Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Czech government denied my visa

This week I got the bad news that the Czech government denied my visa. I shouldn't have been surprised. They've denied the visas of my fellow Americans in my TEFL class, not once but twice. I was devastated. It's taken me several days to write about it without crying.

The Dream

I fell in love with the Czech Republic back in 1989 watching the Velvet Revolution on TV. Ever since then, I've wanted to experience this culture that seemed to have brought down communism nonviolently with raised BIC lighters in Wenceslas Square, not cold war spending (the Czechs actually credit the cold war spending -- not the BIC lighters, but that's another post).

The more I found out about Czech people, the more I wanted to know. I wanted to know about people who have so beautifully kept a highly human and highly cultured "second culture" alive when the official totalitarian culture was anything but human. What intriguing people. I vowed to live among them someday.

A newspaper man in Minnesota, suggested that Americans back then should help Eastern Europeans adjust to capitalism. I happily signed up for two pen pals, specifically requesting they be from the Czech Republic. We wrote long letters back and forth, way before the Internet, and I cheered them on as they started up small businesses in their respective communities. We wrote back and forth for years. Finally, the daughter of one of my pen pals came to live with my family for a summer and eventually settled in America.

I also met a lovely Czech couple in my hometown of Ames, Iowa from the Czech Republic. Kate Sladka was doing graduate studies in plant pathology and Josef Kedlecek, her husband, was putting her through school while working at a locally-beloved Ames restaurant (now that I've read Bohumil Hrabal's "I Served the King of England" I appreciate his job choice even more).

Kate grew up in this
beautiful apartment building
right off Old Town Square

Kate and I spent hours talking and she told me about all of the beautiful architecture where she lived in Prague in a very special part of town called Old Town. When I found my apartment in Prague, I was less than 10 blocks from her home! Now that I've gone and tried to find her and knock on her family door less than 100 feet from Old Town Square on Celetna, I realize how much her eyes must have ached for that mediaeval, Gothic, and art noveau architecture! I was stunned by the actual beauty of where her family lived. It was even more exquisite than I could ever have imagined. Her view was out of a fairy tale.

I was stunned to learn
that my friend Kate
had this incredible view of the back side
of the House of Tyn

I finally got here Kate!
Seventeen years after we talked.

The Reality

I finally figured out how I could come to the Czech Republic and experience it by reading Rolf Potts book "Vagabonding." His premise is that Americans vastly overestimate how hard it is to see the world and support themselves as they do it. I saw that, I too, could do this. All I needed to do was get a TEFL degree and begin teaching English. Teaching English is the easiest and fastest way to get into a country because there is so much need. Czechs working and moving up in multinational corporations need English because it's the international language of commerce.

So I choose a language school that promised: a guaranteed job after attending the TEFL course, full VISA support, health care, and free Czech lessons so that I could quickly integrate into the culture. Not a single word of it came true. I don't know why my school didn't follow the law. Maybe it's more profitable to have places opened up for the next TEFL class coming in, I don't know. I had relied on them to know the paperwork of their own country. I made an error in taking them at face value and trusting. Frankly, I'm proud to have "some trust in me" because you know how closed down people can get when they feel betrayed.

My fellow TEFLers and I loved Prague so much, that we were willing to give our school a second chance. "We applied for your visas incorrectly the first time, but this time will be different." It took me a month and a half to find work in America when I came back with only two days notice. I only looked for temporary work at a reduced pay level so that I would be fair to a potential American employer. After all, I was going to race back to the Czech Republic at the end of the summer!

I had invested over $5,000 to sell everything in America and move to the Czech Republic the first time. I happily shelled out the money for another Czech visa because this time it looked like my school had educated itself about how to follow the law and we would not be penalized for their past actions. Indeed, the administrators told us that many times. "Come back! You will not be denied."

My unfinished Czech Business:

I am completely and totally head over heels in love with the Czech Republic and it's culture. I feel like I was just starting to scratch the surface! I loved to share my excitement in my blog over each wonderful discovery. I only went out of town twice in six months because I wasn't focused on seeing all the tourist sites at first, I was focused on setting up my life. I intended to live there for years.

There are so many fabulous things in the Czech Republic I never got to see. I never saw the beautiful square of Telc, I never saw and experienced drinking spa water at Karlovy Vary, or the romance of Cesky Krumlov, I wanted to see Jan Kaplicky's stingray building in Cesky Budovice when it was finished, and modernist and cubist buildings in Brno. The Sumuva! Mushroom hunting! Czech skiing! I wanted to eat pickles in Znomo and marvel at the aqueducts and pretend I'm a partisan in the Znomo underground. What does Moravia look like anyway? I wanted to go to a Moravian wine festival and call up my friend Sher a little tipsy and tell her how much fun I'm having! Insert scream of dismay here! I wanted to see it all.

The people I care about there that I will miss. I dread having to explain to my pen pal in Western Bohemia that I traveled half way around the world to spend time in her country because of how she and others described it but hadn't yet come to her city to see her. I was waiting until I spoke Czech better so we could have real conversations face-to-face. I wanted to knock on her door and surprise her by greeting her in good Czech.

I did get to see my other pen pal in Plzen, (a future post), but since I visited her she has since become very sick, close to losing her life. I would love to go back and see her and cheer her on to a full health recovery. I never did find Kate Sladka despite knocking on her family door at 10 Celetna over and over again. I have no idea where she is.

What was so wrong with us being there?

I know governments have to look at things from a macro level, and one should never take things personally. It's not personal. That hurts too! The impersonality of it all. But how could excited and enthusiastic English teachers bring harm to the Czech Republic? Teaching English felt like our gift to the Czech people. We felt like we were doing out part to bring you into the global community as fast as possible after forty years of repression. We sure weren't doing it for the money. The work was damn meaningful to us.

I can't imagine Czech tourism advertising budgets are very big. At a time when tourism is down 20% (Prague Post, 6/3/2009) and Prague hotel room occupancy is down 8.5%, and now half of the hotels in Prague are expected to go bankrupt (Prague Post, 8/25/09) wouldn't the enthusiastic blogging of expats talking to the folks back home about how amazing the Czech Republic is be a welcome development to the Czech government? My friends would have resulted in seven week long room rentals at the small family hotel near my apartment over the course of 2009, but I know that expat bloggers are great for business beyond the immediate impact of their own families and friends.

I never heard of Cesky Krumlov from Czech Tourism advertising. I heard of Cesky Krumlov through an amazing English-language blog written by a Brit skilled in community development who constantly celebrates the specialness of that place. That one woman is probably responsible for more foreign visitors to Cesky Krumlov than Czechs know.

I don't know what my next move is. I'm honestly in mourning and it's going to take some time to deal with the disappointment. I would have loved to come back to Prague with the free ticket I have but the Czech consulate in Chicago could give me no solid advice. "It's all up to the foreign police, you may get in as a tourist, you may not. They might turn you back at the airport." Without solid guidance that my money in the Czech Republic wouldn't be wasted this time, I'm staying home. See, I can learn. Stay home. Sadly, there is no welcome mat out in the Czech Republic.

The beginning of this sorry saga:

What Just Hit Me?

10 comments:

MiGrant said...

So sorry to read your visa was denied!

David Broderick said...

Karen, there is a welcome mat. There will always be a welcome mat for you.

I can't apologize enough for the horrible English schools and the bureaucrats who are using the financial crisis for their own ends. But please remember that this, too, shall pass; the future can never tell; and that all of your friends here in the Czech Republic have a welcome mat for you always.

*lynne* said...

I am so sorry to hear the news. Are there neighbouring countries in which you could do a similar Teach English as a Second Language job, which would provide you with a similar culture to that of the Czech Rep, that would enable visits to the Czech Rep, but much friendlier visa policies?

Christopher said...

I am so sorry that your visa was denied. That just sucks!!!

Chaplain said...

Hi Karen - That was a very brave post and I appreciate how hard it must have been to write it. As the previous commenter said, your friends here in Prague will always have a welcome mat for you. The problem remains how you overcome the damage done by the incompetence of the Caledonian School and the intransigence of the Czech Foreign Police.

I wish there was something I could do here to help you. But beyond encouraging you to follow up the two suggestions in my earlier email, I don't know what else to say a this moment other than watch my blog over the next few days!

potok said...

Karen,

My heart goes to you. Your blog has always shown the love you have for this country and it is tragic that you have been treated in this way.

The Czechs are more than their bureaucracy, they are more than those that have exploited you for a quick buck. The true Czechs are the ones you have met and welcomed you.

Love will find a way.

Annabel said...

So sorry to hear this, Karen. Your sadness comes through in your post. I hope that you can get back there someday.

Frou Frou said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
BlackGirl said...

Karen, so sorry to read about your denied visa. This is the first time I've heard of such a thing happening. Caledonia must have messed up somehow and is not admitting to it. I read Chaplain's post, and the school saying "The FP is changing..." is such a lame excuse. And I'm puzzled why the consulate cannot give you a timeline of when you can return even on a tourist visa. As echoed in other comments, I hope your future holds a long-term return to the Czech Republic.

Anonymous said...

Karen, I too was denied a visa for the Czech Republic and I know exactly how you feel. I don't understand it either.

 
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