Slow, slow, quick-quick, slow. German bureaucracy is no waltz in the park — but occasionally it dances to a foxtrot.
There’s a letter waiting for me when I get back from Odenthal. It’s from the Federal Office For Migration And Refugees. It can only be one thing: the results of my citizenship test.
The envelope is A4 sized and has a hard cardboard back. A certificate. So much for suspense, excitement and prising open the envelope with trembling hands. I slit its guts with the kitchen knife and find that I’ve passed the test with 32 correct answers out of 33.
The first thing I do is call Mr Pfister, the clerk at the town hall who’s responsible for citizenship applications in Herne. He will then put me through my paces for the rest of the process.
It’s taken three weeks for the results to come so I figure it will take at least as long to get an appointment with him. As it turns out, I figure incorrectly.
“Can you come on Thursday?” he asks. That’s in two days’ time. I often find that it’s like this in Germany: It takes a while for things to get moving but when they do, they gain momentum rapidly.
As I have all the necessary documents, two days is ample time to prepare. It also gives me ample time to get nervous. The chances are good that my application to become a German citizen will be accepted but it is far from a certainty.
On the face of it, I tick all the boxes. I have been living here legally and without interruption for more than the minimum of eight years required, I speak German and have a certificate to prove it, I have passed the citizenship test. I have two jobs, have never drawn social security benefits and also have no criminal record.
The devil, however, is in the detail. I must prove that I can support myself without recourse to social security and this is open to interpretation. How much is enough? I ask myself. The internet is full of people asking the same question.
Not everybody earns their money in quite the way I do. I work on a contract for which I receive a salary which many would esteem to be peanuts. In fairness to my bosses, this is very much the industry standard peanuts and I am paid for my travelling time on top of that — but will it be enough?
The rest of my income comes from work for which I qualify as self-employed. I know from the internet that self-employment can cause a problem when it comes to applications for citizenship and permanent residency. I could be caught in the gap somewhere.
There is…ahem!…an additional problem with the criminal record thing. I do not have a criminal record but that doesn’t mean I’ve never been arrested.
You are curious now so I shall be precise. In 2004 I received perhaps the shortest bit of jail time in history for the curious crime of “calling the police a bunch of bastards”.
I spent one and-a-half hours sobering up in a cell before the door was opened by the arresting officer and I was asked to vacate the premises in favour of an infinitely more deserving candidate.
As my successor was thrown headfirst through the door in a flurry of German expletives far worse than my own, the officers assured me that the indiscretion was not serious. It would not count towards a criminal record — but you can bet your last euro that the computer hasn’t forgotten it.
There’s also the issue of why I want to become a German in the first place. For me, this is about more than Brexit, it is about doing something which is long overdue. Mr Pfister may not see things the same way.
An emotional aspect has crept into the process which wasn’t there at the start — and it isn’t one that I’d necessarily reckoned with.
Up until now I’ve been emotionally immune. Occasionally I read articles in the papers about Brits in my position who are “forced to become French” or “forced to become Spanish” in order to avoid the potential consequences of Britain’s march into the abyss, as if becoming French or Spanish is some kind of punishment.
I certainly do not regard becoming German as some sort of last resort, or a hole that I’ve been pushed into by my country of birth. On the contrary, I like Germany very much and I shall be happy to belong to it. Being German will compliment my identity not compromise it.
But there is one emotional issue which is much more universal, one which has only occured to me right now. This has boiled down to acceptance or rejection.
Few people earn their money like I do, or spend it like I do, or have lived their lives in the same way I have. My profile is pretty unique and whatever happens in the next week will be either an affirmation or a condemnation.
I bet there are a few Brits around Europe who are thinking like this at the moment. One of the things I hate most about Brexit is the British government’s presumption of universal orthodoxy.
I take the bus across town to Mr Pfister’s office — I think I’ve mentioned that I never learned to drive. The town hall is only five minutes’ walk up the street but one of the peculiarities about Herne is that there is not one seat of administration but two.
This is not unique to Herne but it is typical of this region. Over the years, smaller towns have been fused together, often unwillingly, to create larger and more viable entities.
Visitors to the Ruhr often remark on the plethora of unpronounceable hyphenated place names that we have here: Oer-Erkenschwick, Castrop-Rauxel and, most curiously of all, Wanne-Eickel.
Wanne-Eickel is two towns rolled into one, and both of these towns are now part of Herne. They don’t like each other very much. Apart from the city fair, which keep the police busy and the cells full, folk don’t really cross town. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Mr Pfister.
I get off the bus at Wanne-Eickel main station. My neighbours in Herne proper term this place “Apache country” and compared to Herne it does have an air of the Wild West about it. It is half past two and the bus stop crowd are enjoying a last beer under the August sun. I stand out from the crowd because I am not wearing a baseball cap or jogging bottoms.
If all goes well, I’ll join them. But first there is work to be done. For the first time since this story began, I actually meet Mr Pfister.
He is very professional. He tells me that today’s objective is to determine whether it’s worth my while spending 255 euros on the administration fee or whether I’ll be rejected straight away. He looks at my certificates, including my payslips, and it’s all fine.
He’s happy enough that my industry standard peanuts is enough to qualify. He asks me to sign a document which allows him to check whether I’ve received any social security aid over the past fifteen years. As I do so, I mention my self-employed work.
“Write it down” he says. “The more you earn the better”.
This leads me to mention the subject of outgoings. I’ve read in the internet that they also want to know how much you spend on living costs. Another big plus in my favour is that I own my flat outright without having to pay either rent or mortgage installments. Mr Pfister agrees that I should mention this.
I have to sign another document which allows him to check whether I have a criminal record and another one which tells me that lying about this also constitutes a criminal offence. I mention the 2004 thing and he says that this will pose no problem.
That’s about it. There are two other things he mentions which are worth repeating. One is that, as things stand at the moment, the German Federal Republic will continue to consider British citizens as eligible for dual nationality after Brexit — if I were Australian, American or from elsewhere outside the EU then I would have to give up my current passport.
The other is the last document that he asks me to sign. In German it’s called the Loyalitätserklärung, a declaration that I understand and accept the core values of the German Federal Republic. I read through carefully and make my mark.
The next step is to write up a CV, fill out the official form and then make an appointment so that I can sign it in front of witnesses. After that, they do the background checks and they can all have a good laugh about the events of 2004.
In principle though, there should be no problem. An affirmation of sorts.
As to how long it will take, well naturally he doesn’t want to say. He does mention that for EU citizens the process is much quicker — yet another reason to be thankful that I am still a member of the club.
At twenty past three I leave the office and at half past I am sitting outside a pub with a beer in my hand. There’s no point in drinking at the bus stop, not when Wanne-Eickel pub prices are so reasonable.
It’s not such a bad place actually. Rough it may be, but it’s not without flair. It’s the region’s capital of dialect theatre for one thing. I’ll take you on a night out there next time we come.
It also holds a world record. The world’s hottest Currywurst comes from Wanne-Eickel. If you eat it then you qualify for the German Scoville Masters, the world Currywurst eating championship. As far as I know, I am the only British citizen ever to qualify.
I’m a freak. That much is clear to me after today’s meeting with Mr Pfister. I don’t drive but I own my own property outright. I’m a Scotsman who teaches the Germans French. They’ll have a good laugh when they read my CV I’m sure.
On the other hand, nobody’s going to notice one more freak in Wanne-Eickel. What better place than Apache country to “turn Injun”?
If they make me a German then I’ll be a crazy German for sure. Herne’s answer to Jürgen Klopp or Bert Trautmann or Hardy Krüger.
If that’s fine with them then it’s fine with me. The affirmation is what counts now.