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Friday, July 16, 2010

Zermürbungskrieg: The bureaucratic war of attrition

I'm an immigrant. Or at least I'm trying to be. Most people in my situation might prefer to be called an "expat" because it sounds cooler (i.e. sitting in Parisian cafe plotting revolutions and writing novels) and doesn't evoke frightened masses huddled in the creaky hull of a ship catching the first glance of Manhattan, or desperate folks dodging cacti in the desert in 100 degree heat in order to get landscaping jobs in even hotter Phoenix. I am not writing this in a Parisian cafe. I do not feel like an expat. So call me an immigrant. And being an immigrant means going through the immigration office.

It should have been easy. After all, I'm married to a German, and these Germans are efficient, folks, right? The trains all run on time; and they make some killer cars and appliances, which are actually manufactured here, for the most part, not outsourced to some up-and-coming third world country. And opening our German bank account was one of the easiest, most pleasant such processes I can remember*. So why would getting my residency permit be any different?

We were told to arrive early. So we left the apartment at 6:30 a.m., jumped on the U-Bahn, grabbed a really bad coffee in the subway station, got on the S-Bahn and disembarked at a stop in a strangely institutional part of town. We walked past enigmatic factories, and what must have been a coal-fired power plant in a strangely sterile part of town. Big, bunker-like medical facilities filled the horizon. The day, though barely just begun, was already hot. And humid.

The immigration bureau has one entire floor for Turkish immigrants. Meanwhile, North-, South- and Central Americans, Africans, Australians, New Zealanders and etc. all go to another floor. We waited in line for 45 minutes. To get a "waiting number." The women didn't speak English. They asked how long we had been married. Wendy said a long, long time, and snickered. The woman yelled at us (in German, of course, which is so much harsher): This is no laughing matter! Then they informed us we were in the wrong line. We went to a different line, and into a different room, but I'm pretty sure the woman was the same. She sent the children away. She took our passports and my application. When she realized Wendy was a German citizen, but didn't speak German, she looked at us disapprovingly (a common reaction, it turns out ... and, yes, Germany has its own "German-only" crowd). She gave us a number. We waited.

I started to get angry. I looked some stuff up in my dictionary so that I would be prepared next time someone scolded Wendy for not speaking German. "Ihr Grosseltern war im das Gemetzel. Deine Vorfahren töt ihre Vorfahren. Sie is Deutsch weil Deutschland ihr Grosseltern Leben gesteht." I thought it meant: Her grandparents were in the Holocaust. Your ancestors killed her ancestors. She is German because Germany stole her grandparents' lives. It actually means something entirely different about confessing a life and carnage. Perhaps it's best that I never had a chance to use it.

We waited. A heat wave is clobbering Europe. It's the hottest summer in Berlin in 110 years. Every day, temperatures get into the high 90s. It does not cool off at night. People are collapsing from heat stroke on the trains. No one in Berlin has air conditioners, least of all the bureaucratic agencies. Fans are unheard of. An Australian woman, waiting for her work permit, told us that a giant indoor mall here has air conditioning. People flock to it for sanctuary. We waited one hour. And then another. The digital board kept calling the same number, over and over again. The heat kept climbing. I doodled things a sane man should not doodle.

At 10 a.m. a woman came out, locked the door to the office, and put up a sign announcing that they would give out no more waiting numbers that day. The Australian woman talked. My children rolled around on the floor in agony. We waited some more, along with other people from all over the world. Germans do not have water fountains. The immigration office is the only place in Berlin that does not have a donerkebap stand, a currywurst place, or a Lotto/coffee place, or a bakery, or a Turkish fruit stand. The nearest grocery store is way down the street.

We will wait in other un-air-conditioned offices as well: mandatory health insurance, Kindergeld, the job center. The health insurance people will tell us we need our job center numbers, the job center will tell us we need immigration and health insurance numbers. There is no central database from which the bureaucrats can access the other bureacrats' numbers. We will walk/ride the U-Bahn from one office to the next, take a number and wait.

Three and a half hours after arriving at the immigration office, our number flashed on a screen. A woman handed us a paper. We had an appointment to return in four weeks. The paper warned us not to be late, or we would miss our appointment. It also let us know that, even though we had a very defined appointment time, we should expect a long wait.

*Just before we came to Berlin, we went to the Delta, Colo., Wells Fargo to set up the system that would enable us to wire money from our U.S. account to a German account. We sat down with a "personal banker" to do what seemed like a quick and easy process. The personal banker clearly had no idea how to do such a thing, and went searching around the inter tubes to try to figure it out. He spelled our names wrong on the forms several times, and didn't catch it until he printed it out. Then he'd fix it, print out the forms again, and we'd discover another mistake. This went on for hours, while our kids' brains boiled out in the car in the parking lot. Contrast that to our German experience: We walked into the Sparkasse. Found a banker that spoke flawless English. He offered us cappuccino. And we had a German bank account no more than 20 minutes later. Easy as kuchen.


Anjula said...

Hi Jonathan, That sounds so so similar to Indian bureaucracy that I am only smiling out of total and complete empathy. Even the banks in India are pretty horrific (they look at all requests as an interruption to their day of sitting and drinking tea). On the plus side, there are fans in all of these offices ;-) Good luck with with your next meeting in four weeks!

Beth and Mari said...

Thanks, Jonathan. This post does not exactly excite me about what's ahead for me next week. I'm hoping my situation is much different, but I'm prepared for the 'great stamp race'. You have to do it all in the correct order and you have to know when each office is actually open. Fortunately, my new school provides a 'relocation consultant' who will guide me through the quagmire. She claims we can do it all (Einwohnermeldeamt, Arbeitserlaubnis, Versicherung, etc.) in one day. I'm prepared to be running to offices for a week. I've already got all my paperwork in order--including the originals of birth certificates, marriage licenses, and diplomas. I'll let you know how my experience goes.