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Thursday, August 12, 2010

I feel like Franz Kafka or, The bureaucratic war of attrition continues

I awoke that morning from uneasy dreams. I felt strange, which is not unusual before I have my coffee, but this was different. I felt transformed, though I could not put any more words to it than that.

The day began at 9 a.m. We went to the Job Center to drop off documents and ask a question and get approval for a housing expenditure. They told us that they could not complete our file until we got our health insurance cards from the AOK agency. The Job Center also said they could not answer our question; only the people at the local branch of town hall, or Rathaus, could do that. We went on the subway to the Rathaus. The man there said that we had to come back at 3 p.m., when they would not answer our question, but would tell us where we had to go to have our question answered. We could not call to find out where to go, he said. We had to be there in person. Our German friend was there to translate, but I am beginning to suspect that fluency in the language does not increase understanding, at least when dealing with the bureaucracy.

While we waited for 3 p.m. to arrive, we went across town to the Volkshochschule, where we were to register for our German and integration classes (required as a condition of my residency permit). They gave us a piece of paper, to take back to the Job Center, who would decide whether the government would pay for the classes or not. We went back to the Job Center at 2 p.m. It was closed to everyone without an appointment.

My pre-coffee feeling of being transformed came back to me. People looked different to me, I realized, and they were looking at me in a curious manner.

At 3 p.m., we went back to the Rathaus. The man there looked something up. He said we needed to go to the other branch Rathaus to have our question answered. We got on the subway and went across town. The receptionist sent us to room 146a, which required a seemingly endless trek through the cavernous halls of the Rathaus. People sat in seats in the hallways, waiting. We knocked on door 146a, and a friendly man with long, grey hair and a ponytail emerged (the dress/grooming code amongst German bureaucrats is decidedly casual... many look as if they just got out of bed and forgot to change out of their pajamas). He told us we had to speak to Frau Heinrich, and escorted us to her office door and told us to wait outside. Her door had a sign on it telling visitors to find her at 146b, but the man ignored it. He told us we might have to wait for an hour or more.

We waited. The man disappeared.

The clock ticked. The hall was long, and dark, and empty. We knocked on the door of Frau Heinrich. No one answered. We knocked on her colleague's door, and asked if we had been forgotten. She said no. Then she called Frau Heinrich to make sure we hadn't been forgotten. It turns out we had not been forgotten; Frau Heinrich never knew we were there in the first place. Frau Heinrich emerged from door 146b. She asked us why we had just sat there, waiting. Why didn't we come to 146b, like the sign said? We told her about the ponytail man. She didn't buy the story. I got the impression that she didn't believe the ponytail man existed. I'm not sure I believe it either.

We asked her the question; we needed her to approve an extra expenditure. She fetched her colleague to help her answer the question. They said they could approve it, but that the Job Center is the one who decides, and they would almost certainly say no. But, we explained, the Job Center sent us here; they said you decided. They always do that, the two women said. And we always say yes. And then the Job Center always says no. She gave us a piece of paper to take back to the Job Center.

We walked through the hallways. I suffered a strange hallucination in which the walls and ceiling and doors seemed to expand, and I felt as though I were tiny, like a beetle skittering about on the floor, looking for crumbs in a house full of stomping feet.

We went to the AOK agency, which is quiet and clean and very corporate, but everyone dresses in the same sub-casual way as the bureaucrats. They said they could not give us our insurance cards until the Job Center gave them the final approval. But, we said, the Job Center won't give us final approval until we have our insurance cards. They gave us another document to give to the Job Center. We went home. Darkness and rain settled on the city.

That night, I had uneasy dreams.

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