Awakening The Bundesmachine

In Germany, the census is ongoing. Each resident registers (Anmeldung) with their local Burgeramt, and when you move or leave the country you Unmeldung with the same Burgeramt. It’s required to do within 14 days of arriving, though the soonest available appointment is about six months away. I needed my Anmeldung in order to receive packages from DHL, and so I followed the advice of the online expat community: just show up really early in the morning, no appointment.

A few minutes after 7 a.m., with one hopeful eye on Google Maps and one skeptical eye on the buildings around me, I entered a rustic courtyard, a former industrial complex, home of the supposed Burgeramt in my new neighborhood, Prenzlauer Berg. Eager to be in line as soon as possible, and always willing to ask for directions, I asked about the “Anmeldung” from two women who were smoking on a stone portico. “Haus 6, the highest one”. I found Haus 6, including its three entrances, each flanked by construction fencing and gravel entryways. Okay, I guess I’m the first to arrive. I’ll wait outside, since they don’t open until eight.

A few minutes later, a plain-clothed woman entered, so naturally I followed her a few seconds later, then navigated the clean but old, white and well-lit basement. I found a staircase that took me into the hallway of bureaucracy, and I followed some signs (you know the kind that office personnel design in their default word processor format, print, then tape to the wall…) to the Burgeramt down the hallway.

Again, I asked about the “Anmeldung” from a guy standing in the hallway. “I am 1, you are 2.” Okay, so I’ll stand behind this guy for the next forty five minutes. “Where am I from?” he asked me. I answered, “the United States, then he told me he was from Macedonia. The queue steadily grew as I worked on reviewing and editing documents for work. This brought a sense of relief and productivity, knowing that I was justified in the timing of my arrival and my plan to bring work with me.

At 7:59 – mind you, we had daylight savings last weekend, and the clock was already updated … German efficiency – a woman came and unlocked the door. Mr “1” aka Macedonia and I entered the office, going to the desks on the right and left of the kiosk. I asked about the “Anmeldung,” not knowing whether this was actually the start of the process. She said something in German. I showed my paper application (maybe that’s what she asked for?). She nodded and printed a full A4 paper with a queue number (something like 115717). Little victories taste especially sweet when you’re navigating foreign bureaucracy without breakfast.

I sat in the waiting area for about 30 seconds, then my number popped onto the tv screen, directing 115717 to door 4B. Another victory, or at least progress. I went to door 4B, where there was one woman at a row of 3 desks. The door had been shut, and I didn’t know whether to leave it open, since I was the first customer, so I asked.

“Open or closed?”

“Schließe.”

“Open or closed?”

I alternated swinging the door open and closed.

“Schließe,” she says with slightly more conviction.

“Open or closed?”

“Schließe!”

Jesus, I’m going to get myself kicked out before I can process the paperwork. I decide to close the door and go to the chair in front of her desk.

I hand my two papers across the desk, hoping that my Google Translate skills have led to properly completed fields. I handed her my passport when she asks for the “reisepass,” and wondered whether she would need any of my other assortment of personal files. (Pro tip: bring everything you can (flight tickets proving arrival, letters from work saying you’re supposed to be in the country, a copy of you health insurance) because you never know what they might ask for.)

I watched her chicken peck across the keyboard as her head dodged between my papers and her screen, with my body’s every finger and nerve crossed in anticipation. Did I do this right? Am I done with this Anmeldung thing? Eventually, she moved to the photocopier, scanned my passport, and printed a document, and I felt the relief of knowing that I was managing to give all the right information and get my Anmeldung within a week of arriving.

She signed and stamped it. My impulse was to pick up the paper, run down the hall, paper in hand raised overhead, shouting about my victory at 8:10 a.m. You know… schools-out-for-the-summer style. Instead, I calmly glanced over the paper and pointed out that my name wasn’t “Steohen,” so she reprinted, signed, and stamped it. I’m glad I didn’t follow my impulse.

I picked up my backpack, returned down the hallway, past the mosaic of printed paper office signage and directional arrows, and gently stepped into the compound’s courtyard in search of my bike. With the brisk morning air, I felt the relief of a rusted engine that awakens with fresh oil. I crawled through the basement catacombs, across the narrow bridge of foreign language paperwork, and into a world of properly registered residents.

At 7:59, when that door opened, I knew this system would work.

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