Cold Comfort

In Germany, renters have certain responsibilities. When I lived in Hamburg a decade ago, for instance, renters typically had to clean the landing, hall or stairway nearest their door in any shared building—a duty my boyfriend and I were reminded of by pointed looks from neighbors during snow or rain. It wasn’t a fair system; we lived on the ground floor in a heavily trafficked area right by the front entrance, so we were expected to mop much more often than tenants on any of the six floors above. But everyone who entered the building could see immediately whether we’d followed the rule or not, and so we followed it. Just never on a Sunday.

We couldn’t mop publicly on a Sunday. Nor could we do laundry, since the electricity in the laundry room cut out at midnight, locking the machines until dawn. (Washing clothes by hand was fine, provided you didn’t hang anything to dry where neighbors would see it and report you as a nuisance.) Stores, even supermarkets, were closed. The gym we used was closed. Like it or not, Sunday was a day of rest.

I was careful on Sundays especially, but every other day, too, because I wasn’t registered to live in my boyfriend’s apartment. I was a legal resident with a visa and a work permit, but the address on file for me was that of a friend of a friend. And although my boyfriend had been living in his apartment for years already, it technically wasn’t his apartment: On paper, he was just a roommate to the official renter, who no longer lived there but around the corner. This shuffling wasn’t uncommon among expats, but it was necessary, because renting an apartment required a perfect paper trail and a staggeringly large security deposit, as well as binding employment contracts and financial assurances. My name wasn’t even on the mailbox, since it wasn’t legal for me to get mail there. I kept the TV volume down and the curtains closed to avoid a conversation with the TV inspector. I never answered the door, and I followed the rules about not running water, or even flushing the toilet, after 10:30 at night. All things considered, we had very little trouble.

Until it was time to move out.

The apartment had to be left completely empty, and we complied: no light bulbs in the fixtures, no toilet paper in the bathroom, no rod for the shower curtain, no plug for the kitchen sink. There was veneer paneling in the kitchen; my boyfriend hadn’t installed it, but somebody had at some point, and now it had to go. The walls had to be repainted. The wood floor had to be sanded. We did it all. And then, late in the process, the friend in whose name the place was rented looked in. “What about the refrigerator?” she asked.

Getting rid of a perfectly good refrigerator in Germany wasn’t as easy as leaving it out on the curb after dark. By law, it had to be taken to a recycling facility. This one was small, but it weighed as much as a GMC truck, and we wrestled it out and down the front steps with difficulty. The cab driver tried to flee, but my boyfriend convinced him to let us shift it into his trunk. At the recycling center we discovered certain papers were needed, because there were rules about how many refrigerators you could surrender in a given time period. This was supposed to prevent contractors from dumping appliances en masse. My boyfriend, using all of his charm, convinced the attendant to accept the fridge despite the insufficient ID he had with him. It took most of a Saturday afternoon to resolve, but at last the apartment was practically empty.

“Including the attic?” the friend said the next morning.

Neither of us had ever been up to the attic, where apparently each tenant had a private, locked storage space that opened with the apartment key. My boyfriend made a cursory, last-minute visit: Inside were two more refrigerators, hulking in the shadows, even older and heavier than the one we’d just gotten rid of.

Two refrigerators? Who could have left them there? How on earth did they haul them up all those stairs? And why? There was no time to overthink it. Our options were too limited. We could wrestle those heavy, awkward appliances painfully down six flights of stairs, one at a time, during the quiet of a Sunday, attracting the attention of every neighbor along the way. But then what? The recycling center was closed. And even if tandem drop-offs could be arranged for Monday morning, my boyfriend had already shown his ID for the first refrigerator; two more would certainly put him over the legal limit. We couldn’t leave them outside with the trash because they had to be recycled. If we attempted to blatantly abandon them on the curb in desperation, every neighbor in the building would know who was responsible, and there went the enormous deposit. Nobody we knew needed a fridge, much less two; we’d tried to give away the first one, and these were most likely broken anyway.

The only reasonable option was to gently close the door to the storage area, slip quietly back down the stairs, and feign ignorance. Amazingly, it worked—but only because there were other distracting snags in the end, like pinholes, scuff marks, minor details that somehow penciled out to a thousand euros in lost deposit money. This was apparently legal on paper, but of course it didn’t seem right, after all that cleaning and repair work.

At least we had the small satisfaction of leaving those two behemoths in the attic: not legal, but certainly fair.

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