You can’t escape Bureaucracy

| October 4, 2013

Last week, I received a letter.  The letterhead featured the same logo as the school I attend for my German classes, so my mind was instantly polluted.  I glanced at the form and saw the word-within-a-word prüfung.  Since I already associated the letter with school and I happen to have a big test coming up—the one the ladies in the citizenship track must pass, and for which my teacher and I have discussed two different options for me—I assumed the word carried that one of its meanings: ‘test’.  I did not think about the fact that the logo on my Volkshochschule course catalog is actually connected to the Landkreis, or local government district.  More importantly, I did not read the words surrounding prüfung to see that the box was checked for me to speak with them about Überprüfung des Aufenthaltstitels, as in dealing with the business of checking residency permits.

Instead, I threw the letter into my schoolbag to ask my teacher if I needed to schedule my upcoming test and what documents I needed to bring, since I had noticed another checked box said to bring my passport.  When my teacher saw the letter, she informed me that it wasn’t from the school, it was from the Ausländerbehörde, or “Foreigners Authority”, which I’m going to liken to the Immigration Department until someone notifies me of a better equivalent.

I thought perhaps it was time to read this letter in its entirety .

Before going any further, I would like to share the most amusing part of this process (actually, the only amusing part).  This letter requested that I please visit them over the next few days.  Not by a certain date, not with consequence, but just, hey, stop on by sometime soon.  I thought it rather casual for folks who want to make sure you’re in the country legally.

I left the classroom to call my husband, who was in the process of an orderly shutdown at work thanks to a little thing called a Government Shutdown occurring in the US.  I wanted to make sure that any documents proving I had the right to be in Germany would not be locked in a US facility for 2 months while some clowns in Washington tried to sort out health care disagreements and then the Debt Ceiling.

Paul said, oh, you just need the official visa in your passport and our lease showing you’re a resident of Dieburg.   I didn’t think our lease was the kind of proof of residency they wanted, but okay, today I packed up our lease, my passport, and Paul’s orders.

We thought that I just needed to stop in the local Rathaus, where I originally registered.  Although the letter noted that the hours for interviews (Interviews?  Hmm…) were from 0800-1200 and I should allow 30 minutes for an interview (Thirty-minute interviews?  What is going on here?), I thought the whole process would be quick and painless since our Rathaus is small and I’m here legally with very clear documentation.  Unfortunately, the woman at the Rathaus informed me, the issue was not with them, it was with the actual Immigration Office of our district.  Displeased, I headed over.

A German immigration office looks like an American immigration office: a bunch of confused, disgruntled, and/or worried-looking people standing in a long, long line, waiting to see the first desk in a series of desks.  And so I stood.

As I stood, I began to get mad at American politicians.  Why, you ask?  Because normally, I would walk up to the desk, plunk down my official passport, show my papers, and demand to know why on earth I, the dependent of an American civilian on official assignment to Germany, was being summoned to the immigration office.  But today, I am not proud to slap down an official American passport while my country is in a political clusterfuck and my husband is sitting at home watching German TV trying to learn the rules of cricket as one of his furlough goals.  I’m especially embarrassed knowing full well how Germans view said clusterfuck.

I am being robbed of my signature Martindale huff!

So I waited.  For an hour.  My official passport meaning nothing to the guy at the desk, I was sent to the fifth floor.  There, I found masses—masses—of people overflowing the waiting room.  According to the television displaying the numbers in the queue, there were seven people ahead of me for my interview room.  You know, the one I was to allow half an hour for.  I did the math.  The Shutdown was likely to end before I’d be out of there.

As I waited, though, I wasn’t just mad.  When you’re in the queue to enter a small room to be questioned by a foreign official about your right to be in the country, no matter your documentation and the legality of your presence, there’s a part of you that’s nervous.  We all know what bureaucracy is like.  Plus, with the US government shut down, I’m thinking, who is going to help me if I need help?  No one.  So you’re not just mad—you’re feeling the stress.  You’re trying to remember which side of the bed your husband sleeps on and the colors of the German flag.

I texted Paul, who was on a bike ride, to tell him that he’d need to be prepared to meet Sequoia after school since I was probably not going to be out of there in time.  I mentioned in the text how far back in line I was for my interview.

Back to seething, I was now dividing my time between the US government and the German immigration department.  After almost an hour, I went back down to registration to demand to know why I was here.  The line was twice as long as when I’d first arrived.  I looked at my letter and found a phone number.  I called the department.  Our German conversation can be summed thusly: “You must wait.”

Even more fired up, I sat back down and steamed.  When Paul finally got my text, he replied, “Interview?”  I vented.  I mentioned that I was in the non-visa-holders office and he said, “You have a visa.”  That’s right.  I do.  Fired up again, I stormed back downstairs to registration, now empty because they were turning people away since upstairs had become overcrowded.  After a brief wait, I slammed down my letter and passport and demanded—this time in English—to know why I was here.

“You got a letter.”

“WHY did I get a letter?  You sent me to the 5th floor.  Is that for non-visa-holders?”

“Yes.”

“I HAVE A VISA.”

“But for only three months.”

“THREE YEARS.”

[He took a close look at the passport, and then the orders I shoved in his face, which a “Doh!” look then came across.]

He sent me to a new office number on the non-visa-holders floor and told me it would not be as long a wait.  As I stood in line, I caused the people around me to stare as if I were completely deranged when I suddenly busted up laughing as I read the following reply from Paul to an email I’d sent earlier:


KARI MARTINDALE

I’m basically in a line of immigrants at a bureaucratic office.

PAUL MARTINDALE

Think of it as a trial run for when we have to try and get citizenship after the US fails and abandons us here.


Eventually I made it into the office.  There, a nice enough man asked what he could do for me.  I was calm with him.  Back into German, we had the following exchange:

Me:      I have a letter.  I don’t know why.  I am the wife of a man here on official assignment.  I already have a visa.

Him:    What have we here, then?

[I give him my documents, which he stares at.  They’re not the kind he’s used to seeing.]

Him:    Is he in the Army?

Me:      He is here with the Army.  He is retired military.  He is Department of Defense—I don’t know “Department of Defense” in German

[He nods]

Department of Defense Civilian.  That means he is at home.  Government Shutdown.

[He smiles]

Me [pointing to specific boxes]:       This is for 36 months.  This is for Germany.  This is my name.

Him:    But when was this issued?

[It took me forever, but I found last year’s date]

Him:    Okay, this is all good.  I will make copies and enter the information.

Me:      Good…

Him:    [looking at my passport wallet] Your whole family?

Me:      Just me and my daughter.  She is in school in Dieburg.

[He nods]

Me:      We both have two: One official, one “tourist” for travel not official.

[He clearly was not used to seeing that]

Him:    And your husband?

Me:      His passport is at home.  He is at home.  Government Shutdown.

[He smiles again.  I text Paul for his passport number.]

Him, while entering information:    When were you married?

Me:      Me?  Me and my husband?

Him:    Yes.

Me:      Uh…

[He smiles]

Me:      September.  Thirteen September?  Yes.  Thirteen.

[He continues to be amused by the Frau’s uncertainty]

Me:      2002?  Eleven years.  2002?

Him:    Yes, that’s eleven years.  Eleven years?  So young.

[I smile]

He entered all of our information and said I was good for two more years.  I thanked him, left his office, and after three and a half hours in the Landrat, was about to leave.  But first I checked the screen.  There were still five people ahead of my number for the office to which I’d been assigned.  If my husband is given the opportunity to extend our time in Germany, he’s the one going back–with number 450, which probably won’t have been called yet.

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Category: In Germany A Broad blog, Shits & Giggles

About the Author ()

Kari Martindale is a writer and ESL instructor. She’s visited all 50 states and 37 countries, including many of the big cities of Europe and a ton of Christmas Markets. She spends her days straddling the fence between a sense of adventure and a sense of dread. She is married to what is clearly a patient man and has a daughter who, frustratingly, is just like her. Her academic and professional backgrounds are in linguistics and foreign languages. When she's not teaching ESL, she's writing. When she's not writing, she's thinking about her next trip.

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