To Madrid, for a stamp.

“No sir, that won’t be a problem,” said the heavily accented Dutch voice on the other end of a dim, crackling telephone line.  In the 1980’s calling anywhere from Ceuta, one of the two Spanish enclaves on the North African coast, was always problematic, even if it was only to Madrid.

“With our centralized computer system you do not need to have the machtiging actually stamped in the passport; you can just take the reference number with you when you visit the vreemdelingendienst in Amsterdam.”  It was a visa officer at the Dutch embassy on the other end of the line, explaining to me that Renata’s provisional residence visa, with the impossible-sounding name of machtiging tot voorlopig verblijf, had been granted and we could now confidently book our airline tickets.

Our eighteen months of Moroccan Arabic language study had come to a close and, with our infant daughter – born at the Cruz Roja hospital on Monte Hacho, one of the ancient Pillars of Hercules – we were headed back to an exciting new project in Amsterdam.  Two weeks later, our few possessions crammed into a pair of old, red vinyl suitcases that seemed to miraculously expand no matter how much we fed them, we boarded the Iberia Airlines flight from Malaga.  We had purchased return tickets because they were cheaper than one-way; the second leg would go unused.

Or so we thought.

A few days after our arrival I caught a tram to Waterlooplein in Amsterdam, to the local headquarters of the Vreemdelingendienst, to comply with the within-8-days-after-entry registration requirement.  I pushed the three passports across the table to a disinterested middle-aged immigration officer:  USA, Canada, and another newly minted American one for our daughter, recently secured at the US Consulate in Fuengirola.

“Oh, and I have this too,” I said, sliding toward him a piece of paper bearing the number of Renata’s MVV.  Americans could get their residency papers after they arrived; Canadians needed the permission granted beforehand.

“Where’s the stamp?” queried the officer, ignoring my note and leafing expertly through Renata’s Canadian passport.

“The embassy in Madrid said we didn’t need it,” I replied confidently, “Said all you needed was the dossier number.  You can check on your computer that it has been granted.”  I was happy, proud even, to be the harbinger of the dawning age of computers.

“No stamp; no registration,” he said flatly, sliding the passports back toward me.  “You have five days to get the stamp.”

“You’re joking, right?  Are you telling me I have to go to Madrid just to have the embassy put a stamp in her passport?  Why can’t you check your computer?”

“No stamp; no registration,” he repeated.  And with that I was excused.

It must have been May 25th when I arrived back in Malaga because I remember watching the European Cup final on the tiny TV at a seedy Malaga hotel before turning in for a fitful night’s sleep in a hot and windowless room.  PSV Eindhoven beat Benfica on penalties; a month later the Dutch national side would win the European Championship with a magical performance by Marco van Basten; it was a good year to be a Dutch soccer fan.

The next morning I hopped an Iberia commuter flight from Malaga to Madrid.  It was a 727, probably the last time I ever flew on one, and it was full to capacity.  Nearly everyone was smoking.

Iberia_Boeing_727-256Adv_EC-CBF

At Madrid Barajas I grabbed a cab and gave the driver the address of the Embajada de los Países Bajos.  On arrival I took the elevator, found the office and was relieved that there was no one else waiting in line for services.  I explained the situation to the clerk behind the counter, gave her Renata’s registration number, watched her get out a large rubber stamp and whack it down on a page in the passport, and within ten minutes was downstairs again hailing a cab back to the airport.

The easiest way home now was a direct flight from Madrid to Amsterdam.  But because I had not been sure of how things would go at the embassy, I had not booked a ticket.  I ended up buying a business class ticket, on the spot, from the KLM desk.  It was exorbitantly expensive, downright abusive really, but I had grown weary of the whole project and just wanted to get home.

It was one of the most memorable flights I have ever had, worth every peseta.  A high pressure weather system had moved in across all of Western Europe and the sky was crystal clear during the entire flight.  With a map on my lap and a wonderful view I was able to plot our northeast-bound journey, watching the clearly visible landmarks and cities move by slowly below me.  It was enthralling.

Back in Amsterdam, ahead of my five day deadline, I slid the Canadian passport across the desk to the now slightly bemused immigration officer.

He duly completed the registration, stamping a page-filling visa on the page opposite of the stamp I received in Madrid, and then flipping the document back to me.

“Did you have a nice trip?”  he inquired wryly, with only the hint of a smile.

“Yes, I did,” I returned, equally dry, not wanting to give him an ounce of pleasure.  “I did indeed.”

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