Sunday, April 26, 2009

What a difference a couple of years makes.

Last autumn I went to spend a weekend in Prague and meet up with my oldest friend Alan, who was over for the weekend together with his brother Andy and three of their mates, plus a female friend, a wife and a girlfriend of the group, the last of whom happens to be Czech. Dismissively sexist (or perhaps gentlemanly) as it may be of me, I’ll leave the female contingent out of this, since their role in it is more or less irrelevant, a mere catalyst at most. They’re above it, basically. Andy and the other males in the group are about 40, Alan and I are 38 and 37 respectively. Middle-aged, essentially, certainly too old to be thought of as youthful. Old enough for the small age gap between us to be pretty meaningless, right? Ah, but they were two years above us at school, and that’s what’s important. The twenty-odd years since we left are nothing compared to the monolithic two that separate us for all eternity. We might as well have still been wearing our school uniforms.

Though as individuals they all seemed like reasonable, decent people, when the group dynamics took over the vibes turned negative. Alpha-male type behaviour quickly began to assert itself. Within a short time the older top dogs were collectively treating us young pups with casual, unthinking contempt. Decisions were made on our behalf, we were ordered about: drink up, we’re going there, we’re doing this. The choice was starkly clear, either we do what we’re told and tag along behind the big boys, or fuck off. We certainly weren’t going to be party to any decision-making process. It didn’t take long before I decided to fuck off.

This was easy enough for me, since I know Prague well and have a number of friends there, and so I felt no need to make a scene and found their attitude towards me no more than mildly annoying. On the other hand I felt a surge of protective outrage concerning their treatment of Alan. Outwardly Alan wouldn’t seem like the kind of person you’d imagine needing much protection, least of all from me, but despite being a well-built, six-foot tall bullet head, he has an immensely friendly, pleasant demeanour and a corresponding good nature that certain parties evidently feel tempted to take advantage of. Those two years had cemented his status forever as a junior within the group. They were the cocksure fifth-formers who ruled the school, on the cusp of boldly heading out into the world of adulthood, Alan and I were awkward, acne-faced third years who’d just discovered the joys of furiously compulsive masturbation.

I remarked upon the situation bitterly to Alan, and later regretted it. After all, these were his mates, the people he hangs around with back home, and so this was an ongoing thing. When I fumed about the lack of respect they showed him, he probably felt I was criticising him for having put up with it for so long. I should have done the decent thing and pretended not to notice, but now it was too late. And in any case, how much choice did he have? What could he possibly do now to change the situation, to stick up for himself? It wasn’t as if there was any serious malice involved, or any systematic persecution by a particular ringleader. His response was no doubt more appropriate than mine: he just took it in his stride, with good humour, whereas I was the self-righteous little boy with a complex about his height, stomping off home in a huff. Immaturity was thrust upon me. The role-definition that emerged seemed almost entirely unconscious, and thus all the more unstoppable. In fact it had already evolved of its own accord when we were still in short trousers, now it was set in stone.

Just recently I was reminded of this seeming impossibility of reinventing ourselves when Carl, aka The Impostume, came to visit, even if this was by no means a negative experience. We’ve known each other for almost twenty years now, during the first three of which we shared various flats and houses while at university in Leeds. Carl is my senior by a little over a year, and although we didn’t go to the same school this no doubt has some small effect on our relationship. Added to that is a height difference of over a foot, which makes us look patently ridiculous standing next to one another, as well as the fact that Carl is both loudmouthed and quite extraordinarily intellectual.

The combination of all these factors, plus whatever relevant others that may exist, results in a situation in which, whilst I enjoy his company a great deal, I sometimes feel frustrated at my powerlessness to resist sliding into the persona that’s been prepared for me. Many people who know me would have good reason to regard me as a ranting, foul-mouthed, over-excitable left-wing yob, a frothing spleen in fact. But in Carl’s company I tend to become measured, stoical, conservative, a steadying influence to bring his intellectual flights of fancy back down to earth. In his words a purveyor of tub-thumping common sense, which makes me sound like a supporter of the British National Party. Suddenly I’m the straight man, a stooge even. How did that happen?

This seems to apply regardless of our positions on any given issue. Back at university I was more left-wing than Carl, on the most recent evidence he’s now to the left of me, but the style is the same as it was then: he’s entertainingly bombastic, I’m drily sceptical. When this happens I’m constantly forced to second-guess myself. Though I’m entirely sincere in my arguments whenever we debate anything and don’t try to score cheap points (usually!), isn’t there a sense of me casting myself as the hardened realist as a defence mechanism against his superior intellectual prowess? Surely there is an element of ego involved at some stage. At my worst I could be sneakily trying to win the debate by undercutting and negating the more bewilderingly complex aspects of his argument with my dour anti-intellectualism. Am I bursting bubbles of ideological hot air with my ruthless, rapier-like astuteness, or am I merely elevating ignorance and mediocrity to the status of virtues?

Am I, when all is said and done, the Dudley Moore to his Peter Cook, a vocation that surely no man could revel in? Whatever the case, unimaginative empiricist plodder that I am, I’m convinced that in this particular relationship I shall remain this way until I die.

Or is all of this just a manifestation of my Napoleon complex?

Friday, April 17, 2009

UPDATE! I got an apology. An OFFICIAL APOLOGY!!! Has the spirit of Glasnost finally arrived in Olomouc city council? Think I might have it framed.

What the hell am I going to rant about now?

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

I’m going to tell you a story. Are you sitting comfortably?

Although they’re not shy about milking the Kafka cash-cow, particularly in Prague, luring tourists into buying cheesy “I’m an intellectual” style T-shirts, the Czechs have never really seen him as one of their own, since despite living in Prague he was from a German-speaking Jewish family and all his works were written in German. Fair enough really, Mozart’s also foist upon you everywhere in Prague, as well as which Freud was born and spent the first years of his life in this country and nobody ever tries to claim that either of them were Czech. On the other hand, the link between Kafka and Prague is inextricable, and without wanting to sound pretentious, life in this country can frequently be rather, er, Kafkaesque.

As a foreigner I have my fair share of tales to tell of layers upon layers of bewildering bureaucracy, first established here by the Habsburgs and then subsequently built upon by Nazis, communists and now (theoretically) liberal-democratic paper-pushers. Many of the new generation are too young to remember the communists anyway, some now even work in spanking new offices with computers instead of hammering out reports on rusty old typewriters from the DDR, but the mind-numbing, intimidating atmosphere remains. And why would they want to change it? We’re still the little people, and that suits them fine.

I remember in the bad old days before the EU came to my rescue having to spend endless hours in government offices trying to sort out my papers. Several working days were lost every year so that I could obtain and then renew my work and residence permits. First I had to produce a clean criminal record which was no older than three months, then a contract of lease on my flat (with somewhat adjusted amounts of rent, since my landlady didn’t want to pay tax), then produce the original of my birth certificate (a copy would not do), as well as all my work-related qualifications. There was no doubt more, but I can’t remember all the details now. What I do remember was the administrative fees: my birth certificate had to be translated by an official court translator, the documents had to be rubber-stamped by a notary, then there were the extortionate government duty stamps. Nice work if you can get it.

Things stepped up a gear when I decided to try and go self-employed. The idea of fleeing from the grasp of sociopathically exploitative employers into the arms of petty-minded, spiteful apparatchiks brings to mind the words “frying pan” and “fire”, but that’s what I did. Now I not only had to sort out all my papers here in Olomouc but also make an expensive trip to the British embassy in Prague to swear by the almighty Queen that I had no criminal record back in the UK, an act which took approximately two minutes and cost approximately a hundred pounds. Still, I got the document I needed, which I then had to take along with all the other relevant documents to the other end of the country, to the regional court in Ostrava, in order to get my name in the business register (not necessary for Czechs, but mandatory for foreigners back then).

Eventually all of this got resolved and I obtained my business licence, although for a while I also remained an employee, which I thought was a sensibly cautious option in the short-term. Apparently not. A scare came in the form of a rumour that although I was an employee as well as self-employed on the side, if I still had a VC61 residence permit as an employee rather than a VC62 residence permit as a self-employed person then my business licence would be invalid and terminated. I was slightly perturbed by this, and so made a few (anonymous) phone calls to various faceless functionaries in order to determine the truth of it. Indeed, due to a change in the law it was true, I must have a VC62. I hadn’t been informed of this legal adjustment, I protested. No, we weren’t obliged to inform you (that you might find yourself unwittingly in breach of the law), was the response. Kafkaesque? I fucking ask you.

Luckily, thanks to the fact that the Czech Republic was preparing for EU accession, I was told that because I was an EU citizen (unlike my nervous American friend), my business licence would not be terminated, but that I should get a VC62 anyway. I could have kissed Romano Prodi’s arse. I decided that it would undoubtedly be a wise idea to do so, since this would also free me for good of my dependency on my employer. To apply for that, however, I had to put all my papers in order and take them to Bratislava. Why Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia? It’s not even the same country anymore! Because I was now effectively getting a new residence permit and not renewing my old one, and new residence permits can only be obtained from a Czech embassy outside the Czech Republic, regardless of the fact that I’d already been living in the Czech Republic for about 7 years. Nice logic. Anywhere but here, and Bratislava was the closest.

So once my documents were ready I got up in the middle of the night to get the train down to Bratislava to stand in a queue of ragged, frightened-looking souls outside the Czech embassy ready for opening time. I filled in the mandatory form as best I could, though parts of it were rather confusing. But then the bombshell – all my papers were fine, except for my bank account, in which I had to have a certain amount of finances. My bank account was a business account, not a personal account. At this point I lost it* and started shouting at the officious bitch behind the glass screen. Of course it’s a business account, I want a VC62 residence permit as a self-employed business person. But then the money belongs to the business, not you. I AM THE BLOODY BUSINESS! I’M SELF-EMPLOYED! THE BUSINESS IS IN MY NAME! Not good enough. Apparently I’d come to Bratislava for nothing. In the end though, my aggressive tactics actually worked. She finally agreed to take my application, but chided me repeatedly that it was all highly irregular and that I’d have to go immediately to the foreign police in Olomouc to explain my predicament, so that when they received the application we’d be able to take it from there.

This calmed me down a little, since I knew that the foreign police in Olomouc had one capable employee (out of an indeterminate number of cretins - god bless you, Mrs. Novotná). When I did go to them they were rather nonplussed themselves at first and said it all smelt of bullshit, but after some investigation found that yes, that was in fact the law, the explanation being that the Business Law and the Immigration Law contradict one another. By now I somewhat belatedly realised that I needed some legal advice, which I was lucky to receive from a student and friend of mine to whom I’m eternally grateful, who was a trainee lawyer. I resolved that by the next time I went into a government office I would know the law better than the people sitting opposite me, and given their usual level of intelligence this wasn’t difficult. The police told me that I had a couple of months to transfer my money into a personal account, which I duly did. I returned to them triumphant and armed to the teeth with legal knowledge, this time deadly certain that not even the meanest of nitpickers would find a discrepancy in my documentation. They said it would take a week to process it, but that it ought to be ok. I went back again a week later and they told me that finally my permit had been approved. YESSSSSSSS!!!! So can I have it then? No, now we have to send it all by post to the Czech embassy in Bratislava, and you have to go down there and collect it. So this is where our taxes go. At least I got to rub it in the face of the bitch who worked there. After which I went and smoked a big fat cigar.

The anti-climactic end to this story is that less than two years later the Czech Republic joined the EU and suddenly getting a residence/work permit became, by previous standards, absurdly easy. Nevertheless, at the time I had no choice. And for a long time since I’ve lived mostly in blissful ignorance of the world I once inhabited, relieved that I’d left it behind for good.

Or so I thought. Unfortunately yesterday morning I was woken up by the fat slag postwoman, who took a preposterous amount of pleasure in presenting me with an official letter from the council, informing me that apparently my business licence had expired in 2003. I immediately marched to their offices, equipped with an updated business licence that they themselves had issued to me in 2005, so I’m hoping to get away with it this time, but one never can be sure in this country. Watch this space.

Maybe I should take a leaf out of this man’s book. The Good Soldier Švejk is much more readily identified as part of the Czech national culture than Kafka. This is not something I necessarily approve of, but I have to deal with it. I don’t regard Hašek’s novel as a great work of literature, it strikes me as rather rambling and repetitive, but it indisputably captures a part of the Czech character and one which is the opposite side of the coin to Kafka’s nightmarish bureaucracy: if you like, Švejk is Josef K’s happier, dumber-but-smarter alter-ego. It’s the story of the revenge of the little man, which is achieved by acting stupid and consequently throwing spanners in the works at every opportunity. Not exactly a dignified response to utter powerlessness, in fact a deeply infantile and humiliating one, but one which is probably inevitably thrust upon the pawn in the game under the circumstances, and which is not entirely unfamiliar to any of us. Indeed, it may be the only alternative to madness.

I admit myself that although I’ve usually gone to great lengths to avoid Švejkism, and still feel a certain disgust whenever I encounter it, at times I too have, out of exhaustion, taken the easy option by playing the role of the stupid foreigner. In fact if I was smarter, or braver, or less proud, I might have been able to save a great deal of time, effort and money by doing so more often. After all there are thousands of ex-pats in this country who have never bothered to get a work or residence permit, let alone pay taxes and national insurance. Most of them won’t stay here long anyway, and won’t get a pension over here, but then there’s no guarantee I’ll get mine. And they’ll no doubt get away with it, since their own ignorant form of Švejkism (despite most of them never having heard of him) is one that suits the mandarins entirely – less work for them. Perhaps I should have gone in the direction of the Good Soldier, but now I’m on their records it’s surely too late. This war of attrition’s not over yet.

*Although I didn’t go as far as a usually mild-mannered American friend of mine who ended up screaming at the secretaries of the regional court the Czech equivalent of “I PAY YOUR FUCKING WAGES!! I COULD JUST WORK HERE ILLEGALLY AND NOBODY WOULD FUCKING KNOW!!”