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. 


  1. Well observed, but I thought the irish have the longest words for their villages, like "bridge at the old mill standing at the forest near the green field"? Doesnt matter!
    Actually "einfahren" means driving into a mining gallery. Or you meant "einen fahren lassen" (to fart)?
    But the rest is quit funny. An yes, it is ambitiuos to live in germany. Sometimes I think to myself: You have finished university with a doctoral degree, and now you are not able to fill out that form from the tax office? How do the others do it?

  2. **Yawn. I'm still not sure about how funny you're trying to be. It's probably because as with everything else, this topic has been exhausted in so many other "original" expat blogs about Germany. Oh dear, it's a foreign language! Who would have thought!? You've come to Germany and...oh no! Careful with throwing around linguistic terminology when you haven't the slightest: Unlike Turkish, Hungarian or Finnish, German is NOT an agglutinating language (Look up the Hungarian for "I'm going home now" to see what I mean). And the fact that the "Gender" of German nouns "makes no sense" is rubbish. You learn this in first year linguistics as Uni: Language is arbitrary. It develops by convention.

  3. Great to have such erudite readers

  4. Hey anonymous, that is not fair. I liked it.

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