The Devil in the Details

NEXT in line was a typical family: man and woman and a kid about two years old, and a baggage cart laden with their boxes and suitcases. The man handed over their tickets and passports. The flight was for Singapore, with many of the passengers having outbound connections: some to Jakarta, others to Cairns, still others to Auckland, Heathrow, or JFK. This family, two Germans and a Filipina, was bound for Frankfurt.

When I say they were Germans and a Filipina I am going by their passports, of course; in my line of work one speaks of these things in a technical manner, disregarding racial and ethnic considerations. The man happened to have the Aryan features associated with the typical German, such as blond hair and blue eyes. For me, however, all that mattered was that he had a German passport.

The boy was German, too, but if I hadn’t seen his passport I would have guessed him to be Filipino. His mother was cooing to him, in babytalk of course, but Cebuano babytalk, in which I detected a faint Boholano accent. The kid was repeating some of her words; he was taking to her language in much the same way he took after her. He had only the slightest hint of the mestizo alemán about him. To be sure, his complexion was rather light and his hair was brownish. But he did not look Nordic at all. He could have been a son of mine: he looked Visayan enough. The only thing German about him was a piece of paper. However, I was trained to give due credit to such pieces of paper.

The kid’s passport was literally a piece of paper. It wasn’t the kind of German passport his father had, the booklet with a hard maroon cover that had the words Europäische Gemeinschaft, then below that Bundesrepublik Deutschland, then below the heraldic eagle the word Reisepass. That kind of passport was sometimes issued to children too, but not often; the German government offered a children’s version of its passport, and since the processing fee for the Kinderausweis, as it was called, was much lower, it was what German children almost always had. A single sheet of green paper folded and refolded upon itself so that one could unfold it into four pages, the Kinderausweis looked like a fun passport; one could imagine it had been made in a gingerbread house, whereas the Reisepass could only have come from an office.

WE used the Departure Control System, DCS for short, a simple and good computer program. Accepting passengers for a flight was a breeze in DCS. For international flights, however, we had to input so many things the entries often became cumbersome. Care was essential. A single typo was all it took for the whole entry to be invalid, and then one would have to start all over again.

I would assign them good seats, one seat by the window for the kid, for both flights. I would tag their baggage for Frankfurt and waive the charge for excess weight of—I checked the readout on the weighing scale—seven kilos. But first things first. Were their documents in order?

The German was at the top of the name list. On my screen he was EFKEMANN/HEINZJUERGENMR and now I entered the supplementary information for him: PASDE6792035487.DOB09OCT67. The code PAS DE meant Passport Deutsch. The numerals were his passport number. DOB was date of birth, 10-09-67 on his Reisepass. The name on the passport, Efkemann, Heinz Jürgen, matched the name on the ticket, except for the spelling of Jürgen. No big deal. I knew the u with an umlaut was usually written as ue on tickets. I idly wondered if they could print out the umlaut on tickets issued in Germany. I could ask this guy, but in this line of work one did not ask too many irrelevant questions.

The kid was EFKEMANN/PETERMSTR and I put in the details from his Kinderausweis: PASDE2057644.DOB07AUG00. His color picture on the inside page showed him to be a beautiful baby, brownish hair topping a face more Visayan than Eurasian. It didn’t seem jarring to me, because brown hair appeared in my family too, about once a generation…we got it from a friar or two somewhere in the family tree; a recessive gene, but one that popped up now and then: my sister’s hair, jet black indoors, blazed with chestnut highlights in afternoon sunshine; my aunt had hair that was nearly auburn; my great-grandmother was supposed to have been a real blonde…my mind was wandering again. I wrenched it back to the present, to this little boy I was accepting for the flight, Master Peter Efkemann. I was glad to see they hadn’t given him one of those uniquely German names like Dietmar, Detlev, Heinrich, or Wolfgang. Peter was a very German name, but it was also very Anglo, very American, very Filipino: a good international name.

ONE had to anticipate how things would be at the destination, in this case Frankfurt. From the German point of view the two males, holders of German passports, would be natives coming home; no problems there. It was different for the woman. As a Philippine passport holder, she would be a visiting alien. Here I had to be careful. If Frankfurt found this one inadmissible, she would be deported and the airline would be fined five thousand Deutschmarks. They wouldn’t deduct that amount from my salary but an investigation would be launched, explanations would have to be submitted, and I would probably wind up getting a week’s suspension. A week’s pay for me wasn’t quite DM5000, but it was hefty enough.

For EFKEMANN/CHERILYNMS I typed in PASPHZZ395624. The passport had been issued in Cebu on February 20, 1998. Philippine passports were valid for five years, and hers would expire in 2003: good enough. As a general rule, anyone going to a foreign country had to have at least six months’ validity left in his passport.

After doing DOB24AUG75 I glanced at her to check if she was indeed 26 going on 27. She actually looked somewhat younger, but it had to be because she was a very lovely girl. I noticed the passport had been issued to Dayonot, Cherilyn Hawak, place of birth Talibon, Bohol. I turned to page 4 and sure enough the amendment was there: a change of name from Dayonot to Efkemann due to marriage to Efkemann, Heinz Jurgen, on 28 January 2000. The DFA official who signed the amendment hadn’t put the umlaut over the u in Jürgen, but I supposed he had merely copied the name from the marriage contract. If the wedding had been in Bohol there was little chance an umlaut would have appeared on that marriage certificate.

There would be a German visa inside that passport, I knew. I didn’t think it would be the one called the Aufenhaltsberechtigung, as I knew that kind of visa got issued only to foreigners who had been in Germany for some time. It was roughly the German equivalent of the American green card: it had no expiry date, and it doubled as a work permit. I had no idea how the word Aufenhaltsberechtigung translated, only that people who had that visa could speak German very well and knew their way around the country.

Perhaps her visa would be the Aufenhaltserlaubnis. This one had an expiration date, found in the space after gültig bis (“valid until”). In many cases, instead of a date there would be the word unbefristet. This meant something like “indefinite” and was what I most often saw on the visas of Filipinas married to Germans. This unbefristet was usually written on the visa in longhand, by someone with a Teutonic scrawl.

There were entry and exit stamps showing she had been to Hong Kong and Taipei but I barely glanced at those; they were irrelevant. She had an expired visa for Dubai with corresponding entry/exit stamps: she must have been an OFW not too long ago, but this too was none of my concern. When I found it, her German visa was the Schengen Staten type, which is valid for only a few months. All right, this probably meant she was going to Germany for the first time. Married three years and never yet been to her husband’s homeland? A question for the curious, but one I did not ask; it wasn’t politic to ask too many impertinent questions in this business.

Unlike the Aufenhalstserlaubnis, which was valid as soon as it was issued, the Schengen Staten visa did not become valid until a certain date, which might be a month or more from its date of issuance. The words to look for were gültig vom and gültig bis, “valid from” and “valid until.” On Cherilyn’s visa I saw a gültig für Schengener Staten, then below that a vom 04-05-02, which was tomorrow’s date, and a bis 07-07-02, which was months away in the future, as the expiration date should be.

So now the entry for EFKEMANN/CHERILYNMS was PASPHBB335622.DOB08 JAN 75.VISD13581677. The visa number belonged more or less to the same series I had seen on other Schengen Staten visas. Everything about this visa looked and felt authentic, down to the imprinted curlicues and the holograph.

Efkemann had waited in silence as I pounded the computer keys but now, from the amount of time I had spent scrutinizing the visa, he must have thought I looked unsure of the German words in it.

“Issued yesterday,” he said, “by ze Cherman Embassy in Manila.”

“Sus, kapoya gyud uy,” said Cherilyn. “We flew back from Manila last night, and now we are flying off again. Give us seats near the front, won’t you? I get seasick when I sit at the back, and Singapore to Frankfurt is such a long flight.”

“Ja, ja,” said Efkemann, “give us seats by ze emerchency exit. I haf fery long legs.”

Today was April 4; by the time their connecting flight landed in Frankfurt it would be early in the morning of April 5, the first day Cherilyn’s visa was valid. That was all right, then. I couldn’t assign them to seats in any of the exit rows, as they had a child with them. Safety regulations required that only able-bodied adults be put in those rows. Nor could I put them in front, as all the seats there were taken. I would have to explain these things tactfully and put them where I could.

An itch in my groin bothered me. I pushed the irritation away from the forefront of my consciousness and concentrated on the task at hand. Had I missed anything? Was there something not quite right? I was glad Cherilyn was a very poised young lady. I had been nonchalant, and so had she. I had never seen her before. She had never seen me before. I was just the guy at the counter and she was just another passenger…

They were all passengers: veteran travellers, first timers, it was always passengers and more passengers. Every day I sat there and took on long lines of passengers: rich tourists, backpackers, businessmen, contract workers, domestic helpers, emigrants, nuns, monks, refugees, laissez-passiers, diplomats, envoys, mercenaries; Sikhs, Arabs, Orthodox Jews, Amish, Hottentots, Lapps, Australian aborigines; Koreans, Czechs, Rwandans, Turks, Brazilians, Swedes, Zambians, Greeks…I had seen them all, I would see many more of them tomorrow, it was all one long line, stretching on across the years I had spent in this job, an endless line that snaked around the globe, passengers joining the line in Timbuktu and Xanadu and Cuzco and Urumqi and inching forward until one day they reached me at the counter…

THE difference between the American and the European styles of writing dates all in numbers was what had been bothering me. Only now did I remember that a date written as 01-02-03 would mean January 2, 2003 to an American, but would be read as 01 February 2003 by a European. I for that matter would tend to read it as January 2, as I had learned this shortcut for writing dates in elementary school, and it was the American system that had been taught to us.

I looked at the visa again. Of course, why hadn’t I seen it before? The gültig für Schengener Staten vom 04-05-02 did not mean April 5; it meant 04 May. I had been blind. I had wanted to see a visa that would become valid only a few hours before its holder entered German airspace. I had trusted Efkemann: like any methodical German, he would have made sure everything was in order. If their flight would bring them to Frankfurt on April 5, his wife’s visa would be valid on April 5. Unthinkable for it not to be.

Yet there it was, staring me right in the face, gültig vom 04-05-02, and it seemed the height of silliness to point it out, but this visa was definitely not in order. No doubt about it. The German immigration officer who would be looking at this visa in Frankfurt would interpret 04-05-02 as 04 Mai and inform Herr Efkemann that Frau Efkemann’s visa was not valid, would not be valid for another month, and very sorry about this, mein Herr, but we are only doing our duty. We must deport her.

My finger was about to hit ENTER but now I desisted. I would have to break the information to them as succinctly as I could. You just did not pussyfoot around a German. You had to come right to the point.

“Very sorry, Herr Efkemann,” I said, “but this visa is not yet valid. It will be valid on May fourth, a month from now.”

I showed it to him.

He did not say anything. He took the passport and peered at the visa. Then, handing the passport to Cherilyn, he stepped off to the side and whipped out a cell phone. Soon he was talking in rapid German.

“It’s a mistake!” Cherilyn said. “We told the people at the Embassy we had a booking for April 4, we would arrive in Germany on April 5! Susmariosep, I’m sure somebody inverted those numbers!”

Germans, I reflected, obeyed traffic lights and all kinds of signs. That one there had seen a sign that said gültig vom 04-05-02, and it never occurred to him that it should not be obeyed. Filipinos on the other hand always looked for exemptions, for a way out. This one in front of me was trying to put it all down to some clerical error.

I went to apprise my supervisor of the situation. When he came out with me, Efkmann was still talking on his phone. We waited for him to finish.

“Gott in Himmel,” he muttered as he put the phone back into his pocket.

“Mr. Efkemann?” my supervisor began, “Very sorry, but we cannot check in Mrs. Efkemann all the way to Frankfurt. We could check her in, but up to Singapore only. Do you still want to take the flight? Maybe it would be better if you rebook for May 3 or 4.”

He was outlining the options. None of those scenarios had been in this family’s mind a few minutes ago. But the German, I could see, was adjusting his thinking to the changed situation as quickly as anyone could.

“It’s those Filipina office workers at the German Embassy,” Cherilyn said. “They must have mixed up the date. We told them we were leaving April 4, nicht wahr, mein schatz?”

I didn’t know about that. I had a couple of friends who had been to Germany; if I understood it right, there was a space in the visa application form where one filled in one’s desired date of entry in DD/MM/YR form. In most cases the Embassy, if it could, simply gave you what you wanted. Was that the most likely explanation, then? That Cherilyn herself had mixed up the date? She had gone to school in Bohol: she must have learned to write dates in number format the American way. The confounded date was a dumb mistake, but quite natural in this context. I might have made the same mistake myself, and the chances were I wouldn’t have noticed it until it was too late to do anything about it.

What Cherilyn did not fully appreciate was that Germans would follow the letter of the law in things like this. It would be of no moment that some silly mistake had been made; what had been written was written and that was that. She seemed to be holding on to the hope that a spoken word from some German Embassy official would make everything all right and they could then get on the flight and reach Frankfurt to find the mistake smoothed over. She looked at her husband expectantly.

“Ach, to make in ze visa a refision ve must haf to go to ze Cherman Embassy in Manila, ja? No, I zink ve must rebook.”

“Very well, Mr. Efkemann,” said my supervisor, “would you come inside the office please? We will rebook your tickets now.”

CHERILYN remained in front of me at the counter, her little boy in her arms; most of the booked passengers had checked in by now and gone on to the Immigration counters.

“That’s probably what happened,” I said. “Some Filipino wrote April 4 the Filipino way.”

“God, how dumb. And it turns out to be May 4 to the Germans.”

“Yeah, all of them in Europe write it that way.”

“Oh, I guess we were dummies, too. We looked at the visa when we got it yesterday, but we never saw that. Jürgen should have seen it. I don’t know why he didn’t. But we were in a hurry. We had to catch the flight back to Cebu.”

“Things like that, everything looks okay…until you read the fine print.”

“Bitaw, ma-o gyud! It’s the fine print that gets you every time. The devil is in the details.”

“Handsome boy you’ve got there. Takes after the father, doesn’t he?”

“Hoy, abi nimo, when he came out I was relieved to see he had light hair. Up until that moment I was afraid he might take after you.”

“Well, he didn’t, did he?”

“He’s got your eyes.”

“Yeah, I can see that.”

“But it’s his hair that clinches it. Your hair’s black. His is brown.”

“Right. I guess that’s the clincher all right.”

“No doubt about it.”

There was no point in mentioning that brown hair popped up in my family every now and then. That would be the height of silliness. In this business, one did not say too many unnecessary things.

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