Donnerstag, 21. Februar 2013

Germans are bound by the fattest rule book in the world. No wonder they freak out at Fasching.

Even if it's not verboten, don't push your luck too far...
Fasching passed uneventfully this year, though not without the usual pain and discomfort. Most Germans must have heaved a sigh of relief, climbing out of their sweat-filled cow or donkey costumes. Happy to see the back of this time of year known as the "fifth season", and return to the regulated Ordnung which characterises their lives for the rest of the year.

Alles in Ordnung – literally “all in order” – is one of the most common phrases in German – even more popular than “OK”. Another favourite is ordnungsgemäß“according to rules”. Not that Germans really need any rules at all. They intuitively know what is and isn’t “in order”. They simply say “Das muss sein” or “Das darf nicht sein”. Saying that something “must be” or “isn’t allowed to be” justifies everything – no further explanation is required.

Germans not only keep a tight rein on themselves – they’re also quick to reprimand others. They pass comment on everything, from opening the window and causing a draught (a very serious offence, it seems), to sitting in a sauna without a towel (I tried this once and was immediately sent out). But it’s from disciplining each other on waste disposal that Germans seem to derive greatest pleasure.  What is it about waste disposal that gets them so excited? When I first moved to Germany neighbours were always leaving me notes on rubbish bins. We had about six various bins, all colour coded. Mix up codes and put waste in recycling, for example, and you got enough notes to fill a whole container. I used to come home from work to find a trail of post-its all up the garden path, stuck on every available surface.

Funniest note I ever received was after parking my car in a terrible hurry. Skew-whiff and half over the kerb, it was nonetheless no great obstacle to either traffic or pedestrians. I came back to find some smarty puss had stuck a memo on the windscreen, saying something like “If you have sex as badly as you park you’ll end up with a stiff neck too.” Chucking the note in the nearest recycler I remember thinking what a charming way Germans have of connecting two totally unrelated activities.

Orderliness and civil obedience go hand in hand in Germany. You’d be amazed at things Germans obediently refrain from doing: hanging up washing outside on Sundays, tuning pianos at midnight (luckily, I’ve so far resisted all temptation to do THAT) and take a deep breath denying a chimney sweep access to their home.

..and don't dare think about hanging up washing on Sundays

German legislation is at its most creative, however, when it comes to curtailing its citizens’ fondness for frolicking around in fancy dress. Turning up at a meeting or demonstration in a mask or false nose, for instance, will earn you a hefty fine or 12 months imprisonment. This so-called Vermummungsgesetz is suspended during Karneval, for obvious reasons.

Germans can’t possibly know every single rule though. When I moved into my first flat I put up a satellite dish to watch the BBC. I was just tuning into Teatime News when my landlady burst in, saying it was verboten and demanding I take the dish down. I politely recited the German Civil Code, which charters the right of every foreigner in Germany to watch television in their own language. Ah so. Alles in Ordnung, came the calm and orderly response. For a while everything remained calm and “in order”. Until we tried planting a small shrub in the garden – without permission – which really is verboten.

Peep over the garden fence and you'll see how Germans over-exaggerate when it comes to avoiding anything that’s the slightest bit verboten. Like letting leaves pile up on your lawn any higher than 5 inches. Only this would explain why I’ve had several neighbours who go around shaking tree branches before raking up the leaves – presumably in order to halve the workload.

Germans might take civil obedience to ridiculous extremes, but when it comes to forking out for fines they eagerly conspire to outwit the law. Take, for example, Blitzer-Meldungen.  Nothing, as Brits might think, to do with The War. Blitzer are speed traps, and Germans love phoning their local radio stations to warn listeners about where they risk getting “blitzed”. You can almost hear them purr with pleasure, patting their backs in self congratulation, as they reveal the whereabouts of these loathed devices. Brits loathe them too of course, but take the attitude it’s “a fair cop” – you speed, you pay. The idea of deliberately stopping the car to warn fellow motorists on public radio makes most Brits curl up with laughter.  

The typical German seems constantly looking out for pitfalls in life, guarding against whatever atrocities might strike. Something which the press must take part blame for. Doomsday warnings like “Werden die Deutschen impotent?” (are Germans losing their fertility?) and “Sterben die Deutschen aus?” (are Germans dying out?) are widespread. The latest online “Spiegel” carries an interview with a “Population Expert” from the University of Bielefeld. Written in typical Endzeitstimmung style, the message is that Germans needs an extra 500 000 immigrants by 2025, or they’ll die out.

Of course things are rarely as bad as they seem. Not even in Germany. After living here 14 years I secretly enjoy a bit of disorder once a year. I can’t wait for Fasching 2014.


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