Visions of a new home become tangled in red tape

In the Czech Republic, where graft is endemic, even getting an electrical connection may require a payoff.

The home of our dreams stands on a hill above a cobblestoned village, and in spring the scent of lilacs floats up from the garden and through the gabled windows.

Someday my husband and I will live there - far from our current, cramped apartment in a smoggy part of Prague, where city buses lumber past the windows and it's rarely quiet enough to hear a bird sing.

The path to our dream, however, has proved circuitous.

This is Central Europe, where even the simplest transaction can hit the snags of bureaucracy and petty graft. The habits of corruption are endemic here - to the extent that Transparency International calls the Czech Republic one of the most corrupt countries in Europe.

Certainly, I have seen policemen bribed and watched my Czech husband's extended family participate in a cycle of nepotism and corruption that gains them everything from free baths at the city spa to higher test scores at university. But while many foreigners joke that it is impossible to live in the Czech Republic without paying bribes, I have thus far managed to avoid it.

Still, the pervasiveness of the problem really only hit home when I tried to apply for a building permit.

After months of searching for just the right spot for our new home, we had bought a plot of land on a hillside above the village of Mnichovice, about 10 miles south of Prague - a coveted location combining country living with proximity to the capital.The $16,000 we paid for the land purchased two acres of sticker bushes and brown grass. Our plot was part of a larger parcel that was subdivided and sold off. The new owners, including my husband and I, must pool resources to build our own road and utility lines before we can even apply for permits to construct houses.

We all met eagerly last spring with plans and drawings of our new houses, most hoping we might be able to build in the fall and find ourselves sitting around snug hearths by winter. Instead, thanks to spider webs of red tape, we spent another winter in drafty old apartments in the city.

Just preparing the applications for approval to build the road has taken a year. Most of our future neighbors were immediately resigned that we would have to pay a lot of bribes to get the necessary documents. When we began the process of applying for housebuilding permits, our neighbors told us in no uncertain terms that we would have to pay the bribes or we would be holding up the entire group. Bribes can cut bureaucratic delays of months or years to a matter of weeks or even days.

Our neighbors quickly hired a woman who had connections and knew which palms to grease to get the road-building permits. The price was $350. But one future neighbor, Roman Jindra, stubbornly maintained that we could do it all by the book, without bribes.

My husband and I then agreed to take on the task of getting the electric company to connect all of us without bribing anyone. We spent several months haggling with bureaucrats, standing in lines, getting stamps, and being denied stamps for every conceivable technical detail.

In January, we could finally see light at the end of the tunnel. We had all of the documents in hand to demand a final contract with the electric company. But then, the bureaucrat in charge of our case informed us that the company could not dig to put in our electrical line because one of the landowners in the area could not be found to give his permission. In fact, the landowner hadn't been seen or heard from in 30 years. The city council told us there was nothing they could do. Our neighbors just laughed. "That is simple," one said bluntly. "It is just his way of asking for a bribe."

Furious and demoralized, my husband met with the other neighbors to discuss how to pay the official off. But then Mr. Jindra arrived, triumphant. He had discovered a state document giving the company permission to build in the area, despite the absent landowner. That was the ace we needed. We brought the documents to the obstinate bureaucrat and demanded to see his superior. Ta da! Our permit was granted the very next day.

But it's way too soon to get cocky or start contemplating the color scheme in my future kitchen. At the next meeting, our neighbors reported another obstacle. The state hygiene office has objected to our houses on the grounds that the nearby railroad noise exceeds health standards - never mind that we currently live amid much louder traffic decibels. You can hear trains passing from our little plot, but it's only an occasional, distant clatter. Still, the tyrants of hygiene contend that we will either be forbidden to build on our land - or we'll have to erect a 20-foot sound barrier costing tens of thousands of dollars.

"I know what to do!" one of our neighbors announced at the next meeting. "I know a man who works with the hygiene department, and if we slip him some cash, he'll take care of it."

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