I went to get a new American passport today, my first since 1984. Since I am also Canadian (and now also Dutch), I haven’t needed my American one, but the USA demands that all of her citizens enter the country as Americans and I’m flying directly there in a couple of weeks. I only recently found out about this rule – growing up near enough to the border that we often crossed for cheap American gas, I was always told by the border guards just to tell them the citizenship that made the most sense, ie, if I was living in Canada to be Canadian. I’ve even flown into the US a number of times as Canadian, and had to tell them about my (then) dual citizenship for one reason or another, and no one has ever mentioned that I should have been travelling on a US passport (though the law may have only come into effect in 1994 if I’m reading amendments correctly). But now, as we all know, the Americans are becoming stricter and stricter and since I now know the rules, I guess I should play by them.
Since my last passport was issued so long ago, I had to go to the consulate in Amsterdam to apply for the passport. Of course there was security, much more than the Canadian embassy in The Hague, but the security guards were nice and professional, and after taking my phone and umbrella for safekeeping, let me into through the maze of construction to embassy. There are two rooms for visitors there, a bigger one for visa seekers, where they sit on rows and rows of chairs and are placated by giant televisions while they wait, and a smaller room for services for Americans, as the Americans are processed through rather quickly. The room has only a few seats, including a bench the big old fireplace tiled with Dutch blue and white ceramic tiles.
After handing in my paperwork and paying the fee, I sat to wait for a while for a consular employee to let me swear that I was telling the truth and sign the application. Very trusting really, the Canadians make you find someone with a professional designation who has known you for two years to confirm your identity, and the Dutch, well, passports are handled by your municipality, which knows everything about you anyway, so you just go bring them a picture, show your ID and pay the fee.
The others in the American waiting room were middle-class families (usually mixed Dutch-American) and professionals, probably expat workers. Except for one guy. He was scruffy, unshaven and dirty, looking like he’d slept for days in what he was wearing. He was standing sort of uneasily by the door, and you could almost feel the moat separating him from the unstated comradeship of prosperous Americans abroad in the rest of the room.
At this point, my two-year-old daughter wanted out of her stroller and we started to play together. She always attracts a lot of attention – she’s got striking red hair and she’s a cuddly, giggly and engaging little girl. And, of course, we were sitting in a waiting room, and no one has anything to do, so we were pretty much the centre of attention. One of the young professionals sitting next to me said, “She’s so cute.” I responded with, “Yeah, she’s also a monkey, always into everything.” Suddenly the scruffy guy joined in: “How old is she?” “Just over two.” “I’ve got a daughter who’s almost three, I miss her.” The air around him thawed. Surely someone who misses a daughter can’t be that bad. He continued, and the rest of the room listened unobtrusively.
“Yeah, one time her grandpa was watching her and he fell asleep on the couch – he didn’t know better then. She went into the kitchen and climbed up on the counter and grabbed the bread in one hand and the big knife in the other and went back to the living room, kicked grandpa, and said ‘bread.’ He sure was shocked to wake up to that!”
By now the cloud of comradeship was starting to reach him as people’s faces warm. It was a funny story told with love, one that could happen to any of us, truth be told, and since it’s Grandpa not watching out, Dad isn’t being a bad parent. He may just be OK, was the judgment of the room. But then he continued. “Yeah, I’ve been gone nine months and I’m out of money. I need to be repatriated.”
If there was a moat before, now a wall slammed down as the room turned its figurative back on him. Even I, as the one in conversation, just made polite noises and ended the conversation. Everyone could imagine what he’s been doing for nine months in the party city of Amsterdam, and as the responsible middle class and professionals that we are, condemn him for running out of money, for not being responsible enough to plan to get home, for leaving his daughter behind for so long. We’ve excluded him from our fellowship, going back to our original distrust, now strengthened. He’s not one of us. And as I left and heard him complaining that they could not get him a flight out today, only tomorrow, I felt better about it, having my impressions of irresponsibility confirmed.
On the tram and train ride home I reflected on this small encounter, on how we are able to overlook differences in the face of some commonalities, like family, but how some differences are too large to scale, especially in a group, and how the presence of others in the room increases the distance to the outcast. Had I been alone, I probably would have continued, found out his story, found out if my reaction was justified or if he was actually a decent guy who had faced hard times, but I did not care enough to do so in the face of the evident sea of disapproval. Even being aware of group dynamics is not always enough to overcome them. I can now just hope he has gotten home and is raising his daughter well, and with the love I saw in his story.