The idea of moving to Europe is certainly a lot sexier than the reality of it.
This was a Facebook status I posted a few days ago, and I think it captures my first few weeks here accurately. Which isn't to say I'm having a miserable time, but my experience is definitely proof that one does not simply up and move to a new country (or at least not to Germany). No, no, eager little Ausländer. When you're on German turf, you play by German rules, and that means you dive headfirst into the bureaucra-sea (GET IT??) and claw your way back up to the surface.
My first foray into German bureaucracy this trip (having already played this game once before when I studied abroad) was when I went to the city office to anmelden -- that is, I registered my address with the city government. This ended up being a very smooth and nearly painless process, meaning it set a highly unrealistic standard for the rest of my time here. When I arrived at the office, I was pleasantly surprised at how efficient and modern the setup was. They had an electronic numbering system, so you would take a number and wait for it to appear on the television screen, which would then tell you which desk to go to. When I went I was the only person waiting, so I was seen quickly and the whole process was completed in about 20 minutes.
This led to a false sense of confidence, and Germany was quick as ever to start delivering blows. My next stop after registering was to open a bank account, but it turns out the banks in Fulda require you to have a residence permit (Aufenthaltstitel) to open a bank account with them. This was not my experience when I previously opened a bank account in Germany, and it did not appear to be the experience of most of my Fulbright peers, but they wouldn't budge, so my hands were tied. No bank account means no money, both in terms of my stipend and the reimbursements I'm supposed to receive from Fulbright, so having to wait to begin that process was obnoxious, but I could live.
I had to wait until after my orientation to make a stab at getting my residence permit, because I wanted the benefit of any extra paperwork and information they could give me to aid me in the process. Also, the office (Ausländerbehörde) is only open three days a week (of course), so that also made the timing more difficult.
I finally had the chance to go apply on Wednesday. I had to go to a different bureaucratic office than where I registered -- basically, residence permits are handled at the county-level (Landkreis) administration. It was still in Fulda though, just a slightly longer walk. However, compared to my experience registering, the Ausländerbehörde left a lot to be desired.
Once I was able to find the office's location, I was bewildered. I didn't see any signs offering specific instructions or guidance about how to proceed. I just saw several different doors, some with letters on them, and a couple dozen chairs with random groups of immigrant-looking folk sitting in them. i couldn't discern a system, so I asked one of the people sitting how the whole thing works. He explained that the letters on each door correspond to your last name -- you need to find the door with your letter, then knock to see if it's free. If yes, go in, if not, you wait.
It was a straightforward system I suppose, but horribly inefficient. There was no way of knowing if someone was already in the office, and for the people waiting outside, no system for knowing who arrived when and whose turn it is to go in. I was very fortunate that no one was waiting at my assigned door, so I was able to be seen within my first 10 minutes of being there. This was especially good since, on this particular day, the office was only open for 2 hours. How convenient.
When I first went in and said I was there to apply for a residence permit, the woman asked me if I had filled out the required form -- I replied I hadn't found this form online nor seen one in the lobby, so no, I had not. Turns out there were copies somewhere in the waiting room, but I didn't see them so chances are they were somewhere inconvenient and poorly marked. She rustled up a copy and sent me back outside to complete it, which I tried to do as quickly as possible since I only had about an hour and a half left at that time, and I had no way of knowing if someone else would show up to talk to the woman and thus eat up all of my remaining time.
Once I got the form filled out, I darted back in so we could begin the process properly. It was all fairly straightforward, just clarifying some parts of the form I was uncertain about. However, she had never dealt with someone in my position (i.e., a foreign language assistant), so she was uncertain if there was an additional form my school would need to fill out in order to grant me a right to work. If the answer was yes, this would extend the process by several weeks, which would mean several more weeks without a bank account and this without getting paid. Needless to say I was unhappy, but I was fairly confident she would find the form was unnecessary. She sent me away saying she would give me a call when she figured out what the next step needed to be.
I wasn't sure how long I would have to wait, since this is German bureaucracy and all bets are off, but she ended up calling me a few hours later saying everything was cleared up and my application was approved -- hooray! The next day, I received a Bescheinigung, which basically is my way of verifying that my residence permit application was approved and now I'm just waiting to receive my official documentation. This Bescheinigung was my ticket to a bank account and thus to moneys, so needless to say this was a considerable victory.
After securing my residence permit, my next step was to get myself properly enrolled at the university here in Fulda, since I'm planning on taking a couple classes there. This seemed like it should be a straightforward process -- I give them the necessary paperwork, fill out some forms, we're good. How silly of me to think that. When they asked to see my proof of insurance, I gave them my insurance card that had been provided to me through my program. Apparently the people in the international office were not familiar with this insurance provider, and because of that they would not accept the card as proof of sufficient insurance -- basically, I need to hunt down additional documentation that proves I am actually covered. Never mind that I would have never been able to get my residence permit successfully if I didn't have sufficient insurance. When I showed the card to my boyfriend (who is German), he was also surprised they wouldn't accept it, since according to him its a reasonably well-known insurance provider.
So that was a frustrating experience, although at this point, I really should have expected that something would come up -- essentially, the theme of my adventures through German bureaucracy is that nothing will be successful the first time. This has at the least taught me to be prepared for all sorts of questions and to bring as much documentation with me when going through processes. For example, when I went to (finally) open a bank account yesterday, they still did not accept the Bescheinigung I had received from the Ausländerbehörde as proof that I had a legitimate purpose in Germany. Never mind the fact that there's no way I would have received that Bescheinigung if I hadn't been able to prove that I had gainful employment in Germany. Luckily I brought my school contract with my regardless, so I was able to defuse that situation relatively quickly (still took about an hour for them to open the account, however).
The on saving grace among all this frustration, redundancy and bureaucracy is that everyone has been extremely polite and understanding with me -- I don't feel like people are deliberately being difficult or mean to me because I'm foreign. I genuinely think they're just trying to their jobs in the best (and most German) way possible, and unfortunately rules, precision and by-the-book processes are held in high esteem here. It's not a reality I can change, so instead I'm trying to focus on being more patient and flexible. Everything will work itself out eventually -- just not as quickly as I keep hoping.