Murphy’s Law states:
Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.
In case the significance of Murphy’s Law is still lost on you, please go to your DVD collection. Select any movie from the comedy or horror genres. Fast forward to where one of the characters unwittingly says “What could possibly go wrong?” Watch the ensuing catastrophe.
Murphy’s Law also has an alternative definition. That definition is 21st September, 2013.
As any university student knows, for the first few weeks of any academic year chaos rules. Previously balanced, well-functioning adults regress to scared kindergarteners worrying about whether the kids at school are going to be mean and whether they’ll have to sit alone during lunch. All our neuroses are magnified by confinement in institutions that seem to function on the principle that if submitting one form or meeting with one teacher is good, then submitting twenty forms and meeting with twelve different staff members must be better. I, along with all the other newbies, had struggled through a week of confusing schedules, clashing classes, meetings with heads of department, submissions of exemption requests, too many emails and, for a poor unfortunate few, aural and theory exams. (I wagged the last two on principle.)
By Friday, each and every one of us was gagging for the weekend. And it started off well. Friday night was dedicated to The Sunflower party, thrown by a group of artists squatting in an abandoned school. Surrounded poetry readings, improvised beat poems and an impromptu game of basketball, I realised I was neither alternative enough nor high enough for that party, but I dug the fact that I was there all the same. I also learnt to count to ten in Portuguese. Eventually the fumes of different substances became too much, and my friend and I retired for the evening.
As I lay innocently sleeping, Fate raised her inscrutable head, gazed through my window, and someone, somewhere, threw down the challenge: “What could possibly go wrong?”
The following morning had been set aside by the KC to register all international students with the Gemeente in order to make our status as residents and students in The Hague legal. A bus had been arranged to transport all the students to the Immigration Office, and we were lining up like good little children when it became apparent that we would not all fit on the bus. A small number of us were left behind, including yours truly, waiting for the bus to return, which we were assured would occur momentarily.
We waited for three hours. It transpired that on that particular day there was some abominable sport event that had closed down the entire city centre and a huge bunch of roads around The Hague. And of course the cafeteria, the only known source of food at the KC, is closed on weekends. The conversation gradually turned from music to food, and moods got considerably darker. Eventually the bus returned, and buoyed by its appearance we enthusiastically piled on, planning the delicious lunch that would follow the completion of our bureaucratic genuflections. So we arrived at the office, sat down with an Immigration Officer and handed over our passports. Most proceeded to the next step. A few, myself included, had our passports thrust back at us with the perfunctory dismissal “You’re not on the list. Next student please.”
Though we had all been granted study visas, due to staff illness this had not been entered into the files sent to the Immigration people. So we, the non-chosen ones, were told we would have to return in three weeks to register with the municipality. If this was merely a quaint formality, a useless and incomprehensible procedure the purpose of which was known only to advanced life-forms living ten thousand light years beyond the Milky Way, this wouldn’t be an issue. However, registration with the municipality grants you a magical identity number that enables you to do new and wonderful things, like apply for a job, apply for a rental allowance and most importantly, set up internet banking. And internet banking is pretty much required for any form of efficient lifestyle in The Netherlands.
When one is faced by a bureaucratic blockade, placed in a forest of red tape or just in general sucker punched by life, it’s important to recognise that blaming individuals is never constructive, and acknowledge that the staff working in any bureaucratic institution are as much at the mercy of the prescribed procedures as the wretches on the other side of the desk. You have about as much chance of beating the system as you do putting clothes on a phantom limb.
So of course we took it personally.
There was one miniature temper tantrum. There were accusations and demands thrown in the faces of the KC staff that were doing their best to rectify the situation and diffuse the simmering aggression. The frustration and disappointment were of course justified and well-founded, though I hope that I behaved with somewhat more respect and politeness than I witnessed. However, I’m fairly certain that I bore the hurt and dejected air of a puppy that can’t understand why he is forced to sit outside in the rain while the humans sit inside by the fire roasting marshmallows. It’s pretty much how I felt. Imagine being denied marshmallows!
Insult was added to injury when we were informed that the bus was not able to return for us due to the traffic situation, and we would have to walk to the nearest tram station and return to the city via public transport, for which we would be reimbursed the following week. The gaggle of singers did what singers do best, which is to bail halfway through and go find something to eat. We foraged in Albert Heijn and came out bearing chocolate, cake and pastry, and as the pile of food diminished so did our spirits rise. I found some chai tea (at last!) on the way home, and that evening we travelled to Rotterdam to witness the most phenomenal example of artistry and skill in the form of Sarah Connelly and Julius Drake in recital.
As I was walking home from the train station that night I was thinking about the situation regarding asylum seekers in Australia, and I was momentarily floored with respect and compassion for these people. If I can be so cast down by being told to wait three weeks, while living a full life and studying in the city, while surrounded by friends and with people dedicated to assisting me settle in, the mental fortitude of these people facing waiting times of years, separated from friends and family, living in squalid conditions, no communication regarding their applications and with no certainty in their futures must be astonishing. Sometimes there’s really nothing like perspective to snap you out of a self-indulgent funk.
But then I discovered my camera was broken.