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
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
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
This calmed me down a little, since I knew that the foreign police in
The anti-climactic end to this story is that less than two years later the
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.
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!!”