Monday, June 28, 2004

Illegal Odors

So of course I can't just walk away with a reference to the Garlic Story and not tell it. And, since absolutely nothng happened today, it's a perfect opportunity.

Now, Americans I tell this story to don't believe it. Germans, however, do.

My first apartment here was a tiny shoebox with a very low ceiling (I could rest the palm of my hand on it without standing on my toes) and a narrow shelf with a mattress. It was in what they call a Neubau, a new building, and was devoid of any charm at all. The kitchen was so tiny I had to do my chopping on the table I ate at; there was no counter space at all.

Still, I managed to entertain from time to time, and to feed myself when I wasn't utterly broke. That was also where I had my dinners of peanut butter on crispbread and tap water, but once I discovered a decent grocery store nearby (it was where Mrs. Erich Honecker, the wife of the East German Chancellor, came across the Wall in her Volvo stretch limo to shop, I later learned) I was able to put together a good repertoire of stuff.

Much of which, both because of my background and because thanks to the EU the price was right, was Italian. Italian-American, to be honest; that was where my tastes were formed, and that's what I know how to make. And, as anyone who's lived in a Little Italy will attest, that means using copious garlic.

Now, small though this apartment was, it also had a lot of doors. There was a door to the kitchen, which I never closed because it made me claustrophobic, a door to the living room, which was just inside the front door, and a door to the bathroom. That's important to the story.

If you've lived in New York, you know who the super is, the building superintendant, the guy you call who's supposedly the landlord's on-site representative, who'll repair stuff or call the plumber or electrician when things go bad. In Germany, this guy is called the Hausmeister, and every building has one. The Hausmeister in this building was a little black guy, an American ex-GI. I always figured he came over here in the '50s, and stayed. Probably the reason he stayed was his wife. I think this was a very stereotypical love story, between a working-class Berlin girl with big tits and a rural-raised black guy who saw a white girl with big tits who went for him and figured he'd died and gone to heaven. Well, 40 years later, she'd grown into the tits. She was huge. Linebacker shoulders, flaming dyed red hair, and a mean look in her eyes. Every other Saturday, they'd drive down to Franklin Plaza to the PX and load up the car with two cases of Ballantine Scotch and four cases of Cup O' Noodles, and I assume that's what they lived on. Sometimes I'd walk past their apartment and hear her knocking him around, shrieking at him in low-down Berliner as he slurred "Bitte, bitte, bitte" POW! Absolutely not what I wanted to hear. Meanwhile, during the day he was impossible to find. And, although he was American, he refused to talk English at all, so I never really had much luck communicating with him. His wife, though, was a different matter.

Anyway, one afternoon I was going about my business when the apartment bell rang. Not the bell on the street, but the one at my front door. When I opened the door, there was the Hausmeister's wife, arms folded over that immense bosom, cigarette clamped in the corner of her mouth. Peering around her on either side were the building's little old ladies, which, considering that just about every apartment was occupied by a little old lady, meant just about everybody in the building. Finally one stuck out her finger and pointed at me. "Ja, IHM!" she said with vigor. "Es stinkt hier immer von Knoblauch!" ("Yes, HIM! It always smells like garlic here!")

The Hausmeister's wife tossed the cigarette to the floor and ground it out with her heel. "Mr. Ward, these ladies say your apartment smells always of garlic. This is against the law, and you must not do this." I was flabbergasted, to say the least. "When you cook, you must use the fan in the kitchen. Have you seen the fan?" Well, yes, I said, but it didn't work, and when I tried to turn it on with the pull-chain the thing was so rotten it came off in my hand. "The fan works," she said. "Use it." Uh, well, okay. "Another thing," she said. "You must close this door" and here she gestured to the door between the front door and the living room "so the odors don't get into the hall. If these ladies complain again, we may have to go to the police. Good day." And the crew all went down the stairs.

Go to the police? Was she nuts? Well, no: there's a law here about cooking odors, and apparently it's enforced. Had I been just a bit more savvy, I might have tried a counterattack. After all, every Sunday, no matter if it were in deepest winter or sweltering summer heat, the halls smelled of roast pork. A lovely smell, I think, but I've often wondered what would have happened if I'd stood up to her and claimed to be Jewish, and said that I was willing to put up with what to me was a nauseating smell in the name of good German-Jewish relations. Hell, most Germans have never talked to a real Jew, and this bunch would never have called me on it.

However, I did close the door from then on. The Berlin police are people you don't want to deal with, ever. Of course, when I had people over for dinner, this meant that I couldn't hear the doorbell from the street, which was something of a disadvantage. The other problem was that, following a law that's almost never enforced, our building locked the front door every night promptly at 8. This meant that I couldn't buzz anyone in if I'd wanted to. I had to drop what I was doing, go downstairs, and unlock the door. Now that I couldn't hear the bell, people had to call from the phone booth on the corner (this was pre-cellphone days).

I should add that the one old lady who wasn't in the bunch was my next-door neighbor, whose name is oddly appropriate to this story: Frau Streiter. Streit means argument, quarrel, conflict. I never had any with her, but I did have several great conversations, because in her seniors' group (she was 76) she was learning English and Turkish. "German," she once memorably said "is very, very hard. You must always know the der, the die, or the das for a word. But English, English is easy! Everything in English is...duh!"

There's a couple I know in Paris who have one of those classic Portugese concierges in their building, and she seems always to be cooking. Every time I visit them, I inhale deeply as I pass her door. A fine experience, and one the Germans have legislated to insulate themselves against.

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