“Excuse me. The U-Bahn was late because of the snow,” Francesca said when she arrived 15 minutes late to our meeting. “The Germans can´t handle snow any more,” I grumbled.”Two snowflakes, and everything runs late. Just shows how far German reliability has gone down.” “But in London public transport really broke down”, our South Korean friend reminded me. “In comparison, 15 minutes late in Germany aren´t that bad”.
When it comes to snow, I become a raging “Kulturpessimist”, one of those who always sigh “When I was young, everything was much better”.
Snow was much better when I was young.
First of all, there was snow. Snow season started in December and lasted till March. Sometimes we even looked for Easter eggs in a snow covered garden. In the moderate clima zone of Germany, snow meant fun: skiing, riding a sleigh, bulding a snowman, snowball fights. At least for the kids. For my father, it was hard work. Every morning, after a night of falling snow, I woke up to the sound of the snow shovel scraping on our gravel road. 200 m he had to clear before he could get out to work. I didn´t hear his words, probably for the better. But his angry shoulders and abrupt movements told me that he was not amused.
When I got up and went to school, not only had my father already cleared our private road, but the public roads were free of snow, too. At 5 o´clock in the morning, the snow plough had started its work. It pushed the snow aside with its iron shield, coughed it up with the snowblower and melted it with salt distributed by a rotating disc. The garage of the snowplough was near my parents home. On my way to school I passed the huge barn, filled with saltbags for winter. Those saltbags, empty, served as make-shift bobs for us children, as they where very thick and durable.
Snow never was a problem for drivers in the Black forest. Everybody boasted confidence, nobody came one minute late because of the snow. The secret: be prepared. We had cars whith engines in the back and not in front, which helped when you had to drive uphill in snow. Everbody knew which gear to choose for the right speed on snowy slopes and winding streets. Everybody knew about engine brakes, had non-skid chains in its trunk and winter tyres on the rims. Sometimes, when somebody got stuck on a hill, all neighbors came to weigh the rear end down with their bodies.
While enjoying these happy memories I always forget about the cold. Cold as in terribly cold. Wet woolen mittens didn´t warm my fingers, neither did unlined wellingtons warm my toes . All during winter, feet and hands were icy red. And wouldn´d get warm at night.
Germans don´t heat bedrooms. Instead, they rely on thick feather duvets and a hot water-bottle for warmth (some of them with two ears…). Normally, the window is open, at least a bit. For this nightly nip of fresh air, German windows can be opened two ways: completely or by unhingeing the upper part which then inclines into the room. This is the mode for the night, while the wide open window is reserved for the morning, when the duvets are placed on the window sill to air them.
Germans sincerely believe in the prophylactic power of cold and fresh air: as if bacteria and viruses would immediately die in an oxygen enriched, cold environment. To catch a cold, in our understanding, is only remotely connected to the temperature outside. Of course, German mothers insist that their children wear coat, gloves and cap in winter. But deep in their heart they don´t worry too much: “Draußensein in der Kälte härtet ab. Das ist die beste Vorsorge gegen Erkältung – to beware of a cold be out in the cold.”
Those “on duty” when snow falls find ample opportunities to enjoy the cold. By law, sidewalks must be cleared from snow before 7 o´clock in the morning and kept open till 8 o´clock in the evening. Otherwise, if somebody falls and breaks its ankle, he can claim liability. In principle, the clearing of the sidewalks lies in the responsibility of the local council. In practice, local councils hand this responsibility down to house owners, who hand it further down to the tennants. Whose duty is to do what in which week is part of rental contracts and elaborate in-house arrangements. In German appartment houses, you often see calendars with alternating names either fixed to the notice board or dangling from the doorknob of the person on duty.
This schedules for “Kehrwoche” must be obeyed, at all cost. Otherwise, sanctions aren´t far away. A German saying goes: “Es kann der Beste nicht in Frieden leben, wenn es dem bösen Nachbarn nicht gefällt – even the best can´t live in peace if his neighbours decide do act nasty”. On the other hand, if you obey to the Kehrwoche rules and fight your way out into a snowstorm at 6 o´clock to shovel snow, you will be rewarded with the warmest possible welcome from your neighbours, a 10 on the Richter-scale.
My landlord outsourced the snow-cleaning job to a professional firm. Lucky me. I can stay in my – heated – bedroom till it´s time to go to work. It is only when I see my handsome new neighbour shoveling snow that I feel a pang of regret.
But this is another story.