Since my arrival in Belgium, all matters related to my residency have required a visit to the local municipal office (the commune) to submit and obtain a raft of documents formalising my arrival, my residency status, my address, my employment status, as well as renewals and changes to any and all of these. As a matter of practice, the commune does not operate on the basis of appointments so each visit requires queueing, invariably with dozens of others, usually for several hours, to explain the reason for your visit to someone at the reception desk who will allocate you a number so that you may then join the queue of ticket-holders waiting for their number to be called.
On my first couple of visits, I waited for hours only to be told that no more tickets would be issued that day and to return again the following day. So I was dreading having to return to the commune to submit Merv’s paperwork, and worried about being turned away and not getting his papers in on time to meet the application deadline of 8 days from the date of arrival in Belgium.
For my most recent dealing with the commune I had been summoned to collect my new residence card at one of the nearby liaison offices, an antenna of the commune’s administrative centre that is staffed part-time and offers only selected services for those who have been expressly convoked for a particular purpose (which in my case was the collection of a renewed residence card). By some stroke of luck, I was attended to by a very friendly and helpful officer, Madame M, who took the time to answer my questions about my partner’s impending arrival and wrote up a list of the documents we’d need to submit with our application. Although this list differed slightly to the list we’d received from the Belgian Embassy in Australia, Madame M very patiently answered all my queries and clarified things like which documents would require translations, and what types of things they look for as proof of a relationship, and even provided some of the forms that I didn’t even know we needed to complete.
She asked about Merv’s arrival date, and took out a large black book. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it for myself – it was an appointment book! My worries about Merv and I having to queue for hours with all the other foreigners at the commune had been washed away – a date and time had now been set for the submission of Merv’s application for residency in Belgium.
Within three days of arriving in Brussels I was already on my way to the commune with my collection of papers. I’d heard about the overwhelming experience of waiting at the Brussels commune for hours, sometimes over a period of days, only to be asked to submit several documents which were probably never mentioned on any list of documents you’d been asked to produce. Instead I found myself at a small office in a leafy residential area just outside the city centre, patiently waiting for the clock to strike 1:30pm, the time of my scheduled appointment. Madame M greeted us with a friendly smile and promptly issued me with my Declaration of Arrival – I had now officially arrived in Belgium.
This Declaration of Arrival, however, only authorised me to stay for 90 days. If I wanted to stay longer, Madame M explained, I would need a reason to stay (such as work, family reunification), but being unmarried and without a job in Belgium, there was no basis for me to apply for residency. I explained that I’d been advised by the Belgian Embassy that I could apply for a de facto visa, and pushed my pile of papers towards her, but she wasn’t interested in seeing them. Instead, she told us that we would first need to apply for a “legal cohabitation” at the marriage office to have our relationship formally recognised. Once we’d successfully applied for a legal cohabitation, we could come back and submit my papers then.
We were given the address of the marriage office and a list of documents we’d need to submit there. Luckily they were all ones that I already had with me, so we made our way back to the administrative centre where the marriage office was located, in the hopes of getting it sorted right away. A series of events involving following incorrect directions and dialling wrong telephone numbers led us to the right place just in time to be told they were closing for the day and we’d need to come back tomorrow. I’d come all this way with all my papers in order, and was already facing an unexpected obstacle at the very fist step.