The next morning it was off to the Chinese embassy, and after a heavy night on the sauce I was in no mood to brave the underground so I took an enormously expensive cab ride instead. Another 30 quid gone to prove that I’d said I was single.
When I got to the embassy there was a small queue outside and it looked like that I’d get seen quickly when it opened. The embassy is in the heart of the diplomatic quarter of London, and the whole area is gorgeous. Massive old buildings detailing which country was in residence on a little plaque on the front of each, it’s days like this that remind you of why England is simply the most beautiful country on earth.
Riyadh’s diplomatic quarter (for example) is a dump in comparison, the buildings may be big and impressive but it’s all rather spoiled by each embassy being surrounded by armed guards and the lack of any sensible access to any of the buildings. It’s difficult even for a taxi to get into the area, and thus getting out after an embassy party is the stuff of nightmares. Particularly when you’re drunk (which is of course illegal in Saudi) and there are hundreds of you spilling out into the boiling hot night in search of transport.
Having said that, access to beer in the Canadian embassy in Riyadh was a god send and it was only a shame that they ran out of alcohol halfway through the night as every thirsty expat in the city went at it like a teenager on their first night out.
Inside the Chinese embassy in London, it was great. A really efficient and extraordinary pleasant security team divided people up by their needs and then pointed us in the direction of the room we needed. Mine was at the front of the building and sunlight shone through a huge window making it seem light and airy, particularly for a government building. When I arrived there were only a couple of people in front of me in the queue and I was sure that I’d have most of the day to explore London.
When I finally got called to the counter, it seemed that disaster had been waiting for me after all. The middle aged Chinese counter chap needed three photocopies of my documents and I hadn’t brought any. I looked behind me at the rapidly swelling queue and began to despair of leaving any time that day.
Then I had a shocking revelation, the Chinese embassy is there to help. This is very unlike the British embassy in any given nation, where they’d have sent me away with a scolding to “get my act together” or some such. He directed me to a photocopier tucked away in the corner of the room, which was free to use and held my place in the line so I could get my business finished quickly and efficiently. What an amazing moment! If this had been my own embassy, if they’d have deigned to have a photocopier they’d have charged me ten pounds a page or something equally ridiculous to use it. Instead my introduction to China’s officialdom was perfect, well organized and customer oriented.
I skipped back from the copy machine with a song in my heart, handed over the documents, paid another fee (about 30 quid), collected my receipt and a promise that the stamp (to prove that I had said that I was single, to a notary public and that the foreign office agreed I’d said it) would be ready in two or three days. And then I was back out in the open air on a May morning with London at my fingertips.