Cutting through the first coils of bureaucratic wire. Much “Achtung!” About Nothing. Episode 15

Springtime for Nietzsche. First blood on the barbs of bureaucracy.


An introduction to the bureaucracy which makes Germans important. The rites of spring.

The time of drunken tree-gathering.

There was a powerful smell of damp, of earth and blossom, the air grew warmer, he sweated, his shirt clung to him, and once again Keetenheuve had the impression of being in a gigantic hot-house.”

-Wolfgang Koeppen, Das Treibhaus

“Sehet die Jungfraun und sehet die Blüte! Seht sie am Morgen im herrlichen Mai! Betet zu Gott, daß er sie behüte Ist sie gepflückt, dann ist es vorbei.”

-Bertolt Brecht

I’ve heard it said that when you introduce a cat into a new environment you should spread butter on its paws to distract it from the general disruption and unpleasantness. The dirty little beast will be too busy licking up the butter to worry about the logistics of the move. How you hold a cat still for long enough to spread butter on its paws, I don’t know. I have a sneaking suspicion that this whole operation is perhaps more about taking the cat-person’s mind off the move.

In Germany, they use a similar technique with incoming foreigners, but instead of butter they use bureaucracy. The newcomer to Germany almost drowns in a sea of administrative hurdles which prevent one from getting on with the more important things in life – like working and earning and being a productive member of society. These administrative hurdles seem to be applied in a totally arbitrary fashion. It just depends who you find behind the desk, and what kind of mood they’re in. Add to that the fact that these offices only open their doors to the public three days a week (sometimes not even that) and then only in the mornings and often by appointment only.

The rules continually change on the German bureaucratic landscape.

Monday mornings, Wednesday mornings and Friday mornings were the usual times. Although making an appointment was advisable and in some cases necessary, it was not always possible, and even an appointment was no guarantee that you would get your business done before the office closed for lunch. When one had bureaucratic tasks to perform, it always meant taking half a day off work and being prepared for the eventuality that you would reach the front of the queue just as the shutter came down over the service window. Then you would have to make time to come the following week and try again. This is all in the name of German efficiency, of course.

Monday was a bad time, because nobody was happy to be back at work after a long and languid weekend of Gemütlichsitzen (I still didn’t know what that was). On Friday afternoons government offices were closed to the public. Friday mornings generally weren’t bad though, because the weekend was in sight and people were in a good mood.

However, most government departments are closed to the public all day on Fridays, as Friday mornings are reserved for administrative tasks like keeping the birthday roster up to date (yes, they do take these things very seriously) and, because nobody wants to start anything that may not be finished before it was time to start shutting down the computer and planning the weekend. Also, it’s often the case that Friday afternoons are reserved for lengthy lunches. This is important in order to sustain morale under the crippling work load faced by most government employees.

The first thing I had to do was open a bank account. Fairly straight-forward. You walk into the bank with your money and ten minutes later you have an account which has your money in it, right?

Well no, actually. Why allow something to be simple to be straightforward when you can make it difficult, complicated and time-consuming?

I went into the main branch of a large bank in downtown Bonn, with my Finnish passport and a wad of Australian notes and some travelers’ cheques, ready to open an account. Admittedly, it was rather a small wad, a few hundred euros-worth, but I had a job and needed somewhere for Radio Free Rhineland to deposit my pay.

The secret to getting along in Germany is to know your place.

The woman at the front desk (which sat on a raised dais, so that you were automatically at a position of psychological disadvantage) demanded to see a list of half a dozen documents, including my work contract, details of my residential registration (Anmeldungsbescheinigung) proof of health-insurance and another document which proved that I had the right to move about freely within Germany’s borders. What year were we in? 1941?

Nothing had been explained to me about these documents – Radio Free Rhineland made a point of explaining nothing to its foreign employees – and I was still waiting for my work contract. Without the work contract I couldn’t get compulsory health-insurance and without health-insurance I couldn’t get paid. Until I had these documents, it also seemed I wouldn’t be able to open a bank account. Without a bank account, I couldn’t get paid, without getting paid I couldn’t have health-insurance – because that had to be paid for out of my salary. Seems like we’re back at the beginning of the loop again. On top of this, health insurance is compulsory in Germany, so if you work without paying health insurance you’re actually breaking the law. Whether you’re getting paid or not.

Eventually I went into the local branch of the same bank in Dransdorf, close to where I lived. Thankfully, it seemed that they were perfectly happy to open an account for me with nothing more in front of them than my passport and my money. The arbitrariness of regulations in Germany, and how they are applied, or ignored, or bent, can be breath-taking. But, I was out of the starting blocks.

Springtime in Germany was so intensely green it almost hurt my eyes. I watched a tree outside my kitchen window on the 2nd floor grow at least four inches a day. You could almost see it getting taller with the naked eye. I had just come from a year in Alice Springs, where everything exists in shades of ochre and growth is measured in geological terms; so the effect was startling.

The more classy villager will even have a heart made of ginger-bread, with the name of his belle squirted onto it in pink icing, dangling from his Maibaum.

Meanwhile something strange was going on. Birch trees were appearing all over the neighbourhood: taped to lamp-posts, nailed to the front of houses and lashed to pretty much anything upright.

The fellow who is having the biggest wood is getting the girl, no?

Apparently, it’s an ancient spring rite which dates back to Pagan times. A young man fancies a young woman, so he goes into the forest, chooses a birch sapling, cuts it down and sticks it up somewhere in front of her house. Before its erection in a suitably obvious place, the “Maibaum”, or May tree, is decorated with coloured tissue paper, or tinsel, or cardboard hearts with the name of the lucky girl scrawled on them in fat marker pen. The more classy villager will even have a heart made of ginger-bread, with the name of his belle squirted onto it in pink icing, dangling from his Maibaum.

There also seemed to be some symbolism in the height of the tree offered. In front of some houses, three or four of these trees would appear, each one bigger than the last. The various suitors would sometimes try to remove the tree which was there before, and I guess that, in the end, the guy with the biggest wood got the girl. Dransdorf was thick with the things. If one were to peer from behind a curtain into the street in the early hours of the morning, the neighbourhood lads could be seen dragging trees drunkenly behind their bicycles and lashing them to neighbourhood lampposts and drain-pipes. The local paper reported more than one incident of a young man injuring himself by falling off a ladder while attaching a gingerbread heart to a Maibaum after it had been fastened in place outside the window of the young lady of his desires.

The random felling of birch trees in large numbers was causing some consternation among the good Burgers, and recently a law had been passed that only a limited number of people with an official birch-tree felling licence (which could be obtained at some expense after a three-year training program) would be allowed to fell birch trees. They can then sell the trees to the young men of the region, thus avoiding the annual slew of logging accidents. So there is now money flowing into government coffers thanks to the continued observance of this ancient tradition, and some people who were previously unemployed now have something to do. Despite the new regulations, plenty of guys still just hack birch trees out of the parks and fields, risking a heavy fine. But, the important thing is not whether the law is enforced, but that the law has been written.

Unfortunately, springtime in Germany also meant that for much of the time it was 10 degrees and raining.

The day I arrived, it had been 20 degrees and I hadn’t been able to turn off the heating in my room, but now that we had a late cold snap the landlord had turned the heating off, to avoid waste. I sat huddled under a blanket on the bare floor until I could stand it no longer, and went out for a walk, to try and get the thick syrup in my veins, which used to be blood, flowing again.

In the second-hand warehouse across the street I found an electric heater for 10 euros, and was dragging it back to the flat when I bumped into my Bavarian flatmate Sebastian.

Why do you have that?” he asked.

Because the heating in my room isn’t working, and it’s bloody freezing. So I just bought this at the second-hand place.”

Well, the heating always gets turned off on the first day of spring. But that heater will use a lot of electricity, and we like to keep costs down in the flat.”

He was already steering me back through the doors of the second-hand market and negotiating a refund with the heavily tattooed and pierced charity shop worker.

Don’t worry, it will warm up in a week or so,” Sebastian told me cheerily.

Indeed it did, and Germany was on the brink of one of its best summers in years. The beer was cheap, FIFA fever was rising and, as the mercury rose the women of Bonn and Cologne (well, mostly Cologne, if we’re honest about it – Bonn was distinctly less liberated) were to be found in public spaces in ever increasing states of undress. I was surprised by the number of topless sunbathers in the parks of Cologne. In Sydney’s parks it would be cause for instant arrest on charges of public indecency, not to mention inciting public unrest and disturbing the peace. In any Australian city there would probably have been riots! I, personally, have never understood why bare breasts in a public place should be regarded as indecent.

It seemed to me that the place was awash with attractive women of every ethnicity, every colour, every shape, every size. I was excited!

I remember writing, in a postcard to a friend: “If I had known it would be like this, I would have packed a clean pair of underpants and been on the boat a long time ago.”

It was obvious that I had only recently come off the end of the gangplank.

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