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March 1990

Soon after arriving here I noticed stores that said "Stempel." When I looked up the word, it said "stamp." I wondered how private industry could compete with the Bundespost, who, in any case, calls them "Briefmarken." When I looked at the display in the window I saw that rubber stamps were the wares and it didnít take me long to find out that they are a staple of the bureaucracy. Not only does every official document require at least one stamp, the residence permit in my passport, required to get a work permit (and, more confusing, vice versa), is formed entirely from various stamps.

The first stamp includes an outer frame and some wording that it is a residence permit that is valid in the Budesrepublik Deutschland, including Berlin (it will be interesting to see what the post-unification stamps will say) until – a handwritten date. Another stamp, lower, but also included within the frame, says that independent gainful employment, or comparable gainful employment (whatever that may be), is not permitted. A third one just below this says it is issued in Frankfurt, is authorized by the mayor and has a line for the date – which in this case rates its own stamp. A stamp at the top, some of which is outside the frame, says that I can work only with a valid work permit. Of course, at the very bottom, still within the frame, is a separate stamp with the official seal of Frankfurt am Main (as they delighted in tricking us at Berlitz, there is also a Frankfurt an der Oder, in the East), and a scrawled signature of the bureaucrat that actually did all the stamping.

You can get some idea of a bureaucratís status by how many stamps he has on the stamp trees on his desk. Yes, they have so many stamps, which must be readily available, that stands holding a dozen or more rubber stamps and looking like miniature Christmas trees are common.

Of course, to earn so many stamps, one must first provide an equally impressive collection of paperwork. A colleague has likened the application process to a Treasure Hunt, where one has to gather many small objects from a list to win. The "Guide for MITRE Employees Transferring to the Frankfurt Site" has a full page flow chart (16 boxes) showing the sequence of steps required to obtain a basic set of documents (residence permit, work permit, drivers license, car registration).

Multiple steps are nearly always required: one gets a form from one place, which, along with some other document, can be validated someplace else; several such validated forms can then be presented at another office, to which you can return several weeks later to get the desired document. (But you do remember that the hours are Monday and Wednesday 7:30 to 1:30, Tuesday closed, Thursday 9:00 to 6:30 but reserved for German nationals, and Friday 7:30 to 1:00.)

Although the process sounds daunting, the bureaucracy isnít always as inflexible as this may imply. One of the items I needed for the residency permit was a form signed by my landlord saying that I really had a place to live. (This is not a trivial requirement – housing in Frankfurt was tight, and expensive, even before the Wall came down. The guy ahead of me in line admitted that he was living in his car! I donít know how, or if, he satisfied the requirement.) Unfortunately my landlord was in Nice for three weeks and, as I previously alluded to, the Arbeitsamt had just notified me that I needed a work permit to work at MITRE and I couldnít get a work permit without a residence permit. (I guess I could have ended up like the East German in the rather bitter joke making the rounds lately who complained that not only hadnít he worked for 30 years, now he was unemployed as well!)

I rather nervously suggested to the clerk that although I didnít have the required form, I did have a copy of my lease. He took a look at it, copied a few items onto another sheet, and all was well. I had to contrast that German experience with one that took place in the hectic last weeks before we left the U.S. When we tried to sell Betty Louís beloved í65 Falcon, which she bought new after graduation from college, we discovered that we didnít have a title – neither Ohio nor Virginia required one for registration at the time. When we contacted the Virginia Division of Motor Vehicles they said they couldnít issue one because the lien had never been released!

No amount of appealing to reason or to higher authority (well okay, I hadnít yet made it to the head of the DMV or to the Governor before we left) had any effect. The dealer had long since gone out of business and, although the original loan was with the Ford Motor Credit Corporation (FMCC), even they donít keep such records for 25 years. The situation seemed dire – we couldnít even give the car away or junk it (legally, anyway – I envisioned abandoning it on a street and later being charged because it was used in a getaway)! Fortunately, an FMCC manager in the Ohio region where the car was bought wasnít so hidebound – she issued a lien release and this time the bureaucracy was foiled.

© Copyright 2000 Jack Ludwick - All Rights Reserved

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