Monday, September 18, 2006

May vee see your papers, Frau Brown?

So today I cheerfully went down to my local Einwohnermeldamt (Resident's Registration Bureau) to register my bad ol' self with the local authorities. This isn't just something that foreigners have to do, by the way. Whenever anyone moves anywhere in Germany they have to register with the local authorities. There's nothing weird about that...they just want to know where you are, is all. Just in case they, uh....need to find you. Yeah. So anyway, tomorrow I get to go to another office, this one is 'specially for foreigners, it seems, to "apply for a residence permit." (No one has yet told me what would happen if said request should be denied, and believe me it had better not be because I just joined a Goddamn gym here and you simply cannot change your mind once you sign up.)

Anyway, the exchange with the woman who registered me was exceedingly odd insofar as she asked me to declare my religion. One's "official religion" is still something one registers with the state here. This might be because churches get state support and said support probably has something to do with how many people claim membership in each officially state recognized church.

All of that's fine, I suppose, except.."I don't have a religion" was NOT an acceptable answer. I know this, because it was the first answer I gave her. She just stared at me expectantly and asked the question a second time. Slower.

This was all unbearably confusing, in part because when people ask me "what religion I am" in the US I never know what exactly it is they mean. Often the question simply means "do you believe in God?" followed maybe by a "if so, what name do you call him/her/they in your house?" Sometimes it means "what religion were you raised in?" or, more accurately, "what holidays did you celebrate as a child?" Sometimes it means "Have-you-accepted-Christ-as-your-Personal-Lord-and -Savior?" Usually the latter applies when the question is coming from the old lady sitting next to you on a long-distance flight, and you can try pretending to read, or to sleep, or to not speak English all you want because she's got a massive hard-on for Jesus and she's never, ever going to shut up about it.

Also there are some situations where my preferred answer, "I don't HAVE a religion," is patently incorrect. The first is whenever one of my Jewish friends asks this question. The question then actually means "are you Jewish or are you a Gentile?" Here you have to pick one. You don't get to opt out, I know this, because I've tried. I do understand why this is. When one is a Gentile one gets to be part of the unmarked, political is not automatically "Otherized" in the same ways that an American Jew finds herself often to be. Here though, again, the question hints at political and cultural dimensions that reach beyond those suggested by the word "religion."

The second situation wherein "I don't have a religion" is not the correct answer, is when the question is being ask by the woman at the Einwohnermeldamt who is not going to drop it until you give her an answer that corresponds with one of her little numerical codes.

My second attempt, wherein I stupidly blurted out "uh...GENTILE!" also didn't fly.

"Are you a CATHOLIC, are you an EVANGELICAL, what?" she persisted annoyed**.

"I guess...Protestant?" I said.

"Evangelical is a kind of Protestant" she informed me "So, Evangelical, yes?"


And so now that's what I FUCKING AM.

Never mind that "Evangelical," in the United States, generally connotes the kind of person who speaks in tongues and firebombs abortion clinics. No fine, I'll happily be Evangelical for the Federal Republic of Germany if that's, apparently, what the Federal Republic wants me to be.

Right so, if you move to Germany they want to know exactly where you are at all times and they want to know what religion you are too, and there's NOTHING weird about that. NOTHING.

Just try not to think about it.


(**Please do keep in mind that this transaction was completed entirely in German, not in English. Any principled stands you yourself believe you might have taken in the name of Atheism or Agnosticism or whatever the hell, do remember that when one is dealing with an unpleasant bureaucratic hurdle, in a foreign language no less, all one really wants to do is get one's little stamped and signed piece of whatever and get.the.hell.out.)


Blogger Drek said...

Shit. I'd be impressed if you even knew the German word for "atheist," much less had the peculiar mix of determination and stupidity required to insist upon it.

10:50 AM  
Blogger birdfarm said...

Oddly enough, I too have been asked in German, "Are you Catholic or Evangelical?" although I was about ten at the time and being interviewed by the daughter of my parents' friends, rather than by an unpleasant bureaucrat. Nonetheless, since I was pretty sure I was something else, I too was confused that those seemed to be the only two options.

Meanwhile, I am currently trying to decide what religion to say I am when I'm in Iran, since the guidebook informs me that "if you have no religious beliefs, you would do best to keep that information to yourself."

Oh, and that registration of where you live thing--I don't know for sure, but I'd guess that's probably left over from the days of Prussia as the "administrative utopia"; apparently at that time, women had to register the date of their period every month. So you see, it could be worse. :-)

2:04 AM  
Blogger Danielle said...

I just love that you joined a gym before registering with the state. One must have priorities!
I will, of course, have to register with the Russian state when I get there - within 72 hours mind you - but even they don't ask about religion. If they do, I think they still view "atheist" as a respectable position, so I will definitely try that before, you know, "jew".

7:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Enjoy paying the church a percentage of your wages now !

For me it was over €100/month.

5:31 AM  
Blogger TDEC said...

I'd like to point out that there is nothing especially suspect about registering with local authorities. It is just the procedure used to track approximately (and there really is no one checking whether you adhere to this or do all your admin elsewhere, after you first move) where people are - much like how people are tracked via their drivers' licences in the US.

Also, I am really surprised to hear this story as the Germans are not, to the best of my knowledge very religious. However, they do use the count of the number of people per religious community to determine how much this community receives in subsidies, so you may just have been faced with a rabid evangelical.

And yeah, they're pretty scary, even in Germany.

1:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

@tdec It's not the religion they want it's the bloody number in the box on the form.

Somehow I got out of this one.

9:16 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Have to echo anonymous' post. By declaring a religion, you are now obligated to pay 8 or 9 percent additional to your wage tax as church tax.

You can get your religion stricken off your tax card, but be prepared to for another visit to the registration office, and to answer question about why you are leaving the church.

7:31 AM  

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