A version of this was originally published in Liberty magazine, around the time of the events described.
We wanted to get married. We’d been heading in that direction but we hadn’t been in any hurry.
It was Monika that first brought up the subject of having children. I said that that was a suggestion that could only be honored by taking it seriously. So I said to mark the date and a year to the day, we'd make a decision. My motives were honorable, I wanted to give her every chance to get bored with me and come to her senses.
Then three months later the morning sickness started. This didn’t totally take us by surprise, Monika had been having real problems with the birth control pills, so we decided to just take our chances while waiting out that year. And in my case it was getting a little late in the game to put off the decision whether to be a father or not.
Since I am a foreigner in Poland, our first stop was the regional court in Warsaw. OK so we walk over one fine spring morning and find that we have to pass through a magnetometer manned by police. No problem, we retreat to the foyer and empty pockets and purse of everything with a sharp edge, stash it on top of a revolving door cabinet and walk in.
There they told us what documents I needed to marry a Polish citizen in Poland. I was told to get: my original birth certificate, a copy of the first page of my passport with required visa, my meldunek tymczasowy
, or registration of my address with the local government (by the way, not just a feature of the ex-communist world but a common practice in Western Europe as well) and my divorce decree, if applicable. In addition I needed to bring a translation of all the above by a sworn and licensed translator.
I am helpless without Monika in this situation. I speak Polish well enough for all normal purposes but I just don’t have the specialized vocabulary to deal with this stuff in Polish.
Nowadays dealing with Polish bureaucrats is not nearly as unpleasant as in the communist times and for a while after. Junking communism in Poland was a true “social revolution” in that it resulted in a permanent change in attitude for the better. Now that there is a healthy private sector that bureaucrats themselves spend most of their time in, they seem to feel held up to the standard set by service personnel in shops and restaurants. Or perhaps it’s just the salutary example. However it remains an often-frustrating experience carried out in offices and corridors that bring the adjective “Kafkaesque” to mind.
Monika leaves steaming when a clerk tells her to come back “with your father” (nodding in my direction) when we have the documentation.
OK, not too difficult, though getting the divorce decree was a bit of a problem. There was also a little thing that I’d let my original meldunek
lapse – no problem, just go and get another one. The funny thing is that in Poland it is a lot easier to ignore the bureaucracy than in the States. They technically have a more intrusive bureaucracy but they don’t have the resources to enforce every little rule and as a rule, bureaucrats don’t have the zeal to. For example, I’ve ignored work permit regulations for a long time. However marriage is another thing. There you really do need to get everything in order.
So bring them all back. Now wait for a month and a half to come back for the next step. The next step is basically securing permission to go on to the next step after that.
At one point I asked, “Isn’t there a fast-track permission for couples who’re pregnant?” “Steve, that’s an awful lot of girls in Poland who are getting married.” It turns out that there is a fast track wedding for pregnant couples – but only for church weddings. Since we’re having a civil ceremony this does us no good at all.
We were headed to Minsk for the American Studies Conference at the European Humanities University so we asked Monika’s mother to drop off and pick up some of the documents needed. Hence it was that I missed seeing a Polish guy losing it in the office. Apparently he was trying to get married to a German national and had just been told that he had to go back to Germany to get a certain document. That’s when he picked up a chair and smashed it against the wall.
Something inside me screamed “Yes!” when I heard this. However the bureaucrat took it out on the next customer – my future mother-in-law.
So OK, a week after we get back to Warsaw we have a hearing with a judge. We show up that morning with a bit of trepidation on my part. We’d decided just to ignore the divorce papers because it was just too damn complicated and they might require some proofs I just couldn’t come up with any time soon. The fact is that I had absolutely no idea of how to get in touch with my ex-wife, I didn’t even know for sure if she was still alive or not.
So the worry on my part was, if they ask me if I’m divorced would I have to perjure myself? Lying under oath means something to me and I’d been awfully holy about Bill Clinton’s perjury a short while back.Pani Sedzia
(Madame Judge) was a rather attractive middle-aged lady in her black robes with the traditional elaborate chain of office around her neck. We go in and take turns standing at a podium to get quizzed. Madame Judge asks all the questions about any legal impediments and then asks Monika, “Do you mind marrying a man fifty years old?” Monika denies that it bothers her. Madame Judge looks at her belly and smiles.
My turn. I get up and answer standard questions about citizenship, how long I’d lived there, what I did for a living etc. in Polish with occasional help from Monika. Then comes a question I don’t quite get but I believe is about a previous marriage. I answer, “Nie.”
No. We hadn’t been placed under oath but I’m wrenched inside. Had I lied under something like an oath or affirmation?
We leave and I pour out my troubled heart to Monika. “No sweat, she just asked you if you were married somewhere else.” Great! I’m not.
So Madame Judge has told us to come back in three weeks to pick up the documents that meant that I was relieved of the duty of providing a document from my government stating that I was eligible to get married and that there were no impediments to that end. (You had to read that twice didn’t you?)
The reason that we need a document granting such an exemption is that the United States government has no provisions for providing such documentary proof – which everybody in the world pretty much knows.
It theoretically shouldn’t have been this complicated but… We had been given an information sheet that detailed every document we’d need. Typically, it turned out that we needed a few that were never mentioned.
We come back to the appropriate office and ask for the documents. We are asked to show the written request for the documents. Monika tells them that the judge said nothing about such a written request and simply told us to show up and ask for the documents. She is told, “The judge is not the information office.”
However the clerk is then kind enough to type out the request for us as there is no queue that day. She complains constantly and bitterly but she does it.
OK so now we can reserve a day at the Palac Slubow
(Palace of Weddings) in the Old Town. We can also reserve a hall for toasts and conviviality for about thirty minutes after the ceremony. Simple. Well maybe not. We do have to get another document but we only have to make two (or was it three?) trips to the office and we have a date. If there are dates available. And not less than a month and a day from the day you register for the wedding.
We get lucky getting a date in late July as the summer season is popular for weddings. However in Poland months spelled with an “r” are thought to be lucky and in Polish, July is Lipiec
. So perhaps…
By this time Monika was probably getting tired of me pointing out that in America, even if we were both foreigners, we could have gotten married within a single day. This astounded a couple of Chinese students I had once helped defect, and get married, after Tien An Min Square. They had told me that step one in China would have to get permission from your work unit leader. Nor is it much better in Western Europe for foreigners, we had looked into whether marrying abroad would have been simpler.
What else? Ah yes, we go to the Hala Toastow (The Hall of Toasts) in the basement of the Palace to register for a half-hour in the room and champagne for thirty-odd people.
So now we’re set! Well, in the next two weeks we have to get invitations out, start childbirth classes, buy me a suit and arrange a dinner at a restaurant for thirty-odd people, but we’ve done it! We’re out of the public sector.
In case you're wondering, we've been together seven years now. The boy is nearly six and has a baby sister nearly one.
However, ignoring that divorce thing came back to bite us in the ass. When my wife was applying for a visa to the States (I had gone on ahead) it showed up and delayed things at least another month.