Ihre papiere bitte!

Irresistible isn’t it?  To think of The Great Escape every time I have to do something to do with official documentation in Germany.  Politically correct it isn’t though up until today I had been congratulating myself on not making the same mistake as Gordon Jackson.  Today however, someone held the door for me at Bonn Hauptbahnhof and I automatically said “Thank you!”.  Tut.

Not that my German is especially good; it really isn’t yet I usually find it quite easy to not speak English.  Where my brain then “lands” however, is anyone’s guess.  When I moved into my current abode last week and found myself a little short of food, I thought to myself “Ich kann Kartoffeln und im essen.”  I meant “I can eat potatoes and butter”.  Only “im” is not the German word for butter.  It does mean butter but not, alas, in German.  No, “im” was my two years’ of Irish attempting to make a comeback.  Well, why not “Go maih!”  I’d even go so far to say (though I suspect I’ve just misspelled it) but perhaps now is not the time.

Anyway, back to the papers business.  As I now have a permanent address – sort of – I have to register.  So off I trot to the local town hall.  Not in Bonn; it’s the Wachtberg townhall I needed and that was in Berkum.  Cue a short bus journey up the hill to Berkum.  You will be glad, I am sure, to hear that this time I didn’t end up in Amsterdam or anywhere like this this time.  No, this was the right bus and it all passed off quite uneventfully.  However registering was a slightly different matter.  After Friday last week I thought that nothing would ever frighten me again but the lady in the Einwohnermeldeamt had a good go.  She asked me a question which I didn’t understand at all and when I asked her to repeat it, hoping she would rephrase it to use at least one word I knew, she just said it again louder and slower.  Now one part of my brain was definitely thinking “Oh shit”, however there was another part of my brain that was pleased to noticed that shouting at foreigners so they understand is not the sole preserve of the British.  A third part of my brain (I am multi-tasking central, let me tell you) then piped up and told the woman that I came from England.  For some reason this seemed to satisfy her which I found vaguely irritating as I had already handed her my passport and she appeared to be perfectly able to read.  Even if I could have said all that in German, I don’t think I would have; I like to think it’s politeness but really it’s just cowardice.  Anyway, the questions went on:

– When did you arrive in Germany?

– 3rd August

– Why didn’t you register then?

– I was a student, the school told me I didn’t need to.

– Religion?

– Church of England

– Gut

Bugger.  I have been warned about the religion question; this is a tax thing, if you admit to having a religion the German state will tax you for it.  I had been worrying about this question; now I must confess (a-ha) to having spent a fair bit of time in church wondering whether I believe it all enough for my presence there to be observance and not hypocrisy but I certainty wasn’t happy with the idea of denying my religion, even only once, especially not for the sake of saving money.  In the end I was entirely unprepared for that question at that point – the expected form having been replaced with a scary bureaucrat and a computer – and answered automatically (and even with a certain degree of pride – probably an inappropriate work given the context) so, God 1 Mammon 0.

Anyway, I got my piece of paper bearing my Gemeindekennzahl which I spent four days thinking was my tax number until it occurred to me to Google it.  It turns out that this is only the Community number (a bit like a NI number if you like) and that to register for tax I had to go to the Finanzamt or Finance Office.  Again, not in Bonn.  No this office was about as far away from Bonn as Wachtburg, lying in Sankt Augustin to the north.  Mercifully, once in Bonn it’s the S-Bahn all the way so the trip didn’t turn into the sort of adventure that Steve Martin usually stars in or anything like that.  This was much easier than the town hall.  The lady was very friendly, explained that I didn’t need a tax number but an ID number.  Again no forms, she filled in everything on the computer and the whole thing only took as long as it did because her telephone kept ringing and she kept answering it!  No matter, I have my bits of paper. 

And what is all this in aid of?  Well, I have got my first job.  It’s only a few hours a week – there will be no celebratory shopping spree – but it does almost cover my rent so it’ll slow down the rate at which I’m spending the money I had saved which means that I get to stay here longer, hoorah!

So it’s a shame that my lovely language exchange partner has dropped off the radar.  I told you last week that he had cancelled on me because he had to work at the weekend.  Now he made it pretty clear that he wanted to rearrange our meeting but I have not heard from him since so now I begin to wonder  if that message was, in fact, a brush off.  In the way that private students don’t simply tell you they want to stop having lessons, they just cancel a lesson and fail to reschedule.  The alternative is that he meant what he said and my response instead sent him running for the hills.  So, I go back and check my texts and there it is; in response to his apologetic note cancelling our meeting I replied “Oh no!  I was looking forward to seeing you.”  Fatal mistake.  This is because the phrase, “I was looking forward to seeing you”, when sent to a female friend, means simply what it says, no more, no less.  However, when a single woman sends the same phrase  to a man of less than ten years’ acquaintance, ” was looking forward to seeing you” somehow transforms itself into “I have decided on the names of our children.”  Oh well, I’m still hoping he’ll re-enter stage right at some point but we will see.

So tonight, having just registered at this address, I am planning to leave it.  I saw a room in town this afternoon and the woman there said I could have it – contract to come on Tuesday (fingers crossed!)  the internet there is faster than it is here.  This week’s blog has taken me nearly three hours – it took half an hour alone just to look up the name of that actor in The Great Escape.

I’m off to bed now. 

Gute Nacht, Shlaf Gut! 



About afewwordsinpencil

An English writer of novels and theatrical pieces. My first novel, "And I Shall Be Healed" (Quickbeam Press) follows the experiences of a young army chaplain on the Western Front 1916-7. This and some theatre writings are available on the usual websites.
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2 Responses to Ihre papiere bitte!

  1. cliff1976 says:

    She asked me a question which I didn’t understand at all and when I asked her to repeat it, hoping she would rephrase it to use at least one word I knew, she just said it again louder and slower.

    But wait! Your Beamtin did it exactly right! At early stages in learning German my wife and I have both cursed the apparent tendency Germans (or perhaps native speakers of other languages) have when addressing foreign speakers to drastically change the syntax or sentence structure when politely asked “Wie bitte?” in desperation. So many times I have wished for exactly that — louder and slower — when trying to learn new words on the fly in a stressful situation!


    • That’s a fair point and I have definitely noticed that in Italian when they’ve done that and I’ve wanted to say “No wait! I can understand I just didn’t catch all of that!” but then my Italian is a lot better than my German and in that office I was delivering an Oscar-winning performance as Rabbit in Headlights. But yes, I think you’re right.


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