A brush with bureaucracy, Part I

Buro resident visa office berlin

It’s a welcoming sort of place, as you can plainly see.

I have been remarkably blasé about our visa appointment. M, a stress monkey. I have been convinced there will be no problem; why shouldn’t we be allowed to stay in this country? We have everything we need to show we are a solvent family and will not be a drain on the state. What could go wrong?

As an American, you can stay in Germany for up to 90 days without a visa. If you plan to stay longer, you need to apply in person for a visa. There are two steps to this process. The first is to register your residence with the police.

M tackled this step within our first week in Berlin, as required by law, eager for the chance to use the German he has pieced together from auditing classes alongside his students, combined with years of watching German opera videos.

He sat down with a police officer at the local Rathaus and gave the basic stats — our address and the composition of our family: him, our three daughters, and his… wench. Yes, the word weib rolled off his tongue, because a line from The Magic Flute, “Mann und Weib und Weib und Mann…,” was rolling around in his brain, telling him that’s how you say husband and wife. And perhaps that was the case in the 18th century.

Thus began my introduction to Berlin. The police officer took it all down with a loud snort, no doubt duly noting my status on our permanent record. M corrected himself quickly with “Mein Frau! Mein Frau!” so it was understood that it was his wife, the mother of his children, along, not a cheeky wench, but still the word lingers in the annals of Berlin.

Now the time has come for the visa. A different office, a different bureaucrat. In anticipation of this meeting, M has spoken to a friend, a German professor living in Berlin who we first met in Minneapolis, about what sort of questions to anticipate, what kind of information they might require of us. The website is remarkably unhelpful; the email confirming our appointment fabulously obtuse, made worse when thrown into Google Translate: “If you cannot make your appointment, tell him off,” we’re advised, and I’ll admit, it’s enticing.

We need letters from our employers stating our status, our income, and the conditions under which we can work abroad in Germany. Proof of health insurance; passport-worthy photographs; the passports themselves. Proof of school attendance. Proof of solvency, demonstrated through current bank statements or a letter from a German friend vouching to bail you out if needed.

M even has a letter of affiliation produced by a friend of a friend at a prominent Berlin university. Does M actually have an affiliation with said Berlin university? Such questions. We are merely following the advice of a German immigration lawyer.

Yes, he consulted an immigration lawyer.

I am containing myself here, because M is so stressed out that his back is about to go out over this meeting. Meanwhile I’ve been wondering what all the fuss is about.

Our German friend tells us, “Though your situation is innocent enough, you have no ties to Germany at all! You could be rejected on a whim! You need an affiliation.”

Her friend the lawyer agreed. He said something to this effect: The people you will be dealing with are bureaucrats. They are miserable, and they may be jealous, jealous of your freedom. They may decide they don’t like you. They are not required to grant you a visa. They could say no out of spite.

This is the kind of statement that makes M’s back muscles spasm.

Here we bring our American paychecks to spend in Berlin, a total gain to the local economy, and we could get turned down, sent home, on the whim of a surly bureaucrat? Unlikely, but the slim possibility of it has kept M up at night.

Thus, the lawyer. And what do we do if they turn us down? Well, you simply appeal it and drag it out until you leave next July. To which I say to M, Isn’t law a beautiful thing?

The stress of this meeting has cast a pall on our flat; he and I have printed extraneous documents, reread the confirmation email dozens of times, even paid a professional photographer for our official “biometrische” photographs that meet the standards for the formal application. We’ve taken out hundreds of Euros to bring along, because we have no idea how much the visas would cost. Based on the website, it could be as low as 50 Euros or as high as 1000. Did you feel that zinger up M’s neck?

I thought he was overreacting. I thought we were overprepared. But I was wrong.

M had sent an email to the office weeks ago, asking whether the children needed to come with us, and which form to fill out. The confirmation email said to bring your registration form to the meeting, but provided no link to a form. The list of possible forms on the website was deep, stretching down the page, and that was just for the “A” applications, let alone the rest of the alphabet. All in German. Who knew which application to fill out?

“Don’t worry about it,” I said, ever confident that there would be blank copies we could fill out in the office upon arrival. “We’ll fill them out there.” M trusted me, probably because no one ever responded to his email full of questions and he had no other choice.

At the last moment, our German friend agreed to accompany us to the meeting. The three of us walked from the U-Bahn station to the office, following the helpful signs pointing the way to the Ausländerbehörde Büro, cracking up every time we saw a poster advertising the services of an immigration lawyer tacked conveniently along the path.

We spent half an hour in the sterile waiting room until our number came up on the screen. We found our room, met our bureaucrat, and took our seats. And then it began, ten quick minutes of rapid-fire German telling us no, without five completed applications she could not help us. And no, she could not provide us with blank forms. You must download them off the Internet. (Keep in mind, these are two professors who searched the website and could not ascertain the correct forms. Imagine bona fide immigrants, no computer, no Internet, no Adobe Acrobat, no printer). Oh and no, she couldn’t pull them up on her computer because her Internet was down.

And why on earth didn’t we bring the children along? Yes, they were required to attend. However, as we pointed out to her, it did not say this on the website. We were not told this in the confirmation letter. No one responded to M’s email asking this very question. We erred on the side of sending the three kids to school that day. Our German friend had even questioned my attendance at the meeting, but I wanted to see how bad it would be; another friend had warned us, “It won’t be pleasant.” What can I say; I’m a rower. I was drawn like a moth to the flame.

When should we come back? Well… she looked at her calendar. I’m sorry, but there are no openings until mid-February. We looked at each other in disbelief. We pointed out that our 90-day deadline will pass sometime in November. “Es tut mir leid,” she replied; there’s nothing I can do.

This was the moment when I realized we were in over our heads without our German friend along. She gathered herself together in her chair, steam nearly coming out of her ears, and said, “Entschuldigung, bitte,” and then launched into something sharp and angry and insistent that it was this woman’s job to help us and that we expected her to find a solution.

The woman stared back at her with equal intensity, then picked up the phone, and with little fuss, found us an appointment for next Thursday afternoon. After which I will share Part II of our brush with bureaucracy.

And now if you’ll excuse me I think I’ll go stretch, as I feel a low back muscle starting to twitch.

7 thoughts on “A brush with bureaucracy, Part I

  1. Bobbie Gilkerson

    Yikes, I can’t wait for part 2! My jaw tensed up just reading this. Give my love to M. Your blogs are a highlight of my day.

  2. Gita Mazumdar

    I hope part 2 is with another woman, a well-rested, young, bureaucrat, right after her cup of coffee and daily prayer. It will be smooth and easy and done in 5 minutes. Yes, I recall a robotic adherence to protocol when we were there in 1996. Our family of 4, with 2 small girls, was trying to get off a long-distance train in Bonn. Unfortunately, another family, getting on, put their bags in the doorway, making it difficult, and before we knew it, it was close to the allotted 30 seconds for the stop. We were poised on the step, one foot out the door, and the woman conductor yelled at us and said that we would delay the train, and shut the door. We had to travel all the way to Koln- the next stop- and take another train back, adding 3 hours to our travel time. They are a special breed, I mean bureaucrats, of course.


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