This morning I went to the office of the foreign police in Prague. I’m not in any trouble – the office of foreign police deals with the admin for non-Czech citizens in Prague – visas, residency, applications for asylum and so on. I am lucky enough that my employer’s HR department has lent a helping hand with a lot of the red-tape involved in moving here. This time however, I could not get out of making a personal appearance, in order to get the form that says I’m allowed to be here for longer than three months. With translator by my side and passport in hand I set off for Olsanska Street in Prague 3.
The foreign police have a reputation here for being about as easy to fathom as a rubric’s cube so I never supposed that this morning’s meeting would be plain sailing. I was not disappointed. In this country where so many people speak such good English, Russian, and a fair few other languages, one place remains where the staff speak only Czech. That place is, naturally enough, the foreign police office. Of course this would be the case. Why would an administrative centre, frequented solely by foreign people who have recently moved to the country, need to be at all sympathetic to the linguistic shortcomings of its customers?
The office is sparse and pretty grim. There was no sunny “welcome to Czechland, we hope you have a nice stay” sign. No “Please queue from this side” notice. There was nothing at all in English, or so far as I could deduce, French, Spanish, Russian or any other language.
There was a large European map on the wall. It crossed my mind that they might just ask me to point to where I am from. How would I prove it? I know loads about Harry Potter, a bit about Wimbledon and Princess Diana and I am a huge fan of Simon Cowell and the upcoming royal nuptials…but based on that information, maybe they would think I am American.
I have no idea of the actual procedure for obtaining temporary residency (so anyone reading this in the hope that I can shed some light on this should look elsewhere. Try this handy link instead). My lovely HR/translator lady did everything for me and I just signed at the bottom (I’m pretty sure it was all above-board). It did involve a stern Czech official and my translator having a very heated discussion, a number of documents, a lot of photocopying, two and a half hours of my life that I will never get back, and I was required to produce my passport.
The stern Czech official made me very nervous, in the same way that policemen do. I always feel that I am up to no good when a policeman is nearby. Or a security guard. If ever a security alarm in a shop goes off as I am leaving, I suddenly feel and look so guilty. I know I haven’t inadvertently done a Winona Ryder , but I just feel guilty. It’s the same at the opticians. I think it’s all the intense questioning. I feel as if I am giving the wrong answer, or trying to somehow dupe the optician into giving me glasses. I have no idea where this guilty conscience comes from, but it got me again today. I felt as if I was some sort of illegal immigrant trying to get registered here so that I could bring my family of twelve benefit-seeking dependents in with me.
I was also nervous as the process involved a thorough examination of my passport. I have travelled quite a lot this year with work and my passport is full of visas to weird places like Kazakhstan and Angola. It doesn’t always go down very well. I remember a particularly nervy chap at immigration control in Houston airport asking me “what keeps taking you to Kazak-ak-stan-land ma’am?”. I had the temerity to correct his pronunciation. (For clarification, one should not joke with airport-based officials. During their training their sense of humor is surgically removed via their derriere and is replaced with a very large stick.) Before I knew it I was being asked to re-sign the immigration form declaring that I was not an international terrorist and had never committed any serious war-crimes. As if, had I lied the first time, I would now break down and confess.
Despite my concerns I do now have a completed form and a stamp in my passport. Confusingly, the form is for temporary residency of an unlimited duration. If I decide to stay permanently, I will need to apply for permanent residency. I must admit that I am struggling slightly to see the difference between (i) residency lasting for an unlimited period and (ii) permanent residency. More confusingly my husband went through the same process a month ago. Having filled out the same form, with the same details, gone to the same office with the same nice lady from HR, he walked away with a different document – permission for permanent residency, rather than temporary.
Albert Einstein once defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Einstein lived in Prague from 1911-1912. I can only assume that during that time he visited the office of the foreign police.