Encounters with German Bureaucracy, Episode 1: Residence Permits

Reflecting on our year abroad I bring you the first in an occasional series, Encounters with German Bureaucracy. In today’s episode we tackle the residence permit:


One of our first tasks after arriving in Berlin was to get residence permits. For this we traveled to the offices of the Auslanderbehörde which translates as the Aliens Registration Authority. It was a daunting prospect and we had been warned that it could be onerous if not downright unpleasant. The Auslanderbehörde sits next to the river in an industrial area at the edge of the central city. I pictured a space with a waiting room and a row of people behind glass windows but I grossly underestimated the scope of alien registration in Berlin.

The office occupies a sprawling four-storey complex around a central courtyard. A sign at the entrance directs aliens to separate sections and floors based on their citizenships. There is a whole wing dedicated to processing applicants from Turkey. We took ourselves to the wing of the Americas, Oceania and Central and Southern Africa to wait our turn. Walking up the stairs we passed a man in handcuffs being led down by two security guards. K. and I exchanged a look. We each took a child by the shoulder and steered them around the group; hoping they wouldn’t notice the handcuffs and make some loud remark about robbers or bad guys in the echoing staircase. A lesson on citizenship, asylum and deportation for another time.

We found a long hallway of closed doors and then waiting room full of benches with numbers flashing on the wall. Surely we are meant to wait here but how do we get a number? I tried to catch the eyes of the couple in the room, hoping that they would give us a clue but they were busy feeding their newborn and likely distracted by the uncertainty of whether all three of them would get to stay in the same country. After a few minutes a woman came out and ushered us through a door where we finally found a person behind a glass window. This person sent us to a different waiting room.

Again, benches, and numbers on the wall, and a closed door. Emboldened this time, we opened the door to find ourselves face to face with a frowning woman who was pointing at her watch.

“Excuse me, Can we speak in English?” my partner asked in German.

“We are closing now” she answered, also in German.

“We are here from Canada,” he pressed.  “We want to apply for a residence permit.”

“If you want an appointment the next available time is in six weeks.” she said. “Or you can come back when we’re open and take a number and wait. We start giving out numbers at 6:30 tomorrow morning.” She started to turn away.

“We will come back tomorrow,” I said hurriedly, speaking in English. “It’s no problem. We only want to know what we need to bring with us.”

The woman softened very slightly and handed us four copies of the application forms. Then she listed the documents we would have to provide: photographs, proof of health insurance, our passports, marriage certificate, the kids birth certificates. I made a weak effort to explain that Canada has common-law marriage but managed to communicate only that no, we don’t have a marriage certificate. She gave me a withering look but didn’t seem too put out. I remained hopeful that despite the illegitimacy of our children we might be allowed to stay. Hopeful enough to push a bit further:

“If we complete all the forms and get all the documents can one of us submit it here tomorrow? Or do all four of us need to come?

“All four of you need to come” she said.

Hearing this, our six-year old let loose a wail of anguish and threw himself against the counter. Our eight-year old sighed and slumped against me.

I propped them up, smiling apologetically, embarrassed by their rudeness. But strangely, it was not K’s effort at speaking German nor my accommodating meekness that won this woman over; it was our children’s dread at the prospect of having to return to her place of work. She smiled, leaning over the counter. “They don’t like it here?” she asked. “They’re just tired,” I said. “It was a long walk.” She nodded. It was a lie, of course; none of us liked it there.

She chuckled at the kids, then busied herself photocopying one of our passports. “What time do you want to come tomorrow?” she asked, “eight o’clock?” She wrote 8:00 am on the photocopy. “Come here at eight tomorrow,” she said. “Come right to this room with your documents. I will pull four numbers for you.”

“Really? Thank you! Dankeschön,” we said, and hurried out. The kids collapsed onto the benches in the now empty waiting room. “We have to come back?” they moaned, “whyyyyyyyyy?” The woman came out of her booth, locking the door behind her. She smiled at the kids again while we tried to distract her from their scowls by muttering more thank yous and see you tomorrows in broken German.

The next day we got up early, still jet lagged, and made the long trip across the city. The same woman was again cheered by our children’s contempt for the place and processed our paperwork  helpfully. Within a couple of hours we walked out into the morning sun with four German residence permits glued into our passports.

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One response to “Encounters with German Bureaucracy, Episode 1: Residence Permits

  1. One rule for the Germans another for you… Never forget it in the Fatherland. Great post! thanks..

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