Category Archives: Religion

Holy Orders

Since my last ranty post, I’ve had a bit of a breakthrough.

I’ve found Jesus.

Christ…

I’m as surprised as you are – turns out he’s been sitting in a souvenir shop in the Alte Münze all this time. Will wonders never cease?

Anyway, since it seems that Jesus has chosen me to be his earthly representative here in Berlin, instead of complaining about what bugs me (though I do enjoy that too), I’ve decided to be more proactive and put together a short list of commandments which, if everyone gets on board, should make life easier for all of us.

The First Commandment: Thou shalt do right (or left)

The first working escalator was installed in 1896 so you’d really think people would have figured out how to use them by now. Not so. In Berlin, the system is really very simple: stand on the right, walk on the left. Yes, that’s it. Right, left. TWO options. Rechts stehen, links gehen. Jesus people (sorry, Jesus), how hard is that to remember? Luckily, I’d polished my aggressive Berliner “HALLLLLOOOOO!” long before I started polishing my halo so a few chosen souls have learned their lesson. Clearly, however, my work here is not done.

Instructional photo – two people are going to be struck down by irritated Berliners. Can you guess which two?

The Second Commandment: Thou shalt pocket thy smartphone

For some people, the stupidity doesn’t end when they step off the escalator. No, they choose to stop dead at the bottom or top of it and pull out their phone, causing mini pile-ups where’er they go. And it’s not limited to escalators. I’m sure you’ve all seen the incredibly bright sparks who walk around a city, glued to their phone, completely oblivious to anything or anyone around them.

Well, I’m here to tell you – you’re not that important or interesting. Nobody is sitting on the edge of their seat waiting to see what you’re going to post, tweet, like, share… If you’re lost and need directions, move over to the side of the pavement and look them up. Better yet, ask a real person – if you look around you, you’ll see that they do actually still exist.

The Third Commandment: Thou shalt deal with thine own trash

When I first got to Berlin, one of the signs on the train windows made me laugh. It’s a picture of a hand throwing a bottle out the window with an “X” through it. “Who would actually do that?” I thought to myself. Well, you’d be surprised.

So brethren, if you’re drinking a beer on the train, take the bottle with you. If not, it rolls up and down the carriage, spewing what’s left of its contents and stinking up the whole place. If you’re finished treating the rest of us to the smell of your Döner, bin the wrapper on the train platform when you get off; don’t stuff it down the inside of the seat. You’d think that these things would go without saying but I guess there’s a reason Deutsche Bahn has started a Whatsapp “Reinigungsteam” (cleaning team) service. Shame it wasn’t in place when I saw someone taking a shit on the U6 platform at Friedrichstraße station. What a treat that would have been for the team…

On a bigger scale, if you have a broken printer, rickety wardrobe, holey shoe, etc., it’s not a “gift”. It’s an eyesore. Someone dumped a bed frame on our corner on Friday. By Saturday, two mattresses had joined it. If it continues like this, soon it will be like living in a Dänisches Bettenlager.

Stop the madness!

The Fourth Commandment: Thou shalt wear sandals

OK, I’m not fussy about the type of footwear but, in the name of all that’s holy (I’m getting the hang of this), please wear something on your feet. I think I’ve given you all a little taster of what the streets around Berlin can be like. What would Jesus wear? He’d wear bloody shoes, that’s what.

The Fifth Commandment: Thou shalt act like a parent and stop pissing everyone off

I’m pretty sure that anyone who’s ever been in a cafe in Prenzlauer Berg has had the same experience. You’re in kind of a hurry (or not – it’s irrelevant) so you pop in to pick up a tasty German treat to go. Brilliant, you think, only one woman and her toddler in front of me. I’ll be in and out in a flash.

Ha.

“So darling, what would you like?”

“I don’t know.” 

“Would you like a doughnut?”

“Ummm…”

“Or maybe a fruit cake?”

“Ummm…”

“You like chocolate, right? How about one of those?” 

“Doughnut.”

“Which colour? They have pink, white, yellow…”

“Ummm…”

“Or would you like the one with sprinkles? Or with little hearts? That would be nice, wouldn’t it, darling…” 

Jesus Christ. (Oops.) Give the kid anything. It’s two. It will eat it. Or not. Who really gives a damn? (Double oops.) Certainly not me or the tortured cafe worker.

You like little hearts, don’t you, dear heart? (ARRRGGGGHHHHH!)

I know there were originally ten commandments but people have shorter attention spans these days so I’m going to stop with five – for now. How wonderful it would be if people actually took note.

Without me having to smite them, that is. “And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger…” Hmm, might be getting a bit carried away now. Back to being holy.

Blessed are those who wear shoes for they are also blessed with the gift of common sense.

 

 

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Losing my religion

Director of Studies: Can we have your observation feedback meeting on Friday morning? 

Me: Yeah, that should be… oh no, wait, I need to go and renounce the Catholic faith that morning, sorry. 

DOS: What? 

Me: Yeah. You know. Germany…

So, on Friday, I made my way to Möckernbrucke and easily located the exitingthechurchtoavoidpayingstupidtaxesoffice. For some reason, they had roughly the same amount of security you find at major international airports. Luckily, I’d left my knuckle-dusters at home that day – something I would later regret.

The security guard panicked a bit when he realised my German was limited so I was waved through with minimal hassle. He explained that the building is divided into different zones, each represented by a letter of the alphabet. I needed to find room A53. I thanked him and went on my unholy way.

Twenty minutes later, I was back in the same spot, having done a complete lap of the building and failed to find the elusive A53. He paled a little and ran to get a policewoman who spoke a few words of English. I now realised that the building was also divided into an old building and a new building and that the room I was looking for was in the old building. This was information that would have been useful 25 minutes earlier.

I set off again, up and down stairs, in and out of offices, round and round the labyrinthine series of corridors.

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I think I asked five different people where room A53 was, all of whom gave me different directions. I found room A52 and room A54, but there was still no A53. Another 25 minutes later, I was sending up a last prayer that I’d eventually find the room and my way out of the building again. I figured God wouldn’t mind me having one last request.

At this stage, I looked like the wild woman of Berlin-eo. I was sweaty and wild-eyed, and my hair had worked its way out of a neat pony-tail and was now sticking out in all directions. I stopped in front of yet another indecipherable map that had room A53 on it. A similar-looking creature caught my eye so I asked her in German if she knew where room A53 was.

“No, I do NOT.”

Clearly, we were in the same boat and had both been wandering around this building for what seemed like years. Afraid of this girl attacking me in a fit of “exitingthechurchtoavoidpayingstupidtaxesoffice rage”, I left her staring glassy-eyed at the map and asked yet another security guard where the damn room was.

I followed where she pointed and Angry Girl followed me.

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The maze of madness
Finally, in the depths of the basement, we found it. Opening the door, we were greeted by a little woman sitting behind a glass window. I let Angry Girl go first so I could see what she did and then copy her.

This, it seemed, was the room where we paid. Unfortunately for Angry Girl, she had assumed that they would take card. They did not. No problem, the lady assured her – she could go to the other room, fill in the form and then come back and pay later. I handed over my €30, she handed me a sticker and then we were both on the hunt for room F27.

As she had seemed pretty sane while talking to the lady in the hatch, I decided to risk striking up a conversation since we’d probably be wandering around together for a while. She turned out to be an American-German who’s dating an Irish guy so, in no time at all, I had an invite to a St. Patrick’s Day event he’s organising.

Naturally, the office we were looking for was all the way over the opposite side of the building (anyone would think they didn’t want you to leave the church), but we found this one quite easily. We took our numbers and sat down in the waiting room, chatting about Irish people, the insanity of German bureaucracy and whatever else popped into our heads.

Around twenty minutes later, my number was called. As soon as I sat down opposite the world-weary woman in the office, every German word I have ever known exited stage left. She fired a couple of questions at me; I panicked because I couldn’t understand one of them. I pushed my registration document and passport across the desk, hoping one of them might have the correct answer.

Kriemhild: NEIN!

Me: (tempted to run away and too scared to speak English) I’m sorry, but I just don’t understand the question. Do you speak any English?

Kriemhild: (in rapid-fire German) NEIN! The official language of the Amt is German and if you can’t understand German then that’s your problem. 

Me: OK, OK, keep your granny pants on. Can I get my friend? 

Kriemhild: (with much eye-rolling at the stupid foreigner) JA…

I stuck my head out the door and asked the now-not-Angry-at-all American-German to help me. She trotted in after me and we sat down again, waiting for the storm of bureaucracy to be unleashed.

Britney-Bertel: She wants to know which area you live in.

Me: Jesus, is that all? It’s right in front of her on the bloody form. 

Of course, with the confidence of having a sidekick, my German switched on again and I could understand pretty much everything from that point on. I answered questions, Kriemhild tapped away on her computer, and around ten minutes later, I had a printout declaring that I was no longer a member of the Catholic Church.

I then got a lecture on keeping this form FOREVER. The exitingthechurchtoavoidpayingstupidtaxesoffice only keeps a copy for ten years, so if the Finanzamt asks me for it twenty years from now and I can’t produce it, they can charge me twenty years of back taxes. Point taken.

As Britney-Bertel was next in the queue anyway, she thought she’d kill two birds with one stone and get her document too. NEIN. She had to pay the fee first – it was not possible to do it the other way around, despite what the lady in the hatch had said. Britney-Bertel resigned herself to coming back another day, while I notched up another victory against German bureaucracy.

As I left, I pondered the need for the lady in the hatch. Why couldn’t you just fill in the form and pay at the same time? Oh yes. This is Germany…

 

 

Pope on the ropes

I decided a day before my 37th birthday to leave the Catholic Church. But just the German Catholic Church, not the actual Catholic Church. Leaving the actual Catholic Church is impossible; leaving the German Catholic Church is possible for the bargain price of €30 in Berlin. Confused? So was I.

It all started when I received a letter in the mail with the catchy introductory sentence:

Festellung der Zugehörigkeit zu einer öffentlich-rechtlichen Religionsgemeinschaft

Trips off the tongue, doesn’t it? Even with my limited German, I could still recognise that the church was after me. Not for my shoddy attendance, but for cold, hard cash.

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I’d thought they wouldn’t find me

You see, in Germany, if you’re a member of certain religions, Roman Catholicism being one of them, you have to pay church tax. The letter explained that I’d “forgotten” to tick the religion box when I first registered my address. Naturally I hadn’t forgotten; I’d been forewarned of this tax and advised to leave that box empty. But it seemed they were coming after me anyway.

I haven’t set foot in a church in years – I’d probably burst into flames if I did – so the thought of paying for something that was about as relevant to me as fly fishing rankled.

I joked with Hildeberta that I might look into excommunicating myself. Oh, how we laughed. Until I looked up the church tax online and discovered that they take around 9% of your annual income tax. NINE PER CENT. Jesus… Excommunication didn’t seem so ridiculous now.

Maybe I'd become Greek Orthodox instead
Maybe I’d become Greek Orthodox instead

I Googled “leaving the Catholic Church” and discovered that it is actually impossible to leave voluntarily – once you’re in, you’re in for life, whether you like it or not. It seems that a lot of people didn’t like it and in 1983, the Vatican brought in a law that allowed its members to defect.

However, in 2009, they changed their minds canon law and those defections had no legal standing.

Or Russian Orthodox
Or Russian Orthodox

I cranked up my internet searching skills and discovered that it is possible to leave the Catholic Church in Germany. They even have a nifty website that tells you how to do it. You “simply” have to make an official declaration at the local exitingthechurchtoavoidpayingstupidtaxesoffice. In Berlin, this costs €30 but it varies from state to state.

I weighed up paying 9% of my annual income tax for the rest of my time in Germany versus a one-off payment of €30 and the decision was made. Almost.

I just had to make a quick phone call to a higher power – Mammy O’Grady, not God. God’s wrath and maybe even a plague of locusts is mild in comparison to the wrath of an Irish mammy… Thankfully, Mammy O’Grady is a sensible woman and was equally outraged at this money-grabbing malarkey.

It was time for the chop
It was time for the chop

It seems we’re not alone either. More than 181,000 German Catholics left the church in 2010, and 126,000 the following year. In short, German Catholics are dropping like flies and the church is freaking out, sensing that its bottomless money pit might be about to dry up. Diddums…

You might think that I could simply tick the “no faith” box and send the letter back, or just ignore it. NEIN. This is not an option. If you’re from certain countries, the Finanzamt just assumes that you are a certain religion (Ireland = Catholic) and may just start charging you at some point in the future anyway. This had to be official.

It states on the home page of the website that “It is not possible to leave the church by means of a letter!” I guess they assume that most foreigners would rather tick a box and take the financial hit than go to a German office and deal with the nightmare that this usually involves. Well, not this foreigner.

The bell tolls for thee, church tax
The bell tolls for thee, church tax

Tomorrow, I will be hauling my 37-year-old ass down to my local exitingthechurchtoavoidpayingstupidtaxesoffice, filling in the form, coughing up the €30, and excommunicating myself. After all, as Herr Christ himself said, “It is written… My house will be called a ‘house of prayer’, but you are making it a ‘den of robbers.'”

I wonder what he’d make of the German church tax…

 

Sources: 

Article on trying to leave the Catholic Church in Ireland

10 facts about German church tax