The Importance of Paper

16 December 2013

by Harry J. M. Dobson (volunteer at EAC)

The Expat Archive is located on Paramaribostraat in The Hague. Its very location lends itself to a feeling of the expatriate since it is within walking distance of many foreign embassies. Flags of the nation housed within flutter above the pavement. Behind the windows, the faces of bureaucrats gaze at computer screens. Papers are strewn about their desks. From an expat perspective, this reminds us that our lives are often placed into the hands and under the rubber stamps of furrowed-browed desk workers.

Bureaucrats are meticulous, eagle-eyed, precise and thorough. They work within the rules, treating each application that arrives on their desk with the same degree of enthusiasm. Do they know how many fates they have sealed? They type on official paper where a coat of arms or official stamp adds weight to their message. An expatriate knows all too well the importance of this paper. The decision making power that rests with the bureaucrat’s rubber stamp is seemingly at odds with the fragility of the paper which carries their decree.


From your passport to something insignificant like a business card, paper will take on an unusual importance in your expat life. The sudden rush of panic that you experience will never disappear as you frantically rifle through your pockets for your identification no matter how many times you approach border control. The wave of relief which follows from laying hands on that treasured document will feel like the warm embrace of an old friend. The uniformed immigration official will flip through your pages with careful examination before looking you up and down making you shrink with nervousness. Thud, thud…down comes the stamp; you smile politely and walk on through clutching that piece of paper in your fist.

Paper lends itself to finality. However flimsy, wrinkled, scrunched or faded that paper becomes it will always serve as official documentation. Once you have made your mark upon that dotted line whatever you have signed for becomes reality. The apartment is now yours to rent, now you are married and now you are divorced. The paper is a record; file it carefully so it can be taken out again. However, an expat knows not to become too attached to paper. An expat loses the sense of the sentimental as they know someday, one day they will move on. An expat becomes shrewd when it comes to paper, particularly when jettisoning it. Still, the paper mounts up.

The paper mounts up because an expat knows the feeling of longing. Writing paper and notebooks gather for the purpose of writing to loved ones at home. The crispness of printer paper is different in your hands as you hold an email from your mother. Diaries become filled with thoughts, appointments, memories and arrangements. The years lived overseas accumulate and so does the paper. One day the posting ends, your children grow up and you will have leave wherever it is you are. What of the paper then? That’s where the archive comes in.

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