Frowns, Fees, And Forms In Triplicate

The Germans enjoy remorseless regulations, rigid rules. They are bound and gagged with red tape. A bureaucrat's paradise. Just what you thought.

-- Xenophobe's Guide to the Germans

I should have known what I was in for. As a student at the University of Hamburg in the late 1970s, I studied and worked in Germany for a year. But moving from Detroit to Bonn last fall touched off a surprisingly robust resurgence of culture shock.

Notwithstanding the mellowing effect of good German beer, which can be purchased from a vending machine in our office building, I find myself cursing my adopted home. At nearly every turn, I'm ensnared by Germany's vast bureaucracy. Or somebody's got a hand in my pocket. How in the world, I ask myself, has a country so hog-tied by rules and regulations ever kept its heralded economic miracle alive?

I hadn't been in Bonn for a week before Big Brother grabbed me by the lapels. German customs refused to hand over a few boxes of clothing until I had registered my whereabouts with city hall. I collected the appropriate residency form (in triplicate), had it filled out by a befuddled manager at the Hotel Domicil, where I was staying, and returned to city hall. A clerk stamped the forms with a vigorous flourish, telling me that I had two weeks to reregister when I moved. I chuckled to myself that such rules would last about two seconds in Detroit.

BANK HEIST. It was harder to laugh off what was happening to my wallet. I was constantly shelling out Deutschemarks. Take my new health club, the Bonn Fitness Center. The $60 monthly fee is double what I'd been paying, and "amenities" such as towels are extra. "A small one is $1.40 and a large one is $2.80," said the athletic young woman behind the counter. O.K., gimme a small. I sweated away on a stationary bike for 40 minutes, then asked a passing trainer where to find water. He directed me back downstairs, where the same clerk queried: "Small or large?" Uh-oh: A large glass set me back $2.80. Could I bring my own bottle? Verboten!

Physical fitness didn't prevent my nearly having a coronary once I saw the Dresdener Bank's fees: I deposited two U.S. checks totaling about $125 and got nailed with a $30 charge. Complaints to the branch manager elicited a polite full-page letter from the main office. Roughly translated, it said: tough kishkes. Foreign checks are processed by hand, and that'll cost ya.

I guess I wouldn't mind so much if those hefty fees bought stellar service. Nein! The other morning, I walked into the downtown branch at 9 a.m. Gossiping clerks dispersed as I presented a $12,000 check to deposit. One of them tossed a form (yep, triplicate) onto the counter, barked: "Fill this out," and walked off. When I had finished, she kept busy at her desk and refused to look up. Finally, I caught the eye of a co-worker, who asked: "Can I help you?"

Retailers often present a similar cold shoulder. For starters, German stores are almost never open. At least, not when normal working people from Detroit can shop. When I temporarily moved to a furnished apartment (I never registered; don't tell Big Brother), there was no soap. Tough luck, again. Even in cosmopolitan cities such as Berlin, Bonn, and Munich, all stores must close at 6:30 p.m., except on Thursdays, when closing moves up to 8:30. And they generally close on Saturdays at 2 p.m. The next day after work, I searched in vain for soap at Kaufhof, a downtown department store. A gruff clerk told me to try toiletries, first floor. My heart sank: It was already past closing. Deodorant bar in hand, I approached the register, where the clerk demanded: "Where did you come from?" I must have looked--or smelled--pitiful, since she sold me the soap.

AUTOBAHN BLAHS. Lest you think I'm some pushy, arrogant yupster or Ugly American who deserves whatever rough treatment salespeople dish out, Germans complain of shoddy service, too. Semira Soraya, a graduate student in psychology from the Frankfurt area, told me how she was once reduced to tears of rage in an eyeglasses store. The clerk pressured her to buy a set of frames she didn't like and refused to show her others she had asked to try on.

So far, my biggest nightmare has been registering the Audi I brought over. In two weeks, I made three treks to the insurance agent, five to city hall, three to the repair shop, and one trip to the technical inspection center--and paid $700 in fees. That's not counting $1,000 for new German-regulation head- and taillights for a car that was made here. Lord knows what a Chevy would cost. The dumbest rule: Temporary plates expire in five days, no exceptions. I returned twice to city hall for extensions--at, ka-ching, $27 a pop.

After all that, hitting the road ought to have been exhilarating. Instead, it was a letdown. The autobahn, the one beloved corner of German life where limits are cast away, isn't as freewheeling as it used to be. People once got their kicks by screaming along at 130 miles per hour or however fast their vehicles could go. But now, traffic is so thick and construction sites so frequent that high speeds are a thing of the past on many stretches. Speed limits abound: 50 mph or less where there's construction, 60 or so in most urban areas, and 80 even on many rural sections. When you're finally allowed to let 'er rip, all too often there's a lumbering truck or parade of cars in the way.

Most Germans suffer such frustrations in resigned silence. Indeed, they exhibit a disturbing willingness to kowtow to all rules and authority. Most pedestrians wait for the light even when there's no car in sight. I feel like a real dummy standing there, so I invariably cross, expecting the polizei to handcuff me any second. People much smarter than I blame Germany's centuries of tortured political history for the nation's love of order. Rules "are of critical importance for German peace of mind," says Xenophobe's Guide co-author Stephan Zeidenitz, only half-joking.

Don't get me wrong. There are joys about living in Germany, and I'm busy rediscovering them. I've savored several glasses of the aforementioned national beverage. And there's the wonderful public transit system, which almost makes owning a car superfluous. (Don't tell my friends back in Detroit I said that.) For a recent business trip to Frankfurt, I strolled five minutes to Bonn's main train station, dispatched some paperwork while rolling along the banks of the Rhine, then disembarked in downtown Frankfurt to walk 10 minutes to my meeting. No traffic jams, no dashing to a distant gate, no headaches.


People can be friendly and generous, too. Take Frau Lenzen, the receptionist in the city's automobile-registration office. She always greeted me with a big wave, patiently walked me through the bureaucratic labyrinth, and commiserated over the frustration of each new roadblock. Or Frank Wirtz, the sporting- goods salesman who answered my question about good local mountain-biking trails by handing over his phone number and offering to show me a few.

And I must admit that my new neighbors probably have a bone or two to pick with me, as well. With virtually every utterance, I butcher their beloved language. I saunter ignorantly down the part of the sidewalk set aside for bicycles. And I repeatedly ask stupid questions, such as the one I recently posed to a bemused couple on their Sunday stroll in the forest that butts right up against the city: "Which way is Bonn?"

Had they known about all my grousing, they probably would have directed me straight back to the ole U.S. of A.

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