Friday, April 28, 2006

Red Tape and Stamps

Next week I will have been in Poland a year.

This week I finally got around to applying for my residence permit, which I need if I am intending to stay in the country for longer than 3 months... *ahem*

I actually never stayed in Poland for longer than 3 months at a time, leaving every so often for a trip abroad. Still, it was pretty obvious that the people responsible for my voluntary project here in Warsaw were never going to get round to sorting out my paperwork. I should have taken things into hand before this week when the responsibility really shifted to me with the end of my voluntary project.

There is a simple reason for my tardiness: I was scared.

I moved here from Brussels, the bustling international city that has more foreigners than locals. I experienced getting registered in a Brussels suburb. The place where they direct you to an airless shadowy basement room, to wait with other non-Belgians on a row of chairs, eyes focused on a lone door.

The door opens every so often and someone shuffles out. Names are called, and the next person enters, but you have to know the system. The system is never explained, but if you have sharp eyes (or get tired of waiting for hours) you can discover the secret.

If you've been before you have a little scrap of paper with a number and appointment time. You have to take your courage in both hands, walk up to the door and knock. Someone then opens it a couple of centimetres and you can slip through your paper. They then tell you to sit back down and it could be a matter of minutes, or hours, until your turn.

If you've just called beforehand to make an appointment or (horror of horrors) just shown up, you also have to walk up to the door and give your name. Once the information has been received, the door closes, no 'please take a seat', no 'we'll be right with you', just a closing door and a line of uncomfortable plastic chairs to choose between.

Once you make it into the room, oh that's when the real fun begins. You (well, I) will invariably have the wrong piece of paper, or not enough photos (5 if I remember correctly, just so you have to get two sets of 4 I imagine), or the wrong kind of letter explaining why you want to stay in the country.

When I went through all this I was working at an EU institution, the guardian of the freedom of movement for workers, and yet it took many visits and bits of paper before I was registered and my paperwork was in order.

Of course most people have to go back several times. Back to the basement, to sit under the low ceiling next to other unfortunate individuals waiting several minutes or several hours depending on the whims of the people behind The Door.

This is why I was scared.

I now had to go through this process in a country where you need to queue for two days and promise your first-born to a human trafficker just to post a parcel.

We decided on a first visit to suss the place out and get the list of requirements. We entered the building, close to the old town and pleasant on the outside. So far so good. We were directed up a flight of stairs (no basement holes here!) and I wearily eyed the people lining each side of a corridor. It looked like a long wait. I spotted the ticket dispenser and took an 'A' ticket, for EU citizens. Mine was A68. I turned to the display and winced in anticipation of just how many people were in front of me. A67 flashed up. What? Just one person? I'm next? At the end of the long corridor was my room. The poor souls lining the corridor were all B tickets, from outside the EU and destined for a long wait. I walked past them, to the room at the end with the EU flag. It would have been even more impressive if the flag hadn't been stuck on with messy tape.

My number came up. We were greeted by a smiling pregnant lady (yes, they do exist) who found out quickly what we needed, gave me the relevant form, told me the list of documents I would need to attach the form and advised me not to bother including the letter from my work. 'You're from England, there's no problem, we just need to know you have enough means to look after yourself, it's the EU'. I wanted to take her head in my hands and kiss her forehead. I restrained myself.

The following day I returned, sauntered up the corridor, took my place behind one other person, was seen after ten minutes, handed over my completed form, passport photocopy, insurance card copy, photos (just two), proof that the bank transfer had been made and smiled at the pregnant lady. She took out a lot of important looking stamps, stamped everything thoroughly, signed a lot of other bits and handed me a piece of paper.

'This tells you when the card will be ready. Here's our number if you'd like to check a few days before.'

That was it.

Brussels take note: Poland is well known for its inability to carry out the simplest procedure without metres and metres of red tape. If they can sort my paperwork for me in just a couple of brief visits with zero problems, you have no excuse.

Monday, April 24, 2006

What will these kids do?

I was on a bus yesterday with a friend who teaches in high school here in Poznan. Well, gymnajium, actually, but the kids were 15 or so and that translates into high school age for Americans. My friend said hi to the students and they said hi to him. My friend told me that they hadn't been to school since New Year's Eve and one of the students had just told him that he hadn't been home since that time, either.

They were your typical new punk Polish young males. Shaved heads, cigarettes, baggy trousers, and hooded sweatshirts. 100% American gangsta. And so young: 15!

Where are this country's strong male role models these kids so desperately need? What kind of people are teaching in the high schools? Where are their parents?

I'm not saying that this phenomenon is limited to Poland, or to only the financially distressed, but in a country that prides itself on character and with a government that prides itself on morality, what is not being done to save these kids from a life of crime and violence drives me almost to tears. There is a lack of strong male role models and an excess of bad ones.

I don't want to see the machismo ethic undermine the social structure and national identity. I wish Chuck Norris could come to Poland and have a big workshop on "How to be a Man." Maybe then they would listen.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Happy Easter!

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

The fruit stalls

I love the fruit stalls in Poland! Did I just use the words "love" and "Poland" in the same breath?

I was walking this morning and passed idly through one of the markets. The people who run these markets are amazing. They arrive every morning around 6 or 7 and set up shop. Every day. They lug in crates and crates of oranges, bananas, grapes, lemons, plums, and (when the season is right) fresh strawberries.

Approching one of them can be a bit of a trick for the uninitiated. The people that work behind the stalls are not delicate people. Their hands are calloused. Their voices are calloused, too. They'll give you a terse greeting and wait for you to tell them what you want. If you're not sure, they'll move on to the next customer.

Usually, I just find the fruits that I want and hand them over. They're weighed and a price is quoted. A fair price. Quite cheap. Much cheaper than comparable fresh fruits in the US.

You're less lucky if you want something that only the shopkeeper can reach. Then it becomes a negotiation.

Me: I'd like some tangerines.
Her: How many?
Me: Well, I'm not sure. How about 2 zl worth? (Not even knowing how much that'll be)
Her: Prosze (she then grabs about 15 tangerines and weighs them out.
Her: That'll be 2.50.
Me: ??
Her: 2.50
Me: Well, it could be worse. (Hands over the money)

Really, it's worth it. The fruit is killer and you can shop for bootleg DVD's, new clothes, and flowers at the same time.