This is how you beat the Zollamt

Ah, Christmastime in Germany. Glühwein. Adventkalendars. And at least one trip to the Zollamt (customs office) to retrieve seized packages. I always enjoy the Zollamt because of a luxury unique to Germany: The ability to have heated arguments with armed government officials without ending up in jail.

Or the hospital.

The argument-with-a-cop thing is something I discovered after living in Berlin for a year when a German friend shouted his way out of a ticket from a tubby Polizist. It was like the cop was even thankful to have a discussion.

Every visit to the Zollamt starts with a letter saying they’ve seized a package and suspect the contents may exceed the €45 limit on gifts sent from abroad. A bit rude and presumptuous, really. They then invite you to stop by for a chat to retrieve your package.

Zollamt Berlin
This is an old picture of the place but it still looks like this.

The Zollamt in Berlin is a mid-sized warehouse sandwiched into a No Man’s Land between a sketchy corner of Schöneberg and the northern tip of Friedenau, a borough no one’s ever heard of. The Hauptadt’s Bielefeld, if you will. It’s filled with vanilla customs officials whose dream in life is to catch a 21-year-old student trying to sneak a cut-rate iPhone into the country via Deutsche Post without paying sales tax or duties.

You’d think a customs officer would want to break up an international poaching ring or discover 1,200 tons of cocaine hidden in a teal teddy bear but you’d be wrong. They want to pop Kai from Heidelberg with his hands in the customs cookie jar.

And they suspect everyone called to their place of work of being Kai from Heidelberg.

On my last visit there, I was paired with a dour customs officer convinced she was facing her daily Kai. I knew I was anything but. Every year, German customs seizes packages filled with gifts from my stepmother for my kids. And every year I leave smiling without paying a dime because I know something the Zollamt is incapable of learning: My stepmother knows international law in deep detail. Not because she wants to exploit it, but because she’s so fearful of breaking it.

Every one of those packages contains less than €45 worth of gifts, which is also a great reason to limit your spending on your grandkids.

The customs official met me as I entered the rear warehouse and pushed my stepmother’s package at me across the steel counter.

“What’s in here?” She asked.

“Gifts for my kids from my parents.” I always like to throw the kid thing in there. I like to hint that they’re harming the bond between child and grandparent. That they’re trying to take something from my children. Like they’d even take candy from a baby. Because they would, actually, if it wasn’t declared and exceeded €45.

“We’ll see about that,” she said, going on the offensive. “Please open it.”

At this point they hand you the box and an industrial box cutter, which seems odd. Customs officials are armed, presumably because dangerous people end up there. And the first thing they do is hand you a weapon.

And I always want to say: “You’re the one so eager to see what’s in it – you open it.” But there’s probably some goofy legal reason they’re not allowed to even though they’ve probably x-rayed it, which is little different.

Ok, someday I’ll say it. Actually, no I won’t.

I opened the box and pulled out the gifts. My stepmother no longer wraps them because every one of her packages gets seized. Every. Single. One. I get to wrap them.

The customs official quickly grabbed a paint-by-numbers set in a futuristic packaging. You know, the kind of thing your mother might buy at Safeway to shut you up while she tries to pick out a cantaloupe.

“A-ha!,“ the customs officer said, “What do we have here? Electronics?”

“It’s a gift for my daughter. Paints, not electronics,” I offered. The kid thing again. I’m ruthless.

“I’m going to look it up,” she said accusingly. She clearly thought my stepmother and I were locked in a conspiracy to smuggle paint-by-numbers sets. She grabbed the toy and headed to her desk. This woman would not only take candy from a baby, she’d make the baby unwrap it first.

This is what the Zollamt – the arm of the German government tasked with protecting Europe’s most populous country from nefarious and illegal shipments – does to determine the price of presents: Checks Amazon. Really. They do it so much Amazon should charge a commission.

I watched with joy as the woman discovered the non-value of the toy and returned to the counter.

Next, she grabbed a winter coat which, granted, could push the value of the shipment above the limit. That is, had the package been sent by anyone but my stepmother.

“What do we have here?” she said, accusingly again.

“A jacket for my son,” I said. Who would be so cruel as to deny a growing boy a jacket during a Berlin winter? This woman, that’s who.

She inspected the coat and smiled. Villains always smile.

“There’s no price tag on here! I think we all know why there’s no price tag!”

She thought she had her Kai. She grabbed the coat and moved back to her desk for a little Amazoning.

“You’re right,” I said. “We do know why there’s no price tag – or have you never received a present?”

This sounds rhetorical but at that point it seemed a possibility.

“Of course I have,” she mumbled. I knew I was nearing victory.

Her colleague must have sensed her impending defeat. He stepped in to help: “Why don’t you go wait in the waiting room and we’ll check the value of the shipment? We’ll call you when we’re ready,” he said.

I only had to wait a few minutes. When I was called back into the warehouse the first customs official had disappeared and the remaining officers were seated at their desks. The box had been repacked and was deserted on the counter.

“You guys done with your Internet research? Can I go?” I was probably smiling.

“Yes,” the officer said. He didn’t even look at me.

“Merry Christmas,” I said as I left.

Silence.

What’s the value of triumphing over German bureaucrats (with guns!)? It’s just an extra gift my stepmother throws in every Christmas.

Germany’s True Fifth Season

In Germany, the official fifth season is anything to do with Karneval, a few days of drunken spring debauchery that used to have religious undertones and a smattering of royal bashing. These days it’s just drunken debauchery. I’m not being glib because we have a similar party in the U.S.: It’s called college. But Germans love the fifth season because it’s when the rules allow them to be silly and unrestrained. Note the irony in being silly and unrestrained only when the rules allow. Germans don’t see that irony. They love Karneval.

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But it’s not the real fifth season in Germany. Not in a real season sense. The real fifth season occurs in that no-man’s-land between Christmas and New Year’s. You’ve always quietly felt that the year ends shortly after all the Christmas presents are open and the new year doesn’t get going until that first feeling of dread back at your desk. The Germans have always known that it’s actually a different season and they’ve even given it a name: Zwischen den Jahren. Between the years. It’s one of my favorite sayings because it’s so perfectly right, in a German precision kind of way (but without faking the emission tests). It’s not this year and it’s not next year: It’s between the years.

Perfect.

Unfortunately my second least favorite German phrase always rears its head between the years, refusing to leave, like a subterranean worm in Tremors. “Guten Rutsch!”, or have a good slide! We all assume a good slide into next year but without a direct object in that sentence it’s hard to know. Germans love it as a parting phrase between the years – on the phone, at the counter and, with a wink of the eye, while putting you under for a colonoscopy. There’s an apocryphal story that it comes from Yiddish which, like the definition of apocryphal, may or may not be true.

I’d love to end on an upbeat comment about Zwischen den Jahren but the only remaining footnote is a negative: Karneval follows just a few weeks after Zwischen den Jahren.