Kafka vs Mills&Boon

I ran a two-day writing course for teachers at a Slovak university in the Vrátna Valley in September 2010. By January 2011 I was still waiting to receive my €€216 fee (including travel costs and the per diem). Since the workshop was funded by the European Union, I had to sign three forms on the spot. I thought that had taken care of the bureaucracy and was looking forward to future cooperation.

A few weeks later the organizers wrote to say they urgently needed my Europass CV. As I had no idea what that was, they provided me with a 13-page instruction sheet, advising me to list my skills and competencies in areas such as  alpine tourism and maintaining parks and gardens, and to mention relevant positions in voluntary organizations. Sadly I had to leave these rubrics blank and go on to self-assess my oral interaction in English, in line with the Common European Framework. After giving a lot of thought to whether I understood explicitly signalled relations I reached the conclusion that the only word in this language I had really mastered was fuck!

Under the heading I can understand long and complex factual and literary texts I wrote: Not always but definitely better than this one! then ploughed on. I didn’’t get very far as I failed to objectively assess my ability to adapt to a multicultural environment.

Next I had to tackle the HSPDC, the Handling and Storing of Personal Data Consent Form. My fee had metamorphosed into a non-recoverable financial contribution (NFC). I was very tempted to give up but the ladies in the office explained that I didn’’t really have this option. After printing my HSPDC in two copies and signing it I sent it off by registered mail.

Three weeks later the university got in touch again. Under instructions from Brussels, they asked me to submit a Business Trip Report form detailing the exact amount of time I spent teaching, minus lunch breaks. This activity had been allocated an 11-digit code. Subsequently I filled out the European Social Fund Worksheet under the Education Operational Programme.  As I wasn’’t up to this task a university professor and his secretary had to assist me.

Next I had to complete a Cumulative Monthly Statement for the EU Structural Funds Agency. This document contained thirty-one headings and 20 columns that had to be completed. I had to confirm, by ticking the appropriate box, that all the information was correct, truthful and genuine and that I was aware of any consequences that might arise from my submitting an incorrect, incomplete or falsified statement. I would have preferred to state that I considered this procedure surreal but I was not able to find such a heading.

Never before had I been so deeply immersed in bureaucracy, this enormous organism evidently designed by gnomes. I was becoming convinced that an unknown sadistic bureaucrat had singled me out and was now laughing his head off every time he issued another cruel order revelling in the subservient manner in which I completed each meaningless task he set me. I developed a detailed mental picture of this mysterious person in Brussels who was sorting, documenting and assessing my documents and demanding more and more. I wished I could have indicated in tiny writing somewhere in the margin what I thought of the whole business but I was worried it might only make things worse. I am convinced that once the grant coordinator has finished tormenting me, he quickly moved on to his next victim, otherwise I can’’t vouch for him.

In the end I spent much more time filling out forms than running the actual course. I was just a 216-euro drop in a multibillion-euro sea. I’’d rather not know how many million tons of paper, how many years and how many lives are wasted on this kind of paperasserie. Compared with this, Kafka’’s writing is just Mills & Boon.

And there was still Annexe No. 1 to the Contract of Cooperation to complete. My two-day job was assigned the number 3.3.4. After filling in my 11-digit code from memory and adding my signature I sent off the final letter. The job was well and truly done. It’’s now February. There’’s still no sign of the fee.


Translation: Julia Sherwood

This article appeared in Orientace, a supplement to the Czech daily Lidové noviny.