At the Ministry

My appointment is at 10 am, so I am up at six. I set my wallet, passport, and forms out on the kitchen table. I then go through them holding my breath. Everything seems fine.

Burke rumbles to life and asks if I can take the dog out. I explain that I have a meeting in four hours and will not be able to perform such a task in the meantime. I then go to the shower where I scrub myself and practice Czech.   

It’s that time again, kids – renewal of my permanent residency. I have to do this once every ten years, so it’s not bad. What it is, is nerve wracking. And the fact that it only occurs once every ten years means that I can focus 9.8 years’ worth of bureaucratic anxiety on this one event. So it’s a win-win for a sadist who doesn’t like governmental buildings.

Like me.

A trip to the Ministry – or in the old days, to Foreign Police – was the thing of horror lore in the Prague immigrant community. I was there ten hours yesterday! The woman turned me down because the corner of my application was folded a bit. Telling stories about the Ministry was like how older men tell sports stories from their past. The more you told the stories, the worse they got, the fiercer the opposition, the more at stake, the bleaker the outlook, the calmer our response, the last-minute win in the face of almost certain defeat.

And they are true, too. We had to go early in the morning, the misery was palpable in the nine languages representing the miserable. We all waited for the doors to open. The Russians in the front held spots for their friends – a right they’d defend viciously unless some other group tried to pull the same stunt. The doors were opened at 6 am, elbows thrown, a crush for the number machine. I never got anything good and I knew I was there for the better part of the day. I’d open a book, eat a sandwich, every time the next number came up we all looked at it hopefully, knowing we had too much time left. When my time came it was a new level of hell, one in which I was interviewed by a person in a language I didn’t speak. I was the fortieth person she’d seen that day and it made her not-so-rosy personality somehow less rosy. I’d utter a few lines in Czech, hoping beyond all hope that she’d find me charming and helpless in a puppy-trying-to-drive-a-van kind of way, which never worked. She’d flip through my file and I always knew or expected that something would go wrong. If she took out my visa and slid it into my passport, I reached an elation unknown to those who’ve never faced down a bureaucrat who hasn’t had lunch.

It is this evolutionary memory I carry with me as I head towards the Ministry today. I am sweating and panicky. I try to remember the accusative. I get to the appointment 20 minutes early. The place is half-full with unhappy people. I don’t blame them and I inch my way inconspicuously towards the machine. I click ‘appointments on phone call’ and my name is first up. I sit. On the TV is a ring of adverts all about the bad things that can happen to you should you screw up your paperwork, not report your new housing, or tick a box wrong. I inch my backpack closer to my chest and resist the urge to check my form or the second form I half-filled out in case there was a problem with my first one (you live, you learn). The people on the TV telling us the powerful consequences are all cartoons, which does not have the calming effect whoever made it thought it would. Or, conversely, it’s having the exact eerily upsetting effect whoever made it thought it would.

My number comes up. I walk out of the room, the glares from the waiters make my neck burn. I totally understand, I came later and I am going first. I sit at desk 9. The young woman smiles at me and I say hello. She asks me in Czech what I need and I answer in Czech that I am renewing my permanent residence. I hand over my forms and passport. We chat about the heat in the room and I ask her if I can travel while the renewal process is going on. She nods of course. She spends a few moments looking through the forms and then grabs her stamp.

She sets up a day for my biometric card photo and though I set it up for a morning in November, I realize that I have a meeting then. I apologize profusely and she shrugs it off and switches it to the afternoon. She wishes me a cheery good day and I am out the door. Were it not for my questions or my minor blunder, I might have gotten through the whole thing while holding my breath. I skip down the stairs, wish the chaps at the reception a good day. The sun has come out or maybe I just notice it. I try to think of the story as I ring up my friend.

“Man, you’ll never believe it I gave her the wrong time for my biometric. It was terrible…”  

  1. #1 by Pavel on January 16, 2024 - 8:21 am

    Interesting, Have you ever considered dual citizenship?
    You basically live here, work… By nature I can say you are more Czech than American. I mean it in a good way. 🙂 So why not? Or it’s not an option and you would have to give up your American citizenship? I just wonder.

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