Hurry up and wait

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.

Welcome in Germany.

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.

waiting.jpgSomewhere 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.


© 2007 lettershometoyou
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13 Responses to “Hurry up and wait”

  1. September 28, 2007 at 4:48 am

    You really put your finger on something. This should be published in Die Zeit.

  2. September 28, 2007 at 10:08 am

    that’s your best bit of writing yet. really enjoyed reading this.

    (mothballs – how I hate the smell of mothballs)

  3. September 29, 2007 at 6:36 am

    Would you believe it was written on a scratch pad while I was waiting in line? Thanks both of you, you’ve made my day.

  4. September 29, 2007 at 11:40 pm

    This was an outstanding piece of writing. You created a mood and told the story in such a way that I could smell the mothballs. Thanks so much for sharing it.

  5. 5 Paul B.
    October 1, 2007 at 9:55 am

    lol… the Ausländerbehörde is great. A real lesson in the realities of being reminded of just how foreign we are for living in Germany. And may God help if you forget one piece of paper, or your passport. Never mind they have it all photocopied and on file.

    No originals, no party.
    Great post.

  6. 6 Gloria
    October 1, 2007 at 4:07 pm

    Strange, but a few years ago when I had to go there were no tickets given out to permanent residents, but to all other foreign groups. It was an interesting international experience making eye contact and everyone paid attention to who was next etc. I have lived here for 30 years now and they didn’t even have me in their computers. In fact they managed to give me a visa and never noticed my passport was not signed. No one noticed until I bought a new car and got ‘caught’. Were you informed, however, they we are not allowed to leave Germany for three months without notifiying them? Otherwise you lose all your rights to live here and have to start all over again. There were no signs up about this and I had to do research to find out about it and ask them.

  7. October 2, 2007 at 5:48 pm

    I didn’t know that! You mean that simply by leaving for three months – even if you have an unbefristet visa – you have to start at zero? Do you have to fill out papers before you go then?

    Paul B – there was something new this time around though: they now paste your photo into your passport alongside the visa, so come along with a recent photo unless you want the process to drag on even longer.

    @brightfeather – very happy you enjoyed reading what I enjoyed writing!

  8. October 4, 2007 at 10:39 am

    Yep, this is a great post.

    I well remember the days of hanging out at the Ausländerstelle when we lived right in Hannover. Crowded, ghastly and anything but beautiful. But I don’t remember ever having to make an appointment. It was first come, first serve and if they closed before they got to you you were out of luck and had to show up at 7 a.m. the next day. Must be different in Hamburg.

    Now that we live in the “Umland” I get to go to a different office. It’s still in the city but it’s been virtually empty the couple of times I’ve been there. I went last year to get my permit transferred into my new passport and didn’t realize that a photo was required for the Niederlassungserlaubnis because I hadn’t had one with my previous unbefristete Aufenthaltsgenehmigung. The woman said it was no problem, though, and just made a copy of my passport photo right then and there. I was in and out in about 20 minutes and now I have not one but two serial killer photos in one passport.🙂

    I didn’t know about the 3 months thing either. I thought it was 6 months, actually. It’s certainly not something they tell you outright, is it?

  9. 9 kim
    October 4, 2007 at 11:18 am

    oh, how that painfully reminds me of our trip to the local ausländerbehörde in march.you would think in a fairly civilized country… we have the next appointment on the 17th for an extension. fingers crossed there won’t be any more “incidents” then…

  10. October 5, 2007 at 12:55 pm

    I quite often pass by our local Ausländerbehörde on the S-Bahn, and I always breath a sigh of relief that thanks to the magical word “unbefristet” I will never, ever have to go there again. ‘Cos I’m an EU citizen, but back in the 90s it was a start-queuing-before-6am job if you wanted to get in on the same day.

    Having gone through all that pain to become unbefristet, it then turns out that shortly after all restrictions for EU citizens are relaxed and all the newcomers don’t need to register there anymore.

  11. October 5, 2007 at 4:37 pm

    You know, we should all meet outside their offices and wave placards and see if we get offered a waiting number…

  12. October 13, 2007 at 1:35 pm

    Great writing. Mothballs!

    Guess I was lucky to go through all the paperwork in a sleepy southern wannabe-city. The only real hassle I had was when a client demanded proof that I had a work permit, and didn’t believe that “unbefristet” meant I was also allowed to work. (Technically, it doesn’t.) So I had to get the shiny new Niederlassungserlaubnis, which of course required a new picture, and … the office itself had some complications.

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