If we were to compare a city of a similar size -- oh, let's just say Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic -- I reckon I live about as far from the city center as Zelivskeho metro stop, which is to say that walking at a good clip, you could make it there in about 45-50 minutes.
During the day, it's often as long as 45 minutes between pick-ups. This means that at any given moment, if you wanted to drop everything and meet somebody downtown, it could easily be over an hour before you're there. (In Prague, you could leave your apartment at Zelivskeho and almost always be in the center within 30 minutes, if not less.) And the bus schedules here are more like loose guidelines, rather than schedules as such (though to be fair, it's not quite southern Italy).
So anyway, the way I see it, forty years of central planning had to be good for something. But moving on, I had a Prague moment the other day...
In recent months I've spent a fair amount of time trying to figure out the process for applying for acceditation and residency as a foreign freelance correspondent working in the Republic of Ireland.
First I tried my friend who works at the Irish embassy in the Czech Republic, back when I was living there. The consular officer there informed me that I should contact the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment.
I wrote this Department asking about the process. They told me I should in fact enquire at the Department of Justice. I wrote to the Department of Justice and received no reply. I wrote to them again. No reply.
Meanwhile, I contacted the Dublin office of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ). The head of the organization tried to help, but gave up after spending half an hour on the phone with the Department of Justice getting nowhere. He got so frustrated, he said he was even thinking of having one of the union members write a story about it.
So I wrote back to the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, politely informing the woman who'd answered my original e-mail that I was unable to find anybody who could give me an answer at the Department of Justice. I even told her the anecdote about the guy at the NUJ. The woman replied (again, very kindly), telling me I should contact the embassy in the country I'm living in.
I answered politely that in fact, that's how this whole thing started: It was the consular officer at the Irish embassy in the Czech Republic that told me to contact her department, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. I explained, again, that all I was looking for was a simple explanation of whether and how it was possible to get residency based on being a freelance journalist writing for publications outside the country.
The woman replied (again, very kindly) telling me to write a letter, on paper this time, to the Department of Justice, send it to their address on St. Stephen's Green in Dublin, requesting that they reply urgently within two weeks (since I was soon leaving the Czech Republic), and asking for the name of a person there who would be able to help me.
Miraculously, six weeks later (that is, just a few days ago) a letter arrived at the return address I'd given in Prague, informing me that my application had been received and that it would take a minimum of six months to process.
The remarkable thing is, I never sent an application. I don't even think I sent a CV.
Anyway, I was telling this story -- save the last bit, which hadn't happened yet -- to a fellow journalist I'd met here in Dublin. He's a foreigner, too, and a long-time resident of Ireland, though he has residency through other means.
We were having lunch at a place called Buswell's on Kildare St., across from Leinster House, the seat of Dail Eireann, the Irish Parliament. I won't name the journalist because he was pretty embarassed about this little episode.
"It's impossible," he said "There is no process. In fact, the only way to get official permission to stay here as a journalist -- the only way -- is if the Prime Minister or the Minister of Justice personally intervenes and arranges it for you. I'm serious. That's just the way things work here."
It's a paraphrase, of course, but that essentially carries the gist and tone of what he told me. And he didn't exactly say it quietly.
He then got up to use the toilets or make a phone call, I don't remember. About a minute later he came back, sat down, leaned forward and said to me, sotto voce, "That man sitting against the wall over my right shoulder, 11 o'clock to you, facing the door... is the Justice Minister."
My lunch mate said he's been published enough in the local press that Michael McDowell would recognize him by face. And it's a pretty quiet little bar. He was very close to mortally embarassed.
I, of course, was just about ready to get up and introduce myself and ask Mr. McDowell how I could get residency in Ireland as a foreign correspondent. That would have made a much better story, I know.... Alas, I didn't.