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Sunday, May 16, 2010

Back in the U.S.A.: Beauty and Bureaucracy

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May 15, 2010
         There are many beautiful places in the world. Costa Rica is one of them and I’m sitting in another one right now: Larkspur in Marin County, California. It’s sunny and warm in the late afternoon and I’m relaxing on the deck of a large, comfortable pier-and-post-house, perched along the shore of an estuary of the San Francisco Bay. Seagulls soar overhead and whole families of ducks and geese paddle along the quiet waters of the broad Corte Madera Creek. Later we can expect some boaters to row by, sculling along in their pointed narrow crafts, soundlessly cutting through the water with long, rhythmic oar strokes. Upscale apartments line the waterway on the opposite side from our row of semi-houseboats, all with patios overlooking the canal and piers leading out to docks with small rowboats or canoes. On our side homes range from ultra-modern, like the one we’re on, to the distinctly rustic with shingles and decks in disrepair. Mount Tamalpais in the distance, sometimes called the Sleeping Lady by locals, watches over all. It’s a muy tranquilo place.
         But our re-entry to the States was somewhat less tranquil, as we hit the culture shock of traffic and noise and high prices in Los Angeles. After a night at a hotel near the airport, it was a hectic first day of hurry, hurry, hurry. My goddaughter Tuesday and her husband Gino picked us up and took us for breakfast at The Serving Spoon, a well-known soul food restaurant, where we had some of the best fried catfish and grits I’ve ever tasted! Wowsa! After a quick stop to buy a used battery, Tuesday drove those frenetic LA freeways to the San Fernando Valley to collect our car where it had been stored at the home of my other goddaughter Lynne. After hugs and kisses all around, we were off for Northern California. Quite a change from the tranquilo pace of Costa Rica.
         During our first weeks here in the U.S., much of our time will be spent obtaining residency documents, a process which also occupied considerable time during our last weeks in Costa Rica. Before we left, we managed to get Layne’s Caja (Costa Rica’s national medical insurance group) membership in order; mine now awaits an authenticated copy of our marriage certificate in order for me to be on the plan as his dependent. Next, we managed to open a bank account and pay his May Caja bill. (We just love the fact that Banco Nacional has a special line for senior customers. And we find the “moving musical chair” waiting line to be totally civilized, so much better than standing up to wait.) Our fingerprints have been recorded and we have gotten the proof of our Social Security income from the U.S. Embassy. So far, so good.
         But the complete process is anything but easy, especially back here in the home country where many documents must be obtained, certified and authenticated, all within a six-month window. For anyone hoping to relocate to Costa Rica, I offer this ongoing chronicle of the steps we have had to take.
          Here in California, our first task was to get a certified copy of my legal name change, a procedure I completed some thirty years ago. Although I had tried to determine the location of those archives online from CR, it had proven impossible without looking at the official, purple-stamped copy of the decree, which was still here in California. So the first stop was at the large shed behind our leased home to pull that document out of storage. Thanks to the easy attitude of our tenants, that was quickly accomplished. Next stop, the Alameda County Superior Courthouse, deep in the basement of that imposing building, to pull those ancient records. 
         What a terrible place to work! No windows, not a speck of artwork on the walls, no music and -- no surprise -- grumpy, sour-faced bureaucrats in their little cubicles or gazing at computers behind glass barriers. At least there was no line so I was quickly called up for service. Using the case number off of my official decree, the clerk studied her computer screen, brow furrowed in effort. She couldn’t find me. She walked over to her floor supervisor and with some hand gestures explained her problem. The supervisor came over and I explained why I needed the document. She frowned as she looked at the screen, re-entering the case number and still finding no records in the computer. Long minutes passed as they tried first one approach, then another, all of this, of course, without explaining to me what they were doing. Finally the “big” supervisor came on the scene - and in fact, she was big! A tall, hulking woman with a perpetual scowl on her face and precious little conversation, if any, for me, the troublemaker. She too plugged numbers and letters into the computer keyboard, frowning at the screen and shaking her head in consternation.
         Eventually she and the clerk went to the back of the offices where huge stacks of files could be seen, holding row after row of the records of the courts in Alameda County. Soon they returned, only to head to the microfiche station, still locked behind glass doors. As I paced the floor, looking in on them from time to time, the head supervisor scrolled through endless shadowy green images of documents, slowing now and then to check a date or a name. But clearly, they were having no success in the search. Meanwhile, the mid-level supervisor came back to the window and questioned why I needed a new official copy when I already had one. She basically “scolded” me for wasting money on a new one, which cost $25, when the old one should be fine. Oh, if only she understood the Costa Rican immigration department!
         After perhaps an hour and a half of what was slow torture for me, the big boss finally returned to the glass window holding a Xerox copy of my purple-stamped original and proceeded to insert it in the embosser, clunk down the handle, and sign and date it: a certified copy of my decree. It’s not quite what we had expected but let’s hope it works!
         Afterwards, Layne and I drove out to Marin County and enjoyed an evening with our friend Chris, whose veggie stir-fry and Tanqueray and tonics helped the day’s travails evaporate amidst stimulating conversation and those stunning visuals from the deck.
         Next stop: the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Department for our “police records” and then on to the California Secretary of State’s office for certification of the name change decree and the law enforcement record. Poco a poco, as we say in Costa Rica! 

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