American embassy in Istanbul resembles a fortress, at least when
viewed from a distance. It’s located some distance from the city
center, at the top of a hill in a residential neighborhood called
Sariyer. Up close, it looks like a military compound. The ground
floor entrance is blocked by gates and fortified with the presence of
security per sonnel and armed vehicles.
We were there to get our son Leo’s American passport. Getting an appointment at the embassy had taken months. Because of the pandemic, the embassy had drastically reduced its services. So when we finally managed to secure a coveted slot, we jumped at it.
When we arrived that morning with Leo, bundled and wrapped against the early morning December chill, it was still dark outside and except for the security, virtually lifeless.
“Well, at least we won’t have to stand in a queue,” I mused aloud, trying to keep the mood cheerful. We’d got up at six, disrupting Leo’s morning routine, struggled him into his winter clothes and managed to get out the door to the waiting taxi, documents in hand.
The half hour journey from our home in Uskudar to the embassy was quick. The vast city was still mostly asleep at that hour, dark except the glow of lights around the great mosques and the twinkling skyscrapers.
At 7:30 the taxi dropped us off in front of the embassy. A burly but not unpleasant security guard told us to wait until 8, when we could go inside to wait for our appointment.
“What are we going to do for thirty minutes?” my wife Özge asked, holding Leo in the kangaroo pack. Leo was sleepy but curious. The street was silent, dark. A coffee shop directly across the street was closed. The pandemic, my wife reminded me.
Özge found a sort of alcove in the entrance of a nearby apartment building and she ducked inside to keep Leo at least out of the cool damp mist.
Nervously, I stood on the pavement, smoking a cigarette to pass the time, keeping an anxious eye on the embassy. After so many months of waiting, I think I was paranoid of some last-minute snafu, or a whole busload of people would suddenly emerge from the pre-dawn shadows and descend on the gates. But the only people who came were embassy employees, who drove slowly in through the entrance to the small parking lot to start their day.
The consulate offices themselves are located in a tower-like building that sprouts up from the top of the hill overlooking the security entrance. As an American, you can’t help but feel a sense of proprietorship, even outrage, at being told to stand outside and wait, especially when they give you the routine once-over. Hey, you want to say, I’m not some refugee or asylum seeker. I’m an American, that’s my embassy.
I reminded myself for the -nth time to be patient. We’d done everything we could do to be ready. The rest was in God’s hands, or at least the blessed bureaucrats. I checked on my wife and Leo, barely discerning their figures in the sleeping shadows of the alcove.
“Is it a dodgy neighborhood?” she asked rhetorically.
I knew how she felt. At that hour, the buildings all looked wet and dark and shabby. The embassy alone stood tall and safe-looking, almost proud in the dawn.
At 8 o’clock, I heard a voice calling from a distance. It was the same security guard from when we arrived. “Gel! Gel!” he said, waving at us to come.
At the entrance, two other security guards asked to see our appointment, which I had saved on my phone. We handed over our passports, mine American and my wife’s Turkish.
“Only you can come,” the guard said, in Turkish, indicating that I alone had the appointment. Protocols are strict, even more so nowadays.
I politely protested, since the procedure requires that in order to apply for a passport for Leo, both he and my wife must be present in person. My wife also explained this to the guard. After a moment of confusion, a call was made upstairs and, the matter cleared up, the guard nodded and waved Özge and Leo to come forward.
“Spread your arms,” the guard ordered. But then he stepped back, turning his head brusquely. “Mask!” he barked.
I’d forgotten to put my mask back on when we entered, so I apologized and quickly donned it. The guard patted me down for weapons, then let me through and turned his attention to my wife and son. She had brought along a baby bag, with milk, snacks, diapers. This bag was run through the X-ray machine, opened and inspected.
Finally, we were allowed to proceed to the entrance. Elated, we walked along the brightly lit passageway and into the building. There, we went through an airport-like full X-ray scan, and handed over our mobile phones. Then we were directed to the elevator. The consulate offices were on the second floor.
“Why do they take our phones?” my wife asked.
“I guess they can be used for bombs,” I said.
Inside the office, it was deserted. In normal times, all of the seats would be full of nervously hopeful Turkish visa applicants. American Citizen Services is in a separate office, much smaller. A lone guard directed us to wash our hands in lotion, and have a seat.
At 8:30 we went into the American Citizen Services office and a Turkish employee, very pleasant and easy going, looked over Leo’s application forms. “So you’re here for a passport and a CRBA,” he said, pronouncing the latter as “kerba,” fancy bureaucratese I gathered. He checked to make sure we had submitted all the proper documents. As part of the procedure, I had to submit proof that I had actually lived in the United States for at least five years, so I handed him my university transcripts,which had been mailed all the way from California, a not-easy maneuver in these trying times.
Our documents in order, we were sent to another window, where an American woman conducted a short interview. She was young, efficient, to the point. The interview took about five minutes.
Evidently satisfied, she told us the passport would arrive in a couple of weeks, followed by the birth abroad certificate. It was done.
We wished the American woman happy new year and headed back to the elevator. She smiled again, and seemed happy for us, and for Leo. Perhaps that is a good part of her job, seeing such moments, the making of an American.
In the taxi, we crossed the bridge again, looking out at the ships in the Bosphorus, and all the now-awake city in the distance. All this time, Leo had behaved beautifully. He’s already a seasoned traveler. He picked a hell of year to be born, we say.
Well, we Americans have always been an uprooted, ever-migrating people. It’s in his blood.
The taxi dropped us off. We were home. Which home? Our home here in Istanbul. But now Leo had a home in America, too.
“I want him to have options,” my wife said. I agreed. After all, isn’t that something parents can do for their children? Not just give them love, but also options in life?
James Tressler, a former Lost Coast resident, is a writer and teacher living in Istanbul.