Signature of Alien

Updated: Oct 18, 2019

In order to live and work in Czechia legally, I had to register as self-employed. We were given the address of the relevant Náchod office, the lovechild of a nineteenth century English town hall and a Baroque church.

Here we were informed, with ill-concealed impatience, that this was not the right building – we needed to be in the annex, a couple of streets away.

Nachod: beneath the sleepy exterior lies a sleepy interior

There were six doors leading off the forbidding corridor in the annex, a concrete bunker that acted as a grey communist foil to the Austro-Hungarian era parent building. Each door had an A4 sheet of paper fixed to it, with the injunction “Do not enter without being told you can do so”. We sat for ten minutes, after which one of the doors opened and a surprised-looking man in jeans, sandals and small round spectacles asked us if we were waiting. We said yes, and he told us we should just have knocked and entered. We mentioned the injunction on the door, and he waved his hand dismissively.

After confiscating my passport, the man proceeded to type details into an interminably long form (paperwork is taken very seriously here). What, he enquired, was my UK address? I don’t have one, was the answer. The man looked perplexed. He needed my UK address in order to process my residency here. We pointed out that having no address in the UK was one of the salient points of emigrating. Our last UK address would have to suffice, although this was clearly not ideal.

Next: when did you register as self-employed with the local police? Answer: we’re doing that after we’ve registered here. The man turned a pitying gaze on our foreign stupidity. No, no – we had to go to the police first – in Trutnov, many kilometres away – before we could start the self-employment registration here.

However, seeing as we were a captive audience, our interrogator decided to get to the bottom of what exactly my trade was. “Writer, mainly for websites”, I replied. This was not good, as it didn’t satisfy any of the boxes that required a tick on the man’s two-sided form. Were royalties involved? No – not usually. This ruled out mainstream publishing as a tick box. Did I design websites or software? No, I provide the written content. This, too, was inconvenient, as I couldn’t tick the box ‘websites’, whose description didn’t include production of text. “Marketing” and “Editing” were similarly problematic, as neither category specifically mentioned putting words on websites. Okay – is there a “content manager” category? No. Web editor? Only if I create the websites myself. Blogger? No, that wasn’t a real job.

With the air of one offering thin hope in dark times, the man suggested we could make another assault on the barrier of his two-sided form upon our return from the police. Perhaps new categories would magically appear, or perhaps I would, upon reflection, decide that I was a software designer after all.

It was too late to visit the police station in Trutnov today, so we attempted to sort out our banking arrangements instead. Magda had opened the account previously, after a herculean tussle with bureaucracy that required her to produce an ID card that she didn’t have. We now needed to add my details. So, first question: what was my UK address? Second question: when did I register as self-employed in Czechia…?

It was a long day, lightened only by the discovery of organic milk and yoghurt in the Náchod Kaufland supermarket. I’ve never felt to shamelessly English middle-class before.

On the following morning we drove to Trutnov to visit the police station. The building looked deserted, but we stumbled on three Ukrainians and a Vietnamese man in a waiting room on the first floor, and assumed this must be the right place. The other inhabitants sat scowling at the walls in silence, with the air of men whose long, futile wait had finally drained them of resistance. The air was thick with the exhalations of cigarette-blackened lungs.

There were four doors, each covered in pieces of A4 paper. None of these papers divulged clues as to what actually lay behind the door, or which of the four was the one awaiting your nervous knuckles.

Magda chose a random door and knocked. No, this was the wrong room. How could we have been so foolish as to knock there, when the correct door was that one over there, with the opening times glued to it? Opening times maybe, but no other clue as to the purpose or contents of the room. Not to worry. We knocked on the correct door, and were old to wait with the others. Those words fell with the leaden doom of a prison sentence.

Minutes merged into hours, hours blurred into days. Several weary weeks later, the door opened and we were ushered inside with the politeness of an executioner at the end of a long shift.

Well, in truth, we didn’t wait that long, and the registration went without a hitch. I filled in a form which actually allowed me to state that I was living in Czechia and had no UK base. I signed the paper with feeling – the English phrase next to this section read “Signature of Alien”.

Oor Hoose, 2 Bĕlý 

Dental interlude

Fate had decided – on one of those dull, overcast days in which Fate finds that it’s completed its main tasks for the week and doesn’t relish the prospect of twiddling its thumbs – that the one time in my life I needed emergency dental work would be the one time in my life when I had no access to a health service. As an emigrant (I hadn’t sorted out my dual Czech/UK residency at this point) I was beyond the protective forcefield of the NHS, but not yet in the embrace of the Czech equivalent. I had a European health card, but that relied on me having a permanent UK address, so was no longer able to reassure me.

After investigating limited options, I managed to buy a couple of months’ worth of health cover, and, thus armed, visited the dentist in Machov, a small town close to our village. In the waiting room an elderly woman seized on my English tones and declared, in a rusty English that was clearly overjoyed at being given the opportunity of shaking itself in the fresh air, that this was the best dentist for many miles around, and very reasonably priced. She ran a finger across the line of her lovely white teeth as evidence of the excellent dental work available here. Her husband was Dutch, she said, and their main abode was in Holland, but they returned frequently to their nearby Czech cottage, chiefly to take advantage of the Machov dental practice. Introducing herself as Vera, and explaining that her husband had suffered stroke-related brain damage several years ago and was “a bit like a child”, she swapped telephone numbers with us, told us about an English couple nearby who be very excited to hear of our arrival, and reminded us that April 30th was the Czech witch-burning festival of Walpurgis Night – a local treat not to be missed, she said, bidding us, after a 20 minute, largely one-way conversation, fond farewells.

The dentist’s assistant told me the man with the beard and tooth drill could take a look there and then, or at 1.30 tomorrow. He was an English speaker, she said, and looked forward to chatting while casting a disapproving eye on the 1980s carnage of amalgam in my oral cavity. Considering my unbrushed teeth and recent mastication of ham-flavoured crisps, I opted for the 1.30 slot. Fool as I am. A short while later, what was left of my temporary filling fell out and the exposed nerve made eating or drinking anything hot or cold an act of self-harm. In fact, eating anything at all was a painful reminder of a dentist in the hand being worth two free dental appointments in the bush.

1.30 the following day, my jaw throbbing, but my mood lifted by the wonderfully polite dobrý den and na schledanou (good day and goodbye) that accompanied every entrance and exit from the waiting room like a secular call and response. Once in the dentist’s lair, it was all over very quickly. The encounter was ruthlessly efficient. I was ushered to a chair, and had the wrecked tooth cleaned, partly drilled and temporarily filled in the time it would have taken an English dentist to strap goggles to your head and switch on the machine that sucks the saliva and tooth debris from your mouth.

I was told to return within a month for further treatment, by which time the proper health insurance would have begun. I feared, however, that Fate was warming to her theme and hadn’t quite finished with my teeth travails.

I was therefore unsurprised when, an hour after leaving the dentist’s, a chunk of white filling fell out. 24 hours later the last bit crumbled away, and I was back in the chair being refilled. This sequence of events repeated itself six times over the next five months, before the cavity was finally declared fit for full excavation. The root canal was dredged, more temporary fillings were inserted and drilled out again – all without anaesthetic, goggles, gloves, sympathy or saliva-sucking machines.

Finally, the permanent filling was in place, and the dentist and I shook hands. I was very grateful – he had gone where no English dentist would dare to go without needles, masks and soothing words, even though my European health card didn’t really cover the work he had done.

The dentist spotted the inherent weak spot of my gratitude, and moved in swiftly. Would I like to help his mother teach English to the kids in Velké Pořice school? She would be very happy if I said yes.

“Are they well behaved?”, I asked.

“They’re children”, he replied. “They mean no harm. You’ll be fine.”

He hesitated, looking me up and down.

“No, really, I think you’ll be fine”, he said, as if to convince himself.

I left, wondering if anyone else had ever exchanged root canal treatment for conversational English lessons.

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