In the land of Kafka

It’s some time since I last blogged on the theme of Czech bureaucracy, but yesterday I had another experience of the approach to life which comes out of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, re-interpreted by communism and now overlaid with a pedantic approach to doing things officially, for which the EU is blamed and all seen through the eyes of Franz Kafka.

The Czech postal services advised me I had four parcels safely in their care at their big Post Ofice near Smichov, in Prague. So, with Katka, my PA, I ventured out to recover this present from the USA courtesy of various postal authorities.

The big concrete and blue clad building (Czech Postal service has a blue colour scheme with a yellow posthorn) could only be entered by a covered ramp, designed as if to resist riots by the populace, anxious to get hold of their post. In the entrance hall it was not at all clear where to go. However, behind a smoked glass door there was an information booth with a stern-faced lady in uniform. Her enquiry window was firmly shut. Katka knocked at her door and she deigned to open it a little. After some questioning we were directed to the lifts (elevators) and told to go to the third floor. We eventually managed to summon a lift and went to the third floor.

Getting out of the lift there were plenty of signs warning us about things we should not do – smoke, loiter, smile (well, maybe not that, exactly, but collecting your overseas post is a very serious issue!). Eventually, we discovered we should go down a long corridor to a room marked as another department of Czech Post. Inside was a counter and then two numbered desk points – 2 and 3. So, I presumed 1 had been obliterated by act of the Postmaster General. We went to 2, but she told us to go to 3. We handed over the documents from the postal service and my passport to prove I was the recipient. These were examined and then some documents produced and four bar codes scanned. We were given more paper and told to go back down the corridor, turn right and search for the Customs Office. When we had dealt with customs we could come back, but not to desk 3, certainly to desk 2.

So, back down the corridor with those classic bureaucratic solid doors with signs stuck on “Don’t enter”, “wait here” “ “service only on Monday and Wednesday” etc, the usual features of Czech public service. Well, eventually, after seeking further advice, we found another door with a Quematic sign above it informing us most of the desks inside were engaged, but we ventured in to find six “service points”. Here the staff wore the uniform of the Czech Republic Customs Service. Several people were sat on chairs in the middle of the room, looking as if they had given up hope of release. We eventually found a lady willing to talk to us, with a very stern countenance, as if to say “don’t you dare imagine negotiating with me”. We handed over our now doubled postal documentation. She inspected the word “present” and the box marked “no value”, but then found another box “insured for US $200”, so it had a value.

We pleaded we had not paid anything for the boxes. Well, that may be true, responded this paragon of Customs Officer, but someone had put a value on it and duty should be paid. We could appeal, get letters from the sender etc, then it might be possible at some point in the future to consider a reduced payment, but…. The boxes contained books, the Czechs tax knowledge, so we didn’t fight but said “OK”. We were told to sit down and join the other folk without hope, whilst a calculation was made. After a while we were summoned and told we needed to pay c 2,500 Czech crowns duty. We were given more paper and told to go to the cash desk across the room and pay up. Here a man took our money, produced the biggest pair of office scissors I have ever seen and cut one A4 sheet into three, stamping all three bits. One for him, one for the customs lady at the other side of the room and one for us. We went back to her, she applied her stamp and told us to go back to the Postal authorities with our now enlarged paper file. Back we went, being sure to go to desk 2.

At this point Kafka had a special feature for us. We had come to collect four parcels, for which full postage had been paid in the USA. Now, armed with customs clearance surely we could have our boxes ? Well, sadly, not yet. We had to pay a collection charge of 96 Czech crowns per box. Note, this is not for delivery (for which our friends in the USA had already paid), but for collection in person! So, we paid up, had our documentation stamped, one more A4 sheet per box produced, stamped and all bar codes scanned, we were told to go to the unnumbered desk. Here a pleasant young postal worker offered the relief of the day telling us quite reasonably to bring our car to the loading bay and he would bring the boxes down! What a welcome surprise!

One thing I am left wondering about. I took my official stamp to put alongside my signature (natural enough in the Czech Republic), but I wasn’t asked to stamp anything. Is this progress towards the free movement of goods and services? Only lots more time will tell!

Franz Kafka, we salute you!

– Keith


  • Stan Slade

    Graphetherapeia!!! Oh, Keith, that made me both laugh abnd shake my head! However maddening the postal civil (?) service (??!) employees seemed in 1980’s El Salvador, I now see they were rank amateurs, in comparison to their Czech colleagues!!! 🙂

  • oleksandr cherevko

    I like your narrative!!! when the money are at stake it’s hard to fool with the authority

  • Carol Woodfin

    Oh my. I fear this may have been the shipment of the Seminary history book. If so, many apologies. I hope it will be worth every crown. Had you not been off on the beach when the parcels came, you would not have been able to experience this delightful ordeal.

  • Joshua

    Brilliantly written and a very entertaining piece – although the experience itself was no doubt quite a stressful ordeal. The confusing doors, the stern-faced officials and the seemingly endless process of being sent from one desk to the next reminds me of my ordeal in trying to obtain a residence permit in Ukraine. I now read Kafka’s ‘Castle’ with very different eyes in the light of that experience!

Leave a Reply