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The Passport Boondoggle

Christine Lagorio is filing weekly dispatches for while living in Berlin and writing for the Financial Times Deutschland as part of the Arthur F. Burns Fellowship Program.

The government issued my first passport when I was a high school sophomore. Applying for it was simple: I signed some things, my mom signed some things and we showed papers affirming my existence. A passport was in my hand the following day.

Of course it doesn't work quite like that anymore. On top of the adult realization that those "things" and "papers" are tangible and taxing forms, I learned the hard way that attempting to renew a passport in 2007 is more long slog than day trip.

News of significant passport delays began in spring after the State Department announced in January that it would require Americans traveling to Bermuda, Canada, the Caribbean and Mexico to use a passport. For months newspapers ran images of lines snaking around local passport offices and TV stations aired sound bytes of Americans' gripes at waiting days in these lines. I was determined not to be one of those people.

It was April when I got notice I had been accepted for a fellowship in Germany - more than 14 weeks before I'd be taking off from Newark to Tegel Airport in Berlin. The State Department's estimated passport processing time was 10 weeks for standard service. Fine, I thought, plenty of leeway - and I only needed a renewal. I dropped my soon-to-be expired passport in the mail, and bid auf wiedersehen to it for 10 weeks.

But it didn't return in 10 weeks. Or 11 weeks. Or 12. So I set out to find the little navy blue booklet that would allow me to leave the country.

My trek was mostly virtual - winding from online to phone lines and call centers - but in the end it led me to the very real (though a bit surreal, with all its intense security and vaulted ceilings) State Department headquarters on C Street in Washington.

More than 12 million Americans get a passport each year. That's more than 33,000 every day, including Saturdays and Sundays. Consider that the demand for U.S. passports has roughly doubled in the past decade, and include the fact that everyone who lives in a border town and works, plays or does business in both countries. I didn't do the exact math, but I figured the odds weren't on my side.

It did not reassure me when after 12 weeks of waiting I logged into the State Department's Passport site for the first time. It showed no record of my application.

So I called. No one would speak to me if I wasn't traveling within 14 days. So I called back. The answering service told me to call back later. So I called back. The operator told me my name was spelled wrong. I waited for it to be corrected. I checked back online. And I called back.

In fairness, each of the voices on the other end of the phone connection was impossibly kind and chipper. But each one told me to call back in a few days - until three days before the passport absolutely needed to arrive at my door in Brooklyn (to complicate matters, I was in Washington for the fellowship orientation all week). I may have cursed at one of the nice call-center workers.

She finally revealed that my passport was in New Hampshire. That was something. She said not to worry.

The following morning (yes, I called again) another staffer told me I could begin worrying.

It happened that day the fellowship had scheduled to attend a briefing at the State Department with Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns (of no relation to the Burns of this fellowship). This delighted everyone but me. "Ask him where your passport is!" the fellows urged. "And maybe he'll help!" I demurred, thinking enlisting the help of the third-in-command of the State Department impossible, unnecessary and probably unethical.

We fellows assembled in a small, elegant room that Condoleezza Rice occasionally uses for diplomatic meetings. I was two seats down from Ambassador Burns, who spoke about nuclear policy, U.S. relations with India and dealing with the fallout from Afghanistan and Iraq. It was fascinating stuff, but all too soon his assistant was ushering him away.

For all the ushering she did, Burns wouldn't leave his seat so soon. He looked right at me. He asked if there were any more questions - and continued looking my direction.

Well, yes, I do have one, I said. "How would you explain the crunch in getting U.S. passports right now considering the travel rules within North America that caused it have been relaxed? And what is being done to correct it?"

After a beat of silence, the room full of fellows echoed with their laughter.

Burns understood. "Is someone having some trouble with theirs?" he smiled.

I nodded and laughed and explained the same story I've written here.

He explained on behalf of the State Department: "The largest trade border in the world is ours with Canada, and the Mexican border is the second-largest. We simply underestimated how many people would immediately apply for those passports. And now it is a huge crisis."

At that moment I was thinking that I couldn't recall the last time I'd had a public official look me in the eye and admit a mistake - much less admit a mistake had resulted in a "crisis." I think that's because it has never before happened.

Burns continued, saying every lower-level State Department employee was at one of two processing centers (in New Hampshire or North Carolina) stamping passports - and that the department had even sent all its summer interns to help - they'd be doing grunt work instead of rubbing elbows with D.C. bigs.

"Americans don't pay much attention to the State Department until they want to go to Berlin in three months," Burns said.

Maybe that's the case, but the attention I paid to it seemed to pay off: My passport arrived via overnight FedEx at my apartment in Brooklyn the very next morning.

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