How much can you tell about a country and it’s people by a trip to the Visa Section of the said nation’s Embassy? Quite a lot I like to think. I’ve had the (mis)fortune of having stood in line in a number of embassies and it’s always given me a rough idea of what to expect in the country I’m about to visit.
At the Italian Embassy one can hope to be greeted by some rather handsome, curly haired David-esque men. They will spend more time looking at you than at your documents, converse with you in a manner that can only be described as flirtatious and will largely ignore the man standing next to you, who you happen to you’re your husband. When we (my husband and I – David look-alike number 20,003 couldn’t make it) were actually in Rome I found that this was a trait quite rampant in the Italian gene pool. All men - from the stewards on the Alitalia flight to the Immigration officers to the cabbies and waiters – can spend a full half hour explaining how to get to the Via Sacra if you’re a woman. If you’re a man they’ll grunt and nod in roughly the opposite direction.
The French however are a completely different ball game. Until you dredge up long forgotten French phrases from the dark and dusty corners of your brain, the straight line that is a French Embassy employee’s mouth will not turn up in the corners in to what is French for smile. However, if you can answer ‘Parlez vouz Francaise?’ with a breathy ‘Un peu’ and not ‘You speak English?’ accompanied by a vapid look you have temporary access to the rather exclusive ‘People the French like’ club. Temporary because you must exhibit more knowledge of their beloved language – humming Edith Piaf song’s under your breath is recommended. Humming ‘frere jacques’ is not. Parisians are the same - as a rule they dislike foreigners – but if they think you aren’t making any effort to speak their beloved language – God help you. Or should I say ‘aide d'un dieu vous’?
And how can I leave out our very own country’s visa and passport office? Like India herself, our embassies are grossly overpopulated. There are people everywhere – most of them taking a tea break that started at 9:30am and that will end at 4:00pm. Ask anyone a question and they will scratch their head for a while and then hand you over to someone else. This will be repeated until you find yourself with the same man who set the ball rolling. Name dropping and conversing in a common tongue will get you far – but act too big and a lowly flunky will extract revenge by making you wait forever. They will be rude to the country’s subjects but fawningly attentive to those who not long ago lorded about us in crinoline skirts and tight breeches.
Today morning I found myself outside the Dutch Embassy shivering not only because of the cold but also with anticipation. Would there be seemingly innocent brownies on offer that left people with more than a chocolate high? Would the employees be sitting behind glass-fronted booths in their underwear? Would I get my first taste of a Dutch accent?
‘Morrrning!’ twanged the blonde as she took my papers. Not only was she disappointingly dressed in tweed but she also had – could it be – an American accent? I mumbled a ‘Good morning’ back and looked around her desk for brownies or at least some suspect looking powder in a plastic bag. But there were no recreational drugs to be found – NOTHING. I sighed in resignation and paid my fee – which I thought was steep considering that there were no drugs or dubious women.
So with no new Dutch insights I made my way back to the station. En route I treated myself to a brownie and paused at the lingerie display at M&S. Pretending the mannequin was called Gerta (sound’s Dutch doesn’t it?) and that my brownie induced euphoria was caused by something more interesting I convinced myself that I now knew what to look forward to in Amsterdam. So what if I was in the heart of Kensington.