Adventures in the Ämter

Last week I achieved a milestone in my life as an expat. I finally received a permanent residence permit. You might think that after 10.5 years in Germany, I would have done this long ago. Alas, it seems I’m not very good with this kind of bureaucracy. There were a few difficulties, longer stays abroad, forgetfulness, and thus I kept renewing for the standard 3 year time period. But now… now I can stay forever, in case I want that.

My first experience with a German Amt (government office) was back in 2000. My then-fiance and I visited the Standesamt (registry office) to gather information on what paperwork I would need in order for us to get married. I have never been so rudely treated in such an obvious manner. The young woman helping us shocked us both by being openly critical of my nonexistent German language ability, and mocking my lack of understanding to my face. We left and I burst into tears, afraid of Germans, afraid of moving to Europe, afraid of being rejected by my host culture, afraid I would never be good enough to be accepted, and feeling about 2cm tall.

We got married at a different Standesamt. The lady there was nice, but they charged me an extra 30 Deutschmarks because my birth certificate listed my mother’s name in a non-standard format.

Shortly thereafter I was in the Ausländeramt (foreigner’s office) to get my new visa. I took my mom with me on that trip, and after standing in line for over an hour, was told at the “E” counter that I had to go to the “K” counter, as my passport was in my maiden name, which started with K. I protested, saying that the K line was so long, we’d never make it to the counter during opening hours. The kind woman took us to the front of the K line and I was served immediately! What joy! Unfortunately, the entire K line didn’t find joy in my special treatment and silently protested by refusing to make room so that my mom and I could leave. If the civil servants don’t get you, the other foreigners do…

And then I required a trip to the Arbeitsamt (employment office) to get my work permit. I was there at opening time, which was 7am. Lucky for me! In with me came a number of eager work-seekers, or so I assumed. Two of these gentlemen then proceeded to remove all the numbers from the ticket machine, so that there were no remaining tickets for anyone arriving after 7:03am. Latecomers were forced either to leave or to beg one of the Arbeitsamt-mafia for a ticket. Pretty women received them without question. I was fascinated and disgusted, happy that I had arrived early enough to get my own ticket, and even happier to get out of there again.

Then there was the issue of getting my German driving license. Coming from Oregon, all that was required was the written exam. Once I finally managed to take and pass that test, I took my certificate to the Führerscheinstelle (driver licensing office) and was told that I had to give up my Oregon driving license. I protested on the grounds that this was also my ID card, but it was useless. I grudgingly submitted my Oregon license, then promptly hit the DMV next time I was there.

For the most part I try to avoid the Ämter as much as possible. Our local Bürgerbüro (town office) is friendly and helpful and on a good day you don’t even have to wait in line. Most of what we have to do in terms of passports and other registration can be done there. I have learned a few things about the German civil offices in the last 10 years. Firstly, they are much nicer to you if you speak German. Second, because Germany is still a male-dominated culture, and because I am a foreign woman, I always have more success if I bring my German husband with me. I hate this second point, it sends me into a rage if I think about it too much; I have learned, however, that I won’t change my host culture,  not even by lecturing them on gender equality, and that sometimes I have to swallow my pride in order to get what I want (quick, efficient, good service).

This time around, I was fully prepared for my trip to the Ausländeramt. I brought my German husband, he wore a suit, we were ready for battle. The Ausländeramt has changed since I first went there. Now they give you an appointment and the halls are no longer crowded with foreigners of every shade, speaking every language. It was stale and quiet while waiting there. My name was called over the intercom, I submitted my remaining papers and was sent out to wait again. Five minutes later, I was issued with a permanent visa by a woman who couldn’t have been more quick, efficient, or friendly.

I have arrived.