Think of your worst experience waiting at the DMV and then multiply it a couple of times.
That’s how many Americans have described the experience of going to the foreign police to start the visa process.
Before we arrived in Bratislava, we were required to secure certain papers for our visa (an apostilled birth certificate and an FBI background check to name a couple), but the rest of the process, we must complete here.
So, last week, Peter, our colleague and translator, took other American teachers and me to begin the fun last stage at the foreign police. I have heard a ton of stories about different people’s past experiences here, and some sounded quite humorous, while others sounded miserable.
The way that I looked at my experience, however, was, well, as just that — another new experience in Slovakia. I was prepared for the worst, but I was ready to laugh a lot and to just make the best out of it.
We arrived bright and early around 7 a.m. to wait outside the office (which hasn’t been renovated since I don’t even know when, and resembles a prison) to wait in line to pull numbers so we could wait in line to actually speak with an officer.
The lines were pretty much just chaotic clumps of people — most of who had no earthly idea what they were really supposed to be doing. When we first got there, we waited in one area for about 30 minutes, before being told that we were never really in line.
The actual building for the foreign police just looks like communism. It’s a weird bluish-green color, with bars on the windows and overgrown brush all over the walls. There is litter scattered all around it outside. It looks like an out-of-business prison.
Near where we waited in line, there were a few trees and bushes, that looked like the place where black market dealers may lurk. One of my colleagues joked that there was a guy back there making his living selling Slovak passports.
After pulling our numbers (mine was 100), all that was left to do was sit outside and wait. And wait, and wait, and wait, and wait.
People were scattered outside the building — some talking, some eating, and some sleeping under trees using their backpacks as pillows.
“Will we see an officer today, or won’t we?” was the question. In the past, people have waited outside for up to 10 hours only to find out that the office was closing before their number was called. So, they had to return the next day and start over — pulling a new number and everything.
You would think that with all the modern technology that we have today (i.e. computers), they would be able to come up with a more efficient and organized way of doing things, but, they haven’t yet.
Because, as with all things in Slovakia, change is a very slow, if sometimes non-existent process. If things have been done a certain way for decades, well, then that’s just the way they are done. Even if they no longer make sense for the year 2012. It doesn’t make sense to try to ask why here, because the only answer you’ll get is, “Because that’s the way it’s done.” It only makes sense to accept it and to go along for the ride.
The teacher whom I spent most of the day with and I really made the most out of our day stuck in visa purgatory, however. And ironically, it turned out to be one of the most fun days I’ve had in Bratislava.
After spending the first part of the day reading outside and talking with other expats playing the waiting game (we bonded in humor over the process with a very nice guy from Nigeria and a nice lady from the UK to name a couple), we decided it was time to spice things up a bit.
So, after taking a lunch break at a nearby pub and indulging in some pints, we found a small grocery (oftentimes called a potraviny in Slovakia) on our walk back that sold Burchak. Burchak is unfermented wine that is popular in Slovakia. It is very sweet (and strong).
Burchak is sold in giant water bottles here, and the store was selling its for pretty cheap. So, we decided it was necessary to buy ourselves a big water bottle, and off we went.
We became increasingly more slap happy as the day went on, taking turns sipping Burchak out of my coffee mug. And taking lurking in the bushes to refill the mug.
When our numbers were finally called, and it was time for us to go with our translator to speak with an officer, I think the officers probably thought we had the wrong building. I’m willing to bet we were the happiest people the foreign police have ever seen.
On our way out, we even took a pit stop at the random jungle gym outside the building (Really, a jungle gym outside this building?) to take some funny photos. I have not laughed harder than I did while watching our older friend try to take a picture of us on my iPhone camera. Holding the phone up to his eye (like you would with a disposable camera), he kept coming closer and closer to us, saying that he couldn’t get us both in the picture. I could barely breathe because of how hard I was laughing, and I had to squeak out, “You have to back up to fit us both in.”
Our next stop was a visit to the bank to set up our accounts, so we can actually get paid and get a Slovak debit card (one with a chip in it that is often required at stores in Europe).
That consisted of a lot more laughter (I think our translator and friend was very entertained), mostly stemming from my poor attempts at speaking the little Slovak that I know.
So, as I’ve learned many times before this, even the most dreaded tasks and days can become one of the best if you just have the right attitude.
And a little Burchak doesn’t hurt, either.