I was looking forward to my trip to the British embassy. According to every spy film I’ve ever watched an embassy is supposed to be the sovereign territory of the nation it represents. Also they have secret basements housing jet-propelled mini-helicopters. I have no idea if this is true, but since when was reality more important than what we learned in the movies. Theoretically this means it should have been like a little trip to the homeland. Of course, given the fact that the round trip to Warsaw took me seven hours, I could have visited the actual homeland more quickly by just flying there and back, but certain bits of paper I needed were in Warsaw.
I fondly imagined I would be ushered into a book lined study by a retired sergeant major where I would have a cosy fireside chat with a Sir Humphrey Appleby look-alike. We would ostentatiously drink tea with milk, munch jammy dodgers and roll our eyes about Poland without a hint of justification. I was a tad disappointed. Her Majesty’s Civil Service appears to have taken the view that the best image to present to the rest of the world is a recreation of a British dole office rather than, say, anything else. There were far more bolted-down plastic chairs and “assault-proof service positions” than I had expected and far fewer leather-backed chairs and book-lined studies. I had a heart-sinking moment. Poland’s bureaucratic offices may be famously shambolic but at least they don’t treat all members of the public as probable knife-wielding loons.
Sir Humphrey Appleby: notable by his absence
I approached the thick perspex buoyed by the expectation of a chat with a fellow countryman. No matter how good a Pole’s English might be, which can be very very good indeed, it’s never the same as talking to a fellow Brit. Assuming he’s not Scottish. I was a tad disappointed again. There didn’t appear to be a British person anywhere in the building. The receptionist was Polish, the security guard was Polish and the women behind the bullet-proof glass were Polish. The “service providers,” as I’m afraid they are probably called, were of that rare and strangely annoying breed of Pole who have practiced their pronunciation to the point where they sound like terminal laryngitis sufferers. Why do people do this? It’s impossible to learn an accent you didn’t grow up with and, frankly, why bother to try.
I wish I could blame the unhelpfulness of the strangulated ladies on Polish genetics, but it was clear they had been mercilessly trained in a modern British version of unhelpfulness that required them to refer you to the embassy website every other word. It was intensely annoying.
Me: Hello, I would like to get hold of document A.
Laryngitis lady: Have you looked at the website?
Me: Yes I have.
Laryngitis lady: Makes a ‘give me documents’ gesture having decided that speech is no longer necessary.
Me: Erm… here you are.
Laryngitis lady: Are you prepared to pay?
Me: Yes, but can I ask you a couple of questions first?
Laryngitis lady: Have you looked at our website?
Me: Yes. It was very nice. Thank you. Could I ask you a couple of questions?
Laryngitis lady: Everything is on the website.
Me: That may be true, but given the fact that I’m standing in front of you and not currently looking at the website perhaps I could ask you instead?
Laryngitis lady: The website is very comprehensive.
Me: Would it help if I pretended I was holding a mouse and clicked on your face?
Laryngitis lady: There is a frequently asked questions page.
Me: (sigh) Okay, I will look at the website.
Laryngitis lady: Stamps things fiercely and randomly questions my mastery of the English language as applied to the filling in of forms
Me: How long will it take to receive document A?
Laryngitis lady: There is a section on the website about delivery times.
Me: You do realise you could have answered that question with half as many words and 100 percent more information by just telling me.
Laryngitis lady: Thank you, that will be an extraordinarily large number of zlotys please. If you need our help again do not hesitate to look at the website.
I’m sad now.