The Perils of Paperwork

style="float: right; margin-bottom: 10px; font-weight: 600;"Tue 12th Mar, 2013

It wasn't as if I hadn't been forewarned.

I had in fact heard many a cautionary tale from ex-pats and Germans alike in internet forums and Biergartens about the horrors of beauracracy to the hapless foreign resident in Munich.

But sitting in the late August sun with a tasty Mass of Bier in hand, the looming clouds of registration and form-filling seemed far, far away. And part of me simply refused to believe that the system could be as convoluted as my compatriots portrayed it.

Maybe I thought myself above these out-dated stereotypes - surely, the simple act of registering as a working, tax-paying resident in Germany couldn't be too hard nowadays!

Sure, it may have been in the past, but isn't the free movement of citizens a central tenet of the modern EU? Isn't it supposed to provide an easy bridge over the previously impenetrable mountain-ranges of differing national registration requirements? And is Germany not the fabled centre of efficient European stability - And Munich routinely voted one of the best places in the world to live for quality of life?
You don't earn such a reputation by making it hard for foreigners to set up shop here, surely...

"What a load of Balderdash and Piffle!" I thought as I strode confidently into the Finanzampt to complete this trifling formality of receiving my tax number as a newly employed citizen. I wouldn't be fazed by such scaremongering - how hard could it possibly be?!

Two hours later, with my brain a complete sludge of confusion and compound words, and with absolutely nothing to show for my lost morning, I traipsed out of the Finanzampt, longing only for a swift death and a peaceful cemetery.

If you really want to know what it feels like to lie prematurely in your coffin, I recommend spending the morning in one of these black holes of bile-inducing, belly-aching beauracracy. For if there is anything more demoralising in this world of ours, I have yet to find it. (Though studying in Reading for three years comes close, admittedly.)

Upon entrance - as many readers will surely know already - you receive a ticket from the machine which randomly assigns you a number for an appointment to an 'advisor' in one of the numerous cubicles skirting the room. (Don't even try to ask for help at the Information desk!)

It was early morning but the room was already packed. It looked like an airport lounge, full of irritated passengers with delayed flights; all around tired desperate faces who had slowly lost their souls to form-filling. I began to have qualms about just what I was in for myself.

After an hour and a half, my number appeared and I sprang up.

As things transpired, I had the misfortune to be assigned a lady who saw herself less an advisor than a probation officer.
From the moment I approached, I sensed I was in for a rough ride, and I was absolutely right.
Her face displayed from the outset not the least speck of pleasantry. Even my introductory comment about the glorious morning weather couldn't raise a smile. (In hindsight it was probably ill-advised since she was condemned to spend the whole day in a stuffy room dealing with morons like myself.)

However, I had arrived at the Finanzamt with a reasonable confidence in my German abilities, based on being able to get the gist of about half of all U-Bahn conversations and the fact that I knew the word for Rocking Horse (Schaukelpferd). So I began my rehearsed questions to her expecting in reply, simple, logical answers.

But this was not the pleasant, Pretzel-loving, hard-partying modern Germany from school textbooks I was now grappling with - this was Beauracratic Germany with a whole infrastructure and language of its very own, in which even the shortest compound word has ten syllables and ten possible meanings.

In this realm, the formatted and correctly filled-out document is King and the hapless citizen with his foibles and shaky spoken German, a mere pauper.
I couldn't seem to get through to her. I stammered and stuttered over various aspects of the document before me, managing to mangle my questions into a kind of 'Pidgin German'. But my 'advisor' seemed in particularly ill-temper, and I felt the situation fast unravelling.

To each of my inquiries she spouted rapid-fire, monotonic answers which I struggled to deduce even a word from. She soon realised that she was dealing with that peculiarly irritating combination of a foreigner and a moron, and seemed to delight thereafter in speeding up her replies to make them meaningless even to a local.

God forbid I should have caught her near the end of her shift.

After only two minutes or so, it seemed reasonably clear that she wanted rid of me as quickly as possible. I was thus ushered by her uncompromising finger to the Information desk. I knew it would game over for me that morning.

But I grudgingly complied, not being quite beaten yet, and repeated a couple of key words I'd memorised to the vacant-faced young receptionist sat there.
She told me with a well-practised weariness that all questions without exception must be fielded to one of the official 'advisers' in the cubicles I had just come from, and I would therefore need to get another numbered ticket from the machine at the door.

I began desperately to explain that I had just done that, and waited two hours to be directed straight back to the Information desk, but soon perceived I was fighting a lost cause. Her eyes said firmly, but gently, 'Go!'

By way of consolation perhaps, she handed me a large handful of terrifying-looking forms with headings like R2D2 and an assortment of other Star Wars robots.
I don't blame her. She wasn't there to answer questions after all - merely to give out and receive forms. And nothing would move her to operate outside her remit - even the offer of a chocolate bar from my bag.

And so I left the stuffy building, feeling like I had been hit by a freight truck and dragged backwards under its axels for twenty five miles over dung-flecked country roads.

A couple of painful weeks later, I returned, having filled in the documents with the kind and calculated (and frequently confused) help of my German flat-mates.
I handed over the cursed parchment at reception, feeling confident that this would be the end of my travails. I even felt a ray of sun enter my beleaguered spirit as I walked out through the double doors.

However, barely a week later, I received an enormous stack of documents through the post, requesting of me a further cabinet-load of supplementary papers that would do for half the Amazon rainforest in one day; the written technicalities of which left even my German flat-mates utterly stupefied. I could only be thankful I hadn't got a Criminal Record on top of it all.

It was to be further weeks until the sky finally cleared of the dense fog of paper, compounded by the dire luck (well, stupidity actually) of losing my passport - I believe Oktoberfest had something to do with it - and a subsequent trip to report it missing to the police.
With all this stress, I took to comfort eating cookies. Little chocolate cookies.

Dear readers; once you've been churned around in the Beauracratic meat-grinder for a few weeks you cannot emerge on the other side as the same person. You fast begin to lose your bearings. Friends of mine began to comment on my increasingly 'glassy' stare and began to worry about my detached, often non-sensical conversation.

Indeed, conversation itself became increasingly difficult and unpalatable. I could only mutter an incoherent babble of tax terms and official document titles down the pub.
Effectively I had gradually lost my human faculties and gained instead those of a piece of paper. All I really wanted, I found, was to lie stamped, sealed and undisturbed deep in a dusty office filer.

Perhaps the single most frustrating thing about the system is that no single person seems to know how it works.
The number of times you ask somebody for the definitive list of necessary documents, only to be asked at a later date for a completely different set of documents by someone else when you try to hand them in. It's enough to make a chap write a polite but strongly-worded letter. Or spontaneously human combust.

None of this is to say of course that the UK is any better - in my opinion it's almost as bad in the paperwork stakes and appears to be getting steadily worse in every facet of life. So it seems that I jumped out the frying pan and firmly into the fire.

But on the plus side, the whole thing's given me a reason to eat a lot of cookies, which is definitely a good thing.

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