My last post documented my frustration with getting my residence certificate from the Centre Administratif de Bruxelles-Ville, possibly the most dismal government office anywhere in the developed world. Today’s experience was somehow successful, and yet nearly as frustrating.
Having been told yesterday to return at 7am, we rose at 5.50 and arrived at the Centre at 6.30 just to be sure. They didn’t open till 8.00. We stood in line till then. A man in the queue said that this was his sixth time going back there at the crack of dawn. A small lady at the front of the queue was muttering darkly to herself. We waited a long time. We read about Andy Serkis’s performance in Sex & Drugs & Rock ‘n’ Roll in Metro. Went up the escalator to complain to uniformed man on first floor and showed him my card with scribbled 7am promise on it. Security man said, after explanation of situation in French broken by tiredness and anger, (and I translate): “I don’t care, go back down the stairs.”
There was no way to be one of the first six people since they did not pick them out, and once the building opened, everyone bundled up the stairs and practically fought to get in the lifts. Out of the lifts and despite arriving first to the building we ended up around tenth in the queue. The accueils didn’t open for another fifteen minutes. The man in the collarless shirt, whose job it seems to be to take fuming queues and calm them down in as irritating and provocative a way as possible, hovers near the front and tells off muttering-darkly lady for jumping the queue. She looks like she could kill him with her bare hands. Someone behind us is crying. The man who said earlier this was his sixth morning trying to register starts to get quite angry about the treatment he has had. Collarless-shirt man replies, “Monsieur, calmez-vous, personne n’est mort!” (“Sir, calm down, no one has died!”). Again I wonder whether any other reply could possibly be more like pouring petrol on a fire. Eventually we get to the front of the queue and Accueil man looks at our appointment card, mutters “putain” under his breath twice, shows card to colleague with more swearing, and tells us that yesterday’s window man should not have given us the card, because there are no appointments at 2.30 this afternoon. More swearing, on both sides of the window. Then, a ray of sunshine: glory of glories, he unexpectedly takes responsibility for his colleague’s misguided and swearworthy action, and offers us an appointment at 2.30 this afternoon, with a hassled air that implies he will do it despite it literally putting him at risk of coronary from overwork.
We return at 2.00, just to be sure. The entire office appears closed. Is everyone on their lunch break, at once? All the accueils are closed, the entire building seems deserted. We take a seat. Workers saunter back in, one by one, chatting. The acceuil eventually opens. A numbered ticket is printed for me. I wait my turn. There are no more than five people waiting in the queue and I have seen at least 20 workers walk through their office door, no doubt with a moules-frites and a nice bottle of Trappist beer settling down au ventre.
My number (2017 – I was starting to think it was a promise of my appointment time) eventually comes up and I go to window 14 to find a very nice man with an earring and tattoos behind the bulletproof glass. He turns out to be the only human being in this seventh-circle-of-hell that passes for a public facility. He and I chat in Frenglish about football and English beer (he likes both), we joke about the queue, he is surprised when I know his name (though ‘Nicolas’ is tattooed on his forearm). He stamps my form with the wrong stamp, says “zut!” (I thought this only happened in school textbooks), and asks me to come back in 45 minutes, which I agree to do. I turn around and do not find a Hobbesian war of all against all being fought by throngs of excess Europeans, desperate for an appointment. In fact, the number of visible people in the waiting area is what, about three? Maybe five? The Bruxelles Ville employees registering them still number somewhere around fifteen to twenty.
My number comes up again, and Nicolas’s colleague hands me two photocopies. One is my certificate of residence. I could dance a jig right there and then. She tells me the police will be round in at most three weeks’ time, to check that I live where I say I do. (I have heard about this – apparently they drive up, double park, check the names on the doorbell buzzer, and then piss off again. I rejoice that Belgium is allocating its tax and policing resources so effectively). I am told that I will be free to collect my identity card from the same office, on any date starting three calendar months after the police visit. Between now and then, the certificate should be enough to get my bank account open.
The whole thing could have been done online in about five minutes, but I will say this for the whole experience: the wave of elation that overcame me when I walked out of the Centre Administratif and headed back to the office was as powerful a positive emotion as I’ve felt in a long time. I nigh-on skipped back to the office.