Sunday, 12 February 2012

Kafka Airlines

It is very cold, minus ten around noon, but the darkness of December has fortunately disappeared. The sky is spotless blue, the snow in the garden shining brightly. We could go out, do as the Romans do, go skiing in the forest. But today is one of those lovely lazy Sundays that need nothing but a big brunch, a pot of green tea and classical music; one of those days that do not need clocks. Time to sit down, let my mind wander, and do some writing.

I realise there is a story that I have not told you yet. It wants to be told. It is a story about some of the discriminatory structures by which global society is organised, and about bureaucratic insanity. It is a sad story, but it has a happy end.

The last story I told you was about Phan Rang, the fascinating land of the Cham in southern Vietnam. We stayed there for a couple of days, then went back to Saigon by train. In Saigon, we borrowed a motorbike, navigated the crazy traffic, and explored the city. We visited two Chinese temples, as well as the excellent museum for traditional Vietnamese medicine. We enjoyed delicious noodle soup and soursop shakes, and had dinner and drinks with friends. And we did some serious last-minute shopping, for we were about to return to the world’s most expensive country. We brought home our luggage in two brand-new suitcases.

On Monday, we went to Tan Son Nhat international airport, and checked in for our flight back home. The Vietnamese Turkish Airlines employee at the check-in desk looked for Nhung’s Schengen visa. But Nhung did not have a visa, nor did she need one, for she is a registered resident of Norway. As the spouse of a Dutchman, the Norwegian immigration agency treated her as if she were an EEA citizen herself; hence, they refused to give her the passport sticker that other non-European immigrants get. Quite ridiculous, for she still has a Vietnamese passport, which has little value internationally – but as we know, bureaucrats have their own incomprehensible logic, which does not usually correspond to the logic of the rest of the world. So all she got was a piece of paper called ‘residence card’ (‘oppholdskort’), printed on a simple A4 with a single blue stamp and signature. It works fine in Norway, it has not caused any problems on intra-European flights yet, but it is hopelessly inadequate when travelling outside the Schengen area.

The entire ground staff of Turkish Airlines in Saigon got involved. Nobody knew what to do. These days, airline companies are responsible for returning people who do not have proper travel documents; accordingly, they have become extremely strict when it comes to passport validity and visas. Unfortunately, though, airline employees are not usually trained to recognise official documents, nor do they know anything about European immigration law. The other day, an Air China employee in Osaka nearly refused me entry to the plane back to Norway, as I did not have a ‘Norwegian visa’ nor an onward ticket to my ‘home country’. I am not kidding. My attempts to explain the lady something about Schengen principles were in vain, for her computer told her otherwise, and computers cannot lie. But I have a Dutch passport, not a Vietnamese one, so I got away with it. This was different. This was worse.

Anticipating the possibility that Nhung’s residence card might not be recognised internationally, we had brought a pile of papers – marriage certificate, police registration letter, certificate of university enrolment, legalised translations and so on. The papers were confiscated, copied, scanned and discussed by people who, ultimately, knew next to nothing about legal matters. We were waiting patiently – ten minutes, twenty minutes, thirty minutes. My patience gradually gave way to anxiety. A man tried to call the headquarters of his airline company in Istanbul, but did not manage to get through. He tried to call the Norwegian immigration agency, but did not manage to get through there either. We had been among the first in line for the check-in. Now, the queue had disappeared, and the last people were checking in. Thirty minutes before boarding. I tried reason, I tried anger, I tried humour. I tried everything I could to convince them to let us board the fucking plane.

After more than an hour, in which he repeatedly tried to make phone calls but did not manage to talk to anybody who knew anything, the man sighed. ‘I can let you board the plane,’ he said, ‘but I don’t know what they will do in Istanbul. I cannot guarantee that she will be allowed to board the plane to Oslo. In that case, you will have to buy a flight ticket back to Vietnam, which is very, very expensive. Do you agree to pay for this yourself?’ He looked at me, waiting for my answer. I had little choice but to agree. Unlike the Air China lady in Osaka, he did not make us sign any contract, though.

Relieved, we finished the check-in process. We got back our pile of papers, then passed through the security check. Next, we had to pass immigration. I went first, and got my exit stamp. Nhung followed me. But something was wrong. The immigration official stopped her, called a colleague, and discussed with him. I could not hear what they were saying. I was standing on the other side of the border. Nhung was taken away to a room. I wanted to go back, follow her, but I was stopped. There was nothing I could do. She did not even have any cash to bribe the official.

I waited anxiously. Ten minutes lasted an hour. I assumed that this had something to do with the residence card as well, but I did not understand why these people were making a problem, for Nhung had checked in and received her boarding pass. If they did not allow her to leave the country, I could not stay with her, for I had already left the country, and my visa was single-entry. I tried hard to control my breath.

She came out of the room. From where I was standing, I could see her. She walked back to the desk. She seemed remarkably calm. Having grown up in Vietnam, she is much more used to bullying officials than I am, and has learned not to show any emotion in their presence. At the desk, she got an exit stamp, then walked in my direction. She greeted me quietly. We were on the same side of the border.

Apparently, she had not been stopped because of the residence card, but because her passport was only valid for another four months. It should have been six. In fact, she had tried to get a new passport in Hoi An, but it would have taken at least ten days, which we simply did not have. So we had decided to apply for a new passport at the Vietnamese embassy in Oslo after returning to Norway. No problem, we thought. The Vietnamese immigration officials, however, thought otherwise. They gave me the worst ten minutes I have ever experienced.

When we arrived at the gate, boarding had already started. We boarded the plane. I thought I would feel relieved, but I did not, for I did not know what was going to happen in Istanbul. Turkish Airlines know how to make good food, but this time my stomach did not appreciate it. A cartoon movie provided some temporary distraction, and I managed to catch a few hours of restless sleep. When we arrived in Istanbul, we did some shopping and had a coffee, then went to the gate for our connecting flight. The words of the man in Saigon still sounded in my ears. They may refuse her.

We were first in line. We were stopped. The airline employee started searching Nhung’s passport for a visa. We gave him the residence card. He looked at it with a surprised expression, somewhat annoyed, as if he was being fooled. He called his superior, then continued to let other people board the plane. People stared at us, some compassionately, others indifferently or mildly amused. Nobody asked us what was going on. The man’s boss arrived. Just like him, she obviously knew nothing about Norwegian residence documents. She looked at the paper with an empty look on her face. I tried to explain the situation, but her English was poor. Inside me, I felt fresh anger and anxiety coming up.

The woman tried to make a phone call to Norway. Unlike her Vietnamese colleague, she actually managed to talk to somebody. She explained the situation in an incomprehensible mixture of English and Turkish, that must be hard to understand for the person on the other side. Any misunderstanding could be fatal, so I still felt nervous. She told the person that Nhung’s surname was Nhung; I overheard it, and corrected her just in time. After several minutes of mutual misunderstandings and repeated sentences, she finally received confirmation that Nhung is, in fact, a legal resident of Norway. She seemed somewhat surprised, but let us board the plane. I could hardly feel relieved. I felt empty, and exhausted, and became an easy prey for this winter’s influenza virus.

This happened one month ago. Today, everything is fine. We are happy to be at home. Home is here, in snowy Oslo. Home is where we can be safe together. Despite the cold weather, I enjoy being back in quiet and beautiful Norway. I also enjoy being back at my university, sharing thoughts with friends, studying classical Chinese, working on my dissertation. I do not want to leave Europe any time soon. And I certainly do not want to think about papers for a while.