You don’t need an exact address to find one of Germany’s registration offices; the queue for the Bürgeramt snakes out of the building and down the block, revealing its location from a distance.
The sky is pink at 7 am and the shops on Frankfurter Allee are not yet open, but this mini-mall is already filled with scores of sleepy Berliners waiting to begin an even longer wait. The office doesn’t open for another hour, but showing up any later risks missing your chance altogether.
Every time a person changes his or her address in Germany, it is mandatory to notify the authorities. I recently decided to stay in Berlin after the end of the Arthur F. Burns fellowship. I moved to a different apartment in the neighborhood Neukölln and dutifully turned up at dawn to register myself.
The people line up for a variety of purposes – this is also the place to apply for a passport or register a driver’s license – but surely none of them is as simple as handing in a form with a new address. In the United States, this task takes roughly five minutes on the DMV website. Yet true to the luddite leanings of a country hiding from the internet behind Stone-Age technology, Germans do it by hand.
Two hours later, I was seated in the waiting room with a numbered ticket. An overhead screen pinged to alert people of their turns, but the numbers increased in no discernible order. Unable to relax or read for fear of missing their call, everyone sat enrapt for hours.
Finally I was up. I had heard horror stories of rude clerks purposefully speaking quickly to stump German-learners and cursing out foreigners for their ignorance (fair enough, but not productive). The form is only available in German, and a kind couple reviewed mine in the waiting room. (For those facing the dreaded Anmeldung of einer Wohnung, printing out this graphic will serve you well.)
Once inside, the woman behind the desk was kind and spoke slowly and emphatically in German for my benefit. The registration took no more than five minutes. Three and a half hours after arriving, I stepped blinking into the daylight, a piece of paper to certify my German residence in hand.