All my encounters with government officials over recent weeks have gotten me reminiscing about various run-ins I’ve had with the Austrian police over the years. There really have been quite a lot of them, starting with my first registration with the “Fremdenpolizei” (the “foreigner police”) when I first came here as a Fulbright assistant over thirty years ago. Even though the process only took about ten minutes, I was appalled by the whole incident – and even more so when I learned that ALL Austrian citizens have to register their place of residence at some “central reporting office”. This was Big Brother big time!
When I returned to Austria after a yearlong jaunt through Southeast Asia, I decided to stay a while and look for work. (There is a past blog post about this somewhere, but I am too lazy to look for the link.) I dutifully went to the Foreigner Police only to find out that, without the backing of the prestigious(-sounding) Fulbright program, I couldn’t just declare that I was staying. In order to register a place of residence, I would need a work permit first. And in order to get a work permit, I would need a job. And in order to get a job, I would need an official residence. I asked them directly what I should do about this Catch 22. What I understood of their answer was “la la la la la la la la.” I thanked them and left.
Enter the university. Basically due to a misunderstanding, I managed to get two courses at the university on my first day of job searching. While filling out the forms, no one asked to see my registration. I went back to the Foreigner Police and they immediately registered me. Apparently the university was exempt from the whole work permit requirement thing. Interesting.
A few years went by and I got engaged. A week before our wedding, my husband and I moved into a crappy little house outside what was then a crappy little village in the countryside at the edge of the world. Time for a new registration with the local Foreigner Police in a nearby town. It turned out that they didn’t need a whole building of their own and I could go register at the same place Austrians did (though in a special room). I walked in there and saw a somewhat harried looking young woman with a tall stack of files on her desk. I explained to her why I was there and we began a conversation. With each question and answer she became more relaxed and friendly. I was an American! I was married to an Austrian! I spoke fluent German! I worked at the university! I had all the paperwork she needed! She got right down to business and completed the processing right then and there. She offered me a coffee while I was waiting. She left me alone in the room while she went to make photocopies and I passed the time by looking around.
That was when I noticed the binders. Three very thick ones on the shelf behind her desk, each labelled with the name of a local brothel. I particularly noticed the name of one which was located smack-dab in the center of my village. It became clear to me why she seemed so elated to be working on my file.
I dutifully visited this woman once a year and we became friendly. Eventually, it got to the point where I felt I could ask her about those binders.
“I can’t help but notice those,” I said, pointing to the shelf behind her. “Do those women represent the majority of your work here?”
She was taken a bit by surprise at first, but then she opened up – at least as much as she could ethically do – and we had an amazing conversation. Thinking of the forms I had to fill out, I wondered what those women wrote as their “Profession”. (Prostitution is legal here, but obviously they didn’t write “prostitute” – it was “dancer” or “entertainer” or “escort”). I wondered what countries they came from and learned that “right then” it was mostly the Dominican Republic. Apparently, the home country of the majority comes in waves and changes every so often. I wondered if they were filling out the same forms I was and heard “Well . .. not exactly. For one thing, we don’t ask you for the results of your yearly AIDS test.” I wondered if they had been “invited” to come here, tricked into it under false pretenses, or something worse – but I knew enough not to ask that question directly. So I just looked at her intently, made a waving gesture with my hand toward the binders, and asked . . . “Are these women . . . are they . . . OK?” Her eyes dropped and her head tilted. She answered, with some hesitation, “Yeah”. It came out like a qualified sigh.
One year I showed up as usual and my official friend was nervous and a little upset. She apologized to me and then explained that I would have to go to Graz to renew my residence permit this year. There had been changes to the law and the whole system was different now. (I assumed this had something to do with an anti-foreigner referendum that had taken place a year or two earlier.) She took some time in telling me exactly where I had to go and what I should bring with me. I really wondered about how bad she obviously felt. I looked up at the shelf behind her and noticed that the binders weren’t there anymore.
And then I drove to Graz.
I entered the building and was immediately confused. There was no information board or reception desk. No one around to ask where I should go. I eventually spotted a piece of paper taped to wall with the words “Residence Permits” and an arrow pointing to a long hallway.
I walked down the hallway with all sorts of unmarked doors left and right, heading toward a row of about ten chairs – all taken – at the very end of the hall in front of the last door. I stood beside the last chair in the row and took in the multi-cultural mix of people occupying them. They were all very quiet. I stood there for almost a half hour before the door opened and someone came out of the room. The door closed again and we all continued to wait for another 10 minutes. Then the door opened and a man appeared. He asked loudly “Where is Number 27?!” We, the waiting, all looked at one another in confusion.
“Didn’t you all take a number when you came in?! You have to take a number!” He pointed back down the hall. Then he went back into the room and closed the door.
We the Waiting all rushed down the hall and into the entrance foyer and looked around. Someone spotted what looked like a little metal squirt gun attached to the wall holding a roll of number tickets. Sure enough, the ticket sticking out had “27” on it. There were no signs or instructions near this device saying what we should do or where we should proceed to. We all aligned ourselves in the order we had been sitting (or in my case, standing) and, one by one, we each ripped a number ticket off the reel. Then we returned down the hall and to our places. A short discussion ensued in which the first woman in line was urged – or I should say, encouraged – to knock on the door, which she finally did.
Everyone moved up a seat and I could finally sit down. I cooled my heels. I looked at the row of people and was impressed by their quiet patience. I tried to figure out which country each one came from. I thought that they all looked small, but as they came out of the door, one after another, they mostly looked even smaller.
It was more than an hour before I was finally first in line. The door opened and I entered. There were three people in the room. One of them asked me arrogantly without looking at me what my name was and I told them. They began the search for my file. Unsuccessfully. A second man told me I was probably in the wrong place. They started asking me questions. With each answer, the three officials got more attentive and polite. One of them then made a phone call and the other two started addressing me with name and title. It was “Frau Magister” this and “Frau Magister” that. They apologized for the mix up – it seemed I should go back to the usual, local office to take care of my permit. And then the final insult: one of them said “I’m so sorry you had to wait. You didn’t have to wait. You should have just come right in!”
I couldn’t stand these people. I thanked them (for nothing) and left. I gave sympathetic and encouraging looks to the foreigners outside who had filled the seats behind me – any one of whom I would rather spend time with than those three people behind the door.
So I returned to my customary residence permit friend a few days later and told her about my experience in Graz. She truly commiserated with me and then apologized. I made it clear to her that SHE had NOTHING to apologize for.
During my visit to her the following year, I was so happy to see that the binders had reappeared on the shelf behind her. I can’t remember exactly what name was on my village’s binder that particular time – I drove past that place at least 10 times a week and noticed that the name and sign changed in fairly regular intervals. Was it Cloud Seven? Or The Witches’ Cauldron? Or Why Not?? Or Blue Rose’s? I assumed the nationality of its workforce changed with similar frequency. But, otherwise, the ugly cruddy little house looked the same. And the lovely woman, who watched out for the employees in that house as best she could within the limitations of her position, remained the same.
Visits to my foreign police lady came to an end a year or two later when she informed me with a happy smile that I now qualified for a permanent residence permit. I guess I had stayed in my marriage long enough to prove that it wasn’t all a ruse, perpetrated solely to gain me access to the Austrian social welfare system. From now on, I would only have to renew it each time I got a new passport. Unfortunately, pretty much at the same time, the Americans decided to reduce the validity period of their passports from 10 years to only 5.
Fast forward a decade. Another wave of anti-foreigner politics came and went in Austria with seemingly little effect on my personal situation, until one day when I got a call at work. It was my daughter, who had stayed home from school that day. She told me frantically that the police were at the door and she didn’t know what to do. I said she should stay on the line with me as she opened the door and talked to them. I heard the murmurs of a conversation, goodbyes, the sound of the door closing, and then she came back to the phone.
“They said you should come to the police station this afternoon and bring your ‘papers’ with you.”
She clearly didn’t understand what they had meant with “papers”. And she was upset. I assured her that it was probably nothing and not to worry about it. I would be home in two hours. We hung up. Then I got upset and worried about it.
At the police station in the afternoon, the mood was weird. I finally got invited into a room where it was explained to me that there were some new regulations. All foreigners had to be visited by the police at their homes once a year. The two officers who were talking to me seemed really uncomfortable – even embarrassed – about it all. I said as little as possible.
That was about four years ago. I haven’t seen them since and there have been no more visits. To be completely honest, I wasn’t really expecting any. But I still told the story many times and complained loudly about it all to anyone who was interested.
And I wondered again about all the women in those binders.
Last year, Austrian administration was streamlined and the small government offices scattered across the country were consolidated. Also last year, my passport expired so I needed to get a new permit as well. I discovered rudely that I could no longer go to my usual foreigner police friend. No, I had to drive 40 minutes to a different town.
They were perfectly nice and friendly there. Things went smoothly. An elderly gentleman explained to me with a straight face that, not only had the fees tripled, but it was no longer possible to process my file immediately or to send me my permit by mail. I had to come again in two weeks to pick it up in person. And then I would have to pay an additional 50 Euro “picking up” fee (for picking it up in person) before he could hand it over. He left the room to go make a few photocopies.
I looked over his entire office. There were no binders to be seen.
Meanwhile, one of the three local brothels has closed down. It was the most audacious one: a bright red building with a huge sphinx on the roof and two Egyptian statues on either side of the front door. Its closing might have something to do with the fact that it was located on a well-travelled road with no barriers around its parking lot to shield the license plate numbers from view of the many passing cars. All that survives from this enterprise is the name and the two statues which have found their way to the cruddy little house in the center of my village. Maybe a few of its employees have found their way too. The move probably required some official paperwork.