German Customs of German Customs

Strausberger Platz on Karl-Marx-Allee, looking west towards Mitte

Photo: Strausberger Platz on Karl-Marx-Allee, Friedrichshain, Berlin. This was the GDR’s most prestigious street. The communists (socialists?) loved putting on parades here with marching and drums and stuff. It links the nouveau-trendy centre of Friedrichshain with the bustling Mitte shopping district, but Karl-Marx-Allee itself has not yet founds its post-GDR niche. It’s an oppressive expanse of blocky East German apartment buildings with hardly a bar or café in sight.

My parents were kind enough to ship, at my behest, some of my music equipment in a large white metal roadcase to me in Germany. I opted for five day shipping and so it was the case was dutifully flown and delivered to Berlin on time and in one piece, most likely. I say most likely because I have yet to see it. It’s in a customs depot in Schöneberg, though it may as well be in the Marianas Trench for the difficulty of extricating it.

Let’s talk about the German penchant for rules and regulations, shall we? First of all, German people on the whole are extremely polite and helpful when it comes to rules. They are patient with me as I attempt through trial and error to navigate the activities necessary to perform an officious act like crossing the street or buying a loaf of bread. They believe in laws and rules here. Really, they do, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Rules and regulations are designed to promote efficiency and correctness, justice and fairness. These are admirable traits. Sadly, though, the rules themselves have tumesced and there is now a Leviathan of red tape just behind the curtain that all Germans are powerless to fight.

Last Wednesday I went down to the customs depot in Schöneberg which is about 45 minutes away by train at the exact opposite end of the city from me. Schöneberg translates, approximately, to “beautiful neighbourhood” which it certainly was with the birds chirping and the early morning sun rising (because unlike everything else in Berlin the customs depot is not open late). The customs depot itself was in a new-looking modernist building beside an overpass. What a joyless place it was. A set of chairs were laid out in six perfect rows upon which sat glum looking people awaiting their turn at a numbered gate in another room to argue their case for something or other.

There seemed to be a general inquiries desk so I went to it. Mercifully the woman spoke English and understood what I was trying to accomplish.

“It says here this package is returning to owner, ja? You are living in Berlin now?” I nodded. “Oh. Do you have your Anmeldbestätigung with you?”

I vaguely remembered this was a photocopied 8.5×11″ piece of paper with my address and an cheap-looking blue stamp on it. It was at home in my folder of very officious papers. I did, however, bring my passport which has some extra-officious certificates from the German federal government with gold leaf and holograms and microprinting to prove that I am legally allowed to live and work in Germany. The woman was unmoved. “We only accept the Anmeldbestätigung.

She sent me away with some forms that were entirely in German. “You must fill these out,” she said. “You have a German friend to help you, ja?”

I took the train 45 minutes back and went to work for the day.

The form is a single page, double sided, in 9 pt. font. This, without a word of a lie, is what the form is called:

Zollanmeldung für die Überführung von Übersiedlungsgut in den zollrechtlich freien Verkehr zur besonderen Verwendung (Blatt 1 – Für die Zollstelle für die Überführung)

I totally got über but otherwise was not able to fill out a single line without asking my flatmate Rob for help. He stared at it and pronounced “this is so stupid.” Finally, a sane voice. My favourite very official German word on the form is this one:


It means an-official-certificate-to-prove-your-package-is-not-a-bomb.

This is not my first exasperating run-in with German bureaucracy. I have a thousand word draft of another blog entry regarding my experience at the Bergamt (city administration building) which I abandoned because I was plagiarizing a Kafka novel. (Most anglophones don’t know that all English translations of The Trial are in error: the book is actually about Joseph K. trying to get a change-of-address form recognized by the postal service.)

Hopefully by Wednesday I will have the papers in order to go and pick up my package. By then I will only have to pay a day’s worth or so extra storage charge at the customs depot. I hope they don’t have a form for that service.

Incidentally, besides the customs thing everything’s pretty awesome in Berlin. I mean, I could have told you about how I decided to go out for a quick drink on Friday night and ended up at a massive club until five in the morning (which the locals consider leaving early) but I figured the post office story was more interesting.