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, click here!)