Just because I happen to have a stamp in my Canadian passport which allows me to stay in Germany as long as I like doesn’t mean I’m all through with dancing with the German immigration bureaucracy. That’s because I have to get a new passport every five years. So every five years, I have to schlep myself down to the local Ausländerbehörde to get a new visa stuck into a new passport.
There is a phone number for arranging an appointment, but after dozens of failed attempts to get through I break down and head over to the office this morning to try to set up the appointment in person.
I get there to find a roomful of people who all look like they’ve been waiting for a couple of hours already. Though the room is large with high ceilings, I notice how stuffy it is, how there’s this vague yet familiar odour wafting through.
There’s no machine to take a number, so I ask the people at the head of the line where to get one, but they don’t understand my question. I try English. Still blanks. So I turn around and in a too-loud voice which startles everybody, bellow out in German: can someone here show me the end of the line? Where is the end of the line?
So now I’m sitting down in line and the lingering reek hits me again, only now it’s almost bringing tears to my eyes. I don’t so much smell as see the odour, because it throws me back to my childhood. I see my mother’s old black steamer trunk in the basement, the one that closed with a clasp in the middle and two cracked and fraying leather buckles on the sides, lined with thin cardboard plastered with what looked like checkered wallpaper, full of wool blankets, winter jackets and old clothing which in her thrift she could never bring herself to get rid of.
As I turn in the direction of the odour to see an elderly gent beside me, the name hits me: Mothballs. Did a grandson play a trick on him, switch his bath salts so that last night he bathed in them?
Trying hard not to leap up so as to make it obvious why I’m doing so, I get up to move away, still maintaining my place in line. I stay on my feet a safe distance away for nearly two hours rather than sit next to him.
I try to console myself with visions of my first trip the Ausländerbehörde in Hamburg 10 years ago, fond memories of getting up at four in the morning to ride my bike all the way across the city to line up in the cold, the dark and the rain beside a six-lane highway to wait for the doors to open at six, shuffling through creaky old doors up a smelly, piss-soaked rear stairway to the entrance to file one-by-one past a man handing out grimy number cards which, after another two-hour wait, gave us the opportunity to line up at a machine to receive an official wait-list number, allowing us to speak many hours later to another official who made an appointment for us to come back another time to actually get something accomplished.
Now it’s all been decentralised, so even though more or less the same bullshit is still playing itself out at various locations all over the city, at least now you only have to show up to the one closest to where you live, and the conditions are better. Instead of lining up in the rain to get a filthy wait-list card, in my neighbourhood you get to walk into a big, beautiful building where scores of people are milling about, all looking to get the same thing done and having to agree with one another – sometimes in mutually incomprehensible languages – who lines up first, who’s the next, where to place the newcomers, and so on. Then after you finally have all that sorted out, an official comes out with numbered tickets to give away. So you don’t have to go through what you just did.
The background music fails to deter me. Despite screaming babies, thumping, hammering and the screech of buzz saws from renovations underway next door, and of course, in a lamentable update from a decade ago I’m sure some say is the sound of progress, intermittent outbursts from cellphone ringtones, I somehow manage to scribble a few notes and read a few pages from my novel.
Somewhere near the end of this ordeal two latecomers, people in an even sadder position than the rest of us, try to butt in line. “We just want to get some information,” they tell us. Suddenly in an explosion of Turkish that reverberates off the high vaulted ceilings and back down past the plaster cherubs along the columns, the women are put into their place by a half-dozen women in headscarves and robes, the shapeless kind that never have feet but seem to walk everywhere. “You have to phone to make an oppointment. Or come back tomorrow. The tickets are all gone for today.” Or so I guess they’re saying. If I could speak their language, I’d have said: the phone number is useless. Show up in person or spend the rest of your life listening to a busy signal.
Finally it’s my turn. I enter the little receiving office, reminding myself to remain friendly at all times and to remember that the person behind the counter has probably been having as much fun this morning as I have, but that she has to do it every day and I only once every five years.
Good morning. I have a new passport and need a new visa stamped in it.
Oh, you’re too late for an appointment today. We are taking appointments for later though.
How about next week?
The first available slot is in January.
Four months away. I take this in and then ask: if I have to travel within Europe – as I will be in a few weeks – can I still use my new passport without the visa?
Sure, just bring along the old passport.
Sensing a possible opening, I then ask: In my work I’m often sent overseas. What if I have to travel for work to the United States, or Russia?
Oh, that would be a real problem. Just a minute, I’ll see if we can squeeze you in.
I can’t believe this. Is everything falling into place? This isn’t supposed to happen.
You’re lucky, she says, handing me a slip of paper with a room number and an appointment time a half-hour away.
Fifteen minutes later – I still can’t believe this is happening, I’m out of there, suddenly elated with the idea I somehow got away with something and that I wouldn’t have to slog through this mess for another five years.
I skip over to my bike, unlock it, almost giddy with the thought of a care-free day ahead of me. I stop at a crosswalk, my nose brushing the fleece jacket as I lean over to adjust my toeclip.