So here’s the thing: Germany has the reputation for being a very organized and efficient country. This is true to a certain extent, but mostly what the country does best is makes things unnecessarily (and sometimes mind-bogglingly) complicated. Granted, American bureaucracy is also a pain in the ass, but for the most part, you can avoid its nastier sides, at least if you’re a citizen. But bureaucracy penetrates every part of German culture, not just governmental offices. You can always tell a fresh off the boat expat because they will always say things like, “Wait, why do I need that form? Huh? Well, this just doesn’t make any sense!” They go on a tirade, like applying reason to the situation will somehow magically take the often nonsensical hurdles away. But once you’ve lived here for a while, you realize it’s no use. If I’m in the same type of situation those newbie expats are in, no matter how ridiculous it sounds, I’ll say, “Which forms do I need and how many times do they need to be stamped?”
I’ve heard before that France is even more extreme with these sorts of things which is truly frightening.
Still, one thing I admire about Germany is that it is a country ruled by principles and a deep sense that a country needs to be fair and treat its citizens (and people in general) well. This doesn’t always work out. Germany admittedly has major integration problems and many still resist accepting how multi-cultural the country has become. German citizens whose skin is not white are often asked where they’re from. They’re told, “Wow, your German is very good” even if they were born and raised in Wuppertal or Hamburg and only ever spoke German at home. The emergence of the AfD, Germany’s far right party, has sadly demonstrated that racism and xenophobia are still alive and well in this country, although luckily still on the margins, and many are fighting to keep it that way.
But, complicated or no, sometimes things do work in your favor in ways they never would in the US. Like with the Künstlersozialkasse (more on that here) and the relatively new citizenship law regarding Unzumutbare Bedinungen (unacceptable conditions).
In most cases, dual citizenship is very difficult to get in Germany, if not downright impossible. However, around four years ago, on a Reddit thread of all places, I found out about an exception to the law for reasons of Unzumutbare Bedinungen. Basically, what this law states is that citizens who come from a country where the fee to give up citizenship is higher than their income per month are allowed to hold dual citizenship. Since the US is the only country that charges an obscene amount of money to renounce citizenship ($2350) the law was more or less written for Americans, although this is never specifically stated.
Here’s how I imagined it happened: In circa 2010, some German bureaucrat was reading the FAZ over a breakfast (bread rolls, cold cuts and cheese, with a cup of filter coffee to the side) and they read about how Obama had just upped the renouncement fee from a few hundred dollars to over 2000. He/she shook their head and clicked their tongue. No, no. This won’t do. They drafted the law in an office with fluorescent lighting, sad plants in the corner and dead flies on the window sill, and someone else sitting in a similar office ratified it.
To be covered by the law, you still have to earn over the amount you would get on Hartz (i.e. German welfare), but be under the amount per month of the renunciation fee. Thanks to my meagre income, I qualified.
Still, this did not mean that it was in the bag. Things still could have easily gone wrong. I don’t want to share some of the stories I’ve heard here because they’re personal and I don’t have permission, but let’s just say it seems qualifying for the law can be rather arbitrary, depending on the person who works your case I suppose.
But it was worth a try.
I gathered all the documents I needed, spent the money on official translations, took the citizenship test. Although some of the questions were about German history and culture, others were obviously designed to make sure the person seeking German citizenship understood how things work here. Here a somewhat exaggerated version of the kind of questions I had to answer:
You have a child in a German school. You are invited to a family wedding and would like to take your child with you. The trip will take four days. You tell the teacher and she says that you have to apply for official permission to do so and that the school administration might say no. How should you proceed?
a) Tell the teacher, “What? That’s ridiculous! You can’t tell me what to do with my child.” Book the trip and take your child out of school. After all, it’s only four days and it’s a family occasion. Geez.
b) Slip the teacher 50 euros for a “new hat”, wink, wink. Book the trip and take your child with you.
c) Ask the teacher, “What forms do I need and how many times do they need to be stamped?” Wait for permission (patiently). Cancel your plans if the school says no. Sorry Aunt Gertrude!
I waited over a year and just got the news that my application was accepted. As of next week, I will officially be a dual US-German citizen.
I’ve lived in Germany for 20 years, and I don’t think I’ll ever go back to the US (for one, what would I do about health care?). But I still feel American to my core, or at least like a Westerner. My ancestors were homesteaders on one side and refugees who left a place of persecution and started a new life for themselves in the US on the other.
After all these years, being an American is still a major part of who I am. I may never live in the US again (although, hey, you never know?) but it would break my heart to know I never could.
I love my fucked up, beautiful, crazy country in a way that I will probably never love Germany, or Europe for that matter. But Germany is home. I value so much about how things are run here, how, at its best, even the little guy and voiceless count (although guys, you could improve on this too…)
I’m well aware that being a white expat from the West has given me privilege here, and this is something I should never take for granted.
I’m so thrilled I’ll finally be able vote in the city and country I’ve chosen to spend my life in. Ich bin eine Wahl-Berlinerin (I’m a Berliner by choice), and now (or at least officially after next week’s ceremony) a German citizen.
Rebeccah, aka Elke Schmidt