Friday, August 29, 2008

The joys of the Foreign Police

For those of you unfamiliar with the traveling life, there are some things about being in a foreign country that just aren't the most pleasant. It's great to live an international life, to see new places, to meet different kinds of people. Dealing with governmental ANYTHING, however, is generally less than fun. Especially when it is completely disorganized.
Upon entering the Czech Republic with a proper Visa, it is standard procedure for people to go to the Foreign Police Office within 3 days of arrival. My memory of the trip last year is rather blurry by this point. I remember feeling nervous. Not because I'd done anything wrong, but because I had the feeling that, one wrong move and they'd boot you out of the country for good. Just because they can. Just because they're having a bad day.
It goes along with what happened to Tammy's paperwork last year. Her papers were all exactly like the ones filled out for Naomi and me, but someone else looked at them, decided they didn't feel like stamping them, and so they sat there for months until we went down there and Jarmila straightened things out and she eventually got her visa.
My first trip there things did go fairly smoothly. Jarmila was there and she made sure we got in fairly promptly, and dealt with any questions they had. Naomi and I were able to play mute Americans and all was well. This year, however, things were...different.
Because this is my second year, I wasn't actually going to declare myself, but merely to pick up the visa that was already there waiting for me. On Tuesday Jarmila and I headed over to the office only to see that the place was pretty much packed out. With only an hour and a half before the office closed, she knew it was unlikely that we'd be able to get in. So we headed back to the office and she said I could try again the next day, but that she would be busy, so I'd have to go alone.
Panic flooded me, but, fortunately, Tammy was ready, willing and able to go along with me after the 20 or so hour bus ride she'd just gotten home from. So Wednesday afternoon the two of us headed to the dodgy looking building that houses the offices of the Foreign Police. The place is situated way back in the corner of an old gray stone building that looks in desperate need of a makeover. The elevator is small and creaky, and not attached to the doors, so when you go up you're literally watching the door wall slide past you.
When Tammy and I arrived at the tiny waiting room there were probably 20 or more people, mostly Vietnamese, crammed inside looking tired and smelling...well, strongly. Now let me digress for a moment to talk about Prague. In a phone call with Kelly the other day I was informed that, currently in Prague people are coming to the Foreign Police office at 1 AM and still not managing to get in that day. There is a system there in which people receive a number, and then can generally figure out how many hours it will be before said number is called. They can then leave the office and come back and check on their status. It's similar to picking up prescriptions at Queen Mary Hospital, for those in the know. Or like waiting at the DMV. Let me say now that, in Cheb, the "system" doesn't really exist.
On the door to the office there is a sheet of names. Supposedly they are meant to represent some sort of order, but they just don't. In my experience all the names are Vietnamese. There will be 30 names on the door, but they won't necessarily represent any of the people inside. A family member comes down early in the morning, writes down ten names, and then leaves. Those with their names written then show up at various times of the day and expect to get in. The problem is, the people inside the office don't care about that list of names at all. They don't look at it, and they certainly don't follow it. Neither do the people who come in and wait patiently for their turn inside. After two hours of waiting outside the door, they certainly don't want to see someone stroll in and just go inside because they claim their name was on the door first.
Now I'm all for having a system. But when the system is completely ineffective and not followed by, well, ANYONE, it's really not a system at all! What actually happens is people come and hover around the door, leaving scarcely enough space for it to open. As soon as it does manage to move the crowd a bit, the people at the front rush in. Then there are the people with "connections" who are able to make a magical appointment that allows them to rest peacefully on the padded benches until an official comes out and calls their name, creating a sea parting effect for them to enter through.
When I arrived, the best course of action appeared to be getting as close to the door as possible, without getting in the way of people who were there before me. All I needed was the visa that was sitting inside waiting for me. It would take all of five minutes to process things and I'd be done, while most of the people there had mounds of paperwork to go through. Not a very encouraging picture. Then, when people came after me and seemed to think that pushing and shoving, and no doubt calling names that I couldn't understand, was a good idea, I was far from thrilled. The growing aroma of foulness, and the fact that my stomach was trying to consume itself because I'd forgotten to bring a granola bar, didn't help.
Things went on...and on...and on...v-e-r-y S-L-O-W-L-Y...
I was pushed and shoved and talked about, and did my very best just to stand my ground. After more than two hours a group of people decided to make a run for it. When the door opened to let one of the lucky ones come back out, at least ten people rushed through it. Still being quite full of the fear of the law, I wasn't about to do anything that might risk my own check mark on the "Nice" list, so I stood my ground outside the door.
After that little rush things got pretty heated outside. The following conversation is a mixture of what Tammy and I could understand in Czech, and what was clearly demonstrated through body language and the obvious fact that none of us were pleased with the "system." Even before the rush had gone in the lady in front of me, who I'm guessing was Ukranian, had been getting antsy and irritated by all the people who had been trying to say they were before her, even though they came in much later. She'd been giving them little pieces of her mind, sometimes audibly, and sometimes merely in her posture. After the little escape, she was no longer content to be silent. She let the room full of Vietnamese people know just what she thought about their cutting in line. In return one of the Vietnamese ladies pointed to the list as though it was their answer for everything.
They went back and for for a while and then the Vietnamese lady asked the Ukranian if her name was on the list. When she firmly said "No" (I'm thinking this was out of principle) the Vietnamese told her "then go home!" No doubt the words that followed were choice, and the Vietnamese lady plugged her ear and said something to the effect of "I'm not listening," while the Ukranian went on about how she'd like to be able to spend the day at home or having something to eat rather than standing in line, but she'd done the responsible thing and wasn't about to be denied her rightful position. I just did my best to stick with my spot.
There was a Vietnamese boy, probably around 14 or 15, there who made a comment about the mess in English. I commiserated with him, and felt safer with a human connection in the crowd. I certainly wasn't there to step on anyone's toes. I just wanted my visa!
A minute or so later the crowd that had forced their way in were ushered harshly back out by one of the officers with a "Shoop Shoop!" which means, Hurry! One of the girls in the group was clearly amused and laughing. She'd just seen a moment and taken the opportunity and now she was just as amused to be out again. "Terrible" she laughed, and I knew then that I had another understander and replied and felt more secure, even as the others raged angrily about some rights they felt they had because someone else had written their names on the list.
After clearing out the interlopers, the officials hurried the Ukranian inside. I was happy to see that her patient waiting had paid off. I was even happier when, a minute or so later, they let me in.
Once outside of the crush, the atmosphere changed dramatically. The officers, feeling in no way pressured by the crowd, took their sweet time to do things. All the same, my visa was in my passport in a matter of minutes, and I was able to get out of there, wishing the boy good luck as I made my way through.
It's amazing the relief I felt once I made it out of the building. So much oppression in places like that. I'm sure glad I don't have to worry about anything like that again for a long time!

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