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Black in Berlin: How One Mistake Can Get You Deported

Every foreigner who plans on spending a significant time in Germany has to make at least one trip to the Ausländerbehörde (foreigner’s office). The only thing more frustrating than navigating the complex universe of German bureaucracy is trying to do so with limited to no German language skills. Initially, I couldn’t figure out the room for Americans because “United States” in German is “Vereinigte Staaten.” I suspect that not making things too easy weeds out the weak, there should be a sign on the front door that says ‘”If you can’t hack the foreigner’s office, you won’t survive Germany!” Alas that warning would be lost on the intended audience because it would most likely be written in German. Sigh!

The warnings given to people embarking on their first foreigner’s office visit is common sense but bears repeating: Keep your composure and be respectful to the people behind the curtain because they can make your life difficult. On my last trip to the office, I came across a woman who didn’t have a firm handle on that concept. I walked into the building but was blocked by a crowd who were obviously looking at something interesting. Before I saw the source of the disturbance, I heard her screaming in perfect English, “ What do you mean you don’t speak English?!” There she was, a tall woman with big black hair reminiscent of Fran Drescher’s character on “The Nanny.” “Where am I supposed to go? You see this?” she said as she waved her blue American passport. The information attendant was telling her the floor and the room number in German. In an attempt at checking off my good deed for the day, I “translated” and told Fran that she had to register on the third floor. “You speak English!” I had now acquired a new best friend. As we waited for the elevator she began to tell me her life story, she needed to get her paperwork renewed immediately because of blah blah miscellaneous super unique extenuating circumstance. She didn’t have the proper documentation but she was sure that if she spoke to someone and pleaded her case they would make an exception. Oh dear. I attempted to prepare her for the opposition she would meet and gave her the “be respectful or life will suck” speech, then I went to my appropriate office, directed her to hers and hoped all would be well.

My business there lasted all of ten minutes. As I gathered my things and walked toward the elevator, I heard another commotion. It was Fran, she had disregarded my advice and all rules of civility and had erupted. At the crescendo of her rant, she called the man who was now arguing with her in the hallway a Nazi. I gasped as did her second audience for the morning. You can’t go around Germany calling people Nazis! Of course, as a joke in America you hear terms like “soup-nazi” and “grammar-nazi.” Around these parts, that interpretation is lost, the word is not thrown around as a playful insult, it’s a serious accusation.

Considering how easily she handed out insults she probably didn’t realize that people who work in public offices are practically an anointed class. They pay less taxes, get better health insurance and are protected from abuse. Abuse, either verbal or physical, against a state employee is a crime!  My countrywoman had now opened herself up for a world of trouble and I wasn’t going to stick around to find out the extent of it. I didn’t want these people to think we were in cahoots, in my mind I yelled ‘Deuces, Fran!’ but in reality I just found my way to the exit before she noticed me.

I can empathize with Fran but I can’t excuse her behavior. Living in a foreign country, although rewarding, can be frustrating. Being annoyed is to be expected and moaning about the quirks of your host country is normal and healthy.  When doing so you should remember you are a guest in their country; don’t show your ass ’cause you can get thrown out, regardless of the color of your passport.

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