Friday, December 30, 2011

Belated Christmas post: the walk to Starka's house

On Christmas we walked to Terezia's starka's (grandmother's) house for lunch. Terezia's starka lives in Tomasovce, which is the next village down from where her parents live, in Podrecany. You can walk between the villages via a dirt road that's used by farm tractors, which traverses some truly beautiful scenery (gently rolling hills, lush and tangled foliage, a meandering creek, etc.). In winter, when there's snow (even only a thin layer, as there was this year, which has been unusually warm) the path looks wonderfully atmospheric, and here are some photos to prove it.









Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Going in for my "scanning".

While well intentioned, setting the alarm for 5:00 am did not quite achieve the desired effect when confronted with the harsh reality of actually getting out of bed at such an ungodly hour. The snooze button was pushed once. Or twice. At any rate, we were out in the cold, still-dark city air and still-empty streets by five 'til 6:00, high-tailing it to the 1 line tram stop about a block away. Ten minutes later, after making the connection to the 83 bus to Petrzalka, we sat toward the back, half asleep, pondering pessimistically the length of the line that awaited us at our destination. In the pre-sun darkness, the quarter-full, articulated 83 bus charged and lurched through the pre-rush-hour streets like a dragon at the Chinese New Years parade. Although most of the passengers were wide-awake middle-aged women on their way to the early shift, there was a smattering of dozing, faux-hawked, eurotrash 20-somethings, and a couple of mustached middle-aged white collar types with papers rolled up under their arms.

We got off by the Albert grocery store and walked through the pseudo-park shortcut that cynical urban-planners 30+ years ago must've felt offset the surrounding forest of oppressively stark, concrete, monolithic residential high-rise buildings that make up Petrzalka. Once at our destination, we decided not to get too excited about the line being only about 20 strong this time, given past experiences where said line swelled in front of us by nearly half its size. And there we stood, in the cold and dark morning air, with Russians, Ukrainians, a cluster of Vietnamese, and other hopefuls, waiting for the iron-clad door of the Foreign Police to open. Naturally, the line swelled, much as it has in the past, when a gaggle of Russians and/or Ukrainians came sauntering up five minutes before opening. They met their pals or acquaintances who let them into the line ahead of us, or, just assumed they could get cuts from anyone speaking their language, none of them giving a damn about reinforcing deeply ingrained stereotypes that those of the non-Russian ilk harbor against them.

After what felt like an eternity, the line was allowed to filter in, each person grabbing the numbered tickets spat at them by the dirty waist-high machine sitting by the door. The warm, cramped, brightly lit room filled up fast while we made a B-line for the last two spots on the limited bench seating around the perimeter. And there we sat, waiting for the digital scoreboard overhead to tell us that our number was being called at Workstation 7 or 8. We had ticket #42, which helpfully mentioned that we had 10 people ahead of us. With each person generally taking about 15-20 minutes, it wasn't difficult to see that we'd be in it for the long haul that morning.

We sat. And waited. People filtered in and out. 80% of them Russian, or from those countries that were formerly part of the Soviet Union, like Ukraine, Moldova, etc. Why were they so desperate to get into Slovakia? Little Slovakia, perpetually overshadowed by its neighbors, and routinely (and wrongly) made to look like a complete shithole in more than one Hollywood flick? Slovakia, with double-digit unemployment and even a once-deeply entrenched Maffia that had seen better days back before its members had violently killed each other off? I suppose it just goes to show how much worse it is in Russia (and elsewhere further east). Perhaps more importantly, Slovakia is a gateway to the EU, and once inside the EU, the possibilities for workers of all kinds must seem comparatively limitless.

Somewhere around 10:30, after the room had gradually gone from being a zen-like test of one's patience to a mind-melting, foggy blur, the score board's irksome, synthetic two-note jingle sounded, and #42 flashed by Workstation 8. We walked into the office and were met by a woman in her late 20s/early 30s with almost a little too much makeup and lots of crimson dye streaking through her otherwise dark brown hair. Separated by a half-inch thick panel of clear glass, we gave her my passport and our reason for subjecting ourselves to this veritable plane of hell, and she went away for a couple of years to retrieve my file.

After returning, she motioned for me to go to the other side of the room where there was a small wooden chair. I sat down and messed with my hair, as I saw immediately that I was facing a camera which would take an image of my sleep-deprived mug for the Slovak equivalent of what would be my green card. As I locked eyes with the camera, its lens slowly zoomed out like a cyclops scrutinizing its victim, while crimson-dyed-hair woman fiddled with the buttons and wheel on her grime-encrusted computer mouse. I stared calmly into the lens and hoped for the best. Cameras in these places always have a humbling way of catching one's face in that split second where the muscles seem to spasm and the eyes tense up in a deeply unflattering manner.

Next I was instructed to place my hands on a warm machine that took my fingerprints. Little red dots over each finger turned green when it was satisfied with the pressure with which I applied. Once this was completed, we went back to the workstation where I was told we would receive a text message telling us when the card would be ready for pickup, and that we'd have to come back in and suffer Workstation 7 & 8's dreadfully Odysseyan lines yet again to retrieve it. Sure, they could probably just mail it, but this is all part of a test, you see, in which you prove just how badly you want to stay in this strange little country that Americans always seem to confuse with Slovenia. We were also told that I will have legal residency for five years. But that because my passport expires in 2015, so will my residency card, at which point I'll have to go back in and get a new card, which will be valid for the remainder of the five years.

In the meantime, I will go to a doctor who will take some of my blood in order to determine that I'm free of infectious diseases. Hopefully this will be done in a timely manner before I go to pick up my residency card, so I can kill two birds with that one proverbial stone. Sure, I've made my share of choices in the past that served to make life less pleasant, but I really want to avoid spending more mornings than I have to at the endurance-deyfing hell that is Slovakia's Foreign Police.

(To see photos I've recently taken in Bratislava [and Podrecany], click here!)

Friday, December 23, 2011

An Xmas gift from Slovakia

We got the phone call this morning from the Foreign Police, saying that my file has been signed off and approved by the director. That means I can stay and I don't have to leave Slovakia on January 1, a prospect I'd been dreading for over a month now! That we managed to achieve this in such a short period of time is monumental. Like I've mentioned before, it usually takes the Foreign Police 90 days to grant a residency visa, from the time that you first submit your paperwork. And we managed to do this in just under a month. It definitely would not have happened had Terezia not been persistent about calling and pestering people, and pleading. Had we simply submitted the paperwork and sat around waiting for a response, I definitely would have to have gone back to the US, so being pro-active with these people really seems to help.

So, now we can actually enjoy our Christmas, and not sit around stressing out, wondering, hoping, dreading, etc.

We're not done with the Foreign Police yet. Next week I have to come in to get my ID card, and after that I'll have to go to a doctor and get a report that states that I have no infectious diseases. But that should all be a breeze.

At any rate, I hope the 1.5 people still reading this have a fabulous holiday. We'll be in Podrecany visiting the parents over the holiday weekend, but we'll be back next week.

(Click here to see photos I've recently taken in Bratislava)

Monday, December 19, 2011

The interview with the Foreign Police

As mentioned a couple posts ago, we were given an appointment for our interview with the Foreign Police, scheduled at the incredibly odd hour of 7:30 pm Sunday evening. All we needed to bring was someone who could translate for me. Tony couldn't do it because the translator must not be from Terezia's family, so he got a friend of his from work named Jaro to come along. We had no idea what to expect. When Terezia had a similar interview in the US for her green card, it took about five minutes and was basically a mere formality. We were also told by one of the people helping us at the Foreign Police that the interview here was similarly just a formality. The guy who told us that was clearly lying.

When we got there, we were greeted by our interviewer, a friendly woman who looked to be in her late 40s. She interviewed Terezia first while we waited outside in the hall. The interview took an hour and a half. A mere formality, right? I'm now totally convinced that the primary objective of Slovakia's Foreign Police is to test one's patience. At any rate, while the interviewer did remain friendly and personable, she really grilled Terezia, asking her about where we live, describing the layout and square footage; about when and how we met; about our wedding and who all attended; about hobbies, interests, and education; about each others' parents, etc. The whole interview dragged on and on. Luckily, Tony was sitting on a bench close to the office, and could hear through the door much of what was being said, so Jaro and I got a feel for what she'd be asking us.

When it was my turn, Jaro and I went in and sat down in two broken office chairs. The office was brightly lit and a dingy. Jaro did a good job translating, and the woman typed my responses into a Word template containing all the questions. I noticed right away that she was a horrible typist - she hunted and pecked with her index fingers. Getting this lady to a typing class would probably cut down the interview by half an hour, at least. I was asked the same questions as Terezia, but she apparently didn't need me to go into quite as much detail as Terezia provided. Despite dragging on for an eternity, it went well, and she said "dobre" ("good") after each of my responses, which was reassuring.

At the end, Jaro, quite thoughtfully, asked the woman about what would happen next, and whether there was any possibility that my residency permit would be approved before January 1. She told him that she will give the interview report to some other guy, and she can recommend that he approve it right away, but from there, it's kind of out of her hands. She said that she didn't foresee any problems with our case, and that it is possible that I can get the permit before January 1, but there are no guarantees. We basically need to keep calling and pestering these people until they give me the visa.

And we really can't thank Jaro enough for coming along and being my translator. That was incredibly nice of him to spend his Sunday evening in such a tedious way at such a dreadful place. He is an awesome guy, and we owe him big time!

(Click here to see photos I've taken this month)

Slaughtering a pig in Podrecany

So this weekend we went to visit Terezia's parents in Podrecany because her uncle Jano (who lives down the street) was slaughtering a pig. The pig slaughtering, or zabijacka, is an age-old tradition in Slovakia, whereby in early winter, many families take a pig that they've raised, kill it, and then make sausage and other pork items using just about every single part of the body. This tradition is kind of dying out these days, but you still see it done by families in more rural areas of the country. Terezia's family doesn't even do the zabijacka every year anymore (more like every few years), and in the past they used pigs that Terezia's grandfather raised himself, while this year they used a pig that Jano's son-in-law's parents raised. Nevertheless, ever since Terezia told me about this, I've had an intense and morbid curiosity about the whole thing. I brought along my trusty camera to document the process and spent the day getting my hands dirty (er, bloody) helping out.

Jano woke up super early in the morning to kill the pig. He reportedly shot it between the eyes and slit its throat, then brought the pig over from his son-in-law's parents' house from across the village in a truck.

When Terezia and I got to Jano's, it was about 7:30 in the morning. Jano shook my hand with his mud and pig-hair-encrusted hand, and offered me a shot of slivovice. Did I mention it was only 7:30 in the morning? At any rate, Jano, his son Janko, and son-in-law Marek had the pig lying on its side on wooden pallets and they were scraping off its hair with these metal cone-shaped implements.


Once they removed the hair, Jano took a blow-torch and browned the entire carcass. This softens the skin (and also removes any missed hairs) so that it's more tender and easier to slice through.



Next, they attached hooks to the pig's hind legs and hoisted it up with this contraption that you can see pictured here:


Jano sliced the pig's belly and collected the innards - intestines, bladder, kidneys, heart, lungs, stomach, etc. - in a large bucket. Next, they cut off the pig's head. Apparently it had a stronger-than-usual neck because Jano had to take a saw to its spinal chord, which is not normal. Then he and Janko cut out the spine, splitting the carcass in two. Next, they removed the skin, with its thick layers of fat, and detached the legs and the ribs.




The head was then split in half, and placed in a huge pot of boiling water along with the liver, heart, kidneys, and lungs, and cooked over a fire. We were nibbling on the lungs and cheeks, which were incredibly flavorful - like the taste of pork cranked up to 11.


Terka's dad manning the pot full of innards.
The skin was brought to a table in the garage where we went to work separating it from the fat. We then cubed the fat, which was put in another large pot and slowly cooked over a fire to make lard and cracklings.


At some point, we took a lunch break and ate the pig's liver, which came in a rich sauce, and was eaten over mashed potatoes. The liver was mouthwateringly rich, flavorful, and tender.


Jano removed the meat from the legs to use for making sausage. We sliced the meat into manageable shapes so that it could be put through the meat grinder. Then Jano seasoned it with paprika, ground hot peppers, salt, and dried/crushed herbs. The mix was fed through the meat grinder again, but this time pushed into the sausage casing (made from intestine lining) via a tube affixed to the end of the grinder.


Terka's dad made this meat grinder. It saves a lot of time and energy. 





Next we made hurky, which is sausage made using dark meat from innards and the head, and then mixed with white rice. Some people also put the pig's blood in the hurky, making blood sausage, but for some reason Terezia's family doesn't do that. It's still good, though!


After making the hurky, we cleaned everything up, and, exhausted, we collapsed while waiting for Terezia's aunt, Elenka, to prepare some of the sausages. I'd been given shots of various types of hard alcohol roughly every half hour over the course of the entire day. While I wasn't snockered, I was a bit loopy, but mostly just wiped out from being on my feet for nine straight hours. On the whole, I'd say it was educational and fun. And while a lot of the visuals are definitely not for the faint-at-heart, at least the whole thing was more humane and less wasteful than what pigs experience in slaughter houses. It's a good way to really get to know the food you put on your plate! And I swear, if we were forced to live in some post-apocolyptic nightmare, these people would totally have the skills to live off the land and survive.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Lighting a fire under Slovakia's bureaucratic ass

If there's one lesson we've learned while navigating Slovakia's bureaucratic labyrinth, it's that getting on the horn and persistently pestering people can actually get results. Doing this drastically shortened the time it took to get our marriage certificate, and it also helped speed up the process for getting Terezia's Slovak ID. And now this approach appears to have paid off with the seemingly impenetrable, bleak, bureaucratic hell that is the Foreign Police.

You may recall that last week we went to the Foreign Police on Wednesday to give them some necessary documents like the marriage certificate. We then had to come back Friday morning to give them a signed and stamped bank statement from our bank here. I just have to mention that we woke up at 6:00 am Friday morning and high-tailed it to the Foreign Police, getting there by 6:30 so as to avoid the horrifically epic lines. But when we got there, there were already approximately 40 people standing in line ahead of us, waiting anxiously in the cold for the place to open (at 7:30). Terezia has noticed that a good deal of the people we've seen here are Russian or Ukrainian. The reason I mention this is because at 7:25, hordes of Russians and/or Ukrainians suddenly showed up and they ALL apparently had friends or acquaintances standing in line ahead of us, who gave them cuts. This meant that the 40 people in front of us instantly ballooned into 60 or more. Not cool, but what can you do? These people have clearly found a way to game the system.

At any rate, we eventually got in, submitted the bank statement, and tried to feel out the young woman we dealt with on the possibility of giving my case priority, or at least giving us some sense of whether we stand a chance at getting an interview in December before my travel visa expires. But all she could do was say, "I don't know," and shrug her shoulders. Wisely, Terezia wrote down a few phone numbers posted on the wall of the waiting room and decided that if we were going to get anywhere, we'd have to pester these people and plead like crazy.

So, Terezia started calling, eventually getting through to actual human beings (instead of recordings), who passed her on to other people, none of whom could tell us anything reassuring. The most anyone could say was, "Well, rules are rules, and we can't make exceptions," but that we "should try to get a hold of the director," who "might be willing to look into it." Frustratingly vague, right? And no direct line to this director, of course.

Well, Terezia kept calling, 3-4 times per day, passionately pleading our case, and this finally appears to have gotten us somewhere, as today we got a phone call from the Foreign Police saying they're scheduling our interview for this Sunday evening at 7:30. We had to go to the Foreign Police (yet again) today because Terezia finally had her Slovak ID in her hot little hands (not just the official document stating that it's on its way), and she needed to bring it in so they could photocopy it for my file. The guy who helped us today is someone we've dealt with before and he's quite nice and helpful. We confirmed with him the time of the interview and he put a note in my file to request that the Foreign Police make their decision to grant me the residency visa by December 25. If this pans out, that means I can get my visa before my January 1 deadline, and I won't have to go back to the US for three months! This is amazingly good news, but we're still keeping our fingers crossed!

At any rate, here are a few random photos of Bratislava.



Wednesday, December 7, 2011

More fun with the Foreign Police

This morning we made a mad dash to the Matrika to get our marriage certificate, which you may recall was expedited by the extremely helpful woman there. This was a huge deal because they got this to us in a week and it normally takes three months. With that, we were able to high-tail it to Senec where Terezia could finally apply for her permanent residency ID card. She won't actually get the card for about 15 days, but she has an official piece of paper that states that she has permanent residency.

So, with these things in hand, we finally had what we needed to go back to the Foreign Police in Petrzalka and submit my documents to get the visa process started. If you remember my last post about the Foreign Police, you'll recall that going there involves waiting for hours on end in a small room packed with stressed-out people trying to immigrate to Slovakia. Last time we only waited two hours, but today, we waited for about five. That's right - five hours. When our number was called, we gave the woman all of my paperwork and she started my file. She even took one of the small passport-sized photos of myself that I had to supply and pasted it to the form I filled out. It felt like we were finally getting somewhere!

The architectural wonder that is the office of the Foreign Police, tucked away in the council-estate housing labyrinth of Petrzalka

However, predictably, there were a couple of things that we hadn't got quite right. Firstly, my bank statement, which is needed to show I have over a certain amount of money, was not what they wanted. We had simply printed out my monthly bank statement, which I receive via email, and had it stamped and notarized. But what they wanted was an official letter from the bank, on bank letterhead, signed and stamped by a bank manager. Of course they don't specify this anywhere on the website or even on the info posted in the waiting room. And, of course, getting this from my bank in the US right now would be a royal pain in the ass. But we were told that since we finally had our Slovak marriage certificate, we could just get this from the bank we use here in Slovakia, so that's nice.

In my last post about the Foreign Police, I mentioned that it was extremely difficult to find. This is literally all you see from the street! 

The other thing they needed was a notarized copy of our marriage certificate, which is simple enough. So, we'll need to get these things and bring them back on Friday for some more fun-filled time at the Foreign Police.

The one thing that really sucked (aside from spending five fucking hours at the Foreign Police) was that the info we were originally given states that it costs 165 euros for foreigners (me) to apply for a residency visa. Now, I need to explain here that any time you pay any fee to any government office, you cannot pay with a credit card, check, or cash, like you can in the US; rather, you always have to pay with kolky. Kolky are special stamps designed solely for the purpose of paying fees to government offices. I think the rationale was to prevent government clerks from pocketing cash, and possibly to thwart bribery, but it is a heinously arcane system held over from the communist days, and everybody hates it. The chief problem is that you can only really buy kolky at the post office. I have seen a couple of rare instances where a government office had a kolok machine, but most offices do not have this. And post offices never seem to be conveniently located near any government offices where you would need kolky. For example, when we went to the Register Trestov for my Slovak criminal background check, countless frustrated people were asking others there where the nearest post office was, because they needed kolky. Same thing happened today to several people at the Foreign Police. One particularly angry guy even punched the wall after walking back into the waiting room, and then he asked in broken Slovak, and then English, if anyone happened to have kolky they could sell him.

If you're like me and you tend to think of how things can be made more efficient, you'll agree that this whole kolky business is completely backwards and absurd. If Slovakia can't figure out how to catch up with the 21st century and purchase credit/debit swipe machines for its government offices, then at the very least, why not place kolok machines at all the offices of these government agencies? Why make people have to run around in search of the nearest post office? And I'm sure people here wouldn't bat an eye at the inevitable extra euro service fee to be able to pay conveniently with a credit or debit card. There's a special place in hell for the genius that thought this whole thing up.

At any rate, wanting to show up to the Foreign Police fully prepared, we went by the post office and bought 165 euros worth of kolky. When we tried to give these to the woman working our case at the Foreign Police, she said that non-EU citizens seeking residency through marrying a Slovak citizen actually don't have to pay 165, but only 4.50! That is an awesome and dramatic reduction in price, but... we had 165 euros of kolky that we were possibly stuck with. Plus, this incredibly useful and hugely important bit of info was not written anywhere on the completely useless Foreign Police website, nor was it mentioned on the info posted in the waiting room, where it lists all of these fees. What the hell?!?! Either this is all part of an elaborate ploy to thwart immigrants, or these people are all on crack.

So afterwards we went back to the post office where we bought the kolky and tried to return them for a refund. On the way there, I'm naively thinking, "hey, we've got the receipt, well just give 'em back the kolky, get our cash refund, and be on our way home." Nope! Instead, we had to fill out the same exact form three freaking times, then Terezia had to sign the back of each and every kolok (rather than simply reuse them, they're officially considered wasted now and have to be returned to some central facility to be accounted for and then destroyed), and we were told there'd be a 5% fee deducted from our refund, and that a letter will be mailed to us in about 3-4 weeks, which will then instruct us to go to the nearest post office to pick up the refund. So, until then, we're out 165 (-5%) euros, all because of this mind-bogglingly idiotic and arcane system! Yay Slovakia!!!

Anyhow, we're going to get up bright and early Friday morning and head back to the Foreign Police. The woman we dealt with there said she'd make a note that my travel visa expires January 1, and that they will try to give my file priority, given the time constraints, but there are no guarantees. So, I guess we'll see what happens.

The Foreign Police building is so difficult to locate that you have you use this blue panelak across the street as a marker to find the place. 

Gotta love these weed-filled communist concrete planter boxes. You see 'em all over Bratislava. 

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Found an apartment!!!

After two weeks of frenzied apartment hunting (see the last post), we finally settled on a place that's right smack in the middle of Bratislava's Stare Mesto (old town/downtown). No, it's not in the old, medieval section of the city, but it's only a block away, on a bustling street with a mishmash of architectural styles spanning the late 1800s through the present. The apartment is on the third floor of a modest 5-story building, built in the late 1940s. It's amazingly spacious for the price, and rent includes all utilities except internet, which is really convenient. The kitchen is awesome and was recently redone, which makes Terka a happy camper (er, cooker). The place is fully furnished, although the furniture is pretty tacky. The living room looks very "grandma's house circa communism," while the bed in the bedroom is this garish thing that looks like what an ostentatous Italian maffia couple would have bought in the 70s. But with our price range, you can't be too picky, and the location is hard to beat. We'll be able to Jeff-and-Terezia it a bit to make it feel more like ours.

The crazy 1970s disco/maffia bed! All that's missing are retractable coke mirrors on the built-in side tables!



While we would love to have found a place in the historical center, the places we saw there had too many caveats. In fact, the last place we looked at before making our decision was an astoundingly beautiful apartment in a very old, gorgeous building in the historical center. It was so beautiful, in fact, that the first thing that ran through our minds upon entering was, "Okay, there's gotta be a catch," and course there was. Although it was a mere 500 euros per month, that price did not include any utilities, and the owner of the place came off as an uptight, paranoid asshat. He wanted three months' deposit (one is the norm), and then started talking about making us pay insurance, which is ludicrous, because that's what the freaking deposit is for, and as the real-estate agent stated, it's typically the owner's responsibility to purchase insurance, not the renter (the real-estate agent was getting annoyed with how unreasonable this guy was being). We also would have had to pay an additional 500 euros for servicing and upkeep of the building (it is super old, after all). And to top it off, the guy at one point said he would want to do a 6-month contract (instead of a year) in case the market improves and he could raise the rent. He reminded us three times that the apartment went for 1200 euros a month four years ago when the market was better. Bitter? The guy just seemed super uptight and tense, and who wants to deal with an owner like that?

At any rate, we're happy to have our own place, and it feels wonderful to finally be living *in* Bratislava, where we can walk to everything and just experience life in the city. We'll put a sign-up sheet out in the hall for anyone who wants to come and visit. ;)

Here's what you see when you look out some of the windows of our new apartment:

View of the infamous Hotel Kyjev from our kitchen window
This is what you see if you stick your head out the living room window and face northwest-ish
View looking straight out from the living room window

This photo below was actually taken about a half block up the street from our place, right before you cross the street to enter the historical center. 

Friday, December 2, 2011

Epic apartment hunting escapade and mouse poop

For the past couple weeks we've immersed ourselves in an apartment-hunting marathon. Our goal was to find a new place by December 1. We're extremely grateful and thankful to Terezia's brother Tony and his girlfriend Jana for letting us stay in their clean and cozy house in Bernolakovo. But Bernolakovo is a mind-numbing 45-minute bus ride to/from downtown Bratislava, and Bratislava's Stare Mesto (old town/downtown) is where we really want to be. Plus, there's nothing within walking distance from where we are in Bernolakovo, and that bus to Bratislava only comes through the neighborhood once an hour.

We've seen all kinds of apartments, and literally all of them have had at least one fatal flaw, one deal-breaker that we just couldn't live with. For example, a place located right in the historical center on my favorite street, Kapitulska, in a renovated medieval building with awesome barrel-vaulted ceilings, was at ground level and its bedroom window looked right onto the shared patio/driveway for the complex, and - get this - shares its internet connection with the apartment next door. No thanks!

A beautiful apartment on the lovely, Hapsburg-era, palace-lined Konventna street, complete with spacious rooms and enormous old-fashioned windows that let in tons of natural light, had no oven! Clearly, given that Terezia is a chef, not having an oven would be unthinkable!

A mouth-wateringly gorgeous place in a historical villa located on tree-lined Godrova street had spacious rooms with lovely, large windows, an amazing art-deco couch, but had no bed (we're looking for fully furnished apartments), and the rent didn't include utilities (it's important to find a place that either includes utilities in the rent or charges a fixed rate for them on top of the rent, because heating a place in the winter can send your energy bill through the roof - as much as 150 euros a month in older apartments with those spacious, high-ceilinged rooms!).

Another place, right smack in the middle of the historical center in a nice old building, couldn't even be shown to us when we met the real-estate agent out front because the tenant, who was in the process of being evicted for missing a few months' rent, was still living there. Legally, since he was home, we could have only come in to view the place if he had allowed us to, and he was pretending to be asleep on the couch in front of the TV when we arrived, which meant we couldn't come in. The real-estate agent got back to us the next day and was unable to give us a set date on when they could get this loser out of there. So, no dice.

With our deadline looming, we started to get desperate. On Tuesday we saw an apartment on Obchodna, a bustling, pedestrianized street lined with historical buildings and an array of shops, with a lot of foot-traffic. The apartment, on the third floor of an old building, offered gorgeous views in two directions over the city, and large windows that let in lots of natural light. The main flaw was the kitchen - it was measly, with a 2-burner stove and a toaster oven. But this place didn't require a deposit or last month's rent, and you could give as little as 2-3 days notice if you wanted to vacate. So, we decided that we could stay here temporarily, for a few months, while we continue to look for a better, long-term apartment. Then we wouldn't have to commute from Bernolakovo to view apartments, and we could live in walking and/or bus distance to everything, and just enjoy being *in* Bratislava. So, we agreed to take the place.

However, the tenant had just left and the apartment needed to be thoroughly cleaned, some missing wood panels on the kitchen floor needed to be replaced, and parts of the wall were in serious need of a new coat of paint. The agent told us it'd be in tip-top shape in a couple of days, and all clean and ready for us to move in. Sadly, when we got there Thursday morning, NOTHING had been done. The kitchen floor was still shredded, the place was filthy, and worse still - we saw a bunch of mouse or rat poop on the bathroom floor! Not only that, but the place had a funky smell (especially in the bathroom), that was not there when we first viewed it. If it was just a matter of cleaning and repairs, we probably could've dealt with that, provided the owner got around to it. But the mouse turds were too much for Terezia. She dealt with rodents when she lived in San Francisco, and she said that apart from being generally annoying, the problem was difficult to fix, especially in a place that's not being taken care of by the owner. Plus, it really rubbed me the wrong way that we were assured the place would be "tip-top," when nothing had been done.

So, we bailed. Call us wimps, call us pampered Americans with high expectations, but it just didn't feel right! The manager begrudgingly gave us all of our money back, denied that there could ever be a rodent problem in their establishment, and we had Tony pick us up on his lunch break. Feeling defeated, deflated, and frustrated, we went back to Bernolakovo.

However, there is a very clean, nice, fully furnished place (with an awesome kitchen) in a more modern (1950s-era) communist building in the center of town, which we're seriously considering, and another place to view tomorrow. So, the saga continues. But we hope to be outta Bernolakovo by the weekend, so we're keeping our bags packed.

The mouse poop, hair, and grimy goop in the bathroom of the Obchodna apartment.

Terka contemplates the bedroom of the Obchodna apt.

Part of the living room and kitchen - you can see where part of the kitchen floor is in need of repair, which we suddenly weren't sure was going to happen. 

At least the Obchodna place had wonderful views, but that was the only thing going for it. 

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Bureaucracy Slovak style: No one seems to know what the hell they're doing!

So, last week we had to go to the nearby town of Senec so that Terezia could get her ID card that shows she is a permanent Slovak resident. Without this ID, you can't register a car, you can't enroll in the state-run health system, you can't buy a house, etc. You apparently can't do much of anything! She was told by a rude and obstinate woman in Senec that she couldn't have this ID until she gets her marriage certificate, because the ID denotes marital status. This lady kept saying "nedam! nedam!" ("I'm not going to give it!") while aggressively pounding her fist on her desk for emphasis. While I had no idea what this lady was saying at the time, her body language and tone made it abundantly clear that we were not going to get what we came for. What made this issue particularly annoying is that we had just learned that it takes three months for Slovakia to issue a marriage certificate, which could mean three months of Terezia not enjoying the full benefits of the country where she was born! Mind boggling!!!

Then, for some reason, the rude and obstinate woman entered Terezia into a country-wide database as being divorced. The problem was that she entered Terezia's divorce date as 11/23/11, when in fact, Terezia was divorced in the US eons ago, and the divorce was recently made official in Slovakia the week before. This is problematic because it could possibly render the marriage certificate that we'd just applied for prior to 11/23 void!

However, this apparently rude and incompetent Senec woman did do something really helpful: she gave us the name and contact info for the head cheese of the Matrika (the office that processes/issues marriage certificates) in Bratislava, saying that this woman is nice and that she could help expedite the marriage certificate.

So, we went to the Ministry of Internal Affairs building, which houses the Matrika. (You might recall this is the office we went to back in early October where we couldn't even get past the lobby, and had to talk to someone upstairs over a phone by the receptionist's desk).



Terezia wrote an eloquent and pleading email to the woman who heads the Matrika, and lucky for us, this woman took pity on us. More importantly, she actually has the power to turn this thing around quickly. We brought all the necessary documents to her office, and she was extremely sympathetic with the time-sensitive nature of our predicament, and commiserated with Terezia over the sad state of Slovak bureaucracy. A nice lady. She said she would have the marriage certificate done in a week (!!!), and to come back next Wednesday to pick it up. This woman also went off on the lady in Senec who entered Terezia's divorce info in the system incorrectly. She said that this was fixable, but that it'd be a royal pain in the ass (not her exact words, but you get the idea), and that this woman could get in trouble for making such an egregious error. (The thought of fist pounding "nedam" lady getting in trouble secretly made us kind of happy).

So, what does all this mean? It's very likely I'll still have to go back to the US for a bit when my travel visa expires on January 1, but at least we should be able to submit all the necessary paperwork to the Foreign Police in early December. If we're lucky, we'll even be able to schedule the interview we're supposed to have with the Foreign Police for later in December, before my visa expires. Then, I would go back to the States for a while, and either wait three long months until I can return to the EU on a travel visa, or wait for Slovakia to issue my residency visa, whichever comes first.



Thursday, November 24, 2011

Bernolakovo

My brother asked me a few weeks ago about Bernolakovo, the town where Terezia's brother Tony and his girlfriend Jana own a house. This is where we've been staying. Bernolakovo is a small town just outside (to the north east) of Bratislava. The town has been expanding rapidly with new subdivisions. In fact, buying or building a house in Bernolakovo is the "thing" to do around these parts, because it can actually be quite affordable. We've even met a few locals who, upon hearing we're moving to Bratislava, have asked us if we're buying or building a house in Bernolakovo. My brother was curious to see what Bernolakovo looks like, so here are some photos of Tony and Jana's neighborhood.


You can't really see it, but Tony and Jana's house is down the street and on the right, where the rooftops become a-framed. 

How do you know which house is yours when you come home at night totally sloshed?

These houses are all quite new, obviously, and if you see one with a weed-filled front yard, that means the house has still not sold yet.

These next photos are what you see behind Tony and Jana's house. There is a big empty field, beyond which a new street is being made at warp speed. Tony is worried that the guy who owns the big field behind his and his neighbors' houses will sell the whole thing to a developer, who would then put in a whole new street, with backyards that would back up directly to his, thus drastically reducing any sense of privacy. He has met with the guy who owns this land, and is trying to convince him to sell at least a strip of it to Tony and his neighbors so that everyone on his side of the street could at least expand their backyards a little. I'm sure that five years from now this view will be totally cluttered with new houses.