my new name is Tom Adler

Some books I read were telling about people who took new names for themselves. They did it to hide their identity, or because such were local customs, whatever the book author fancied. Well I guess actual history knew people like that, but nowadays only women change their last names after marriage, and not all of them.

Later on I read an article describing the sociological research called “Renouncing Personal Names: An Empirical Examination of Surname Change and Earnings”. The authors have analyzed Swedish statistics and figured out that those of immigrants into Sweden who took local names had income levels almost twice as high as their counterparts. By that moment I was already planning to emigrate, so the article caught my attention. You’d expect that difficult foreign names would cause the owners some trouble, but you wouldn’t expect it to be that large. Those poor Asians!

Then I moved to Germany and realized: Poor me! Apparently any unfamiliar foreign name could be mispronounced in such a multitude of wrong ways. One need to stress the correct syllable, to pronounce all the necessary letters, and read every letter according to the language of origin and not the local one, and then there are letter combinations.

So yeah, reading is difficult, but what about listening? I probably don’t need to tell you, hearing an unfamiliar name is even more fun, especially over the phone. Well, you can use smart phrasing to avoid addressing the other person by name, unless you need to write it down. Write down correctly, I mean. Dictating letter by letter is the only way. Well, given that letters are pronounced differently, it has to be words or names instead. Local names, at best. So here you are, trying to recall local names starting with a proper letter, on the go. Better use a standardized phonetic alphabet, the NATO one, or the German. You can’t really introduce yourself without thorough preparation.

Sometimes I was getting emails from people having unfamiliar names, and I had to search online before answering those people to know whether should I address them as Mr. or Mrs. Well guess what! I, too, got a few emails addressing myself as Mrs. Tregubenko. Whatever, I got used to that when I had long hair in my teenage years.

It’s been several years of tolerating these minor but daily annoyances, when I learned that a friend of mine, an immigrant herself, just changed her last name. I recalled then another fact I knew about the repatriates into Germany, they usually “restored” the German form of their names, instead of sticking to the Slavic form. They were doing this when becoming citizens, and I wanted to become a German citizen as well. So that’s when the idea started rooting. I even ran a small test ordering coffee at Starbucks for Martin, and was pleasantly surprised how smoothly it went. So after quite some pondering I decided that I want to go this route.

This is not a small decision, I tell ya. I was cautious. Should the new name be, like, not totally new, but just new-ish? Could I maybe just kind of translate mine? But for that to work people need to be well versed in the literal meanings of names, while in the real world they don’t even know the old Greek goddess Artemis. And taking the name Threefinger is too pirate-y to my taste, arrr.

Therefore, I’d need to pick from the existing ones. The upside is that there’re so many of them, I could be really picky. I want one that sounds similar to the old one. I want a popular and recognizable one. I don’t want to be yet another Smith. I want German, British, French, and Spanish people to read it the same way. I want it to be short.

In the end my two top picks for the first name were Tom and Martin. Tom won. It’s short and simple, and almost matches the form of Artemy my mother calls me. The name Martin is longer, includes a complicated “R”, means “warrior”, and it’s not too clear it includes “Arty”. Though by coincidence it was the 8th most popular baby name in the year of my birth.

Choosing the last name proved to be harder, so I approached it like the software developer I am. I assembled the list of 3000 most used last names in Germany, ditched the first 100, filtered out letters and their combinations that were not international enough, ignored too long ones, and took a long hard look on the very few remaining names. Guess what, quite some names also have a second meaning, not a very good one usually.

At that moment my beloved wife saw the hardships I was facing and told me: “You are like an eagle with your 142% sharp eyesight, go for Adler, eagle in German”. And so I did, it was a perfect choice. Thank you darling!

If you are mighty bored at this point, brace yourselves, the end is not nigh at all!

Picking the name is just half a story, actually changing it takes some effort too. I confirmed at the civil registration office that name change happens after the naturalization, and stopped thinking about it for the time being. After becoming a German in a sense I started reading up on it and figured out some details. It is indeed supposed to be really simple to adapt your first name to sound like a German one. But for some reason the lady responsible for this task was eyeing me like a cockroach and plainly refused to do her job. Luckily her manager convinced her I have this right, so she stopped refusing but not giving me the looks. Another strike of luck was that German names do not include any form of Artemy, so I was able to choose whatever I wanted. So less than a week after becoming German I became Tom.

It was way, way more challenging with the last name. The same manager has explained to me that the German government is really against people changing their last names. They only allow it in rare, quite exceptional cases when the person has very convincing grounds to do so. Otherwise, all these felons would just take new names and become untraceable, you know.

Well the guy didn’t explain the real reason this law “Gesetz über die Änderung von Familiennamen und Vornamen” came to life. It happened in 1938 with the official reasoning “people should not be able to hide their bloodline”, if you know what I mean. Not a conspiracy theory, German bureaucrats keep a good paper trail of it. Of course, the reasoning was cleaned up later, but not the law itself.

The law also explicitly says that the last name being foreign cannot be grounds for its change, and that one is expected to have some difficulties because of that, and these are to tolerate without attempting to change the name. I actually envision it as a national motto: “Difficulties are to tolerate”.

No official document seems to mention something very helpful though. There is a publicly available ministerial decree on interpreting this law (Allgemeine Verwaltungsvorschrift zum Gesetz über die Änderung von Familiennamen und Vornamen). It lists exactly my case as one of the convincing grounds. Specifically it says that after naturalization the freshly minted citizen may change their obviously foreign last name into a less suspicious one, in case they believe this will help them better integrate into society. No clerk mentions this document. Faced with this document the clerks do their best to avoid reading it literally.

I learned about this very late. After the hopeless introduction I submitted the form with the most convincing ground I could find in myself. In six weeks the office made a request typical for the cases of “we are not really convinced”. They ask you to prove that this ground is so important for you that you’ve been to a psychoanalyst to treat its consequences. And not just a single visit, mind you, you’re expected to have been observed for a prolonged time.

Being a software developer and failing hundreds of times per working day teaches one not to give up too soon. However, we were planning a move back to Berlin very soon, and name change applications are handled by the local office. I notified the office of our plans and in a month we’ve moved into the temporary apartment in Berlin. A few weeks after registering there I’ve received a mail from the local office with an identical request of doctor’s notice. In another couple of weeks we’ve moved to the permanent apartment in Berlin, notified the office again, and my application was sent to a third person who reiterated the request.

Settling down, looking for a psychologist, waiting for the clerk to get well again, all that took some time. Actually eight months have passed after I have filed my application. Only then by pure chance I have stumbled upon the blessed ministerial decree. I proceeded enlightened by this knowledge, and just after one month I received a reply starting with words “Dear Mr. Adler”. Trust me when I say that this date is marked in my calendar as my second birthday! It took Tom Adler nine months to come into this world.

Issuing and re-issuing documents is not free, so I have been using a temporary ID this whole time. Well, five of them actually, since they are only valid for 3 months, and are re-issued when you register at a new place. Now I could finally order proper ID and passport, and start notifying companies about the change. I’ve discovered another curiosity in the process: some websites don’t let you change your name at all, some only allow to change the first name, and some only allow changing the last name. Quite some support requests were sent.

Another detail is that I have been Tom Tregubenko for nine months, and I wasn’t too eager to notify everyone and everything about this “intermediate” state only to send out another update later on. So I didn’t, unless I was registering somewhere anew and had to provide the ID. And the high uncertainty made me a bit superstitious, so I didn’t want to jinx the change of last name. Now I can finally talk freely about it!

I am actually very happy with the outcome, my life does feel better now. People greet me without a hitch, they recognize my name from the first attempt, everything has become as it should be. But I won’t take that for granted anymore.

I’ve told a few friends already, and the common question is how to address me now. Please feel free to call me the same name you’ve called me before. I see this change as just adding Tom to my list of names: Artemy, Artem, Tjoma, Tjom, Arty.

But it might happen that in fifty years someone would call me Artemy, and I would answer with a quote: “That is a name I haven’t heard in a long time”.

Let me again put the timeline of the process here at the end for my future reference.

Tom Adler,

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