03 January 2013

A Grand Entrance at the Expat Centre


Today was Chiara's first day of work, and her office arranged a meeting for her (and me too) at The Expat Centre, the place in the WTC designated to ease the transition for any newly arrived expats.

Unfortunately, our 2pm appointment wasn't as smooth as it could've been. Chiara neglected to bring her work contract, we don't have a place to live, nor our marriage certificate, nor a few other key pieces of documentation.

But we did have our passports, two winning smiles, and our keen sense of optimism. And the centre offered complimentary beverages - what could possibly go wrong?

I arrived at the stroke of two, out of breath but not late. Chiara was sat at a round white table in the entrance way. A woman came to offer me a beverage, and I asked for a glass of water. I never saw her again.

After waiting for a quarter of an hour, and no sign of movement (or my water), I decided to avail myself of the beverage facilities. An automatic dispenser next to the reception desk offered a whole array of coffee-based beverages, or hot water and tea bags. As I'd already had eleven cups of coffee that morning, and the water I'd asked for didn't seem to be forthcoming, I opted for tea.

Mugs are small here in the Netherlands. Really small. A party magician could palm one with ease. But, lacking other options, I took two of these doll-sized mugs and made two cups of rooibos tea. As soon as the  second cup was under the spout, and the hot water was flowing, a lady arrived to collect Chiara - our appointment was underway! And I was stuck mid-tea order.

The automatic dispenser shuts off automatically. But not until the cup is filled precisely to the point of overflowing. So I had two cups both looking ready to spill. I sipped one of them, to bring it down to a carryable level, and burnt the front of my tongue, the roof of my mouth and my throat. I started to get nervous. Meanwhile, Chiara and the other lady have disappeared into the back.

With a mug in each hand, I picked up my jacket and bag, balancing one over each arm. Another receptionist appeared (where were they coming from?) and beckoned for me to follow her into the back. I did so quite ungracefully, like a three-legged pack mule.

Just outside the case manager's office I chanced a small sip of the second cup of tea, so that I wouldn't look completely out of control when I walked into our appointment. My autonomous nervous system glitched and I choked.


Just like your hyperactive nephew at Thanksgiving: I full-on choked as I crossed the threshold into our meeting. I stood there, in the tiny crowded office, spluttering away. Tea went everywhere - from out of my mouth and out of the two stormy mugs, spilling hot tea onto the backs of each hand, and onto my trousers. Then as I managed to get the choking under control, I started coughing.

The already humourless-looking case manager was looking ever more aggrieved, although he did offer me a glass of water. It was at this point that I realized I couldn't even speak.

Finally after a tense silence - my wife, the case manager and the receptionist all eyeing me carefully, prepared to ratchet up the emergency levels, I managed to croak out a simple 'no'. Besides, would that glass of water even come if I had asked for it? Experience had taught me that no, it would not.

I sat down, still clearing my throat and wiping involuntary tears from my eyes. The man asked for my passport, and I handed it over with a tiny flourish, like a detective with a warrant. I was clearly trying to compensate for my awkward entrance. It wasn't working.

Besides, we had no work contract, no marriage license, no birth certificates. Just passports. The upside was it now looked like I wasn't going to choke to death in the office.

In the end thanks to a combination of stubborness, cooperative spirit, and my death-defying entrance, we walked out with all-important BSNs - a vital link in our chain of processes to get settled in Amsterdam.

From an inauspicious beginning - hell it was nigh on a near-death experience - partially from the choking hazard, and also partially from embarrassment - we managed to triumph. Surely that bodes well.

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