“…OVÁ! ” bellowed the registrar, bringing the entire ceremony to a halt. The scene was Prague’s Old Town Hall, and the occasion my own wedding in September 1997. My wife Katrin had made the fatal mistake of signing the register without adding the Czech feminine ending “…ová” to her name. Although neither she nor I were Czech citizens, this made the entire ceremony invalid. As was clear enough from the expression on her face the registrar was not for turning, so Katrin reluctantly added the three letters, and I was solemnly informed that I may now kiss the bride.
We were not reminded of the episode until three years later when our daughter was born and we were issued her birth certificate complete with her full name: Hannah Mary Vaughanová. This time we knew that there was no point asking any questions.
A couple of years later Czech law was changed to allow for certain exceptions: no longer would a non-Czech women who married in the Czech Republic or a girl baby born to foreigners have to adopt the “…ová” ending and a Czech woman who married a foreigner would not be obliged to become Mrs McKenzieová or Mrs Sidebothamová. A clear victory for common sense.
The years went by, and the other day we applied for our children to be issued British passports: I felt it would be sensible given that I am a British citizen. A week later I was rather surprised to get a phone call from the British Embassy here in Prague. “We just wanted to check that you don’t mind your daughter being Hannah Vaughanová on her passport.”“But,” I pointed out, “the ‘…ová’ is just the Czech feminine ending. It’s not really her name.” But no, the British authorities had their rules, and the name on the birth certificate was all that mattered, I was informed very firmly. We would have to go to the birth register for Prague 2 and have Hannah’s name officially changed.
I envisaged months of running up and down corridors, having documents "legalized" and "super-legalized" in the tradition of Prague’s great literary son, Franz Kafka, so it was a delightful surprise when a pleasant and elegant woman from the town hall informed us that it would be no problem at all and she had no desire, as she put it, “to prolong our suffering”. Within three days and at no cost, Hannah was issued with a new birth certificate minus those three letters. Another refreshing victory for common sense over bureaucracy, and this time even the suspicious British authorities were satisfied. But I can't help wondering whether perhaps Kafka's Josef K might have moved to London to take up a job at the Home Office.