My Mistake

There are times when things are so bad that I think the worst mistake I ever made was moving to Germany in 1993. But then I reflect that, for a while, at least, I had a very exciting life as a writer for the Wall Street Journal Europe who got to travel all over the place and write about art and culture. I also had a radio show which I really enjoyed, as did my many listeners, some of whom still remember it seven years later.

There are other times when I think the worst mistake I ever made was loaning a great deal of money to a friend who has still not paid me back, and who may never do so. But neither of us could have forseen that the sure thing would be cancelled when some people flew planes into the World Trade Center. I mean, what civilian could have predicted that?

But two years ago I made a mistake which has finally caught up with me, and which has cancelled any remaining affection I may have had for living in Germany. It’s a mistake anyone living here might make, so let me explain.

When I was whizzing around Europe for the Journal, I nearly always took the train. My territory was central Europe and Scandinavia, so it made sense: one day going there, one day reporting the story, one day back — and the story would inevitably get written subconsciously on that return journey. So it made sense for me to obtain a Bahn Card, the discount card you can buy from Deutsche Bahn. Back then, there was only one kind of Bahn Card: it gave you 50% off of every ticket, and it had a Rail Plus supplement, which gave you half off of tickets on rail lines in a number of other countries. It wasn’t cheap, but, as I once realized, one round-trip ticket to Copenhagen paid for it.

I bought one in 2004, but that was around when the work started to fall off spectacularly. My editor at the Journal had been replaced, and suddenly I wasn’t getting any work at all from them. Or, for that matter, from anyone else, at least not the kind of work that required me to travel. I missed travelling — I still do. But when 2005 came around, I realized I had better uses for what little money I had than a Bahn Card.

Nonetheless, although I hadn’t ordered one or renewed it on the website as I’d usually done, one came in the mail. Then Deutsche Bahn tried taking the money out of my bank account, but failed, because there wasn’t enough. They sent me a notice. I replied that I didn’t want the card and wasn’t going to pay for it or use it. And that, I thought, was the end of it.

I didn’t pay for it, and I didn’t use it. At the end of April, 2006, I got a stern warning from them ordering me to pay them. I wrote back and repeated that I had not requested the card, and had not used it. And that, I thought, was the end of it yet again.

It wasn’t. Shortly thereafter I started getting bills from lawyers. The €64 Bahn Card debt was now encumbered with legal fees, fees for, as far as I could tell, writing me a letter. And they were big fees, too. Now, I’d gotten letters like this before from mysterious phone companies who thought I owed them money. I ignored them, and they went away. That’s what I decided to do with these letters.

Big mistake. In October, they told me I owed €116.42. In November, it was suddenly €169.70. In December, it was €185.67. On December 7, I was found guilty of indebtedness by a court in Baden-Baden and a judgement was mailed to me in a jaundice-colored yellow envelope.

Now, in America, this would be a black spot on your credit record. My credit here is already terrible. For one thing, I am considered very unstable because I don’t have a regularly occurring income. I live in a country where nobody is self-employed, where if you don’t draw a regular salary, there’s only one bank (the one I use, of course) which will allow you an account. (I once knew a guy who was hired on a freelance basis to come to Germany to teach corporate communications to a major bank. After he was ordered to close his account with them because he wasn’t making regular deposits, he asked his clients what kind of message they thought they were sending. They shrugged and told him to go to another bank. He had plenty of clients in the States, so he just up and left instead.)

So I didn’t think anything more of this until last week. That was when I got a letter from an Obergerichtsvollzieher, one of those words whose individual components you have to look up in the dictionary, but which eventually revealed itself to be “high court bailiff.” I mentioned this to someone and was told “You are in terrible trouble. You’re going to have to hide your computer and all your CDs. You’re going to have to empty out your apartment. They have the right to seize everything you own in payment of the debt — and they will. They can take your bed. They can take your silverware. They have unlimited license.” I thought this was paranoia.

It’s not.

They really can do all of these things. No matter if the value of the goods seized is many times the value of the debt. They will do it because they can. Can they deprive you of your means of making a living? In the United States, the law is very clear about this: you can’t impound a violinist’s violin, or a mechanic’s tools. But in Germany, you can.

A couple of friends rushed over to help. They perused the letters, made notes, hemmed and hawed. “You know,” one of them mused, “when it comes to stuff like this, Kafka was a documentarian.” No kidding.

Making it worse was the fact that it was Easter weekend. One of my friends wrote a letter for me to send to the bailiff explaining things. I had a copy of the letter to Deutsche Bahn. I faxed both to the bailiff, and got ready to call him during office hours. Or should I say hour: he is available for one hour, two days a week. And my last chance for any mercy was to reach him on Tuesday.

It took thirty minutes, but I got him on the phone. Miraculously, he spoke a little English, enough to tell me that there was nothing he could do to mitigate my guilty sentence and that all I could do was pay him before April 19. Oh, and the price, which now included his fee, which was nowhere in any of the paperwork in my hands, was now €225.

A couple of weeks ago, when I got back from Texas, I found yet another note that the postal customs people had seized yet another package of the CDs people send me for review. I’ve taken to letting them send them back, because in most cases it’ll be yet another singer-songwriter I’ll wind up tossing after a couple of tracks, and the Postzollamt is way the hell down in Wilmersdorf. But this was from a label that puts out stuff I like, so I schlepped down there to rescue it. I was confronted with a sign stating that, due to a lack of personnel, waiting times had increased significantly, and that after registering, I was to wait in the new, utterly undecorated, waiting room next door. Which I did, for over an hour, a fourfold increase in their previous record. When I finally had my name called, the woman with the package asked me to open it. I told her (and pointed out on the customs label, which never does any good) that these were promotional items, that I was a journalist, and so on. She grabbed one of the CDs and pointed to the bar-code. “This has to be blacked out so that this item can’t be sold!” she yelled. I told her I wasn’t the one who’d sent it. “You tell them that they have to do this!” She seemed genuinely angry. Or maybe it was just the stress of working somewhere where you knew everyone you met hated you.

What these incidents drove home for me was that there are two Germanies. One is occupied by the people who are my friends and my friends’ friends and husbands and wives, the ones I met when I had the (German) girlfriend who led to my moving here, the ones I hung out with when I did move, the ones I’ve worked with and for. Then there are the ones who run the place, obsessed with a perverted, rigid, narrow need for “Ordnung,” which translates directly as “order,” but is much, much more. Ordnung is conformity; Ordnung is submission; Ordnung is the petty regulations that don’t let you recycle glass on Sunday, that make all onions the same size; Ordnung is why I’ve stopped listening to music, because I have to use headphones after 10pm no matter what, or my neighbors next door will call the police. Not because they’re disturbed by it. No: because they can.

Thinking about Ordnung leads to a lot of other places I’m not going to go right now, mostly because it’s a nice day and I’m trying very hard not to slip down the slope of depression that is almost inevitable when I think of what I could be doing with that €225 I’m going to be parting with soon. I’ve already been for a long walk (my CD player stopped working, so I went to Alexanderplatz to price a new one: looks like about €60 goes out the window on that one) and although my landlord’s mother (one of the Ordnung Germans if there ever was one, as the bitter gurn that suffices for her face makes clear) is here, so far I’ve avoided contact with her. If the checks come in on time, I’ll have the money in time for the bailiff, and — in one of those too-good-to-be-true coincidences — there’s even a possibility that Jim’s Mistake will pay for My Mistake in part.

But I’m very, very tired of Ordnung, and very, very tired of living here. I gave a lot to this city, and I never got a whole hell of a lot back. It’s time to move on, to somewhere with just a little bit less Ordnung and a lot more capacity for fun.

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