I’ve kept a very low profile in Vienna about Brexit. I couldn’t muster up the enthusiasm to attend a meeting with other British citizens to attend a meeting of UK Citizens in Austria, although I was on their mailing list for a while, and less so than to listen to some “good egg” from the Embassy telling me that everything would change, but that nothing would change and other FCO/Government doublespeak. The UKCA meetings were held in Cafe Ministerium, a stone’s throw from a number of ministries and which was apparently according to Kurier “the favourite cafe in the 1st district in 2012” (h/t again to Robert Barratt for that pearl of information, gleaned from an early post in his blog). Of course that was all in the heady days, when we used to drink overpriced coffee and chat care-free and without the need for any face mask to enter an establishment, prior to “Covid-19” usurping “Brexit” in the most overheard word chart.
Currently, my enjoyment of coffee is either home made or from a puttering rickshaw that I have been known to pass while out walking. In the latter case, I have taken to using my own insulated cup (Christmas present from my sister-in-law a couple of years back to stop unnecessary paper cups). I have remained off grid as far as the whole paperwork thing goes – I had, as the boys and girls of britishinaustria.net repeated mantra-like since their appearance on the scene, quietly and unostentatiously “got my ducks in order”, a mantra that was also repeated by The Autsiders (an English language podcast about Austrian politics, which also dedicates some coverage to Brexit over a surfeit of tea and Toblerone). I’d obtained a Bescheinigung des Daueraufenthalts when checking that the MA35 knew I was retired and promptly forgotten about it (well filed it safely) and awaited orders.
I am only on twitter and eschew Mark Zuckerberg’s antisocial network, despite my brother’s valiant attempts to get me to sign up, promising special interest groups about trains and hiking (two separate groups as far as I know). However, fortunately the kindly people at britishinvienna.net seemed to have got some kind of feedback up and running about how the processing of paperwork goes, and so, having been tipped off at the start of December by another fellow twitter user (@mdgb) in one of the moments he isn’t fumbling in phoneboxes for film capsules that appointments were opening, I decided to take an early appointment on 8th January. My circumstances were, I knew, decidedly 08/15, and were not ones that would change. After all, I am retired, receive an Austrian pension as well as a bit of a British one, and live in my own four walls. I am married to an Austrian, and as my wife said, if I have a problem getting the card, pretty much everybody will.
So Friday came and it was finally the day to visit the MA35 in Arndtstrasse, where all British citizens wanting to get the treasured Art 50 EUV card are required to go. The Google reviews for the experiences of others read like a litany of despair – interminable queueing, no way to contact staff, so I was slightly on edge as to how my experience would be. One friend had advised setting out early and getting there for well before opening time, but I took it slightly more laid back, given that I had the luxury of a 10a bus route leaving from my local bus stop that took me to Niederhofstrasse directly in just over half an hour. I’d not been on the bus for that long for a while, and certainly not that far, I usually only use it as far as Hernals or Ottakring, and then only if the S45 isn’t more convenient.
It was cold January morning, so it definitely called for my overcoat and my widest-brimmed hat and a crisp new FPP2 mask, which I could after all doff as necessary at officials. All my documents were fastidiously filed in my document case – all copied in triplicate, with every piece of paperwork that I possessed since I moved to Vienna in the 1990s (well apart from the IOU notes from my friend the Larrikin for short-term credit facilities from the Friendly Bank of Curmudgeon to allow him to escape the clutches of the Inkasso hoodlums for non-payment of his telephone bill), my passport photos recent and dated from the window of normality between the second and third lockdowns. My father was a firm believer of “better too much information than too little” and was known to have even handed over not just a full service book with a car he was selling, but also a complete log of all the petrol receipts too, to one buyer.
I got to Arndtstrasse about 20 minutes before the appointment, and there were assorted other fellow British citizens of all ages (even some young children, probably enjoying the rarity of a trip out) milling around outside. One young chap pointed me to tell the men at a table that I was there and they civilly told me that I would be let in at the appointed time. People are doing what we Britons apparently do best, queueing, although I barely queue now other than in the supermarket (although I refrain from bellowing “zweite Kassa bitte!”) or at a sausage stand. I was cursing that I had left the railway magazine I intended to secrete into my document pouch at home, and also that I had failed to put a marmelade sandwich under my hat, Paddington style, as I was starting to get hungry.
My appointment time came and I was allowed to enter the functional but architecturally humdrum building and went up to the first floor, to an area signed “Brexit” with a “Brexit Waiting Room” in on the right hand side, and a separate queue to submit papers. I had feared a room full of articulated lorry drivers waiting impatiently, instead there were about 20-25 socially distanced Brits sitting waiting and a monitor calling people. Fortunately, someone pointed me the way to the queue and not the waiting room in a friendly manner, surely that wasn’t a staff member, was it? It was, which seemed most incongruous considering the many reviews about the MA35 being far from complimentary.
After queueing for only a couple of minutes, handing over only a fraction of my assembled paperwork (no, the first aid course certificate and the Vereinstatuten that had erroneously made their way into my document pouch weren’t needed!), I went in to wait, seeing that people would be dispatched to Room 1.01 or Room 1.02. Ah, so this was where it would get Orwellian with a bit of luck… Where I would no doubt be confronted about that misdemeanour of reversing down the entire length one way street at 4:30am in early 1995 (I hadn’t been drinking) as I had got utterly lost trying to get to see my then girlfriend who had called at just before 4am and demanding my presence, and me tearing across town by car in a dressing gown and pyjamas, wearing odd shoes due to getting dressed in the dark due to the hallway lightbulb choosing to strike. (The police officer had rolled eyes, laughed at my state of dress, and gone on his way since my car stood between him and a late night/early morning sausage, and he did not relieve me of any cash I might have found in the glovebox).
The numbers seemed to not follow an order – but no doubt MA35 has special meanings attached to numbers – they’d given me a ticket in the twenties and a couple in single digits were still being handled as well as some in the teens. Unlike the doctor’s surgery, where you ask who the last in the queue was, so you know who you are next after, there was no strict sequencing of numbers, so there was also no inkling about how long I was going to be in for. And so as new numbers popped up and steadily people came and went, the numbers edged closer.
I scanned the waiting room, and didn’t see anyone I knew, as I think every Brit in the room seeking a friendly face was also doing after months of near solitary confinement layered on top of this being the culmination of four and a half years of uncertainty, rumour, conjecture and being used as bargaining chips for a divisive political decision that had been delayed, postponed, in the balance, and demonstrated the recklessness of the British government and its mouthpieces around the globe. With us all being masked up, due to the other “elephant (baby or otherwise) in the room”, it was difficult to identify any familiar faces (I have little more than an extended handful of British acquaintances apart from a sprinkling of my fellow twitter users). Someone did wink at me a couple of times, which made me nervously and surreptitiously check my fly was done up, that I didn’t have an embarrassing stain on my trousers etc. (impossible – the excitement of getting out to a place where I would see real life living people, one of whom I might possibly even know had meant that my trousers were fresh on, pressed even and I had my best casual bib and tucker on.
And then my number flashed up. Not nearly as exciting as a lottery win, but yes I had been selected for Room 1.01. Would this be where they broke my resolve, and laughed at me before despatching me to a windowless cell for questioning? They seemed remarkably friendly, although a touch stressed (EDV Panne in der Ecke!) and another Briton being “processed” disappeared off (I understand to another room with a spare fingerprinting computer, from what I overheard as he phoned his partner later when he had finished). My passport was returned, with payment to be made at the bank or via online banking for my card that would be printed “in a couple/few weeks” (I couldn’t hear a capital letter!) It was all very civil, there were no questions, and the fingerprinting worked once they’d polished the machine. So I was all done and dusted in probably about 45 minutes (I don’t actually really remember). And then it hit me. I had set aside hours for this procedure. And now, here I was out in the January cold a free man. Had they hypnotised me, and hidden the clocks, or had my watch stopped? That seemed far too easy, straightforward and I was outside again and at a loose end. I had the pleasant quandary of how to get home from here.
Meidling was just a short walk away, so I could decide there where I wanted to go. In freer non-lockdown times, there would have been little to stop me jumping on a train to Graz or Klagenfurt from Meidling, or an ICE train to Germany, or a Railjet to whizz across the country, or head to Hütteldorf to board a Westbahn. However, in lockdown, I shun non-urgent travel. However, there was the possibility of a Badnerbahn into town, where I haven’t been since October or an quick S80 to Hütteldorf and then up my beloved S45 to Krottenbachstrasse and home in time for elevenses. I ended taking a Schnellbahn through to the Hauptbahnhof and looking at the trains that still go, far less crowded than normal, and then headed up to Handelskai and back onto the S45.
So the waiting and uncertainty is almost over. I should have a ten year card that I will hopefully still be around in 2031 to renew – hopefully having been able to travel freely again for a number of years post-pandemic until then. And there I dutifully doff my hat to the Austrian authorities. Danke!