Wednesday, September 28, 2011

What's long, boring, slightly stressful, and could be improved 200% by providing tasty snacks and a bar?



Here in Germany, you’re meant to register your place of residence at your local residents bureau (Bürgeramt) within a week of arriving, or moving house. The stamped receipt you get once you’ve submitted a special form and had your passport checked is the basis for all further émigré shenanigans, such as opening a bank account or applying for a working permit.
After nine weeks as an unofficial resident, it was high time I ticked this bureaucratic box. My housemate, who helped translate the questions on the form for me, said he didn’t register for two years after moving to Berlin from Munich. Evidently he already had a bank account and no need for hiring videos or library books.
At the Bürgeramt, once they've noted your completed form and passport, you’re given a number and sent to sit in a waiting room until it’s your turn to have your document processed. It’s a lot like the waiting area in Argos, except for completely inconsistent opening hours, and no likelihood of a big cheap parcel arriving at the end. If only it were a fish and chip shop, and my number 98 flashing on the screen on the wall meant I was just moments away from burning my hands on a molten bag of steamed dim sims. Here, even the best-case scenario still involves general incomprehension and it’s a safe bet there won’t be any take-away food exchanged.
The waiting room, being totally devoid of any soft surfaces, amplifies the various toddlers’ squeals and screams to such a degree so as to actually induce a hangover out of thin air. I watch a Turkish lady have a baby wipes wash – armpits and all! – while her husband sits five seats away from her. The only other arrivals who get my attention during the ensuing two hours are an emaciated girl whose starved legs look like metal rods through her thick winter trousers, and a young woman in a tight white top who’s neglected to wear a bra.
Like so many aspects of the international relocation process, this initial task can be all too easily sidelined due to the minutia of bureaucracy. It’s not so much a vicious cycle but a chain of ‘can’t do this until I’ve done that’s which invariably backtracks to an infuriating hurdle that only time will solve. I can’t apply for a work permit until I register at the Bürgeramt, but I couldn’t fill out the form until I had my landlord’s contact details. My housemates had the details, but were away in South America until last week. For a week last month, I was under the impression that my passport expired in September 2012, not 2013. Therefore, before I applied for my visa, I needed to renew my passport. But I couldn’t complete my passport renewal form until I recalled who had ‘endorsed’ and signed my previous renewal application, nine years ago. Furthermore, payment for passport renewal at Berlin’s Australian consulate is only accepted via direct bank transfer. So unless I wanted to be stung an extra £20 by HSBC for an international bank transfer, I needed to find and pay a Berliner to do it on my behalf. The obvious candidates, my housemates, weren’t returning to Berlin for three weeks.
A late rush through the upper 80s and 90s means my number flashes up on the screen at 1:16pm, exactly two hours and 27 minutes after I sat down. Behind interview room 16, it could be any council office from Morden to Mooroolbark. There’s even a not-quite-Franklin-Mint collection of fairy figurines on a window sill(surely the most depressing and most predictable of council staff accoutrements), and pictures of flowers and greenery taped to the wall to compensate for the dreary pot plants.
I hand the lady my passport and form, deliver my most confident “Guten Tag!” and hope for the best. Four minutes and one thump of a date stamp later, it’s all over and my residence is officially registered. Besides flagging two spots on the form I’d failed to fill in, she didn’t grill me – she even translated her questions into English. She didn’t even look at the arrival dates in my passport! Danke schön! Now, fingers crossed for the working visa interview…