Archive for August, 2010

Voting in Absentia

The Australian embassy in Berlin is very easy to find. It’s right across the street from Märkisches Museum U-Bahn station, loudly marked by an Aussie flag out the front, which, blocked from the wind by all the buildings around it, hangs limply pointing at the pavement.

“Hello,” I said to the lady at the metal detector at the entrance. It stood to the side of a long, thin foyer, lined with white lino with a few scattered pictures of aboriginals and sandy beaches. “I’d like to vote, please.”

She nodded impatiently and motioned at my bag, which it took me a few seconds to figure out she wanted to search. She checked that, then my phone set off the metal detector from my pocket, and finally she waved me through.

Three guys sat at a table in front of the two cardboard ballot boxes that had been set up against the wall. They would have been 19, 20 or close to it; thongs, shorts, ironic punk t-shirts, colourful tattoos up their arms and legs. On the table in front of them, they fiddled with their postal vote envelopes, which they had filled out with their names, registered addresses and signed declarations.

A man appeared from a small room behind them, handed me an envelope to fill out and took theirs away. He was brisk, friendly, and balding, and he spoke with an accent so broad it almost sounded exaggerated, then in German to the lady at the metal detector. He disappeared back into his room.

A great big bearded guy appeared at the entrance. He was young too, probably around my age. After navigating his way past the metal detector lady he stood there looking confused.

The boys shuffled in their seats. “Oi, last night right…” one of them began, but he was cut off by the reappearace of the man from the back room, who handed them their ballots and issued some instructions.

“Are you here to vote?” he asked the bearded guy. When he said no, the metal detector lady looked annoyed and ushered him over to the reception counter.  He asked the person behind the glass something about a passport. A few moments later he took a seat near the table to wait and sat watching the boys at the table struggle with their accordioning senate papers.

“Is voting compulsory?” he asked after a while.

The boys looked up. I leaned forward in my chair so I could see him around the ballot boxes. “Yep,” I said. “You get a fine if you don’t. Fifty bucks.”

He looked worried.

“I’ve been here for, like, three years but.”

“Yeah, you still have to vote. But, you know, they have to know where you are to fine you.”

“Just stay here mate,” one of the guys at the table piped up. “You’ll be right.”
The bearded guy nodded and fell silent.

The embassy man returned and handed my my ballot papers, which I filled out from my chair. I had my passport out in case he needed to verify my identity, but he never asked for it.

“Actually, I think I’d better vote after all,” the bearded guy said to him as he passed. He was handed an envelope and he hunched over it, frowning at the form. At the table, the boys had finally tamed their ballot papers enough to shove them into their envelopes, which they slotted into the already over-full ballot box and left.

By this time a few others had negotiated their way past the metal detector to take the boys’ place at the table – a bespectacled mildly hipster-looking guy; a slouching, slightly stocky girl in a loose grey t-shirt; another girl, well-postured and well-dressed, with the leather shoulderbag. Again, all of them young, in their early 20s or so.

I sealed up my envelope, put it in the box and left.  Out front, I hesitated for a moment, then wandered down to this weird Australiana shop on the corner. It was exactly like those tacky souvenir shops back home, only it was in Germany. I wondered how much custom they actually received.

Road maps of cities almost an entire half-globe away sat in stands by the counter next to those  mock-road signs we’re so famous for, warning of kangaroos, koalas, crocodiles for the next however many kilometres. There were Aussie flag pillows and bedpreads, oven mits and stubbie coolers. There was a big shelf of books by Australian authors translated into German, then a few more in English – Bryce Courtenay, Peter Carey, some Ben Elton; a bunch of others you’d find in the $2 Australiana section at the back of any second hand bookstore in Australia.

On my way out I spotted a shelf of Australian beers (including an entire case of hilariously dusty Fosters) and decided to buy myself a Coopers Green, even though I could have bought double the amount of a much better beer for half the price just down the road.

The guy at the counter spoke to me in German.

“Alles?” he asked. Is that all?

I thought about speaking to him in English.

“Ya. Bitte,” I said.

“Zwei fünfundzwanzig.”

I handed him the coins. “Danke schön.”



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