Love You, Hate You, Love You

One of Poland’s many charms is its idiosyncratic consular services. Martha and I are bound by geography to the Consulate General of the Republic of Poland in Toronto and because of numerous trips to the lovely Lakeshore West building, we feel like we really know the place. We have a long history with this mission, which has treated us to a no reply policy on phone inquiries, unilingual (re: Polish) clerks and running hours that never exceed three hours a day. While the building’s exterior is the kind of stately that befits a country with over one thousand years of complex history, the interior presented to regular citizens of either country is of a different character. To get into the consulate, you must follow a narrow fence corridor that leads from the street to the side of the building. After descending a few step and entering through a side door, you come to a room that is best described as ‘institutional.’ The battleship grey walls are lit by florescent bulbs sunk into the ceiling. There is a sizeable window that faces south, but for some odd reason, it’s always cloudy out. At the far wall are two teller windows of bullet-proof glass, where two middle-aged women sit. There are only two Fates at the Polish consulate: Drop-off and Pick-up. Drop-off, on the left, speaks English pretty well; Pick-up, on the right, barely does. Their voices are carried through the glass barriers by speakers; there replies always so loud the room can hear. I always try to talk clearly but not too loudly. However, the glass, like a long-distance call, makes you speak louder. These ladies must feel like they are getting yelled at all day. The room can’t accommodate the queues, which always buckle by the back wall. There’s a door off to the side, out of which an official type person occasionally pokes a head and waves a person in. The person is then popped out a little while latter. I can never read their faces. I have no idea what issues could be so private or complicated that the Fates couldn’t blurt a reply through the loud speakers. I went to the consulate once to look into getting a Polish passport. The explanation of this multi-hooped process of if’s-and’s-and-but’s complete with Polish-only papers and, “Well, you’ll have to talk to your grandmother” (both of whom haven’t been residents of Poland for nearly sixty years), didn’t even warrant a peek through the mysterious door.

In order to work in Poland, you need to get a work visa. To get a work visa, you need a work permit. To get a work permit, you need to sign a contract with a Polish employer. To get a contract, you need to get hired by someone in Poland. Thank God for the InterWeb. We applied to a bunch of Polish schools online and finally accepted employment from one with a very nice online demeanour. This was in mid-June. Near the beginning of July, our contracts came in the mail. We signed them and they were off. Our employer got them and then submitted them to the proper people in Poland. Then the employer got the work permits from those proper people. These got to our door in August—barely.

It was our turn to make some magic happen: the last step, turning permit to visa. For this bureaucratic transubstantiation the applicant takes the work permit to an embassy or consulate in his or her home country. Not Germany, or Lithuania or any other European country that lets Canadians in visa free. Your home country.

I called the consulate with a few questions but could only leave a message in the black-hole that is the consulate’s automated telephone system (probably of Soviet design). I’d have to pay them a visit instead. Not to submit the permit. No, you can’t rush into things like that. You’ll just end up disappointed. You have to do some research first. Things change overnight. There could be new forms or a special colour of ink needed to fill out the forms. So I set out for 2603 Lakeshore West armed with the Polish translation for “Does anyone here speak English?”

On that particular visit, the role of Drop-off was played by a young and pretty woman. When I got to the bullet-proof glass she told me what I would need to apply for the work visa. It should be no problem. I just needed to fill out some forms and come back with a photo. So far so smooth but I had a question that was sure to give both of us a headache. You see, our employer thought it would be a good idea to arrive a week early to get settled and prepare for our teaching gig. Martha and I, therefore, got airline tickets that would get us to Poland on September 25. The starting date on the work permit said October 1. I asked Drop-off if this would be a problem. She hummed and hawed and disappeared from the window. Here it comes, I thought. She returned to tell me that no, it wouldn’t be a problem. They’d have to adjust a few numbers on the visa, but we could land on September 25. That’s when it hit me. Something must be wrong. Everything was going too smoothly. I must be in the wrong consulate. That would at least explain the second visit to the consulate a week later.

Martha came for the second visit. We each had the right paper-work filled out and a little passport photo. This time young and pretty Drop-off wasn’t behind the bullet-proof glass. It was original surly Drop-off. No need to worry. It’s not like consular procedures change with the person manning the drop-off window. We decided to double-check. Turns out things were different this week. Original-surly told us that there was no way we could land on September 25. The work permit was for October 1 and that was the earliest we could get into the country. The consulate was bound by what was on the work permit. No exceptions. We protested loudly. But last week, someone said one hundred dollars each to change our tickets. Our employer said we could and she doesn’t lie. Original-surly didn’t budge. We asked for someone else and were told to wait. It is hard to wait nonchalantly by a line of ten people after you’ve just been yelling at a window. I like to pretend to read signs in a language that I don’t understand.

As my eyes skimmed over consonants with nutty diacritical marks ć’s, ń’s, ł’s and ś’s), the door off to the side opened and we were waved in. We were kept in the hallway behind the door. I could see a meeting room off to the left. To the right was the room that held the Fates. I think there were stairs leading up at the end of the hall. I couldn’t really see beyond the large bearded Slav who waved us in. He repeated Original-surly’s routine. We repeated our protests. He said he was sorry. He couldn’t do anything. Maybe the consulate could give us a discount on the visas, but the date couldn’t change. For a second I thought we should get that discount part in writing. But that was the end of the discussion. He showed us the door, which, I noticed, had the door-knob almost at chest height. We headed straight out of the grey room and outside onto the street. We weren’t happy.

We took two days to check in with our employer. She couldn’t do anything on her end. We’d have to accept the October 1 sentence and change our airline tickets. Luckily, our employer would cover the $100.00 fee for the ticket change. Still, I felt a glum sort of resignation as I went to the consulate for the third time. Original-surly was back behind the drop off window. It made me wonder if there was ever a young and pretty Drop-off. Original-surly said she remembered us. After taking our papers, she disappeared for a bit. We couldn’t figure out why. All the paper-work was done. There were no weird questions on our part. We just need the receipts to pick up our passports in two weeks. Martha thought maybe we were being black-listed for our last performance. I said maybe. Then Martha suggested that Original-surly was securing that discount for us. I replied with a strong, “I seriously doubt that. That was an off-hand remark made by a petty diplomat trying to get rid of us.” I’d like to think I made that remark quietly.

The door off to the side opened. Original-surly waved us over. She gave us our passport receipts and pointed to the individual cost of each visa. They were both reduced by half. That’s $90.00 off each visa. So, like I’ve been saying all along: the Polish consulate in Toronto is a great consulate.

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