Tuesday, November 30, 2004


Blork announces the November monkey: "Talk about awkward, annoying, or freaky things that have happened to you while crossing international boundaries." Because some days it's easier to let other people tell you what to blog about.

Overnight train, Krakow to Prague, the summer of 1994.

I find my assigned place. Only one other person in the compartment, asleep, reeking of alcohol and sprawled across my seat. I stretch myself out on the bench across from him and doze off.

The border crossing. I have the impression that we stop in the middle of nowhere, that the border is in fact between villages. In the dim light of the station outside I can make out officials scrambling off in different directions.

Silence. Dark. Nothing. I doze off.

Pounding on the compartment door. Gruff voices. Door slides open. I finally determine that I'm being told to remove my feet from the seat. The drunk is still asleep, feet on his seat, but they leave him alone. The officials march off down the corridor. Again, I doze off.

I'm being yelled at. I don't understand. I force my ears awake, but still I don't understand. He's speaking louder, but he's speaking Czech. A different man, also uniformed.

I ask in Polish if he can slow down. He rolls his eyes. I make out a demand for money. It's a fine, for having my feet on the seat. I pull out some Polish currency, but he tells me my money is no good. What kind of fool am I, travelling to Prague without any Czech currency? What snobs, those Poles, refusing to switch dialects. How rude.

Ah. I've been in Poland for over a month already. My accent is sounding pretty good. He thinks I'm Polish. Polish and Czech are mutually intelligible for the most part, at least to ears accustomed to navigating the Slavic dialects. Mine are not. He thinks I'm being difficult.

(I'm reminded of my visit to Portugal and the attitude of the Portuguese toward Spanish tourists, who would insist on speaking Spanish, very loudly, without even conceding an obrigada for a gracias.)

The official prods the drunk awake. He thinks the drunk is my boyfriend, and he should pay my fine. He's never even seen me before. The drunk speaks fluent Czech. He lives in Lithuania, but is going to visit his father in a small Czech village the official knows.

Finally, the matter of passports. I proffer my Canadian document — I think I see a glint of understanding in the official's eyes: "ignorant foreigner." Again he asks for money, but I have none (of the appropriate kind, anyway). Questions then about the dates of my visit, the dates on my visa, the issuing offices. There is much head-shaking and muttering. The drunk is glowering at me.

The official will have to consult with the other officers on how to manage the matter of my fine, though he admits that my papers seem to be in order. He takes my passport away with him down the hall for the longest 20 minutes of my life.

He brings back my passport with instructions. The terror ends, the tedium begins. Immediately upon my arrival in Prague, I'm to register with the Canadian embassy to make arrangements for the payment of my fine.

Ah, Prague! The first day is the matter of finding someplace to stay and figuring out how to navigate the city. I settle into an apartment, and find out where the Canadian embassy is. The second day I make my way to the embassy and spend 4 hours waiting. Four hours! I document my situation and meet with someone who assures me this will be easily sorted out — Czech authorities have not contacted them about me, but the embassy would pay my fine and bill me later, back in Canada, for reimbursement. The third day involved a trip to the Polish embassy for a visa to be able return to Poland, and arranging to stay longer than originally intended in the apartment, as so much time had already been eaten up.

I never did hear from anyone regarding that fine. I worked it out later that the amount worked out to the equivalent of about $15 Canadian. Experiencing Czech bureacracy like a character out of Kafka? Priceless.


Jon Langdon said...

Just a BE visitor saying Hi.

--Jon Langdon

matchingtracksuits said...

Polish red tape can be just as annonying -- try getting married here, for instance:

Anonymous said...

Wow! I crossed into the Czech Republic from Austria in 1995 and the only thing I ad to deal with was a guy asking for a "supplement" to the ticket price as soon as we crossed the border. (It was only a couple of bucks -- and he accepted Shillings.)