• Thammika Songkaeo

VAC Man: Impressions

The man behind the outsourced Visa Application Center of the Italian Embassy should not have been expected to know Como, let alone the fact that driving from Zurich to Como was doable, and I should have been more patient explaining to him how the logistics of a Zurich-Como trip would work. The trip to the VAC might not have needed to end with me apologizing, feeling like I had been unnecessarily rude by saying, "Sir, I'd like to be cooperative, but if you're just asking me questions for the sake of asking me questions!"


I had thought my itinerary was pretty simple. Three nights in Zurich. Four nights in Como. Return to Zurich after fourth night in Como. Fly back to Singapore right away. My daughter, six, understood.


Leafing through my flight and car bookings, the VAC man first asked me, "Why do you come back to Zurich?"


I regurgitated the itinerary. "It's a return booking: Singapore-Zurich."


"I don't understand," he said. I cocked my head wondering what there was to not understand. Was it Como? Did he not know the name? (But it's a poster child on the VAC's walls. "That Como," I said, pointing to the poster. Blank stare in return.) Was it the idea of driving between Schengen countries? Maybe he's never. "It's about three hours of a drive, a beautiful drive. I'll drive back to Zurich to catch my flight back to Singapore," I tried.


"But why do you come back to Zurich?" He asked immediately.


"Because my flight back to Singapore is from Zurich," I repeated. I threw in a map drawn in the air: two circles denoting the relative positions of Zurich and Como, and a straight, short line connecting them.


"But I don't understand why it's Zurich," he said.


I pointed to my flight itinerary. "Because I have to come back to Singapore via Zurich."


"I don't understand. Why Zurich? It says your car is until May 21. And you fly out of Zurich on May 21."


"Exactly. I drive the car from Como to Zurich, return the car at the airport in Zurich, and fly out of Zurich."


"I don't understand."


I was beginning to lose it. I drew a map on the wall between us with the oils of my fingertips—something similar to my second attempt: two circles, a connecting line. Hearing my voice thicken, a sign of my welled-up temper, my husband added, "There's a map behind you, sir. Perhaps you could look at it." Sir's head stayed where it was originally confused, his eyes pinned to the Fiat booking again after my oily map was complete.


"What's confusing you?" I asked, trying to sound neutral.


"Why is your car until May 21 and your flight also May 21?"


"So that I can return the car right before I fly. So that I can come back from Como to Zurich and fly out of Zurich."


He continued to tap his pen on the Fiat booking, as if I had subliminally fit in a word-search or crossword puzzle. I began to stare hard at it, too, tiptoeing to see clearly over the counter what I might have missed or accidentally added.


Nothing.


"My flight back to Singapore is from Zurich. My flights are a roundtrip for Singapore-Zurich," I repeated, hoping it would be the final time. I thought the explanation was pretty simple, but full enough for him to do his job. What was he trying to get at? I wondered. Did he want to sit down for a coffee and have long, deep, existential discussions about vehicles and preferences, my feelings towards trains, Flixbus, or BlaBlaCar, and why, philosophically, environmentally, and morally, they could be superior options over the petroleum-sipping Fiat I had booked?


"But why do you have a car to Zurich?"


I blew up, said, "Sir, I'd like to be cooperative, but if you're just asking me questions for the sake of asking me questions!"


He immediately said that he wasn't doing that. "If they ask me questions, I need to understand," he said.


I said that could only work if he would listen to my answers.


"I still don't understand," he said.


I looked at the carpet and cursed him in a language of a recent Netflix show, a Schengen language, appropriate to the general atmosphere. He cursed me back with his eyes.


"One hundred and eighty two dollars," he said. "And sixty-two for your child."


I gave him crumpled bills. He made the change in pennies.


His internet broke down. He asked me to take a seat. The broken internet gave me twenty minutes to calm down, head on my husband's shoulder.


"I apologize for being rude earlier," I said, when he handed us a slip.


"It's okay," he said.


I looked at it. A receipt. Ten dollars for SMS notifications, without having asked if I wanted them.

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