Feeling a Little Too Good About Yourself? Head to the Foreigners’ Office! (Part I)

I’m standing outside of the Rathaus, sobbing uncontrollably, when I see a German toddler faceplant it on the concrete. It makes me stop crying for a moment and, to be honest, it ends up kind of making my day.

We had just gotten through processing the paperwork for our residence permit extension. Was it successful? Yes, in the end. That doesn’t mean, however, that we got out of there without a fight. I watched the little boy pick himself up off the ground and totter on his way without shedding a tear. I don’t know how much of it is the resilience of little boys and how much is the fact that he’s a no-nonsense German little boy, but he seemed to know how to handle whatever garbage the Rathaus sends his way (including uneven pavement). I could stand to take a lesson from him.

***

It started with the woman who hands out the numbers.

“Do you have your photos with you?”

“Ah, no. We don’t need photos.” Wir brauchen kein photos.

She shakes her head and sighs, readying for a fight. Silly foreigner.

“They cannot process it without the photos.”

“It should be in the computer. They told us last time that we could come without the photos. It’s fine.” I assure her, trying to keep my voice calm.

She shakes her head again, but does not stop shuffling through our paperwork. She’s so right, and we’re so wrong, and supposedly nothing can be done about this situation.

Yet  – she hasn’t told us to leave.

This is always how it goes. When we first arrived in Germany, the woman at passport control did not believe us that we had to get our visas after being in the country. Her job is to know how visas work, so of course she yelled at us and told us we were wrong. But she kept flipping through our passports and eventually (obviously) let us in the country anyway, wrong and illegal as she had claimed us to be.

The woman at the counter finishes her shuffling and hands us two different numbers.

“We only need one -” I start to explain.

“No. One is for Zed and one is for L – ” she snaps, referencing our different last names.

“We’ve always gone in together before,” I say firmly, with a tight smile.

She wavers. “They might send you back out…”

I flash her my brightest, most understanding smile. Germans don’t know what to do when you smile at them for no reason. Or when you want to do something counter-protocol. This was an overall baffling situation for this poor woman.

“Well,” I say with a shrug, “We’ll give it a try. If it doesn’t work, we’ll come back.” Stymied, she lets me walk away with just one number.

We stand in the little waiting room, gazing up at the screen that displays numbers. Everyone clutches their passports and their printed number ticket, gazing up at each “ding” as though waiting for the coming of a god that will answer all of their prayers.

After just a few minutes, our number appears. I detect a few glares from people that have been waiting there longer than us. “We’re probably first because this is so simple,” it’s easy to think to yourself as you find the correct door and enter.

The woman at the desk we’re looking for doesn’t even glance up as we come in. I look at my husband. Do we have the right number? She is busy highlighting the crap out of some papers at her desk, but once she senses us standing there, she sighs, caps the highlighter, and tosses it onto her desk. No, not tosses. Launches.  It clatters like a gunshot, fueled by her frustration at the fact that we’ve interrupted her highlighting. Yes, this must be the place.

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10 responses to “Feeling a Little Too Good About Yourself? Head to the Foreigners’ Office! (Part I)

  1. Oh, boy… That sounds about right. I am sorry you had to go through this. German bureaucracy is terrible!
    I love your remark “Germans don’t know what to do when you smile at them for no reason.” It is so true! I had this conversation with my cousin, because upon returning to Germany for the first time, I felt that everybody was so terribly rude. And I told my family how in Seattle everybody would smile back at you and be really friendly (like holding an elevator – that’s unheard of in Germany!). My cousin replied that he would think I was nuts if I smiled at him without reason on the street. Isn’t that sad? But I think it says a lot about Germans’ mentality.
    I think you managed that appointment very well! You should be proud!

    • No one holds doors for each other at the Uni, unless you’re right smack behind someone who’s entering 🙂 Thanks for reading!

  2. “Everyone clutches their passports and their printed number ticket, gazing up at each “ding” as though waiting for the coming of a god that will answer all of their prayers.”

    Exactly. I love your writing!

  3. Well, these types of bureaucratic nightmares aren’t limited to Germany. I am no longer ashamed to admit that the incredible ineptitude of the Spanish system led me to break into tears not once, not twice, but three times in public. The sheer frustration of waiting, then being turned away for some dumb reason; returning with the different documents they specifically requested and being told they’re not right; having everything in triplicate just so that they couldn’t deny you. There were many times when I feared they’d break me (their ultimate goal, I’m sure), but my American tenacity won out. Just remember: don’t let the bastards get you down.

    It helps if there’s a nearby source of schadenfreude. You should have bought that boy an ice cream. Imagine the fun you would have had explaining to his parent why you wanted to give him a treat!

    • I’m sure it’s rough to go through this stuff in *any* country! And yes, this story presented the perfect opportunity to use that great German word, Schadenfreude. For those who don’t know: taking pleasure in the misery of others 🙂

  4. Pingback: Feeling a Little Too Good About Yourself? Head to the Foreigners’ Office! (Part II) « Wie sagt man…?·

  5. Pingback: Feeling a Little Too Good About Yourself? Head to the Foreigners’ Office! (Part III) « Wie sagt man…?·

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