Romance Versus Red Tape: the surprising difficulty of eloping in Europe (and my newfound appreciation for American liberty)
Three years ago, I reconnected with an estranged friend. It had been nine years since we’d first met. For the first time in our rambling acquaintance, we were both single, and road-weary and humble enough to communicate honestly with each other. Much to our mutual surprise, we quickly came to the conclusion that we some kind of soul-mates, and that we should spend as much of the rest of our lives together as possible.
However, enacting this plan was complicated. For starts, I was an American who had just moved to Oregon, while he was an Irishman living in Germany. We were both flat broke, and had nine time-zones and half of a planet between our residences. And he had a nine-year-old daughter to take care of in Germany. So if we wanted to be together, I would need to move to Berlin.
“But how?” I despaired, on my first, brief, heady, trial-visit to Berlin.
“Come back here and I’ll marry you,” he said.
This sounded like the most romantic solution possible, and at the same time the most logical one. What I didn’t yet know was that our biggest obstacle was not going to be geographic, but bureaucratic.
First of all, it turned out that my fellow was not actually legally single. Whoops! He and his wife had separated, not divorced. Because it turns out that it’s a shockingly drawn-out process to get a divorce in Germany (shocking by American standards, anyways). In Germany, both spouses have to live at separate addresses for a full year before either can even apply for a divorce. And you’re not entitled to a divorce just because you think you need one. You have to convince the courts that the marriage is ‘unsalvageable’, which is somehow established, in part, by living apart for this arbitrary unit of time.
Things are much worse in my partner’s homeland, Ireland. With its Catholic constitution, couples have to live apart for four years before they can file for a divorce. Which means that even in a best case scenario, it takes a minimum of five years to get divorced. I can’t imagine how it could possibly benefit anybody in society to keep people from moving on with their lives for that length of time. And as someone who fled a volatile and unsafe first marriage in 2010, the idea of being shackled to an unhealthy partner for that long gives me the absolute shivers.
As you can imagine, these kinds of waiting periods have a disproportionate affect on folks with lower incomes, who can’t afford to set up separate households straight away, and therefore continue cohabiting long after they’ve stopped being a functioning couple. And it disproportionately effects couples with children, whose care gets prioritized over the happiness of the parents.
For similar such reasons, even though my partner and his first wife had been separated for a while before he and I got together, they had only just qualified to start their divorce proceedings when I came to Germany. Such forms I’d never have imagined. Even when he finished translating them from German into English, my partner was still not sure what many of them actually said. The German powers that be demanded to know everything that he had ever done and earned going back to his teens, decades before he was married (and required supporting evidence like letters from his universities stating the exact dates they were in attendance). Also, Germany, being an officially Christian country, grinds to a halt for every Christian holiday: several weeks at Christmas, two at Easter, a week for Pentecost… Schools close, shops close, and offices close for things I’d never even heard of, like the Assumption of Mary (or ‘Mariae Himmelfahrt’ as it reads in German).
The mass of paperwork and public holidays meant that even though everything in his divorce was as civil and uncontested as could be hoped, my beloved and I still ended up waiting in limbo for a year and a half before the many rounds of gratuitously dense German legal-speak paperwork were finalized.
And so, while we waited — often in different countries — I began researching how we could elope as quickly and cheaply as possible when the time came.
Germany was where we intended to live together, and where I needed to get a visa, so it seemed like the most obvious place to tie the knot. Only civil ceremonies, conducted in German, in German court houses, are legally recognized in Germany. This sounded pretty straight-forward. But a quick look at the paperwork requirements to get a marriage license in Germany was enough to bring on an administrative panic attack. All couples must bring:
· Certified copies of their birth certificates
· Certificates of primary residence in Germany (not older than 14 days)
· Some areas also require medical examinations
If you’re been previously married, you also have to show:
· A current, certified copy of the marriage register of the last marriage with a note stating the dissolution of marriage
· The final divorce decrees of all previous marriages or the death certificates of former spouses
If you have any kids together before you get married, you also have to show:
· Copies of birth certificates for each child
· Certificates of acknowledgment of paternity for each child
· A certificate on the declaration of joint parental custody if it has been issued
Now that’s just for the locals. If either person is a non-German, or has ever been married outside of Germany, that’s when it really starts to get complicated. As howtogermany.com advises, “Couples planning to get married in Germany should get started with the legal formalities as soon as possible. Six months early is not too soon.” At the same time as you’re advised to start six months ahead, every document submitted must be officially issued and then translated into German by an authorized translator within the last six months. So that’s some potentially razor-fine scheduling, when you’re looking to source documents from across a variety of English-speaking countries.
They also warn you that just because a document is the legal document you were provided in your home country, doesn’t mean that it will be seen as good enough for the German authorities:
“Unfortunately, the German authorities are not always satisfied with a simple divorce decree and often insist that proof be supplied to the effect that the decree can no longer be contested. Normally this means contacting the court that granted the divorce and asking them to provide a statement.”
The fees and forms and queues and queries and international postal services that we would need to assemble our case from officials across Alaska, California, Ireland, England, and Germany ballooned in my mind’s eye. And after witnessing my beloved’s divorce process, and now seeing these requirements just for a civil ceremony, I decided I didn’t want any more of my life wrapped up in German bureaucracy than was strictly necessary. So I started to look elsewhere.
Ireland was the next most obvious choice, since that’s where my fellow hails from, and it’s only a short flight from Berlin. And they speak a kind of English there. But to get a marriage license in Ireland you have to go to the registrar in person and apply three months in advance. And as welfare.ie advises, “While only three months’ notice is required by law, couples are advised to contact the Registrar well over three months before their intended date of marriage to ensure they can get a timely appointment.” This option would require two sets of flights to Ireland, a wait of many months after his divorce, the translation of his divorce decree from German into English, and a hefty €200 fee just for the license. It wasn’t an undoable option, but it wasn’t great.
How about the UK, next-door? In England and Wales, you have to give notice of your intent to marry at least 28 days in advance, so they can physically pin it up in the town hall in the district you intend to marry in, and then wait a lunar cycle. Who they expect to come look at it, I have no idea. (The idea of looking at bureaucratic notices in town halls was already laughable enough forty years ago to serve as the opening to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.) And in order to even enter the UK with the intention of marrying, foreigners are supposed to apply for a special fiancé visa (£87) a month before they intend to arrive. Northern Ireland and Scotland have their own particulars on top of these. In Scotland, for example, local couples are advised to physically post their forms to the registrar ten to twelve weeks in advance of their desired wedding date. Hmm…
What about France? France requires a posting of an announcement at least ten days before a marriage can take place, and it can only be posted after at least one person in the couple has been a resident in France for over 30 days. So my fiancé would have had to move to France before we could legally get married there. And according to the French Embassy to the United States, any US citizens like myself wishing to marry in France have to present all of the following ‘basic’ documents:
· A valid U.S. passport or a French residence permit
· A birth certificate (less than three months old)
· An affidavit of Law. It is a statement certifying that the American citizen is free to contract marriage in France and will be recognized in the United States (must be done by an attorney licensed to practice in both France and United States)
· A medical certificate (less than three months old)
· A certificate of celibacy (less than three months old)
According to Google translate, the French ‘célibat’ can also translate as ‘bachelorhood’ or ‘spinsterhood’, so I am guessing that the certificate of ‘celibacy’ is one of marital status, and not the French government actually expecting all people in France not to have sex before marriage. But 40 days legal residence, plus an affidavit, plus new copies of birth certificates, and a medical certificate? Not great.
What about Italy? It’s only a short hop from Berlin, and the bridegroom needed to go there for a couple of work trips that year anyhow. Well, all our documents would have to be translated into and legally certified in Italian. Okay, what else? Marriages performed by the Roman Catholic Church are the only legal religious ceremonies — ceremonies for any other faith require a civil ceremony to count. Which didn’t seem fair, but wouldn’t really matter in our case, since we would only be interested in a civil ceremony anyhow.
Then I stumbled on this gem, on the US Embassy in Italy’s website; any women wishing to get re-married within 300 days of a divorce:
“must obtain a waiver from the Italian District Attorney’s Office at the court in the city where the new marriage will be performed. The waiver is issued upon presentation of medical evidence that you are not pregnant.”
What the what?! Why can’t pregnant women remarry? Who is this provision meant for: the old husband, the new husband, or…? How is this the business of the state? This rule wouldn’t have had any bearing on me, since I was already many years divorced and had an IUD, but I felt indignant all the same…
We decided to just rule out all Catholic countries. Even sunny Spain and Portugal, which also have residence restrictions similar to France.
Now this was all quite a shock to an American like myself. In the US, if you want to elope, it’s a piece of cake. You and your beloved just go down to the county court house, wherever it is in the whole country that you’d like to get married. You show your drivers’ licenses, pay a small fee, and are given a marriage license. You come back after a waiting period of one or two or maybe three days tops (depending on the state), with a witness or two (depending on the state), step aside with a friendly judge, and say “I do”. For only about an hour of your time altogether, you can be legally bound to the person that you love for the rest of your days.
On one of my long stints back in Oregon while we waited to be able to marry, I called the Multnomah County Department of County Management. They said all we’d need to get a marriage license in Multnomah County was to show our photo IDs. I asked a few questions, just to clarify. What if one half of the couple was from another country? They would need to bring their photo ID. What if we’d both been divorced? Still just a photo ID, ma’am.
So instead of health exams and affidavits and proofs of residence and a stack of reissued and certified and translated documents and many weeks/months of statutory waiting, all Oregon required for a marriage license was ID, $60, and a three day waiting period — and for $5 you could even appeal to have that minimal waiting period waived. I checked New York City and Las Vegas, too, to compare. In Manhattan, a marriage license is only $35, and you are only required to wait 24 hours. In Vegas, a marriage license costs $77, and no waiting period.
And for one of the first times in my life, I actually found my thoroughly agnostic, feminist brain thinking “God bless America” with total sincerity.
I scoured Google for photos of the inside of Portland’s downtown City Hall. The court rooms where the marriages all seemed to take place were a little horrible; the grim sort of fluorescent-lit place you go to get money out of a deadbeat landlord or ex-husband. But it was super easy, and only $105 to have the whole ceremony done and dusted. Outdoor services are not legally recognized in some countries, but in the good old US of A, you can have a ceremony pretty much anywhere. Which meant you could always pay a Portland judge an extra $100 to meet you somewhere nicer, like a park, or find someone from the fabulous and decidedly American organization, The Universal Life Church, to officiate.
Unfortunately, the previously-mentioned, odious German divorce process dragged on several months longer than we’d anticipated, so we were both in Berlin when my love finally got his date in court. As a couple of writers barely scraping by, the prospect of paying for two trans-Atlantic flights on short notice was daunting. There had to be somewhere in the whole of Europe we could get married, didn’t there?
A Google search for ‘easiest places to get married in Europe’ came up with Gibraltar and Denmark.
Gibraltar is attached to the edge of Spain, and full of monkeys, but is somehow in fact British, which means that all their business is conducted in English. (It is famously the place where John and Yoko married, after experiencing their own visa hassles with English and French authorities.) All we would need to show were passports, birth certificates, and divorce decrees. There was also some business about “completing affidavits and signing them before a Commissioner for Oaths or a notary public of your choice in Gibraltar”, but that didn’t sound too complicated. However, Gibraltar is actually really expensive to get to, and the government’s ‘Visit Gibraltar’ materials made the whole place look like a posh tourist trap. Beautiful, but maybe not quite our style. We put this aside as a solid Plan B.
And so it was that I finally came to consider Denmark. A country whose existence I had been only vaguely aware of as ‘that place in Hamlet’, but one which I now know holds the delightful title of ‘The Vegas of Europe’. Which is ludicrous, because it still requires a lot of paperwork and many weeks of advanced planning, and you certainly can’t get married by Elvis or in a drive-thru. Still, it has an amazing amount in its favor:
· To get married in Copenhagen’s City Hall, all you need to provide them is a passport, a certificate of marital status (which Americans are kindly excused from, since our government doesn’t issue such things), and a divorce decree if you’ve had a divorce.
· They accept documents issued in English, Danish, and German. And each of their wedding certificates is automatically issued in multiple languages: English, Dutch, German, Spanish, etc.
· It’s only €70 for the license, instead of the €200 of Ireland. And no extra cost for the city hall ceremony, as there was in Portland. €70 for all paperwork and ceremony! Absolute bargain of a lifetime.
· You don’t have to establish residency, like France or Spain or Portugal.
· They process your application in around three weeks, rather than requiring three months, like Ireland. And you don’t need a special fiancé visa just to enter the country, as you do to the UK.
· You can submit your initial application via email, rather than having to go and do it in person or snail-mail it.
· They don’t make you do medical exams or pregnancy tests or any such horseshit.
· They are completely same-sex friendly (unlike Gibraltar). Indeed, they were the first country on Earth to allow any legal partnership for same-sex couples, and have become a major destination for same-sex couples across Europe (especially from civil rights hell-holes like Russia).
· Copenhagen City Hall is one of the most beautiful government buildings I’d ever seen. Beautiful brickwork, grand halls, and elaborate murals of lions and forests and birds.
· You can fly, train, or bus to Copenhagen from Berlin for €50 round-trip if you book in advance.
My fiancé and I went to get some advice at the Irish Embassy in Berlin, where we ended up talking to a very friendly and helpful German bureaucrat called Rolf. He told us that he and his wife had gone to Denmark when they got married, because it was “just easier.” So even German bureaucrats don’t want to deal with the paperwork in their homeland, and opt for going to Denmark. This made us feel much better, and confirmed that we had picked the runaway winner.
Unfortunately, by the time German officials got it together to mail my partner his final divorce decree (which the Danish authorities needed before they could sign off on our marriage application), I only had a couple weeks left on my tourist visa. Americans are only allowed to be in the Schengen Area (which is a group of 26 European countries) on tourist visas for 90 out of every 180 days. If the folks in Copenhagen got back to us quickly, we’d be able to get married right away, and then I could stay in Europe indefinitely. If they didn’t… well, I’d have to leave the continent again. In order to buy some extra visa time, I booked a budget RyanAir flight (€23 round-trip) out of the Schengen Area, to visit friends in London.
On Tuesday, June 7th, after a miserable night’s sleep in the world’s loudest hostel, I woke to an email from the Danes, notifying me that my marriage application had been approved! I called the wedding office and was told that they would try to reserve us a slot for June 15th, but that I should wait for a final confirmation before I made any travel arrangements. It ended up being the evening of Friday the 10th by that time that confirmation arrived. We would be getting married that coming Wednesday afternoon, which meant that we needed to present our paperwork in person at Copenhagen City Hall by Tuesday morning at the latest. We therefore had to fly out of Berlin by Monday evening. Which meant we had exactly three days to sort out flights, accommodations, child-care, cat-sitting, haircuts, wedding outfits, laundry, etc, and get out to the airport. And we had to do it on a budget. And every shop in Berlin is closed on Sundays (that Christian nation thing again). And we still needed to Skype our parents, so no one would have a heart attack.
We arrived at our Airbnb in Copenhagen just before midnight on Monday, presented our final paperwork at city hall Tuesday morning, were married in a three minute ceremony at city hall Wednesday afternoon, and took our wedding certificate to be notarized at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Thursday morning, before catching a flight back to Berlin that evening. Don’t let the speed and efficiency of the event fool you — it was plenty romantic. City hall was gorgeous, and every person we met there was warm, friendly, and congratulatory. Aside from fulfilling legal requirements, we spent our time wandering amongst canals, picnicking in rose gardens, and toasting each other on the balcony of our beautiful lodgings. It was a tiny, efficient whirlwind, and it was also as much indulgence and romance as either of us could bear in one go.
So now my beloved is my husband. Today is our one year anniversary. And I have been allowed to spend that whole year in Europe, living with him. There are many things about living over here that really are fantastically better than living in the US: the health care systems, the transportation infrastructures, the lack of mass shootings in schools… But I still get homesick for the States all the same. And after the ordeal of trying to get married in Europe, I am now actually extremely proud of our the sense of style, enthusiasm, and yes, freedom, we Americans are allowed when it comes to getting married. No one religion has a monopoly. You can get married in any church, temple, city hall, hotel, backyard, or forest that strikes your fancy, in any county. You can even get a friend ordained online to officiate, and incorporate your pets into the ceremony. My parents got married in an Alaskan goldmine. In Vegas you can apparently get married in your car. You don’t have to pay an arm and a leg, or take a freaking pregnancy test. You aren’t asked to present a formal legal case’s worth of documents just to tie the knot. In short, you are not treated as suspicious for wanting to do something joyous. You are allowed a level of spontaneity, creativity, and personalization that simply isn’t possible in other places. Your life and your heart are yours to share as you see fit, and the state doesn’t see it as their business to tell you otherwise. Perhaps it is because I am an American, but I wholeheartedly believe that’s how it should be.
So to all my fellow Americans, I say: let’s be proud of that freedom, and enjoy it, and be ready to fight to make sure all Americans can share in it.
(…But if you for some reason find yourself really needing get married in Europe, by all means, just make a beeline straight for Denmark.)