Raging against the bureaucratic machine is a common pastime for people of almost all nations. But when you have to deal with each others bureaucracy, the opportunity for comedy, merriment, sarcasm, frustration and pure rage is never far away. The first time we really came up against the wheels of bureaucracy was in England, trying to get married. Cue German incredulity about why ‘we’ don’t have identity cards, and instead request that you bring a utility bill with you as proof of address. “A utility bill?” he scoffs, I gathered several, a payslip, and a letter addressed to both of us, just in case. In England the rule tends to be, even when everything you need is listed, have several back ups, and some things you may not have thought of, just in case the person behind the desk is not happy with the first utility bill you bring. For instance, it has to be a recent utility bill, so bringing a range of one week old to 3 months is always good. We arrived at the desk ready to face tough questions. Probably tired of dealing with people who have no utility bills, and therefore cannot be traced to an address according to the British system, the first person we met was pretty severe. She looked at us doubtfully as we shoved the pack of letters, envelopes and various other ‘proofs’ under the glass divide. We were nearly caught out, to marry in the UK, you have to have arrived 9 days before, and then be resident continuously for another 16 days after you’ve registered to marry. But not used to being under the same roof, when asked whether we were both residents of my borough, we answered no. UHH-AHH WRONG ANSWER. “Well, if he’s not a resident here, then you’ll have to register his desire to marry in his borough”. Ah, well, he IS resident here now, as of 9 days ago. “9 Days” she repeats dubiously, “hmmm, is it 9 or 10 days she calls behind her”, my fingers are starting to sweat, as I realise that the un-cancel-able booking might just to be about to go up in a puff of smoke, and the second morning taken off work to sort this out will also be pointless. Thankfully a faceless colleague called back that 9 days was the rule, and we were ‘admitted’ to the inner sanctum to await our ‘interview’. I felt like I was in the film Green Card, only in the UK, surrounded as we were by couples from all over the world, and their translators. After initial severity, the interview was also fine, once he’d established we were of a rare breed, a completely EU couple, and therefore, to be treated both like UK citizens according to the bureaucratic laws, it passed smoothly. Even M’s failure to remember dates, mix up of my birthday with the date of the wedding, and complete ignorance of his father’s third name and my middle name didn’t hinder the process. I was glad, but it prompted M to wonder what the rules actually are in the UK when what starts as a formal interview turns into a nice chat with your interrogator, I mean civil servant, and a utility bill serves as the magic key to unlock every kingdom. M, I now know, is used to German bureaucracy, where, in small places, things can also be nice and friendly, and at the end of the formalities, people can loosen up, but when faced with a rule to follow or a form to fill in, all instructions are delivered with a straight face and an unbending nature. In a way, I think, it’s simpler in Germany, there are a list of difficult to fathom rules and regulations, especially if you’re still learning German, but once a German has kindly interpreted them for you, then you just have to follow everything to the letter and all will be fine. I skipped off into the sunset, happy in the knowledge, that anyway, in Germany, I didn’t have to worry as M has to do everything ending in Amt for me as I still have trouble reading a baby’s board book, let alone official regulations. But then I started work, and found the old chestnut of expenses claims rear its ugly head in a German way. It’s never easy, learning new ways of doing things, and things can be just as archaic in the UK, but here I have the added problem of having to try and fathom a computer system and office staff which I can’t understand. When I set up my email at work, I said Ja und Nein at random in answer to questions I didn’t understand, prompted by the computer in a frenzy of choice. I now have a strange set up which no one else understands how I got to, and I don’t either, since I don’t know what the question was, to which I responded Ja oder Nein in a sweaty panic. Having to interact with other members of department in German, or even answer the phone is a bit like going outside for someone recovering from mild agoraphobia, it’s doable, but it fills you with trepidation. And then came the expenses. Yesterday, before going on my train trip of half an hour, I was required to fill out a form getting the tickets signed off by a manager. All well and good, except that you are meant to do this 3 days before, not 2 hours before you leave. The form got rushed through and I took it down to the travel bureau. “Oh no” they tell me, “you have to buy this ticket on the station, we can’t get this type of ticket for you” “OK” I sigh, wondering what the point of the form is, but then they tell me (I think) “Bring the form back with the tickets tomorrow and you can claim the refund.” Aha, OK I get it. Off I trot, go on my train journey, keep the receipts and bounce into the office today with the form and the receipts. “Oh no” they tell me clearly wondering why I’m so stupid, “to reclaim the tickets, you now have to go to the bureau next door”. Slightly frustrated, I troop next door to be met by the second official. “Oh no” she says, “That’s not the form you need to reclaim the tickets, I have THAT form on the system, now you need an Abbrechungs form”. I can’t remember the German for them next door, and so I substitute with Sie, but then she thinks I’m telling her that she told me that I should come next door and she helpfully tells me I’ve never met her before. I know I think, becoming increasingly frustrated and starting to stamp my foot and squeak words in English. Then she explains slowly that I need to go back upstairs and fill out the correct form on the Intranet. “Can’t I do it here?” I plead, “No” she tells me with that implacable smile, you have to fill it out on the system. Trying to explain that your colleagues have gone for lunch in the hope that she will bend does not work, and defeated again, I troop back upstairs. Now I can’t find the form, but I find a whole list of them and print out an excel sheet that I think might be to do with reclaiming small amounts of petty cash. Back downstairs I go, with two forms in hand, and the two tickets. “Oh no” she shakes her head ruefully, “I said the Abbrechungs form, this is not the right form, this is for petty cash”. Aggh I scream not totally silently. “I couldn’t find that form, I did look, can’t you just use this form, I say hopefully?” “No” she says smiling that implacable smile again. “Agggh” I scream louder than I meant to. She takes my form, I start to see a glimmer of hope, will she take pity on me, I think. “OH NO” when there is a correct form and a correct office to go to, nice as people are, they cannot take pity on you, you must follow procedure. She starts to show me the correct form as filled out by other people, and I just want to throw them all up in the air and dance on top of them. All this time and fuss for 14 euros seems to me ridiculous. Then she asks me if I have a bank account in German, “Yes”, I say but then I realise that this office is to refund one through their bank account as part of their paycheck, and I’m not paid here, but I can’t explain that as I can’t remember the word for pay, or salary or wages, or anything, so I start to whine in English. She carries on examining my form, and then realises that I don’t have a personnel number, and therefore she can’t help me at all. “This is not the right office” she smiles again, you need to get this form signed by your boss, and then take it next door to a third office for petty cash. She takes me outside and shows me the door, carefully underlining that the third office is only open one day a week for a few hours, and it’s not today. I’m grateful for the help, and the patience in the face of my lack of German, but I just want to kick all three doors down now. “Just smile” says my friend, “You’ll get used to it”. Perhaps, and really it was only, so far, 30 minutes out of mine and their lives, but still, 30 minutes for 14 euros, perhaps it’s not worth claiming at all. And that apparently is the point of German bureaucracy. In the end, the various layers of correct forms and correct offices, put one off claiming at all, it’s just not worth one’s time or money, and then, the German state saves. “Simples” as a certain meercat in the UK loves to say. By raging against the machine, I’ve learnt one of the ways that the German nation has managed to come out slightly better financially than most other nations in Europe. Be firm, but fair, until they give up, and the machine stays strong. Rage? Puh, no rage here please, we’re German.
I was waiting originally to write this post on Thursday, when, I stupidly thought that perhaps, just maybe, possibly, by a tiny margin, England could have beaten Italy, shown that pluck and courage that they have, but combined it with an effort to attack effectively, and there’d be an England vs Germany semi final. Which would have been another great showcase for our Double Duvet Debate couple and a big test on the strength of our relationship, with both of us screaming at opposite teams on the screen. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, that was not to be, but football still has the power to both unite and divide. The Euros have been a great showcase for that this month. Bar a few sad exceptions of racism, I’d say most of Europe and some of the rest of the world have been glued to their screens, or meeting in public viewing forums several nights a week watching the creme de la creme of the Bundesliga, La Liga, Serie A, the Premiership and the French top flight (hmmm what are they called La League ? La PremiereLeague? – and why don’t I know that?) do battle. I’m looking forward to Spain vs Portugal tonight and to Germany vs Italy tomorrow. Tonight it’s easy, I’ll be supporting Spain, although I think Portugal might just steal a march on the Spaniards this time. Tomorrow it’s a bit harder. I’ve spent many years reporting on Italian football and was in Rome when they won the final of the World Cup in 2006. Sailing down the Gianicolo hill towards Piazza del Popolo in a convoy of mopeds, trailing an Italian flag behind me and then jumping up and down in the square to the White Stripes and chanting Campione is unforgettable. I was also urging the Italians on in that other famous semi in 2006, against, yes you’ve guessed it, hosts of the tournament, Germany. England and Germany of course have always been rivals, both on the terraces and off, ‘two world wars and one world cup’ is what we in England love to chant, a bit pathetically now given that they were all over half a century ago, and when England lost to Germany in the 2010 world cup, I was screaming for England from the lawns of Villa Borghese whilst being smiled at benignly by a group of Germans. So, I don’t have a history of supporting Germany, and by a strange twist of fate, we’ll be in Italy tomorrow to watch this historic game. But, loyalty to my partner means that I should be supporting his team, and my new found enthusiasm for his country means that I actually want to support them, but I feel guilty at abandoning the Italians too. I didn’t realise quite how much my English roots meant to me though until this competition started. Believing that as usual, England would go precisely nowhere and be a huge disappointment of individually talented players but with no team spirit, I blithely declared I’d be supporting Germany from the start. M smiled and looked pleased, so we were both taken aback when I was screaming at the screen on Sunday night and cursing the Italians for being so good. I still insisted that if England did play Germany then I’d be happier if Germany won, as I thought I was the more flexible and better at taking defeat, after all, I’m used to it, but I think M was visibly relieved when we managed to avoid that little problem. So football has the power to unite, we have united a disparate group of friends to watch various matches, and every fan in every country has something to say to each other when there’s a major tournament on, a transfer season underway or a battle for supremacy or relegation in one of the leagues. But it also divides. Luckily, this time we’ll not get to put our relationship to the test, and can sail happily on in the knowledge that when the 90 minutes (or 120) are over what was on the field, stays on the field, and real life carries on as normal. I would have liked to see us win for once though…..So, back to tomorrow night, I’ll have to just go with my guts or glory about who I decide to support, but since love conquers all, it’ll have to be Go Germany – is that Vorgehen Deutschland ??
Staying on the theme of bedding, pillows are another thing which seem to be divided cross culturally, although this is wider than Germany / England and is probably yet another Europe vs UK divide. In Britain, of course people have a variety of different pillows, some like 2 or 3, some have specially designed ergonomic ones, lattice ones, rubber filled, down filled, hollow fibre filled. Some in the seventies, I remember, used to be filled with little chunks of foam and sponge which after a lot of use would be pretty lumpy when sleeping on them. So pillows perhaps are more of a personal choice and less of a divide, but in Britain, whatever they’re filled with, however many we have, and however thick or thin they are, they’re generally, at least the ones we lay our heads on, rather than the ones that sit prettily on a bed in design magazines, oblong. Our continental cousins on the other hand favour large square ones, and from my experience in Germany, quite floppy thin ones which then have to be bolstered by another harder pillow or bolster underneath. I’m missing my British pillows and am thinking that I will have to ship a load across when I move here so as to recreate my heimat’s sleeping patterns as best as possible. M on the other hand loves his big square floppy pillows and suffers with the strange bouncy oblong ones in Britain that don’t support his torso enough, and envelop him in lovely continental comfort and goose feathered glueck.
Who knew that the type of duvet you choose as a couple, and the style you’re used to in your respective countries could cause so much debate, and indeed horror, when faced with adopting said duvet in the other country. But that’s exactly what happened when we got together, and it was via the medium of the duvet that we came across the first big ‘cultural’? difference in the Anglo-German relationship. In Germany, for those of you, like me, who hadn’t realized this about Europe’s most powerful nation, couples like to sleep under two separate duvets on a double bed, usually, although not always, composed of two separate mattresses coupled together, hopefully with not too big a ridge in between. In Britain on the other hand, most adults, whether in a couple or not, graduate sometime after their student years, to a double bed composed of one mattress and snuggle under one big duvet, in my case, super king size for the rest of their days. At the beginning of our relationship, which started in the UK, I hadn’t realized that there could be anything weird about sleeping under a double duvet, or in deed that that might be a compromise for my German partner, but one day whilst he huffed and puffed about having to change such a big duvet, the differences came out. On canvassing opinion in both countries, we encountered shouts of derision on the choice of the other person’s country, so Germans thought it was ‘disgusting’ to sleep under one duvet, and wondered how we could possibly manage to sleep or have any proper and efficient rest when we might have to be constantly defending or stealing back the duvet from the other person. The British, like me, think it’s weird to sleep under two separate duvets, with a ridge in between your mattresses, where’s the romance? where’s the closeness? Where’s the cuddle opportunities when you have to inch towards each other without opening the duvet too much and letting in the cold winter air? But, how can you fart discreetly, without being found out, if you share a double duvet wondered some Germans? In Germany, it seems to be considered somehow unhygienic, inefficient and downright stupid, another ‘pretty but useless’ invention of the British to sleep under the same bit of cloth. In Britain, most people would agree that it’s typical of the unromantic calculating nature of their German neighbours that couples choose to divide even their sleeping time into carefully delineated categories. The championing of the respective styles extends to shops too, whilst you can buy non child themed single duvet covers in the UK, they are not as plentiful as the wide choice of double duvet covers in all sorts of thread count, colours and patterns. In Germany on the other hand it was almost impossible to buy a double duvet cover in the shops, and in fact, when M went to buy one, before my first visit, he was laughed at by various shop assistants. In the end he resorted to the internet, and I was kept happy on my arrival. Now it’s summer though, and the one weight duvet is a bit too hot, the debate is rearing its ugly head once again. Whilst in winter, when warmth is needed, I was able to convince M of the need for a double duvet, now that we need a lighter weight summer one, will he be persuaded to shell out more money on something he considers unnecessary when he has two perfectly good light weight summer single duvets which we could use. For now, we’ve both compromised, as we use a double duvet on a bed coupled from two singles, but as the summer advances it remains to be seen what will happen…..whilst there’s romance around though, I’m hoping the double duvet reigns supreme, now on to the pillows…..