Letter from Prague

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"Every revolution evaporates and leaves behind only the slime of a new bureaucracy," wrote Franz Kafka some 80 years ago. His words couldn't ring more true today.

Obtaining a work permit in Bohemia isn't all that bad, actually. It's painful, yes, like any bureaucracy, anywhere. But the queuing at the foreigner's police, work office, criminal registrar, real estate office, etc., - does finally end.

It's the residence permit that tests the limits of one's sanity.

The permit lies in Kafka's Castle, which looms high, but always in sight. At the end of the crooked, cobble-stoned path, what you seek is not there.

It's over the Czech border.

The latest Foreigner's Law requires that an Alien Body apply for a Czech residence permit - outside the borders. The interim period is a classic Catch-22. A work permit is ushered through in about two months' time... but a residence permit may take up to six months. During this surreal limbo, the Alien Body must, as agreed, work in the Czech Republic... but may not live in the Czech Republic...

My Czech colleagues don't believe this could be true. Indeed, the tale provides a good excuse to skip mandatory staff meetings ... and also makes for colorful corridor gossip.

My Czech boss, also incredulous, shares in laughter of the absurd, as I, an insignificant drone, continue wending my way through the wheels of the machine...

The trip to Slovakia became something of a joke; a fabled journey to an elusive Castle that may or may not open its Gates upon arrival. I traveled the 350 kilometers, well armed with a stack of well-stamped documents. The 3 1/2 hour wait outside the Czech Embassy in Bratislava in the blustery February air was made better by the good cheer of fellow waiting Alien Bodies - and a few Czech friends and colleagues who offered moral support.

I received another document with another stamp that day, but, alas, no residence permit. "Return when summoned," said the woman behind the glass. "Wait for the letter."

As I traveled by train from Bratislava back to Prague, I wondered how long after me that letter would follow, in an envelope from Bratislava to Prague.

Three months later, the sacrosanct letter arrived, summoning me to bring the letter back to Bratislava, between 11 and 12 o'clock on weekdays.

I arrived at 11 o'clock on a Thursday, letter firmly in my grasp, lest it be lost, necessitating the whole process to begin anew. I traded the letter for another passport stamp.

The castle had been reached! Or so I thought. The passport, said the woman behind the glass, would require another stamp - from the Foreigner's Police. In Prague. One kilometer from my apartment.

I looked at the stamp, hard-earned over six months, and it read: Expiration - December, 2001. Six months from now.

The morning after Bratislava, as I stood in line for the third hour at the Prague Foreigner's Police, Kafka's Castle experience came to mind:

"A fine setting for a fit of despair if I were only standing here by accident instead of design."

Author: Tricia Deering
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