The Emperor’s New Clothes

And just like that Mr Pfister disappears from my life.

I now have all of the documents required to obtain citizenship. Once I am satisfied that the list is complete I dial the number on the piece of paper he has given me. It is not Mr Pfister who answers the call.

It turns out that Mr Pfister is only responsible for the initial consultation. The person who oversees the actual submission process is Mr Hasselhof.

There is an air of absurdity when we finally meet. I cross town to the Immigration Bureau, announce myself at reception and am told to go to room 314.

When I enter I realise I have been here before. Mr Hasselhof and Mr Pfister share an office. We sit on the left hand side of the double desk. Last time we sat on the right.

Mr Pfister is not there because he only works afternoons. Mr Hasselhof only works mornings. I wonder if they have met, and how many times they’ve unknowingly crossed on the stairs if not.

I hand over the documents, lovingly sorted into the order shown on the list. They are, for the sake of reference, as follows: my passport, my employment contract(s), payslips for the last three months, a passport photo, a CV, my German language certificate, my citizenship test certificate and my birth certificate.

They are all fine with one exception: my birth certificate. As I am the spitting image of my father I did not expect this particular document to present any particular difficulties, but there is in fact not just one problem but two.

The first is that, as you may remember, I ordered this particular document in March. It is now September. For some reason the copy may not be more than six months old. If I do not get the application in by Friday then it will be out of date and I will have to order a new one from Scotland. That will take another month.

We have days to spare so that is not yet a problem. Germany is a world leader when it comes to the “just in time” principle.

The second problem is more much more difficult to get round and I only notice it when I read through the list for the final time. Because my birth certificate is in English it needs to be translated into German.

From a practical point of view this is completely unnecessary. The English version should pose Mr Hasselhof no great problem. Like all west Germans of working age he learned English at school.

Nor is the document particularly complicated: name, place of birth, date of birth etc. A German twelve-year-old could understand it.

Why don’t I translate it myself? I do work as a translator on the side after all. The answer to that one cranks the absurdity up a notch. While you don’t need any special qualifications to be a translator other than a good grounding in both languages, you need to registered with a local court to translate official documents.

The result is ever so slightly paradoxical. Nobody would ever dream of paying me money to translate such a simple document; the customer would simply do it themselves.

I only get the fancy stuff that the trainees and the computers can’t do: contracts, medical stuff, websites etc. My best customers are the German department at the university. As you can imagine, they come out with some seriously impressive sentences.

If you are registered however, you can do easy stuff like this for about three times the price I would ask you for — in the unlikely event that you were ever dumb enough to push such a simple piece of business my way.

I have to hope that Mr Hasselhof will apply what football managers call “the eighteenth rule”. The eighteenth rule of association football states that in cases where applying any one of the seventeen official rules would make for a situation which is obviously ridiculous, referees should apply common sense instead.

In football at least, it is not a rule which is not applied very often. Under pressure from national and international associations, referees tend to apply the laws of the game to the letter. I can only hope that the Immigration Bureau are more tolerant than FIFA.

I have no such luck. Mr Hasselhof agrees that the situation is absurd but points out that he has bosses who may not see it in the same way.

He admits that somebody should have mentioned all this to me, I admit that I should have read the small print. He also explains the reasoning behind it: He can read my certificate in English but would have problems if it were in, say, Korean or Arabic.

And so I must pay a small fortune to a guy who will take weeks to do a job I could do in five minutes for a fraction of the price. It makes no sense to argue, I know that well enough. In thirty years of watching football I’ve never seen a referee change his mind.

Apart from anything else, when I’m teaching at the university I’m often on the opposite side of the table — I have to turn people away from my courses because they haven’t got the right documentation. Usually it’s because their language level isn’t good enough, on paper at least — but they want to know if they can join the course anyway.

We’re a bit more relaxed in such situations. I usually tell the student to write an e-mail to my boss — and that he will write back telling them that they should ask me just the question they have asked me right now. If they do that, I will say yes.

It may sound absurd but it at least it conforms to the written procedures we have. It also conforms to the unwritten rules governing conflict situations in Germany.

These are many and  they are complex but for the sake of reference they are as follows. If you protest, you lose. If you shout, you lose. If you curse, you lose. Above all, you must never mention that “this is absurd”.

To do so would merely demonstrate that your intellectual capacities stretch no further than stating the obvious. Instead, you must play the game and play it well. This way you may at least gain a moral victory.

As in Britain, communication is all about reading between the lines — with one subtle difference. In Britain, the task is to decipher what is actually meant from what has been said. In Germany, what is not said is often what matters most.

It’s all about face. The only way to win is to be the one who revels in the absurdity the most. I grin, as does Mr Hasselhof.  I ask him whether I can translate the document myself, partly on the off-chance that he might say yes but more so that he has to explain why not.

He makes a copy of my birth certificate and then tells me to send him a translation later. Thus the six-month expiry is at least avoided. The ball is at least over the line, even if protests abound from the defence.

It’s been a ludicrous day all round. To top it all, I’ve lost my office keys. Mr Hasselhof isn’t really called Mr Hasselhof by the way, but his real name would bring just as much joy to nineties freaks. As a pseudonym it fits nicely into what has been a fairly ridiculous twenty-four hours.

I go on holiday tomorrow so I decide to go out for some retail therapy. The next time we speak I’ll be in the mountains of Serbia so I take myself off to a sports shop to buying some (highly unnecessary) hiking clothes to complement an already full-to-bursting wardrobe.

I fill up my basket with a couple of pairs of trousers, some shorts, a couple of t-shirts and some socks, and go to the cash desk. The woman behind the cash desk is a bitch. She would be: Bad luck comes in threes after all.

For a nation famed for its bluntness, Germany does passive aggressive surprisingly well. Partly that’s for the reasons described above and partly that’s because customer service is a concept that German shop workers consider to be beneath them.

In this particular case the reason is more fundamental. I have disturbed the lady in question’s discussion with her colleague on the next till and she is not amused. Sharp-pointed fingernails jab at the screen; the items are thrown back to me in quick succession.

“There’s no code on these” she says, presumably to me, tightly gripping a pair of trousers in about that place you’d probably expect her to. “I’ll have to ring the hiking department now”.

She does just that, gets a code and taps it into the screen. The price comes up at €99,99; about three times the advertised price. I tell her the price as I understood it to be, she sighs and picks up the phone.

“No? Right, I’ll tell him.”

“€99,99 is right enough. It was the ones next to that what were for thirty-five.” Now she’s grinning. I tell her I don’t want them and she casts them into a basket behind her.

She gives me the total price, forgetting to deduct the trousers. I remind her, sighs are once more forthcoming, nails jab at the screen, and the correct total is shown. I pay and wish her a nice evening. As she replies I notice that when she opens her mouth a light comes on.

Normally I would think that if this is how they treat their customers then I’ll take my business elsewhere but it’s been a bad day and I really want the trousers. I head back to the hiking department and pick up another pair.

I check the price, the product number and the other items on the rack. These are the ones, and thirty-five euros is the price. They have a barcode.

I take them up to the counter and I remember Mr Hasselhof. Who masters the absurdity best, wins.

“Hello again!” I say.

I hand over the trousers. Fingernails burrow into the crotch. The barcode is scanned. Thirty-five euros. I grin and say nothing. The emperor is fully aware of his predicament; he need not be reminded of it. Best just to show that you are enjoying the spectacle.

A day later, Theresa May gives a speech saying that Britain’s heart was never really in the European project, that Britain wants out but would like to hang around for a little longer and pay for the privilege. If you hear nothing from the Germans, you might have an idea what they’re thinking. Theresa is naked and she knows it.

See you in Serbia, trousers and all.


7 thoughts on “The Emperor’s New Clothes

  1. When I was a student, `Catch 22` was prescribed reading for a class in Public Administration. I can see why. It is probably prescribed reading for German civil servants. Not, however for shop assistants – `service with a snarl` is the guiding principle, but it comes back to Catch 22 in the end.

    Bon vacances.


    1. Luckily I’ve had a grounding in the most inflexible public administration of them all. When I was in France I had no address for the first month and therefore couldn’t open a bank account. Because I had no bank account, I couldn’t get an address. Once you work out how to get out of that one you can do anything. I can’t actually remember how the story ends for Captain Yossarian I must admit. Any notion?


  2. This made me laugh! As a German living in the UK (since 1998) and most of it in Scotland, I do and don’t miss this German adhesion to the most miniscule detail of official procedures and documents.
    I would think that the insistance for a translation by a certified translator arises from the possibility that the birth certificate could be faked, and German authorities and their procedures are all set up as cross checks of legitemacy.
    I remeber my first encounters with British beaurocracy, where my German approach to refer to the ambiguity in their own small print in the ‘rule book’ as justification for my interpretation of what that meant, just propelled me back to the end of the queue.
    I also noted that the success of an application is intrinsically dependent on which person happens to be at work that day and what they feel like they request you need to bring along.
    But I have adapted to the ‘negotiaion’ that is involved in these conversations and as I experienced the German way, I very much enjoy the flexibility of the British counterpart in knowing common sense is occasionally applied above adherence to that nonsensical detail of the rule book. They (the German beaurocrats) are hard core, but they will see you through this and once you have your citizenship you won’t be in ‘ne danger’ ever of it not being legitimate. I wish you Good luck and a lovely holiday!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You are so right! I’m glad someone else sees the subtle differences in style. To be honest I prefer the German way of doing things when it comes to bureaucracy. Apart from anything else it’s actually shorter in the long run:-)


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