The Counter

“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

“The New Colossus,” engraved on a bronze plaque inside the Statue of Liberty.

   *          *         *

We parked on the sidewalk right across the street from the Embassy. There were other cars parked in similar fashion so my father thought he could just go along.

We got out of the car and saw a uniformed man standing on the corner of the sidewalk and observing the traffic. My father figured he was a security guard for the Embassy so he approached him and asked: “Excuse me, are you from the security for the Embassy?”

The man turned around, surprised that he had not seen my father approach and after a few seconds a wave of cool washed out the initial surprise: “Why are you asking?”

“Oh, I was just wondering if we are going to have problems because of the way we’ve parked.”

“You probably are.”

My father turned around to me and said: “Ok, well you go and I’ll stay here and move the car if someone comes over.”

On I walked.

I crossed the street and I was on the tile covered sidewalk of the Embassy. I looked up and saw in big, copper-color letters, shining brightly with the light of the midday sun: “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.”

“Well, that looks familiar,” I thought to myself.

On I walked. A few feet before the door there was another uniformed man: army beige-colored T-shirt with the letters LGF on it,  army beige pants, boots, black sunglasses, and an ear device like the one worn by the “agents” in “The Matrix.” He could have been an “agent.”

“What are you here for?”

“I have an interview,” I said flashing a print out of the email that confirmed my appointment at 10:00 a.m. He looked at it and directed me towards the door where a few more people were already waiting to be let inside.

Another agent, a female, in the same uniform was standing in front of the door, looking ahead, her face frozen. Every 10-15 minutes she called out a number and opened the door for that many people to walk in. And then the door closed.

Finally my turn came and I walked in. Inside was the security post – the metal detector’n’all. I walked through and was directed to walk out of another door and follow the path to the next building. And so I did.

The next building was where the interviews took place. It was a big, single room hall with about seven or eight counters like those you see at your local bank – glass top that separates you from the person on the other side and a little “sink” through which you pass your papers to him/her.

At the first counter, you submit your papers to a staff worker who looks them over and ensures they are in order. If so, you sit at one of the benches and wait for your name to be called. And so I did. In a few minutes a person from counter two called my name and asked me to run my fingers on both hands through a finger print scanning machine. Once that was done she advised me to walk further down the hall and wait again for my name to be called.

It had been eight years since I went through this process and I had conveniently forgotten how it went. Silly me – I thought that there was a room or a private space in which the interviews were conducted. But although that was the EMBASSY OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, I was still in Bulgaria and I quickly toned down my “American expectations” when I saw that the interviews were conducted at just another counter two feet away from a crowd of about 50-60 people each of whom was anxiously waiting to have his or her name called. What two feet away means is that you can hear every single word of the interview of every single person called up to the interview counter.

Well… it wasn’t completely stripped of all privacy. There were brownish cubicle separators to the left and the right of the space right in front of the counter. But if you know anything about cubicles, you would also know that they do little in the way of how sound travels so the conversations between the interviewer and the visa seekers was open for the rest of us to listen in on.

So one by one names were called and people approached the interview counter the way you would approach your maker on judgment day. There were many of us and although there were three or four interview counters, there was an interviewer at only one of them and so we waited.

“Ivan Dimitrov,” the interviewer called out.

A stout, bald, muscular man approached the interview counter and placed himself between the cubicle walls.

“So, what’s the reason for your visit?”

“Oh, I am just visiting my girl friend who will be graduating from college next year.”

“Is she your girl friend or your girlfriend?”

“She is my girl friend.”

“OK, what is your job here?”

“I have a seasonal job as a life guard in Spain.”

“What do you mean when you say seasonal? How many months in the year?”

“Six months in the year.”

“OK, and what exactly do you do?

“Well, as I said, I am a life guard.”

“Do you own any property here?”


“Do you have any bank accounts?


“How do you intend to pay for your trip.”

“Well, I have been planning it for a while now so I have some savings, which I think will be enough for the time period I plan to spend.”

There were a few moments of silence in which you could only hear the frenetic typing of the interviewer, logging the interview into the system.

“I am sorry. But you do not satisfy the criteria for being granted a U.S. visa. Here is a list of reasons why that may be. Thank you and have a nice day.”

He slid a sheet of paper into the “sink” to the interviewee and reached nonchalantly into the pile of documents belonging to the rest of us who were all crowded around the single open counter, listening, watching as the man picked up his “list of reasons” and turned around facing all of us – the expectant ones – on his way towards the door.

“Iliana Kartalova,” called out the interviewer.

A woman in her fifties with short dark hair stepped up towards the counter.

“What is the reason for your visit.”

“Well, a friend of mine who lives there is turning 40 this year and we thought that this would be a good occasion for me to finally go and visit.”

“Aha. And what is your job here?”

“I am retired.”

“How do you intend to pay for the trip?”

“She is paying for it.”

Frenetic typing.

“Do you own any property or bank accounts here?”


More frenetic typing.

“I am sorry but you do not satisfy the criteria for being granted a U.S. visa. Here is a list of reasons for why this may be. Have nice day.”

The tension in the room was rising. People shifted in their bench seats, fingers twiddled, and you could almost hear the collective “Gulp” every time someone was denied a visa.

I was confident that my case was cut and dried and I had nothing to worry about but as I watched the charade around me and the flagrant display of power, I thought to myself: “You must be fucking kidding me.” And yet, the serene smiles of Barack Obama and Joe Biden beaming from the enlarged portrait photos that adorned the far end wall assured me that I was indeed where I was: the interview counter at The United States Embassy in the Republic of Bulgaria.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: