Saturday, September 6, 2008

An Adventure

Life can certainly be an adventure, and adventures frequently entail both surprises and challenges. Our time in Hungary is a series of adventures. And, certainly, one of these adventures relates to meeting certain legal requirements for living an extended period of time in a country in which you are not a citizen.

I do not mean to equate our experiences here with those of the many immigrants arriving at Ellis Island in New York City in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, but some of our experiences this past week made me wonder how my grandparents who came to the United States, and who were unable to speak English, made it through the required processing for admittance to the United States. My grandparents were among the many people from a host of countries speaking many different languages who arrived in the United States unable to speak English. How did these multitudes of people speaking many different languages get processed? How did one know where to go, or even how to read the various signs that contained strange symbols seeking to direct you to different offices or desks? Were there translators for people speaking these various languages? And, after you gave someone your papers, were you simply at the mercy of someone behind the desk? Just how much consistency was there in what one official required at one desk compared to what some other official required at another desk? Regardless, there must have been much confusion and uncertainty in the minds of these newly arrived immigrants as they were being processed for admittance to American soil.

Since we will be living in Budapest for several months, we are required to obtain a residency permit for this extended period of time in the country. We had read various documents about what we needed in order to obtain a residency permit. We had a form given to us by one of the universities here which we thought was the required form. And, we had an address as to where we needed to go to apply for this residency permit.

First, however, we each needed to purchase stamps worth 18,000 HUF (about $115) at the post office. However, when we went into the post office, it was clear that there were many different lines with each window focusing on several different tasks. So which line should one join? Marilyn saw a woman sitting down and decided to ask her which line we needed to join in order to purchase the stamps. Fortunately, we could point to the appropriate word on the form, and she directed us to a different line than the ones we had been viewing (and thankfully the line was much shorter). So we finally got to the window and purchased the necessary stamps. Clearly, in the Hungarian system, one does not pay the application fee directly to the office where you are seeking your residency permit, but you demonstrate that you have paid by producing the required value in stamps to affix to your document in due time.

So after purchasing the stamps, filling out the form, and collecting the necessary documents, we decided to go to apply for our permit. We were to find the office at 60 Budafoci ut (street). Well we found the street and starting walking down the street. We passed the 40s and into the 50s. At the corner of a major intersection we reached 59 Budafoci ut. So we thought 60 Budafoci would be the first building across the major road. We crossed the thoroughfare, but 60 was nowhere to be found. Fortunately, we were told by some people nearby that we needed to go 3 bus stops beyond the intersection to find 60 Budafoci and the office. Just why the #60 was so far from #59c is still a mystery to us.

But, after taking the bus to the specified address, we next had to find the right office in which to submit our materials. We arrived at about 12:45 p.m. Fortunately, there was an information desk inside Building A at #60; unfortunately, the person behind the desk did not speak English. So we showed him our forms which were written in Hungarian, and then he gestured that we needed to go outside the building and walk around the outside to another side of the building and enter at customer service door 2. Of course, when we arrived at that office door, it was locked as it was lunch time. Ten minutes later, or at 1:00 p.m., the office door opened. We entered the office and found about 10 different desks with a different number on each desk window. It became clear you needed to get a number from a machine. However, the machine which you were to press to get a number had two options—it appeared to print numbers for two different administrative tasks that this particular office performed. Of course, since both options were written in Hungarian, we could not guess what administrative task we needed. To give you an idea of what I mean, here are some examples of the kinds of Hungarian words (minus the accents for which my computer does not have the appropriate keys) we encountered in the process: munkaszerzodes; formanyomtatvany; szallasheelybejelento lap; arcfenykep).

So we just pressed the top button and got our number. The number on the ticket and the number of the window where you were to go appeared on a large computerized display board. Finally, our number was flashed on the screen, and we went to our designated window. Unfortunately, the woman behind the desk did not speak English. So we showed her our form with the specified Hungarian words on the form, and she said something to us which we did not understand. But, clearly from her voice and actions something was amiss: we were not in the right place, or we had pressed the wrong number, or we had filled out the form incorrectly, or we had the wrong form, or who knows what else. We had no clue. Fortunately, there was a young woman at the adjacent desk who spoke English; after talking with her, we found out that we were in the wrong building. This was an office for those who wanted to immigrate to Hungary. We needed to go to another building nearby in order to apply for our temporary residency permit.

We went to the building, and we were glad to find an information desk upon entering the building—and an attendant who spoke English. However, he informed us that we had the wrong form (or that we needed to fill out an additional form), as he gave us each a new form, provided us with a number, and showed us inside a room where we once again had to wait for our number to be posted with an associated window. While we waited, we began to fill out the new form that had been given to us. Some of the questions seemed to be inappropriate for our particular purposes, so we were beginning to wonder whether or not we really needed to fill out this form. Other questions were identical to the form we had filled out before coming.

Well our turn finally arrived. Fortunately, the young woman who assisted us spoke English very well and exhibited a great deal of patience with us. We had our forms (yes, we needed both forms filled out), and we had our specified stamps from the post office for the application form. But, it soon became clear that we did not have all the necessary information. First, the letter I brought from the university here that indicated my position as being the local Calvin faculty for the Semester in Hungary Program did not meet their specified requirements (though such a letter was sufficient last year for the Calvin faculty member on site). In addition, we were informed that we needed, among other things, personal bank statements to demonstrate that we had sufficient resources to stay in Hungary, forms indicating that we have health insurance coverage (insurance cards are not sufficient), three more signatures including ID numbers on the form that verified where we are living and who owned it and last, but not least, a certified copy of our marriage license (apparently this was also a new requirement, as the Calvin professor who was here last year did not need to supply a marriage license for his wife’s residency permit). And we were told we had 10 days in which to produce these items. Well trying to get a copy of one’s marriage license (passports in the same name and address are not sufficient) in 10 days from abroad is impossible. At that point, the young woman stated that maybe my wife didn’t need a permit anyway.

By the time we left the office two hours later we were fairly exhausted and somewhat discouraged. Needless to say, one wonders whether all this makes any difference, since I paid the money and was told that my permit would be ready on October 2nd. Given our semester travel schedule, we will be leaving (and several days later re-entering) the country about once every three weeks, so perhaps we could be viewed as tourists who enter, leave, and reenter the country without necessarily establishing residency. And you wonder if you had a different number, and had drawn a different clerk, whether you would have had to produce all the same documents that were now being requested.

Still, the woman was courteous and did not appear to be unduly filled with the power of her position. She gave us the list that is pictured here that shows what we have done and what we still need to submit (far right column). One wants to honor the laws of the land, to recognize that one is an uninvited guest in their country, and not needlessly to cause trouble. So we will try to honor the specified requirements.

When I asked the Calvin professor who was here last year about this process he stated that it was a nightmare. He went four times to this office, met with four different people, and each time was told that he needed different documents than what he had produced. So I imagine that when we go again, we will have met some, but not all, of the additional requirements specified (I doubt we will have our marriage license by then). So we will likely be given another set period of time (at least that is my hope) to provide the remaining specified documents.

So it was this experience that got me thinking about what it might have been like for my grandparents, and for the vast numbers of other immigrants, who arrive every day on American shores without any understanding of the English language. It made me think of just how helpless immigrants must feel at times, and how they too are at the mercy of a particular clerk who is behind the desk to which they are assigned. Today, we can retrieve bank statements through the internet, and we can download a form to request our marriage license from the Newaygo County clerk. But, such was not the case a century ago and may not be the case for many who come from countries with fewer computerized systems.

But, for several hours this week, I think we experienced something similar to what many American immigrants likely feel upon arrival on American soil—as together we are “strangers in a strange land.”

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