In recent weeks, twof related incidents have obliged me to reconsider slightly my deep-rooted antipathy towards two institutions:, the church and German bureaucracy. OK, the latter isn’t actually an institution, technically speaking – let’s just call it the civil service for the sake of simplicity, if not accuracy.
In April I spent many hours on various trains as I made the overland and undersea journey from Hamburg to Wales for the funeral of my beloved Auntie Mary. She was 97, very frail, living in a care home and she’d recently lost her husband. So it was fine for her to let go, even though it was deeply saddening for those of us who’d known and loved her – and, boy, was she loveable: a kind and caring soul, a passionate and brilliant gardener and an incurable giggler who had a massively positive influence on me in childhood and beyond.
Mary’s cheerful disposition was all the more remarkable considering what she had to endure nearly half a century ago.
When she was 42, in the mid 1960s, she had an illegitimate child, my cousin Kate. I have a vague memory of this (I was seven at the time) because she came to London to have the baby and stayed with us. Back then, in conservative rural mid-Wales, a child born out of wedlock was a serious social scandal.
Until then, Mary (whose father had been a vicar) had been a regular church-goer, along with her mother, my grandmother. But when she returned to the village with her baby (who sadly died at only 12 weeks, having been born with cystic fibrosis) the vicar – an intimidating fire-and-brimstone figure – made it clear that, although he couldn’t ban her from the church, she would not be welcome there on account of the moral taint that her “sin” had cast upon the community.
Other than weddings and funerals, she never attended church again.
Nonetheless, Mary’s will stated she wanted a church funeral. My brothers and I discussed the arrangements before my brother Dan travelled to the village for a meeting with the current vicar. We agreed it was important Kate was not written out of the story when it came to the customary summary of the deceased’s life and the vicar agreed to comply.
About 40 people turned up for the funeral. Whilst Mary had long outlived all her contemporaries, her popularity amongst the local gardening community ensured that it was a suitably – and delightfully – floriferous affair.
The vicar, however, seemed nervous, even brusque. But when she started to address the congregation, she launched into the story of Kate. She then turned to the coffin and very movingly apologised, in the name of the church, for the hurtful, shameful treatment Mary had received all those years ago.
Her apology was so direct, unqualified and clearly heartfelt that my brothers and I were, as they say, gobsmacked. We’d asked for an honest account of the facts but hadn’t expected this.
Anyone who knows me knows that I’m no friend of the church – and heaven knows it has much to apologise for. Nevertheless, that gesture touched me deeply. It also made me reflect upon how powerful a sincere apology can be.
So – gratitude and respect go to the vicar of St. Aelhaiarn’s. I’d even use a phrase that means little to me, but no doubt a lot to her: “God bless you”.
I travelled back from Powys to my brother’s home in Cambridge that evening, then on to London the next day to stay with friends in Holloway, conveniently close to St Pancras…
…which was just as well. When I got to the Eurostar terminal two hours before departure, the queue stretched through the entire length of the station (it’s a very long station) and on to the street for another 300 metres. When I finally reached the front of the queue I was told my train hadn’t been called yet (although was now due to depart in 20 minutes) and I had to go and rejoin the queue at the end.
It was bedlam. Every 50 metres or so there was someone in a high-visibility jacket giving instructions that directly contradicted those given by the previous person in a high-visibility jacket. At one point, I witnessed two high-visibility people almost coming to blows.
This horrible situation was exacerbated by what seemed to be thousands of over-sugared, bad-tempered children who feared their trips to Disneyland were in peril.
A fraught Eurostar official explained there were “unexpectedly high numbers of passengers” so causing “unexpected delays” at passport control. Hmm – “Unexpectedly high numbers” at the beginning of a Spring bank holiday weekend? “Unexpected delays” at passport control? One word: Brexit – don’t get me started…
I’d had a comfortable 90 minutes to make my connection at Brussels. Due to the “unexpected” delayed departure from London this was now down to half an hour. “Don’t panic,” I told myself whilst taking deep breaths: “that’s still enough time.” It would have been, were it not for maintenance work by the Belgian railway that weekend, which meant the next leg of my journey was departing not from Brussels-Midi (where the Eurostar arrives) but from Brussels-North.
Thankfully, there was an efficient and helpful official directing us to a connecting train to Brussels-North (merci, monsieur): this hiccup clearly wasn’t “unexpected” by the Belgians. I got the train with four minutes to spare, sat down and opened both the vegan sausage roll that my friend Yasmeen had provided and a can of Jupiler beer that I’d grabbed on the platform…
…which was when I received a text message from my pal Peter in London: “You left your wedding ring in the bathroom”.
I called Peter. We um’d and ah’d about entrusting this to the post. Eventually we convinced ourselves that it would be fine, provided it was registered, tracked and insured. “What,” we asked ourselves naively, “could possibly go wrong?”
Peter packaged and dispatched the ring, having deployed all possible measures to ensure its security. He sent me the tracking number. All that was left to do was to wait…and wait…
After about a week I thought I should check the online tracking. I entered the tracking number and was told that “your package has been delivered”. This was confusing. Simple soul that I am, I believed that if my package had been delivered it would now be in my possession – which it wasn’t.
Further enquiries revealed that when the tracking system says “your package has been delivered”, it doesn’t mean it’s been delivered to you. Oh no. It just means that it’s been delivered by the body responsible for the first part of its journey on to the organisation that’s taking it on the next leg – in this case, by the Royal Mail to an international shipping company. Silly me.
Another week passed. I tried again. This time, the Royal Mail gave me a tracking number from the German Post Office. When I entered this it wasn’t recognised.
With some foreboding, I picked up the phone.
You don’t need me to tell you what a phone call to anyone other than a close personal friend involves these days. Endless robotic announcements about “busy operators”, “recording your call for security purposes” and “valuing your custom” interspersed with eternal loops of Vivaldi played on a supermarket keyboard.
When a human being eventually came on and asked, in syrupy tones, how she could help me today, I was surprised to discover she actually could help – that is, she was able to inform me that my package was at the German Customs office outside Frankfurt. Any idea when it would reach me? None whatsoever. Have a nice day!
Another week. Another phone call (this time to the Customs office). Same answer.
Then, two days ago, the minor miracle: a letter from the Customs here in Hamburg. My package was ready to be collected. I should bring proof of identity, this letter and the enclosed customs form – and cash. It didn’t say how much cash…
Down I traipsed to the Customs House, which is – inevitably – on the opposite side of town. I’ve had numerous brushes with German bureaucracy, mostly tediously frustrating (with one important exception, which I’ll come to later) so I was not optimistic. I felt that I would see the ring again but that there would be numerous hoops to jump through first – and that most would cost money.
There were hoops alright, plenty of them. But there was also a young Customs officer who saw her job as helping me through them rather than, as is more common, creating new ones.
Hoop #1: the sender. She asked who had sent the package. I told her Peter’s name. However, he has a record company and this was the name on the package, not his. Fortunately, he has a legible signature (unlike me), which matched the name I’d given her. Nonetheless, this led on to…
Hoop #2: written proof of sender. Had he emailed me? No, but I had his whatsapp messages. I found the page which included his first text (“you left your wedding ring…”), my expletive reply (she laughed when I apologised for my language, calling it “understandable in the circumstances) and the details of the Royal Mail tracking.
Could I make a screen shot and email it to her?
“I’m sorry,” I answered in embarrassment, “I don’t know how.” I’m a pathetic technophobe and only send emails from my laptop. I handed her my mobile and she showed me how to do it. Above and beyond the call of duty, I’d say.
Hoop #3: proof of origin. Did I have a receipt for the ring? Of course I didn’t. What I did have, though, was proof that I was married in Germany. I’d also had the foresight to bring my wife’s wedding ring, which is identical to mine and has my name inscribed on the inside.
Uniformed officer of the state she may have been, but she must have had a sentimental streak because this seemed to swing it. Had she not accepted this as proof of origin, there’d have been a charge of €45.
I’d add that these are all hurdles that have been put up due to Brexit.
All hoops negotiated, she handed me my ring with a smile – and no charge. She must have felt sorry for this inept and forgetful foreigner. If there’d been a flower stall in the vicinity, I’d have showered her in roses. Fortunately, there wasn’t.
As I mentioned, frustration and tedium have characterised my dealings with various civic powers here. However, I have had one other positive interaction and it was an important one.
After the Brexit vote, I realised it was time I applied for German citizenship. I wasn’t the only one. When I went for my initial interview at the Immigration Office, I told the officer I was a Brit and added with a smile that I assumed I’d have to go to the end of a long queue. She laughed, and we hit it off – just as well, as I had to see her again several more times.
The hoops here were legion compared with the customs business but she gave me a big helping hand through one of them by waiving the requirement for me to sit a language exam as she considered me sufficiently fluent. This saved me time, money and stress. Quite simply, she was trying to help.
So what (as the Simpsons might ask) have I learnt from all this? Just this, I suppose: however dogmatic, robotic, autocratic or unsympathetic an organisation might be – or appears to be – it doesn’t mean every individual within it is likewise. Perhaps they’re the exceptions: but customs officers or Belgian rail staff who engage with your problem at a human level do exist. So too do vicars who haven’t lost sight of the central tenets of their belief – which are, or should be, love, redemption and forgiveness.