Your money here’s no good.

Saturday, March 4th, 2006

Waitrose is my local supermarket. I’m very happy with this because despite the fact that it can be somewhat more expensive than other UK supermarkets, it’s also nicer than a lot of other UK supermarkets. It’s got a wide range of organic food, decent fish and deli counters, a good produce section - and a really nice monthly food magazine.

The magazine costs £2.20 unless you have a John Lewis/Waitrose “partnership” card, in which case it’s free. I was never sure the ad-packed magazine was worth the price, so I always used to just leaf through it while I stood at the check-out counter and then put it back. But as I looked through it last month, I came upon a recipe for a prune and chocolate tart which tickled my fancy, so I shelled out the £2.20 and took the magazine home with me for the first time.

Well, it was a slippery slope… The March magazine just came out, and this month I found myself enticed by recipes for soda bread and slow-cooked stews (it’s freezing out, and this is just the type of food I want to be eating right now). So I bought the magazine again, and when the woman at the check-out asked me if I had a “partnership” card, I said “No” and silently vowed to get myself one as quickly as possible.

This morning I went to the John Lewis site and merrily filled out their online application for a card, taking comfort in the thought that, even though I was being forced to hand over all my precious personal details to a company which would probably immediately start inundating me with advertising for sofa sales, I would at least be able to get Waitrose Food Illustrated for free next month.

So imagine my surprise when, after having confidently detailed my spotless credit history, my stable living arrangements, and my successful business - my application was declined. There was no real explanation, just a vague mention of not meeting their minimum “credit score” and a consolatory message assuring me that I could try to apply again in six months.

To say that I was somewhat indignant and not a little insulted is an understatement. In a huff, I promptly called up the card application hotline to find out why they felt my money wasn’t good enough for them. To be fair, the woman on the phone was very nice and, after scouring my application and asking me more questions about how long we had lived in our flat and what other credit cards I own, she came to the conclusion that my application was probably turned down because I’m not listed on the electoral register - meaning that, despite all the evidence to the contrary, I don’t appear to really exist.

I couldn’t believe it - I mean, I’ve lived, worked, paid taxes and used credit cards in this country for over 5 years. I’m not on the electoral register because I can’t be because I’m a US citizen. But I am a UK resident who shops faithfully at Waitrose nearly every single day and who really, really wanted one of those pretty “partnership” cards to get that nice magazine for free and to be able to use the nifty self-service check-out gadgets Waitrose introduced last year.

I politely explained to the woman that I thought this reasoning was really quite stupid (actually, in understated English form, I said something more like, “That’s quite unfortunate” - but I wanted to say, “That’s absolutely idiotic”). She waffled on about how a lot of factors come into play (maybe the fact that I’ve never been in debt and always pay my credit card bills in full each month counts against me), and that it wasn’t “bad” that my application had been declined because it was just down to the vagaries of their scoring system (which is in need of some serious review, methinks), and that if my “partner” wanted to apply for card, he could put me down as an additional card holder and then I could get my own card (ooh, aren’t I a lucky little girl!). But the upshot of it all was that there was no way I was getting a card on my own terms.

So - nice way to be made to feel like a second-class citizen. Thanks, John Lewis! That’s just what I needed on a Saturday morning. So much for “partnership”. The funny thing is, I don’t actually care about the card; I’m happy enough to pay £2 a month for a nice magazine, and I probably couldn’t be bothered to use those self-service check-out things anyway. But it’s like anything: not being able to have something makes you want it all the more, and being turned down - whether it’s by a snotty department store chain or someone else - injures the pride a bit, as irrational as it may be.

On a wider scale, it’s interesting to experience the bureaucratic differences between countries from a resident’s point of view. Everyone singles out Germany as being an overbearingly bureaucratic state - and yes, there is a lot of red tape to cut through in Germany in order to get some things done. But as a foreigner living in Germany, you basically need just two things: an Aufenthaltsgenehmigung, or residence permit, and an Anmeldebestätigung, which officially proves that you live where you say you live. With these two things, you can open bank accounts, apply for credit cards, register for the university, get a job, pay taxes…

Now, some English people seem appalled that in Germany you have to register with the authorities whenever you move house so that you can get that official “proof of residence” paper. How shockingly authoritarian! How terribly German! England’s so free and open, man - no ID cards, no registering with this office and getting papers stamped at that office, no authorities tracking your every move (well, except for the CCTV cameras on every street corner…).

Yeah, England’s really great for that - except for the fact that, here, you have to scrounge together rental agreements, bank statements, picture IDs, credit card bills, personal references, and telephone bills with your address on them from the past decade just to get a lousy Blockbuster card. And don’t even get me started about trying to open a bank account in this country - it took Jeremy and me six months of waving bundles of cash and German bank statements under the noses of the idiots at NatWest and assorted other banks before they were finally convinced that yes, we do actually live here, and yes, we have actually had bank accounts in the past, and yes, we do actually want to have a bank account here, too, so that we can get the bank statements to prove to the Inland Revenue that we work here so that we can pay our taxes like all the other good little residents of this wonderfully free, open and non-bureaucratic society. Something that would be accomplished in ten minutes with one lousy piece of paper in Germany took six months of stress over here. So which country is the more bureaucratically dysfunctional? And then, even when you have all your little scraps of paper together and your bank statements and your credit card bills and tenancy agreements and tax returns and all the rest of it - you still can’t get a crummy John Lewis card, because you’re not a UK citizen and you’re not allowed to vote.

Phew. Okay, I think I was a bit pent-up. But this site was due for a good rant, don’t you think? Just wait until I have to apply for my new residence visa later this year - oh, the stories I’ll have to tell…


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