Life has been traumatic for anyone planning to get married this year, including this English couple Lindsey and Len trying to tie the knot in Brussels where they have lived for years.
Like so many other Brits in Brussels, we have been driven to the very edge of insanity by Covid and Brexit. We’ve also had a third layer of horror added for us by the total intransigence of the multiple layers of Belgian bureaucracy.
Once upon a time (early last year but it feels a lot longer ago than that), we went to the Anderlecht Commune to find out how we could get married in Belgium. What, we thought, could be simpler?
But, Madame, the lady at the desk said to me, you are still married.
This was an unexpected obstacle. No, I assured her, I got divorced last February.
Au contraire, she said: your divorce is not registered with the Commune so we can’t give you a date for your marriage. Fifteen-love to the Commune.
I went home, dug out my decree absolute and, taking more time off work, (which my boss wasn’t happy about), took this to the service population at the Commune.
But Madame, they said, this is not an Acte, it is not a legal divorce.
Of course it’s a fucking divorce I said – I paid several thousand UK pounds for this piece of paper.
‘Mais non Madame..’ She dug out her supervisor who echoed the ghastly refrain: ‘mais non, Madame, ce n’est pas une Acte…’ Both smiled at such this almost child-like misunderstanding on our part.
I contacted the Brussels Expat Liaison Office who understood my problem immediately, contacted the Head of Service at the Commune and resolved the problem. The next time I went to the Commune the officials sheepishly told me they had already registered my divorce. I didn’t get the impression they were pleased at having been procedurally caught out like this. As events were to prove, their opportunities for revenge were many and various.
That’s good, we naively thought. Then Len went to the British Embassy and was told he needed a ‘Certificat de Célibat,’ literally a certificate of celibacy. (This slightly surreal-seeming requirement isn’t quite as mad as it sounds, being only an attestation of single status.) So we took this, and our birth certificates, and the ‘Acte’ that wasn’t an acte and all the other bits of paper back to the Commune. We were told that all documents had to be less than three months old.
Before we had time to react to this shock, Covid kicked in and the commune closed completely, so bringing the curtain down on the first act of this black farce. During lockdown we ordered new certificates and fretfully waited for the offices to re-open.
When this finally happened we took them in to find that the government had also taken advantage of lockdown and had changed the rules: now, in addition to everything else, we needed documents of Custom and Law from the British Consulate. So we ordered these at 50 quid each.
Once they arrived, we returned to the Commune for what felt like the eighteenth time. Have you got an appointment? asked the security guard. I was prepared for this and showed her the email from the Bureau de Marriages saying ‘we are open now please bring your documents at any time.’ This was, by any definition, ‘any time.’
This enraged her. A minion came, collected the documents and said we will email you. The next day they did so, adding that they needed yet another document. I contacted the British Consulate again, who informed me that such a document does not, and never has, existed. It’s possible I was a bit overwrought because the Consulate also managed to get the wrong end of the stick and thought we were going for a civil partnership and not a marriage. This was finally straightened out with all the usual mutual apologies – ‘it was our fault’; ‘no sorry, I must have given you the wrong impression’; ‘no, really…’
The conversation re-started on the basis of a marriage – the patience and helpfulness of the Consulate was almost superhuman – and they promised to contact the Commune. They supplied us with two letters to take with us. They arranged for the Brussels liaison commission to email the Head of Service at Anderlecht Commune. Our faith in human nature and the workings of officialdom slightly restored, we then made an appointment at 10am the following day, hoping – for some deranged reason – that the worst was behind us.
We had received an email telling us to arrive 15 minutes early. Being cautious, we arrived 30 minutes early. This was a huge mistake and seemed to enrage the guard. ‘You must wait outside,’ he barked. We waited outside. It was bloody cold. My phone finally flicked on to 9.45 but the guard’s was two minutes slower. ‘Wait,’ he said again, his hand raised as if we were about the storm the building. We waited for two more minutes. While we were waiting we checked and re-checked the documents. Everything seemed to be there: some we had, others the Commune had retained or were being sent by the Brussels Liaison Commission. The seconds ticked on.
Finally we were allowed in and – bang on time – we were called. We went to the office. The officer arrived, looked at us. ‘Well?’ she asked.
I said, well, we expect a date for our marriage.
Regretfully, she said, you haven’t you got the document from l’Ambassade Britannique.
Oh yes I have, I retorted, and gave her the two documents the British Consulate had sent to us.
No, no she said, tossing them to one side as if they were of no value or relevance to the matter in hand: ‘you need supporting documents from the British Consulate.’
At this point I started to lose my mind. All kinds of phrases boiled and bubbled in my brain. Fortunately, none of them emerged as speech. Luckily Len was able to retain his cool. We managed to get it together enough to ask to speak to the Head of Service. He arrived.
‘But, M’sieu-dame,’ he said after an examination of the documents in front of him, ‘you do not have the Certificats de Célibats.’
I made the clerk give me the dossier and dug out two sealed and signed certificates from the British Embassy. They clearly stated we were célibataires and free to marry, with a proper signature and wax seal (we had paid £110 for these).
There was a pause while they considered this. Then the Head of Service pounced.
‘This certificate, Madame, states that you are ‘célibataire’. However’, he added, with the cold satisfaction of a policeman who has, at the end of a long interrogation, finally nailed the essential fraud at the heart of the prisoner’s crime, ‘you are not célibataire – you are une divorcée – that is your civil status.’
In the dossier was the copy of my latest decree absolute, notarised and translated at some expense: but this was not enough, the man assured us, not by a long chalk. It had to be a Certificat of Custom and Law from the British Consulate. He sat back in his chair and gave us a mirthless grin, now looking more like someone who has just made a very neat move on a chess board and is wondering what his opponent was going to do to counter it.
I almost fainted from the stress of it all. Len was wonderful (you see why I’m marrying him?). We contacted the British Consulate yet again. One of the staff was kind enough to offer to venture into the office from her remote working to issue a corrected certificate. Their politeness and kindness was something we haven’t experienced for a long, long time.
‘Just as well they didn’t ask about your first marriage,’ Len said that evening. We agreed this was a matter best left alone. While this, and my first divorce, had ended some while ago it probably had an affect on my status. Might I require a Certificat de Double Divorce? It was easy to believe such a document existed; even easier to imagine how troublesome it would be to obtain, complete and submit.
We were able to collect the corrected certificate kindly provided by the British Consulate. However, any further interaction with the Commune was abruptly blocked by the telephone message: ‘Suite une problème technique, nos services ne sont pas accessibles pour le public aujourd’hui. Veuillez nous excuser pour le désagrément. Merci pour votre comprehension.’
We are trying to comprehend and to excuse the inconvenience but, after two years of this monkeying around, it’s bloody difficult. Despite all the obvious things about wanting to be married (like we love each other) there are things like my partner can only get medical insurance if we are married.
Then another halt was caused to the whole shuddering nightmare by the Commune going into lockdown again. The office has, remotely, agreed to accept the final certificate if we send it by registered letter. Then they will send us, again recommandé, a declaration of marriage for us both to sign. After we have sent this back – the Belgian postal service is doing very well out of this – we believe we may be given a date: no promises, note. As for how long all this will take, what documents may get mislaid or go out of date in the process and what other ones may be demanded, your guess is as good as mine.
Now I have another worry. Len has suddenly informed me he has the right to wear a tartan and thinks he will wear a kilt for the ceremony. ‘But madame,’ I can hear the woman’s voice asking, ‘where is the Certificat de Kilt’? We will be told that this must be obtained from the Scottish Embassy; which, we will have to explain, does not exist. Then Len will say, OK, forget the kilt: but we will then be told that, having expressed the intention to be kilted, the forms have been amended on that basis and, unless the Certificat de Kilt can be produced, the whole process will need to re-commence from the beginning.
Brexit probably has a wild card to play as well. We’re bracing ourselves for being informed that, technically, neither of us are actually in Belgium at all, so creating a legal and procedural tangle of such complexity that it will require a special dispensation by the King to resolve. At this point the hitherto concealed matter of my first marriage and divorce will probably emerge and, with it, the need for Certificat de Double Divorce, which no one has ever seen because it doesn’t exist. Then it will be about time for the regulations to change again.
So, that’s where we are – living in sin, stuck in limbo and waiting for the postman’s knock with the latest recommandé delivery. We still have hope that this will resolve itself: but, if you hear tell of an English woman in Anderlecht who has been hauled off in a straight jacket after trying to chain herself to the gate of the office of the Commune, that’ll be me. After all that’s happened, we’re not ruling anything out…