Thursday I braved the snow and lashing winds and headed down to the Bürgeramt in Wedding. ‘What is the Bürgeramt, Dan?’ I hear you plead. The Bürgeramt, my friend, is a frightfully dull bureaucratic building, an official government site where you have to sort out all your throat-slittingly boring paperwork, registrations, documentation, whatever. After three months living in the city, I have finally moved into a flat where I am able to register – which is a crucial part of moving here, as it allows me to get a bank account, get health insurance, get paid, you name it. The German word for this kind of registration is Anmeldung, a term which now boils my blood every time I hear it.
The Bürgeramt is backed up for weeks for appointments, but I wasn’t going to sit and wait and grow old like some white dog turd drying in the sun. I was due to start my new job on Monday, and so something had to be done urgently. I researched and discovered that it’s sometimes possible to get a same-day appointment if you are willing to go down there in person before opening time and sweat it out. I had a book to finish, so the chance to sit and do nothing but read with no distractions actually sounded pretty great.
Heading down in the snow, I found the Bürgeramt to be a squat grey building void of any architectural flourishes, with a line of people already formed outside. Arse. A wild mix of nationalities made up the crowd; hobbling Middle Eastern women wrapped up against the cold, Asian parents juggling squirming children, Eastern Europeans smoking with hands shoved deep into their pockets, and me, shivering in a summer jacket because I can’t afford a proper coat. The doors opened just after 11 and a little pot-bellied old man waddled out wearing a blue uniform and bid everyone enter.
As usual when a large group of people try to get into one very small door at once, there soon began jostling and pushing, everyone quietly and hurriedly trying to get out of the snow. As the crowd crammed into the building, someone slightly knocked the rotund old security guard, and with absolutely no prior warning at all, he screamed, shrieking in hysterical, spiky German. Although I didn’t understand a word, from his jowl-quivering fury and bellowing crack-open-the-heavens tone one can safely assume it was something akin to ‘HOW DARE YOU PUSH ME YOU FOREIGN HOOLIGANS GOOD GOD DO YOU EVEN KNOW WHO I AM I DON’T BELIEVE IT FUCK OFF ALL OF YOU GET OUT OF MY BÜRGERAMT MAY FIRE AND BRIMSTONE RAIN DOWN UPON YOU ALL HEATHENS’. I slipped inside past him, stifling my giggles as he stared hatefully at the queue with what can only be described as a racist glare. Oh, this was going to be a fun day.
Inside, the Bürgeramt was a big, grey room with nothing in it but rows of chairs, a TV screen showing ticket numbers, and a queue of forlorn looking people. I joined the back and sighed very loudly in a Chinese man’s ear. At one point, a woman worked her way down the line handing out cards with numbers on, saying something in German. I asked her “Sprechen sie Englisch?” but she just shook her head and refused me a ticket. Oh god, had I fucked it? All this red tape would be hard enough, but I spend 95% of my time here with no clue what’s going on. I queued for half an hour to get to the information desk, where I wordlessly handed over my forms. The grey haired, grey skinned employee nodded, flicked through the papers, and gave me a ticket with an appointment time of 16:40. That suited me just fine – I could go home and chill for a few hours and head back later.
At 4pm I headed back and slumped on a chair. The rows of chairs sit facing a wall of blank white doors, underneath the TV screen which slowly ticks through ticket numbers. Comparing it to Purgatory is too cheap and easy a simile. It looked like if Michael Gove went on Grand Designs. To paraphrase Tom Watson, it was a miserable pipsqueak of a room. After almost an hour my number came on screen, along with a miserable ‘ding’ that sounded like the electronic buzzer had just gone through a messy divorce, lost custody of the kids, and hit the bottle hard. I entered the door marked with a small black ‘2’; the lair of the Bürgeramt official.
Inside was a large grey office, at the far end of which sat a large grey man. I took a seat at his large brown desk and said hello. He flexed his moustache at me, and I handed over my forms. He licked his thumb and pawed through them while I looked around his workspace. Pencil sharpeners, a neatly arranged row of stamps, a pristine calendar, a pot with pens and highlighters in, a large grey computer monitor and a heavy, clunky keyboard. It didn’t feel real – it felt like a film set, a pastiche of office life and bureaucracy; it was a Monty Python gag waiting to happen, John Cleese was about to goose-step in with a dead parrot on his shoulder. How does anyone work in this environment without going nipple-twistingly bonkers within the first week?
The official finished slowly typing in my details one finger at a time, and printed the form. He pressed his stamp into its ink matt, making sure it got nice and inky, taking his time, because you’ve got to be sure there is a nice, even distribution of ink. He raised the stamp high above the form, pondered a moment, and brought it down gently but firmly onto the paper. He replaced the stamp neatly on the shelf, next to the fifteen other stamps, and handed me my completed Anmeldung.
“Is that it? Is it all done?”
My grey wizard considered this question for some time, peering at me over his spectacles with milky eyes. He chose his words carefully.
Oh my god, it’s… done.
I DID IT! I’M A BERLINER! I EXIST!
I’M A REAL BOY!!!!
FUCK! YES! ICH BIN EIN BERLINER! AAAAAAH!
PARA BAILAR LA BAMBAAA
PARA BAILAR LA BAMBA
SE NECESSITA UNA POCA DE GRACIA
The grey man behind the desk calmly watched and twitched his moustache as my pupils dilated and my eyes widened and my mouth slowly grew into a banana grin. I floated up from my chair and out of the office and out of the dreadful Bürgeramt, emerging blinking into the daylight out of the Minotaur’s Labyrinth. I flew home with my feet skimming along a foot off the ground, drifting through the air in a halcyon daze like Peter Pan after one too many lines off fairy dust. Thank. Fuck.
Now, a quick question to you, dear reader. How does it feel knowing you’ve just read 1240 words on what is basically me going to get a form signed? Was it a pain to read? Or are my writing skillz such that you didn’t notice the fact that you were essentially reading pages and pages about me sitting in a waiting room all day? Don’t worry, I already know the answer. You bloody loved it.