Last week I returned, once again, to the local authorities for an extension on my visa which allows me to live and work in Germany. The Landratsamt – Breisgau — Hochschwarzwald is like many other government buildings, functional and institutional. There is a lot of concrete, and only one flight of stairs down has the feel of being subterranean.
I have spent a great deal of effort photocopying my forms and checking off lists of documents that are full of official stamps. A hefty file folder sits in my bag and summarizes my basic existence in Germany. As I stand at a cross walk waiting for the lights to change my thoughts begin to wander. A few men are standing behind me, and a few other people standing at the street corner. The men are loudly speaking a language that I do not recognize. They seem to be having a conversation well known to them which is punctuated with what I considered to be sarcastic laughter, but they seem to be in good spirits. I realize that in my own nervousness in going to visit the government building and its power-welding employees that I am probably feeling a bit threatened for no good reason. A bunch of traffic drives past and there is a pause of absolutely no street traffic. There are no cars, nor bikes of any kind. I, and the several people gathered on either side of the cross walk stand and wait for the ‘green man’ walking light. The three men behind, push and bump there way through the little crowd standing at the corner and walk across the street. I find myself shaking my head along with the others, and seeing what looks like one parent across the road standing with a hand on the shoulder of a child, shooting daggers at the men as they amble across the quiet intersection with the blazing ‘red man’ crossing signal burning a hole in the grey air.
I find myself irritated that the three men have now successfully crossed the road, but now stop on the opposite corner as the crosswalk light turns green for pedestrians, so that they can turn and stare – no, stop and ogle – a young woman crossing the street. The scene prompts whispered remarks and shaking of heads again from the other people gathered.
By this time, I think that I really don’t need the negative thoughts racing through my head prior to my visit to the visa office so I hurriedly walk past and ahead of the three young men still laughing and still rubbernecking the women crossing the road.
It isn’t a long before I turn the corner and see the building looming on the next city block and I begin to think to myself, “Do I have that form? Did I take that document?”. Like checking for watch, wallet, glasses…I am padding myself down and opening my bag to check for the umpteenth time my list of items which I might need. I feel a fool. Now the three men are past me again and seem to be going to the same building. This would not be unusual.
As it turns out, they are heading to the same building, and the same department. And this is where I start to think to myself about my hidden anger. Despite being 30 minutes early for opening time, there is already a line up of about 50 people, just for the ticket dispenser. There are some changes since the last time I visited, notably, there are two security guards giving people, in a friendly way, instructions on how to line up, and how to speed up the process by having your Personalausweiß (ID like my Passport) handy, as your name and place in the line up will be required by the woman entering the information into the ticket machine. Having an employee at the ticket dispenser is also a new feature, and it certainly seemed to speed things up.
This process did not seem to impress the three young men who now stood in front of me in the snaking line. For one, they did not seem to understand the instructions, despite the repeated attempts to clarify by one security guard. Once the instructions seemed to be understood there seemed to be a lot of disbelief on a couple of accounts. One was, that only one of the three had business to conduct in the office, the other two were just buddies or relatives along for the journey. Only the one conducting business needed to be in line. This seemed hard to understand that not all three needed a ticket. The other complication was that the fellow which needed a ticket, had no personal ID in order to get a ticket. He argued that he would use his friends ID instead. This was also met with more clarity around the rules offered by the still smiling security guard. To my dismay the one fellow left the line up and walked up to the front of the line and after some waving of arms and shouting back and forth this his two friends, or family members, tried to explain to the guard that he doesn’t need to wait in the line up, and that they don’t need a woman to help them at the end of the line.
This ended up to be the end of the line for the three men who were politely told by the still smiling security guard that there is a procedure and rules that need to be followed. The three men left for home to get the necessary documentation, and I hope, a bit more humility.
These events are relatively uncommon, but they are part of the ‘gut-reactions’ that often lead to miscommunication and prejudice. I know that I was dismayed at the behaviours around the treatment of women while crossing the road. What I am left with after the relatively brief encounter is the professionalism of the staff, especially the smiling security guard. Crossing on a red light is a cultural ‘no-no’ in Germany, and even Germans will have a laugh about this at times. My own personal cultural taboo was crossed with what looked like the disrespect and objectification of women, especially women in some role of authority like a the ticket giver.
After not too long a time, I found myself at the front of the line and greeted the woman asking for my ID so she could see my name. After saying good day, the woman looked up with stunned shock that I had spoken to her. She even said this aloud and was glad to return a final greeting as I departed to look for a hard plastic seat for my long wait.
The procedure past the ticket dispenser is a long wait sitting in an uncomfortable chair glancing up at a tv screen waiting for the opening time to start and the various ticket numbers to start flashing next to room numbers. There are all sorts of different tactics and behaviours for this wait. Some people, like a man sitting next to me in a chair, rocks gently back and forth with breathing that sounds like he’s in a pre-natal class preparing to give birth. Then there are those who ‘camp out’ with computers watching foreign shows and movies, spreading a small banquet over one of the few tables. Then there are those, who are the opportunistic type that go from door to door in this circular hallway knocking quickly and then going in to the small office. One such fellow did exactly this to the office door which was nearest where I sat. A slightly tired and irritated voice of a woman came through the shut door explaining that, “No, you cannot just come in and jump the cue, there is a process. No, I cannot help you with these papers. No, you will need to wait outside please.” Then, out comes the man, and off he goes to the next door.
It was not as long a wait as I had thought until my ticket Letter and Number ‘pinged’ on the many screens. I jumped up with my belongings and ran for the door like I’d won some jackpot. A quick knock on the door before entering and an official looking across the desk asked for proof of my number so I gave over my ticket. I was asked, “What do you want?” and I blurted out a very long German word which basically means a-permission-to-sit in the country. My file was pulled up on the screen of her computer and a trainee perched next to the official reviewed my status.
I was asked, “Did you get a letter from the state to apply? Or are you doing this on your?”
I meekly said, “I am doing this on my own,” thinking that this is where the rejection starts.
The Official replied, “do you have form X?”
“Yes,” I said. And I handed over the form.
(Then in the tone of her voice it seemed we were playing card games like ‘go-fish’) “Well, do you have copies of Y?”
This went on a few more times as I handed over documents and letters and stamped copies of translations. I brought out of my bag the entire file folder with orange label tabs as a statement that I was well prepared.
“Herr Parsons, please wait in the hallway until you see your number again. We will deliberate your case.”
In twenty minutes a few other officials came and went from the office as I tried to imagine their thoughts from the expressions on their faces.
Eventually my number came up again, to the astonishment of the crowd around me, and I returned to the office. In the end, I got another appointment not during business hours and with ‘no ticket’ required to bring a photo along with my passport. I was then presented with a small document giving permission to stay in the country for a few more months, a “fiction”, or an unofficial official document until my personal card arrives for pick up.
I can stay in the country, thankfully, and the extra document helps cover the gap of an old visa until the new Personalausweiß arrives.