Monday, December 20, 2004

Baby, It's Coaled Outside

According to the folks at, it's currently 34 degrees Fahrenheit, but it "feels like 28." I'll say: I'm just back not only from the store, but from trying to buy a fuse that'll make my halogen floor lamp work again (no luck: the place closes at 6pm, it says on the door, and that means 5:55, which my radio-satellite-set watch said it was), and I'll tell you: it's cold out there. Not as bad as it's going to be, but the sidewalks are now slick with ice, so you have to watch your step, and there's a thin dusting of snow when I get up in the morning.

And as I walked to the store, I noticed at first a whiff of woodsmoke in the air. So appropriate, and going nicely with a couple of icy-looking cirrus clouds and the half-moon in the otherwise clear sky, I was thinking, when I drew myself up. Wait. That means a coal oven.

I still have trouble wrapping my brain around what the Germans call Kohlenheizung. It was weird when I first saw it in 1988, and it's downright bizarre that it's still going on sixteen years later. Because in the country which engineers the BMW and the Mercedes, where companies like Siemens build some nice high-tech products, and appliances by Braun make my kitchen hum, there are still buildings where people buy two tons of coal at the beginning of the winter to feed to ceramic tile-clad ovens in their living rooms and bedrooms, because that's how they heat their houses.

What's ultra-weird is when you run into a young German -- and there are plenty of them -- who'll tell you that it's healthier. Look, I've had coal heating, and it's at least as healthy for you as a pack and a half a day. Here's the drill:

First, you have your stack of brown-coal briquettes handy. Gotta have them. Then, you make sure the oven's been swept out, and that you've dumped the ashes into a metal bucket, because there's always a little clinker in there ready to start trouble. So you wad up some newspaper, light it, and then throw in some wood. Broken-up vegetable cartons are always good, and that's what people look for. If you're fancy, the guy who sells you the coal will sell you some shingle-looking stuff, but Berliners are thrifty (and poor) and can be seen behind vegetable markets or prowling building sites looking for good tinder. Anyway, once the wood is good and lit up, you throw in your coal, and close the door. Now go wash the black off of your hands in your unheated bathroom or your unheated kitchen. Yeah, it's cold back there where you just set the fire, but the design of the oven is such that eventually that inner wall will get good and hot and radiate outwards to the ceramic tiles, which disperse heat at a given rate, so you may be good for as many as eight hours. But it's not like you're going to just be able to go in there and throw some more coal in and keep it going. Nope: you have to let the fire die down, sweep out the ashes, and start over again, unless there's a bit of coal still going, in which case you may be able to get away with a bit of kindling and some briquettes and not have to wait so long. Oh, and the ash-bucket? You have to take that outside and dump it in the metal garbage bin. Has to be the metal one, because the plastic ones burn. And when you dump it, that yellow, powdery ash just goes everywhere. Like up your nose. Just like it gets into your furniture, your rug, your clothes.

I had an apartment, the one before the one I live in now, that had two coal ovens. One used briquettes, and that was my bedroom, athough there was a dining table at the other end of it, and the other used what's called Steinkohle, hard coal, which comes in little rocks and is much, much cleaner. Guess which kind Germany and Poland produces. But guess which one is harder to get going. Adding to this was the fact that I couldn't call the coal guy and have him deliver me a ton or two, as is usual, because the neighbors in this building, most of whom were subhuman, had wrenched the door off of the assigned coal bin in the basement, presumably so they could steal coal in a previous winter. This meant that every day I had to schlep up BrĂ¼sseler Str. to the tiny, dank, dark hole in the wall where the Coal Lady was, mostly to take orders for tons, and buy 35 kilos of coal. Every. Day. And 70 kilos on Saturday afternoon. And I had to pull it down the street, four blocks to my crappy apartment.

So you know why the day I found myself standing in the doorway while the 80-year-old psychotic who owned the building stood there with her lawyer screaming that she was charging me with arson and going to call the Kripo (short for Kriminalpolizei) and see to it I was jailed and deported (it's a long story, but someone -- not me, since I hadn't slept there that night -- had dumped a klinker in the plastic bin, which was now slumped over like a defeated dinosaur in the yard, and naturally it had to be my fault), the only two demands in my head when I headed to Zoo Station to buy the next day's Berliner Morgenpost at exactly 8 pm when it came off the presses that night so I could beat the other people to the apartments in the classifieds were: 1) Not this neighborhood (which, for the record, is called Wedding); 2) Central heat. Non-negotiable.

Of course, central heat would also mean that there wouldn't be the primitive water heaters where you pump water into a boiler and then turn on the electricity and then drain it out (which resulted in exactly 180 seconds' worth of hot water in the unheated shower room with the window rusted open -- did I mention that this was the coldest winter since Stalingrad? -- forcing me to become the fastest showerer I know), and it might even mean a gas stove (no such luck).

But that was nearly eight years ago. It's almost a cliche that Germany is the second-greenest country in Europe, next only to Holland in its adherence to environmental cleanliness. So why, I'd like to know, are there still people burning coal for heat? Why is this medieval heating system still going on? If I walk out now, two hours after I smelled that woodsmoke, there'd be another smell in the air, rather like burned coffee. That's the smell of Braunkohl Briketten, the smell of what I believe is a violation of the EU's environmental regulations. Why is this still happening?

Still: not my problem. It's light, not heat, I have to worry about tonight -- the night before the darkest day of the year. And that's only a problem because of the fact, which I've long become accustomed to, that the people around me don't want to work.

But that's another rant, for another day.


Troy Worman said...

Wow. This is simply amazing to me.

Anonymous said...

I love the smell of Braunkohle Brikettes. This makes the voting in favour to against 1 to 1. In this case the habit will not be changed