I always take the Jezersko mountain pass when driving from Ljubljana to Koroška. Not only is it the fastest route, it’s also the most beautiful. You climb the Kamnik-Savinja Alps, cross into Austria skirting its southern border, before dropping back down into Slovenia and landing in Koroška.
A few days ago, whilst driving the Austrian section of this route, I picked up a resident Afghani who was hitchhiking to the nearest town. I had occasionally spotted similar folk before walking this stretch of lonely road and had often wondered who they were.
I know about 20 words of German, and Hamed, my passenger, was of a similar level in English, so our conversation was limited, but despite the language barrier, through the medium of gesture, I discovered some interesting things about my new Afghan friend.
Firstly, and most sadly, he said that Austrians never pick him up.
“Ich bin ausländer” (I’m foreign) was his explanation.
But he said that other ausländers often do give him a lift (I myself was driving a Slovene-plated car).
He said he liked Austria as it was tranquil, as opposed to Kabul, where he was originally from, which was rife with bombs and bullets. But on the topic of employment, he explained that he couldn’t work, as he had no papers, no documents.
I assume Hamed was in some form a refugee or had sought asylum in Austria. I had no idea why he wanted to be dropped off in Eisenkappel, and how he had ended up living in a remote, mountain region of Austria. I wondered how Hamed’s life would unfold; I suspect that living in the Kärnten area of Austria, a region known for being somewhat of a right-wing hotspot, might not always be easy for ausländers like Hamed.
I didn’t know it then, but I was about to get my first taste of being an ‘ausländer’ a few days later, although mine would come from the hands of a Slovenian bureaucrat, rather than an Austrian driver.
Buying a car in Slovenia: what I wished I’d know before
I didn’t realise the number of steps required to buy and drive away a car in Slovenia, but I should have done my research better. I had assumed I could just pay the money, do some paper work and drive off into the sunset. Whilst the buying and paying part were easy, when it came to registering the vehicle and the ‘driving off into the sunset’ part, my problems began.
The car dealer said he required proof that I owned a house in Slovenia, which I do. But then it turned out that I needed to get a resident’s permit in order to actually register the car. Ok – I thought – so how do I get that?
I was directed to the upravna enota (local government administrator), who said that to get the document that would allow me to register the car (the temporary resident permit), I would need to come back with my passport, some passport photos, a police registration document, and a bank statement showing sufficient funds. So I went off to the police station, and the photo-shop, and the bank, and the following day I reported back with all the said items.
But instead of sitting down with the nice friendly lady who had been so helpful yesterday, I was instead directed into the office of the most grumpy, unhelpful, surly, sour-faced bitch I have so far had the displeasure of dealing with in Slovenia. I don’t use profanity lightly because it dilutes the strength of such words, but in this case, I’m afraid the term was well-deserved.
She took an instant dislike to me and decided that she was going to make the whole process as difficult as possible. First she criticised me for not speaking Slovenian. Now of this crime, I plead guilty. I don’t expect everyone to be able to speak perfect English to me and it’s my responsibility to learn the lingo of the country in which I am now residing.
But while it’s true that my Slovene is basic at best, in my defence, I have only just got here, I’m taking Slovenian lessons, and if there’s one category of people you can guarantee won’t be applying for temporary resident permits in Slovenia – it’s native Slovene-speaking Slovenians.
Therefore it shouldn’t come as too great a surprise that in her role, she may have to deal with the occasional non-Slovenian speaker. So my tip to those recruiting for such positions is: hire someone who has a little sympathy towards people who are not yet fluent in Slovene.
Next, she tutted heavily when I started dictating my phone number to her for the form.
“Not Slovenian.” she grumbled.
Correct. The presence of a non-Slovenian dialling code had immediately alerted her to the fact that she was not only dealing with a foreigner, but a foreigner with a foreign phone number.
“Do you want it?” I asked.
“No” she spat, as if somehow it was an absolute physical impossibility for anyone in Slovenia to be able to call any number outside of Slovenia, rendering my foreign phone number of absolutely zero use to her and her regime.
At this point she was really beginning to grind my gears. Sure, I hold my hands up that my Slovene is in its zygotic stage but having a pop at my foreign phone number too, now that was a Slovenian step too far.
This is 2018, in the EU, in the age of no roaming charges. Making calls to telephones that are in a different country to the country your telephone is in, has been possible since the 1900s.
Then came the issue of my bank statement. I had purposely transferred more than the sufficient funds (the amount of which I had been told the previous day) to my Slovenian account, and gone to the bank that very morning to get them to print out a statement showing my balance. The three bank people were very friendly, very smiley and very helpful. Clearly, they had not got the memo about being as uncooperative as possible to foreigners.
But when I presented her with my bank statement, she tapped some numbers into her calculator and claimed:
“It’s not enough.”
Yes it was damn-well enough. I had made sure that it was well over the amount that had been specified, to avoid any risk of scrutiny. I calmly explained the timelines, and re-did the calculation for her, proving that it was well over the required amount.
This of course riled her royally. So she then started questioning the source of the funds and asking where the money had come from and how long I’d had it.
“For ages – it’s my savings” I explained.
She then demanded to see six months of my UK bank statements.
I was getting really pissed off at this point but I bit my tongue. There was no point in voicing my displeasure. She was the gatekeeper and held the balance of power in our situation. And she was going to make sure I knew that. So I took a deep breath, pulled out my laptop, and told her I could email her PDFs of six months’ worth of my UK bank statements, right there and then.
“No. On paper.” she demanded.
“OK. I could print them out now. Do you have a printer?”
“Do you have wifi?”
“Do you have a business card so I can get your details?”
“Do you have a list of the exact things you want to see so I can get them?”
“No.” she grunted, shaking her head too.
At this point, I realised it just wasn’t happening. In my 10 years of visiting Slovenia, I have met all sorts of people; from judges to dormice hunters, firemen to farmers, bank clerks to cryptocurrency miners to zinc miners, and the vast majority of them have behaved in the exact opposite of this administrator, often going out of their way to assist me. But today, luck had left the building. She was purposely making everything difficult, injecting problems when she could have offered solutions if she wanted to.
I packed up my passport and papers, forced out a hvala lepa (to which she didn’t even reply) and left in low spirits.
As I start to really put roots down in Slovenia, I hope that she was an exception to the rule. Most countries have levels of red tape; when I went to live in rural Japan there were similar layers of form-filling and document stamping.
But it’s all about the attitude. No matter how much bureaucracy there is, you can choose to either be an unhelpful, grumpy blocker, making a painful process even more painful, or you can choose to be friendly and polite, and help people navigate the paperwork and smooth the transition of moving from one country to another.
I will get that permit and I will get that car. When you move to a new land, there are always a few hurdles to jump. But I won’t be using Mrs Foreign-Phone-Number-Hater again.
I’ll save my digits for someone who’s mind is wide enough to handle the concept of an international telephone call.