Wednesday, October 27, 2004


Just a few moments ago, my entire apartment was shaking. I've lived through earthquakes before, when I lived in California, but this was different: it wasn't as irregular, and the vibration was much faster. Dishes were rattling, stuff was dancing around on my desk. I wasn't worried, though, because I knew what it was.

For the past three years, the luxury apartments next door to me, which cost a quarter-million Euros apiece, have looked out over a hole that has filled up with windblown garbage and construction debris, a hole that was advertised as an underground parking garage. I have no idea why construction stopped (although it's probably for the usual reason things stop around here, ie, the money ran out), but just last week, they've started again. This has involved bringing in a huge shovel to scoop out the hole, and from the amount of shattered brick they've been lifting out, I have to assume there was a bombed building there, perfectly routine for this part of Berlin, which got hit pretty badly due to its proximity to the Reichskanzlei on Wilhelmstr. (Not that close, but you could only be so accurate from that high up back then).

The shovel scoops, and big trucks perform a tricky maneuver of driving down the alley and then backing into the parking lot just behind my building (which has spaces that were rented, I guess, to the unfortunate tenants of the place next door) and onto the piece of ground they're excavating. This starts at 6:30 in the morning when they fire up the shovel, although I have to say these workmen don't yell at each other or drive cars blaring heavy metal music like the last crew did. At some point this morning, I guess one of the trucks was in physical contact with our building, which explains the vibration. I expect my landlord's unpleasant mother, who sometimes lives in the apartment across the hall from me, will find evidence of this when next she occupies the place. (Not that I'll know: she stopped talking to me when I informed her son she'd forced her way into my apartment to look it over. She decided on the spot that I was a dirty foreigner -- I admit the place wasn't in such good shape that day -- and told me, no kidding, that "You should spend a minimum of two hours a day cleaning." Fine, I'll put a slave on the to-buy list.)

But if you've looked at that supremely uninformative but Flash-heavy website for this building project, you'll notice that in addition to the apartments at Borsigstr. 3a and 4, which are already in place, they're planning to build a 4a, a brand-new building which was supposed to be finished this spring. Fortunately for my peace of mind, it hasn't even been started, although I fear that this new spurt of activity portends something of that nature, and that's going to be a disaster.

When I sit at my desk here, I have two windows in front of me (one of them is a door, which leads to the back yard, except there aren't any steps, which adds to the Winchester Mystery House vibe of my landlord's family's ambitions. It got me burglarized, but that's another story.). They look out at the small back yard, beyond which is a wall, which has partially collapsed, and the paved area that served as a parking lot until the construction boys needed it back. There are a number of trees, which at the moment are wearing a wonderful flame-yellow color, some bushes, and a couple of old brick sheds which may be descendents of the hay-barns that used to be placed in this section of the city when the old medieval city wall, which ran along Torstr., was still up. As far as I can figure from the rather ambiguous map the planners erected in the alley, the one which announced the completion of Borsigstr. 4a this spring (and hey, I just looked and it's gone!), this nice scene is going to be replaced by the new! modern! building of 4a. And this is going to require jackhammers breaking up the pavement, a foundation being dug, pilings being driven, and all the merry chatter of the work crews as they report for duty every morning at 6:30. And in the end, the building will go up, the tiny amount of sunlight this ground-floor apartment gets will be severely diminished, and I'll get to look at a building standing empty for months, probably years, on end as the developer re-learns that the market for luxury housing in Berlin is sorta depressed at the moment. To put it mildly.

I really, really want to be out of here before this all happens, although the prospect at the moment isn't very good for it coming to pass.

But in the meanwhile, there's a silver lining nobody told me about until I'd lived here for years. One of the very good things about renting in Germany is how unfairly the rights are distributed: they're all on the tenant's side, or very nearly so. And because the noise level here is so high with the construction -- it was so loud this morning that I couldn't even hear my coffee-maker, which usually sounds like a 400-pound hog coughing up a hairball -- because it causes dust to come into the house and contaminate everything, so that there's a thin layer of yellow over things 24 hours after I've cleaned them off, because of the interrupted sleep which causes me to wake up at 6:30, five hours after I've gone to bed, then fall asleep again fitfully and wake up logy four hours later, I have recourse. It's a little thing called Mietminderung, rent-abatement, and now I'm going to actually make my American readers salivate with envy.

You can write your landlord and request Mietminderung, which he may grant you if he thinks you have a case. He makes less, but he makes it up because the construction firm carries insurance for just such an eventuality -- all part of the cost of doing business. In the end, neither the landlord nor the construction company is terribly disaccommodated, and the tenant gets lower rent. If I'd known this when I first moved in here and the landlord and his family were knocking this place down and putting it up again and knocking it down again and so on, and then when they started renovating Borsigstr. 2, and then again when this project on the other side started up, hell, I'd never have paid retail at all! Or, more realistically, maybe one year out of seven. Of course, in extreme cases, as happened to one friend of mine, when they do a radical renovation project on your place, they're obligated to find you another apartment to live in. As long as it's not in Germany, I'm down with that.

But, alas, the other side of the coin is that with your Mietminderung, you still have to endure the noise. And, as it gets colder -- and I have to say, we've had a wonderful fall, with spots of Indian summer appearing here and there -- I'll be spending more and more time in the noisy, dusty, vibrating apartment. When it's quiet and clean, it's bad enough. I just hope this will give me even more motivation to figure out a way to get the hell out of this dying city. As if I needed any more.

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