Robots: mo' Prague popo

If you decide to stick with me on this one, more power to you. It’s mighty long, but I felt it shouldn’t be broken up into a series of bite-sized posts. Here goes…

Now I understand why Josef Capek muttered the word robot to his brother Karel, when the latter sought advice while developing a new play. Standing before an easel rattling with the strokes of his paintbrush, the elder Capek muttered the word to describe artificial workers that would appear in his younger brother‚??s work. This gave rise to Karel Capek‚??s RUR, a piece of literatrure I have yet to read.

For this word to come to his mind after hearing his brother’s description of the character that was stumping him, Josef Capek must have met people that radiated its then-new meaning in real life. Like when Karel said to him, Josef, I have these characters in my book and I don‚??t know what to name them. They‚??re not townsfolk, youth, elderly, aristocratic, students, cousins, patriots, or anything exceptional. They‚??re peasants, they‚??re serfs, labourers. And they‚??re artificial.

Pausing between strokes with the brush clenched between his teeth like a pirate assassin artist, the word connects with a certain kind of people he knows and probably does not think much of.

Robots.

Karel thanks his brother and goes off to write his masterpiece, while Josef tackles his own.

That‚??s a big part of what I got out of today ‚?? only in the Czech Republic could you find the progeny of those who inspired Josef Capek to derive that magic word for artificial worker.

I went to the foreign police on Olsanska to apply for my business visa. I‚??ve been experiencing delays, some external and some of my own device, but in total, I‚??d been in the Czech Republic for two months without a valid visa. I‚??d done this before, it was no big deal, everybody in Prague, both inside and out of those wretched Interior Ministry buildings, knows how chaotic the offices at the Czech foreign fuzz can get.

Yesterday I went to get some information at Office 10 in building B. After waiting thirty minutes I get a sullen greeting from an Insolent Bitch, whom I‚??ll refer to henceforth as IB. Every word a cold sneer, every glare a blunt threat. Really unpleasant, that IB.

Anyway, after getting no answers and trying to get her to talk on the phone with Jitka, I hand her my passport. She clocks the expiry date on my visa. Checks for stamps. Stands up, tells me to wait right there. Leaves the room. Locks the door.

An office in the Olsanska buildings is a filthy purgatory of stained whitewash and a bilious beige, stifled vegetation, old typewriters, and drawn shades . The rustle of file folders prompted by wimpy gusts of recycled air, and the buzz and whirr of old computers struggling to keep Word and Outlook up and running, the system facing a total collapse should the screensaver kick in.

As a foreigner in any country I would expect a somewhat warmer greeting, embrace, or adoption than this. Nobody should be treated like this. Especially those of us making an honest living, busting our asses, paying our fucking taxes, giving to charity, promoting local businesses, contributing to the population growth‚?? and this is your motherfucking welcome basket?

It gets better.

Shit. I wish.

The door unlocks, IB furies into the room, I‚??m wondering if this makes her feel good, doing this for a living, fucking innocent people up.

I know I crossed a line. I then see what‚??s coming and resign myself to it, more or less. I‚??m going to be spending a while here.

I make a frantic call to Jitka. She grabs a cab, cancels a meeting with her mother and hauls ass to save my ass.

Well, I didn‚??t know about the cab bit till later, so I‚??m thinking, shit, it‚??s gonna take her an hour to get here from Blackbridge.

The cop comes over, has something like a mugshot in between the pages of my passport. Fuck.

Could you stand up, sir?

I can‚??t believe I say this: Is there a problem officer?

Please stand up and empty your pockets.

Shit. Wh‚?? I‚??m getting married here in July, July 15.

Do you have some kind of document stating this?

Well, I‚??

Damn. Jitka‚??s been taking care of all that.

‚??suppose‚??

Please put everything in your bag.

I put my lighter, gum and mobile in my bag. Get led to a cell.

Fucking‚??

The cell has a surface area of just over 4 square metres. Two small benches. A view into part of a parking lot and a bunch of Interior Ministry offices across the backstreet.

You‚??ve got to be joking.

He says nothing just waves me in with a mechanical gesture.

What the‚?? can I at least make a call?

Up til now this guy‚??s been a perfect police robot. Not a Robocop, mind you, just a regular guy, blankly following orders, strictly by the book, doesn‚??t get off the page, just gets off on the page. A fucking robot that happens to be a policeman.

Pats me down then locks me in. Then he lets me make a call, waits for me to finish, then takes my phone and puts it in my bag. In an odd sort of way, I find it to his credit that he didn‚??t look all that pleased, proud or angry about having to do this; rather, it was like he was resigned to it, perhaps was even trying to understand why. At least, that‚??s what I‚??d like to think he was thinking. That maybe he‚??s not such a robot after all.

Yeah, prison makes you think some stupid shit.

Christ.

This is fucking ridiculous.

I‚??m in fucking jail.

I lie back and take a nap. Spend a long time thinking about what it‚??ll be like to have children, and that feels pretty good, but then I think about spitting in IB‚??s face and everything goes downhill. Cow. Thinking I can‚??t believe I can‚??t even listen to my mp3 player in here. This is fucking ridiculous. Look at all the scuff marks from the toes of so many disgruntled shoes. A man could go really fucking nuts in here. Later Jitka tells me, I asked a policewoman if they fed you or at least gave you a glass of water, it was a really hot day. The policewoman asked me if you‚??d been there six hours, I said, Why the fuck would that matter?

Later the first robot goes over to her. All I hear is her voice, her fucking glorious Amazonian voice putting this little robot bitch in line. And all I can do is listen, though I really want to rattle my cage – literally. This guy‚??s trying to get words in, and whenever he does, Jitka tells him, Stop talking to me like that, talk to me in a way I understand. I want to talk to the head of the department, she sent us this letter.

The letter was a response to a letter Jitka and I had sen to the Czech foreign popo, explaining that I would be delayed in submitting my visa prolongation request. The reason for this was that I was still waiting for my birth certificate from the province of Quebec. I‚??m not going to get into that. The Quebecers were friendly enough, though I had to spam the hell out of them with demands for responses during the last days of my visa‚??s validity.

I consider reaching for the strap of my bag to get my mobile, but there‚??s a camera monitoring the cell and chances are my notebook would take some damage from falling off the shelf it’s lying on.

I develop this Pavlovian response to the sound of approaching footsteps, especially those that give rhythm to the jingle-jangle of keys. I bolt upright and can almost feel my ears twitch at the sound, desperate hope rushes through me.

The head comes down. Her voice booms with a warrior’s brute force, but Jitka‚??s is right in there, steady, swift and sharp, like the blades of a dual-wielding rogue. The head is slugging away with heavy-duty rounds of bullshit about an assortment of laws and requirements, punctuated with code numbers and paragraphs. Jitka’s countering and jabbing, slicing away with rapid-fire precise questions. The head informs her that There‚??s an information line, Jitka counters with They don‚??t give the right information when you can get through to them, and the clerks, whether on the phone or in person, are rude. The head tries giving her answers, but going strictly by the book, throwing out expressions and terms to overwhelm Jitka with confusion and thus conclude the argument with one mighty blow.

Jitka‚??s not buying it. Why don‚??t you say it to me in a way I can understand? I have a Master‚??s degree in Czech language and literature and if I can‚??t understand you how do you expect a foreigner to understand you? It would be like if I asked you to translate a work of Czech literature by, say, Bohumil Hrabal into English. You wouldn’t be able to do it because you wouldn’t be able to understand.

Bam.

The head‚??s tone changes, goes down a few decibels from booming.

And I wait. And I twitch, head bolting up like a cat’s at the sound of a can being opened, whenever I hear the clinking of keys and/or the heavy authoritative thumps of cop boots on linoleum.

That scuffed linoleum in the cell, splattered in paint. No English grafitti, I suppose it‚??s Ukranian. One phone number seems important, I see it written in triplicate on the same wall.

What did the people who left these messages here use to write? I sure as hell wasn’t allowed to bring anything in. Belt buckles? Rings? Watchbands? Fingernails?

Damn.

Jitka‚??s talking to the cop who brought me in again. He asks her for some kind of official document that states we are going to get married in the Czech Republic.

Jitka’s verbal blades snikkity-snik out of their scabards. Cool and firm, she says, Why are you talking to me like this? How can you ask me such a question? You know that there is no such document. How can you ask me a question for which you know I have no answer? Why are you wasting my time with this nonsense?

The cop backpedals a bit after that then I can only assume he made a hasty retreat. I didn‚??t see him at all after that.

Ah, that‚??s my Supergirl‚?? I feel blessed, and rather undeserving.

And then I don‚??t hear much else other than my phone vibrating in my bag every now and again.

Eventually, I prick up my ears to the sound of more than one set of footsteps coming my way. They have keys. There are two of them. Both bigger than the first robot. The tallest of the two tells me we‚??re going to the station at Florenc, in Karlin.

The cops have been cool about the mobile so far. I call Jitka, she‚??s at Florenc with her mom.

When we get there, I‚??m kind of rushed along ahead of them. My thumbprints are scanned. Jitka gave me a bottle of coke, and damn does it taste good. But I feel like I‚??m going to need to piss soon.

Well, at least I‚??ll have a bottle.

Back at Olsanska, I thought I was going to have a cellmate for a while. They brought what I gathered was a Russian in. They kept him in the pre-cell, which is just inside Office 11. When I had first entered this part of Building B, there was this nervous looking old geezer who had obviously been in the pre-cell for some time before me and who looked really fucking relieved when he was told he could leave. Lucky bastard.

That cell was small for one person, putting two in there would be really fucking uncomfortable. Three or four? And why?

Florenc is worse. I get a choice of two cells, I blankly choose the one with the dirtier, stickier floor. Makes no difference I guess, chuckles one of the cops as he usheres me in. The source of that dirt and stickiness is certainly linked to the fact that there’s nowhere to piss, shit or puke in. Come to think of it, the benches are rather sticky as well…

I pay taxes and social insurance and I can‚??t fucking vote and where the fuck is the humanity and why did I show that IB my passport and why can‚??t I at least sit with my fiancee and fucking hell, they‚??re bringing a bum in here. He sits in the cell to the right of mine. The stench is caustic, corrosive and explosive.

Two fucking months of overdue stamps and papers and more fucking stamps.

I huff a little, I sigh a little, I veg and think and nap. The bum slouches perfectly still. The two cops who brought me in are now off-duty, they stare and nod something like a good-bye at me on their way out.

Half an hour later, I get led into yet another whitewashed office. Like pretty much all the foreign police offices, it‚??s like something out of THX 1138, and even that world was cooler compared to this one. Their gasping, beige computers and eye-crippling screens ablaze with oversized icons, templates, and forms.

This time we get a human. A real live down to earth human being, not another motherfucking robot or IB. He guides us through the report we‚??ve got to submit, Jitka‚??s got all the originals, copies, registered mail receipts, envelopes ‚?? this dude sees the pile of paperwork Jitka‚??s got. No one in their right mind would take on that much work if they had to.

The solution: a thirty-day visa coupled with strong motivation to take a trip outside the Czech Republic, if only for a weekend or a day. Jitka‚??s thinking Slovak spa town. I‚??m thinking Budapest, which deserves a week, and as Jitka‚??s starting a new job next Tuesday, we‚??ll have to wait a while for that.

Jitka‚??s mom was waiting for us outside and the three of us went off for a meal at Charleston‚??s, just up the road from Karlinske Namesti. Borscht and lasagna never tasted so good. Coming home never felt so good, though I still had to translate a press release for Cesky Telecom‚??s general meeting, which I have to be at in about ten hours.

Plus all the usual day to day rush. It feels better to be a part of it today.

So, while it wasn‚??t exactly hard time, it certainly wasn‚??t time well spent.

Now remember, when dealing with the foreign police:

1.never show documents that you‚??re not asked to show
2.keep copies of every single document and receipt involved in the process of getting your visa
3.have a very strong Czech in your corner
and, stating the obvious,
4.get everything in on time

Like some loathe the dentist and others loathe the proctologist, I loathe the offices of the foreign police. For all their ill will, sick walls aghast with dust and grime-filtered lighting, the cobwebs, the dead insects between the windowpanes, the thick huffing malaise, the angry eyes and (again) Pavlovian responses to opening doors and foreign fuzz staff footsteps (they all walk swiftly, avoiding eye contact at all costs), the greasy voices and uneasy movements, queasy moments, cheap-ass coffee machines, the queue jumping go-betweens, the sitting still, the fidgeting, smoking away the ennuie, grumbling crowds and fumbling applicants, all of us guilty, guilty of wanting to live in this fine country. Not all of us are running away, not all of us want to fuck the state over or hide from past crimes or plot new capers. Many of us decide to stay here to raise families, others bring in investments, still others culture and education.

I‚??m not saying that the holding cell in either Olsanska or Florenc, or any cop shop should be superbly appointed with furniture and accessories by Ligne Roset, a crapper, a sink and a minibar. But that shit they got there will fuck a person‚??s day right up. Hearing Daniel Powter‚??s ‚?úHad a Bad Day‚?Ě made me smile. Just because it was that cheesy and ridiculous and seemed like such an obvious understatement.

As a word, robot was born of familiarity. Josef Capek knew such people in his time, and almost everyone who ever deals with the Czech foreign police also comes to know them. Of course, this can be avoided, but usually at a price ‚?? through agents that deal with all this bullshit on your behalf. They can jump queues, have all the right papers, are in and out and it‚??s good for the client (no waiting at the Czech foreign police offices, visa is issued faster, all for what is usually a reasonable price), the agent (cash, bonuses, always have work), and the foreign police ‚?? I assume that an agent with a good rep requires no paperwork, just a flurry of stamps, some scanning, printing, peeling, sticking, boom, next! We‚??re talking Czech foreign police officers and clerks. Less work good, you can see it branded into so many of their eyes. Glazed over and so mechanical, all ROM and no RAM. Robots, like I‚??m talking I, Robot shit, but in the flesh. Damn, they must be real fun around the house.

I‚??ve had enough of thinking about it, I just had to get that shit off my chest. RUR is definitely next on the reading list. Hopefully some day in Czech as well.

I am not a number, I am a free man!

Apr 27, 03:00 (Filed under: Other, Personal )

¬ę Cafe writing, Vicious Circles & Absinthe Time | Czech Republic vs. Canada: visa spat ¬Ľ

  1. Hey Pat,
    (I read all the way to the end) Wow. That‚??s some day. I‚??m glad to hear you got through it maintaining your identity. I play the occasional game of beauracracy and on the whole people here are much the same, although to be fair the Brits are not as wooden as your Czech lot. But almost always I find one person in the chain who is a proper human, the daffodil in the concrete desert. When I was last in Croydon applying for an extension of my visa it was a black woman who found my surname very amusing. She made me laugh, and because I laughed back it made my day easier. (the middle paragraph of this) Somehow (and it shouldn‚??t be the case, the rest of ÔŅĹ?em better start learning how to live) the one daffodil in the acre of concrete makes up for the acre of concrete. Well, that seems to be how it works in my head‚??.

    Now have that bloody holiday!

    Cheers
    Richard


    Richard    Apr 28, 08:25    #
  2. You’re a very lucky man to have such a tenacious Czech fiance. Love makes the women of Bohemia and Moravia quite daunting to cross or blockade.


    richard b    Apr 28, 22:33    #
  3. Great writing puts it all in perspective. First time i laughed out loud while reading something since Hrabal a few months back.


    — jeff S.    May 17, 13:21    #

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