Two weeks in to our year abroad and we had a bank account, bank cards to withdraw money, and residence permits. We had paid our rent and the first instalment of school fees (late). But the school fees were high that first month because we had yet to acquire our Tagesbetreuunggskostenbeteiligungsgesetz. That’s right: we needed some paperwork that was described using one word that generated a four-letter acronym (TKBG). The TKBG, or daily-shared-cost-of-care-law is referred to in English as the daycare voucher. It entitles us to some public subsidy for the portion of the children’s school day that takes place after lessons. Without the voucher, we were paying the full unsubsidized amount that first month. We were assured that our account would be credited once we produced the vouchers.
This one worried us. Before leaving Toronto we had tried several times to figure out whether we would even qualify for the child care subsidy. Before confirming our kids’ places at the school we had asked for some kind of assurance that we would get the subsidy. It came, but vaguely. There were conflicting documents showing how much the child care portion of the day would cost without a subsidy. One document reported a manageable number; one didn’t. The month that we paid for with no voucher cost us €800 and it wasn’t going to be possible to keep that up for nine more months. So we approached the voucher application cautiously and thoroughly. We went to the municipal office armed with our tax summaries from the year before. I had invoices from past clients and my business registration information. K. had letters from his university showing that he worked there and that they were continuing to pay him during this year of research leave. We had been told by friends that we had to prove two things: that we worked enough hours to need child care; but that we didn’t make enough money to pay for it.
The stakes were high and it did not come as a comfort when the guy at the reception desk of the municipal office didn’t even know where to send us. He told us to go up to the third floor and so we did. There were no signs bearing words that we could recognize that might indicate we were in the right place. There were corridors with closed doors. By now we had learned that closed doors in Berlin didn’t necessarily mean ‘do not disturb’. They might mean that, but they don’t necessarily. Not in the way that a closed door in an office in Toronto would mean, without a doubt: do not disturb. Here, it seemed that people simply closed their doors when they worked. And if you wanted to speak with them, you knocked and went in. And they may or may not be pissed off when you did. This was unsettling for two new arrivals hoping to avoid paying €800 per month in child care fees.
We wandered around a bit, and found an open door. We excused ourselves, and showed her our paperwork asking where she thought we ought to go. She sent us to another floor where someone there helpfully suggested we go back down and ask at the reception. Finally, after a thorough self-guided tour of the building, two friendly women debated with each other before agreeing that we were in the wrong place. What we had to do was leave the building, go through a connected lobby and up the elevators into another building. On the third floor of that building we found clear and present signs of being in the right place. Kids were bouncing on chairs while their parents waited with paperwork. Signs directed parents of kindergarteners to one area and parents of grundschülers like us to another. It felt like success; just finding the right office! We forgot for a moment that someone in this office still had to decide that we worked too much but made too little money to pay for child care.
We found the waiting room. It had people waiting in it. By now we didn’t expect the waiting system to be obvious but we knew enough to know that there was indeed a waiting system. So we lingered looking hopeful until a man seated on the ground with his son told us that there were number cards on the table. We thanked him and took a number.
When our turn came we followed a very petite, severely dressed woman into her office. She looked stern and uncomfortable in her tiny skirt and very high heels and tight blouse. K. started to speak in German and she quickly asked whether English would be better. Yes, please. Then she smiled and launched into perfect British-accented English and was only too pleased to help. I relaxed a bit; realizing that I kept expecting people to be abrupt and mean and they kept surprising me. This woman couldn’t do much for us, however, because our information was not yet in her computer system. She accompanied us down a long corridor, knocked on a closed door that looked like all the other closed doors, and introduced us to her colleague who would get all our data inputted.
This woman took one look at our pile of papers and seemed not to question that we worked enough hours to need child care. So our paperwork was soon complete and we headed out with our Tagesbetreuunggskostenbeteiligungsgezetz in hand.
And here’s where we got lucky: the cost of child care, even when receiving the lowest subsidy, is not €800 per month; it’s half of that. The conflicting reports we’d had about the fees were both right – one told us what we’d pay without a voucher and one told us what we’d pay with a voucher but no subsidy. Or something. In any case, our school fees became manageable and we added the TKBGs to our growing pile of bureaucratic successes.