(Subtitle: If Only It were That Easy…)
I dealt with my first bit of German bureaucracy today, and it was surprisingly quick and straightforward for all the horror-stories I had heard about it. Granted, this was only the first part of a long and arduous process that I hope will end with my getting a visa, but still I left the Anmeldungsbüro (registration office) at Rathaus Mitte with the distinct sense of pride and the feeling that I’d accomplished something.
The Anmeldung is the first official document you need when you come here, one I didn’t even bother to obtain when I was here in the fall, simply because I was officially to stay for slightly less than the two-month cut-off point at which they require that you make your presence in the country known. I first heard from Simon that you had to “go into a scary room and wait until your number is called,” a description that sounded suspiciously like what my mother went through to cross the Friedrichstraße border into East Berlin when the wall was still up. The Goethe Institut, where I studied for two months, did it all for you, mysteriously whisking away your passport one day and then returning it a week later along with a small, stamped piece of paper. Again, I could have done it but didn’t want to bother. Something about being “official” here scared me, but now it’s all I want. And I may have put it off for a lot longer than I expected to, but in the end, I was glad I did it and glad to have it done with.
I had first gone to the Berliner Rathaus just East of Alexanderplatz; a beautiful and adequately imposing red brick castle in the shadow of the Fernseturm. After flubbing my inquiry in German, I had a piece of paper with another address shoved into my hands and was shown the door—apparently lots of people show up at this main Berlin government building hoping to have this all taken care of, and the workers there get annoyed enough that they have slips with the correct location heavily on hand. Berlin is divided up into neighborhoods—much like New York—that all have their own characters, central areas, and ethnic populations, and—also much like New York—it is very often difficult to tell where one ends and the next begins. The Rathaus belonging to Mitte was actually on Karl-Marx-Allee, a wide, soviet-era street running all the way from Alex to Friedrichshain (the shabbiest of the inner Berlin neighborhoods), the mere mention of which causes me to get this cold, empty feeling inside. Karl-Marx-Allee, like Karl-Liebknecht-Straße, is all about big, communist era cinder-block buildings and cars whizzing by six lane highways: I really don’t like it at all.
Oddly enough I had to take three subways to get there, because I had promised Summer earlier that week to make a short trip with her to Dahlem-Dorf, the vaguely Morningside Heights-y area in which the Freie Universität is located, to see about signing up for a membership at the JFK Library for American studies—a guaranteed pass to free English books and movie’s to one’s heart’s content. From Dahlem I had to take the preposterously small and toy-like U3 to the U2 in Wilmersdorf, which has a positively fantastic view over an old industrial area of Berlin I had never seen before, below Potsdamer Platz, and then take the U5 from Alex one stop out to Karl-Marx-Allee. I walked in with the German words I knew I needed to recite drumming a rhythm in my head, stood on a quick line, and received a form to fill out and a number to watch for.
The panic—somewhat, at least—set in then. I didn’t know half the words on the page; they were very long and very compounded and very German. I struggled to find something I recognized, besides the obvious spaces for name, birth date, and current address. And then I saw a word I could pull apart and parse perfectly: Religionszuhörigkeit. I put pencil to paper. Hesitated. I never like broadcasting my religious affiliation. Ninety-nine percent of the time I don’t even feel like I have one, and I’ve gotten to the point here where questions about being Jewish in Germany seem to get old quite quickly. I thought about what Cora had said: that if you stress that you’re an American Jew when registering for a visa, it might (not will) make the process go a bit more easily. I didn’t really want to do it because of that, though; I certainly didn’t want to exploit my Jewishness—my heritage if not my belief-system—for the sake of bureaucratic expediency. I thought about it for a second more, touched the pencil to the paper, lifted it up again. What exactly was I so afraid of happening? Why, exactly did I never like putting down that I was Jewish, even when I was living in New York City? I finally took a deep breath, put pencil to paper again, and wrote down the word “Judische” as clearly as possible. I realized that I’d spent so much time defending my right to be Jewish in Berlin and not to have to talk about it, make a big deal out of it, make any deal out of it really, that it would be hypocritical of me not to write it down now, as if it were a piece of information as inconsequential as my zip-code or what floor I live on.
My number was called and I sat down with a youngish man and calmly explained to him that I had just started learning German and that there were a lot of words I didn’t know: the long ones were hard for me, but I’d tried to fill out the form to the best of my abilities, etc. He replied reassuringly and in perfect English, and I knew I was in the clear. He proceeded to chat to me about New York while he input information into his computer, and then about five minutes later, he gave me a piece of paper to sign, stamped another one, and then handed it to me, saying, “Congratulations. You’re a true citizen of Berlin now.” Wow. Just…wow. I knew it was not that much, I knew it was just the first of what would be many steps towards a legal existence here, but having someone say that to me officially, even though I knew it really didn’t mean anything at all, meant quite a lot in the end.
And I don’t think he realized it, but at that moment I could have cried with joy.