Tag Archives: Polish Bureaucracy

The trip to the British embassy

I was looking forward to my trip to the British embassy. According to every spy film I’ve ever watched an embassy is supposed to be the sovereign territory of the nation it represents. Also they have secret basements housing jet-propelled mini-helicopters. I have no idea if this is true, but since when was reality more important than what we learned in the movies. Theoretically this means it should have been like a little trip to the homeland. Of course, given the fact that the round trip to Warsaw took me seven hours, I could have visited the actual homeland more quickly by just flying there and back, but certain bits of paper I needed were in Warsaw.

I fondly imagined I would be ushered into a book lined study by a retired sergeant major where I would have a cosy fireside chat with a Sir Humphrey Appleby look-alike. We would ostentatiously drink tea with milk, munch jammy dodgers and roll our eyes about Poland without a hint of justification. I was a tad disappointed. Her Majesty’s Civil Service appears to have taken the view that the best image to present to the rest of the world is a recreation of a British dole office rather than, say, anything else. There were far more bolted-down plastic chairs and “assault-proof service positions” than I had expected and far fewer leather-backed chairs and book-lined studies. I had a heart-sinking moment. Poland’s bureaucratic offices may be famously shambolic but at least they don’t treat all members of the public as probable knife-wielding loons.


Sir Humphrey Appleby: notable by his absence

I approached the thick perspex buoyed by the expectation of a chat with a fellow countryman. No matter how good a Pole’s English might be, which can be very very good indeed, it’s never the same as talking to a fellow Brit. Assuming he’s not Scottish. I was a tad disappointed again. There didn’t appear to be a British person anywhere in the building. The receptionist was Polish, the security guard was Polish and the women behind the bullet-proof glass were Polish. The “service providers,” as I’m afraid they are probably called, were of that rare and strangely annoying breed of Pole who have practiced their pronunciation to the point where they sound like terminal laryngitis sufferers. Why do people do this? It’s impossible to learn an accent you didn’t grow up with and, frankly, why bother to try.

I wish I could blame the unhelpfulness of the strangulated ladies on Polish genetics, but it was clear they had been mercilessly trained in a modern British version of unhelpfulness that required them to refer you to the embassy website every other word. It was intensely annoying.

Me: Hello, I would like to get hold of document A.

Laryngitis lady:
Have you looked at the website?

Me: Yes I have.

Laryngitis lady: Makes a ‘give me documents’ gesture having decided that speech is no longer necessary.

Me: Erm… here you are.

Laryngitis lady: Are you prepared to pay?

Me: Yes, but can I ask you a couple of questions first?

Laryngitis lady: Have you looked at our website?

Me: Yes. It was very nice. Thank you. Could I ask you a couple of questions?

Laryngitis lady: Everything is on the website.

Me: That may be true, but given the fact that I’m standing in front of you and not currently looking at the website perhaps I could ask you instead?

Laryngitis lady: The website is very comprehensive.

Me: Would it help if I pretended I was holding a mouse and clicked on your face?

Laryngitis lady: There is a frequently asked questions page.

Me: (sigh) Okay, I will look at the website.

Laryngitis lady: Stamps things fiercely and randomly questions my mastery of the English language as applied to the filling in of forms

Me: How long will it take to receive document A?

Laryngitis lady: There is a section on the website about delivery times.

Me: You do realise you could have answered that question with half as many words and 100 percent more information by just telling me.

Laryngitis lady: Thank you, that will be an extraordinarily large number of zlotys please. If you need our help again do not hesitate to look at the website.

I’m sad now.

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How not to take a Polish passport photo


Poland is famed for its heavy-handed bureaucracy. Hanging around in the offices of Krakow’s municipal government the other day, as you do, I happened across a poster that left me paralytic with mirth.

Full size pdf version (3.6 megs)

These are instruction on what you should avoid when submitting photos for a passport. The range of possible errors is stupendous and, at times, mystifying. The poster should be entitled:

New passport photo? You’ll be lucky!

Let’s look at some of these possible transgression in slightly tongue-in-cheek detail.


Hideous pink cardigan on display; what will foreigners think!


Your head is way too big; consider radical plastic surgery.


Possible second head on left shoulder not visible.


Don’t you narrow your eyes at me young lady! Cheap hussy.


You are a terrorist. Report to the nearest Police station for a severe kicking.


You are probably a terrorist. Report to the nearest Police station where officers will stare at you suspiciously for a while.


You are an American. That’ll be $800 please. By the way, do you know my cousin in Chicago?


You are a poorly encoded digital copy of yourself. Get back to the Matrix.


Report to the nearest beauty salon for makeup lessons… and grey is sooo not your color.


You are an orange freak. Stay out of the solarium and come back in six months.


You are satanically possessed. Report to your local priest for immediate exorcism.


You are blind. What the hell do you want to go abroad for?


You are a Nowa Huta bimbo. You’ll never get a US visa anyway so why bother.


Aaaaah the glare! The glare is blinding me!


You are too stupid to get on an airplane.


Stop thinking about that! Jesus will be angry!


What’s with all the trees? Are you some kind of hippy?!


Photograph taken by artistic boyfriend. Can we see the topless ones?


Get a proper haircut.


Look out! There’s somebody behind you!


And the acceptable ones:

You look a bit like Jodie Foster and you’re clearly miserable as hell. That’s good enough for us.


You are a small blonde boy with a crew cut. Aaaaah, sweet!


Not a chance, but we have to put this in ‘cus Brussels told us too.


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Why Polish people don’t smile – explanation 1


Many foreigners asked about their first impressions of life in Poland note the fact that people in the street don’t smile. I even read that American English teachers are warned before coming to this country, that “people don’t show emotions”.

Even though I was born in Poland, and therefore I am supposed to know this country inside-out, I could never actually get to the bottom of this.

That might be due to the fact I never had to deal with state institutions.

Until two weeks ago, that is. During that time I was given the chance to embrace on a new set of feelings: helplessness, confusion, humiliation and despair. Smiling in the street would be the very last thing on my mind. And most people have to deal with bureaucracy on a regular basis. This experience made me realise the whole system, the whole working of things is in a desperate need of a major reform.

I should also add, I cannot describe here all aspects of the matter, however reading this you should get the general idea.

This is the story:

My grandmother got very ill and was taken to a hospital. (As she was alone at her house at that time, and could barely talk in the moment when she called 112, it was a miracle the ambulance arrived on time). These things can happen suddenly, especially when you’re 85, and you have a list of diseases covering a whole page of fancy latin text.

It turned out, among many other things, that she won’t walk, and that the urinary tract won’t work properly, any more. You would think hospital would have adult nappies for their patients – but no. The procedure for obtaining nappies includes
1. Visit at her health centre to which she is registered, in the hours 7am – 3pm, and waiting 20 minutes at the registration desk
2. Going to a doctor, who needs to write a piece of paper, put his stamp on it (1 hour waiting time)
3. Taking the piece of paper to the state health insurer (NFZ) where they need to put their stamp proving that she indeed is insured (although as a pensioner she automatically is!)
4. Going to the pharmacy and buying the nappies for 30% of the price for the uninsured
5. Bringing them to the hospital

Completing this takes 2-3 days, and if you have any commitments connected with work, studying, family, relationships, or, let’s say fitness, you better forget about them. And this, of course is just one of the things you need to do.
You are also, for instance, required to pick the sick person’s shirt(s) everyday for washing, which you are expected to do at home. The fact that you have your own life to run as well, is of no importance, and no one will ever spare a silly thought that the hospital could actually deal with this.

Washing patients, or changing their nappies, is a delicate matter. But it is something that has to be done. Generally hospital staff will wait for patient’s family to perform these tasks. And only do it when having absolutely no other option. My grandmother, however, didn’t want my mum or any other family member to do it. She has always been a little reserved, courteous, and she’s just probably desperate to hold to the last piece of dignity by the skin of her teeth. Nurses would wash her only before the doctors examination in the morning. Which means patients could just lie out there in their own excrement without anyone to bother. And you can’t even complain, because (1) you’re expected to do it by yourself, and (2) complaining at the hospital is not the best thing to do.
Since, as it was recognised, grandmother’s state will not get any better, she decided she wanted to go to a care home, where she would have assistance at all times and medical help whenever needed. She asked us to arrange for that.

Getting a comprehensive and reliable information on the procedure for making such an arrangement has proven almost impossible. Each institution gave us contradicting and confusing advice. The doctor, who’s available at the hospital in the early hours only, sent us to the chief nurse. The chief nurse sent us to hospital’s social nurse. Who said hospital cannot help in this situation, as they participate in finding care homes only for those who are in a coma, have a cancer or have no family. It’s not like they cared or anything. And she sent us to the health centre where grandma was registered.

On the next morning, getting another day off work, my mum was told at grandma’s health centre that they don’t have the proper forms, but she will find them at a care home. At the care home, they said it wasn’t them, and that she should go to the social services.
One thing they told us. The price. It turns out regulations changed and a person is no longer admitted to a communal care home in exchange for their pension, like it used to be. Now there’s a fixed price of 2000 zł per month. Grandma’s pension is 800. She’s a homeowner and pays monthly bills of 400. Someone would have to take another full time job to cover for it, when you add medications and other stuff. A cheaper option is a private care home run by grumpy Catholic nuns. 1100 zł. Fair enough.

Another day passes, and I go to the social services (Miejski Ośrodek Pomocy Rodzinie – literally ‘communal institution for helping families’) which surprisingly happens to be placed in the city outskirts (how convenient for the poor!). Walking there I felt like going back in time to a communist relic. As there was no receptionist, or reception for that matter, I wondered where to turn with my inquiry as all departments listed on the wall had very similar names. Inside it quickly turned out it was not them who are to help me, but it is me who is supposed to know exactly what, where and how I was supposed to do. I met the officer who was extremely rude, gave me no information whatsoever, and referred me to the hospital’s social nurse “who will arrange everything for you”. I couldn’t believe this was actually happening and that my taxes go for this. Did they ever help a family here? It was obvious he had no interest in talking with me, so I left promising myself I’ll file a complaint or talk about this on city mayor’s next public meeting (which of course I didn’t).

A hint from a friend suggested that care home could be arranged by health centre’s social nurse. But not the health centre grndma used. The health centre in the catchment area of which she lived. It couldn’t surprise anyone that the social nurse there is available only from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m.

Finally we obtained the forms. The forms however needed to be filled by her GP and few other people so it’s the merry-go-round again. Her GP however – you see – has no record of her hospital treatment. The doctor at the hospital refused to produce a paper for the GP. And by then I almost exploded.

The doctor at the hospital was certain we wouldn’t be able to find a place at a care home and was ready to release grandma home after a week and a half. In a terrible hurry we bought a special bed, set of medical blankets, etc. as it seemed we’d be taking care of her for at least some time.

However we managed to secure a place in a superb hospice nearby using an “unofficial” way (please let me keep the details to myself).

The hospital doctor didn’t expect that. With a very surprised face he asked “how did you do that” and hurried to do some additional tests, blood transfusions, and stuff, and kept her few days longer in the hospital. Which made everyone wonder: how come she was “ready” to be signed off home – and not ready to be signed off to a place where other doctors work… Was he signing her so that she died home and not ruin hospital statistics?

When you’re in bad health you might want to settle your earthy matters. Write a testament, transfer property ownership etc. In Poland to do that you need a notary public, called notariusz. I thought there will be no problem: you pay and they serve. Oh how was I wrong! I can’t find one, who would be ready to come to the hospice and perform their duties. Notariusz is a strictly licensed profession, numbers of new people getting access to this profession is very limited. Imagine: a guarantee of monopoly and massive income. Each property sale needs to be done before a notary public who receives somewhat 2% of the transaction. They have many clients, and don’t give a damn. Most of the ones I talked to weren’t even trying to be polite. That was yet another surprise for me. They are educated lawyers, they should be the leaders of a positive change. Yet their power corrupted them.

This whole story really made me think… Is there is absolutely no one who will help you in Poland when you really have a problem? How many people face things like that daily, and why doesn’t anything change? Is it because most of them are powerless and have no idea about their rights, like most of the social services clients? Or are they simply used to it?

Why do state institutions care only about having papers fine when another state institution comes to control; about appearing to be doing work, not about really doing it?

Is this only me thinking that it can’t be like that anymore? Is this only me thinking the state is for helping citizens, not for obstructing their daily business with endless paperwork, and “necessary” things, signatures, stamps… to obtain from a number of offices. Is this IMPOSSIBLE to keep the country running without the tsarist-like administration?

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