Survivor: Bureaucracy Edition

How else to spend your first full day of “vacation” than to wait at the Civil Registry Office, the purgatory of all things government in Portugal? We had set aside today to take care of some critical paperwork to get ourselves situated in Portugal. G needs to establish his residency, and we both need national tax ID numbers. The latter, called the NIF, is essential for conducting any financial transactions in country — from signing a lease on an apartment to opening a bank account, getting a credit card and even to get paid, either as a salary or by clients. Also, from our “wishful thinking” desk, is G’s ambition to start the application process for citizenship.

We got a slow start on our day, since the neighbors in our building in the party central Bairro Alto ( think French Quarter in New Orleans) had friends stopping by at 1:30 am to go out on the town and there was the thumping beats of dance music, on a Wednesday night, until two in the morning. (Speaking of which, we realized today that our AirBnB neighbor’s accommodation is about the size of our closet in San Francisco. That is not an exaggeration.)

After a somewhat slow morning, we made it to the Civil Registry Office just before lunch. First thing: go to the electronic kiosk and determine what you need in order to print the ticket with your number. We needed (1) my Portuguese birth certificate, (2) our Portuguese marriage certificate, and (3) to start the process of G’s citizenship application. So we pressed the three buttons and received little receipts with a letter-number combination indicating the service and our place in line. Then we wait. And wait.

Each desk at the office is responsible for a single task, so we joined the dozens of others in the waiting area, playing a sort of “service bingo” as we waited for each of our assigned numbers to come up on a monitor on the wall. When the next number was being called up, it would chime to alert the dazed audience.

Sometimes a number would come up, stall and the next number would appear. This likely meant that the person who had that number had abandoned the effort. It soon became a game of attrition.

Two hours after our arrival, we finally were called up on the ticket number for the birth certificate. We enthusiastically went to the assigned table and made our request. The attendant grabbed my ticket and immediately started to crumple it as she informed us that we’d made the incorrect selection on the kiosk. We had chosen the function for registering a birth, not getting a copy of a birth certificate. Instead of the letter “C,” I should have the letter “A.” She could not help us, and we would have to go back and start again. We got another ticket and saw that there were some 40-plus people ahead of us.

So, of course, lunch. We grabbed a light lunch — two bowls of soup, two salads, two bottled waters and two coffees — for ten euros. For both of us. Then we headed back to the office. There were still 20+ people ahead of us. We decided to see how the lines looked down the block at the finance office, to see if we could start the process of obtaining a NIF — the tax ID number.

It was the same set-up. Take a number. Wait. At this point, we were afraid we’d miss the call-up for the birth and marriage certificates. So I went back to the original office and waited there, while Greg waited for the NIF.

We’ll write later about NIF, but it is important to note how critical it is to function in Portugal. No business transactions can occur without it.

After 90 minutes, Greg appeared in the Civil Registry Office. He was so fixated on the one row with the “D” that he failed to see several rows below where they’d added another “D” so they could expedite the requests. By the time he’d noticed, it was past his number. The woman at the desk wouldn’t even talk to him. He’d missed his turn.

When Greg returned, his number for starting the citizenship process came up. He jumped up and I waited in the waiting area as my number was to come up soon. He returned, dejected. The woman spoke (or refused to speak) English and wouldn’t even bother with Greg.

The office closes at 4:00 pm and an increased level of anxiety was palpable in the waiting area as the afternoon wore on. The numbers started changing more quickly and the people gathered together formed a sort of supportive circle of camaraderie. Finally, at 3:45 pm, our number came up and I cheered and jumped up. A gentleman waited for me, scribbled his initials on the receipt and told me to head up to the 2nd floor. Overflow was being triaged to other departments.

Up we go. To a waiting room full of people.

At long last, we were called up, we got our certified copies of my Portuguese birth certificate and our Portuguese marriage certificate. Off we went to celebrate our accomplishment.



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