Rage Against the Machine

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.

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About thedoubleduvetdebate

Emma is a freelance writer and broadcaster with a love of Europe. She's spent time living in 4 European countries to date, including her own 'not in Schengen' country, the UK. The Double Duvet Debate was created to highlight the often funny trials and tribulations of the cross cultural landscape which is Europe, on which she often reports; and her own cross cultural personal relationship between England and Germany.
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