiting.

Tough on peanut butter, tough on the causes of peanut butter. Unite behind me, America.

School papers

I’ve blogged before about the impossibility of doing anything in this country without some form of ID, and rarely a day goes by without me thinking that I should muster the will to go get a driving license. Not so that I can drive, you understand, but just so that I can spend more than $75 on a credit card at Virgin Megastores without facing a full cavity search by over-zealous staff.

To be honest though, lack of ID can be a benefit as well as a burden on occasion. I’ve managed to use it as an excuse to get out of doing something I can’t quite summon up the energy to do. Go to the bar to get a drink, you say? Sorry, I don’t carry photo ID on me, and you know what they’re like in this place. You want me to pick up that package you ordered? Erk, no photo ID so I’ll probably just have to go home and watch Padma Lakshmi on Top Chef I’m afraid. Do the washing up, you say? I seem to need photo ID to get into the kitchen unfortunately.

In the UK, ID is something that you see as often as Heather Mills at a Justice For Fathers demo. There’s plenty of talk of introducing a national identity card, but at the moment people have to rely on their good looks and charm as their sole identifier. Is it just that the British are more trusting? Or perhaps it’s merely that we don’t insist on using a 220 year old document to justify carrying a sub-machine gun in our back pockets, so there’s less to worry about from a security perspective.

Whatever the case, it’s not just moaning newcomers who suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous admin. The Special One took The Youngest to a middle school this morning, to be interrogatedinterviewed about her ability to give a good wedgieacademic record with a view to being given a place in the school later this year. Given that the interview was at ridiculous o’clock in the morning, The Special One just grabbed her phone and some cash, and then made her way to the subway. Having returned a few moments later after forgetting The Youngest, the two of them trekked into the city.

In retrospect, the sound of an SMS arriving early in the morning was never going to be a good sign, and I could feel the seething resentment from five miles away as I picked up the phone and read ‘we don’t have photo ID, they won’t let us in’. Early morning humour isn’t a key attribute for The Special One at the best of times, and if the poor unfortunate security guard on duty isn’t this evening looking for a new job where he has to take less abuse, I’ll eat my Manchester United bobble hat.

Don’t get me wrong, I know all about Columbine, Virginia Tech and Dunblane, and how utterly terrible those events were. I understand the need for security to protect people in large establishments. But to my knowledge, Eric Harris & Dylan Klebold, Seung-Hui Cho and Thomas Hamilton didn’t turn up at school with a written appointment for an admission interview and with a ten year old child in tow. And with nothing other than a phone and a scowl in their possession.

I’m sure that the school prinicipal was delighted to be dragged down from his 5th floor ivory tower to pick up two (by now) irritable individuals. Fortunately the interview went well, but it didn’t exactly get The Youngest’s relationship with the school off to a flying start.

Come on people, just because we’ve got rules doesn’t mean that we leave good sense at home. Unlike our ID cards, that is.

A very British sense of humo(u)r

Crime isn’t funny, I know. But a New York Police Department sign which I saw in a yellow cab on my way home this evening made me laugh out loud. The sign read:

“Reward up to $500.00 for the arrest and conviction of anyone who commits GRAFFITI VANDALISM”

And scrawled underneath that in neat ballpoint penned handwriting?

“Bite me, pigs.”

X marks the spot

Today much of the US has gone to the polls to decide which of the candidates will represent the Democrats and the Republicans in the upcoming election. With more than twenty states holding their primaries today, it’s one of the most important days on the road to the 2008 presidential vote.

As a student of political history, and a keen follower of news from the campaign trail, it feels both strange and painful not to be able to play my own small part in the process. Despite being a federal and state tax payer, I remain one of the disenfranchised. Most of the USA knows today as Super Tuesday, but for me it could best be described as, well, Tuesday.

Of course, if there was an election in the UK in November, I would be free to vote despite the fact that I pay no taxes in the UK and the result would have no immediate impact on my day-to-day life.

Perhaps what expats like myself need is some kind of exchange programme for voting rights? There must be New Yorkers who’ve moved from the Big Apple to South West London, who – like me – aren’t allowed to have any say in any forthcoming election in the country in which they reside. Rather than use our postal/absentee ballots, maybe we should be able to swap votes and have a direct impact on the economic and political system around us?

It’ll be like a timeshare system, without the need for beach towels or factor 25 suncream.

That said, if somebody tries to use my electoral privilege to vote for the Monster Raving Loony Party, there’s going to be trouble.

Taxing times

With January 31st rapidly approaching, it’s probably about time that I completed my UK tax return if I’m to avoid a £100 fine. Thankfully I only have to do the short one, although no doubt that will change next year when I attempt to claim back a heapload of overpaid British tax.

After more than ten years of doing tax returns, I can pretty much complete the form in twenty minutes or so these days. True, pulling my home apart in an attempt to find the all-important P60 certificate or even the form itself takes around eighteen hours. And yes, I always get the figures wrong and end up paying a little too much or a bit too little to the Inland Revenue. But apart from those minor issues, I’ve got this thing down to a fine art.

Sadly, the American system is completely different. And by ‘completely different’, I mean ‘absolutely unfathomable’. Approximately 83 different organiszations team up to extract money from my paychequeck, ranging from the federal government to Domino’s Pizza (the mozzarella tax seems a little excessive if you ask me, but I’m sure there’s a good reason for it). And with The Special One constantly talking about ‘deducting this’ and ‘deducting that’ at the end of the year, I’m not sure whether I need to be saving up my cents for a gigantic tax bill, or planning the trip of a lifetime on my rebate.

Unfortunately, if there’s one thing that America and the UK probably have in common, it’s the existence of taxation bodies that are phenomenally happy when they’re collecting cash, but a little bit grumpy when they have to give it back. Looks like that round-the-world voyage might just have to wait for another year.

The winning number

When I was a mere young pup (well, about 12 at least), an official looking envelope arrived for me through the postmail one morning. Given that the only things that ever arrived with my name on them were birthday cards containing book tokens, I opened the letter with equal measures of excitement and fear. Had I won that Bryan Robson competition I’d entered in Shoot magazine, or had the police somehow discovered that I had nicked a packet of Chewits from my sister and were duly coming to take me away for a lengthy spell in chokey?

Having ripped open the thin white envelope, I found what appeared to be a red and blue plastic credit card, with my name clearly embossed upon it. Sadly it wasn’t actually a device that would enable me to buy all the Airfix kits that my heart desired, but instead a simple National Insurance card that would allow the UK state to keep track of my earnings, taxation, insurance contributions and other such administrative detail. It was profoundly disappointing, especially as I was hoping not to work for, well, as long as I possibly could.

I used to carry the card around with me in my wallet though, hoping that it somehow made up for the lack of Mastercard or Visa. It never did of course, and by the age of about sixteen, I put it in a drawer and forgot about it.

Since then, I’ve had to go into the drawer to find my NI card on about three occasions, despite having received it more than twenty years ago. And that’s not because I’ve memoriszed it either – I know it starts with an NZ, and I could probably hazard a guess at the next two numbers, but after that I’m stuck. It’s actually just that, being honest, your National Insurance number isn’t really that important in the UK. Sure, I probably had to give it to my first employer, and I vaguely seem to remember once needing it to register for a new doctor, but other than that the card has languished in its dusty home for many a year.

Move to America though, and nothing could be further from the truth. Suddenly your social security number is the key to your kingdom, the lack of which makes you about as much use as a one-legged man at an arseass-kicking party. From pharmacists to credit card companies, failure to remember your social security number is like being handed a card saying “do not pass go, do not collect anything whatsoever.” It’s only a matter of time before a Starbucks barista refuses to give me a triple shot skinny latte unless I give him the fifth and ninth digit of the code.

The strange thing is that for all the importance placed on the social security number, the card that holds it is a flimsy bit of paper that is about as remarkable as a Zsa Zsa Gabor wedding. Numerous times I’ve almost thrown it in the bintrash in amongst the mass of forwarded communications from Sky or Nectar. Admittedly that’s probably got more to do with my dodgy filing, but given that the number is seemingly integral to American life, you’d think they’d at least splash out on a laminating machine.

Anyway, it seems as though it’s probably time I committed the number to memory. It does mean that I run the risk of having Jack Bauer and CTU extract it from me by torturous means if I’m implicated in a Syrian terrorist crisis, as my social security number would almost certainly be the combination needed to launch any nuclear device. But it’s probably a small price to pay for the ability to buy a coffee without filling out seventeen forms in triplicate.