Today I took part in a ritual charged with emotion and symbolism; an indispensable step on the road to becoming a German, one which had me in floods of tears by the end of it.
I settled my outstanding tax invoice.
It’s not the first time I’ve done this but it breaks my heart every time.
My students have been joking all week that not paying your taxes is one of only two offences in Germany that still carry the death penalty –the other one being taking your kids out of school outside of the official holidays.
I know they are joking because I’ve been swotting up for my German citizenship test and can confirm that the death penalty does not exist anywhere in the German statute books.
As in the UK, the test is an integral part of the naturalisation process and, as in the UK, it is not without criticism.
One if the biggest criticisms of the UK test is that it’s overloaded with history, like a “bad pub quiz” according to one report.
I tried it myself a couple of weeks ago and without a degree in History from a leading UK university I would have struggled. More practical advice, such as how to call an ambulance has been omitted in favour of the location of Britain’s first curry house or the date of the battle of Naseby.
Even the test’s most infamous question, what to do if you spill someone’s pint in a pub, has been dropped in favour of questions about the first conquest of Britain by the Emperor Claudius in 43 AD. You knew that of course.
Would a British person pass? Well you can of course try yourself and find out. Statistically, 86% should of all Brits should do so. 86% is the average for all EU candidates and Britain is of course a member of the EU.
If you’re German then you really have no excuse to fail: fully 91% of Germans who sat the Life In The UK Test in 2013-14 passed. But whether you’re native or naturalising, you ought to bear in mind that the other big criticism of the test is the lack of factual accuracy.
This has been a recurring theme ever since the first edition was introduced in 2005. If you get a question about the year in which the troops of King William of Orange defeated the Scottish Jacobites at the battle of Killiecrankie then be sure to ask a Scottish relative before answering. It was actually the Jacobites who defeated the Royalists. And you wonder why the Scots get upset…
As for the German citizenship test, well Germans also worry that they would fail it. They need not be so concerned. Since I announced that I was going to take it, there has been considerable interest among my students and so in order to satisfy their curiosity I work the content into a lesson plan. They all pass with flying colours.
The history on the German test is restricted to the bare bones, the events that shaped the modern Federal Republic: partition, occupation, World War Two, National Socialism. No question takes you back further than 1933. The rest is about voting systems, institutions, rights and responsibilities. I can find no inaccuracies. Only Allah and German bureaucrats are perfect.
As for the test itself, you could set your watch by it. I have to go along to the local night school to do it and I turn up at twenty to eight in the evening. The test is at eight and I fully expect that to be a German eight o’ clock rather than a British one.
There is a difference, although neither test will explain it to you. In Britain — be it for a meeting, a test or clocking in at work — the specified hour indicates when you should be physically present at the appointed place. In Germany it indicates the time when you are on your marks and ready to start.
From a practical point of view this means that for tonight’s test I should be sat at the desk at eight sharp, pens and paper at the ready, waiting for the starter’s pistol. If I enter the room on the bell, say hello, take my jacket off and unpack my stuff then I will be adjudged to have arrived late.
That’s the theory anyway. It’s not always thus but tonight’s examiner puts it into practice immaculately. By ten to eight there are around twenty of us waiting outside the door; Africans, Eastern Europeans, Middle Easterners and one Scot. The door opens and the examiner comes out.
“Do you mind if I have a quick fag before we crack on? We can’t start before eight anyway.”
She is brisk, efficient and good-humoured; that’s about as much as you can expect from bureaucrats of any nationality. It relieves everyone’s nerves just a little bit. At least we are in the right place. At five to eight she returns and we enter the room.
“Can you all come to the front and show your passports please?” she calls out. I wait patiently in the short line by her desk, the other candidates swarm in from the left and right and I am the last to be seen. Got to get this fascination for queueing out of my system, got to.
“Good…thank you…yes, that’s fine”.
She works her way briskly through the passports and the list of names without looking up. I hand her mine. She peers at me over her spectacles.
“Brexit refugee eh?”
I am slightly taken aback by the answer and have to think.
“Yes”, I say, struggling to find a suitable one-liner in time, “yes, exactly”. She laughs and tells me that she now has one in every session.
She explains the rules: We have one hour, there are thirty-three questions, over half marks and we pass, we must wait between three and six weeks for the results. The timing is important. I have a date to keep with the Wild Man at a local bar afterwards and I don’t want to be late.
She asks us to check the front page of the exam paper to see if our details are correct and at the stroke of eight we begin. The questions are multiple choice and for many of them I don’t even need the four answers.
To be quite fair here, for a lot of them neither would you. Question number two asks me to name the colours of the German flag. Most people could tell you which famous “German” came to power in 1933 and I’m pretty sure I cross the right name. One of the criticisms of the test is that it is too easy.
I leave one because I’m not sure, work my way to the end of the paper and then come back to it. I cross what later turns out to be the right answer. I go through a second time to check that I have put the crosses in the correct place and check the details on the front page once again.
I find a mistake. My name, date of birth and address are all correct but there is a typing error within the official frame. The fields are of course all in German: Adresse, Stadt, Postleitzahl, Straße etc. –but there is no German equivalent of the English “c/o”. It is written here in full with an extra “f” for good measure. “Care off”.
“And care off to you too!” I think to myself. Oh well, only Allah is perfect after all.
I look through one more time, sign the document, hand it in and wish the examiner a pleasant evening. In total the process has taken thirteen minutes. I am not the first to leave the room.
By eight thirty I am sitting in the karaoke bar with the Wild Man. I go for “A Boy Named Sue” by Johnny Cash, a subtle reference to the dangers of clerical errors. I am word-perfect but am soon reminded that Johnny Cash could talk a lot quicker than I can.
Wild Man is up next. His attitude to Brexit is exactly one hundred-and-eighty degrees away from my own. He plumps for Freddie Mercury at his very best: “I Want To Break Free”. He knows some of the words and scrapes by with half marks.
The audience are very generous to both of us. It will be a long night and they too may yet be under the spotlight. In karaoke as in life, it pays to remember that only Allah is perfect.