We arrived early, or so we thought, with 10 minutes to spare before the visa office opened its doors last Thursday morning. The outdoor plaza was already teeming with people. There were two separate crowds before each building, Haus A and Haus B. The lines snaked around and were rather unclear where they started or ended. There were baby strollers in the midst of it all, and many anxious looking people trying to press forward to improve their spot in the line.
This, our fourth visit to the Ausländerbehörde, would be our last, we vowed. We had come by car, driven by our German friend, Hanna, who was glad to be of help but also as eager as we were to get this thing settled. (See Part 1, Part 2).
Our family had been assigned visas in October that were good until February, but that didn’t do us much good when we were committed to staying until school lets out in July.
All we had to do now was show an officer one piece of paper that proved that our health insurance did not, in fact, run out on 12/31/13. It seems we made a tactical error last October. In our zealous efforts to prove we had good American health care coverage that would function in foreign countries, we provided a document they’d never requested. In the corner of the document, in small print, were the effective dates for the plan details, January 1 through December 31, 2013. And noting this, the visa officer had concluded that our coverage ended on that date, and he could not be persuaded otherwise.
“My daughter introduced me to a very wonderful American phrase,” Hanna had said to us. “T-M-I!” She laughed. Too much information.
“You gave them TMI. Don’t do that,” she cautioned. “Don’t give them anything except exactly what they ask for.”
We had tried to get our visas renewed the day before this, only to discover at the entrance that Wednesdays were by appointment only (“nur für Termine”).
This fourth visit to the visa office was our most dramatic, and you might say, if you were a fan of opera and had a penchant for drama, that this day was something like the trials of Tamino and Pamina in the Magic Flute. We had two particular stages of hell that could have sent us packing. Indeed, if it had been up to me, we would have been out of there, not to return until our scheduled appointment, if ever.
And why, you might ask, didn’t we just wait for our appointment anyway? It’s because we’ll be traveling out of the country just prior to the mid-February date; we worried that one or all of us could be held up in customs, trying to re-enter Germany with an expiring visa. It just didn’t seem very advisable to wait when the document we needed was already in hand. Why not just show up and wait our turn like everyone else and get this visa squared away?
The first scene of drama occurred when the doors to Haus A were unlocked. As the doors opened from within, we saw the crowd rise up in a panic and surge forward into the hallway and up the stairs toward the waiting rooms where the machines that dispensed the numbers were mounted on the wall. People were desperate to claim one of the first numbers, or perhaps any number at all.
We saw a woman who was nearly through the door turn back toward the crowd, her eyes wild as people shoved past her. She was trying to be heard above them all, to get her husband to come in with her, but we could not tell which one he was, and soon she was swept up the stairs with the rest of them. We saw grown men climb over baby strollers in their efforts to get in the door ahead of others.
It was quite a scene. M and I hung back, not certain at all that this was the building we needed to enter, and loathe to join the fray. We stared at one another in disbelief. We each admitted later that in that moment, we were afraid.
A minute later, Hanna walked into the plaza, having parked her car a few blocks away. By now the plaza was nearly empty. There was a woman sitting behind a sliding glass window that opened onto the plaza. M and Hanna went up to the window to inquire about our situation.
“Es tut mir leid, but all the numbers have been given out for today,” said the woman behind the glass. It was only 10:05 a.m., and the day’s work had already been carved out. This explained the panic to get in the door; without a number, you’re sunk.
Unless, of course, you have a dogged friend who speaks the native language and is not about to be turned away so easily. Undeterred, our friend led us to Haus B to try our luck there.
All of the numbers had been dispensed in Haus B as well, but if one had a number, we learned, one would proceed to Room 130. Numberless though we were, we went upstairs.
We waited outside the closed door, and when a man left his meeting in Room 130, we slipped in behind him and approached the counter. Someone else’s number had just been called, we knew, but we were stitching things together, filling in that little gap before the next applicant had made their way down the hall. We were, to put it bluntly, butting in line.
The woman behind the counter did not approve of our tricksy ways. Hanna did the talking; she explained we had the paper we needed to receive the full visas we’d requested; surely this would only take a moment of her time. But the woman would not unpurse her lips; without a number, she said, we should return Monday morning at 6:30 to get a number and start over. But we’re here now, Hanna insisted.
The woman said she’d ask a colleague if he’d agree to take on our case. She disappeared for a moment and returned with the same cold look. “No one can help you today,” she said in German. “We’re too busy. Come back Monday, or perhaps you could try room 172.”
Hanna was riled at this. “So this is the famous German bureaucracy!” she spat out in German. “You send us in circles!” She stood and gathered her things.
“Toll System!” she tossed as her parting words, and I couldn’t help but watch the angered, curtained face of the civil servant as we left her office, forced to accept whatever critiques unhappy clients might throw at her.
We went in the hallway to regroup. I, of course, was ready to go home.
A man overheard us speaking in English and came up to us.
A Ukrainian with an American passport, he said, “I’ve been here since 4 a.m.” We were incredulous. He had been told to come early to get a number, and he had, but he was incredibly frustrated after waiting all those hours, only to be one among the throngs who came running in at 10 a.m. He spoke no German. “Do these people speak English?” he asked. Hanna and M said, “Yes, if pressed. They have to.”
We asked if he had a friend who could help him, but he said he’s too new here. His visa expires in February but he was assigned an appointment in March. He was almost shaking, he was so enraged. Alas, he needed his own German friend to guide the way. I wanted to offer Hanna’s services, but they weren’t mine to give.
We went downstairs, almost ready to leave, but Hanna rallied. She went to the window, asked, “Where is room 172?” We’d been offered one last crumb to follow, and we took the bait. Yes, Hanna had it in her. We went back upstairs, waited for someone to come out. When the door opened we tried to go in but a young woman said, “Meine Nummer!” and she and her friend pushed ahead of us. I felt the creep of shame as other eyes in the waiting room turned toward us. Once the young women came out again we slipped in as we had done before, ignoring their incredulous looks.
Behind this counter was an older woman. Hanna said in a calm voice, “I know this is a favor, and we don’t want to add stress to your day, but could you help us? It should only take a couple of minutes.” It would be more than a couple of minutes, of course, since we are a family of five, but yes, in fact, after a moment of requisite denial, she said she would consider our situation. She took our papers down the hall and asked one of her colleagues to help us. The answer, miraculously, was yes. Then from nowhere she handed us a golden ticket, a slip with the number 541, and with this triumphant validation we returned to the waiting room while our papers were being processed.
As we sat in a row of vinyl chairs, another family took the seats in front of us. It was a dad, a mom, a young son, and a German friend like Hanna. The German friend talked and talked to the dad, the dad never responding, just nodding his head continuously as the friend dispensed advice about their new life in Berlin. Though slightly distorted, it was like a mirror of ourselves: new arrivals accompanied by a native speaker who would clear the way.
Hanna noticed that while M was becoming more pleased with our situation—our visas were actually being processed!—I was getting glummer. She asked why. M was delighted that we’d managed to bend the system to our will. I was feeling guilty; the thought of the Ukrainian man and his plight put a face to all of those who came to the bewildering visa office without a friend to smooth their path, yet here we had forced our way in and been served within the hour. They both told me, with laughter and a little ribbing, to get over it.
“His problem is that he doesn’t have a Hanna,” said M. “Haben Sie eine Hanna?” We laughed.
We were called to a new room, where the woman handed us our new visas and said that would be 250 euros, please, which didn’t make sense at all. We didn’t have 250 euros on us, nor did we think it was the correct amount.
M pulled out the meeting appointment sheet showing the amount we’d paid before, 70 euros, and the amount we were told to bring, 175 euros.
So, inexplicably, she said, “Fine, I’ll make it 75,” and she changed our bill to that amount, which didn’t really make sense but we weren’t going to argue with her. M and I exchanged glances, further convinced that the system is made up as they go along.
We took the plastic card she handed us and went to the lobby, where we deposited our bills into the reverse ATM that did not reject a single bill, quite unlike the U-Bahn ticket dispensers when you’re in a hurry. After the last bill was swallowed we hugged each other at the kasse, a three-way hug of relief and accomplishment, though I could hardly look out at the roomful of dour people behind us.
It’s every man for himself at the Ausländerbehörde. That is, every man and his Hanna.