The German and I had just picked up a coffee table and boarded a tram.
At this point I have to correct myself, as The German dislikes being referred to as The German and insists on being called, at the very least, The Bavarian. This is because although Bavaria is technically part of Federal Republic of Germany, the Bavarians hardly think so – they have their own bureaucracy and even central government bureaucrats are divided into those who deal with Bavaria and those who deal with the rest of Germany due to the long and bureaucratic history concerning the sovereignty of Bavaria involving Napoleon, its status an independent kingdom, mad kings and all sorts of nonsense – that, however, is another story. The German shall now be referred to as The Bavarian.
Back to the tram. We get on, settle the table down, then stamp our tickets. Immediately, a man asks to see our tickets. We show him our valid tickets, but he refuses to accept them as, according to him, we stamped them too late. We haven’t even got to the next stop yet, and it’s taken us all of 20 seconds to stamp the tickets, we protest. There are now two ticket inspectors in front of us, protesting otherwise. We get off at the next stop – table and all – to continue the discussion on the street.
The Bavarian, waving madly at the coffee table on the pavement, explains that we stamped the tickets as soon as we were able, and refuses to give them the 80 Euros they are asking for. The ticket inspectors, as blind to the table as to any sense of reason, issue us with a fine. The Bavarian asks for their names; they explain that they do not have names but are identified by numbers. We note their five digit numbers down, as well as the telephone number for the BVG office, and carry the table the rest of the way home.
The man on the other end of the line is apologetic – apparently the BVG have outsourced the job of checking tickets to a bunch of morons who work on commission, and to dispute the claim we have to go to the BVG offices in Jannowitzbruecke. I suspect, however, that ticket-checkers have always been morons, outsourced or otherwise. The protagonist of Berlin Blues describes the ticket-checkers of 1989 as “intolerably loquacious men in ill-fitting uniforms” – a definition that still stands.
The next day we go to the office – a long grey room packed with people all waiting their turn to dispute their fines. We take a ticket and find a somewhere to sit. We are number 589; the board displays number 544, and only three counters, of about ten, are open.
This is the type of thing that one would expect in Italy. It is precisely because one does not expect this of the Germans, who are supposed to be efficient, reasonable people, that makes it even worse. Additionally, in Italy there would at least be a lively atmosphere – the Italians would be shouting, gesturing, smoking and drinking espressos in a situation like this.
Anyway, while we are waiting to be seen, it might be illuminating to give the reader some information about the BVG (Berliner Verkehrsbetriebe: Berlin Transportation Company). Most of the S-Bahn trains it runs do not work as they neglected to do regular safety check-ups for the last few decades. These line closures are also related to the fact that Deutsche Bahn (DB), of which the BVG is a subsidiary, want to float on the stock market and need an increased profit to do so. The achieve this aim, they’ve decided to f*** the BVG up the arse for as much money as possible. Again, this reeks of the way things are done in Naples.
Our number is called. The woman behind the counter looks stupid like an ox. Every movement she makes and every word she says is slow and drooling, as if she is a hippo finding it hard to move in the oppressive heat of the Sarengetti. The Bavarian explains the situation. She takes it in, in her own time, then asks, “A table?” The Bavarian replies “Yes, we were carrying a coffee table.” She stands, slowly, goes off and come back with a massive book. We watch her reading the contents and opening it up to the relevant page. After a minute she declares, “Hmmm, yes, you are allowed to carry heavy objects, including furniture onto the tram.” She then looks back at the book, and reads on in silence for another twenty seconds or so, as if it’s one of her favourite novels that she occasionally re-reads passages from. She eventually gets up, replaces the book and comes back to the window.
The Bavarian guides her back to the matter at hand, which prompts her to go to the massive filing cabinet behind her and look for the report filed by the ticket checkers; it is not there yet. Despite being presented with our valid tickets, explanations etc, she cannot make a decision until she has looked at this report. She promises to call us back by the end of the following day. The Bavarian asks for her name; she provides us with a five-digit number. I’m beginning to understand why Kafka could only have come from the German-speaking world.
The next day, we go to register as residents in Berlin at offices that are, rather disconcertingly, located in an ex-stasi building. For some reason they open are business at 11 am. We get there at ten to eleven and find that we are already number 67 in the queue. We are led into an office with lots of filing cabinets that are labelled 102.27.892 – 202.76.334 etc etc, and the nice lady asks us lots of questions like “What is your address?”, “Is it in the front or the back of the building?” “When you reach the top of the stairs, do you turn left or right to get to your flat?” It’s a tiring business, but we manage it.
Exhausted, at the end of the day, I remember the ox. “Did she call back?” I ask The Bavarian. “No, not yet,” he sighs, “The Prussians aren’t as efficient as The Bavarians.”