Battles at the Front Desk of Bureaucracy

In an ordinary life, visits to official ministry offices should occur only three times - when you’re born, when you get married, and when you die. In the past decade of living abroad, I’ve lost count of the number of battles I’ve had at the front desk of bureaucracy.

My first encounter with this wonderful world of immigration affairs was as a young graduate student, wide-eyed with wonder at the prospect of European adventures. The opportunities to hop on a train or bus and travel to so many different countries was mind-boggling.

But first things first - there was paperwork to be done.

To travel to the Ministry of the Interior, I had to first travel to the farthest exterior from the city centre I had ever been. Way out on the outskirts of south Prague, the processing centre for foreigners loomed like a concrete behemoth - imposing and uninviting.

Not the best of first impressions.

I entered the doors and a stale sense of doom and stagnancy hung in the air as my eyes took in my surroundings. My mind was taken back to high school English. I finally understood the opening paragraphs of George Orwell’s 1984 in a personal, visceral way:

“The hallway smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats. At one end of it a coloured poster, too large for indoor display, had been tacked to the wall.”

Instead of Big Brother’s accusatory eyes, the posters included notices and advertisements in Czech, Russian, Polish, memory may deceive me now, but somehow I don’t recall seeing English anywhere prominent.

Following hours of waiting, inevitably there will always be one missing document, or one missing stamp, prolonging your never-ending visa process. Despite your pleas and efforts, in broken Czech and/or English, you find yourself booking another appointment for the following month, in which no doubt you will probably find yourself with yet another missing signature or photo, or an incorrectly filled out form...restarting the whole process.

Illustrative photo: Václav Plecháček,  Czech Radio

With every new work contract I’ve fulfilled, I’ve gone through the process again and again. Sometimes with an agent to assist, sometimes on my own, sometimes with my wife or a patient friend. I’ve been processed in probably half a dozen or more different offices by now.

Several factors remain consistent though: the intimidating meetings with officials, the carefully rehearsed Czech dialogues (which when veered away from, trigger copious amounts of nervous sweating), and of course the final piece of the application you’ll always be missing.

Which brings me to what was meant to be my final visit to the Ministry. As we walked up the stairs to pick up a permit that would last me ten years...I foolishly exclaimed victory over the system. “Finally! The last time I will have to walk into this nightmare”

My wife cautioned me with a Czech proverb: “Don’t say hop before you jump”.

Sure enough, despite the Ministry notifying me to come in simply to pick up a completed permit, the official informed us that we needed a new photo. She directed us to a photo studio nearby, which of course did not we drove to the nearest studio on Google Maps.

This wasn’t a photo studio, but a warehouse supply house for a photo company. We did a U-turn, and in our anxious stress ended up reversing into a pole, crashing the tail light of our Skoda Fabia.

Utterly defeated, we drove back to the Ministry, mercifully a slightly less imposing concrete behemoth than my first experience ten years ago. We explained what happened, and the lady was nice enough to understand our plight. She decided that an alternate photo was good enough.

The process was finally completed. With a sigh of relief and a nervous laugh, we went back to continue the rest of our working day.

There’s a reason that Franz Kafka, Czech literature’s most famous son wrote about nightmarish, convoluted scenarios with no escape. ‘Kafkaesque’ has since become a globally recognised adjective. I do take some comfort however, in the fact that the system is just as brutal and uninviting to local Czechs as it is to foreigners.

When sharing stories of my experience as a foreigner with Czech bureaucracy, Czechs and foreigners alike laugh in shared pain and humour: “Klasik!”.

Describing it as Kafkaesque is perhaps too pessimistic. Embracing the absurdity of the system more akin to Douglas Adams’ portrayal of the grotesque yet comical Vogons in Hitchhikers’ Guide to The Galaxy  or The Ministry in Terry GIlliam’s dystopian satire Brazil is more helpful for the soul.

To criticise and complain about the system is to already accept defeat. It is designed to beat you into submission. It’s far more beneficial to take a step back and laugh at the ridiculousness of it all.

Ultimately, I am also reminded that these officials are also just people doing their job. Speaking with kindness and humility works wonders. Czech or otherwise, we’ve all had bad experiences with bureaucracies. It’s better to laugh at it together, than to bemoan your plight or focus on the negative experiences.

As Gilliam’s beleaguered protagonist Sam Lowry proudly declares:

“Sorry, I'm a bit of a stickler for paperwork. Where would we be if we didn't follow the correct procedures?”

Author: Kevin Loo
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