Thursday, November 22, 2007

Is it wrong that I take out my visa just to look at it? They're a bit anticlimatic, these two squares of stamped paper with a hideous picture of your's truly attached, but I can't help but feeling a profound sense of accomplishment everytime I flip over the page. I look at it the way a bull fighter might look at the ragged dimple in his thigh, or a boxer his cauliflowered ears: it was damn unpleasant getting them, but by God I earned it. I "erkämpft" it, as the Germans would say, and every second spent looking at that nondescript, yet disturbingly official set of cards, I am reminded of the storm of shit and insanity I had to wade through to get it.

I would never claim that German bureacracy is the worst, or even the most annoying, in the world (Southeast Asia possesses, as I understand it, a unique capacity for offical ineptitude), but it does operate in an environment of redundancy and desk chair megalomania that borders on the absurd, frequently tipping over the edge into the abyss of fantasy. You would think, for instance, that in a country in which cash is still king, in which almost all official documents have to be paid for in cash, that they would have an ATM machine either in the building, or in the immediate vicinity. You could think that, but you'd be wrong. No, the international student who has to pay € 50,00 cash for his visa must, if he, say, only has € 46,00 in his pocket, walk all the way back to the U-Bahn station and look for an ATM in the wall of a hospital. Yes, that's right: the closest ATM to the wonderfully named "Ausländerbehörde" and office of "Ordnungsangelegenheiten" ("Foreigner Office" and "Matters of Order") is twenty minutes away and tucked in a niche beside the gate to a hospital. I of course didn't know that it was sqeezed into a gated hole in the side of the hospital, because I didn't know where the hospital was. All I knew was that it was "behind the U-Bahn." Enter two and a half hours of frustration.

I should have known this wasn't going to be easy as soon as I got those directions, I should have seen through them and into that glaring spacial flaw that makes them impossible to follow, but I did not. Instead, I took them at face value and entered a foul place where laughter has no sound and babys' tears flow upward. You see, the problem is mainly this: there is no "behind the U-Bahn," or not at least in any clear sense. An U-Bahn (Untergrundbahn) station is set up much like a potato, with four to fives feelers branching off the central station underground and breaking the surface of the street at regular intervals, giving you, you guessed it, multiple entrances. This all makes enterering the U-Bahn pretty convenient, but it also systematically lays waste to any petty human concepts of space or matter you might have. It's something you never notice normally, this bastard of a building (you even start to think of it as something normal), until someone tells you to look behind it. For then, and only then, do you realize that there is no "behind," no "in front," there is just "is." An U-Bahn station exists like no other building I have ever seen, in its own space and time, where directions and orientation depend almost completely on perspective or line of sight.

But I took it like a man and walked around it aimlessly for twenty minutes, cursing this country and its people, until I decided that I should probably go back and tell the guy in the visa department that I might "be awhile." So, I walk back to the Ausländerbehörde, into the room where a balding little bureacrat sits hunching in front of a computer for hours on end, and tell him, the man who holds my legal residency in this pink little hands, that I can't find the ATM machine. He looks up from his computer, where I suspect he was fighting his way through a particularly difficult level of Mine Sweeper, sighs with that mixture of parental concern and spoiled distain that only Germans seem to be able to summon, and says: "It's behind the U-Bahn, in the hospital." End of conversation. Want to ask a second question? Sorry, not allowed. I had be told where the ATM machine is, and if I can't find it, I'm an idiot.

You see, there is prevailing assumption here, especially when dealing with people entrusted with petty responsibilities and powers, that everyone knows where everything is and how it works. "It's always been there," they seem to say through a wrinkled nose or rolling eyes. "It's THE hospital in Wedding. How don't you know that?" In fact, come to think of it, that's how most matters of order and procedure are handled: with an unshakable belief in your responsibility to know and understand everything. A moment of confusion, of hesitation, or God forbid, transgression reveals your inherit stupidity, earning you a stern talking-to, or at least a dispassionate snort. Having been baptized in the waters of teutonic distain, I walked back to the U-Bahn and, yes, walked around aimlessly looking for the hospital. And I know what you're thinking, so I don't want to hear it: "But Brandon, isn't there a sign on the hospital?" No, because that would be reasonable. More than that, it would mean that you assume that someone doesn't know where they're going, that that's OK, and we've already established that it isn't. Please, keep up.

Well, by this time, I legs were really starting to hurt, having walked several miles and taken two hours to do what should have taken no more that a half an hour, I start asking anyone on the street I can get my claws into where the hospital is. The first guy says it's straight ahead on the right, so I go there. It's a school. Nicely played, my man, nicely played. I walk up to another man, balding, chubby and enthralled by the picture of workmen cutting down a nearby tree, and ask again. "Excuse me," I say, "is this the hospital?" He looks away from his scene of tree carnage, smiles, points across the street, and says only the way a true Berliner can:

"Nee, det is de Krankenhaus."

(I submit the equivalent Standard German sentence for comparison):

"Nein, das ist das Krankenhaus."

I walk across the street to the high white building with elegant cupolas, wide granite arches and wrought iron gates, to what is indeed the hospital, and notice a sign in front of it's left wing, a sign that reads: "hotel."


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