The following is a chapter from an upcoming memoir on moving to and living in Germany. Read more here.
Melanie and I arrived early for our appointment with the German consulate in downtown Chicago. If we couldn’t meet German language expectations, we would at least hit the punctuality stereotype. We even had time to circle the block and grab a bagel before heading in. I know the German officials couldn’t see that, but I suppose I hoped for some karmic points.
The building also happened to be the home of Chicago’s Omni Hotel, a four-star property that’ll set you back at least $200 at night. Rather than experience the luxurious comforts of the Omni, we took the elevator up to our appointment. The tone dinged, the elevator doors opened, and we were transported to an American suburban post office with emblems of the Germanic eagle flanked by the Federal Republic’s black, yellow, and red colors.
A middle-aged gentleman standing next to a metal detector instructed us to place our mobiles and anything else I suppose governments care about in a small, plastic gray bin to be confiscated until the end of our appointment. After which we shuffled through the metal detector—sans beep—and had a seat in one of the many (and empty) waiting room-style chairs as we waited for our name to be called.
It’s impossible not to feel like you’re on the verge of doing something illegal in such settings. You sit there with all the legal documents you’re instructed to bring plus some extras for the inevitable wildcard scenario. I wanted to bring an elementary school macaroni collage of mine as joke to show I’ve covered all our bases, but somehow I imagine such brilliance would be lost on the German government employee.
A tone beeped, our number appeared on a screen, and we were off to the corresponding counter. We each grabbed a seat in front of the husky German woman with a bit of a bowl cut who would decide our fate. Would she arbitrarily impose a language requirement on my wife to join my visa? Would she type my name in the system and find that I’ve been flagged for some preposterous crime I never committed? Or would she allow us to move abroad united?
There was a glass divider separating us with one microphone controlled by the consulate employee. She would speak with us when she wanted to speak with us, listened when she wanted to listen, and muted herself when she didn’t want us to listen. It all seemed incredibly over the top when you consider I’ve never gotten into a fist fight let alone planned to harm a foreign government employee.
There were no pleasantries beyond a hushed, “Good morning.” Eye contact was at a minimum as if human emotion were a valuable, scarce resource in an apocalyptic world, deployed only when absolutely necessary. There was a purpose behind every word, every action. Nothing was wasted.
These are my people, I thought to myself.
We were asked to hand over our documents as she started to sift through every legal document related to our lives. Occasionally she paused to speak with a colleague in German. During those pauses, my mind returned to the glass divider. Who is this supposed to keep back? Who’s coming to the German consulate in Chicago and sneaking through security to wreak havoc? (Even if “security” did look like the proverbial suburban neighbor next door whose only prey is long grass and weeds on a summer Sunday afternoon.
Better yet, what bad news are they delivering here that they need a glass divider to keep applicants from German government employees? Doctors can tell loved ones that they’re sorry, but Timmy didn’t make it from the comfort of an office. Meanwhile, those of us interested in uprooting our lives to make a go of it in Germany line up like it’s visiting hours at the local penitentiary.
The woman returned to our documents and pulled out our marriage certificate. She observed it with a lethargic scowl before turning her attention back to us and pressing the button to fire up her microphone.
“This is not fancy enough,” she said, offering her diagnosis. “It must be fancier.”
Melanie and I shot each other confused looks.
“But this is what the county gave us,” Melanie insisted.
“Yes, but it is not, you know, fancy enough.”
There was a pause.
“It’s not like we haven’t seen a marriage certificate from Cuyahoga County before.”
“There should be more colors. It should be more colorful.”
Did she think we were trying to scam our way into Germany by way of a boring marriage certificate? That our entire plan hinged on us being the first couple from Cuyahoga County to ever apply for a work visa in Germany?
“One moment please,” she said before again turning away from her microphone and speaking in German to a colleague in the back. It was all mumbled through the glass window, not that I would’ve been able to understand anyway.
She stood up and went to an office in the back. Then, Melanie sees a familiar face walking by. It’s Herbert Quelle, the Consul General who she had recently hosted in Cleveland for a speaker event at her work. I ultimately decided that banging on the window to get him to vouch for us probably wouldn’t help our cause.
The woman returned. “We will see if it’s okay” and she proceeded thumbing through the remainder of our documents.
This did little to ease our nerves. What’s to see? How could it not be okay? What in God’s name do German marriage certificates look like that she would find ours to be so insultingly plain?
We ran through the remainder of the appointment without additional speedbumps. There was a moment when the German asked Melanie, “Do you speak German?” that my heart stood still. I braced for her to say, “You cannot move to Germany if you do not speak German” in a logical jab that would make Spock proud.
I whispered to Melanie, in Spanish so as not to be detected, that she should say she plans to learn German, but the moment passed and apparently this is Frau “Your Marriage Certificate Isn’t Fancy Enough” on a good day, because she let any arbitrary language requirements slide by.
We were informed that the consulate would mail our passports back to our Ohio address, complete with a temporary visa that would last long enough for us to get to Düsseldorf and begin our obstacle course through an additional set of bureaucratic hoops in order to obtain a one-year Aufenthaltstitel, or residency permit.
Apparently our marriage certificate was fancy enough after all.
Looking for more Germany? Check out the Germany off the beaten path travel guide, my top things to do in Germany, German language tips, and how to ride the German train system.