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Reader feedback: How things change - well, almost

Re: Spies on the net, Flash News Briefs November 11

In the late 90s my Slovak wife and I would return to our Slovak town each winter, where I would immediately be asked to teach English in a local school. Being on a visitor's visa, I couldn't work officially, but the authorities would hire my wife, a qualified and Slovak-certificated teacher, and I would become her overworked and underpaid volunteer.

I was very conscious of the laws requiring registration at the local police station and not overstaying my welcome. As the six-month limit approached, we took advantage of an offer to supervise a school bus trip to Paris. As we returned through Petržalka late in the evening, I proffered my passport to the guard who kindly waved us off without a stamp.

Back home a few days later I was summoned to the police station to face charges of being an illegal worker and immigrant. The school was able to show that I was not on the payroll, but I couldn't prove that I had been out of the country and re-entered, as required.

It didn't matter that 40 students and several other adults were ready to testify that I had indeed done things right. The officer was adamant: no stamp, you're guilty. Pay the fine (equal to the total earnings my wife had collected for months), or go immediately to jail. We paid. My visa was then extended to our already-arranged departure date, and life went on.

I have had occasion to meet that same officer several times since that incident, and we both smile about it - until my Canadian passport expired and was replaced with a new one with a different number. Then I received scowls every time I visited Slovakia for the next few years.

The welcoming smiles have reappeared, at least at the Bratislava airport - except one time. I had bought one of those collapsible camp chairs in Canada, just the thing for additional seating in our tiny living room. Common enough in Canada but as yet unavailable in Slovakia, I protected it en route by packing it in a length of 6-inch sonotube (cardboard tubing used to pour concrete). I tied a rope through it and slung it over my shoulder.

As I scooped it from the carousel in Bratislava and approached the customs guards, everyone was suddenly all attention - on their feet, hands on holsters, spreading out and crouching warily. One of them hollered, in all seriousness, if I was carrying a bazooka.

My wife laughed and tried to explain that it was a chair. A chair? Oh sure... I offered to open the tube to show them. The uniforms had started to relax but my offer resulted only in their taking a couple of steps backwards. Finally they accepted our story and let us pass, tube unopened.

We still smile about that one.


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