Showing posts with label passport. Show all posts
Showing posts with label passport. Show all posts

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

What Just Hit Me?

My dream of living in the Czech Republic came true. It just didn't last.

As of Friday, I will no longer have legal status to remain in the Czech Republic. I must leave immediately or risk a large fine and a ban on being inside one of the fifteen Schengen countries for the next five years.

I have no idea why this happened. When I signed up to teach in the Czech Republic, one of the reasons I chose the school I did was because they advertised "full visa support" to everyone. Wonderful. Moving to a foreign country is overwhelming enough. Having a knowledgeable local handle all of the paperwork in a way that is in accordance with all laws gave the whole school a value-added appeal. I relied on that.

I arrived on November 6th. I took a TEFL course and was offered a contract in December. My school applied for my visa in Berlin at the Czech Embassy on January 21st, almost three months later.

Did that leave the government enough time to process the visa? I don't know what is enough time. Is there a visa department benchmark statistic somewhere that shows how one country gets it done in two months but another country takes longer and isn't getting it done fast enough? I have no idea what is a reasonable length of time and have no way to judge. Wait, yes I do. I have to leave the country so I guess it's not fast enough!

I started to get some inkling of how serious the situation was thanks to a fantastic article in the Prague Post. I have appreciated the journalists at the New York Times for years because of how they affect the life of my nation, but this woman and this paper published an article that directly affected my life! I can't thank them enough. Being a new expat, and having relied on my employers to secure my required paperwork, this article helped me understand the danger I was in of losing the life I had built here:

Since I have no idea if my visa will be approved or denied, I could leave the country and fly back to the States and find out as quickly as one day later (if that's when an approval comes through) that the job, friends, apartment, neighborhood, and church I had to give up was a big "oops, you can come back in now."

The government sent registered letters to the Americans in my TEFL class to come to immigration (what the Czechs call the foreign police). We each spent an entire day there. I kept thinking surely Czech taxpayers have something better to spend their money on then harassing Americans who are here to help Czech people improve their English so that Czech people can compete more effectively for multinational jobs? Yet this seems like some city-wide or country-wide initiative trying to make some sort of political point.

The day started out very scary. All of these men had muscles the size of a Zizkov bouncer and the jail cells were right behind the door. One of my fellow teachers, who regarded this as one big lark to tell the grandchildren about one day pointed out, "look there's an American in there already!" Thanks. Not helpful.

There wasn't enough staff to process us quickly. It took from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. to get out of there. The foreign police made us sign documents in Czech I didn't understand or we couldn't leave. I know my father was rolling over in his grave because he always said "read everything thoroughly before you sign it." Sorry Dad. I couldn't read it.

The foreign police told us we were lucky the deportation prison was full otherwise we would have to go straight to the prison. Given this was the Thursday before Obama's visit, if we had gone there, do you think the American Embassy could have spared a staff member to come get us? No.

Even with the prison remark (which I couldn't tell if it was a joke since this was translated secondhand), the men in this office treated us with professionalism and kindness. They were nice. This seemed such a poor use of their time and taxpayer's money! They gave us a one-month extension to our tourist visas which I thought was to give the government more time to finish the paperwork.

So one month later, there is still no visa. I must leave. I have done all of the wailing, raging, and asking for help a person can do.

I asked all of my expat friends if they could help. I have asked Czech friends for help. One of our teachers went to the American Embassy and asked for help (they said, "sorry, we can't help that these schools lure Americans here with false promises. There is no answer.")

But I'm not sure the blame is so clear-cut on my school. The minute the way they were doing things proved not to be effective, they changed their procedures. They loophole they were using to apply for our visas in Berlin is the same one used by the American government when they apply for visas for their employees at Radio Free Europe.

My school, which is a different one than the one mentioned in the article, is not making us whole but at least they are paying for the ticket home. I spent about $5000 to come here having rented my house, sold my car, and all of my possessions. They know we have a right to be angry and have said as much.

Czechs ask me, "couldn't you just stay here and work illegally?" I can't do that. If a person works illegally, they are not free. Lately, I've been reading about a Czech patriot named Michael Kocab. He said, "a nation that does not value it's freedom, does not value itself." Well, doesn't that also apply to us as individuals as well? I need freedom.

The hardest part was trying to say goodbye to my English students when it all came down to "there is no answer." I was devastated and they couldn't understand my too-fast, emotional English! But each and everyone of them taught me something and I will value the time I had with them for the rest of my life. I will value the time I had in this beautiful, amazing country for the rest of my life. I only wish the dream could have lasted.

I want to give the last word to the journalists and paper who helped me understand that this was a bigger story than just me and my little TEFL class. Here's their editorial about the situation, aptly titled "The Dream is Over."

Monday, February 2, 2009

Battle Royal for a Chief of a Czech State of Mind

Have you ever heard of the Kingdom of Wallachia? It's a delightful bit of fun thought up by the locals in one area of the Czech Republic. The imagined kingdom of Wallachia has so captured the imagination of Czechs that it is starting to create some real wealth. So who gets it? That's the question. The NYTimes had an article this week detailing the players.

We had something similar in my home state of Iowa. A couple of brothers who owned a T-shirt shop in a tiny town next to the resort lake of Okoboji, Iowa dreamed up the University of Okoboji. The motto: In God We Trust, All Others Cash. It was an immediate hit.

Ownership was clear, however, and the brothers have had a blast thinking up more and more uses for their University. Click on the title to read about the Czech kingdom of Wallachia. Even George Bush had a passport from there!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Three Hours in Berlin

No, I did not tell them it should read "Welcome TO Berlin."

The Brandenburg Gate
In the strange logic peculiar to governments, several of my TEFL classmates and I needed to go to the Czech Embassy in Berlin to do paperwork to allow us to stay exactly where we are in the Czech Republic.

"Don't get into any trouble," our guide said,
"since your passports are all back at the Embassy.

It seems odd to ask thousands of foreigners such as my classmates and myself to help warm the planet by requiring a drive out-of-country four hours each way all in the name of filling out three forms. But I, for one, am willing to put up with quirky governmental requirements if it allows me to work in the Czech Republic, plus go on a delightful trip to Berlin with my compadres.

Actually, being in Berlin was a bit sobering. We had three hours of "liberty" while our paperwork was processed. The Czech Embassy is in old East Berlin. We set out on foot to see the sights from there.

In three hours, we saw three commemorations of shameful acts of the German government. If someone comes to my country's capital and has three hours there, please dear God, I pray that it will always be inspirational.

First, we saw the Brandenburg Gate. That's the inspirational part of what we saw. If it looks familiar, it's because it's probably one of the most recognizable symbols of Europe. President Kennedy, Reagan, and Clinton have all spoken at this site. Reagan's words were probably the most powerful:
"General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"
We walked over to the Tiergarden and realized where we were standing was exactly where the wall had been. It was so obviously insane that this large united city was divided there for decades. I found it unfathomable. Yet when the wall was up, I found the idea of it ever coming down unimaginable.
We noticed a giant new memorial and wandered over. None of us knew anything about it so we started to explore. It's called The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. It went up in 2005. We learned later that there was a museum underground to explain it. We missed the museum because we came from the Brandenburg Gate (like I assume the majority of tourists would) and the entrance was in the opposite corner.
I couldn't imagine a more solemn theme but the design of the memorial at first brought out the playfulness in everyone. I know that's not the reaction the architect was seeking - but all of those blocks of stone cried out for tag or hide-and-seek.
The stones get larger and larger
as you enter, eventually engulfing you.
But as we spent time among the stones, the feeling of being buried underground, beneath layers and layers of ash was overwhelming and oppressive. The memorial made it's point.

It's not everyday you see the word homosexual
in a street sign.

We assumed this was
pointing to a memorial for

The Murdered Homosexuals of Europe.

I felt my usefulness
since none of these young people
would have known what the giant banners
with the word "Stasi" all over them
referred to: The German Secret Police!
It was a museum in the actual headquarters
of the Stasi describing how the
East German Government
continually spied on it's own citizens.

Before coming to the Czech Republic,
I did not realize it wasn't just the Soviets
who invaded during the Prague Spring.
It was all of Czecho's neighbors, like the GDR, too.

Trying to escape meant death.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Don't smile! The government is tracking your every movement

A couple weeks ago, mindful of the horror stories about Americans needing to cancel overseas vacations running in the thousands of dollars because they couldn't get their passports renewed in a timely manner, I dutifully sent mine in for replacement.

"Don't smile," the Walgreens clerk told me, "or the State Department will reject your picture and send it back for a retake." The State Department has an opinion on smiling? Is there an "April Fool" in there somewhere?

I don't know what I marveled at more: that fact or the incredible profit machine passport pictures are for a drug store. It cost $7.50 for two dinky pictures that cost probably 25 cents to produce.

In less than two weeks, I had my new passport complete with my suitably reticent facial expression. Where was the processing delay? Someone must have received a no-bid contract to step it up.

I showed my passport to daughter #2. "How cool is this. There's a chip in my passport! Like I'm a library book with an RFID tag or a marathoner running across the mile 18 checkpoint."

"Wait a minute Mom. I thought you would find something like that objectionable. That means the government is tracking you. Doesn't that bother you?" said daughter #2.

"Not at all. That's what passports are supposed to do. They actually have a job beyond being a travel souvenir for cool point-of-entry stamps. The government has a right to track you crossing the border. And another government has the right to track your entry into their country."

"But you were so horrified by the IPASS."

"Well, if you asked most Americans if they would allow their state and federal government to track their movements within the country anytime they left town and drove on the interstate, most of them would say 'of course not. That's an outrage! I believe in freedom and I believe in my right to privacy.' But they happily give up their privacy freedom for 40 cents when they use an IPASS toll transponder to save on paying tolls. 40 cents! That's how little Americans value their privacy rights! Big Brother really is watching you. He's taking pictures of your license plates. He's keeping a record of your movements. Most Americans don't even seem to know or care they're doing it."

Later I was telling my friend about my new passport and musing out loud whether the population of San Francisco and Berkeley were taking this news about RFID chips lying down. The people there made such a row about RFID tags in their library books. They worried that someone with an RFID reader could figure out what they were reading as they left the building. Would an RFID reader near your passport tell people your social security number, your address and phone number, and your most recently visited countries?

"That's not an RFID tag," my friend said. "It's a GPS system. The government knows where you are at all times."

If it is, that hasn't been reported. A working GPS system on every American sure makes for a great big scary urban legend. What has been reported in all the passport stories is that RFID chips can be disabled by sticking them in the microwave. Somehow that makes the idea of Big Brother seem not that big.
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