My first taste of the local agency’s repertoire was on a rather murky early June morning in Frankfurt. Along with a bunch of other hopeful immigrants, I waited in a stale government building for over four hours before learning that my offer letter of employment was the wrong one, despite the knowledge that an offer letter of employment need only state the offer, with details, which it had done. At least that’s what my liaison, aka my girlfriend, Kathleen, communicated to me in the elevator as she threw out a rarely uttered “Fuck!” which expressed only a fraction of her frustration. In fact, my throwing a disapproving leer at a drifter snorting cocaine in the stairwell of the train station on my commute home was the only satisfaction I received that day. Ah, the dichotomy of Bankfurt (nickname for Frankfurt, Germany), a place of wealthy bankers and transient drug addicts cohabiting as one dysfunctional family in a city that drives the German economy.
Here’s how it all started. I was searching for a supplementary teaching job when I serendipitously stumbled into something different. It was a rather circuitous route, much like most of my quests, but I would enthusiastically accept an employment offer at the offices of the largest private bank in Europe.
Now, German employment law dictates that you’re required to have all the necessary paperwork lined up before beginning employment. Of course, that’s the law. However, it’s illegal to freelance for only one company. That’s also understandable. But what’s not is the fact that one has to jump through tiny hoops at the behest of the German Foreigner’s Office, an agency reputed for making people's lives miserable. It’s even common tradition for folks to trade stories about their bad experiences there: torrid details about the number of times they were told to come back to the office in person the same week, the degree to which they were yelled at for not speaking German, or how long they had to wait—sometimes several months—before all their paperwork cleared so they could begin work.
My initial experience of fulfilling a freelance English teaching requirement with the local agency went relatively well. It took about a month or so. But, each time you garner a new employer as your freelance client, you have to go back to the local agency with just about every piece of information (except your favorite hand soap, perhaps) that comes to mind in order to seek their approval. Kein Problem (no problem) Like a conscientious foreigner, I came with the original draft of my employment letter, a folder full of documents, and my Kathleen, who was kind enough to get up two hours early for our dreaded expedition (she was always my German mouth in such situations).
All of the preparation wouldn’t be good enough, though, for the big boss man that sat in a quiet, smoky room, awaiting his rare chance to give that final signature of approval. In this case, it was the scrawny, pimple-faced employee’s supervisor who shook his head defiantly at my request. The explicit, heavily-detailed letter didn’t make the cut. And I thought we had the young kid beat. He was making photocopies and running the process along quite well. But at the last minute, he suckered me square in the gut:
“Mein Abteilungsleiter muss den Brief abnehmen” (my boss has to approve this letter). Incidentally, all business conducted at the Foreigner’s Office must be done in person. There’s no mailing, faxing, or telephoning.
So it was on to more work. The delayed anticipation was suffocating and the opportunity would never live up to its preliminary effort. Nonetheless, the experience was something I could complain about, an art I had been reluctant to master. Not only had I prepared myself physically, but also mentally, in the event that luck would not be on my side. Just a typical day at the Foreigner’s Office, with nothing to show for it.
But that’s par for the course when you’re an expatriate. It’s the culmination of experiencing challenging obstacles in a foreign country that’ll make one slide through future situations with ease. So what if I took a few jabs from my bureaucratic friends? Heck, I told myself I’d even go back there for more. I just didn’t want to make a habit of it, though.