Follow the reluctant adventures in the life of a Welsh astrophysicist sent around the world for some reason, wherein I photograph potatoes and destroy galaxies in the name of science. And don't forget about my website,

Sunday 30 March 2014

Metro Ninjas Just Want To Give You Stickers And Maybe Also Fish

Another, "let's all laugh at the hapless expat" post

Every Czech is born with an innate superpower. Actually, they're all ninjas... well, one-trick ninjas, at any rate. Their unique skill is the ability to exit a Metro train slightly faster than expected. Suppose I stand about one foot from the doors. In Britain, this would be a clear signal that I'm about to exit through said doors. Here, it means I'm standing by a door. Consequently, I invariably find that the moment I'm about to exit, someone else is already standing in the gap. Such an event is beyond the pale in the British queuing system, leaving me staring gormlessly every single time.

Prague has an unfortunate problem with graffiti which rather spoils many otherwise respectable areas. Only the most touristy-buildings appear to be granted any form of protection. In most cases, at least, I have no idea what the graffiti actually says. Yet for some reason I cannot understand, the words, "Read" and "Amok" appear to be some of the most common words found. I can only assume that the graffiti artists are hell-bent on a literacy promotion campaign.

The polite graffiti doesn't stop there. "Kiss" is written almost everywhere (a remarkably prudish instruction given the city's lack of scruples), "fish" is less common but not rare (I have no idea if it's advice to eat fish, go fishing, or get a pet fish). So far I've only spotted one instance of "ALFA", but since this is clearly a call for proposals to observe with the ALFA receiver, I take it as powerful evidence that the Prague graffiti squad is literate, educated, and probably a bunch of STEM activists (which also neatly explains why no-one is tackling the graffiti).

Because it's very important that everyone know about fish.
It's an unusual way to announce a call for proposals, I'll grant you...
Such a hypothesis is lent credence from a second observation. In other countries, gangs of youths might stalk the streets getting wasted and/or high, shouting profanities at luckless innocent bystanders. They might well profess their allegiance to their socially deviant clique by means of branding, probably tattoos. Not here. They might be wasted, yes, but instead of shouting profanities they're more likely - apparently - to hand you a sticker. Which presumably also serves the function of a tattoo.
Any attempts to look threatening are completely undone by the name
of the gang. Bless them for trying.

I previously reported on the ubiquitous presence of what Pratchett would call "houses of negotiable affection", a term unrelated to haggling over the price of wi-fi, since it's free. Further to this, I should note that it is literally impossible to walk through the center of Prague on any day of the week after about 10pm and avoid invitations to such... err, facilities (moreover, it doesn't matter if you're a man, woman, single, couple or a group - they're very modern and/or desperate and ask everybody). Polite refusals do little to discourage the questioning :

"Hey, do you wanna go to a -"
"No thank you."
"Well where are you going to go instead ?"
"Home, I only came out to buy some milk*. [gritted teeth] Perhaps another time."
"Aww, why not tonight ? Plleeeeease ? I'll be your friend !!"

* This had the virtue of being true : no local shops stay open after 9pm.

Perhaps I exaggerate, but only slightly. There are only limited options : face annoying delays persuading half a dozen people (or more) that you just want to be left alone, be extremely rude, or give in. Let's assume the latter two are not options.

Fortunately, being massively introverted, I already have some experience avoiding talking to people I don't want to talk to. Cardiff does not have Prague's particular problem, but it suffers in the daytime from inescapable charity muggers (aka "chuggers") and various people with clipboards conducting surveys. By far the most stupid approach any of them adopted was to ask for directions :
"Excuse me, do you know where Burlington's is ?"
"No - sorry !"
And then you're free to carry on walking without having offended anyone. Unfortunately most of them were more intelligent than that, but I discovered years back that a foolproof answer was to look eager, point my index finger in the air in a meaningful way and say, "Hang on a minute !" and carry on walking. It worked for a little while, until they wised up to it.

I haven't tried using that one in Prague, but one evening, after enduring three determined attempts to persuade me that I really wanted some negotiable affection, I hit upon a new approach :
"Hey -"
"Oh, dydw i ddim yn siard Saesneg !" [I don't speak English]

In the course of about ten minutes I used this no less than three times and received looks of utter, priceless bewilderment. After the third it was all I could do to keep a straight face. Welsh is simply not in their repertoire. Which is a mercy, because it isn't in mine either, so the rest of the conversation would probably be something like :
"Siarad Cymraeg ?"
"Err... rydw i'n hoffi coffi ! Dydw i ddim yn esiau Ysgol Uwchrardd Yr Eglwys Newydd yfory ! Ble mae fy nghad ?" [I like coffee ! I don't want to go to Whitchurch High School tomorrow ! Where is my dad ?]

And so on and so forth. If it stops working, I'll probably have to give them a sticker and persuade them to join my awesome gang.

Thursday 20 March 2014

Unknown Unknowns

About a month ago, our property agency was taken over by the estate agency who found us the apartment. A few days before our rent was due, the estate agent we originally dealt with contacted us to tell us about the new arrangements - basically, there weren't any, except that now we would pay the estate agency - let us call them company X, even though that's not their real name - instead of the property agency, company Y (our landlords).

Company Y, it seemed, was now either owned by or taken over by company X, and company X owned all their property. The agent herself (let's call her Jim, for no reason) would now be our contact for any problems with the apartment. And indeed she inquired as to any issues there might be, and suggested without prompting that the new company would try and install washing machines where possible. And various other details : the new company had an Italian owner, they regretted they wouldn't be able to do much about the graffiti on the outside of the building, etc.

For this one time, we should pay Jim in cash since the electronic banking facilities for the new company weren't set up yet. Everyone was still trying to get used to the new systems in place. The terms of the existing contracts would be honoured; essentially nothing would change except for who we paid the money to and contacted in the event of a problem.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but readers should understand a few things at this point. Firstly, this was the same agent who originally showed us the apartment, who arranged the contract with our property agency, who was present at the property agency office while we signed the contract and handed over the first month's rent and deposit. It was obvious that the two parties knew each other, at least to some degree, so the credentials seemed impeccable. Also, I spent the last two years paying my rent directly to my landlord, who was my next door neighbour - so I have zero previous experience with property and estate agencies.

So we parted with our cash and got a signed receipt (naturally) though no kind of new contract. I would have expected to have signed something regarding the new ownership and maybe a termination of the previous contract, even if the terms of the new one were identical except for the owner's names. I guess we expected something to be forthcoming. Jim left us her contact details (although we already had these). I really don't remember if she mentioned there would be anything else to sign or not.

Days went by. A week. Life went on. The only odd thing was that our neighbours hadn't heard anything about the new arrangements, and we were given to believe that the new agency owned the whole building. Weird. Perhaps we'd misunderstood something.

Two weeks passed. Any sort of doubt had now gone completely. If I don't pay rent for a few days, I would hope that the landlords wouldn't immediately shout at me, and might be courteous enough to give benefit of the doubt and not say anything at all. That would be perfectly legitimate in my view (on our contract, it says we should pay the rent no later than 5 days after the due date). After a week, I would expect to start hearing polite, "can you pay us some money, please ?" messages. After two weeks I would anticipate justifiably angry "Where is our money ?" demands.

Three weeks passed and still we heard nothing from anyone. I could not imagine that any company expecting to receive regular rent would wait a full three weeks and more before even saying anything to the tenants. Then one afternoon in work came a phone call.
"Hello, is this... William Taylor ?"
"Yes, this is Rhys Taylor, William is my middle name."
"Err... yes. You rent the apartment at... XXXX ?"
"Yes, that's me."
"We have not received any rent for March from you."
I then proceeded to describe the events to an utterly dumbfounded agent. More phone calls followed. The property agency was apparently completely and totally unaware of the new arrangement, quite convinced that they still owned the entire building (which is generally not something it's easy to be mistaken about). They seem surprised, naturally enough, that we would pay money into an account not stipulated in our contract* (I was surprised that they had taken over three weeks to ask for their rent, though I didn't tell them this).

* Silly though it sounds, this hadn't occurred to me. I guess I was imagining that if the ownership of the whole building had changed, and the PA had been taken over by another company, then this was a situation that couldn't be covered by the contract.

Of course I did tell them that it was Jim who told us all this and they tried to contact her. She wasn't responding to them, but when I phoned her a few minutes later she responded instantly. More phone calls followed. Almost surprisingly, the two parties did indeed establish direct contact - at this point I was half-expecting that Jim would simply lie and/or run away. Not so. Both seemed in agreement that Jim would bring the money she'd taken directly to the PA.

Since this happened just before 4pm, when the PA office closes, I waited until 10am the next morning to call and check what was going on. There hadn't been any progress, but half hour later they called me back. Everything had now been settled - Jim had delivered the money as promised. We should continue to pay our rent to the original property agency, as before, and if Jim contacted us again, we should ignore anything she said. Which seems entirely reasonable to me. Though it's hard to tell on the phone, they seemed as ignorant as to what the hell was going on as I was.

I haven't since tried to contact Jim again and I don't intend to. Having signed no property contract except with the original property agency, it seems pretty clear that they are still our landlords. What I can't understand is... well, anything else.

It's pretty much beyond the realms of possibility that our property agency could have been taken over by another company and their building swiped from under their noses without them knowing about it. That just doesn't make any sense at all. Yet, if Jim is trying to pull a fast one, she is both an accomplished liar and yet also curiously unintelligent. I mean, what kind of scam artist leaves a signed receipt, valid contact details and gives the money back when asked ?? And why on earth would anyone fake being a landlord ?

Moreover, a month's rent here isn't a huge sum of money. You could buy a very nice sofa with it, or perhaps a week's holiday somewhere not too expensive. Did Jim just need a short-term loan or something ? And what did she think would happen when the property agency noticed we hadn't paid our rent ?

I suspect this weird little debaclé isn't over. But I've got a contract telling me who my landlord is, and it isn't Jim, and no documents of any kind telling me I should do anything Jim says. Any further dealings will be handled face-to-face at the property office, so there won't be any doubt as to who owns the building and who's gone stark raving mad. Apparently it's quite easy to get those confused.

EDIT : The managing director of the company emailed me a notification that Jim is no longer working at said company and acted without authorization. I'm a little disappointed that I'll probably never understand what the heck Jim was trying to do, but the matter is apparently now closed.