This morning came my first brush with the Belgian authorities. They are not so much sinister as possessed by the air of being caught in a web of incompetence and officiousness not of their own making; a sort of jobsworth’s culture that no one feels they have the ability to change. My boss said when we came back from the Commune office this morning that she thinks the Belgian bureaucrat’s most-used phrase is, “ce n’est pas ma faute, monsieur”. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
One of the things you have to do when you get here is register your residency with the local authorities. In our case this is a massive government building not far from De Brouckere metro station. This entitles you to a residency card, and I was told by the bank that without that it would be very difficult for me to open an account. So it was up at six this morning and off to the Commune office, because we have heard about appalling queues and the need to get there first. We arrived just before eight, and went up the escalators into a hall that came straight out of Brazil or some other movie set in a drab, dystopian, bureaucratic future. There was a waiting area with rows of wire chairs, surrounded on all sides by shuttered, numbered windows. A sign at the front instructed us to wait and collect a number from the main accueil, and then to go to the numbered window when our ticket came up. There were no signs anywhere indicating where to go, or which desk or even floor to go to. So having stood in line for about fifteen minutes, once they opened, we were told that we had to go to the third floor. Our getting-there-early advantage thus eliminated, we arrived at the third floor to find a nearly-identical room, this time with about four times as many people forming two long queues, and a flustered-looking man in jeans, cowboy boots and a collarless linen shirt, whose job it seemed to be to tell us how and where to stand in a queue. This we did, for about twenty minutes. There was another accueil at the front, and the same array of mini-windows around the edges, again all closed, with no sign of anyone opening them. Ominous signs in French and Flemish warn that if the waiting time exceeds two hours, they reserve the right to close the queue and send those standing in it on their way home.
On reaching the front of the queue, my conversation with the man behind the accueil window, conducted in French, went something like this:
Me: Hello, I’ve come to register my residency in Brussels. Here is my passport, employment contract, and rent agreement.
Him: “Do you need help?”
Me: “Yes, I’ve come to register my residency.”
“Where are you from?”
“Hmm . “There are too many Europeans at the moment.. Yes, many, many Europeans.” [The significance of this utterance was slightly lost on me, until I realised that at the heart of a 27-state supranational organisation with open borders, the surprising presence of a lot of Europeans is, of course, likely to catch the authorities off guard.]
“Here are my passport, my contract and my rent agreement.”
“No, you’ll have to come back another time. Can you come at 10.45am on the 23rd November?”
“Monsieur, this is a long time from now. I need to get my registration certificate, otherwise I can’t open a bank account and I’m not sure whether I can be paid without one.”
“Mais oui, monsieur” [At this stage I was wondering whether he could possibly have chosen anything more annoying to say. “Bof“, perhaps, or “Que sera sera“? A short list, in any case.]
“Is there nothing sooner?”
“There are so many Europeans. But if you come tomorrow and you are standing at this desk at 7am [today, it opened at 8.15am], you may be able to get an urgent appointment to come back later in the day, at 2.30pm. If you are one of the first six people in line.” [This said with the air of someone doing me a massive favour, though I didn’t really deserve it.]
“Can I book the 23rd November and cancel it if I get the appointment tomorrow?”
“No, monsieur, this is not possible.”
So, it will be an even earlier start tomorrow. The appointment is to register my presence. I then get another appointment to give them my documents, and then my identity card will apparently be ready, approximately three months after the second appointment. Yes, that’s right. Three months. I never thought I’d say this, but it made me faintly nostalgic for British call centres.