The US Embassy is like a fortress, standing in grim isolation on the outskirts of Tbilisi. There are no major buildings near it and a granite wall surrounds the grounds. The only entry point is a guard shack, with guards hidden behind large desks, waiting for the visitor to pass through a metal detector and to check in with them any bags or possessions they might be carrying. The visitor must be expected and registered, and if there is no appointment or the visitor is early, then the person should remain outside until the appointed time. Cameras are at every corner, staring down any passersby in a cold and lifeless fashion, as cold as the barren stones of the wall and the courtyard within. There is nothing welcoming about the fortress, there is nothing that says it is a symbol and representation of freedom and liberty, but rather of security, fear and military might.
My first experience with the embassy was when I was taking the Foreign Service Exam. I got there an hour early, a mix-up of how long it would take to get out there by marshrutka, since it's not in the easiest location to reach from the city center. "Why are you here?" the guard asked.
"I'm here for the test," I said.
"It's not for another hour," he said, his hand on his pistol grip.
"Right, I'm a bit early."
"You can't enter."
"There's no waiting area?" I asked.
"No," he said.
"I am an American citizen, this is my embassy," I said.
The guard shrugged.
"Is there anywhere around here to wait at?" I looked out the window, looking at the surrounding barren landscape.
"There's a grocery store a kilometer or two that way," another guard said, pointing in the opposite direction.
"Thanks," I said, proud to be an American citizen, applying to become an American diplomat. I walked to the grocery store and bought a sandwich and coffee, waiting away another forty minutes before I walked back. When I got back to the embassy, I saw a small crowd of other Americans gathered, waiting to take the Foreign Service Exam. When the time came to about ten minutes after the appointed time, the guard came out and said, "You are now allowed in."
This is the new model of US Embassies around the world. While other embassies are located in beautiful, old manors in the downtown districts, hosting functions and parties, offering support - physical and emotional - and outreach for their citizens and future friends abroad, our new embassies stand cold and lifeless on the far outskirts, fearing any sort of attack from any sort of enemy - including even citizens of its own country. Oftentimes the most stereotypically Soviet buildings in Eastern Europe aren't even Soviet made buildings - they're US Embassies built under American embassy security standards, which were first published in 1999 under Clinton and vastly expanded under Bush. This reveals a solid and problematic truth about post-9/11 America - a man who builds walls does so because he fears. A man who fears does so because he is weak. Doesn't America stand for freedom, liberty and a hand to uphold the oppressed? And shouldn't that be the message our State Department shows, rather than a preference to hide behind walls while the world groans under the violence of oppressive states? Luckily there are programs like Peace Corps to repair the cultural damage which our government otherwise inflicts.
The son of a close friend of mine - indeed, a friend of my own even - was interested in going to see America. He's long been a fan of my country and even more of a fan of the music coming out of it. He's currently in university in Tbilisi and his father has both a nice condo in downtown and a nice house in Bolnisi. He has very likely an easy future for him in Georgia. But being that he's grown up with a fondness of American culture and having family in Florida, he wanted to come with me and see Colorado and then fly to Florida to see his cousin and aunt.
We went through the process of getting the visa together, all the different paperwork and forms to fill out. It was about a three day process of getting all the proper forms and receipts - a non-refundable 200 dollar deposit had to be made in the bank. Finally, he was set up to have an interview with consular.
Here I'd like to add how easy it is for an American to travel abroad. Usually, I just have to show up at the border with a smile. Sometimes I might have to hand over thirty dollars for a visa. The only complicated regime I've gone up against is the Russian visa system, which only hassles Americans because we hassle them (the Russian government's long stated public foreign policy) - and they don't even do so to the same degree. In Georgia, it's the easiest country to enter. They simply stamp your passport, good for 6 months, when you just exit and return and get another stamp. After this process, they even give you a small bottle of free wine. No interviews, no fees, just a stamp, a smile and a bottle of wine.
America - not so much. After three days of paperwork, my friend had his interview. "Will you come with me to the interview?"
"I can't," I told him. "I would have to wait outside on the street while you had your interview. But bring everything you can to prove that you would come back to Georgia. They assume you're going to stay in America, even though you're just applying for a tourist visa."
I called him later on the day that he had his interview. "Did you get it?"
"She said that there would be no reason that I wouldn't stay in America, so she refused it."
"She refused it. I don't want to stay in America, but she said that I would and I wouldn't leave, so I couldn't get a tourism visa," my friend said. "She was an Indian lady too, I don't think she was even American."
"I don't know if that means she wasn't American, we've got all colors, but besides, that's a retarded reason. Did you show her your dad's work papers? And your school papers?"
"I did." And that was that. No visa for my friend.
The next day I went to work, where my boss brought me in to meet a Georgian woman. "What's up?" I asked.
"This lady," my boss told me, "applied for an American visa. Can you tell us why she didn't get it?"
The lady handed me a paper. The paper read, "Unfortunately, we cannot issue you a visa to the United States, since you cannot prove to us, and there is no reason we should believe, that there is no reason you would not stay in the country."
"Are you married?" I asked her.
"Yes," she said. "To a Georgian man here in Tbilisi."
"Do you have a kid?"
"Yes, a three year old."
"Can you speak English?"
"No," she said, "this is the reason I wanted to go, to go to an English school there." She handed me a form that showed that she had already paid a $1,200 tuition fee.
"Was it an Indian lady you had an interview with?"
"Was it an Indian lady you had an interview with?"
"Yes," she said.
Same consul, same reason. "I hate how we have all this culture we're pumping out, all this dominance of other people's politics, and that there is an honest love for our country still remaining - and then we won't even allow people to visit. I can't even show my own friends my own country. It's even easier to get into Russia. If you're a Russian citizen, you can send an invitation and you're pretty much guaranteed that your friend can get in." I huffed, angry again at my own country's government. "I'm sorry, just don't judge us for our government, please."