A tale of two visas

1. I have nothing bad to say about the process of applying for a UK visa. Right now they have my passport and are still considering my request for a ten-year permit, so I have nothing bad to say about them, nothing at all.

The best thing about applying for a UK visa is how much it confuses the South Africans queuing beside you. South Africans of a certain kind love to complain about South African queues – oh, all right, not all South Africans, I mean that particular white English-speaking South African woman of a certain age who is always in front of me in every queue I’ve ever been in, whether it’s a bank or a grocery store or Home Affairs. I don’t know how our timetables are so synchronized but she’s always there, sighing and huffing and shaking her head and muttering: “This is ridiculous!” I think her name is Brenda.

I once waited for hours and hours at Heathrow to board a British Airways flight to Johannesburg. Heathrow is horrid at the best of times and this time the flight was delayed and there was no communication or basic operational competence and the queues were feral and it was hot and there were sticky children everywhere. She was there again in the queue to board, just like always, but this time I noticed how placid she was, how patient and uncomplaining, staring unblinking like the sphinx of the Embankment at the timeless mysteries of the airlines. Huh, I thought. This can’t be Brenda. This must be some British Brenda doppelganger. The Brits love a queue.

Eleven hours later I was behind her in Johannesburg in the queue to clear customs. We had been in the queue for thirty-five seconds. Brenda shook her head and sighed. “This is ridiculous!’ she muttered. “Welcome to South Africa!”

The difference, I realised wasn’t that she was British Brenda – she was South African Brenda all along – it was that the queue that had been British. It’s not queues that Brenda takes so personally – it’s South African queues.

So I was very excited this week when I was in the line at 8.29 with several other mendicant travellers, all clutching our plastic binders filled with pitiful, pleading paperwork, waiting for my 8.30 appointment, and Brenda came bustling in behind me.

“Sorry,” said Brenda importantly, but she couldn’t fool me – she wasn’t sorry at all. “Can I come through? I have an 8.30 appointment.”

“So do I,” I said mildly. “So does everybody.”

“What?” said Brenda, with that peculiar puzzlement that always strikes her when she is forced briefly to consider the legitimacy of other human subjectivities. “But how can we all be at 8.30?”

“Mmm,” I said.

“But I have to be somewhere at 9,” said Brenda.

“Mmm,” I agreed.

Brenda looked at me and at the people ahead of me, waiting I suppose for us to step aside.  I tutted and nodded thoughtfully.

Brenda took her place in the queue, shaking her head and looking at her watch. “This is ridiculous,” she muttered.

With a feeling of deep gratification, like an actor who has long and patiently been waiting for his cue, I turned and smiled sympathetically.

“Welcome to England,” I said.

2. If you’re planning to get a visa, get it at the Japanese embassy. It’s true that they only provide visas to Japan, but that’s not so bad: Japan’s an interesting place, and you’ll be one of the tallest people there. If for some reason you’re planning to go somewhere other than Japan and need a visa, I encourage you to change your mind and go to Japan instead, just so that you can get it at the Japanese embassy.

I am not at all thinking of the UK visa process, not in the slightest, not until I get my passport back, when I say that by comparison with another visa process I have recently been through, the Japanese spark a deep and abiding joy. They have hit upon the novel approach of not assuming that you’re some kind of importunate, freeloading international criminal just because you want to visit their country. You don’t need to provide them with a DNA swab or stool sample or wrack your brains to remember if you’ve ever been arrested for committing genocide. You don’t need to shuffle from counter to counter being scrutinised by hidden cameras, wondering whether right now some operatives in a back room are studying you on a monitor and polishing up the bone saws. You don’t even need to make an appointment.

Oh, it’s like a meditation garden up there: there are soft chairs and a cool breeze and Kanagawa prints and a silent television showing contemplative scenes. There are periodicals and brochures, some of them folded into origami storks and cranes, and a small tasteful library of Japanophilic books. I can’t absolutely swear that there was a soft tinkling waterfall and a grove of blooming cherry-blossoms in the corner, but it feels quite likely.

“The cherry blossoms are called sakura. They’re a reminder of how brief and beautiful life is, and how we should cherish it,” said Clyde the security guard last week.

His name wasn’t really Clyde. He has worked there for twenty-seven years. He knew nothing about Japan when he started but he educated himself by reading brochures and watching educational videos during quiet times. He knows all about tatami mats and bullet trains and how to properly fold a kimono. He once tried to interest his wife in the fine art of stenciling.

Japan, he said, is the most beautiful country in the world, other than South Africa. The more he learns about it, the more he loves it. At home, when making a cup of tea, he remembers the tea-pouring ceremonies that he saw on an informational video, and tries to make his tea very carefully and slowly so that he can appreciate each moment of it.

Even though he’s not Japanese, he is the face of Japan at the embassy. He’s the first person you see when you arrive and he takes his role seriously. He believes in courtesy and respect for all, but there have been a few times when he found it hard to maintain his solemnity. Clyde grew up in the 70s and 80s supporting Western Province, he told me, “so when one day Mr Morne du Plessis came in for a visa, oh my word, you must understand.”

I did understand. My mother also loved Morne du Plessis. Clyde had his picture of him and Morne enlarged and framed and it hangs in his lounge at home.

I asked Clyde how he felt when Japan beat the Boks in the last World Cup. It was an unkind thing to ask. His face became a mask of pain, stoically replaced by bushido-like impassivity. In his tortured silence, I heard the sound of one hand clapping.

As I left, Clyde bade me farewell. “You will have your visa in three to four days,” he assured me. “You will love Japan. You will want to go back.”

“Have you been?” I asked.

“One day,” he said. “One day I will go with my wife. It’s like with the tea-pouring. If you take things slowly, they taste much better when you finally drink them.”

Clyde didn’t tell me about the Japanese concept of ikigai – that which gives value to your life, which gives you purpose and dignity and respect for the world and a reason for being – but he didn’t need to.

Times, 7 February, 2019