The post office - a microcosm of Czech society in transition

08-01-2005

I went to the post office today. With dread. As usual. I had one bill to pay. I had taken the time to sit with it at home, fill out the boxes carefully and prepare the money in advance. The plan was to walk in, pay, walk out. No scenes this time. In the past I have been yelled at for various transgressions- once my handwriting was too big and it was the wrong kind of pen, then I put a dash in the wrong box and so on and so forth... Although I had taken all the precautions to ensure a smooth transaction, my heart gave a jump as I entered my local post office building.

The line was not particularly long but definitely slow. I watched an older gentleman paying a bill. He pulled out 2000 crowns (approximately $100) and handed them to the clerk. She widened her eyes and showed three fingers, "you need three more of these!" she hollered. The gentleman looked surprised and answered, "but I don't have anymore." Then he shuffled away, peering into his empty wallet.

Next in line was a blond woman with long pink nails and tight jeans. Impatience grew in the line- a young guy in front on me began complaining out loud to his younger brother. The others grumbled in agreement. Then watching the clerks, he came up with a particularly witty line, "Imagine having one of these women at home, it would take her fourteen days to get dinner on the table." I stopped nodding in approval and thought- make dinner yourself!

"You mean I have to go and stand a whole other line up to photocopy this?!" All eyes turned to the blond woman, waving a tiny piece of pink paper and yelling at the clerk. "Yes" answered the bored clerk, her painted blue eyes unblinking. "But the machine is right behind you, can't you just get up and make a copy? Is that such a problem?" asked the blond woman. "Yes, that would be a problem." Replied the clerk with a hint of satisfaction in her voice.

The line up roared and some people even began swearing out loud. The blond woman demanded to speak to the supervisor. " I don't have time" replied the clerk and began stamping some papers in front of her. " You have to!" I exclaimed. Against my will, my heart was pumping and I could feel adrenaline starting to flow. " Go knock on the glass door over there, if you want" the clerk added. The blond woman stood there, baffled. Even though this sort of thing is not all that uncommon, it still baffles a person. Then she turned on her heels and headed for the exit. My heart began to sink and I could feel frustration rising in my chest. At the last second, the blond woman turned swiftly and with a decisive step, walked to the glass doors and rang the bell.

The supervisor appeared and we watched tensely for her reaction. She ended up making the photocopies and calling the clerks on their behavior. They defended themselves loudly. I told the blond woman I thought that she had done well, It was a small victory. A ripple of the revolution that has been going on for the past 15 years. The unwillingness to be helpful, lethargy and inefficiency that permeates Czech bureaucracy is a remnant of the communist past that will likely take many more years to fix. Anyone who has lived here, has a stockpile of absurd stories about local bureaucracy. Luckily, interactions are changing slowly, sometimes painfully, one by one.

08-01-2005