Friday morning, on my last day in Paris on this work trip, I took a detour. A 30 minute walk, from my hotel to the Canadian Embassy, to take a few snap shots of the building. This was important to me, something I’ve been both looking forward and dreading the entire time. A pilgrimage, of sorts.
Let me tell y’all a story.
June 1, 2017. Teacher and his dance partner (Q – short for queen) were traveling to a dance festival in Lisbon. While waiting for their connecting flight in Barcelona, their backpacks were stolen. Passport, wallet, credit cards, money, ID, everything. Gone. If that had been me, I would have died from dehydration from endless crying. Teacher? Attended the dance festival because 1) Canadian Embassies are closed on weekends 2) he was gonna be short on money in the near-future, so might as well earn his last paycheque for a bit.
June 6, 2017. After 4 days of hard-core partying and dancing, Teacher dragged himself to the embassy to sort through his “situation”. Teacher is famous for his flamboyant style of self-expression (#realtalk) but even so, his update alarmed me: “Vanilla, I’m fucked. They say I have to pay $500 CAD and go to Madrid to a visa office and then if I have more questions I can email this email address for the Canadian Embassy in Paris but I can’t call because that office doesn’t have any phone lines. Oh and I need to provide my leases for the past 5 years. I need a drink. FML.”
June 8, 2017. After 3 days of Teacher and Q visiting the embassy daily, me reading up online on proper processes to follow in their situation and calling the local government helpline, we knew what needed to be done. For Q, easy peasy. She is a Canadian Citizen, the Lisbon embassy completed her application for a new emergency passport same day, all she had to do was sit back and wait. For Teacher? A little more compliqué. Teacher is not a Canadian citizen; he is a Canadian Permanent Resident and must apply for a Permanent Resident Travel Document (PRTD) through Immigration Canada. Fun fact: not all embassies offer immigration services – the closest embassy to Lisbon to do so is in Paris. Fun fact 2: the government of Canada has outsourced all Immigration cases to 3rd party Visa Application Centers (VACs) – the 2 closest VACs to Lisbon are in Madrid and Paris. Fun Fact 3: Teacher cannot cross borders with no ID. The application for a PRTD is rigorous, requiring that the applicant demonstrate that they’ve lived in Canada for the past 5 years by submitting proof such as leases, tax returns, bank statements. Standard stuff to carry with you when travelling to Europe. Teacher started the painful process of trying to gather all that documentation. From a distance.
June 15, 2017. It was obvious that it would be impossible to gather the required levels of documentation. The standard application time for PRTDs is 66 business days – from the moment documentation is complete and accepted by Immigration Canada. Meanwhile, Teacher and Q were stuck in Lisbon, with no sources of income, no credit cards, nada. Sure, he was hustling, networking, landing some small gigs here and there, sure his students across the world were organizing fundraisers to try help them out, but this was clearly not a sustainable situation. I happened to be travelling to Paris for work on June 20-23. I offered that Teacher appoint me as his representative, so that I could physically go to the VAC and Embassy and intervene on his behalf, since he couldn’t leave Lisbon.
June 19, 2017. Q’s passport was ready for pickup at the Lisbon office.
June 20, 2017. Q flew back to Montreal, to resume teaching dance classes at Teacher’s school, to alleviate some of his financial burden.
June 22, 2017. I visited the Parisian visa office. I took a number, sitting in a stuffy non-air-conditioned office, with very Parisian employees. It was upsetting see them speak disdainfully to people with similar problems to Teacher’s, just trying to get into Canada. To the extent a person didn’t speak French? Oye. Spoken to like a retarded toddler, and dismissed. Boom. Casual derailment of somebody’s life. My turn. I waved my Canadian passport, smiled, and spoke in French. Initially, the conversation went smoothly. Then the clerk asked me if Teacher had his passport with him. Umm, no, it was stolen, that is why I am here.
“But mademoiselle, without a passport he cannot apply for a PRTD.” K, lady, you realize that makes no sense?
“Mademoiselle, if you are going to doubt my explanations, you can always read on your own time Immigration Canada’s website.” I already did. That is why I am here. Because there is no way that Teacher needs to first apply to have a new Angolan passport reissued, in order to then apply for a temporary PRTD so he can reenter Canada.
“Mademoiselle, I am not responsible for international flying regulations. Without a passport he cannot fly. If you doubt me, please make your way to Charles-De-Gaulle airport, they will happily explain to you the required documentation to board a plane.” LADY. You are pissing me off. Let me show you the document I need for this visa office to reissue, so we can be sure we are talking about the same thing, and then move onto the practical aspects of how we can get Teacher home before Christmas. As I reached for my cell to show her a picture of Teacher’s stolen travel document, the clerk stopped me.
“Mademoiselle, it is prohibited to use your cell in our offices. Please turn it off immediately. If you have something to show me, you must print it and present it to the front desk. No, we don’t offer any printing services: you must come prepared. Yes, I know it says on our website that we offer printing services, but we don’t. That is isn’t my problem. Come back another day. Mademoiselle! I insist that you shut off your cell phone immediately, you are violating our security regulations.” I lost my temper. I replied that she was Parisian, she should know from recent experiences that terrorists aren’t typically white blond girls, with Canadian citizenship, so could she stop being a bureaucratic zombie, and help me help my friend avoid destitution and make it back to Canada?
And that is how I found myself escorted out of the Visa office by 2 security guards.
I was SO mad. But I was also scared. Very scared. What if I couldn’t do this? What if that had been my only chance to help Teacher? If I failed, who else could help him? I sat down unceremoniously on the sidewalk in the middle of Paris and collapsed into tears. I called Teacher, waking him from his nap, sobbing incoherently on the phone about how he would have to spend the rest of his life as an illegal alien in Lisbon.
I had 1 more hour of free time before heading back to work. I decided to try my luck at the Canadian Embassy even though, at the time, the Canadian Embassy was not open to the public, functioning as an administrative office only (since February 2018 it is now open to the public). I showed up, tear-stained face, visibly distraught. I pleaded with the security guard on the sidewalk, showing him on my cell that infamous pic of Teacher’s stolen travel doc, “Please, it’s been 21 days, he is stuck with no money, he cannot travel to Madrid or Paris without ID, I am only here for 1 more day, I cannot skip work in order to be kicked out of visa offices because I forgot to print one miscellaneous paper out of the 457 required docs. Please. I just want to talk to someone to gain clarity on how we can solve this. Please. My friend needs help. Please help me.”
Y’all. Men and tears. It’s a thing. The security guard urged me to calm down – crying in public is not dignified, healthy or Parisian. He disappeared inside the embassy. I sniffled on the sidewalk, waiting. He reappeared 5 minutes later with a coworker who asked me further questions about Teacher’s file. This 2nd guy ushered me inside – success! He brought me water and kleenex, and reassured me that everything would be ok. Finally, the Immigration Guy appeared. He listened to Teacher’s story and was particularly outraged by my treatment at the Visa office – “anyone would have lost their temper, mademoiselle, but perhaps, next time, refrain from using the word terrorist? That is a sensitive topic here in Paris.”
Immigration Guy was SO helpful. We went through the required documentation vs what Teacher had managed to gather over the previous 2 weeks, and determined what could be waived vs the absolutely necessary requirements. I called Teacher as soon as I left the Embassy, gave the news, and went back to work. By midnight, after a flurry of phone calls, we’d completed his application.
June 23, 2017. The day of my flight home to Montreal. I returned to the Embassy to review & submit Teacher’s application with Immigration Guy. Immigration Guy validated it as complete, approved it and classified it as “urgent” which reduced the processing time from 66 days to 14 business days + mailing time.
July 23, 2017. Teacher received his one-time entry into Canada document (PRTD).
July 30, 2017. Teacher flew back to Montreal from Lisbon. 2 months after having his documents stolen. 2 months of lost gigs, minimal income, trapped in a country, relying on strangers and friends generosity to survive. TWO MONTHS.
That’s a story.
It remains one of the most stressful experiences in my life. I’ve never before felt such crushing responsibility to not fuck up, painfully aware that someone’s life was dependent on my ability to successfully execute the mandate I’d been given. I am amazed and perturbed at how much luck played a role in the happy outcome of Teacher’s Portuguese situation. What would have happened had I not happened to travel to Paris for work? Teacher’s life had been derailed for almost 1 month at that point, and with no clear solution to his problem, and no ability to intervene directly on his own behalf, he was trapped. Helpless. What do other people do?!
Lives change in a moment, I guess.