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Tim Dowling: God bless American officialdom

4 May 2012

I have to get the oldest one a US passport before he turns 18 and loses his entitlement to one. In terms of leaving things until the last minute, this is a personal high-water mark for me: an 18-year window, narrowed to a matter of months.

I did once try to get him a passport when he was a baby, only to be told I had the wrong sort of birth certificate. This time I have assembled a fat file of paperwork: passports, forms running to many pages, a series of photos that shows the child's development from infant to hulking giant and, most importantly, ample documentary evidence that I lived in the US long enough to be able to confer citizenship on my progeny. I've got my school bus pass in there, just in case.

"Do I really have to come?" my wife asks.

"Yes," I say. "You do." Everything I've read on the passport services website leads me to believe her presence is not required, but I'm not being sent away for want of a wife.

"This is ridiculous," she says, as we stand in the snaking security queue outside the American embassy. "Why is it taking so long?"

"The price of freedom is eternal vigilance," I say.

"All this to get into a country where everyone shoots each other anyway," she says.

"You're not going to say that sort of thing once we're in there, are you?"

"Will this mean they can execute me?" the boy says.

"You should be more worried about the tax implications," I say.

Inside, the waiting area is filled with prams. My son appears to be the only applicant who has teeth. As we wait for our number to be called, my palms begin to sweat and my breathing becomes shallow and rapid. I flip through my file again.

"Look at your father," my wife says. "He's freaking out."

"I fear this sort of thing," I say. "But at least I'm prepared."

We are called to window three, where a woman looks at my forms. "Why have you left it so long to apply?" she asks.

It doesn't seem a good time to tell her about my phobia of American officialdom. "I've been meaning to get round to it," I say, "but the last 17 years have been really hectic."

"OK," she says. "I'll need passports, photographs, birth certificate, marriage certificate."

My insides turn to ice. I paw through my file, but I know the marriage certificate is not in it. It's at home, in a drawer.

"Do I need it?" I say.

"Yes," she says.

My first thought is: don't cry in front of her; you can cry in the car. To my surprise I am not sent away, but furnished with an affidavit to complete and sign, in lieu of the missing document.

"I thought your head was going to explode," my wife says.

"Quick," I say. "When did we first meet?"

"No idea," she says.

"I'm putting 29 December 1989. Memorise the date and, if they ask, say it was magical."

We are sent to several more windows, where the officials gradually progress from stern and appraising to chatty and charming. The last one approves the application, pending the later mailing of the marriage certificate.

"It's just so we have the correct status recorded," he tells my son. "In case you want to be president."

Walking down the steps to the street, I feel drained but relieved.

"I never got to show them my bus pass," I say. "Or swimming awards."

"I can't believe you forgot the marriage certificate," my wife says. "You're an idiot."

"I know, but it didn't matter," I say. "What a great country, right?"

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2012

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