Diary of an Expat, Part 22
Zollamt!
If you are an American, and you drive a car or wish to carry around identification that isn't your passport or a library card, you have probably been to the DMV. You probably recall this as a stultifying experience that made you want to tear parts of your hair out.

Well, as in so many things Germany has taken what the United States has created and refined it into something wretched. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you:

The Zoll

Items being shipped in from outside the EU have to be cleared through customs, which means that you must pay taxes to the German government on the increased value you are adding to the country's overall material wealth. For some items, such as consumer electronics, this can be quite high — on the order of 25%, is what I'm told.

For those playing the home game, this means that you can either pay the 19% value-added-tax and buy domestically, or you can ship internationally and pay the 25% import duty. In general, the former is almost always the better option.

But sometimes, there are things that you can't get here. A lot of artisanal goods are like that — some sites have European distributors, but occasionally you have no choice but to order from abroad. I did that a few weeks back, when I bought David Imus's masterful map of the United States. Imus is a lifelong Oregonian and his company is based out of Eugene.

So the map had to come halfway around the world, and I was willing to accept that. I watched my mailbox like a hawk, waiting for the note that would, I presumed, tell me to head over to the Deutsche Post building half a block away to pick up my package.

Instead I got a letter telling me to go to the Zoll.

The German customs office is in Schöneberg, in far southwest Berlin. Southwest Berlin is not an area I spend a lot of time in — it's far away, and it's the closest I've found in Berlin to an American-style suburb with heavy traffic and freeways. So I don't know how to get around, exactly. A glance at a map (not Imus's) told me that it was, however, halfway between the Bundesplatz and Innsbrucker Platz train stations.

A €2.30 ticket later, I was embarking on a 20 minute train ride down to Schöneberg station, which, if you can catch a transfer, saves a bit of time on the journey and keeps you out of the goddamned cold. Then it's just a matter of a few hundred meters to the building — not long enough to be a problem, just long enough to be annoying if you're carrying packages.

It's a featureless white building, and when you get inside it is basically exactly like what you'd expect a government building to be: a waiting area full of extremely bored people and a counter shielding a few lacklustre government employees waiting for everyone else to leave or, ideally, die.

You stand in line for a few minutes to get to the counter, and then you hand over the letter you received from customs, as well as an invoice. It is very, very important that you include the invoice; if you do not, customs has to make their own guess as to the value of the goods, and they will take their sweet time at it. Fortunately I had been forwarned, and I had an invoice on hand.

"What is in the package?" asked the young German man behind the counter (young male German customer service workers are unremittingly cute, which I guess is a plus). He said it in German, after I had told him that I didn't really speak German — this has increasingly become a disarming and somewhat protective lie, because it means they speak slowly enough that I can generally understand what's going on.

"A karte," I said.

"Karte? A kreditkarte?"

"No, no, a —"

"Phone karte?"

"No. A karte der USA," I said, and pulled out my phone to open the Maps on it. "Like this."

"Ach so," he said. He searched my invoice to find the price, and this is where I discovered that, charmingly, you pay customs tariffs based on the total price including shipping. The moral of this story is that you do not pay for expedited shipping. Then he told me how much I owed, which was €9.70-something on what was, originally, a $40 map.

I got out my wallet, and he briskly shook his head, explaining that all I had done was the precustoms check. He gave me a number, took my paperwork, pointed me at the waiting area, and shooed me away. Fortunately I had brought my laptop, so I could get some work done.

There are 8 stands at Berlin customs, and an LED matrix lists them, along with a ticket number next to each. You wait until your number is called, and then you go into another room, where the stands are, and you meet with a custom's agent. It does not work on a traditional "first-in, first-out" system like the DMV or most queues. So near as I can tell, it works on a "first-in, ?????" system, or perhaps a "garbage-in, garbage-out" system, or perhaps pure, unharnessed chaos.

The numbers on the board, when I got there, were all in the 160s. My number was 184. As I watched, numbers from the 150s and 170s were called equally, but there was a steady upwards progression and I felt some hope stirring in my heart that the journey would soon be over.

An hour and a half later, my number appeared in a sea of 190s, 180s, and also 200, because fuck me, that's why. I went through the door, and met with the custom's agent, who had my package hostage.

"This is a map?" he asked.

"Yes, it's a map," I said.

He looked at the long cardboard tube, then at my paperwork. "That will be €9.70-something," he said.

I got out my wallet, and he shook his head. "No, no," he said. "Go back into the other room, and we will call your number to go to the register. You will pay there."

"Ach so," I said. "So I must wait again and then I can pay?"

"Exactly. It will only be 10 or 15 minutes."

"Ach so," I said, and meekly left.

Ten minutes later, my number came up again. I sighed, and went back to the other room, where I discovered the custom's agent waiting at his normal booth, rather than the register. "It turns out," he said, "that it would be less than €5 in customs fees, actually. So it is not worth it; you do not have to pay."

"Oh," I said. "Well, thank you."

And that is how I wasted 2 and a half hours of my life to get a map back from a customs agency that didn't really want any money for it after all.

There's no restaurant review this week, not properly. Zum Alten Tor in Berlin is a Germano-European restaurant in Berlin-Mitte, which is run by a friendly old man who may, for all I know, be the only person in the place. He offers an English menu, although he doesn't really speak English terribly well so if you don't speak German you may be reduced to pointing.

He recommended the soljanka and so do I; соля́нка is a Russian soup that is sort of a borschty minestrone, with a meat party happening in it, and it's really, really good. I had venison, which was not so good, but I'll chalk that up to it being venison, and not the fault of the restaurant. I did not, however, order the escargot, which the menu helpfully describes as "six edible snails."

For me, the best part, anyway, is the menu itself, which concludes with a bold-faced phrase and an ominous ellipsis:

Enjoy your meal...
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