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My Country for a Passport! (Part II)

May 18, 2010

Alika is now in possession of a Swiss work permit, an emergency Australian passport, and a Bulgarian passport.

The Swiss work permit was sent to Alika automatically by the Geneva government and will be valuable if child labour laws change. The Aussie passport was delivered within a few days after we sent the application from Sofia to the embassy in Athens. The Bulgarian passport followed a stranger path and took a while to get thanks to bureaucratic weirdness.

We had to go to Sofia to get the Bulgarian passport, as the authorities require that they see the child, and we had with us Alika’s temporary Bulgarian passport – with two spelling mistakes in her name – and an international birth certificate that proves who are the parents.

This matters. In 1981 Maria and her parents took a holiday in East Germany. On their return trip to Bulgaria the crowded train forced them to find separate seats, but Maria was finally able to sit next to her father. The mother sat in another carriage. At one border control the guards became wary of Maria’s father – a tall dark Bulgarian – travelling with a blond blue-eyed child without any papers. The lack of a common language between the guards and the father did not help the situation and they arrested him on charges of child kidnapping. Meanwhile, in the other carriage, Maria’s mother was arrested and escorted off the train on suspicion of child trafficking, since she had travel papers on her for a child although she was travelling alone.

Back to the present and on the first day in Bulgaria we took Alika to the local government office to get her National Security Number and the Bulgarian birth certificate. The process to get these started three weeks before our arrival. The only reason they were ready by the time we turned up was because of family connections sped up the process.

With all the necessary documents in hand, we confidently stomped off to the passport office in Sofia.

This is located in the suburbs in an old two-storey flushed concrete building that blends in better with the dusty pot-holed street in front than the surrounding modern apartment blocks. The actual office is down a long wooden-walled corridor that termites where doing their best to reduce. A single sliding smoky-glass window serves as a buffer between us and the world of passport providers. The window is generally closed. Once you knock, it slides open to expose a solitary sitting female bureaucrat. The window is so small and low you have to get in a bowing position to see or talk to them.

We smugly passed to the lady Alika’s birth certificate and security number.

“And where is her document proving where she lives?”

“Huh?”

“We need a stamped document from her local authority showing her permanent address.”

“But she was born in Switzerland and is too young to have a permanent address in Bulgaria.”

“It doesn’t matter. You have to have a permanent address in the country to be Bulgarian.”

So back to Maria’s hometown to get a stamped piece of paper stating spuriously that Alika lives with her grandparents.

The next day was smoother and somewhat logical. First we handed over the documents and forms, then another office to pay for the passport, then to the police office in the same building for both a background check to ensure Alika does not owe outstanding taxes and for the official passport photo.

That’s all. All up it took about 40 minutes of waiting, mainly because the office was shut for lunch, and the passport would be ready in three days, not the two or more weeks as we feared.

The illogical part was you could pay for different express services to get the passport back in 8 hours, 48 hours or 3 days. The prices are different but we were told no matter which service we choose, the passport will take a week. We were able to secure a relatively quick service because the man in charge thought that Alika was cute.

As an aside, a local newspaper wanted to interview us at the passport office for an article on peoples’ experience with the government. They wanted, however, a week’s notice that we were unable to provide. The irony of needing such a long lead-time to organise a meeting on the inefficiency of the Bulgarian bureaucracy was, I reckon, lost on the journalists.

As a precaution against Alika’s passport not arriving on time for the return flight to Geneva, we also applied for an emergency Australian passport.

This was straightforward. We met with the Australian honorary consul (HC) in Sofia, who sent the necessary documents to the Australian embassy in Athens, who within two days returned the passport via DHL back to Sofia.

I mention this because the HC office has a large mahogany table used to welcome government dignitaries, heads of state and other VIP persons. This table was the site – and I say this with swelling pride – of Alika’s first nappy change on official Australian territory.

All in all, none of the fears eventuated of being stuck in Bulgaria for months on end awaiting her passport. As the saying goes, “I’m an old man with many worries, most have never come true.”

It is the sort of naive optimism that in the future we’ll have to beat into Alika.

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