Dealing with my German Hausmeister

The janitor in German apartment blocks (Hausmeister) often appears to have been living in the same room for decades and likes to enforce rules. Designer Tessa Sinclair Scott, a New Zealand expat in Hamburg, shares her experiences.

Dealing with my German Hausmeister
Apartments in Hamburg. Photo: DPA

Our Hausmeister here in Hamburg is called Herr Klein.

It is down to him that the shared areas of the building are kept clean. To this end he has devised a cleaning roster for the entrance way and stairs which he carefully rotates each week.

The roster – which hangs prominently in the entrance hallway of our apartment building – is studiously ignored by at least 50 percent of the occupants.

Herr Klein bemoans this lack of community spirit loudly and belligerently in the stairwell whenever he, with bat-like accuracy, detects the scrape of a key in the front door lock.

Like most Hausmeisters, Herr Klein lives on the ground floor, a fact which makes escape from him rather difficult.

Frau Klein I

He’s been living in the building since the year dot and says loudly and frequently to anyone who’ll listen; the only way they’ll get me out of here is feet first… his lease predates the rental market reform – he still pays what he paid in 1965.

This modest sum is about ten percent of what the apartment will be rented for when he is carried out feet first, when his penchant for clear spirits does finally get the better of him.

Indeed, Herr Klein likes a post-breakfast tipple usually followed by a liquid lunch then an afternoon snifter before he moves onto a serious evening of TV while he snaffles the rest of his daily dosage.

I often see him walking back from the alcohol store at about 8am, chinking along carefully with several large bottles of schnapps.

By midday he’ll be haunting the stairwell, lying in wait for someone to pass by so he can regale them with tales of his late wife, ‘die Sizilianerin'.

The Sicilian was, by his account, a volatile and passionate woman who frequently threatened to kill him, should he ever succumb to the charms of another woman.

"Meine gestorbene Frau," he said to me one day as I edged past him in the stairwell, "hat mir immer gesagt, wenn du fremdgehst, bring ich dich um!"

If he ever so much as looked at another woman Frau Klein would have no hesitation in killing him, probably with her bare hands. 

However, despite his obvious potential to stray, he remained happily married to die Sizilianerin until her untimely death.

I suppose it was her death that pushed him over the edge into the convicted dipsomaniac he now is, however, the fact that Herr Klein is permanently blottoed in no way interferes with the orderliness of his life.

A stickler for rules, he gets about in all weathers in a uniform consisting of a spotless white t-shirt, red braces, pressed jeans and if it's raining a yellow raincoat and hat of the kind worn by Paddington Bear.

Frau Klein II

I often wonder if his natty and slightly nautical sartorial bent isn’t a hangover from his days as a sailor.

After the death of his first wife he spent many years at sea, wandering the globe from Amsterdam to Australia. 

Eventually, however, he returned to exactly the same life he'd left behind – with one major alteration.

In the Philippines, Herr Klein found another potential candidate for the post of Frau Klein.

Without further ado he quit his seafaring life and set about arranging the import of his exotic new bride.

The house gossip unfairly suggests that Frau Klein II was actually a mail-order bride, but I have it from the horse’s mouth that this is not so.

On one of his trips to the ‘South Seas’ Herr Klein met Frau Klein II while she was working as a cook in a portside tavern of the kind only frequented by weeping Russian and stoic North German sailors. 

A native speaker of Tagalog, Frau Klein II also speaks excellent Spanish and English but unfortunately after 20 years in Germany, her command of Deutsch is still poor.

This is a source of great chagrin to Herr Klein who complains to me that although she is a good cook, his wife cannot speak good German. “Even you speak much better German than she does,” he says as we pass on the stairs.

It’s tempting to be flattered but then it’s a question of relativity. I speak better German than an already multi-lingual 65-year-old woman with no need or desire to speak German. I shouldn’t let it go to my head, but I am weak.

'Friend of integration'

Herr Klein, on account of his having had not one, but two, foreign wives is known amongst his contemporaries as a paragon of open-mindedness and a ‘friend of integration’.

The current German government is very big on integration. It should be the one and only aim of all immigrants to integrate fully and by this it is meant – Learn to Speak Good German.

This isn't just empty rhetoric and I myself am a graduate of the heavily subsidized state run 'integration course.

During this intensive course which ran for six months full time I managed to learn enough idiomatic German phrases to fool most people into thinking I can speak the language far better than I actually can.

I do understand just about everything that I read or hear but the rub comes when called upon to describe either how something works or what it looks like.

At this point I am often greeted with either an offer to switch to English whereupon my conversation partner will shame me with their excellent command of my puny language or by a slightly embarrassed head tilt which is German for, oh well, we’ll just let her go, she’s on a roll and trying so hard.

Most of the Germans that I encounter are of the opinion that one ought to stick to one's specialties and are mystified by any kind of let’s-just-give-it-a-go fervour for the unknown by the unskilled.

This new world attitude just doesn’t compute. Antipodeans suffer terribly from instant-expertism and I – with my shaky command of German – am a case in point.

I have no more inclination to integrate than Frau Klein II but I just don't have it in me to correct him when Herr Klein goes off on a rave about my language skills compared to Frau Klein II's.

Being as I am complicit, I am in no position to blame Herr Klein for his complete lack of understanding of his wife's plight, marooned as she is in a bubble of non-communication.

I'm just glad when I manage to make a quick getaway without the spectre of the cleaning roster rearing its ugly head.

You can read more from Tessa's blog, Letters from Hamburg, here.

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Germany insists on these 8 things, even though they’re rubbish

We're not saying our home countries get everything right - not by a long way. But we just don't get why Germany is too stubborn to admit that all these things are a bit crap.

Germany insists on these 8 things, even though they're rubbish
Photo: DPA

1. Swapping a kitchen every time you change flat

You may well have heard the expression “taking everything but the kitchen sink.” Well in Germany, when you move house you often take that too, even if you're just letting.

If you are moving out of the flat, and find that the kitchen was actually put in by the previous tenant, but was never paid for by the landlord, then the kitchen is legally your responsibility.

That means that if the new tenant wants to bring their own kitchen (which is not uncommon) it is your job to deal with it, otherwise the landlord could charge you for the cost of removing it.

This can be particularly maddening for people moving far away who can’t exactly fill a suitcase with the dishwasher and the fridge. If you're not prepared you may end up selling perfectly good kitchen appliances for a fraction of what you bought them for.

It also means that, if you are arriving fresh in Germany, on top of all the furniture you expected to buy, you could end up forking out for an oven, a fridge, a sink and a dishwasher.

2. Having to pay a TV licence fee – even if you don’t own an idiot box

Nowadays few of us have a TV. Or at least you’re unlikely to buy one if you’ve just moved to Germany when you have Netflix, Amazon Prime, and the rest of the internet to choose from.

But for some reason every German household has to pay a TV and radio licence, regardless of whether you own one.

And it’s not exactly cheap. Each household has to pay €17.50 per month. And don’t expect to slip under the radar: the authorities will soon be in touch, and may even threaten to seize your car, even if you don’t have one of those either.

3. Dubbing our favourite movies

Since you're forced to pay all that money for public broadcasters, you'd hope for a pretty high standard.

German public broadcasting is actually the most expensive in the world, with 23 TV and 63 radio stations having an annual budget of around €8.4 billion, more than Britain's BBC, which provides a huge variety of original programming across television and radio.

Crime series Tatort is probably the most famous programme you'll get in Germany – it has been running continuously since 1970. German TV is obsessed with detective series, but apart form that and daily topical shows, you're left with little to choose from.

And when they do air a good blockbuster you'll discovering that it’s been dubbed. What’s wrong with subtitles? No one wants to watch James Bond when Daniel Craig has the voice of a bored German accountant.

4. Selling 20 types of pickle, but no Asian food

On first arriving in Deutschland, you are no doubt thrilled by the new supermarkets. Shopping abroad is always more exciting. But sadly, this novelty soon wears off.

Firstly, the layout in German shops is entirely illogical, and rarely well signed. If you want to buy some tortellini for dinner, you’ll have to go to the meat section for a mince filled one, and then find the vegetarian section for a cheese one.

And then there’s the sparse selection in general. If you’re satisfied with just eating central European food, you’ll survive just fine, but as soon as you want to stray into even the most basic oriental cuisine, you’ll be trekking off to an Asian market.

And don’t get started on the alcohol. Yes, it’s cheap, but in many supermarkets, if you want a bottle of hard liquor, you have to inform them at the till. The attendant will then go all the way to the locked alcohol aisle cabinet, locate your bottle and return to the till, meaning that the now lengthy queue behind you will make you regret you even contemplated a bottle of whisky.

5. Making you stare at your poo before you flush it

The very German lay-and-display toilet. Photo: Lexlexlex / Wikimedia Commons

Let's not beat about the bush. German bathrooms are terrible. It’s not their hygiene or their size, but their appliances.

Showers are often in baths and are attached to the wall in such a way that you have to perform a squat to get your hair wet.

Then there’s the lack of extractor fans. This means that unless you open the window (which is not recommended in December), the bathroom fills with steam, and sticks forever to the walls. So you have the choice between the arctic cold, or the humidity of a rain forest.

But worst of all are the toilets you find across much of Germany, aptly nicknamed “lay-and-display” loos by fed-up expats. These are the bizarre ones with a collecting shelf in the bowl. There’s no need to explain why you won’t like these unless you have an interest in scatological science.

6. Being super relaxed about fire

This is a more serious point. There is no federal law about smoke alarms, so each state has had to introduce them separately. In the summer of 2016, Berlin, Brandenburg and Saxony were the last states to implement such laws.

But it’s not that simple. In Berlin all new-builds must have one from 2017, but the law for existing buildings doesn't come into effect until 2021. Home owners in Bavaria still have until the end of 2017 to install them.

So, although Germany is finally bringing in laws, you probably won't have a smoke alarm if you live in the capital for another four years. Who would have thought it would take so long to install a life-saving and oh-so-small thing?

7. Interrogating you before you buy cold medicine

Almost everything is in a room at the back and not easy to get your hands on. Photo: DPA

In Germany, Apotheken (pharmacies) are on almost every street, but they do not have a great selection of over-the-counter medicine, and often interrogate you as to whether you really need it before charging you sky-high prices.

Yes, that’s because pharmacists have five years of training and know their stuff, but if you just want an aspirin does it have to be such a faff?

And then there’s the problem that pharmacies aren’t open on a Sunday. That would be fine if you were able to buy medicine elsewhere, but if you suddenly get a migraine on a Sunday, you’re really going to struggle to find anything to help.

8. Not replacing public holidays if they fall on a weekend

In most European countries, if Christmas falls on a Sunday, you'll get Tuesday off as compensation. But not in Germany. Here, if the public holiday falls on the weekend that's just bad luck. And strangely, polling shows that most Germans think this is the way it should be.

And while we're on the topic of public holidays, why does Bavaria get 13, while Berlin only gets nine? They get the sun, the mountains, Oktoberfest and more holidays? That's not right!

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