Friday, November 17, 2006

Living in Sweden, pt. 3: Bureaucracy

My wife and I have been here just over a year now, and that means we have to renew our one-year visa to extend to the current end of her contract next August. As usual, she took care of it. She's great at any kind of organising thing (except when it comes to the household, which is pretty much my domain), so I always feel safe in the knowledge things she does get done right. However, when you're dealing with the government -- anywhere -- what you do only goes so far.
So it was with our Resident Visa renewals.
She applied for them online back in August, since they were due to expire in September. We had no idea how long this would take, but knowing we were planning a trip Stateside in December, we figured that was decent leeway. How could it take 4 months, right?
Well, come October, we started to get nervous. We contacted the office in charge of doing these things, and they said we should just wait it out and not panic. This was not too late for it to be taking the proper amount of time. Placated, we went back to not worrying about it. Kind of...
Then, November arrived with still no word from the Migrationsverket, so the worrying began anew. We were, after all, leaving next month to visit the US, and without the renewed visa we would not be allowed to come back! This time, she had her (Swedish) boss -- who has a reputation for getting shit done -- call the office. They told him they were missing the piece of paper that said she had a job here! Now, we had sent this in with all the other stuff, so either they hadn't gotten it then, or the copy we sent was crap (we had no scanner, so photographed it and sent in the jpeg). The question was, of course, if they were missing this piece of important material, why didn't they tell us back in October when we first called?! The pat answer we got from anyone we asked is that the Swedish are racist and don't really want immigrants here, so make it as hard as they can for immigrants to stay.
So, with this new info, we actually faxed the paper in, and were notified the next day that our renewal was accepted! Then, a day or two later, we got letters (one each) explaining now that our renewals were accepted, we'd have to trek to the local Migrationsverket for the actual completion of the procedure. We'd have to bring with us two passport-sized photos, the specifications for which were given both in the letters as well as (more explicitly) on their website.
We were armed with knowledge and ready to do the damn thing! I took off from school for the day she usually works from home, and we planned to go in and do the pictures and everything at once. Now, the office is only open from 10-noon every weekday, so we had a small window in which to do what we had to, but (once again) figured it couldn't take that long. Add to this that we woke up a little late and then caught a later bus than we might've, and we ended up with only about an hour to get everything done. Even though the photobooth we intended to use was at one end of town and the Migrationsverket was at the other...and it was raining...we figured we'd be alright.
When we got to the machines, we saw a sign that said as of such-and-such a date, these photos were no longer useable for passport photos. We naturally assumed the same went for visa photos, so went to the police station where they said such stuff was now done. After the 10 minute walk there, we found that they did do passport photos there, but only for Swedish passports...and certainly not for foreign visa renewals! So, back to the booths.
First, we had to get out money, then we had to make change: the booth was 40 kronor (about 5 bucks American) and only took 5 and 10 kronor coins. We did this with little trouble at a shop right by the booths, but only got enough for one shot at it each. This came back to bite us when we realised, after both taking our pics, that we'd used the black-and-white booth instead of the colour one right next to it!
The wife had enough for one more go, so I took the bank card and went out to get more money. Of course, the machine we'd just used now said to come back later. I went to the next nearest one and it said the same thing. I was on the way back in defeat, but tried the first ATM (Bankautomat) again and it mysteriously worked! Triumphant, I returned to the shop, got change, took my pictures and we were finally ready to hit the Migrationsverket...with 10 minutes before they closed. We knew the police station had taken 10 minutes to reach, and we needed to go further than that, but decided to risk it anyway.
A heated 15-minute walk later, we arrived at the warehouse-style building next to the highway (this place couldn't have been much less welcoming, really), and had a struggle to find the office itself once we were inside. Once there, we were relieved to find a window still open and a couple customers standing in line. However, when we approached we were told that they were, in fact, closed. Not willing to leave completely beaten, we interjected that we had just one question: were the photos we had taken acceptable? No, they were not, the woman at the window replied and gestured to the machine standing beside us, we now do our own photos...
After this flurry of activity, we were a little exhausted, so sat in the office and got thoroughly upset. As we sat there, my wife noticed a sign on the wall: as of October 31, applicants are no longer required to bring their own photos! October 31, mind you: our letters were dated November 13; we'd been on their site that day looking at the photo requirements. But they knew as of October 31 that applicants need no longer bring their own photographs. The utter irony of the situation was that, with that information beforehand, we wouldn't have been late to begin with!
Count for yourself how many times this scheme went wrong, but it's a classic example of bureaucratic red tape...which apparently the Swedish excel at creating. An Egyptian classmate of mine (in Swedish language class) has said if it veers from the bureaucracy, the Swedes don't know what to do with it. Apparently, they don't know what to do with it anyway.
We'll try again next week.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Travel Broadens the What, Now?

The best thing about living in Europe, no contest, has been the travel we've managed to do. While I was in the Navy, I was on an airbase in Washington state, and was only on a ship once...for two weeks...floating off the coast of California. Since we've been here, though, we've really managed to get around a bit. The strange part of it is that we have yet to go anywhere in Europe apart from our home country of Sweden! Of course, this isn't all that strange when you consider the travelling we've done has been almost entirely due to my wife's work. With the exception of our stop in Bangkok.
Sounded fine, but first the wife had to go to another thing in London!We were going to Australia for a conference my psychologist wife was attending. It was in Melbourne, which meant that in addition to the overwhelming other-side-of-the-globe flight, we had an extra couple hours across Australia to fly before we stopped. So, it was agreed amongst the group from her center that we should really stop off in Bangkok for a few days on the way. Through some deft travel arrangements by my clever and proficient lady, we worked out a way to meet on her way back from the London thing (we couldn't afford to send me to Britain AND Thailand AND Oz, after all, since it's all on her bill) and travel from there to Bangkok.
Unfortunately, the good woman was feeling poorly by the time we met up, and got progressively worse. The notorious odours and clamor of Bangkok did nothing for her well-being, and when we'd reached our hotel lobby she was perched on the edge of nausea. She tried valiantly to hold in her spew until we reached the room, but it wasn't going to happen. She did manage to reach a garbage can in the lobby, however. With little display, she discreetly threw up at the front desk and I gently ushered her up to our spacious room overlooking the street.

This would be pretty much all we saw of Bangkok for most of the time we were there, as she ended up pretty much unable to get out of bed. We kept a trashcan beside the bed for her regular spewage, and I tried not to be too worried as I sat and watched over her. Toward the end of the few days we had, she tried to get out and at least enjoy some authentic Thai food (if you don't know my wife, she's all about the food), but these trips invariably ended back in the room with her buried in the blankets. At least it was a nice enough room.
On our next to last day, she felt well enough to go for a walk, so we went to the nearby Wat Phra Kaeo, a Buddhist temple that was pretty much the reason we got a room in this part of town. On our way there, we were introduced to the line we'd heard about: 'Oh, the temple is closed today. Buddhist holiday. I take you to another temple near here. Very nice. Then fireworks later.' This comes from any random guy on the street, who then leads you (at best) to some jewelry kiosk or something that is WAY out of your way. We actually ran into a couple of these guys, but we're not idiots and we'd been forewarned by online toursists about this exact ploy. Unfortunately, our distrust of the locals (which led to Bangkok being dubbed by us The City of LIARS) wouldn't serve us as well as we'd hoped later. This time, though, not believing what this fella said did alright by us, and we found our way round the temple complex to the main entrance. We were made to don some flimsy long pants to cover our bare legs (we'd been warned about this, too, but...I guess we chose to ignore it), and went on our way into the temple.

It was pretty amazing to see and be in, really. We'd read about it and knew what to expect, but to see the buildings 'in person' and be able to view the HUGE Ramakien mural that wraps round the entire complex was certainly worth the doing. We managed to get all the way through it and the attached royal museum before the wife started to nosedive and wanted to go back to the room. It was just as well because it was sweltering out there!
We went back to the room, and she had a lie-down, but then we went back out later to try to make it to a dinner with our co-travellers. Unfortunately, they all went before us, and the restaurant was a bit away, so we had to try to make our own way. We would have to take the water-taxi to get to the place, and on our way, someone told us the ferries were done for the day. We, of course, didn't believe them...but found out they were telling the truth after all! So, we missed the boat and the dinner, and ended up back at the one restaurant we experienced while in Bangkok. It was right in the square/center of Old Town (where we were staying), and the night before we'd seen an elephant on the street!

The food there was pretty great, and the atmosphere couldn't be beat as far as I was concerned. It was like an upper class restaurant for the locals, so there were very few tourists/non-Thais there, and there was live entertainment in the form of a band and rotating singers (who we couldn't tell were pros or just pulled from the clientele). However, the little lady was still feeling poorly, so we made it back to the room before long.
The final day of our stay, we all went to the nearby street-market to pick up the finest in pirated software, tunes, and clothing! Our bartering tips came in pretty useful (ask for half what they're asking, and work from there) and we got all the things we came for. The best thing about the last day, though, was that the wife was finally feeling better! Just in time to go to Australia.
I know it's probably unfair to use this largely botched trip as any estimation of our experience of the country, but I can't help feeling a little vindicated by it nonetheless. I've always held to two universal truths about people: they're idiots and they're the same everywhere. Our brief time in Thailand only reinforced these ideas. I have nothing against the Thai, or the country, or anything there, and in fact it was comforting to find that the people there (for better or worse) were pretty much what you'd expect anywhere. But what I'm finding generally true as we're getting around to more of the world (so far Bangkok, Turkey and Australia, with her going to London as well...and of course our usual trips to Puerto Rico) is that my view of the world isn't getting greater, but smaller. The more I see, and the more people I meet, and the more new things I experience, the less I think of the world and humanity on the whole. So, why travel? Got me, but we're having a good time...and I'm getting to lick alot of old stuff!

But perhaps that's a story for another time...