Picture a Scarlet Letter A made from cardboard. Here the A might stand for Ausländer. Outsider. Foreigner. Not from here. I think we will all have multiple turns wearing the symbolic cardboard A, but this week – the inaugural week – Elliot shall wear the badge of dishonor.
Before I get into his specific infraction, you should know that we heard anecdotes and sweeping generalizations about the tendency for Germans to judge others, to correct strangers on behavior of which they disapprove, and to speak frankly their unsolicited opinion, especially when it deviates from the action they are witnessing. It is a rule-based society. We even heard tell that Germans frequently report on their neighbors to the authorities for things ranging from parking improperly to doing yard work on a Sunday. We heard these stories from comedians, relocation experts, German expats, and we heard them first hand. We laughed about it but figured surely it must pertain more to people out in the suburbs, villages, and farmlands. Everyone we have met and interacted with has been so incredibly nice. Surely people in the heart of Munich are much more live-and-let-live. Surely neighbors in such an urban settings, who are so physically close to one another help each other when possible, or at the very least mind their own business.
We received an official email from the building manager yesterday, complete with photographic evidence and a cc: to our landlords stating that they received a report that we inappropriately disposed of our household waste. As a result, the cardboard that we mismanaged was blocking where the bins go, and thus said bins were now out in the middle of the driveway. Our shame on display for all to see.
Elliot’s chore every week is to remove our recycling. This is squarely on his shoulders. I do not dispute for a second that the kid messed up. He did a very lazy job and is now suffering the consequences (boy, is he suffering the consequences). I guess what gets me is the passive aggressive nature of this whole situation. If someone saw enough to see that he messed up, couldn’t that person speak with him or me? And even if no one saw at the time, but realized afterwards that it was ours (because our name is literally all over it), couldn’t you just talk to me in person or an email? I see the building manager almost daily. He has an office three floors down. Why involve my landlord? Why take pictures (*so* many pictures)?
We are still very new here and have been – I think – pretty model citizens. We have been trying very, very hard to fit in, to do the right things, and to get along. This whole situation is – for me – odd.
Of course, as soon as we got home, Elliot set to right the wrong, pick up and breakdown the cardboard, and put the bins back where they belong. Because we were running late for a dinner reservation, and, honestly, because I felt ashamed and wanted it fixed as soon as possible, I went down to help him. I do not for a second deny that we had A LOT of cardboard last week with so many deliveries. And he really did do a piss poor job. So let’s fix the mistake and move on, right?
While helping Elliot, I decided that I didn’t really care who reported the cardboard. Perhaps it was the disposal company who refused to put back the bins. Perhaps no one actually “reported” it; perhaps the building manager happened upon the scene unaided. Perhaps it was a neighbor. Macht nichts. It doesn’t matter. I also realized that if this had happened two months ago I would have been sobbing, so I think it’s safe to say we are making progress.
As I was picking up the spilled cardboard, I found a few pieces that were clearly not ours, whole, unbroken down boxes that had our neighbors’ names on the packaging. I took out my phone to fire off a picture for my building manager. “See! It’s not just us!!” But then I stopped. That is not how I want to live. And it’s not how I want to think of my neighbors. I am an Ausländerin.
This is where I was going to end this post, but I just typed something worth repeating: “See! It’s not just us.” It’s not just us. It’s not just us. Maybe with this particularly German experience we are fitting in a little after all.