A Visit to the Consulate: A Lesson in Absurdity
Illustration by Rebecca Marks
A long corridor with windows on one side and a row of uncomfortable plastic chairs. I look at my watch, which says I have been sitting in the same spot for the past two hours. I wonder how many more I have left. The lunch and coffee I had earlier are just a faint memory now. I have been entertaining myself reading Regarding The Pains of Others by Susan Sontag and thinking if she ever considered writing about the pain caused by bureaucracy. Maybe I should have brought Kafka’s The Trial with me instead because this visit to the Polish consulate felt dangerously similar to Josef K.’s experience.
Why did I choose to spend my Thursday afternoon waiting around and wondering whether the civil servant would finally call my number or not? The reason for my visit was because the night before, I had managed to lose my wallet and with it, all my debit cards, memberships-- including the most precious one that grants entry to any exhibition free of charge (hopefully its new owner will make good use of it)-- and of similar importance, my national ID. Apparently, identity theft is something that can happen to anyone, so in order to prevent it, I had to notify the consulate about my misfortune, which brings me to the beginning of the story.
Even though the Polish consulate is located in the heart of the City of London, spending some time there can make you feel as if you were teleported to Poland. However, not modern-day Poland - oh no. It takes you back around 60 years ago when the only thing available in grocery stores was vinegar and when owning a pair of jeans made you instantly the coolest and most fashionable person in the room. The time when, if a member of the civil service decided that you could not take care of your inquiry for any reason (not answering the questions in a proper manner, not smiling or smiling too much), your case could be doomed forever.
These were all of the thoughts racing through my mind during the third hour of waiting. There were only two more people left before my turn. “What is your inquiry?”, the woman behind the glass wall asked the penultimate person in the queue.
“I would like to get married in Taiwan”, said the man.
“Couldn’t you find a closer destination?”, she replied.
“Great, it looks like I’m going to stay here until sunset”, I thought.
“Excuse me, what number are you?”, a man sitting a few chairs away from me asked. My number was the next one and I was very excited to inform him about that. A frown appeared on his face. “It seems I might not be able to make it to my conference after all…”, he said with sadness in a very peculiar accent. After having a quick conversation with him, I found out he was a film director and producer and was going to an event in order to raise money for his new film. Moreover, his brother-in-law went to the same university as me, so we had something in common (apart from obviously being stuck in the same room for the past four hours). We started engaging in a fascinating discussion, he even showed me a fragment of his new production when I heard: “Number 318 please!”
Finally! I went up to the lady and reported losing my ID. She issued a confirmation of the procedure, which I would then have to bring to the city council in Warsaw. Everything was finished in less than 30 minutes. After losing a little bit of faith in humanity, but nevertheless delighted to be free after 4.5 hours of waiting and late for my meeting, I rushed out of the building. Half an hour later, I arrived at the Barbican and headed towards the gallery. It was only when I got to the exhibition and started reading the introduction that I had a terrifying epiphany. My passport stayed at the consulate. I used it to prove my identity and never got it back. The thought of going back there for another few hours on the next day triggered an ironic smile on my face. I guess there are some systems you can never overcome and the best you can do is try and laugh about the absurdity of it all.