Friday, 25 January 2013

19: 'The-beef-meat-label-overseeing-task-of-price-setting-law' and other useful words

If you've just arrived in Berlin and you've started making plans to stay, read on. So far you've managed to master the U-bahn, order beer in German (even drunk or while drinking it) and find your way home in the dark. So far it is fun and Bohemian. Cheap and cheerful; Sallowist. But wait. 

A few months after you arrive in Berlin, you will need to start thinking about the few thousand pieces of paperwork you’ll need to fill out if you want to be legal. You can of course stay under the radar, bill as a freelancer from abroad, or avoid the head-vice that is German bureaucracy.

In the short term (for as long as you can wing it), this is highly advisable.

But in the long term, you will be screwed: no housing contract, no work, no benefits, no library cards, no discounts, no season tickets, healthcare -  nothing. German society will dangle before you like pearls before swine. If you want to fit in, you’ve got to fill out: You’ll need a health insurance number, a tax number, a pension-insurance-number, a registration receipt and an identification number, a VAT-exemption number, a free of church-tax-acknowledgement (a sort of tax excommunication), and a deluge more of digits and codes.

Think you can just come to Germany and be bad at paperwork? Forget it. “Sorry, I don’t speak German” will not get you anywhere in admin HQs, apart from directions to a flyer advertising a beginner level German course & more paperwork under watchful evil eyes. While Berliners do love speaking English, this is in bars or workshops, over vegan barbecues or at parties on abandoned ships. In the sallow towers of Berlin’s bureaucracy, numbers is the only second language.

Germans love precision, so naming any office is like a shooting competition for hillbillies: they have to nail it. These offices have very long names and tend to list everything they do in one long word. You’re unlikely to deal with The Junior Clerks’ Head Office at the Association of Danube Steamboat Electricians -
- but you will probably want to enrol for a German course at the Volkshochschule, the People’s Higher School or the Adult Education Centre.

German words in general inspire order and submission. The words for everything from tiny supermarket products to street signs are eerily long. Monster-words that not even dictionaries can translate loiter across German websites, ready to ridicule the beginner’s dubious knowledge; words that take hours to read, days to translate and years to pronounce. 

Trying to read anything in German is like trying to nibble on your own earlobes. While English and other languages often use multiple words together in sentences to express a concept or denote a place or thing, German just synthesizes different words into lettergasms. Such monster words are everywhere, like scaffolding, lawyers or traffic lights. 

They’re like zip files or suitcases waiting to be unpacked.  A Hubschrauberlandeplatz is a helicopterlandingplace. One doesn’t talk of a wart on a breast, but rather a brustwarze (although to be honest, from personal experience, you might want to avoid talking about both). Types of wart, drafts and annoyances (‘earworm’) have their own names in German. This tendency gets worse the more formal the setting.

The Rindfleischetikettierungsberwachungsaufgabenbertragungsgesetz, the-beef-meat-label-overseeing-task-of-price-setting-law, won’t stop you eating a steak -- yet neither will it have given the butcher who brought it to you a headache pronouncing it. Some of these words are so big you need to broaden your margins to fit them in a line on a page. Concepts that are yet to be understood in other lands have already been named in Germany, where tips for using the escalator are Rolltreppenbenutzungshinweise, or Moving-Steps-User-Guidelines.

Language and public administration are equally meticulous and delight in complementing each other’s painstaking devotion to precision. The first administrative move you’ll need to make if you plan to stay longer than three months in Germany is to register, to get your Anmeldbestätigung. Your local Bezirk, or council, will be expecting you soon and their office should become highly familiar to you --The Bürgeramt or citizen office.

You’ll need to show the Bürgeramt that you have shown a landlord relevant documents to obtain the housing contract for where you live. Without this sheet of paper, Germany will be closed to you: No video library cards, membership schemes, and most importantly, no benefits. You get a sheet of paper, the state gets another brick in the wall.

I went to my Anmeldung appointment armed with only my passport and thinking that nothing could go wrong. I told them I lived with my girlfriend, and that I had lived with her for a month. This was the truth, so I repeated it twice. 

But in fact my girlfriend was registered at her parents’ house in Bavaria, something she herself was unaware of. So when I told the Bezirksamt where I lived, they instantly new something wasn’t up. Offended at their morose faces, I insisted I meant no harm to my girlfriend or her abode, I simply wished to live with her, with her full consent and in line with German law. They asked me again if I definitely lived with her, and I answered yes. I told them I wasn’t married but that I wouldn’t let this intrude on my respect for their citizen.  A trust seemed to be developing between us, a sort of EU dream, as the council officer typed details into the computer. It all seemed to be going so well.

Then suddenly the women in the office began to talk between themselves in an incomprehensible yet clearly threatening tone. Words were being hurled like chairs over my head. Finally a finger was wagged my way holding a print out, and thinking I’d achieved the most basic of bureaucratic feats on my list, I thanked everyone profusely and left.

Two weeks later, a €200 fine for false registration arrived at our house. One can only be registered in one place in Germany – and by insisting that I did live with my girlfriend I had proven to the Office of Registrations that she lived with me and not where she had told them. The moral of the story is: Know in whose name your house is registered.

Now that you have your sheet of paper saying where you live, you’ll need to go to the Finanzamt, the tax office, and get a tax number. If you thought your first taste of German red tape was bad, you’re in for worse. 

If you work for a company, then you might just be okay. You’ll need no more than a tax number, a Steuernummer, and your employer may well sort out the rest. But don’t bank on this. You may still need health insurance.

Health insurance is compulsory in Germany, regardless of whether you’re healthy or not. If you’re self-employed, health insurance will cost you a fortune and will come to consume much of the income that you earn. Fifteen percent of my income goes on health insurance and if I had a penny for each hour I’ve put in rendering the paperwork they send me comprehensible, I’d be writing this from my palm-flooded beach at Champagne Island.  

Time to be on form.
If you find yourself wiping the tears away from your face with VAT-exemption forms, don’t forget that you are not the only person despairing. Even some Germans have picked up on how bureaucratic they are. Reinhardt Mey’s song A Request to file a Request for an Application (Einen Antrag auf Erteilung eines Antragsformulars), a parody of the impossibility of successfully dealing with German bureaucrats, serves only to remind foreigners of the pain ahead.

And it isn’t only German offices that have long names. Germans also take their nouns very seriously, so seriously in fact that they give all of them a capital. They hate the definite article; the word ‘the’ in its infantile universality is deplored for its simplicity. “It’s just too definite.” Rather they like to give the word ‘the’ hundreds of possible variations, all intricately linked to a mathematical grammar that would turn Pythagoras into a crack-peddling pimp. You will however hear yourself introduced as “the Alex” or “the John,” “the Marie,” “the Sylvia,” – or whatever.  

You are not special. This is just how Germans talk. When someone new enters a room, introductions sound like a roll call. “Ze Clara iz here! Clara, have you met ze Michael, ze Jan, ze Nele, ze Johann, ze….

Like Italian, French, Spanish and romantic languages, German uses genders. But unlike the Mediterranean languages, which limit themselves to two genders, German indulges in a third, the neutral: for rocks, machines and soulless designates of their own, you’re thinking. But if you count on intuition - men are masculine, women are feminine, sort of thing - you’re wrong. Men are masculine and women are feminine, but stop right there. Girl is already neutral.

None of it makes sense, which haunts Germans. They need to make sense of everything for they are the western world’s OCD philosophers.  Germans talk of a Weltschmerz (World pain) and Lebensmüdigkeit (Life tiredness). They have a ghost for everything, even a spirit of the age. This is a self-perpetuating vicious cycle; new words are forever formed to describe contemporary variations of previous words. Even the zeitgeist gets its own shadow ghost eventually. To keep up with old and new words, your best friends will be, the online English-German-English dictionary or better still, Friendships with Google Translate are a two-edged sword: move with caution in this respect. 

As you advance up the linguistic ladder past total incomprehension and into being vaguely understood, you will find the words that you will encounter in German have no English equivalent. Or the dictionary simply refuses to offer them up, like translations kept hostage with access only by means of a special password.

German verbs are also a slippery affair, with compounds placed together like reluctant pandas made to mate. Generally they stick together and do the job but in certain instances the compounds coldly split and are practically unrecognizable as the original verb.

So while einfahren is to drive in, Ich fahre ein is - I drive in. Remember; this is all to keep you on your toes. Particles will fly around sentences like drunken undercover agitators in search of chaos. You will spend hours plotting through these mind fields. A German sentence is like a thousand word puzzle – different pieces need to be rearranged before anything can be understood. “The joy of language is to have to work things out, not to just understand and speak be able. That is too boring, really.”

German is not one of those languages that simplifies things. For starters most things are written backwards. Nothing happens until every little last detail has been specified of when, where, why, with whom and how it will happen. The verb quite often sneaks its way to the end of the sentence, leaving you reading a load of side clauses that are incomprehensible. That is why Germans says things like “Would you like with me, tomorrow, at 20:00 hours, for film from France in the city with the friends for fun having to cinema to go and watch?”

The only way you’ll be able to survive is to sign up for a beginner German course at the Adult Education Center, the Volkshochschule. Here you will be drilled like a Dubai skyscraper in your articles and declensions, your side clauses and main sentences, your gerundives versus your datives. This is a rite of initiation for any long term Anglo Saxon or foreigner, planning to successfully move to Berlin. Millions of us have been through it, only the bravest both enrol and avoid it. If you enrol, you will be thrown into a world of German-only explanations. If you avoid it, you will forever be destined to live a shadow life at the mercy of expats. 

Just do it. 

Friday, 18 January 2013

18: Why YouTube sucks (in Germany)

YouTube is crap in Germany. Sound absurd? It isn't. And it’s all because of some horrible people who call themselves by a disgusting acronym known as GEMA. These license-fee hunting reptilians think YouTube owes them money to stream in Germany – and because of an ongoing dispute between GEMA, “a legally authorized collecting society,” and YouTube, millions of songs and artists aren’t available in Germany, where I live.

This is how it works. Let us presume you board a plane, land in Germany, spend several weeks here, make a friend, discuss a song and want to introduce them to it. Enter the song name in YouTube and you’ll get a black screen over the official video with a sign that reads: “Because of an ongoing dispute with YouTube this song is not available in your territory, probably because the music rights for Germany were not accorded.” It’s like buying a DVD and realizing you’ve got the wrong Region Code. You swallow but realize you haven’t read everything yet. A small grey space follows, before another notice, saying: “We are sorry.”


No you’re not, or you wouldn’t have stopped me and millions of others from listening to practically the entire catalogue of musical history since 2009. What kind of organization dedicates itself to stopping people listening to music? Not even the Taliban or Al Shaabab are that militant. Sorry? What, because of the annoying little red smiley you stick on very YouTube song instead of content? 

Anonymous' Ode to Gema.

It’s like China. Except it’s Adele and not Amnesty International that is being blocked. In Pakistan and Afghanistan YouTube can be suspended for months, but that is intended to prevent riots.

Does Germany need this ‘license fee censorship’? Does mainstream music contain, other than rampant pro-consumerism, some form of dangerous subliminal ear-ingested chemical weapon that is so camouflaged and entrenched we’ve all failed to notice it or be infected by it?  Are Lady Gaga, David Bowie or Jay Z a threat to German national security? 

If you have ever imagined a world without YouTube (there was one before the 21st Century), there isn’t one. Nevertheless GEMA is doing a good job of fulfilling the dream of a toneless Internet ecosphere. Even Berlin’s clubs have threatened to close down because of the license fees they are charged for sets. Filmmakers have sought ways to renounce scores; commercials are increasingly silent. GEMA is the music’s taxman, the devil Robert Johnson met at the crossroads.

You can still listen to live performances of songs punctuated by coughs and claps or tired covers played by skinny teenagers in Internet cafes. If you’re lucky, you might even get a mobile phone-shot video remix of the song you are looking for.

Luckily, I’m not the only person to be ridiculously angry about these GEMA fools. The good people at Anonymous hacked the offending website as part of Operation Gema last year. Hundreds of forums are awash with melody-deprived nostalgics ripping into tirades about GEMA and the imminent downfall of the Babylonians. 

So with no music to listen to, what is there left to do on German Internet? The usual distractions, but even these come at a risk. All-in-all, being a pirate in Germany just isn’t easy. The Pirate Party, or Die Piraten, surprised everyone in 2011 scoring a whopping 10 per cent in Berlin’s local elections. But the election of the dope-smoking Internet freedom warriors didn’t bring me music (although it did shake up the political scene a little).

Instead, Berlin has become a guinea-pig bowl, a frontier in the corporate world’s ACTA campaign to enforce intellectual property rights. Despite the European Court of Justice rejecting ACTA in June 2012, file-sharing is infinitely more dangerous in Germany than most EU states.

Download at your own peril. You could end up being dragged away by a cluster of copyright-loving officers or smacked with a four-digit fine. So if you do download, make sure you watch something worth it. It’s bad enough being made to watch a rom-com series to kill time, but should it cost you €1200 and deportation? No Adam Sandler movie is worth that.

NB: Anonymous, more Operation Gema please.

Friday, 11 January 2013

17: The picnic and park police

The Ordnungsamt, the office of order, is a branch of the local council and one of the more peculiar institutions you will come across in Germany. Neither the police nor the neighbourhood watch, the Ordnungsamt’s code enforcers are responsible for administering open spaces, fulfilling such vital duties as fining cyclists for not having helmets, arresting dog owners with unleashed pets and chasing foreign pot dealers out of parks.

Two code enforcers investigate a picnic.
The Ordnungsamt officer is hard to describe as he does not always have an international equivalent. The Italians will recognize an element of the dumb carabiniere in the figure; the British will see the stubborn traffic warden ruining people’s commutes.

I prefer to think of the organ as a body of undercover agents trained by the Saudi or Iranian Morality Police. 

Dressed in blue uniforms, the Ordnungsamt patrol public parks and walkways looking to settle the score with chaos and disorder.  These civil servants treat each case of chewing gum littering as if it were a terrorist act and every unrecycled bottle as a national security threat. Beware of these blue demons. 

The Ordnungsamt will often stop and ask for your ID, inevitably perusing it as if you are a terrorist. Should you forget your passport at home and use the fear of losing it as an excuse, you will be ridiculed and punished harder. 

If you have a dog, make sure you take it to the Hunderfreilaufzone, the dogfreewalkzone. These isolated quarantines are signposted and the minute you step out of them they’ll be waiting[1][1]

These men and women walked straight out of a George Orwell novel and into your face and you should respect the pusillanimous pantry of potential fines they have to inflict on you. They are parasites for detail and you cycling on pavements or playing your music at decibel levels audible from ear to ear will only encourage them.
The Ordnungsamt might also send you fines for inadequate disposure of rubbish or for advertising a public event indecently publicly.
Below is a list of things that will help you avoid and therefore survive the Ordnungsamt:

  1. Live in Kreuzberg. The Ordnungsamt recognize that this is an outlaw district where nobody wants to see them and where disorder is self-regulated.
  2. Don’t have a dog (If you have to have one, keep it on a leash or teach it to run or study German council law – you never know when you’ll need someone to represent you)
  3. Get used to watching TV with headphones
  4. Don’t make a lot of noise in public. Street volume is low in Germany and if the Ordnungsamt spot you overdecibelling, there’s no limit to the potential consequences.
  5. Carry ID at all times. It’s law and a common pastime for cops to check it. It also gives you a legitimate opportunity to mumble your way out of trouble pretending you speak no German whenever you have it.
  6. Don’t busk without a licence or perform without a permit. The Ordnungsamt might as well be the anti-karma police and they have strict regulations about the instruments that are allowed. Percussion instruments are forbidden on the streets of Berlin apart from in exceptional circumstances, so if you’re a drummer, open the atlas again and roll the dice. If you do get caught playing a drum, argue that it is in fact “a melodic-harmony-device” from Namibia called the Foswatu and that it would be incredibly racist and eurocentric to call it a percussion instrument.
  7. Don’t loiter with intent. Germans are always on the move and the Ordnungsamt will fine you for being absent from the grander pre-ordained commute.

I have had a number of encounters with the Ordnungsamt. My dog, bless its shit-sniffing absent mindedness, practically sustains my local branch. I have also been pulled over for escaping a thoroughfare at night to cycle on a pavement and for having a dim back-light.  I know my crimes and have repented.

But the resistance continues and if you come to live in Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, you too will join it. You will get your own back by smashing bottles at public demonstrations or surreptitiously pissing with your unleashed dog. You will tattoo the city in your vomit.  You will deface advertising billboards and occupy traffic lights to grow soggy watermelon and zucchini. You will screen films without a license and occupy homes that are not yours. You will hold events across the city and beyond and never pay a cent of tax.

And if you do none of the above, you will sometimes be called upon to pretend that you do.

[2][2] NB: Dog owners should carry two plastic bags at all times.

Friday, 4 January 2013

16: New Year with Dinner for One

As fireworks explode and shine over the skyline of most towns and villages approaching New Year, a quintessential German favourite is dusted down and brought out of the closet for the umteenth time. If there is a German New Year's tradition par excellence, other than roasting each other's earballs with the sound of mild explosives, it is the universally loved Dinner for One

Blinded by the light, deafened by the roar.
Don't be fooled by the title - Dinner for One has little to do with food, other than Mulligatawny soup. The slapstick sketch from the early 1920s used to be performed by street actors at seaside peers in the UK. Through some preglobalisation miracle, the show emigrated and landed in a German theatre in 1963, where it swiftly became a cult hit. 

Forty million Germans watch it every New Year since 1972, even though it has nothing to do with New Year. Millions more people watch it in Estonia, Latvia and The Faroe Islands every December 31 - again, even though it has nothing to do with New Year.

To understand just quite how much the sketch means to Germans, simply check out the YouTube comments below the video. "New Year wouldn't be New Year without it," says one. Imagine: systems rebooted, time stalled as James forgets to serve Ms Sophie white wine with her fish. "This is why the British will always be the undisputed masters of comedy," says Rattimoth. Really? This is the reason? One can only presume that Rattimoth would have Benny Hill and Mr Bean to complete his Top 3 Funniest Shows Ever.  

The English-language sketch is watched by millions of people every 365 days - but, curiously, only non-English speaking people. Despite dozens of broadcasts on mainstream channels in half of the founding Eurozone states, the show has not been broadcast in its entirety in the UK for over thirty years.

The setting for the sketch is an upper-class dinner party, Ms Sophie's 90th birthday. The only problem is the guests - Sir Toby, Admiral von Schneider, Mr Pommeroy and and Mr Winterbottom - are all dead and their seats are empty. So the obliging butler, James, is forced to impersonate each guest, toast-by-toast, course-by-course, to keep the role-play going.  

Of course, James gets drunker with every toast, a fact compounded by the butler's inevitable slide into past habits, revealed in the show's punch-line:

JAMES: Same procedure as last year, Ms Sophie?
MS SOPHIE: Same procedure as every year, James. 

It is hard to understand why the show has cemented itself between years. After all, it has little to do with New Year. Or Germany. Or the Faroe Islands.

The show was playing at a theatre in Blackpool when a German producer saw it and imported it to Hamburg. Ten years later it was all over German television like breast implants. Even the actors who played the roles in Blackpool and Hamburg in 1963, Freddie Frinton and May Warden, have no idea how the show became a ritual of changing datelines.  

The tiger skin carpet, whose head James repeatedly trips on, the sherry, the absurd names, but why still?

Germans like familiar procedures. Why try a new sketch every year when everybody already knows they find this one funny? One would imagine the sketch loses some of its element of surprise after 40 years, but watch it with any German friend and you'll see that it's as funny, if not funnier, than last year.

The fact that it ends with sexual innuendo merely pleases further. Expect to hear the punch-line "Same as last year, huh?" followed by a wink and air-fuck in pubs across the country.