We have this little game in my family where we like to talk about what our personal hell would look like. My step-dad is convinced that his hell would be filled with roll after roll of plastic produce bags that he will have to open, though his fingers will of course be covered in oil and they really don’t open at all. My mother will be riding in a truck cab on a bumpy road next to my grandmother loudly smacking her gum while Burle Ives blares on the crackly radio. My handsome husband refuses to play the game, and I’ve never been able to pinpoint my own until very recently.
I’ve decided that my own personal hell is most assuredly filled with jargon filled paperwork in German that slightly rephrases the same question multiple times and forces you to write the same information repeatedly over the course of the document. Naturally I will be sitting in a waiting room that is in the old German style. That means that I will walk down a long corridor of closed doors to pick up a number and then sit in a room full of benches facing a giant board where the numbers when called will light up next to a room number that you then have to find. After I find the room number, the nice person behind the desk will then kindly inform me that I was in the wrong waiting area and I’ll have to go to such-and-such waiting area and get a new number. Once I’m finally in the door of the right area in the endless maze of buildings with a plethora of waiting rooms in them, I will naturally have filled out all the forms incorrectly and then be forced to not only fill them all out again, but to go find a new waiting area for people who have made mistakes on their forms…and on and on and on and on as Sisyphus I will keep plugging away at the bureaucrazy.
I get a chill just thinking about the horribleness!!!!
I only had a taste of this last week when we went to get our Aufenthaltserlaubnis (residency permit) at the Ausländerbehörde (foreigner's office), and it almost sent me into the corner with my fingers in my ears screaming “Lalalalalalala, I don’t know what you want. Lalalalalala!”
It took us 7 weeks to get an appointment. For all 4 of us, I had to make sure to bring: Insurance papers, Passports, Passport photos, Registration Forms, and for me my letter of support from my German funders. Naturally, each one of these things had their own challenges in order to acquire. Have you ever tried to get a proper passport photo from a squirmy 17 month old? Anyway, the night before I got it all together and had it ready for us to walk out the door the next morning.
We arrived at the Foreigner’s Office, which is about 7 blocks away from the nearest public transportation stop and situated in the middle of a bunch of factories, on a drizzly day with temperatures in the mid 30s (Fahrenheit—about 5 Celsius). Thank goodness we’d made an appointment, because just the week before our friend had waited 6 hours (1 hour outside before they opened & 5 inside with a number) to get her very same visa that we were looking to get. There were 5 buildings to enter, but thankfully there was a nice guard station at the front gate to direct us to the right place. The first thing he asked me was for my appointment number.
What was the one thing I forgot to print and bring with us? The appointment sheet.
Umm…soo you may just have to take a number and wait, he informs us.
Now I am starting to panic. I can’t wait for 5 hours with a 3.5 year old and a 17 month old and a lovely husband who would be as helpful as possible. We aren’t prepared; we didn’t bring THAT many snacks & games!!
Andy says, “Oh don’t worry, you should have it in your email.”
He pulls his up on my handy dandy iPhone…it is blank!
Oh Scheisse! Scheisse Scheisse Scheisse!
Finally, after a near panic attack when Andy berated me for never downloading the App for my Gmail (seriously, not the time for that honey!), he found the appointment number with only 3 minutes to spare. We arrived at the proper waiting room and were summoned to the appropriate torture chamber (ahem) I mean, welcome wagon room, only 15 minutes after our appointment.
The lady who processed our visas was very nice, though I’m still not sure she didn’t live in her office because she had a microwave, a coffee maker, a water heater, and snacks on a side table there. I kept trying to peek under one of her two desks to see if there was a roll-away bed tucked underneath. 2 things I thought were extremely odd about the whole experience besides the whole figuring out where to go thing.
1. The doors! There were soo many loooong hallways full of closed doors to offices, but when we finally got in the office for the lady who would process our visas, it looked much different. Behind those closed doors to the hallway, there were doors that connected each and every office like a giant shotgun apartment complex that lead up to the main office that you could only access if you worked there. This ladies office, and all the ones I could see from it, had 3 doors. 1 to the hallway (south), 1 to the office to the east and one to the office to the west. She had a big set of windows on the north wall of her office too, but these doors were fascinating. I could hear everything that was going on in the office next door. (All of it was happening in Englisch, while I was conducting everything in German with this lady whose Englisch was negligible).
2. Expectations: namely, the beaten down German bureaucrat that processed our visas’ expectations! She processed mine first, then Andy’s, and then had to leave the room to go get more official visa stickers for the girls' passports. Not because they needed special kiddie stickers for theirs, NO, because she had run out of them. Did I mention that we had our appointment first thing in the morning when they opened? That made me laugh so hard when she left to go get more stickers. Did she honestly expect to only process 2 visas all day long? WHUCK?!?!?! That’s funny. She also did not expect an American to speak “such good German” but I’m getting used to that backhanded compliment.
All told, our adventure to the Foreigner’s Office probably shaved some years off of my life because of the stress, but in the end wasn’t so bad. From the time of our scheduled appointment until we walked out with our 4 visas in hand was less than 1 ½ hours! Lesson learned, when possible, make an appointment. We have lived to tell the tale, and are much the wiser for it all. Surely there will be more bureaucrazy between now and next October when we go home.