First order of business when I got back from Athens was to renew my passport.  I looked online at the requirements and whether or not I could do it online.  There is an online service, but it seemed quite complicated and also takes 6 weeks, and it just seemed easier to do the whole post office check and send thing.

Check and send at the post office is where you fill in the form, and the person behind the window for whom you have waited for 20 minutes proceeds to go through your answers trying to catch you out.

Let’s start with the form.  It is fairly straightforward.  You have to fill in all the relevant information about yourself, name, date of birth, address, previous passport number etc etc.  There is a 30 page booklet that comes along to help you fill out the form and submit the application.  There is obviously only one form for every possible application.  As a result, there are loads of sections you don’t need to fill in.  The explanation at the beginning of the section for whether or not you should be filling that section in, is often extremely complicated.  You find yourself answering the questions as they come up.  For example:

If you are a UK citizen (which I am) who has previously held a different passport (which I haven’t) but who is wanting to change their name (which I don’t) and renew an existing UK passport (which I do) then please fill in section 4.  Shit, it’s 50/50 what do I do?  Check the notes.

Individuals wishing to renew and existing (current) UK passport should only fill out Sections 1,2, 3 7 & 8.  (Okay, so no then). Unless they are wishing to change their name. (Still no)

I left the section out.  I filled in all the things I needed to and then signed in the box and put in the date.  Next it was time for the dreaded photo.  It has long been a joke that everybody looks awful in their passport photo, and over the years, there have been documented cases of terrible likenesses in your travel documentation.  However, over the past few years, the photo requirements have changed to such a degree that unless you have the bone structure of a Michelangelo sculpture, you are pretty much looking awful in your passport photo.  I read through the photo instructions carefully.  Some of them are fairly obvious in their simplicity:  Face the camera, be in a light place against a plain background, don’t have your kids or mates in the picture with you, so far so good.  Hair must be out of your face, eyes front and no reflective glasses or glasses which hide your eyes, but above all and this is stressed and stressed again YOU MUST NOT BE SMILING.  After all, people don’t smile when they travel.  It is against the law.  You must have your ‘dead’ expressionless face on because otherwise, people will think you are trying to hide something behind that seeming innocent, frivolous smile.  By people I mean of course, the best judges of character and facial expressions – Border control officials.

Anyway.  I was hoping there would be a photo booth in the post office so that I could go into it and embarrass myself somewhat privately.  My main problem with that is that I wear glasses, but would have to take them off for the photo, which means that I would be unable to see the panel for the taking of said photos, which in turn would mean that all of the photos would be of me either taking off my glasses, or squinting at the panel in a confused manner.  There was no booth.

Reluctantly and with a feeling of impending doom, I went to Snappy snaps.  Snappy snaps, for those of you not familiar with UK high streets are a chain of photo shops which will literally put your photo on anything that will stay still long enough for them to do so.  The shop fronts are a vivid yellow and inside a riot of colour greets your eyes.  Bring your sunglasses, migraines can come on very quickly in these shops.  They are also manned by either extremely sharp experts who talk you into stuff you don’t want or convince you that the more expensive option is necessary, or people who seemingly are there because they have perfected the art of casual insouciance and the fact that you are in there disturbing their meditation or staring into space time is extremely upsetting for them.  I went in.  I had put on a black shirt, and was wearing sweats and trainers underneath.  I felt like a newsreader.

“Hello,” I said, “I need photos for a UK passport.”

“Right here” she said, and went over to the back of the store and pulled down a screen which was to serve as my plain background.  “Take a seat, I’ll be right back”

I took off my coat, scarf, sweater etc, smoothed my hair and sat on the stool to wait.  Or at least, I tried to sit on the stool and wait.  The stool was one of those wobbly things without a foot rest which was impossible to get on and off without contorting your body left and right to look like you are impaired in some way or at least suffering from an inner ear infection which is affecting your balance.  It was too high to keep one foot on the ground, and frankly after struggling for a few minutes, I could feel the beginnings of motion sickness or an inner ear infection coming on.  Eventually, I was balanced precariously atop the stool.  All I had to do now was stay on it until the woman arrived back with the camera.  She stopped to help two other customers on her way back to me.  I sat there, tense, trying to imagine my face into an unsmiling but approachable expression.

“Ok,” she said. “Look into the camera and keep your expression neutral.”

I did as she said.  She took the picture and looked into the screen.

“Um, I know it says not to smile, but you need to do something about your expression. We can’t use this picture, I am sure you’ll agree.”

She showed me the picture.  I flinched.  Me not smiling is not an attractive or indeed approachable sight.  My mouth in repose has a slight (read quite big) downturn, and I looked scary and miserable. If I was a child, I would cry when I saw my face like that.

“Perhaps you could – you know – smile, without actually smiling, but do something with your mouth.” She said, helpfully.

Two things immediately came to mind.  Firstly, Tyra Banks, who is always on at ANTM contestants to ‘smize’ ie: smile with their eyes and not their mouths. She always does this thing where she says “So it’s not like this…” and pulls a face; then she says  “It’s like this…” and pulls an identical face.  “Do you see what I did there?” she asks the contestant and the contestant terrified of upsetting her, and desperate to win a modelling contract and lifelong eating disorder nods enthusiastically and goes off to practise pulling identical faces in the mirror.

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Here – as you can clearly see – Tyra is not smizing on the left, and smizing on the right. Do you see what she did there?

The second thing I thought of was that I was now in a covert operation with the snappy snaps employee to con Border control into thinking that I am not smiling when secretly I am.  The plot thickens.

I sat up straighter in the chair, and tried to lift the corners of my mouth without smiling. I opened my eyes as wide as possible without appearing frightened, and lifted the corners of my mouth so that I looked as if I was happier, but not smiling.  She took another picture and looked into the screen.

“Nope, this one won’t do either.” she said. “We have to come up with something else.  Is there anything else you can do about your face?”

“Er, I don’t mean to be defeatist, because clearly you are now viewing me as some sort of challenge, but it is my face.  It has been my face for quite some time now, and although it is altered fairly majorly when I smile (thank goodness) the passport photo guidelines state categorically that smiling is not allowed.  Therefore we are stuck with my face in repose, such as it is.”

“I understand Madam, but I feel that you can do better than this.”  Again I flinched when she showed me the picture.

“I repeat, it is my face, and I cannot alter it any time soon.”

“Maybe if you came back tomorrow, we could…”

“My face is not going to change by tomorrow.”

“I was thinking about your hair more, you could…”

“My hair?  What do you want me to do about my hair?”

“It’s a bit dishevelled and I thought you might like it to be smoother.”

I looked at the picture.  She was right, despite my careful brushing before I left home, and my smoothing before starting this torture session, my hair had done that thing it does.  That thing which ensures that I will never be taken seriously in my life unless I use copious amounts of product in my hair (not happening) or have just emerged from the hairdresser.  It explodes around my head leaving me with a look that can only be described as 5 year old Medusa.  I have curly hair, and the bits that I usually tie back into a pony tail or sweep away from my face escape their tethers and stick out in all directions.  If one sees me contre-lumiere (yes, I speak photography, who wants to know?) one therefore can very clearly see the outline of Medusa.  And to think that before going to get my passport photo taken, I had been most worried about all of my chins making an appearance.  My chins always like to present themselves as prominently as possible in the face of the camera.  In fact, sometimes I see pictures of myself that I cannot believe only have my chins in them.  I feel that perhaps someone out there is having an enormous laugh at my expense and sending in other people’s chins to photobomb me.  Anyway.  I was so concerned about the chin situation that I forgot to factor in the hair and actual face situation.  I had resigned myself to an awful photo, after all, that is what the passport office requires.  But this was unbearable.  I told the woman that I would not be coming back the next day.  I searched around in my bag, found something that might have once been a comb/brush, banged the crumbs and dust off it, and smoothed my hair down.

Then I struggled back onto the stool, opened my eyes wide, tilted my face to alleviate the chin problem, did a smiling but not smiling thing with my mouth, and told her to take the picture already.

She sighed and did as I asked.   She looked at the photo.

“Well,” she said, “it is the best one so far.  And if you can’t come back….”

I looked at the photo.  It is not a flattering photo.  But, I am smiling without smiling, my eyes are open, I am looking into the camera, against a light grey background.  My hair is away from my face and only a little fuzzy.  I have a rosy glow (read shiny face) because I walked in the cold to get to snappy snaps, and only one (albeit the largest one) of my extra chins is in evidence.

“Great,” I said, “How much do I owe you?”

“It’s £9.99 for four, or you could get another four for half price, so £14.99 for eight.”

“I don’t need eight of these photos, thanks very much.”

“Ok, are you sure then?  Shall I print these ones?”  She was hesitant to actually print them.  I smiled at her.

“Yes, I am sure,  my face isn’t going to change in the next few days, weeks or even years hopefully, so let’s just go ahead and print these!”

“OK, then, give me 5 minutes.”  She disappeared into the back room and I heard loud guffaws coming from where she was.  I chose to believe she had slipped on a banana skin on the way in there.  I left the shop with my passport photos in my handbag, having paid £10 for a young woman to insult my face and make me feel inadequate.  At least the machine would have been a fiver.

My previous passport picture (which I loved) was a picture of me with my hair down, and smiling.  I thought I looked very nice in it, it was black and white (very forgiving) and generally a good pic.  It is also the picture on my driver’s license and I will sorely miss it when it gets replaced with this awful picture of me, but since it is now the policy that all UK citizens should look like expressionless axe murderers in their documentation, I assume that I am not alone.  There must be other people who have also been told by snappy snaps employees that their faces are too miserable looking for them not to smile just a little bit.

The next day, I went to the post office with my filled out form and my passport photos.  The woman behind the counter checked my form carefully and when she got to the bit where I had signed, she sighed.

“You have written on the line of the box when it clearly says you have to sign within the box.  They won’t accept this.”

She passed the form back to me.  I looked at the form closely, even lifted it close to my eyes, with my glasses lifted up.  There was a tenth of a millimetre of my signature touching the line of the box.

“That’s a good eye you have there,” I said.

“They will send it back to you, and it will take longer.  Here is another form, fill it out again, and then come back to me when you’re done.”

I went and did it all again.  My hand started to shake when I started to sign again.  I was nervous.  Fortunately, I managed to sign within the box, but not much like my usual signature.  Oh well something’s got to give I suppose.

I went back to her, and she re-checked the form.  I waited and waited.  Then she reached into the envelope and took out the photos.  And chuckled.  Honest to goodness chuckled.

“I guess everybody’s are awful aren’t they?!”

“Yes, apparently so.” I answered.

“Did you go to snappy snaps?”

“Yes, is there a problem with the photos? “ I thought she was going to tell me I was too smiley in them or something.

“Nothing apart from the fact that it’s a dreadful photo of you. Didn’t they show you the picture before they printed it?”

“Yes, they did. Thanks for your concern.”

“OK, I’ll send this off for you, it takes between two and six weeks. Usually closer to two. That will be £81.25.  That’s £72.50 for the new passport and £8.75 for the check and send service.”

What I realised as I left the post office was that that weekend I had spent almost £20 on being insulted.  And the saddest thing of all is that although it is a bad picture of me, it definitely isn’t the worst one.  There is a picture on my Costco card where I look like some sort of deranged frog, and every time I go, someone will comment on it.

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A quite accurate likeness of my Costco card photograph. Without the moustache. Obviously.

I guess I’ll have to give up my dreams of being anywhere’s Next Top Model, but that’s ok.

I have other qualities.

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