On my first trip to the foreigner’s office nearly ten years ago, I had two visa options:
1. Take a 1-year residency permit limiting my working ability to whatever I had to do to fulfill my Fulbright obligations (teach); or
2. Request a spousal visa that would give me the ability to both work and live in Germany for however long the person filling my application decided it should be good for.
So although I had my application form there in front of me, I didn’t fill it out. I didn’t know which would be the better deal. Before I even had a chance to discuss the differences, the beamter assisting us decided for me: I would be on a spousal visa, full stop. In the long run, this was the better deal but this woman, when she decided for us, didn’t know anything about us or our plans. She didn’t know, for example, that although my ex-husband had a German passport in his possession, he hadn’t lived in Germany since he was 11 months old. Or that he didn’t speak the language. Or that he dreaded being in Germany with every ounce of dread possible and was only supposed to stay for a few months because he couldn’t imagine ever living here. That he only had the passport because three months earlier I had read that German citizenship laws had changed again and he could get one while still maintaining his US citizenship.
For me to get the Fulbright, I had to speak B1-level German and attend culture lessons. I had to read Faust in the original Goethe German, for fuck’s sake, and write a four-page statement of motivation in German. I would have been better off, at least in this meeting with her, standing on my own merits. But since I walked in with a man, she refused to talk to me. Instead, she turned to him and said, “Does your wife need integration classes?”
I said no. She said, “I’m not asking you.” And so I translated for the ex, who looked at me and said, “I don’t know. Do YOU want to take integration classes?”
I said no again, and tried to explain that I was answering because his German wasn’t good enough, and she just stared at me. It wasn’t the first time. In the airport, when a security officer had asked him to boot up his laptop before we got on our connecting flight, they laughed and called him a dumb Turk who couldn’t speak the language (he isn’t Turkish and he didn’t understand the racist bastards, luckily).
“Can he take the integration class?”
“No. He’s already German.”
Somehow, don’t ask me how, the integration classes for me were waived and I got a two-year work and residency permit. When I went back to get it renewed, this time in a different office with a different caseworker, she said, “Your husband has to be here,” and so we had to go back again another day where again, they didn’t speak to me but to him.
I get it, I guess. A spousal visa requires the spouse. You have to give proof that you live together, that you both earn money and pay taxes and love each other and whatnot. That’s not the sexist part. The sexist part comes when you try to get a permanent visa.
Because to get a permanent visa after three years of being here (this varies, btw), I needed to have my husband’s support and he absolutely, vehemently refused to give me it. He said if he signed the paperwork allowing me to stay in Germany without him (as a permanent visa would do), that I would leave him. He might’ve been right, but I’m not the kind of girl to marry for a Green Card. We were clearly having issues, but because he wouldn’t sign the visa paperwork, I had to stay on another two-year visa tied to his passport. I could have left him but it would have been harder to get my visa renewed. They assumed — wrongfully in my case, but not without reason — that the male was the breadwinner and so without his income, I would become a charity case and charity cases do not get permanent visas.
By the time we got to five years, to renew the visa, I again needed his signature but he left the country before I could get that. I went to the foreigner’s office to see what I could do and it was a no-go. Spousal visas can’t be converted to work visas, especially for freelancers. So even though I originally arrived on a visa tied to a grant I’d received and I had worked and paid taxes the entire time since (more than my ex could say), I had to leave the country. And so I did. And then I came back.
My second attempt at the permanent visa was different because this time, I didn’t want my visa tied to my ex. He was still out of the country when I came back and so they tied it, this time, to my daughter. Germans love it when little Germans are raised in the Fatherland and so they made it easier for me to get my visa to stay here and work. Also, I had paid taxes and social services for five years prior, so that was a plus. And then three years later, I could finally apply for my permanent visa.
Here’s the sexist bit: because my divorce had not yet officially been documented (the court had not yet sent the paperwork to the city hall), I had to get written permission from my ex-husband that he was okay with me being in Germany. Wie, bitte?
A woman who works and pays taxes and raises a kid on her own is obligated to get permission from a deadbeat, not-quite-ex-husband about where she lives? Eventually, I got the letter written, though not without a power struggle, but the whole process really had me thinking about all those holiday wives that wash up here… you know, the women from exotic southern locales who show up on a German’s arm after he’s taken a long holiday. Or women who are abused by their spouses. While I get that you don’t want people marrying just for Green Cards, if I’d already proven that I paid taxes and worked and had already filed for divorce and yadda yadda, what in the devil did I need my ex’s permission for?
Turns out, the reforms that were made in custody laws several years ago were the culprit in my case but I’m still having a hard time wrapping my head around how this whole thing works. See, when two people are married and they have a kid, that kid is automatically 50/50 mom/dad custody (Sorgerecht). When they get divorced, it’s understood that unless officially decided otherwise, the kid will live with mom and the dad gets visitation (umgangsrecht). To get it officially stated otherwise, the dad has to sue the mom for something called the Aufenthaltsbestimmungsrecht — the right to decide where a kid lives. If the dad doesn’t sue — as my ex didn’t — then there is never any official documentation as to where the kid should live and so I have to, it turns out, with every move I make, have my ex put it in writing that he is understanding of the move. And so it was with the visa. My ex had to agree in writing that he was okay with me living in Germany with our daughter. I got off lucky. I’ve been doing research into The Hague Convention and those custody battles sound terrible. But seriously, Germany, there has got to be a better way to figure this shit out than to have a woman get a man’s permission to do the most normal thing: live somewhere. Seriously, women are their own people.