I headed over to the dreaded main office of the foreigners’ bureau to renew my residence permit consumed with a mixture of fear, dread, and certainty that something was bound to go wrong.
In theory, I should be able to do this in the small neighborhood office nearest my home. In practice, it has become nearly impossible to get appointments, so we take what we can get where we can get it. My recent visit to the neighborhood office ended with me dissolving in tears and an angelic Georgian woman coming to my rescue and escorting me across town to a mysterious basement shop where, for fifteen lira, an efficient woman behind a xerox machine obtained an appointment on the online system (something I had been trying to do for weeks) and copied and assembled my documents for me.
My permit expired more than two months ago and the rule goes that as long as you have an appointment, you are legally allowed to stay. But still—it makes me nervous walking around with just a little scrap of paper to prove I’m allowed to be here, especially since the permit process has changed many, many times. There is a constant conversation among the expat community about the current process and the best ways to navigate it, which results in angst and uncertainty no matter how many times you’ve been through it.
These scraps and scribbles permit me to reside in Turkey
All this to say that I braced myself before heading over to the enormous Emniyet building. The place has a reputation as a bureaucratic zoo which strikes fear into the heart of even the most hardened expat. I myself have had some less-than-pleasant experiences there.
This trip was different.
Not only was getting through passport control a breeze, with orderly lines instead of the usual cattle-call, I was greeted with the Turkish equivalent of “welcome, madame”. After passing through the sunny courtyard I went upstairs to the floor where all my previous permit
nightmares experiences had taken place. I was brusquely sent back downstairs and told to go “left”. Where all I saw was a cashier.
“Here we go”, I thought, “I can’t find the right office, I’m going to miss my appointment, I’m going to be kicked out of the country, who will take of my dog?” You know, all those completely rational thoughts that go through your head at moments like these.
Then I saw an innocuous looking door at the left which opened into a small room with 40 chairs, two banks of service windows, and a room full of families. Aha! This is where I belonged!
The digital board showed only 10 numbers to go until the number on my paperwork was called, so I sidled in and eventually worked my way across the room to a chair to wait, bracing myself for chaos, pushing, and drama.
Instead I saw the attendants patiently telling the nervous man trailing a wife and four high energy kids that he needed four photos for each family member. The man, not understanding Turkish and pointing at the single photos of each family member he had brought was kindly and quietly directed to the other side of the room, where a photographer was waiting. The man didn’t understand, but the worker explained gently and kindly where to go and then left the man’s number up while the family’s photos were taken—a slower process than in the past, but so much more humane than having to push your way back up to the window because they have moved on to the next applicant. The room waited patiently as the family went through their process.
After the photos and paperwork review the man had to go to the cashier and pay. While he was doing that, one of his sons, Hamid, wandered off. The attendants called for him—but they were behind glass partitions and he couldn’t hear so we all called, “Hamid, Hamid!” until he came back. The attendants engaged Hamid and his little brother in conversation and shook their hands through the opening in the glass wall, the old lady beside me nodding in approval and whispering “mashallah” under her breath.
After Hamid and his family were finished, the next number was called. A man came in and tried to jump the line, a maneuver that is usually successful here, but he was firmly pointed to the number on the wall and told to wait his turn.
A few more people were processed, the numbers on the board climbing calmly and slowly toward mine as I watched the friendly interactions in the room: the ladies in front of me making faces at the baby behind them; the photographer muddling the names of the people he called into his side room as the waiting crowd tried to help him with pronunciation.
I had come to the realization that my wait might be a long one since most numbers on the board represented families, each member of which had to be processed, when I noticed one of the attendants waving me toward the window although the board showed five numbers to go before mine was up. Apparently they took pity on me, or, for efficiency’s sake, decided to pull single me ahead of the groups. I gratefully handed them my paperwork which they began scrutinizing. I was asked the usual questions—how long have you been here? Seven years. Why are you here? Because I love Istanbul (true, and always accepted unquestioningly). After some consultation with his colleague–Why? What’s wrong?! Momentary panic on my part–I was sent to the cashier, where I was pleasantly surprised to find a smiling man behind a counter who quickly took my money, handed me a paper and sent me back to my window inside. A few stamps, a scrap of paper telling me when to come back to pick up my permit, and I was sent on my way.
I had arrived 45 minutes before my appointment and was through the process and out the door 5 minutes after my appointment time. Less than an hour, many smiling faces, and the only stress had been self-imposed. All I had to do now was contemplate what to do with the rest of my day.
I resisted the urge to go back to the mean neighborhood office which had reduced me to tears and wave my paperwork in their faces. Instead, I wandered back into the sunny day, grateful for the rare convergence of Turkish bureaucracy and Turkish hospitality.