I am no stranger to the German sense of order and cleanliness – how could I be after living here for 30 years? After such a long time, I now take it almost for granted: the clean streets, the men who regularly sweep the sidewalk and others who walk around train stations poking a pointy stick into the garbage people have left behind (not sure what the poking will achieve, but it must have something to do with putting the trash into a superior state of orderliness). Still others can be seen washing street signs with long brushes on poles.
And yet, there are still surprises in wait.
I spent a six-month stint at a construction firm that lies a good 100 kilometers outside the city in what Munich residents consider to be the middle of nowhere. It is a family-owned company in a booming metropolis of 17,000, so despite doing business in 70 countries, it still has a small town feeling and most employees live close by. That, at least, is how I explained the behavior of one of my colleagues when she was eating gummy bears. I personally don’t eat gummy bears. In my opinion, they’re just too gummy to bear (forgive me, I couldn’t resist). She made a snack of them every single day. In her shoes, I’d probably rip open the bag, dump them into my hand and woof them down, two or three at a time.
Not Marina. She shook them out of the bag onto her desk, then lined them up ceremoniously in a row on a piece of paper. They all lay there, little hands almost touching, equidistant from one another, right next to her keyboard. She would then proceed with her work, answering phone calls – “Thank you for calling, Aufwiederhören!,” advising colleagues – “It’s on the Q drive,” all the while picking them off, nonchalantly popping them into her mouth one by one. It took her about 20 minutes to work her way down the line.
Maybe I’m kidding myself, but I can’t help thinking that this behavior is distinctly German.
This systematic gummy bear gobbling was easily trumped, however, during an impromtpu exploratory foray I made to the apartment of my octogenarian father-in-law, Hans. Stricken within just a matter of hours with a very severe case of the flu, he had to be taken to the hospital before he had the chance to put together an overnight case. This task then fell to me.
While I had often been to his apartment, I didn’t appreciate the full beauty of its orderliness until that day when I had to carefully scope the place out to find particular items. I was also there alone, free to snoop around, which of course is exactly what I did.
It started with the book on his nightstand. That was easy enough to find. Nothing spectacular here, although I couldn’t help noticing how incredibly neat the bedroom was. I paused for a moment to consider if I had also adjusted my bedspread this carefully to make it cascade down both sides in perfect symmetry. There was nothing on the floor here waiting to be tossed into the hamper or the wardrobe, either. Had I left my pajamas at the foot of the bed – or perhaps yesterday’s socks? Better not come down with the flu unexpectedly.
Things got more interesting when I proceeded to the bathroom to get a razor and some towels. Don’t they have towels in hospitals? I’m sure they do, but he did ask for them. Here was a stack of crisp white ones, perfectly aligned. Not fluffy mind you – that would imply a sense of comfort that was definitely not present – but crisp. A good German would never use an environmentally unfriendly clothes dryer. Why would you when you can easily hang the clothes up on a laundry rack on the balcony and let the sun dry them, providing that post-shower towel-down with just a little zing.
Inside the medicine chest (no smears or spots on the mirror – did he know he was coming down with the flu?) there were three packets of disposable razors lined up in a row. I took one, as instructed, and added the can of shaving cream, but not without inspecting it. No dried, crusty remnants of foam were to be found. Leaving the bathroom, I wondered if the carbon footprint left by the disposable razors cancelled out forgoing a clothes dryer.
This was fun. This must be what it’s like for a chambermaid or cleaning lady (or some other profession reminiscent of Downton Abbey), all of whom have a professional license to be a voyeur. Even if someone walked in on them while they were admiring a crystal cat on a shelf, the framed, sepia photo of great-grandma or the 200-year old shrunken head in formaldehyde in the jar – in other words, standard household items – they only need quickly activate their feather duster or fluff up a pillow and flash a big smile. “Just finishing up here!” I had no fear that Hans would come barging in on me, as he was safely ensconced in a hospital bed and was barely able to walk. I could poke around with impunity.
Nothing prepared me for the sock and underwear drawer, though. I was under strict orders to find and remove exactly five pairs of dark blue socks, five undershirts and five pairs of underwear.
Up until that moment I had, if truth be told, been proud of my own sock drawer. People make jokes about organizing a sock drawer as if it were the last thing on earth they would ever do – who would ever take the time to perform such a worthless task? Well, as a matter of fact, me. As part of my effort to integrate, I had long ago developed what I had previously thought to be a great system. Three foldable cloth boxes from IKEA fit snugly into the drawer. Bundled pairs of sports socks get thrown into the left-hand box, normal socks into the center and pantyhose into the right-hand box. Perfectly organized. At least that’s what I thought until I was bested by my father-in-law.
Three boxes? For one item? Bah! That is for mere amateurs, my friend! Hans had one-upped me by having only ONE color of sock, undershirt and underwear. The socks were paired together flat and stacked on top of one another, crisscrossed in a pile to form an X. This prevented them from getting mixed up. It was easy to count out the individual pairs of socks because they were already separated.
After being intimidated by all the orderliness around me, I was relieved to find these X-socks (as I secretly christened them). I realized it was too much to ask of anyone to whittle down a sock collection to just one color, so I felt exempted from having to build single-colored sock towers with them. And while we’re at it, who cares about the bedspread? I figure anyone who makes it as far as my bedroom won’t care if it’s lopsided – and if they do, they have no business being there.
When Hans opened his hospital room door, he was delighted to see me and the bag of clothes I had brought along. The socks were crumpled and no longer in formation, but he didn’t seem to notice. I guess the order thing has its limits.
I resisted the temptation to make wisecracks about his meticulously tidy apartment – and especially the X-socks – but successfully resisted. He probably thinks everybody does that. Who am I to shatter his illusion of an orderly world?