Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Five tricks to make sure you get what you want from a Berlin bureaucrat

One of the more anxiety producing aspects of moving here were the many visits to public offices I had to make: registering us at our new house, applying for an ID and a drivers’ license (two separate documents here), applying for passports for the kids (still unaccomplished, because the officials here insist on the completely nonsensical step of sending an inquiry to the embassy in Houston, which has never heard of my kids, and the inquiry is probably sitting on the “I don’t know what the fuck to do with this” - pile on someone’s desk ), updating the civic records (I am still working on this nightmare, and according to the German system I am still married to Rory’s dad), getting health insurance, applying for benefits (Kindergeld!), dealing with the property management company (on getting a “pet permit”, among other things, in which you have to describe the cat, its age, breed, sexual status, and whether it will roam the yard or not. Then they send you the permit, which you have to sign and send back. Wow.)

Some lessons I learned:

1. Don't take No for an answer

In Berlin, when you ask a bureaucrat for something, the first answer will always be a standard gruff “No.” or if you are lucky, a “Well, that’s not as easy as you think.” No reason to lose hope. No does NOT mean no. It means, really, you are going to bother me with this shit? Just keep asking, explaining, politely insisting. The more you talk to them, the more the human connection develops, difficulties will eventually unravel, barriers melt away.

2. Let them go through their process

I applied for an “education coupon” at the Department of Labor to fund the EU Grant Writer Certificate course I am taking. It was a five step/five person/five appointment process, filling out forms, getting registered as unemployed (but not receiving benefits), entering all my information into their database and finally pitching my case for the coupon. I patiently went through all of it (in particular, painfully watching my caseworker slowly enter my work history while completely lacking the ability to type or spell).

I didn’t even mention the coupon idea until my caseworker had done her whole thing and had gotten to know me. We talked about her cats, too (Maine Coons). Then it was a breeze – she approved the 6,000 Euro plus a public transportation pass for 6 months, right away. Ka-ching!

3. Respect their work

The first thing we had to do was register ourselves at our new place of residence. In the process, working with the clerk, the ugly truth came out: I had failed to unregister from my dad’s place, where I was registered in the late 90ies so I could vote (and, I admit, receive Kindergeld for Rory). My dad has not lived there for several years…..The clerk was not happy: “How long ago did you leave there?” I said, at least 12 years ago, and then I made the mistake: I chuckled at my careless oversight of proper process. She stopped, turned from her computer and gave me the stern look. Then she said: "It’s not funny. (pause) We are trying to run a citizen registry here. "

Oops. After I apologized, she came back around, and was really helpful.

4. Don't write someone off as an asshole

I gotta tell the bus driver story here. Benny and I are on the way to the Halloween store, late October weekday, rush hour. Berlin double decker bus, stuffed with people (and another empty bus of course right behind it). Bus drivers are sort of a type of bureaucrat, public employees, selling and checking tickets, and calmly negotiating insane Berlin traffic while trying to obey the rules… which becomes hard when there is too many people on the bus. Passengers start conglomerating in the walkways, on the stairs, and what’s worse, in front of the exits, which makes the doors open and close madly. At this point, our driver loses it, publicly, on the PA, for everyone to witness: “OK, FINE. WE ARE NOT GOING ANYWHERE UNTIL YOU IDIOTS STEP AWAY FROM THE DOOR!” Then he rants on about how he is going to lose his license if anyone gets hurt while hanging out in the walkways. He is yelling at the top of his lungs in Berlin dialect, using cusswords. People are leaving the bus, because they feel offended by this, not without first engaging in a shouting match with the driver on the way out – there’s lots of time now because a new wave of people-sheep is idiotically blocking the doors. Benny and I squeeze out at our stop, stunned by all the urban aggression we were just exposed to.

We buy black contact lenses and a cape at Deko-Behrend. On the way back, we get on the bus and this time we have to buy tickets (it was before I got the pass from Department of Labor), which is usually a harrowing experience. As we get on, Benny says under his breath, look, it’s the same asshole driver. I manage: “One regular and one discount ticket”. He looks at me and sighs, and then bombards me with a series of questions, kind of like when you try to order breakfast at an American restaurant: which tariff zone, short route or long route, etc etc. I try to respond, unsure whether our planned trip still qualifies as short route (less than 6 stops). He takes a breath and says, very patiently and nicely: "So, where are you going?"  I respond “Rathaus Steglitz”, and he considers this for a second. Then, he smilingly sells us short route tickets, even though it is actually more stops. We walk upstairs, stunned by how nice the asshole can be, even bending the rules and saving us a few bucks. Go figure. 

5. Humor the humor

Banking works really differently here. No checks, just transfers. Most of these you can do online, but sometimes I have to go and fill out the transfer form, and hand it to the teller. She is the only teller at the bank, handling all the customer traffic, standing on her feet all day behind a counter. I can’t believe they don’t give her a bar stool at least. There are always at least 6 people in line. There are about 10 other employees at this branch, they all have desks and cushy chairs, sit there and shuffle papers, and I have no idea what the fuck they do all day.

Anyway, this poor lady takes my filled out transfer form. 

I go: Can you check that I did everything right? This is the dilemma of the repatriated: I look German, am German by name, speak German without an accent, and I come across like a complete idiot because I don’t know how banking works. Like someone locked me in a basement for 20 years and I turned into a savage. The teller knows though, because I had explained to her previously: I have lived abroad, and I need to re-learn the German stuff.

So she smiles benevolently, looking at my form, and then turns it over. On the back there is a kind of legend that shows idiots like me how to write numbers - so the computer can read them. You have to cross your sevens. And your ones have to have the little extra roof line, that makes it look like an American 7. I feel like an idiot. Then she turns the form back over and says, in an attempt at bureaucrat humor: ‘Damit wir hier aktiv werden, muessen Sie das noch unterschreiben.” Sort of: “For us to do anything with this, you are going to have to sign it, too.” Duh. I am a little offended, but then I realize, this is not mean. It’s just Berlin humor. It’s coarse, it’s in dialect, and it always comes across “belehrend”, arrogantly instructive. But it’s usually good hearted. It’s called “Berliner Schnauze” and it gets them through the day.

P.S. Of course, just because Berliners are generally rude, it doesn’t mean there are no assholes here. There are plenty of them, too.

1 comment:

Rachel said...

Yay! A new blog post! I've been hoping another would appear in my inbox soon. I think the citizen registry story is my favorite. Guess what - I'm going to visit you all in Germany...I July or August. More details to follow via e-mail when I figure them out. While I don't anticipate much bureaucratic dealings, I'll keep these tips in mind, just in case.