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Pursuing Polish Papers In Prague

September 23, 2012

PROLOGUE

I am now going to describe what it took for me to get my Polish working visa: the trip to Prague, the misunderstandings and expenses, the bureaucracy.  Although the process was  exhausting and rather costly, I hope it does not sound like I am complaining.  At some point, I plan to write an overview of the entire process of relocating to Europe, which was neither easy nor cheap, but which was, on the whole, easier and cheaper than I expected, and certainly worth the trouble and expense.  I’m very happy to be here at last, living and working in Europe, and I’d like to share the realities of what it took to get here with others who might be considering it.

And that entails being honest about the difficulties.  I consider myself a realist; I expect difficulties at every step of any big plan, and I look for the humor in the little pratfalls and kerfluffles of daily life.  So I hope that I do not give the impression that I am merely griping.  I hasten to note that I have had far more grievous impediments thrown at me by American institutions, especially by utility companies and banks.  Frankly, in the matter of causing one to chew one’s knuckles in writhing vexation, The Polish Office of Consular Affairs is strictly from podunk, compared with the Student Aid Office of Stephen F. Austin State University, my alma mater, may they be nagged for all eternity by robocalls.

GETTING TO PRAGUE

But on with my tale.  To recap in general, it was necessary that I go to the Polish Office of Consular Affairs in Prague—not the Polish Embassy, which is across town—in order to obtain a working visa.  The ever-helpful and patient Agnieszka—the chess champion who is married to Paul, one of the owners of the school—didn’t let me rush out of the office without telling me how best to get to Prague; I am often too slow to ask for a little help, even when it could save me a lot of time just a little farther down the event-chain.  She told me how to catch a quick, ridiculously cheap, (only 8 złoty), minibus to Katowice, where I could hop a direct train to Prague.  Left to my own devices, I would have wasted time going to Rybnik and taking the train to Katowice, just because I knew how to do that on my own.

The Żory bus station, a five-minute walk from my flat.

I got to Katowice just 5 minutes too late to catch an afternoon express train to Prague.  (As it turns out, based on when the mail comes to the school and when the buses run, there’s no way I could have made it.) So I had to wait around until midnight.  I decided to wander around Katowice.

(Click HERE for more pictures of Katowice.)

As I suspected, there was precious little sleep to be had on the train, which turned out not to be a sleeper car, just an ordinary second class number, with individual seats on which I could not recline, even if I had been able to relax and forget about the ticketmeistress who scolded me for putting my feet up on the seat across from me, even though there was no-one else in the cabin, and in fact almost no-one else in the whole car.  I take constructive criticism quite well—it’s one of my better traits—but I cringe like a nervous house cat when I am badgered, berated, or hectored.  I certainly can’t drift off to sleep when I think it might happen again at any moment.  Nor can I sleep in a non-reclining chair.  (I know some people who can.)  I would say I got maybe 20 minutes’ worth throughout the night.  My neck got sore from slumping to the side, then snapping back to vertical as I started awake.

I was also quite anxious for the first few hours because although it was a direct train, it wasn’t what I’d call an express, either.  Not that it made a lot of stops, just one very long and unsettling one.

Let me back up a bit.  When I first got on, I was pretty sure I was on the right train.  I knew I was on the right platform, and I surmised, from the scarcity of departures at midnight and the direction the train was facing, that this had to be my guy.  Still, when you haven’t got much of a clue what the hell is going on, it’s generally wise to swallow your pride and pester people with your tiny vocabulary, just to be safe.  ( I have gotten on an almost-correct train by mistake in the recent past.)  So, with proszę and Praga? I was able to establish that yeah, this was my train, but I was getting some interference in the signal, something about the back of the train.  An extremely kind gentleman managed to get through to me that I needed to be on one the final three cars, though I couldn’t fathom why.  But I hopped off, legged it back there, and bounded up the metal steps like a young gazelle, with easily 30 seconds to spare before the train began to roll.  (They were probably waiting for me.)

As I sat in one of the empty compartments, I scrutinised my ticket, as I had been doing for the last hour on the platform.  I could not for the life of me find anything about the car, cabin or seat assignment.  I have learned to find all that on a Czech train ticket, (it helps that they also include German text on a Czech train ticket), but not so far on a Polish one. So I relaxed when, shortly thereafter, the ticket agent stamped my ticket and handed it back to me absently.  (I take pleasure in conducting small transactions without alerting anyone to the fact that I am an American.)

The long, anxiety-producing interlude came when we reached some small town that begins with a B, (I can’t recall the name of it or find it on the map at the moment) just before the Czech border.  After the almost empty, rather chilly train had been sitting in the dark for a half hour, I began to get nervous.  Maybe I had made a mistake and I needed to switch trains?  But wouldn’t that be in Ostrava?  I wasn’t about to get off the train and go look at the timetables, because it could get going at any moment without me.  And then I heard announcements in several languages echoing from the loudspeaker throughout the empty station.  I caught the words uncoupled and coupled.

And sure enough, the last three cars were uncoupled from the rest of the train.  Then we sat there in the dark for quite a while.  I heard and felt us being attached to another car at our rear and we began to roll slowly backward.  Back toward Poland.  But we didn’t pick up any speed, and within a few hundred meters, we began to roll across the switches, moving laterally, then squeaking to a halt.  More darkness and silence.  Finally, after a total of maybe 2 hours, we were attached to something in the front and began to roll forward, toward the Czech Republic.  As you can imagine, I breathed a sigh of relief.  It all made sense now.  Clearly, it had been important that I et on one of the last three cars; another lesson in the merit of excessive caution.

I tried to get some sleep on the rest of the trip, but I just couldn’t seem to doze off.  We got to Prague about an hour late, around 7:45 in the morning.

CONSULAR FOLLIES, ROUND ONE

Tuesday morning I was completely exhausted, but I knew I had to get straight to the office of the Polish consul, which is open from 9-13:00 and is closed on Wednesday; I really needed to get things taken care of that day.  I got off the train and walked over to the Blind Eye, the hostel I like to stay at in Prague.  I dropped off my bag and lit out at a good pace.  The walk from the train station to the hostel, to the Consulate, and  back to the hostel is 10.6 km/6.5 miles, which is a lot of walking when you haven’t slept, but being so close to getting my working papers gave me some adrenaline.

This is much too early for a musician to be walking around.

I got there before 10:00, which I was hoping to would give me plenty of time to deal with any snaggles might come up.

But the man I needed to see was not there.

His aide was very helpful, but he had very little English and, of course, I have virtually no Polish.  He was able to tell me that I could meet the Vice-Consul at 1:00, but he was not able to answer my two main questions: How much insurance do I need? And How much does the visa itself cost? I couldn’t figure out whether I could pay with my debit card.  I thought he was telling me that I could.  He was able to get across to me that I was going to have to buy medical insurance.

In order to buy insurance, I had to find an internet connection and a printer.  The thought of hoofing it all the way back to the Blind Eye was too much, so, upon the advice of the cashier, whose English was pretty good—why, oh why didn’t I think to ask her if I could pay with a card?  I was tired and couldn’t think straight—I went to a nearby hotel.  That was a bit of an ordeal, since they didn’t really offer printing service.  I had to keep badgering the receptionist in the moments when she wasn’t helping real guests of the hotel.  It took quite a while, but I finally did find a well-recommended online insurance company and paid $492 for coverage through next August.  I got the visa letter printed out and went over to a nearby restaurant to wait the rest of the time.

After a heavy lunch and two beers, I was pretty sluggish when I got back to the Consulate.  But I figured I had all my ducks in a row.  And I almost did.

No-one was particularly glad to see me after their regular hours, even though that was not my doing, but the Vice-Consul went through the formalities, asking a few cursory questions about when I got to Poland, my employment situation, etc.  Everything was fine.  I didn’t need any of the many extra documents I had brought with me: my birth certificate, CELTA diploma, etc.  All I needed was to pay 1500 Czech crowns.

In cash.

All the happy in the room would have fit in a doll’s shoe when I explained that I needed to run to the bankomat.  But they grudgingly agreed to wait a few more minutes.  So I ran, literally ran, (I do not generally run), several hundred meters to the nearby post office.  I reached in my pocket for my card… which was not there.

I had left it with the cashier.  It was sitting in the little metal tray that passes back and forth under the glass at the money window.

So back I ran, up the hill, about as tired and sweaty and nervous as a middle-aged man can be.  I burst through the door, went to the window and pulled my card out of the tray.  “I forgot my card,” I said.

“We cannot take it,” said the Vice-Consul.

“I know, I know, I went to get cash; I just forgot to take this with me,” I attempted to explain.

“It is not possible to accept,” he said with a sigh of weariness and annoyance.  “There is no terminal.”

I could not make it understood that I grasped this fact, and that I had just been to the bankomat in order to get cash.  They all thought I was stupidly insisting that they take my card.  And they were not going to wait for me to run to the bankomat again.  It was past hours and I was keeping them all there late.

They were closed Wednesday.  I would have to wait around Prague another 48 hours, because no-one could wait for 10 minutes. I gave up; I was too tired to argue.

“Here,” said the Vice-Consul, setting down my papers and patting them reassuringly.  “Come back Thursday.  Everything is ready.”

I thanked him and left, trudging wearily back to the hostel.  No big deal, I told myself.  I’ll go get my visa Thursday morning. I can knock around Prague for two more days.

CONSULAR FOLLIES, ROUND TWO

I got a terrific night’s sleep and the next day, I had a wonderful time in Prague.  I bought some Indian spices and found the famous Shakespeare and Sons, where I bought 5 books.

English books are not easy to find in Żory.

I had a great vegan Chinese meal here for about $4.

This is the old town square in Prague, on a weekday, in a light rain, after the end of the tourist season.

I got my money ready and Thursday morning, bright and early, I walked to the Consulate.  At first, they couldn’t find my papers, but after about 15 minutes they turned up under a pile or something, and they were ready to take my cash.  I passed it under the glass and was given a little receipt.  I held it up with a puzzled look.  The Vice-Consul came over.

“Monday,” he said, “It will be ready Monday.”

It took a second for that to sink in.  I asked if it would be possible for me to come on Friday and he reluctantly allowed that I could.  He stressed that I would need to have my passport with me, so that they could put the stamp in it.  Yeah, I get that.

I thanked him and left, trudging glumly along the sidewalk back toward my hostel.  I had to decide whether to stay in Prague yet another 4 days or head back home.  I decided against staying.  Who’s to say there won’t be some other hitch on Monday?  I’m legal to work now. I’ll get the stamp soon.  Between train fare, insurance and the visa fee, this trip had taken a big bite out of my bank account.

The trip back to Poland was wearying, with a lot of waiting around in the station and once again not being able to sleep on the train.  I had an unpleasant experience with a minibus driver who, when I didn’t have 8 złoty, tried to charge me 100 for the trip.  I refused and made him get my bag.  I went and got some change and caught the next minibus.  I got home around 7:45 in the morning.  I slpet a few hours and managed to teach in the afternoon, my first paid lesson!

IN CONCLUSION (ALMOST)

As I write this, it’s Sunday evening.  The stress of the trip made me sick by the weekend.  I had no voice today, but it’s coming back and I think I’ll be able to teach tomorrow; I only have three lessons.

I have some hope that perhaps Agnieszka can talk the Vice-Consul into allowing me to mail them my passport.  I love Prague, but I really don’t want to make another trip there right now, losing sleep and spending money I can’t really afford to spend.

I’m almost there.  One way or another I’ll get my passport stamped this week.  Next year I’ll be able to apply for a residency card without leaving Poland.

Moving overseas has not yet presented me with an insurmountable obstacle, but it has at times required considerable determination and tested my physical stamina.  I’m ready for things to settle down into a routine for a while.

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16 Comments leave one →
  1. rich woodson permalink
    September 23, 2012 11:08 pm

    i laughed, i cried, i nearly plotzed! hugs to you dude. -rich

    p.s. i know this feeling well: “I take pleasure in conducting small transactions without alerting anyone to the fact that I am an American”

  2. September 24, 2012 12:01 am

    Damn. I need a drink.

    • September 24, 2012 12:31 pm

      Fortunately, the beer here is excellent and quite cheap. You may be surprised to learn that, when the cost is the same, I drink the good stuff. Although, as far as I can tell, there is no bad stuff over here, only not-quite-as-fantastic stuff.

  3. shawn abbott permalink
    September 24, 2012 4:37 am

    OMG, i’m certainly a spoiled american…much less crap causes me stress/anxiety here at home!

    • September 24, 2012 12:34 pm

      I think relocating from any country to any other country poses considerable difficulties. You have to really want to do it. But once you’re settled in a bit, it gets much easier, and some things are less hassle than they would have been back home.

  4. Madonna permalink
    September 24, 2012 5:01 am

    Feel like I need to go to bed and get some sleep for you.

    • September 24, 2012 12:36 pm

      I know you’re a night owl like me, Madonna. The hardest parts of the whole thing were those early morning 5 km walks for sure.

  5. norbertbeaver permalink
    September 24, 2012 12:07 pm

    Jesus Harold Christ. You handled that way better than I would ever have done. For a start at no point did you sit in the middle of the street and weep, which would have been my first course of action.

    Also, I must share with you my method of sleeping on public transport – I like to lean slightly and rest my head against the window. Occasionally you may find yourself awoken by the sensation of cold glass slamming against your face, but it stops you from sleeping too heavily and missing your stop.

    • September 24, 2012 12:17 pm

      Well, I’m trying to escape America, whereas you already live in Europe, so you wouldn’t be driven by quite the same desperation. Fleeing the land of Fox News and Progressive Country tends to steel one’s resolve.

      BTW, I believe that you have now exhausted every possible variation on your name. Job well done. And let’s face it, you weren’t fooling INTERPOL anyhow.

      • norbertbeaver permalink
        September 24, 2012 1:55 pm

        There comes a time in every man’s life when he must settle down and choose a suitable screen name for his online persona. Icon too – I decided on a dog in a dress. What the hell, if it’s good enough for Zappa…

  6. StacyHightower permalink
    September 24, 2012 5:40 pm

    This post caused me much stress and anxiety! I MUST learn to use trains before embarking on any journey where English isn’t spoken, oh, and I need to learn patience. Lots and lots of it. Just reading this made me want to drink, smoke and sit in the middle of the street and weep with your friend! Ahhhhh!

    • September 24, 2012 7:44 pm

      Oh, dear. Sorry to have caused such distress. Take it easy. Have a cup of tea. It’ll pass. 😛

    • September 26, 2012 1:06 pm

      Ditto to it all. I felt speechless and rudderless. But am past it now. You done good.

    • September 28, 2012 11:02 pm

      Patience is not virtue. It’s a muscle, and Dave has been working his out for some time!

      • October 12, 2012 5:33 pm

        Just came across this nice comment. I hope you were waiting patiently for me to acknowledge it.

        I first realized that patience was a skill or trait to be cultivated when I had to teach it to kids with head injuries. I saw how good it was for them and I realized that if they could get better at it, I surely could.

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