Sunday, December 16, 2012


I like the Belgians, but the bureaucracy there can reach extreme levels, and every now and then it crosses over into abject absurdity. A couple of years ago we went through such absurdity, and I offer it here in order to help you feel better about whatever difficulties you may currently be experiencing.

This rant is in two movements, which I have named after two most excellent songs from AC/DC's most excellent album Flick of the Switch. The first movement is...

We'd been living in Belgium for five years, our kids were born there. When you first come to Belgium, at least from the States, you have to show proof of solvency. So we did. Five years ago. Now, every year foreigners have to re-register at the Town Hall. This year, we went and they said they didn't have the paperwork showing our solvency, and they couldn't re-register us until they did. I told them that since we needed to show this in order to enter the country, obviously we had shown it and they must have lost the paperwork. They refused to accept this and said we had to show proof of solvency.

Fortunately, my wife is good at record-keeping and still had all the paperwork at home. We asked them if we just had to show them the paperwork from five years ago, and they said yes. Unfortunately, we were moderately busy as we both had jobs, and so couldn't return to Town Hall until a few days later. But we did, and showed them the paperwork. No, they said, you have to have paperwork for your children. What paperwork? we asked. Proof that you have an income of 1500 euros per month. Why didn't we have to show this before? This was the third time we've re-registered since we've had children. They said that we were supposed to show it before, but somehow it had been overlooked.

Well, my wife and I had jobs and earned more than that amount. We asked them if a bank statement would be sufficient. They said, no, we should bring them our employment contracts. OK. So we have to come back to Town Hall yet again, and it can't be for a few days yet again, because, like I said, we have jobs.

So we brought the contracts as they requested. They said, no, they needed a form to be filled out by a particular person at the University. We had to take our contracts to her to have her fill out the form, and then bring said form back to Town Hall. When we told them that they had specifically told us to bring our contracts to them they simply denied that they had ever said such a thing.

So we called the particular person to make an appointment. Her schedule was full. We said it was becoming something of an emergency, because we have to have our paperwork in order by a fast-approaching date. So she managed to make an appointment for us early on Wednesday morning. She then emailed us and said she had to move it back to 11:00 on Wednesday. This was just barely do-able for us, since my wife had to catch a train to go to work not long after that.

So we arrived at her office on Wednesday at 11:00. The receptionist then told us that our appointment had been for Tuesday. No, we said, it was Wednesday. I had heard my wife's side of the phone conversation when she made the appointment, and the only day she mentioned was Wednesday. Fortunately, they had a computer area with some available computers, so my wife got online and printed up our email correspondence which said clearly that our appointment was for Wednesday. It was the subject line of the woman's email for pete's sake.

With this proof that our appointment was for, well, now, the woman agreed to meet with us. This leads us to the second movement...

We sat down in her office, and she immediately said that our appointment had been for Tuesday. The emails my wife had printed up showing that it was for Wednesday were right in front of her on her desk. My wife pointed to them and said, "No, it was for today, like we discussed in the emails." The woman decided to let that go, and asked what we wanted. We explained it to her, and offered her our employment contracts showing our monthly income. She wasn't interested. She said what had to take place is that we have to give the university we attended 18,000 euros -- approximately 25,000 dollars at the exchange rate of the time, about 23,500 now. Why? we asked. We have proof of solvency, we have a monthly income that exceeds their requirements, and like almost everyone else in the world we don't have 18,000 euros in spending money just lying around. She said that's just the way it is.

I told her that we know plenty of foreigners who have had children in Belgium but didn't have to do anything like this. "That's not correct," she said. "Not correct?" I said. "You mean in the same way it's not correct that our appointment was for today rather than yesterday?"

OK, no, I didn't say that, but I almost did. What I actually said was, "Yes that's correct" in an irritated voice. My wife then asked why we had never been asked to provide this before. Again, we were told that it had been overlooked.

Now it's not really fair to describe this as a shakedown. The idea was that we give them 18,000 euros and they give it back to us 1,500 euros at a time, each month. And then do the same thing the following year. That way they could be sure that we have money coming in each month. When we pointed out -- again -- that my wife and I were both employed and that I alone was earning more than 1,500 euros a month, the lady said that was not sufficient since theoretically we could get fired.

We went back and forth for a while. Eventually it occurred to us (and by "us" I mean "my wife") to ask, "Wait, if we could offer proof of solvency several years ago when we came to Belgium, why is that proof no longer applicable?" She pointed out that we not only had to prove solvency, but that we had had to have someone sign on to be a guarantor, someone who would essentially be the person they would demand money from if we became stuck in Belgium with not enough money to return to the States. The guarantor was my father-in-law (which was a bit embarassing since my wife and I are in our 40s, but that's just how they do it in Belgium).

So my wife asked, "Why can't my father still be our guarantor?" The lady responded, "Well, because you've had two children. He never agreed to be their guarantor." My wife then asked, "If he did agree to be their guarantor, could we avoid having to pay you 18,000 euros every year?" The lady was silent for a few seconds, then said yes.

Of course, I'm an obnoxious git, so I asked, "Why is his money better than our money? Why is he trustworthy but we're not?" The lady answered, "When he fills out the guarantor form, he will have to provide proof that he has a monthly income above a certain level." "But we can prove that we have a monthly income above that level already. Why do you need to go to him?" "Because you could be fired, like I mentioned." Then I said, "But he could get fired too, right? Just like we could?" Again she was silent for a few seconds, then said yes. "So," I continued, "you'll trust that some guy who you'll never meet and who lives in another country on the other side of the planet won't get fired, but you won't trust that the two people sitting across the desk from you, who live and work in the same country as you, and whose employers you can speak to directly, won't get fired. Is that right?" At that point my wife politely told me to stop talking, so we stood up, thanked the lady for whatever reason, and left. We spent two more years in Belgium after that frustrating run-in with the bureaucracy.

There, now don't you feel better about your own crap?