The last experience I had with any type of official German bureaucracy was in January 1990 when I unwittingly got off the train at a station that was in the former East Berlin. I stared at a beefy woman, who I will refer to as Helga. Helga sat sternly behind a pane of glass that was the only thing separating her from turning me into a soprano. At the time, you needed a special visa to enter East Berlin–which I had already paid for. Except Helga kept insisting I give her “five marks, please” for a visa (for those born after the euro way back in the last century, the mark was the German currency at the time). Ah, for the days when there was no TripAdvisor forum to plan ahead for these things!
If I recall the station correctly, today it is called a “ghost station” that you can visit. It looks as it did when it was part of East Berlin. It has been abandoned but I could swear I can still hear Helga’s voice in the ether, demanding “five marks please!”
In order to apply for a visa, open a bank account, pretty much anything official for life in Germany, it all starts with a trip to the Bürgeramt and registering your residence. The stamp of approval you get opens the doors to all else because you now have an official place of residence.
Cut to yesterday. I had made an appointment about six weeks ago at the Bürgeramt in Friedrichshain online because I got lucky enough to find an opening. At the time, everything was booked for about two months and there were no appointments available. It was only by refreshing the page a few times that a spot suddenly opened up (if this trick works for you, you’re welcome). I google-translated (is that a phrase or did I just make something up that I will use until the end of time?) the page so I knew what the heck I needed to do.
The owner of the apartment where I’m currently staying had given me a signed lease agreement that I need to show, along with a completed application, and my passport. I anxiously made my way to the office, not sure what would be awaiting. Would they be nice? Would they speak any English? Would I see Helga, who now has had 25 years of freedom under her belt and might now only turn me into an alto?
First step, I see a queue. A very bland hallway with not a word of English in sight. I figure, that looks like a place I where should stand. So I do. Finally, I get my turn and step into a nondescript office. The man (nope, no Helga yet) told me to go to the first floor and wait in the room for my number to be called.
So far, so good.
A few minutes in the waiting room and my number appears on the television monitor. Room 204. Upstairs I go to the second floor. The nondescript hallway has doors with numbers. However, I should point out that every door is closed. Including 204. Do I knock? Do I just open it and enter? And if I did would I see Helga holding a giant nutcracker?
I figured, only one way to find out. I open the door to a surprisingly large, yet still nondescript, office. No Helga, but rather a seemingly pleasant woman. To erase any pretenses that I could hold a conversation with her in German, I said “hallo,” immediately followed by “mein Deutsch ist nicht gut.” This presented all sorts of problems because her English was “nicht” existent.
But we communicated enough for me to give her everything she needed. Then I saw the look. The universal look that something was not right. She called someone over who, thank god, spoke English. She asked some questions and then told me the landlord’s name is not listed for the address and for that reason, my application could not be processed. WT freaking F? His name is on the entry, the mailbox…more head shaking. There’s nothing I can do? Funny, the woman who didn’t speak a lick of English shook her head at the same time as the other woman. And what about the appointment that takes months to make? Well, fortunately I could come back tomorrow as they accept walk-in appointments certain hours of the day.
I leave, dejected. I shouldn’t have done this. I should have just moved back to Philly. What was I thinking I could make this happen. Then I stopped, took a breath, and sauntered on. I contacted the landlord who couldn’t understand what had happened. He said he is the owner and there must have been an error in their records. But wait, isn’t Germany all about efficiency?
So, he wrote a letter for me to give to them explaining that he is the owner, etc. and that it should suffice. I have my doubts because I’m thinking anyone can write a letter. But then again, it was in German and there was no way they could ever think anyone whose German is “nicht gut” could write that.
Cut to today. With no appointment and now the letter in hand, along with everything else, off I go. Except now I would have to try to explain why I was there as the paper with my appointment was no longer good. Back in the queue in the nondescript hallway, then back in the first nondescript office. “Sprechen Sie Englisch,” I say to the woman? “Sprechen Sie Deutsch,” she says back to me with a smile. Yes, you read that right. A smile! The ghost of Helga could at last be laid to rest! I show her my application and she says I need to fill out a new one because mine is a photocopy and gives me an appointment for two hours later.
I go to a coffeeshop and begin to fill out the new form by looking at the sample form she gave me with instructions in English. I look at the bottom of the sample form where it shows a spot for the landlord signature. WT freaking F? I have to get his signature? And he’s out of town? And now I have to cancel this appointment? Screw that, as I down my perfectly formed flat white! But then I notice on the form itself, the spot for the signature is actually blank – with no instructions. Okay, I’m going to play dumb and take it without a signature to the appointment and hope for the best.
Appointment time. I go back to the waiting room to wait for my number to appear on the screen. It’s a little past the appointment time but my number comes up. I take a deep breath and go to the closed door of the room, open it, and enter a cavernous and I-really-can’t-call-it-a-nondescript office with one kind-looking woman sitting at a desk. “Herr Barmish?” She actually spoke some English and I was proud when I handed her the paperwork and then the letter with an “Ich habe einen Brief.” Yeah, I had google-translated “I have a letter” before the meeting, but it’s the effort that counts! She looked at the paperwork and the letter and did a lot of typing into the computer. A lot more than the previous day. Would it happen? Would the letter suffice? Would the landlord signature not be needed?
Then I saw it. The stamp. Then another stamp. Then a third stamp. She then smiled at me (there it is again!), handed me the stamped form and said that was it (or something like that). A huge weight lifted from my shoulders. And no, it wasn’t Helga sitting on them. I smiled and said “vielen dank” (and no, I knew that expression already), then turned to leave.
Residence registration, done!
Until the next move in three months.