Going with Germany’s bureaucratic flow

In the latest installment of Portnoy’s Stammtisch, The Local’s column about life in Germany, Portnoy explains how he learned to cope with the country’s bleating bureaucrats.

Going with Germany's bureaucratic flow
Photo: DPA

Me and German bureaucrats, we’re getting along these days. It’s been a confusing trip down a long hallway full of doors leading to dusty offices, but I’ve finally arrived at a sort of administrative Zen.

I now get all the Stempel, or official stamps, I need. And if you’re familiar with German bureaucrats, a sub-species of mankind known in scientific circles as Homo teutonicraticus or colloquially as Beamten, you’ll realise it’s me that’s changed, not them.

That’s because Beamten have been the same since the first Kaiser took a number in order to have his new title and official seal added to some fancy Urkunde.

Early on in my tour of duty in Germany, I found all the bureaucracy absurd and decided to stage my own personal revolt. At the time, I saw Beamten as the cause of this epic futility and began devising a silent protest. Any time I needed anything – a renewal on my residency permit, a driving licence or even unemployment – my passive-aggressive mind would review the list of paperwork required (your average space shuttle launch requires less) and pick out the document I deemed least important for the approval.

I would then leave that document at home.

Which is good, because it meant I knew right where the paperwork was after my application was rejected. It was easy to locate when I took another day off to go back and try again, this time with all the documentation required. But after a half-dozen of these pointless repeat excursions, I realised I was hurting my reputation at work for taking so much time off to wrangle with the bureaucracy.

And so, I switched to a new Get-the-Beamten game.

I had noticed that most Germans at various municipal offices showed up with entire libraries of documents, sometimes bringing a friend to help carry the numbered, alphabetical stacks of grey Leitz binders, which were then lined up on an official’s desk like an East German military parade.

So I decided to bring just a huge, generic stack of documents, as well as all the paperwork required for whatever it was I was trying to get done. How is that a game, you ask? I quickly discovered that the large stack of papers alarmed the bureaucrats. It scared them.

This is because before you enter their office, they are already hoping they can quickly dispatch you on a technicality. But when you show up with a large stack of documents, it dashes their hopes before you have even said a word.

When I sat down and explained my situation, they feebly requested a document or two from their list, all the while nervously eyeing my stack. But after I produced the first two, they would usually give up and proceed with the task at hand. I counted not having to show them all the required documentation as a victory, even if I had to rent a moving van to bring all that paperwork.

But my brushes with Beamten still didn’t always go smoothly. Sometimes we would end up in discussions about the documents I brought and I would raise my voice a little, attempting to bulldoze them linguistically to get my way. They would counter with condescension, which I would parry with a request to talk to their supervisor. As you can imagine, this often resulted in me not getting my Stempel and having to come on another date to finish my business.

My boss was not amused about my new little hobby.

But in a recent brush with the Finanzamt, the German tax man, I took a different tack. When things started getting bumpy and the Beamtin pulled out her big can of condescension, I remained calm. Pleasant. Collected, even, but just this side of subservient.

Her face relaxed. Her tone changed. There was no more smugness. She even became helpful. She offered tips. For a moment, I thought there might even be a chance we would become friends.

I discovered all my previous wailings had been wrong. They had aroused contempt deep within the Beamten heart. I now know the thing to do – when you’re sitting on a cheap office chair and suddenly find a red-faced bureaucrat across a downmarket desk. You want to smile and show them you know who’s boss. It’s simple. They are.

Once the relationship is clear, it’s as if the relationship can be dissolved. The boundaries come down. Sure, you say, the Beamten won. They beat me down. But I say you’re wrong – I win because they no longer have a chance to reject or condescend to me. They know I know their game and the best we can both hope for is a draw.

With that out of the way, I’m now going to try to figure out German supermarket cashiers.

Since a good German Stammtisch is a place where pub regulars come to talk over the issues of the day, Portnoy welcomes a lively conversation in the comments area below.

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EXPLAINED: Berlin’s latest Covid rules

In response to rapidly rising Covid-19 infection rates, the Berlin Senate has introduced stricter rules, which came into force on Saturday, November 27th. Here's what you need to know.

A sign in front of a waxing studio in Berlin indicates the rule of the 2G system
A sign in front of a waxing studio indicates the rule of the 2G system with access only for fully vaccinated people and those who can show proof of recovery from Covid-19 as restrictions tighten in Berlin. STEFANIE LOOS / AFP

The Senate agreed on the tougher restrictions on Tuesday, November 23rd with the goal of reducing contacts and mobility, according to State Secretary of Health Martin Matz (SPD).

He explained after the meeting that these measures should slow the increase in Covid-19 infection rates, which was important as “the situation had, unfortunately, deteriorated over the past weeks”, according to media reports.

READ ALSO: Tougher Covid measures needed to stop 100,000 more deaths, warns top German virologist

Essentially, the new rules exclude from much of public life anyone who cannot show proof of vaccination or recovery from Covid-19. You’ll find more details of how different sectors are affected below.

If you haven’t been vaccinated or recovered (2G – geimpft (vaccinated) or genesen (recovered)) from Covid-19, then you can only go into shops for essential supplies, i.e. food shopping in supermarkets or to drugstores and pharmacies.

Many – but not all – of the rules for shopping are the same as those passed in the neighbouring state of Brandenburg in order to avoid promoting ‘shopping tourism’ with different restrictions in different states.

2G applies here, too, as well as the requirement to wear a mask with most places now no longer accepting a negative test for entry. Only minors are exempt from this requirement.

Sport, culture, clubs
Indoor sports halls will off-limits to anyone who hasn’t  been vaccinated or can’t show proof of recovery from Covid-19. 2G is also in force for cultural events, such as plays and concerts, where there’s also a requirement to wear a mask. 

In places where mask-wearing isn’t possible, such as dance clubs, then a negative test and social distancing are required (capacity is capped at 50 percent of the maximum).

Restaurants, bars, pubs (indoors)
You have to wear a mask in all of these places when you come in, leave or move around. You can only take your mask off while you’re sat down. 2G rules also apply here.

Hotels and other types of accommodation 
Restrictions are tougher here, too, with 2G now in force. This means that unvaccinated people can no longer get a room, even if they have a negative test.

For close-contact services, such as hairdressers and beauticians, it’s up to the service providers themselves to decide whether they require customers to wear masks or a negative test.

Football matches and other large-scale events
Rules have changed here, too. From December 1st, capacity will be limited to 5,000 people plus 50 percent of the total potential stadium or arena capacity. And only those who’ve been vaccinated or have recovered from Covid-19 will be allowed in. Masks are also compulsory.

For the Olympic Stadium, this means capacity will be capped at 42,000 spectators and 16,000 for the Alte Försterei stadium. 

3G rules – ie vaccinated, recovered or a negative test – still apply on the U-Bahn, S-Bahn, trams and buses in Berlin. It was not possible to tighten restrictions, Matz said, as the regulations were issued at national level.

According to the German Act on the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases, people have to wear a surgical mask or an FFP2 mask  on public transport.

Christmas markets
The Senate currently has no plans to cancel the capital’s Christmas markets, some of which have been open since Monday. 

According to Matz, 2G rules apply and wearing a mask is compulsory.

Schools and day-care
Pupils will still have to take Covid tests three times a week and, in classes where there are at least two children who test positive in the rapid antigen tests, then tests should be carried out daily for a week.  

Unlike in Brandenburg, there are currently no plans to move away from face-to-face teaching. The child-friendly ‘lollipop’ Covid tests will be made compulsory in day-care centres and parents will be required to confirm that the tests have been carried out. Day-care staff have to document the results.

What about vaccination centres?
Berlin wants to expand these and set up new ones, according to Matz. A new vaccination centre should open in the Ring centre at the end of the week and 50 soldiers from the German army have been helping at the vaccination centre at the Exhibition Centre each day since last week.

The capacity in the new vaccination centre in the Lindencenter in Lichtenberg is expected to be doubled. There are also additional vaccination appointments so that people can get their jabs more quickly. Currently, all appointments are fully booked well into the new year.