Monday, October 17, 2011

Avoiding the Aüslanderbehörde: Lessons learnt from 12 hours in Prague


Image courtesy of www.prague.net

The Aüslanderbehörde – the foreigners’ office where German visas are processed – has a special status that strikes fear into the hearts of new arrivals. Most non-EU citizens have a three-month grace period (otherwise known as a ‘tourist visa’) where they can live in Germany before applying for a work or student visa. Confirming the requirements for your visa is like searching for a needle in a haystack – the best advice comes from trawling online travel forums. Better still, find a countryman with the type of visa you’re seeking; pray they’ve kept all their paperwork, invite them out for a coffee and make them tell you everything.

Berlin’s Aüslanderbehörde is located in Wedding, and boasts completely inconsistent opening hours, apparently unmanned phone lines, and best of all, a six-week waiting period for an appointment (unless you line up outside at 5am and secure one of the 30-odd same-day appointment tickets). Urban legend has it that the meanest and most short-tempered public servants are drafted to work in this office; they’ll ask for additional paperwork that’s not on the list of required documents, and if you don’t speak German they’ll yell at you until you leave. It took my friend, a Doctoral fellow from the United States, three visits to the Aüslanderbehörde before his application was entered into the system, and that was only because he spoke Filipino to the cleaner, who told him when to come and what to do.

International travel comes cheap
A much better option is to visit the German Embassy in Prague or Brussels, where they’ll process many types of visas on the spot. We chose Prague, given it was only five hours away, and a return ticket on Hungarian bus company Orange Ways is only €25 (no, that’s not a typo; and yes, that’s cheaper than a return ticket from Melbourne to Warrnambool, for all you Western District readers). Leave Berlin at 11:30pm, arrive in Prague the next morning at 5:15am, and come back on the 5pm service that gets to Berlin around 10:30pm.



Ok, so you won’t get your passport stamped on this service, but rest assured “we just popped over to Prague for the day” sounds a hell of a lot cooler than “we stood in line from 5am to 8am in Wedding”.

Your reason for travel is strictly administrational – don’t sweat the cultural stuff
When I lived in London, a weekend on the continent invariably occurred after such frantic tying up of work and domestic loose ends, I’d be lucky if I’d managed to download and print out the Lonely Planet city guide. Given I decided to make this Czech trek on the afternoon of my departure date, it’s fair to say I hadn’t written a Prague ‘to do’ list, and the only Czech words I knew were “Martina Navratilova” and “Karolina Korkova”. Who knew the Czech Repulic didn’t do Euros? Certainly not me. What the hell kind of currency is abbreviated to CZK? For convenience’s sake, we called them Czeckels (rhymes with shekels – as in Israeli). Sounds good, right?*

Embrace the opportunity to explore Prague’s Old Town and the bridges over its picture-perfect Vltava Moldau River, at first light (that is, before the German Embassy opens at 8:30am). By mid-afternoon, the city will be swarming with tour groups – god only knows how busy it must get on a weekend. If you’ve only managed an hour’s sleep on the busride over, when the hysterical fatigue kicks in mid-afternoon, there’s a good chance you’ll actually forget the name of the country you’re visiting, which we found easily interchangeable with Slovenia, Slovakia and Poland (countries I’ve also never visited before).

UK franchises are taking over the world
Prague’s city centre features all the usual suspects – Starbucks, KFC, McDonalds – but it was a surprise to see UK institutions Costas coffee, Marks and Spencer and Debenhams department store also present. Blame it on the tiredness, but we didn’t even think to pick up some knickers and a New York Deli sub from M+S. Rookie error.

You’re basically pulling an all-nighter; pack light
Non negotiables: Passport and entire folder of visa application documents; spare pens and passport photos. Several introductory phrases in German so you don’t look like a complete douchebag when you apply for your visa at the embassy. Camera to document downward spiral into sleep-deprived hysteria.

Unless you’re travelling solo (no need to do this – Berlin is full of expat layabouts keen on spontaneous adventures) there’s no need for paperbacks, Moleskin notebooks, German language textbooks or laptop computers. You’ll just need enough clothing to keep warm on your early morning stroll from the bus station (5:15am is quite possibly the coldest time of the day), which can double as window cushioning during the journey. You won’t regret bringing a toothbrush, baby wipes and spare t-shirt to freshen up before the bus ride home.

Becherovka: a Jägermeister lite
You can’t get a better souvenir to take back to Germany - and to toast to your newly-acquired visa! - than a bottle of Becherovka, a sweet chartreuse-coloured digestif that’s drunk ice cold, or with tonic water as a beton (this name translates to “concrete”). Jäger lovers will dig its herby overtones of cloves, anise and cinnamon, and the fact it’s used as a home remedy for arthritis.


* Currency is actually Czech koruna

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