In the new few weeks I will probably become very frustrated with German bureaucrats. It is not their fault and they are only doing their jobs. I have to keep calm. To help me do this I’m going to share a true story with you just to remind myself that they also have a sense of humour.
Twelve years ago I lost my wallet. I think I dropped it in the supermarket but I cannot be sure. I ask the shop manager; he has not seen it. He is sympathetic because the wallet is in the colours of Borussia Dortmund, our favourite football team. We stay in touch for some years afterwards. He says the best place to try is the police station.
The police are polite and businesslike but no wallet has been handed in. They recommend that I try the lost property office, the Fundbüro.
No German town is complete without a Fundbüro. Way back when I was learning German at school I learned about them. I’ve always wanted to go to one for some reason.
So I go there. It’s in a large red brick municipal building. I enter the building and ask for directions. They send me along a long corridor of bare walls and identical doors. I turn right at the end and descend down a flight of stairs. I walk down another corridor until I get to the end. The natural light has disappeared. The door in the middle is the one I want. I knock.
This is the German bureaucrat’s equivalent of: “Do come in and take a seat. How may I help you?” I enter. A small grey man is sitting behind a desk which is too big for him. The room is too big for his desk.
The conversation which follows took place in German, the only language German bureaucrats are ever willing to speak. That said, some of the phrases in italics will sound quite familiar…
“What can I do for you?”
“I’ve lost my wallet. I was wondering whether it had been handed in.”
“Well let’s see shall we? Can you describe it?”
“It’s black and yellow with a Borussia Dortmund logo.”
“And what was inside it?”
“Let’s see. My insurance card, my travel pass, €150 in cash, a German cash card from the Sparkasse, a British cash card…”
“A British card. Are you British?”
“From Scotland. About the wallet…”
“I like Wales. Do you know why? Tom Jones.”
He motions with his hand around the room. It is covered in Tom Jones posters. In later years I’ve discovered that German bureaucrats’ offices are quite homely places, full of family photos, packed lunches and posters of sporting and musical heroes. The council tax lady in Herne has a Christiano Ronaldo love gallery instead of an office. Room 4.231 -go and see it sometime.
I suspect that it’s because these people don’t have to work particularly hard and so have time to make themselves at home. Or that they have no homes to go to and so live in their offices, going to sleep when the lights go out in the same way as caged birds do. In any case, I am in the Temple of Tom.
“What’s your name?” he asks me. I tell him.
“Let’s have a look in the system…”
Pause. I am excited, hopeful even. He is concentrating.
“No…no, there’s nothing. What can I say? It’s not unusual…it’s probably out there on the green, green grass. These things happen all the time. What’s new, pussycat? You can come in again next week if you like, but to be honest you should probably say bye, bye, bye to it.”
His face does not move a fraction. I am trying not to laugh. I thank him for his time and say goodbye. I walk back along the corridor, climb the stairs, turn and head out through the main entrance into the sunshine.
That was twelve years ago. I still think about him and I wish him well. Sitting at the end of the corridor of darkness in the Temple of Tom. Waiting patiently for the next British idiot to lose his wallet.