It’s been a year since we got our Portuguese residency permits and had our first encounter with the notorious, dreaded and dreadful Portuguese bureaucracy. I wrote about that experience at the time. We got off relatively unscathed from that one, in large measure because we had our friend Mario with us to run interference. We recently went to renew our permits, but weren’t so lucky this time.
As described previously, the SEF (Servicos de Estrangeiros e Fronteiros) office, where all the immigration interviews take place, is a drab, dreary, smelly place staffed by low level clerks who, according to Mario, don’t even speak decent Portuguese let alone English or any other languages — Sort of a Black Hole of Babel, if you will. Given the condition of the place, it’s no wonder the employees are notorious for their lousy attitudes.
Our interview took place after a couple of particularly rough days during the rainy season. The floor in the waiting room was an inch deep in water, giving one the choice of standing against the wall in the only dry part of the room or sitting in a chair with your feet in a puddle. Nobody was doing anything to clean it up; not a mop or bucket in sight. The only acknowledgment was the security guard at the front door pointing at people and telling them not to walk in it, as if that were possible.
Having spent four and a half hours in that waiting room during our first experience, Barbara had made an appointment for first thing in the morning before their schedule inevitably got backed up. We were called for our interviews within twenty minutes, but things went rapidly downhill. For one, even though we were applying as a couple, with shared housing, finances and documents, we were required to have separate interviews. Interviews take place down the hall in a room with a row of booths in the middle, interviewers on the inside of the row, interviewees outside. A digital display called me to booth number 10. I saw Barbara in booth 5 at the other end of the room, and then I saw something else — there was no Booth 10. The booths went from 9 to 11, with the ID photo cameras in between. Both booths were empty, with no number 10 in sight.
As I stood there trying to guess where I was supposed to go, I heard someone speaking ever so sharply then realized I was the one being spoken to. A woman standing behind the row of booths directed me to Booth 11, clearly annoyed I hadn’t figured it out on my own.
As expected, she opened by speaking to me in Portuguese, to which I responded with “Fala Inglês?”, asking very politely if she could speak English. In turn, she launched into a semi-tirade to the effect that I ought to be able to speak Portuguese if I was going to be a resident of the country. Barbara heard her way down at Booth 5, so I wasn’t imagining either her volume or the nastiness of her tone.
My lousy Portuguese ain’t for want of trying. We’ve spent a couple thousand euros on lessons, out of respect for this country and its culture. Barbara suggested I should have shown her the receipts. General agreement in these parts says it takes two years to be conversant in a language; some do it faster, to their credit; but, after only one year, I’m pretty much on schedule. Something I haven’t practiced talking about is immigration/legal matters. I think it reasonable to ask for such information in my native tongue to be sure I get it right. In an office dealing with natives of other countries, the staff should be able to speak several languages.
Anyway, who the hell does she think she is delivering lectures to people in the first place? She’s a clerk, not the foreign minister, for crying out loud!
In any case, I smiled politely and kept a humble silence as she shuffled through my paperwork. Next in her avenging angel tone of voice, she demanded our joint legal documents, so I had to go over to Booth 5 to get them from Barbara. After she studied those, she went through the rest of our stuff.
Suddenly, she started waving the printouts of our financial statements around and demanded to see the originals! What originals? They’re printouts! We do everything on line. What decade are you living in, I wanted to ask. I went back to Booth 5 to ask Barbara if we had any such documents, and the answer, as expected, was no.
Parenthetically, when I went to Booth 5, Barbara’s clerk was busy signing and stamping her paperwork. That is, Barbara’s clerk was busily approving her residency. My clerk then yelled at Barbara’s clerk to say we couldn’t be certified without the originals. The two of them got together and spent ten minutes going over all the paperwork together.
Barbara’s clerk lost. Apparently, mine was senior;. We were tossed out on the street and denied renewal of our residency permits until we produce the originals. We now have to contact all our banks, investment houses and US Social Security to get statements mailed to us. That means dealing with the Portuguese mail, which is a whole ‘nother story — stay tuned.
I can’t help thinking this is all because I failed to sit up on my hind legs and sing in Portuguese for a disaffected clerk.
This anecdote illustrates two ironclad rules of bureaucracy. One, when two or more bureaucrats get together to interpret a rule, the hardass version always wins. It’s part of proving to each other how important they are. Second, when an individual bureaucrat is interpreting a rule, they each go according to what mood they’re in that day.
As a matter of fact, the printouts in question were the same kind as those we presented last year, when we were approved for residency. Did the rules change when we weren’t looking? Do they not believe we still have the money? Go figure.
That afternoon, Barbara related this story to our friend Milu. Her characterization was, “An overzealous bureaucrat who ate shit for breakfast.”
Here’s the irony. When we scheduled this appointment, we were given a date three months after our residency officially expired. Why? Because the Portuguese bureaucracy in all its grandeur is that far behind. When she scheduled our followup appointment to redress our paperwork inadequacies, it was for another four months out.
I’m certain, if we have to reschedule an appointment after that, we’ll get an additional four months. About that time, we’ll be going back to the US to handle some administrative matters there, which will then reset the clock for another four months passport validity when we return.
Adding all that up, we will have lived in this country—legally — for up to a year after our residency permits have expired! So much for the crackerjack job done by Portuguese immigration.
Another expat suggests in a post that you take a copy of the immigration rules when you go in for an interview. When the clerks gives you a hard time and demands things they don’t need, you can pull out the law and argue them into submission. It would be even better to bring someone along who can Portuguese-argue with them.
Next time we’ll be ready for them. Até logo.