Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Post-bureaucratic stress disorder

Pale fluorescent light, narrow confused corridors, stark wooden doors, throngs of foreigners in Poland, crowds crowding crowds. No instructions in English. Isn't this the Foreigners' Office? No official personnel of any sort. Where do I get the number to stand in line to submit my residency documents? Why do I get the feeling everyone's laughing? The throngs scoff, as they always do. What's that? Kto ostatni? Someone says. What does that mean? Kto ostatni? Another. What? Kto ostatni? Who's last? Ahh, I understand, who's last. Find the last person to get in line and stick to them like glue.

Hours hurdle hours and all you can do is focus on the back in front of you. If that back should leave, you focus on the back in front of that back, all the time hoping someone doesn't edge in front of you, as they are wont to do. Just the backs in line and the creeping sensation Kafka has written you into one of his dystopian tales.

My post-bureaucratic stress disorder, or PBSD, started then in the late 1990s when I had to navigate the maze of bureaucracy to get the little card that allowed me to stay and work in Poland. Those were the times that scarred me, really scarred me.

I only realised this recently when I worried myself into frenzy contemplating going down to the Foreigners' Office to repeat the process. I got headaches. I felt sick. I lost all energy and took to laying about moaning. At night I tossed and turned and tried to call that sleep, but it just left me exhausted. Would a heart attack be just around the corner?

The day of truth came. I went down to the office on sunny Dobra street in Warsaw, took a number, got a final errand done, returned after an hour, waited all of 8 minutes and submitted my documents. Wait, wasn't this supposed to be hell?

No one interrogated me as to why I might want to work in Poland. No one accused me of wanting to steal Polish jobs. Instructions are everywhere. There's a number system! There are photo-copiers in the rooms, meaning applicants don't have to run to some private photo-copier. The doors have windows so one can see the progress. There is even a number to call to make an appointment.

The residency system for foreigners isn't perfect, but the new government to be formed by the Civic Platform (PO) and the Polish Peasants' Party (PSL) could learn a bit about easing the burden of bureaucracy by looking at the Foreigners' Office and the changes made since the dark days of the late 1990s.

As for me, I will happily be able to stay in Poland and continue to be relieved my renewal went so smoothly. But I will always be haunted by my PBSD and some part of me will dread that return trip to potential bureaucratic hell.


  1. Nice post! Give Poland credit where credit is due. I hope the country won't rest of these laurels though.

  2. You went to Dobra street? I went to Dluga street! Hmm maybe there is a better place to do it.... You also have to feel sorry for the Warsaw workers at the Foreigners office. As they process more than 75% of the country's foreigners! It sucks but sometimes you actually meet some really lovely people there.

  3. Uggh, of course, it's Dluga, not Dobra. Brain cramp, particularly since I was just there.

  4. You could move back to Canada and completely avoid the PBSD syndrome. :)