I admit that I was completely and dreadfully ignorant when I arrived in Europe, (fresh off the boat, as the saying goes) most notably to the fact that one simply cannot go and live in another country without permission; official and lawful permission that is time-consuming, expensive, and mind-numbingly tedious to obtain. I had heard that a work permit and subsequent visa were what I’d have to get in order to live and work in the Czech Republic and I wasn’t at all concerned, since I had obtained a work permit as a teenager while seeking legal employment in Ohio and it had been a breeze. Truly, if someone had told me before coming to Prague that the prospect of working legally would be nearly impossible and, in the end, wouldn’t happen for me, I would have stayed in Ohio. Nothing could have prepared me for what I was about to endure, in terms of bureaucracy and in terms of utter lack of human decency.
One day, after our TEFL teacher who doubled as my first Prague crush, Mila (short for Miloslav), explained the bare basics of the visa application process and its function, I devised a plan: first I’d earn my TEFL certificate, then get a job, which would automatically land me a work permit and subsequent visa through the language school that would hire me- since, after all, the law requires companies to hire foreigners legally. BOOM. My plan was bulletproof.
During his lengthy and somewhat mind-boggling explanation, Mila had also mentioned that many foreigners choose to forego the process of getting legal altogether, and that he personally knew several Americans who had been living under the radar for months and for some, even years in Prague. For whatever reason, these Americans work in language schools, bars, restaurants, and pub crawl companies for money that they are paid off the books. Their travel capabilities are limited, and they live under the constant threat, however benign, of being stopped by city police for a random passport check. The very concept of an illegal American immigrant sounded absurd. One thing was for sure- I refused to be an illegal alien and live in fear, and I couldn’t imagine the prospect of never being able to go home to visit, due to a long-expired tourist visa in my passport.
Mila talked for a long time that day about Czech bureaucracy details I’d never considered and my head was swimming in dread as if I were anticipating the task of scaling a mammoth mountain, sans equipment. And I pretty much was, all seven of us non-European citizens in my class were. It went like this: When I entered the Schengen zone on May 29, the stamp I was issued in my passport was a 90-day tourist visa. If after 90 days I had not been issued a work permit, I would have to leave the Schengen zone for 90 days. Or, my stay in the Schengen zone could not exceed a total of 90 days, during a 180-day period. Never having traveled long-term, this was all brand-new information to me.
Contrary to the way it sounds, the Schengen zone is not some savory Chinese dish. It’s a cluster of countries within the EU which currently includes the majority of the EU countries. According to the agreement signed in Schengen village, Luxembourg, residents within those countries are free to travel and work in any country within the zone. If you’ve noticed in recent years that your passport is collecting fewer and fewer stamps as you cross borders through Europe, that’s why. Although convenient for residents of the Schengen zone, it makes life much more difficult for foreigners. Many people believe that the agreement was formed in part to deter west-bound immigrants who come from countries that many Europeans hate; such as Russia, Romania, and Ukraine. It certainly hasn’t done us wide-eyed Americans any favors, either.
In any case, I was to be officially illegal on August 29 if I didn’t find a job. I couldn’t afford to fly back home in defeat and then return three months later, in search of an apartment and employment a second time. My plan had to work, there was simply no alternative. With just enough financial savings and smarts to survive, I had made my leap into Prague, completely ignorant to the pace of life and cultural calendar, and was job-hunting during the months in which everyone and their assistant and their email accounts take an extended vacation. It explained the discount on my TEFL course, and the low number of students in the June course I completed. The website for my TEFL school had boasted a few perks, one of which was “guaranteed job placement after graduation!” In reality, my classmates and I were given a two-page photocopy of the email addresses of a hundred language schools located around Prague. The five of us who planned to remain in Prague after graduation were told to send our resumes to as many language schools as we could, since TEFL teachers typically work for multiple schools at the same time. Within a few hours of sending our resumes to dozens of language schools on our list, my few remaining classmates and I discovered that several of the schools listed had closed or simply did not exist. Naturally, we congregated in our favorite Old Town pub on Veleslavinova street, simply called The Pub, to discuss our latest mutual crisis.
Dave, a middle-aged man from London whom, to this day, is still a dear friend of mine, had virtually nothing to worry about. At that time, Dave was a man with a reasonably-loaded bank account whose EU citizenship assured him legal residence in the Czech Republic. All he had to do was pay an assistant to help him obtain his independent trade license to work legally; officially known as the živnostenský list; known among expats as the Z-list. Although he couldn’t quite relate to the crises Jeff and I were facing, Dave was always there to entertain us with his constant bitching about the absurdities of the new culture, passionately rage about the latest World Cup events, and drink us all under the table. When it came to the nagging subject bureaucracy and the urgency surrounding it, Dave had a casual, fuck-it kind of attitude, which kept us all sane during times when our heads were exploding under the pressure. For me, Dave was always a source of both encouragement and comic relief– a winning combination in a friend.
By contrast, Jeff was an American through and through- complete with the tireless work ethic and the optimism that the bureaucratic nightmare would soon be over. Although he wore the American on his sleeve and his Czech pronunciation was an utter disaster, Jeff was much more outgoing and personable towards strangers than I ever was, and so it was Jeff who found Roman, a local man with a sensational case of eczema who worked independently in assisting foreigners with the legwork and translation necessary to obtain the documents required to apply for the Z-list. Eventually, the three of us started getting replies from language schools for interviews, but schools were now reluctant to consider me for hire, as I was now within weeks of the expiration of my tourist visa and it could potentially be very difficult to begin my paperwork in time- or so it was thought by some. In reality, the laws had been changing so frequently and without notice, that no employers could be certain. Jeff immediately opted to invest much of his time and cash in pursuit of his Z-list, which ultimately impressed employers and he was soon hired by a few of Prague’s reputable language schools. I found the prospect very intimidating, but as the days passed and I was still unemployed, I was running out of options. I was becoming further discouraged the more I spoke to my classmate, Monica, who was relaying information she was getting from her daily calls to the Ministry Of Foreign Affairs. When you’re living abroad, you often make friends with people who you would never associate with in your home country, solely on the basis that you’re both far from home and need to connect somehow. A girl of 21 who had moved to Prague to join her controlling Czech boyfriend, Monica was immature and superficial, but as a Canadian citizen, Monica and I were in the same situation and our mutual visa catastrophe was the link that connected us. Each day, Monica spoke to a different person on the phone in the Foreign Affairs office and their responses to our “we’re about to be illegal, please tell us how the fuck we fix this” queries changed drastically, every single day. One receptionist told Monica that we were simply out of time and would have to leave; another told her that it wasn’t unusual to apply for a work permit on the 89th day of one’s 90-day tourist visa; another told her that the laws were quite flexible, when concerning foreigners from Western Europe and North America. The misinformation was maddening, coupled with the general lack of urgency and clusterfuckery from the same legal system who threatened to deport us if we didn’t file our paperwork properly- that is, after we finally figured out which papers to get, and where and how to obtain them. After an interview during which one school’s director told me he prefers to hire undocumented teachers in order to evade taxes, I realized that my only option would be to call Jeff’s guy, Roman. In an abrupt change to my original plan, I was going to get my Z-List. I hoped beyond all hope that it would be a swift process that didn’t cost too much of my drinking money.
A few days after contacting Roman, we agreed to meet a few stops down the green metro line, at Namesti Miru, or Peace Square. At the time, I remember thinking that the square was in The Middle of Nowhere Praha. But actually, it’s just on the outskirts of the downtown area in a neighborhood which would later become one of my most frequented spots in the city, full of fun discos, unique dive pubs, international cuisine, a decent gym, and the majority of Prague’s expat residents and the locals who didn’t totally dislike the city’s massive population of foreigners. It’s funny how things can turn out in that way. In the beginning, Prague seemed like a massive and sprawling city whose public transportation system intimidated me greatly. As time rolled on, I became familiar with the different bureaus as I made friends with various people and drinking/dining spots. The city shrank and became easily navigable. It became my own, and I loved every bit of it.
I stepped off the escalator and into the square on the day I was scheduled to meet Roman. I was dressed in a cotton purple skirt, flip flops and a fitted Rainbow Brite t-shirt, which I had told Roman to look for when he arrived at the square. We found eachother almost immediately. Roman was a pleasant man in his mid-30s with ginger hair and a ruddy, albeit flaky complexion. His English was nearly flawless. Roman first explained to me that he charged a modest 200 czech krowns an hour, which equalled around 10 U.S. dollars at that time, and that some of our meetings and some of his errands might take longer than others, and if ever our meeting was less than an hour, I would still be charged for one full hour. Of course, I was also required to pay for any and all fees within the system, translation of documents- everything that had its own price. It seemed reasonable and I agreed, not that I had any choice at all.
That morning, Roman and I had an easy and brief time at the two or three offices we visited. A signature here, a stamp there, taking this impossible-to-pronounce document to the building across the street for processing. Take a number, wait in line. Not one person spoke a syllable of English, and Roman did all the talking. Later there were to be endorsements, more stamps, documents to be officially translated and notarized, long lines at the foreign police station, running back and forth between offices, more of my maternal inheritance invested in being an honest citizen in a foreign country. But those things never happened, because within days of our first and only meeting, I had a successful interview with an owner of a private kindergarten who assured me that he would not only sponsor me for a work permit, but that he would pay for half of the total cost of the process. BOOM. My original plan was in effect. I called Roman to thank him for his help and to cheerfully inform him that I no longer needed his assistance.
I wish I could say that it actually happened the way it was supposed to- the way I had planned it, and the way my new boss assured me it would. The issue of a visa and my legal status in the Czech Republic is an ongoing tale that spanned all the months I lived in Prague, and couldn’t possibly be told in a single wordpress entry.