There are times when things are so bad that I think the worst mistake I ever made was moving to Germany in 1993. But then I reflect that, for a while, at least, I had a very exciting life as a writer for the Wall Street Journal Europe who got to travel all over the place and write about art and culture. I also had a radio show which I really enjoyed, as did my many listeners, some of whom still remember it seven years later.
There are other times when I think the worst mistake I ever made was loaning a great deal of money to a friend who has still not paid me back, and who may never do so. But neither of us could have forseen that the sure thing would be cancelled when some people flew planes into the World Trade Center. I mean, what civilian could have predicted that?
But two years ago I made a mistake which has finally caught up with me, and which has cancelled any remaining affection I may have had for living in Germany. It's a mistake anyone living here might make, so let me explain.
When I was whizzing around Europe for the Journal, I nearly always took the train. My territory was central Europe and Scandinavia, so it made sense: one day going there, one day reporting the story, one day back -- and the story would inevitably get written subconsciously on that return journey. So it made sense for me to obtain a Bahn Card, the discount card you can buy from Deutsche Bahn. Back then, there was only one kind of Bahn Card: it gave you 50% off of every ticket, and it had a Rail Plus supplement, which gave you half off of tickets on rail lines in a number of other countries. It wasn't cheap, but, as I once realized, one round-trip ticket to Copenhagen paid for it.
I bought one in 2004, but that was around when the work started to fall off spectacularly. My editor at the Journal had been replaced, and suddenly I wasn't getting any work at all from them. Or, for that matter, from anyone else, at least not the kind of work that required me to travel. I missed travelling -- I still do. But when 2005 came around, I realized I had better uses for what little money I had than a Bahn Card.
Nonetheless, although I hadn't ordered one or renewed it on the website as I'd usually done, one came in the mail. Then Deutsche Bahn tried taking the money out of my bank account, but failed, because there wasn't enough. They sent me a notice. I replied that I didn't want the card and wasn't going to pay for it or use it. And that, I thought, was the end of it.
I didn't pay for it, and I didn't use it. At the end of April, 2006, I got a stern warning from them ordering me to pay them. I wrote back and repeated that I had not requested the card, and had not used it. And that, I thought, was the end of it yet again.
It wasn't. Shortly thereafter I started getting bills from lawyers. The €64 Bahn Card debt was now encumbered with legal fees, fees for, as far as I could tell, writing me a letter. And they were big fees, too. Now, I'd gotten letters like this before from mysterious phone companies who thought I owed them money. I ignored them, and they went away. That's what I decided to do with these letters.
Big mistake. In October, they told me I owed €116.42. In November, it was suddenly €169.70. In December, it was €185.67. On December 7, I was found guilty of indebtedness by a court in Baden-Baden and a judgement was mailed to me in a jaundice-colored yellow envelope.
Now, in America, this would be a black spot on your credit record. My credit here is already terrible. For one thing, I am considered very unstable because I don't have a regularly occurring income. I live in a country where nobody is self-employed, where if you don't draw a regular salary, there's only one bank (the one I use, of course) which will allow you an account. (I once knew a guy who was hired on a freelance basis to come to Germany to teach corporate communications to a major bank. After he was ordered to close his account with them because he wasn't making regular deposits, he asked his clients what kind of message they thought they were sending. They shrugged and told him to go to another bank. He had plenty of clients in the States, so he just up and left instead.)
So I didn't think anything more of this until last week. That was when I got a letter from an Obergerichtsvollzieher, one of those words whose individual components you have to look up in the dictionary, but which eventually revealed itself to be "high court bailiff." I mentioned this to someone and was told "You are in terrible trouble. You're going to have to hide your computer and all your CDs. You're going to have to empty out your apartment. They have the right to seize everything you own in payment of the debt -- and they will. They can take your bed. They can take your silverware. They have unlimited license." I thought this was paranoia.
They really can do all of these things. No matter if the value of the goods seized is many times the value of the debt. They will do it because they can. Can they deprive you of your means of making a living? In the United States, the law is very clear about this: you can't impound a violinist's violin, or a mechanic's tools. But in Germany, you can.
A couple of friends rushed over to help. They perused the letters, made notes, hemmed and hawed. "You know," one of them mused, "when it comes to stuff like this, Kafka was a documentarian." No kidding.
Making it worse was the fact that it was Easter weekend. One of my friends wrote a letter for me to send to the bailiff explaining things. I had a copy of the letter to Deutsche Bahn. I faxed both to the bailiff, and got ready to call him during office hours. Or should I say hour: he is available for one hour, two days a week. And my last chance for any mercy was to reach him on Tuesday.
It took thirty minutes, but I got him on the phone. Miraculously, he spoke a little English, enough to tell me that there was nothing he could do to mitigate my guilty sentence and that all I could do was pay him before April 19. Oh, and the price, which now included his fee, which was nowhere in any of the paperwork in my hands, was now €225.
A couple of weeks ago, when I got back from Texas, I found yet another note that the postal customs people had seized yet another package of the CDs people send me for review. I've taken to letting them send them back, because in most cases it'll be yet another singer-songwriter I'll wind up tossing after a couple of tracks, and the Postzollamt is way the hell down in Wilmersdorf. But this was from a label that puts out stuff I like, so I schlepped down there to rescue it. I was confronted with a sign stating that, due to a lack of personnel, waiting times had increased significantly, and that after registering, I was to wait in the new, utterly undecorated, waiting room next door. Which I did, for over an hour, a fourfold increase in their previous record. When I finally had my name called, the woman with the package asked me to open it. I told her (and pointed out on the customs label, which never does any good) that these were promotional items, that I was a journalist, and so on. She grabbed one of the CDs and pointed to the bar-code. "This has to be blacked out so that this item can't be sold!" she yelled. I told her I wasn't the one who'd sent it. "You tell them that they have to do this!" She seemed genuinely angry. Or maybe it was just the stress of working somewhere where you knew everyone you met hated you.
What these incidents drove home for me was that there are two Germanies. One is occupied by the people who are my friends and my friends' friends and husbands and wives, the ones I met when I had the (German) girlfriend who led to my moving here, the ones I hung out with when I did move, the ones I've worked with and for. Then there are the ones who run the place, obsessed with a perverted, rigid, narrow need for "Ordnung," which translates directly as "order," but is much, much more. Ordnung is conformity; Ordnung is submission; Ordnung is the petty regulations that don't let you recycle glass on Sunday, that make all onions the same size; Ordnung is why I've stopped listening to music, because I have to use headphones after 10pm no matter what, or my neighbors next door will call the police. Not because they're disturbed by it. No: because they can.
Thinking about Ordnung leads to a lot of other places I'm not going to go right now, mostly because it's a nice day and I'm trying very hard not to slip down the slope of depression that is almost inevitable when I think of what I could be doing with that €225 I'm going to be parting with soon. I've already been for a long walk (my CD player stopped working, so I went to Alexanderplatz to price a new one: looks like about €60 goes out the window on that one) and although my landlord's mother (one of the Ordnung Germans if there ever was one, as the bitter gurn that suffices for her face makes clear) is here, so far I've avoided contact with her. If the checks come in on time, I'll have the money in time for the bailiff, and -- in one of those too-good-to-be-true coincidences -- there's even a possibility that Jim's Mistake will pay for My Mistake in part.
But I'm very, very tired of Ordnung, and very, very tired of living here. I gave a lot to this city, and I never got a whole hell of a lot back. It's time to move on, to somewhere with just a little bit less Ordnung and a lot more capacity for fun.
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indeed. it has only been since i've been living here that i finally understood the true meaning of that phrase "Vee haff ways ov making you talk". best to keep a lawyer in pocket for just these sorts of exigencies, but don't let the bastards get you down ed, think of each little irritation as just more grease for your town leaving wheels!
Yes, I regularly raise my fist against German Ordnung, too. Been here for seven otherwise rewarding years now and still haven't come to terms with its supposed usefullness, it's the ultimate soul-smasher, buzz-killer if you ask me, but I think savvy Germans have their own ways of "dealing" with it. Here, I'm linking to something I read today about the movies Pi & Requiem for a Dream. Paragraphs 2+3 pretty much sum up what I fear the most about accepting Germanic societal Ordnung. Luckily we have Kinski and Neubauten to remind us of the Germans' talent for anarchy and chaos as well, not that either alternative is that pretty but still.
You were totally right to ignore the customer service number printed on the back of the Bahn Card and assume that the Bahn's silence in response to your letters -- especially the second one despite the first one having obviously not done the trick -- meant "OK sir, no problem!" You have been so put upon.
It's a shame your neighbors complain at night if you play your music loud enough that they are forced to hear it in their apartments because you cannot be inconvenienced to use headphones. You're right, they don't mind the music, they just like complaining, it's totally obvious. You poor thing. You have been so put upon.
Don't quote me on this, me not being a lawyer or anything, but there are clearly defined limits on what the Gerichtsvollzieher can take; household essentials (furniture, normal TVs etc) and equipment needed for work (including computers) is taboo. The impression I get from TV (programmes about people in debt seem to be all the rage at the moment) is that anything that's not of obvious, easily saleable intrinsic value, is basically safe.
Never phone the Deutsche Bahn "BahnCard-Service" number that they give you, as it costs a bomb. I prefer the freephone alternative (intended for journalists, who get a BahnCard for half price, assuming they've got a German press card, and one that doesn't renew itself automatically) - it's 0800 43 00 354. I had to "cancel" the BahnCard "subscription" I didn't want but was forced to take out about 4 times - I tend to cancel immediately after buying one, and keep cancelling until they finally acknowledge it.
And then yesterday, I got a letter informing me that my "order" had been processed, as had my "request", but to do what I want, they need my "new" BahnCards. i.e. suggesting that despite me not getting any new card, as it had been cancelled, they would require me to send these new non-existent cards back.
A quick search on the net for alternative numbers to the expensive one they tell you about was firstly fruitless - lots of answerphone messages with "This number is not in use, for BahnCard please phone this expensive number". And then I found the 0800 one - which even works from my non-mobile mobile. And as it costs *them*, I got put through quickly.
New computer system, the BahnCard department moving from Schortens on the Dutch border to Frankfurt/Main and general Bahn incompetence meant I should just ignore the letter. The card is apparently cancelled and I won't get another one (they even *apologised*). But in case I do, I've got all my emails, faxes and letters cancelling the old one, and their acknowledgement.
If you can't pay up - though the matter of the baliff makes it a bit risky - I'd get in touch with the "Schichtungsstelle Mobilität", which is a kind of consumer protection organisation intended to mediate between the Bahn and annoyed passengers. It's an official thing and is run by the Verkehrsclub Deutschland (VCD), who like trains, but don't like DB much. It's free (funded by the state) - you have to have complained to the transport company concerned first and then you can go to them (including copies of all correspondence).
c/o Verkehrsclub Deutschland e.V. (VCD)
Postfach 61 02 49
Von Montag bis Freitag können Sie sich zwischen 9 und 14 Uhr auch telefonisch unter 030/469970-0 an die Schlichtungsstelle Mobilität wenden.
Or pay - noting "Unter Vorbehalt" on the payment slip - and then get in touch with them or, say, the Ombudsfrau of the Berliner Zeitung, a Frau Karin Stemmler. She's pretty good at sorting out this kind of stuff.
I replied that I didn't want the card and wasn't going to pay for it or use it. And that, I thought, was the end of it.
That's the problem. When you bought your BahnCard - or as it says, your "automatically, annually renewing BahnCard-Abo", you were doint that, buying a card for every year until you cancelled it.
So you would have had to have paid for the second card, but no more. The Bahn don't go in for Kulanz.
Dammit, Daggi, where were you when I needed you? Ah, well. Great info, although my limited German skills and absolute terror of talking German on the phone, where people tend to speak as rapidly as they humanly can, might still have resulted in a disaster.
And Sean, your sarcasm is such a delight; you must have all kinds of useful social skills. I get to hear my neighbors' pets and occasional bouts of sex, but even though a lifetime of playing music (it's part of how I make my living) has taught me about respecting others' aural space, I've always considered a little tolerance to be part of urban life. After all, I never had to face this problem until these folks moved in. But I guess tolerance doesn't rate very high on your scale, either. Enjoy your Ordnung.
daggi - whats all this about the journalist's bahn card - is it cheaper? my employer is currently paying for mine, so i don't care either way but since i recently picked up a press card (assisted by another "arbeitgeber") i might prefer a cheaper one in the future.
and ed - i empathize with your experience of 'zu schnell sprache' on the telephone. who can make heads or tails of what they are going on about? i always hang up the phone, look over at my colleagues, and say 'i dunno what that guy was saying but it sure sounded important!'....and do tell about these dastardly neighbor's occasional sex bouts - are the pets actually involved?
After I posted that comment, literally 2 minutes later, the phone rang. It was the Deutsche Bahn. I only answered because I thought it might be someone wanting to give me a job. I want some money back on two tickets that were sold to me at a ticket machine that I didn't want or need. Cut a long story short, I went to Zürich a while back, and as part of the ticket buying process I was offered the chance to buy a "City Mobil Ticket" for public transport in the city (I assumed) I was travelling to, i.e. Zürich, on the day of arrival. I assumed this, as there are a) no tickets on sale in Berlin called "City Mobil"; and b) why would I need a ticket for public transport in Berlin on the day of my journey to Zürich? The train left very very early in the morning, and covered all of Berlin to Zürich. I also have a monthly ticket. "Great service, Hut ab, Bahn I thought, as I pressed "yes" - easier than fiddling around with ticket machines and zone systems that I won't understand and probably only take coins I won't have the moment I arrive.
Hang on, I said a few minutes later. These "City Mobil" tickets are just "Berlin AB Tageskarten" - but called "City Mobil". And only valid on that one day. And never afterwards. Off to the station to ask if I could give them back, or at least have them changed for normal Tageskarten, costing exactly the same. No. But you can fill in this form and they'll probably send you the money back somehow. That was 2 months ago.
So, it was the Bahn. "Kundendialog" they called themselves, but it was more "Friss oder stirb". "We've got a form from you, two tickets, I don't know why you gave them back and when, I can't read the form either." Me: "well, it says exactly on there why I've given them back, and if you only get one small line to write the reason on, that's not my fault. And it also says where and when I gave them back, as there's a rubber stamp from Berlin Alexanderplatz, the name of the colleague there and the date." Him: "I don't care. It's your fault. You used the machine, you bought what you wanted and we don't refund them. But if you like, out of kindness we will give you 10 Euros of travel vouchers, valid for a limited period. Isn't that nice." He was very smarmy. Me: "How much were the two tickets worth then, I can't see that on the copy of the form and tickets I have in front of me now?" Him: "12,80 Euro". Me: "How about a travel voucher for 12,80 then? Him: "No. That or nothing. Our vouchers only go in steps of 5 Euros, either, 5, 10, or 15 etc." Me: "And 15 then?" Him: "No. 10 or sod-all. " Me: "And replacing them with two normal tickets of the same value for the same zones that need to be validated, so I can use them when I like". Him:"I don't want to enter a dialogue with you." (Aha! Kundennichtdialog!)Me: "Ok. Then I'll turn down your offer, as you're extremely smarmy, rude and arrogant and have no idea about customer service (I didn't actually say that, but surely he should have known that you let people let off their steam and finish their sentences, wait two seconds and then say "Unfortunately..." as opposed to butting in mid-sentence with the words "That or nothing, it's your choice, take it or leave it". It usually works and makes your working day so much more pleasant, cod psychology is what it is) and I'll get in touch with the Schlichtungsstelle Mobilität." Him: "You do that, see if I care." Me: "Can I have your offer in writing, maybe as an email". Him: "No. For 10 Euros it's far too much work for us, we don't bother with that." Me: "Okay then, bye. Have a nice day. I'm off to my driving test now, so I hope I won't have to rely on the Deutsche Bahn as much as until now."
Which I then did, well pissed off and not very calm and collected as you need to be for such things. I passed anyway.
Ed: do I take it you've paid up then? Probably the best course of action, but I think trying to get it back is a good idea. In any case, you could argue you didn't understand the contract you signed (and they never tell you about) for a never-ending BahnCard, that has to be cancelled 3 months before the new one starts; and therefore it was invalid. As something you don't understand can't be legal. And you might get the money back sometime when you really need it (more than now)...
intended for journalists, who get a BahnCard for half price, assuming they've got a German press card, and one that doesn't renew itself
Only if you've got a *real* press card, that means issued by one of these organisations:
- Deutscher Journalisten-Verband (DJV)
- Deutsche Journalistinnen- und Journalisten-Union (DJU) (IG Medien, DAG und ver.di)
- Bundesverband Deutscher Zeitungsverleger (BDZ)
- Verband Deutscher Zeitschriftenverleger (VDZ)
It's a BC50, it's half price compared to what it usually costs. I think you have to apply online.
Yeah, I'm paying and letting it go at that. The price for the ongoing education.
Too bad I didn't know about the half-price card, although when I started buying them, I wasn't allowed to get a German press card because, as the guy in the Bundespresseamt told me, I was writing about culture, not politics or business. "But don't you want the foreign press to know Germany has culture?" I asked, rather amazed. "Those are our rules."
super - i'm in but too bad i already have a BC50! i have to say though, that the Friendly Frau at DB Alexanderplatz did point out the stringent cancellation requirements when i first purchased it. Which is a good thing, since i see i don't want to get anywhere near the Kundennichtdialog!
All those who want Daggi to set up an English-language consumer help organization raise your hands!
All those who want Daggi to set up an English-language consumer help organization raise your hands!
Only if I get paid lots of lots of money for doing so. I'm the new Lynn Faulds Wood (or, in US English, Ralph Nader).
Having worked in retail here for a good few years, I can say I've been more than surprised on occasions by dodgy pricing rules (fake special offers and the like) and the lack of consumer rights compared to in the UK. Though no doubt people are getting badly conned there too - "rip-off Britain" being a cliché of late.
The Bundespresseamt don't issue press cards - only the journalists' unions or publishers' associations. You don't have to be a member of the unions though to get one, if you don't want to. You just have to pay for it, as opposed to getting it "free" (covered by the union dues) - if you can prove your principal source of income is journalism, of whatever sort - via bills, articles, transcripts etc. Even stuff about culture will do!
You are the exception to the theory I'm working on. (That's a good thing in my opinion). I've noticed that most Americans that I've met(all but you), who've been in Germany 15 years or more, seem to have become more German than the Germans (sounds like Sean may be one of these guys, as even most Germans I know can rant for hours about Ordnung, Deutsche Bahn and crappy neighbors). I know an American down here (17 year resident) who only speaks German to me and is Ordnung-exemplified. Anyways, just wanted to say that you give me hope that I will not become an Ordnung-loving Frau someday! Good luck with the bailiff!
Ed, I speculate that maybe the Germans have such a thing for Ordnung because their history (and I don't mean just recent history: in the middle ages the place was a hotbed of heresies, jacqueries and so on, culminating in Luther and the Reformation) has shown such great potential for Unordnung? Also, if you think you have it bad in Germany with Ordnung, I have one word for you: Switzerland.
Austria isn't exactly cool either. I was told once by a bank employee there: "Wegen der Karten möchte ich jetzt nicht viel drum herum schreiben" (this straight from the email). I wanted to close an account and they wanted me to return the VISA card, even though it was expired, otherwise they'd have to cancel it and charge me EUR 36.34 for it. When I tried to argue that it made no sense to cancel an expired card, that's when she hit me with the above. Yowza! All in all, I must say I enjoy Germany a lot more. My neighbours, for one thing, are angels; I'll have to give them a parting gift when I move.
And since Ed's post was intended as a warning to the unwary I'll add my own: the yearly VBB cards sold by the S-Bahn are very hard to get rid of, too.
the yearly VBB cards sold by the S-Bahn are very hard to get rid of, too.
No the're not. Ever seen the small ads in Zweite Hand? Or look on ebay. You can't cancel a subscription taken out for a year, as that's what it is. And you get those tickets at a 20 % reduction purely because you're buying the entire year's worth (at once, at that reduction, I think). As far as I know, you can persuade them with a friendly letter to take back the tickets you don't need, and they will refund you the difference, removing any discount you got but you would now have no right to, as you didn't fulfil the conditions of the discount. If you ask nicely. You've got no right to your money back.
Always read what you sign...
Olivier, you're right: Switzerland and Austria ("It's like Germany, except the food is good") are right out. There was a rumor about an English-language magazine being started in Amsterdam a few years ago that wanted my help, and I would have moved there to work on it had it come to be, but I remember how relieved I was when it went up in smoke. I am tired of Germanic cultures, and although Holland is less Germanic than some, it's still got that cleanliness and Ordnung that drives me nuts.
Now, I know you'll agree with me that France isn't a place overburdened with a sense of Ordnung. And for now, that's just fine with me.
More German than the Germans? Come on. I wasn't defending the Bahn's overly complicated necessary steps for cancelling a BahnCard subscription. What I meant was: Fail to cancel your BahnCard subscripion due to the Bahn's overly complicated necessary steps once, shame on the Bahn. Fail twice (and by doing it the exact same way as before) ...
better get over there quick Ed, before Sarkozy makes everyone dance to the same beat! meanwhile, speaking of the devil, i got my new bahn card in the mail yesterday, with lots of happy greetings from DB! turning over the attached letter i scanned the small print and found that one must cancel the cards auto-renewal in writing at least six weeks before the expiration date... now to try once again to squeeze the funds out of my employer...
Daggi - you are fabulous!
Ed - being German myself I often have to swallow real hard while reading your blog. I try to see your point though - I grew up here, so many things that upset you are very normal for me. I just wish you could stop generalizing so much. I mean, you even admit that there is a difference between "people you know" and the bureaucrats.
Also, why do you reiterate this myth about Germans not having any sense of humor if you do not even speak the language? gimme a break!
I am not trying to excuse anything or anybody here, but. One should think that someone who is as versed in travelling as you are should have accepted the category "different" by now. It might look similar to the world you grew up with, but it's about as different as Africa or Asia would be. Accept it. Stop fighting it.
And yes, you should read what you sign. Always.
Besides, I don't know how long it is since you lived in the US, but be assured it's not all fun and customer-service there either - especially if you are not a US-citizen. Especially after 9/11.
Btw: have you tried asking the Adlon if a) they can extend your certificate over April 19, and b) if personal, i.e. if you are allowed to give it to someone else (=sell it)? Since they cannot simply give you the money, maybe your friend Tim can get his money back and send you a cheque instead? If you call and talk to them, nice and friendly, I am sure something can be done. And they must speak English there too.
Bleistifterin, I pretty much agree with what you've said here, believe it or not. It's just that the last few weeks have been hellish with all this stuff landing on me, my being sick for most of it, and my finally just snapping. I realized that I've been here 13 years, and the equation of what I put in as opposed to what I get back has radically changed, and I'm going to stop trying to get along.
I know it's different. Hell, the U.S. feels different to me now. And yeah, I know: America's never treated foreigners particularly well, and it's not getting better. Just be glad you're white and not Arab or African.
I'd feel the same way if I read about a talented German who went to American and had been slapped around the way I have been, and I don't doubt there are one or two who could write that story. But at my age, I'd like to be able to accomplish a lot more than I'm going to be able to do here, and I truly do believe that it's the dominant society here that's doing a lot to hold me back. Hey, I've been here 13 1/2 years, and the first eight were fine. Time to move on, is all.
Yeah, I generalize too much. But I get generalized about, too. Lots of Germans I've met see GWB when they see me, and that pisses me off.
It's about being exhausted and disappointed. I'm sure it'll look better once I move on.
daggi: George W. Bush. I assume.
Ed: I know. That's why I tried not to explode in your face but rather sizzle gently within a water bucket if that metaphor works. And I agree with you: there is a spirit and a bureaucracy in this country that can hold you back. Sometimes it's like walking in a swamp. But if I am broke, I am rather in Berlin than anywhere else in the world... at least rent and food is cheap, and I will have decent medical care if needed. :-) I am actually halfway looking forward to apply for Hartz IV next year!
daggi, maybe the VBB cards are not hard to cancel for you but I got nowhere with them by email and then a friend of mine who called the S-Bahn Kundenbetreuung number got nowhere with them on the phone either; apparently you have to go in person to an S-Bahn center. Sending a letter (presumably with the tickets enclosed) is out of the question since I couldn't prove I sent them the tickets and once I don't have them anymore, I am stuck with the fee. Also, I am pretty sure I did not opt for auto-renewal when I made the original purchase yet it did auto-renew.
Bleistifterin, yes there is some irony in an american complaining from dour bureaucracies, isn't it? Nobody in his right mind in the US wants to have anything to do with the Feds, the DMV, the courts or just about any bit officialdom if he can avoid it. I think a general problem of foreigners who complain of german bureaucracy is that they try to navigate the system on their own. Having made that mistake in the US, here I retained the services of an accounting and tax advisory firm even before I moved in and they deal with all that for me. They made one major mistake last year but they cleaned up pretty well and I am sure I would have made many more on my lonesome.
Ed, France and Italy have their own very dour and rigid bureaucracies, too. Once you are there, don't say you hadn't been warned ;-) Again, one word: Courteline.
I should also have mentioned that although I don't agree with the myth that Berlin inhabitants are uniformly rude: no more and no less so than elsewhere in my experience, rather less in fact (as Ed said earlier, this is a pretty informal city), all my in-person brushes with the S-Bahn have been unpleasant, which is why I am not looking forward to that trip to their Nordbahnhof office.
Well, yeah, I do navigate the bureaucracies here alone. Nobody every offered otherwise.
I will say, though, that since I've been gone I've noticed that all my dealings with US bureaucracies have been marked by a weird courtesy, as if someone noticed that people weren't happy and actually went in and did something about it. This includes the DMV in Texas, my bank there, and -- my word! -- the Post Office. And the telephone company was already beginning to wear a human face lo those many years ago when I left.
As for the S-Bahn folks, many years ago, BVG instituted mandatory classes in politeness for all its employees who had to deal with the public (and this was back when there was a guy in a booth selling tickets, if you could get him to stop reading the BZ), and a number of them quit rather than go to the classes because they didn't feel being polite was part of the job description. True!
I remember that BVG episode as well. What a hoot! As I've said for years: Service ist ja ein Fremdwort auf Deutsch.
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