(for Juan José Saer)
You hear a lot about German Bureaucracy if you speak to other resident non-citizens; every time I get together with other resident non-citizens, we strategize about which kind of visa to apply for, what to wear to one’s appointments, and the exact boundaries and consequences of vague truisms like “don’t travel while visa applications are pending.” That German bureaucracy is a nightmare is another truism; non-Germans are quick to use the word Kafkaesque to describe the surreal excess of documentation in triplicate and penalties for not filing forms that no one could have known were compulsory. (Germans, hearing the word “kafkaesque” yet again in a foreigner’s mouth, are quick to retort, “But have you lived in Austria?”). But all of us—West Germans, East Germans, and non-Germans alike—all of us automatically lower our voices, in those beautiful and practical apartment-building courtyards that are the norm here, when talking about German Bureaucracy, as if it were listening.
Given this backdrop, you can imagine our trepidation on showing up to our neighborhood Burgeramt, wide American eyes and a printed copy of our PDF lease, footfalls echoing off the high ceilings and majestic stairwells. A Burgeramt is somewhere between a City or Borough Hall and something less consequential, more low-security and often run-down. They are spread throughout the city, and whether citizen, naturalized citizen, or non-citizen, you have to go to them quite often. German Bureaucracy demands forms be filed and licenses be issued for all kinds of things—holding a lease by either end, operating an etsy business, operating a gondola (no, really), extending a shade-casting awning farther than one meter from the footprint of the building. We had come because while we were technically still on tourist visas, to prepare for our real visas down the road, it would behoove us to have already been registered at this address for a few uneventful months, ideally with a copy of our sublease submitted.
Or at least, multiple people had strategized that this would be our best approach, as far as they knew. Everyone also seemed to agree that we neededto register within ten days of moving in—no, not ten business days, ten days. There might even be a fine, someone mused, and having a non-compliance fee levied in the first paragraph of the first page of one’s official file was hardly an auspicious first step on the road to good paperwork. And so, nine days after our lease had officially come alive, we sheepishly showed up at the Burgeramt to dip our toes into German bureaucracy. And what did we find there but a homemade sign, slipped into a transparent plastic sleeve which hung from a pushpin, which read “NO SAME-DAY APPOINTMENTS TODAY.” A few flabbergasted pairs of Arabic speakers were nervously bustling about, no doubt dealing with more consequential matters than us, while hungover undergraduates shuffled around in sweatpants. A half hour’s wait in the information line confirmed that same-day appointments for less-impacted Burgeramts could only be made online, and that they usually ran out around 9am.
The next day—nervous about our rusty German and the consequences of bad paperwork—we made online appointments and showed up to the Burgeramt Schöneberg, two neighborhoods over and housed in a far less shabby building that felt less Neoclassical and more self-assuredly Germanic: shaped like a giant, faded Tyrolean hat, it had a tall Lutheran clocktower sticking out like the tailfeather of a pheasant. Facing a huge plaza, parking lots, and the intersection of a several wide avenues, the whole scene had a decidedly inhuman scale: walking up those steps, it was easy to look up nervously at that clocktower and imagine yourself in a tense courtroom drama. For added effect, we arrived still bickering over whose fault it was that we were ten minutes late, wondering if the shame would outlive us both, like Josef K being put to death at the end of Kafka’s The Trial.
Indeed, after careening through a five-way intersection, we tied up the bikes and the dog (don’t judge me) and unclenched our minds from our bikes as the boxy, deeply German building exerted its mysterious power over us.
(I was abruptly swept away by a memory from two decades ago. I felt myself back in California, finally completing my naturalization process and speeding across town to be “sworn in” to full membership in America: a magical speech act after which a stadium full of people had their most consequential attributes updated like thousands of switches flipped in unison. For all my affected cynicism, I had been looking forward curiously to the experience but after I jumped in my car, I drove not to the wrong address, but to the right address in the wrong city: Oakland and San Francisco both have a 400 Clay St., as it turned out. After I had parked at the Oakland location and got out of my car—confused, before double-checking my official correspondence—I panic-drove back to the freeway, wondering how I would explain to anyone, much less to my paperwork-reverent mother, that I had delayed joining her in the walled garden of Full American Citizenship because I had been too lazy to read an entire address. Today, staring up at the Rathaus Schöneberg, I felt myself back on the Bay Bridge, wondering how I’d failed to inherit my mother’s reverence for bureaucracy.)
We walked into the beautiful deco lobby—Jugendstil, technically—a maddening juxtaposition of eleganza, open space, nervous people, and a work crew metronomically jackhammering a plaster ceiling to smithereens. From there, we found our way to the paperwork lobby, where people milled around in a polite, clean fish-tank smaller than my living room, alternately glaring at their phones and each other; above us, a pair of flat-screen TVs flashed long numbers corresponding to appointment reservations. After a while, you noticed that it was surprisingly quiet and resigned, given how many people were all there, dangling on threads. We found our very long reservation numbers in our phones and paced around; for ten minutes, we tried to figure out if we were ten minutes late or if neither number had been called yet. Perhaps we’d somehow missed both and were wasting our time.
I tried sitting on the uncomfortable corner of a steel planter, which my partner staunchly vetoed, and though sitting in her lap might make some people uncomfortable (too affectionate!), the greater good would be served by freeing one more seat. Besides, that way we could continue talking at the low volume mandated by the space; over my long career of fretfully awaiting official pronouncements in airless spatializations of the State, I have learned that affection and tactile assurance are the subtlest and least risky of rebellions, the best place to put your hands.
An inch from her ear, I told my partner about my nearly-missed naturalization. I told it faster and faster, as if to express the mounting anxiety of crossing the San Francisco Bay Bridge; then, I took a deep breath, and enumerated everything I noticed after realizing the ceremony had not begun without me: it being twenty minutes after the time my letter had told me the ceremony would begin; the people milling around without knowing where or when they would be seating; the lack of Africans amidst the spread of subcontinents; the software-industry guys staring at their phones the whole time; the massive meeting hall, built for staging massive theatrical productions; and the goofy 1950s murals, dominated by bright earth-tones and conquistadores and planting flags in the faces of gobsmacked chieftains of all colors (lest we get too swept up in our sentiments of community).
The actual ceremony took five or ten minutes. Afterwards, people milled around as people do after a weight has been lifted, making small talk and meeting each other’s families. An hour was left in the block of time the official correspondence had ordered us to take off from work, but about half the crowd left as soon as they could.
This story lifted my partner’s spirits a bit, as did its message: governments are bad at setting times, and often underwhelming, embarrassed by the architecture they’ve inherited from more grandiose generations. I looked at my phone: a sympathetic friend had texted encouraging advice, based on years of experience with German Bureaucracy: “just smile and act docile.”
My number came up. We went through a doorway into a space so different it seemed unrelated to the universe we’d just exited; the ceiling was very high with lots of windows, and each cubicle was the size of a middle-class living room, containing an executive-sized desk and enough chairs for a large family. The mood in the room could pass for that of a weekday zine fair or a community acupuncture clinic.
Within seconds—but without making us feel rushed—a spiky-haired, middle-aged woman walked us through the process we’d come to execute; her demeanor was firm—and she was unfamiliar with American passports, South American geography, or English-German cognates—but she seemed kind, as if responding to our endearing and pathetic display of emotion during a routine paperwork checkup. When we misunderstood, she repeated herself, identically, neither slowing down nor enunciating nor with an iota of annoyance. She was surprised that we hadn’t brought the appropriate form for this transaction, but between our two twenty-minute time slots, she assured us, we’d have plenty of time to fill it out (and we did).
As she was skimming our lease, someone with a far smaller active German vocabulary than mine interrupted, stepping between her and us; he had been told to use her card reader to pay a fee, he started to say, but she cut him off: “wait five minutes until I am done with them.” She repeated herself, and then a third time, in the exact same words; then, she realized it would be faster just to swipe his card, she did so, wordlessly, though not after giving us a knowing smirk. Our German might be bad, but we knew what we didn’t know, and at least we were docile.
I have been to countless war-crimes museums and memorials, mostly with my mother on vacations in Europe and Latin America, and across three decades of family visits to Argentina. But the second-worst conversations I ever had with my mom—and though it was not about war crimes, exactly, they didn’t have to be named for their presence to be felt—was the night I drove an hour from LA to the house I grew up in, to be there in case the 2016 election went Cheetoh.
When it did, all of us sat there fuming and derailed, but while my father and I made proud, cynical pronouncements and cursed, my mother just piled up difficult questions that weigh on me for days when I let myself remember them. One recurring theme: how could they want to live in a country where someone who speaks like that will speak for them every day? Another: don’t they know what will happen to them? A third: Babies. Unspoken, but hanging heavy like cigarette smoke: what difference did it make to come here? I tried to pull myself together and answer one at a time, or a smaller, more factual question when I caught one. I summed up thinkpieces, explained obscure concepts from theoretical psychology, plagiarized my smarter friends, ran through all my takeaways from so much unpaid and compulsive research. It all missed the mark, as I am fairly certain anything else would have. She interrupted my answers mid-sentence to questions to ask them again, or to say something completely unrelated and even more unanswerable, all the while nervously sitting down and standing or pacing around the house. I tried pushing the conversation to strategies, to what legal or popular apparatuses allowed for Americans to challenge or recount an election, but no one was buying, not even my usually technical-minded father. Instead, I watched my mother gnaw at the bone of what America had elected: for the core of its most consequential institutions, laws, safeguards, authorities, and procedures to be hollowed as quickly as possible. Bureaucracy, in any of its forms at least as far back as Qin Shi Huang, is the armature of meritocracy—paperwork is the nerd’s vengeance, and we are nothing if not a family of nerds.
You see, dear reader, long before I was born and almost a decade before my parents won the green card lottery and became Americans, my parents had come to see Good Paperwork as a moral imperative, and I was born with this belief lodged deep in the marrow of my bones. But until writing this, I had never thought about the silence we talked around that night. I had been reading about the psychology of Brexit and political correctness and tantrum-voting for months, but I was powerless to explain to her that people hated bureaucracy for the opposite reason than why we did: they hated bureaucracy (and, for that matter, the Democratic Party and its meager paternalism) out of boredom, a privilege unimaginable to us and to most of the world. They hated bureaucracy because they could not imagine being Stateless, being paperless, losing all their birthrights.
And we hated bureaucracy because we could imagine it all too well. The only worse conversation I’ve ever had with my mother was two decades ago in the long, awkward period between the rest of my family’s naturalization and mine.
For two years and change, I’d been receiving letters every three months like clockwork, robotic missives which assured us we could expect an answer soon to my petition for citizenship. Then, one day, a letter arrived saying my petition had been terminated because the form I had filed was reserved exclusively for minors. I had filed the form shortly after my fifteenth birthday, of course; the peachfuzz on my upper lip was just starting to turn brown. It was a form which, as we double-checked on the internet, promised a response time of under a year on its first page. But I was, at the time of receiving my rejection letter, no longer a minor: enough time had passed that the state was justified in describing me as eighteen.
I will never know if my petition was actually lost somewhere in its foolhardy journey or if somewhere along the line, I or some other member of my family raised a red flag that inspired some sinister functionary to deploy the oldest trick in the book: sorry, we lost your paperwork, please start over. My mother made many, many hours-long, white-knuckled phone calls, only to confirm that there was nothing to appeal, that we were out the roughly $600 we’d paid in fees over three years. We could start all over again without “penalty”—filing out the “wrong” form wasn’t a misdemeanor, like so many paperwork “crimes”—and we could start over using the “adult child” version of the same form we’d submitted years prior.
My mother wouldn’t let me chip in for the next round of fees, despite it being important to my barely-adult pride. In fact, I got the distinct impression that offering twice would not be well received; we barely discussed any about this second, years-delayed petition, and I would imagine she discussed it with no one else either, not even my father. It was all deeply humiliating in an irrational way that is hard to put into words, a genuine betrayal of a one-sided relationship. A cruelty on behalf of paperwork itself, to which we had been so loyal.
Our Berlin administrator abruptly tacked onto the end of a sentence, with inexplicable emphasis, that we were missing another form, one which was “very important.” She then repeated it, like an echo. Since our lease was actually a sublease, it turned out, the lease holder also had to fill out a form, which she handed to us. Then she looked at us and hesitated. My little immigrant heart seized in my chest; two years of compulsively reading about how the INS became ICE and how ICE became whatever Eichmannesque banality it is today produced an existential terror totally disproportionate to filing an address form a day or two late. My heart skipped a beat—not my metaphorical heart, my actual middle-aged blood pump.
And then she broke a smile, turned around with a little sigh, still smiling, and typed up a version of the form with every field filled in except the building owner’s name and the subleaser’s signature, which I could hear the printer spitting out even before my ribcage stopped feeling funny. She stamped our receipts, telling us she was filing our form as though we’d brought all the required documentation today (but to get the missing form signed and sent in immediately). She wrote “attn:” and her name on a xeroxed sheet with the office’s address on it.
I stared blankly, as she repeated those instructions; my partner confirmed in English that our administrator had bent the rules to spare us future complications, trusting us to deliver the compulsory evidence post facto. We were to mail the form directly to her so that she could take time out of another busy day like today and do extra work just to spare us a headache. Under the table, I squeezed my partner’s hand and we smiled at each other like goofballs. We all smiled. Then, donating twelve minutes of our second appointment to the backlog of nervous people in the lobby, we were efficiently whisked out of the office. Remember to send it in soon, she said, again. It was, again, very important.
What even is this country?
On our way out, I stopped in theJugendstil hallway and took a photo of my stamped and authorized receipt. My only caption to the image was three emojismaking a joke about my dog being an anchor baby. But I’m still my mother’s son:I cropped out all the serial numbers and personally identifying information.Failing to do so would have been disrespectful.