Sunday, November 2, 2014

A little fun with Slovak bureaucracy before heading back home

Terezia (on the phone with the Matrika [town registry] in Bernolákovo): Hello, could you please tell me what your hours are today?

Person at Matrika (in a testy, patronizing tone of voice): It's on the internet. Go to the website.

Terezia: I'm sorry but I'm not at home right now and I don't have access to the internet, so could you please just tell me how late you're open today?


And with that pleasant phone call we officially began our foray into the bureaucratic obstacle course that we must navigate in order to leave Slovakia legally.

We moved out of our apartment in downtown Bratislava shortly before leaving for France, and we'll be staying at Terezia's brother Tony's house in Bernolákovo (a small suburban town outside Bratislava) until we fly back home in mid-November. We gave ourselves a couple of weeks to wrap things up in Slovakia before leaving.

Bernolákovo

Having fun with the cable company

First, we had what should have been the quick and simple matter of closing our internet/cable account with UPC and returning the cable box, a process that wound up being eerily similar to a typical experience with any state office.

We arrived to find their Bratislava customer service center was not mobbed like it was on previous visits, and got our number from the ticket machine and waited just a few minutes - exactly the time it took for the girl who helped us to finish her giggly conversation with her co-worker.

Since we signed a two-year internet/cable contract with UPC at the end of December 2012, our contact won't end until the end of December 2014, but we have to keep paying €30 a month until then. If we end the contract right now, even with less than two months to go, we will owe UPC €500 - their penalty for ending a contract early. There's a reason why Slovaks refer to cable companies as mafia.

Things were moving along swimmingly until our encounter with the young woman to whom we were supposed to return the cable box. As she opened the package and rooted around, she said in a slightly haughty tone of voice, "OK, so, I don't see the cables. This obviously came with two cables. Do you know where they are?"

We said, "Well, we're not sure. Could you describe what they look like?"

"Ah, so it seems you don't have the cables," she said, as if we'd committed some unthinkably grave error and we were now in serious trouble.

She fished around in a box behind her desk and produced the two cables. I quickly realized that one cable, which connects the cable box with the TV, had been mistakenly packed with the TV in a box, and the cable that connects the cable box to the cable line connector in the wall was left at the old apartment.

We explained that we had just moved and that we honestly couldn't remember every little thing that came with the cable box. Surely we weren't the first people in the history of modern Slovakia to forget to return these cables.

"Well, you'll need to find the cables and bring them back," she asserted.

Terezia and I both gave her a death stare that said, "You can't be serious."

"Or, you can pay a fine," she added.

"OK, how much is the fine?"

She looked through a dense spreadsheet for the fine: "For both cables, you will have to pay a total of €3. So, what do you want to do?"

Terezia and I gave her a look that any perceptive person would read as, "You're copping this much attitude over three god damn euros?"

"Um, yeah... we'll just pay the €3 fine, thank you."

"Fine, suit yourself!" the woman responded, shocked by our willingness to subject ourselves to such a harsh punishment.

She printed out a form that we had to sign, then went to a back room to make a photocopy of it for us, after which we had to take another number from the ticket machine and wait in a different line to pay the fine. This time we waited about 15 minutes until we were finally summoned to counter #15, where a young guy sat and stared at the photocopy of the form for about five long, agonizing minutes, before finally asking, "I can't make out what this says; are you a company?"

We noticed that the form was barely readable as it had been copied on a machine that was in desperate need of a new toner cartridge. Terezia took the form and read the information off to him. "Whiteaker..."


Bernolákovo's Matrika

Next up was the Matrika back in Bernolákovo. We dealt with this fairly unpleasant woman back in 2011 when trying to register our marriage in Slovakia and establish our residency at Tony's house. We managed to make it to her office by 11:40 - just in time to catch her before she took off for lunch.



As Terezia began explaining our situation to her, we were quickly reminded of this woman's annoying habit of interrupting you mid-sentence to tell you that whatever it is you need from her does not fall under her jurisdiction. Then you get a few more words in, and she interrupts again, and this pattern repeats for a while until she gradually comes around to realizing that she is, in fact, supposed to do something.

It sounded like canceling Terezia's permanent residency would be relatively straightforward, but she said that I would have to go to the Foreign Police, that she had no role in registering me at Tony's house, and that she'd have nothing to do with unregistering me. This last bit seemed a bit odd to us, as she did have some small role in registering me at Tony's house after I was approved by the Foreign Police to live in this country. But who knows? Maybe the process has changed.


Taking care of business in Senec

The next morning we headed out to the nearby town of Senec at a quarter past 7:00, where we needed to visit several offices. Senec is like the administrative seat for the county - if you could call it that - where Bernolákovo is situated, and is where most administrative matters in the county are handled. For example, if you have permanent residency in Bernolákovo, Senec is where you have to go to set up a business license, deal with the tax authorities, register with the social insurer, get a driver's license, and so on.

We got to Senec via the bus around 7:40, and first walked over to the administrative office where we opened my business license so that we could close it. I need to close the business license so that I can, A. go to the social insurer to let them know that I am unemployed and will no longer be making contributions, and B. let the tax office know so that I can stop paying taxes (even if you have a business license for something you do on the side, but you're making zero income from it, you still may have to pay taxes and make contributions to the social insurer unless you close it).

This turned out to be a breeze. In fact, opening the business license was pretty easy too, and closing it was a snap. A few forms were stamped and signed, and that was apparently it.

Next, we walked several blocks to the social insurer. The social insurance building in Senec is kind of fun because there's absolutely no privacy, or diskrétna zóna, for the clients. Every word uttered in this uncarpeted, echoey room reverberates for everyone else to hear. On a previous visit, the entire room got to hear one of the ladies working there verbally ream an elderly man over some error he made in trying to collect his retirement payments.

This time there was no line. We produced the necessary forms to a young woman whose extremely short, tight, revealing dress looked far more suited to going out clubbing than helping people with social insurance issues. She showed us the balance that I still owe (€120), some forms were stamped and signed, and we were soon on our way.

After that we walked over to the tax office, where I had to return a card I was issued that essentially served as my tax ID, and filled out a form to show that I would no longer be a tax-paying resident after this year. Again, it all seemed fairly straight forward.

Next we went to the office for Dôvera, the health insurance company, to find out everything we need to do to cancel my health insurance.

Everyone in Slovakia is required by law to have health insurance, and if you are self-employed like I was, you cover the monthly €60-ish fee yourself. In order to cancel it and stop paying each month, you have to prove one of two things: that you no longer live in Slovakia, or that you are a legal resident of another country and have health insurance or coverage there. Since we obviously won't have health insurance in the US before we leave, we'll have to do the former, which requires us to cancel our permanent residency in Slovakia as proof that we no longer live here.

Canceling our permanent residency could be a hassle if we ever decide to move back to Slovakia, but for now it's all we can do. When we first moved here, establishing permanent residency wasn't just a pain in the ass for me as a foreigner, but it also proved to be a hassle for Terezia - a native of the country. But if I don't do this, I will be legally obligated to keep paying for health insurance every month, and I'll get into all kinds of trouble if I simply stop paying.

Fortunately, my permanent residency ID card expires on November 25. It was supposed to last five years, and I'm legally entitled to live here for five years, but because my US passport expires in March 2015, the Foreign Police decided to have my card expire after three years, and I'd have to renew my US passport in order to renew the permanent residency card.

At any rate, the impending expiration of my residency ID turns out to be incredibly helpful for providing Dôvera with proof that we're leaving the country. The woman there said all we really need to show her is my soon-to-expire ID and a printout of our plane ticket back to the states.


The Foreign Police?

So, there is a small chance that we may not have to go to the Foreign Police after all - at least not for Dôvera. If that is the case, it would be a profound relief. Readers may recall our torturous experiences with the Foreign Police back in 2011 when I was trying to become a legal resident. Their office in Bratislava's Petrzalka district is truly a Boschian vision of hell, and something no one should be forced to endure.

Even worse, in late September the Slovak Spectator ran a short piece about how the lines at the Bratislava Foreign Police have gotten so bad that people are now camping in tents out front over night, getting in line up to 15 hours before the office opens at 8:00 AM. (Since then, the situation has apparently improved a bit, and the office has even extended its vexingly uncompromising hours: it used to be open only on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Friday mornings, and was closed Tuesdays and Thursdays; now, after the situation got some attention from the media as well as the Slovak ombudswoman, it's open on Tuesdays and has extended its Wednesday and Friday hours.)

Bratislava's inviting Foreign Police office. 

But, some big changes have been made since my last visit, and because I have permanent residency in Bernolákovo, a town just outside Bratislava, I would now have to go to the Foreign Police department in Dunajská Streda instead, a town that's about an hour's drive southeast from Bratislava. This could really save our asses if we do end up having to go, as I imagine the lines and the endurance-defying wait-times at a Foreign Police department in a smaller town like Dunajská Streda would be far shorter.

Of course there still is one caveat: we do not have a car, and there are no direct bus or train lines from Bernolákovo or Senec to Dunajská Streda. To get there, we would have to either take a bus from Bernolákovo to Bratislava, and then transfer to a bus to Dunajská Streda, or take a bus to the town of Galanta (which is basically 30 minutes by car in the opposite direction from Bratislava) and then transfer to a Dunajska Streda-bound bus there. Both options take about two hours one-way, including the time spent waiting around for the connecting bus. (Driving directly from Bernolákovo or Senec to Dunajská Streda supposedly takes about 30-40 minutes.)

I need to pause here for a moment and state how bizarre it is to me that there are zero direct bus lines from Bernolákovo or Senec to Dunajská Streda. Tony and his wife Silvia had a more typically Slovak attitude towards this dilemma, saying that nobody ever goes from Bernolákovo to Dunajská Streda anyway, while still conceding that maybe it's a tiny bit weird that there are at least no lines from Senec.

I also have to point out that it does seem a bit strange that someone in Bernolákovo would have to go to the Foreign Police in Dunajská Streda. Bernolákovo is much closer to Bratislava than Dunajská Streda, and Dunajská Streda is in a totally different region (there are eight self-administrative regions in Slovakia; Bernolákovo is in the Bratislava region, and Dunajská Streda is in the neighboring Trnava region).

But whatever - not having to subject oneself to the special plane of hell that is Bratislava's Foreign Police office is a blessing and I shouldn't complain too much!

We called the phone number for the Dunajská Streda Foreign Police department listed on their website about 15 times over the course of a few days during their working hours, but no one picked up once. Not even a recording. The phone just rang and rang and rang. Needless to say, this did not instill us with much confidence.

There is one more person we still need to talk to in Senec (at the same office where we canceled my business license) who is apparently the bureaucratic overlord for the entire county. Unfortunately, she was out of the office on the morning we visited, but the woman we spoke to there said that this overlord is the one we need to talk to about all matters pertaining to canceling our permanent residency, and that she should be able to help us if the woman at the Matrika in Bernolákovo is being difficult or unhelpful. She will ultimately be the one who will tell us whether or not our immediate future will involve a visit to the dreaded Foreign Police.

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