Germans are bureaucracy fanatics. Paperwork is as German as pretzels and beer.
At first glance, it may seem like the copious red tape is related to a lust for efficiency and order. But, the real reason Germans require forms for every television in the house or change of address is they love collecting stamps. Every document handled by an official – professor, conductor, DMV employee – gets smacked with purple and blue ink, letting you know you can move on to the next round of paperwork wrangling. Your reward will be a new stamp.
Paperwork is just the most socially acceptable way for adults to get excited about rubber stamps. It’s unfortunate they no longer read “Good Job!” or “Superb!” Exclamation points have been sacrificed for streams of legalese, but Germans voraciously collect them anyway.
I, however, am not German. I’d just as soon forsake the paperwork/stamp ritual as it has a nasty habit of perturbing my already delicate state of mind. So, it was with a certain trepidation I started gathering the stamps necessary for me to move back to the United States.
First to city hall to deregister from the city. It was a miraculously painless process. I found the office, got a number, waited for my number to pop up on the screen above my head and went to the desk listed on the screen. I explained I was moving out of Bonn on Sunday, and the secretary looked up my name, glanced at my passport, and presented me with signatures and stamps. In fifteen minutes I was back on the street. The ease of the process left me weirdly giddy. Easily earning my stamps and papers making me grin…maybe I’ve become more German than I thought.
On to the University of Bonn’s International Students and Fellowship office where I walked right in, explained I had a lovely time in Bonn, but it was time for me zip West and “ex- matrikulieren” from the University. A paper was printed, stamped, and I was euphoric.
I had budgeted most of the morning for this process, but I was done in time for elevensies. This left enough time for me to go back to my dorm before the office closed at noon to figure out how exactly I should move out. The Hausmeisterin is a lovely woman, the doting aunt-type who happens to have a lot of keys in her desk and a very German love of getting all your paperwork together in the right order. She also has a very German way of only speaking German It’s good to have someone who is forced to listen to me stumble my way through the language without relieving me with English. Unfortunately it also means there are details that get lost in translation as I try to figure out what she’s getting at.
As you may remember from last October, my move in to my dorm – Tennenbusch II – was not a particularly smooth process as it began with the statement, “I do not have you entered in my computer. I don’t know if I have a room for you.” She ended up offering me a room for the night so I could go to the housing office which had closed at noon.
I was hoping for a little flexibility for my move out, too. Technically my contract ended on the 31st of July, but I wanted to know if there was any way to stay for the weekend, so I didn’t have to worry about moving my bags around before departing for Frankfurt on Monday for my trip to Ireland.
“You have no friends you can stay with?”
“Well, yes I do, but I was just wondering if it was possible to stay put. If not, it’s not a problem. I just wanted to ask.”
“And you have no friends?”
“Yes, I do, but I think it’s easier to stay in one place instead of moving all of my luggage twice.”
“But you could stay with a friend.”
“So it isn’t possible to stay for the weekend?”
“Well, what would you do with the key?”
I thought this might be a problem. Her office is only open from 9 to 12 on workdays. I needed to be in Frankfurt to catch a plane long before she unlocked the door.
“Well, I could leave my key with a friend and they could give it to you Monday.”
She blinked, befuddled. Apparently it was fine for me to crash with a friend for three nights, but trusting them to bring her my keys was too much.
“You should stay with a friend and move out on Friday.”
Okay, fine. The three people I knew well who lived on my floor were all out of town or already hosting people for the weekend. It is the semester break doncha-know, so I got a hold of Koen, a graduate student in the department, to see if his floor was available. No worries. He even had an extra mattress.
“How do I get my deposit back?” There were 160 Euros floating out there that I had scrubbed my floors to get back in full.
“You will be returning to the United States?”
“That’s the plan.”
“And you will be closing your German bank account before you leave?”
“Another part of the plan.”
“Then you will receive it in cash when you check out.”
Rad. Now I just needed to extract myself from the room. I packed and scrubbed for the better part of a day. My departure from Marburg had scarred me. There the Hausfrau had walked in, flipped on a light that I didn’t know existed and berated me for not removing the streaks from the stove top that could only be seen when that light was illuminated. Fortunately I didn’t have any massive blue stains to contend with and my room was (eventually) spotless.
Friday morning I trooped downstairs, lugging my mysteriously hefty backpack, guitar case, and daypack. Three other students were sitting around the office door, expectantly waiting while another student talked to the Hausmeisterin. I dropped my stuff and waited. The guy in the office came out, but no one went in. I scrutinized each face, trying to figure out if they were waiting for some kind of signal. Why weren’t we just waiting in a line? Most of us were international students. We know the blob is a silly German tradition.
Finally I asked the girl next to me, “Are you next?” She was stunned someone would say something and confused I would assume she had anything to do with the office. “No, no.” Okay. Apparently the Native Spanish enjoy lounging near office doors.
I went in and plunked my key down on the desk. “And what is this?”
“It’s my key, I’m ready to go to my friend’s.”
“You have not been inspected.” “
“When will that happen?”
“Are you ready for the inspection?”
“Yes, I am ready to leave.”
“Then go to your room and wait for Herr Brener.”
I dutifully squeezed back into the elevator with my stuff and walked back to my room, banging doors and walls with my tent and guitar. I sat and waited; acutely aware we were fast approaching the noon mark. If my luck held, we would be geschlossen before Herr Brener reached me, and I wouldn’t be allowed to leave Germany. I would spend the weekend waiting for the Herr to show up on Monday.
At 11:55 he entered. I had the gumption to doze off in my chair and he wanted me out waiting in the hall as soon as he busted in. I scurried past his mustache and anxiously waited for him to discover a corner I had left a little skuzzy.
After a quick glance, he noted something on his clipboard and asked for my key. “Am I finished?” “You must see Frau Schultz.” Back to the office and the amorphous blob of expectant students and luggage.
Herr Brener returned, handed off the clipboard and I was back across the desk. “So, is there anything I need to do or am I ready to get my deposit?”
“Herr Brener says you are missing your pillow, duvet, and…(there was some confusion over the translation of the final item that should have been under my bed).”
“I never had those things in my room.”
“Yes you did, and you do not have them now.”
“No, I used dirty laundry as a pillow for weeks, my sleeping bag for a blanket, and the only thing I put under my bed was my luggage.”
“You used dirty laundry for a pillow?”
“And you didn’t get sick.”
“It wasn’t that dirty.”
“This is, maybe, an American thing to do.” I continue to be a stellar model for my countrymen.
“So will I be charged for these things? Can I get my deposit back?”
“Well, you are missing three things.”
“I know, but they were never there.” She could have said, “Herr Brener also noticed you were missing your giant inflatable gorilla? Where is the gorilla?” and I couldn’t have proven otherwise. I never signed or saw a form detailing my room’s inventory. I was getting annoyed. Come to think of it, I would have preferred the gorilla to a pillow. “Can I visit someone’s room to look at this bed thing I’m missing?”
“This is very confusing. You are leaving when?”
“The Studentenwerk (where I would get my deposit) will be closed I think.” Of course they’re closed. It’s an office in Germany, they only stay open until noon. Who would ever need to deal with bureaucracy after lunch? “Can you talk to a friend who can get your deposit?”
“Why would that help? Can’t you just transfer the deposit into my bank account? Either way, I get charged for an international transfer.”
“Well, can you talk to a friend?” We were very hung up on my acquaintances.
“I need my key back so I can go knock on their doors to ask for help.” Remember I have three locked doors to plow through to get to my room.
“I can’t give you your key back. Are you sure a friend cannot get your deposit?”
“I need to talk to them, and to do that I need my key. But I still don’t see why that would help. If I can’t get the money before I leave, why should a third person get involved in this?”
“Here.” In frustration she handed me a stamped form for my full deposit. “I am not supposed to do this. You are missing three things. Take this to the Studentenwerk if they are still open. They will give you your deposit. You must go quickly.”
“What if they are closed?” She shrugged. She wanted me gone. It was 12:35. She was ready to start her weekend. I took the paper and bolted before the missing gorilla was noticed.
Lugging all of my worldly possessions, I scampered to the tram and rode to the necessary offices. The sun was shining and so was I. Shining with sweat anyway as I hobble-jogged to the Studentenwerk.
I plowed through a gaggle of German students who though the front steps were a great place to gather twenty people for a chat. I clipped someone with my guitar, and didn’t look back. I had to get my cash-money.
At the top of the stairs I was greeted with a dark hallway and empty offices. I pounded on the main door, hoping Frau Schultz had maybe called ahead to let someone know to stick around for me. No one had. All the offices were closed on the next floor, too. Everyone was probably taking their two hour lunch. I trooped to the university Kasse where I paid the deposit in the first place. Also closed. A helpful loading dock worker suggested I come back at two, so I dragged myself and my possessions to the Institute, the only place left in Bonn that would welcome me.
Pavel was surprised to see me and my massive pack. He said the secretary had been in looking for my key. I went up to her office and handed over my final connection to the city. Homeless and office-less, I walked back to the Studentenwerk so I would be on hand when everyone got back from lunch. Everyone in the housing department was gone for the day as a harried worker explained to me on the way to the copier, but the Kasse lady was back.
She took one look at my form, “No, I cannot help.”
“Please, all the other offices are closed and I’m leaving Monday before they reopen.”
“I can’t help.”
“Can you make sure this is deposited into my account. I don’t need it in cash. I can transfer the money.”
“It will take six weeks.”
“I know, I just can’t do anything else.”
Grudgingly she took the paper, stamped it, and filed it away with an “Auf Wiedersehen.” My day shot, I shuffled back to my office, knocked on the window, and was let in by Pavel so I could put my fossils and bones away.
I like collecting this dead stuff. I think I’ll leave the stamp collecting to the Germans.