What is it like to come from somewhere else and live among the Germans? How do the Germans behave, how do they think, and what makes them... well, let's just say, "the way they are"? Rucklingsdorf - An American Surrounded by Germans is a collection of short stories (and a few essays) that give you an insight into German day-to-day life, from someone who is simultaneously on the inside and on the outside. If you were to crack open a German like an egg and pour the contents into a pan, the result you would see would be this book. Buy it, read it, and love it! (Also available in German, as an eBook or paperback, under the following title: Rucklingsdorf - Ein Amerikaner von Deutschen umzingelt).
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"Buy this book. And read it!"
Jonathan Claay, American Expatriate Living in Germany
"Insightful. Entertaining. Delicious!"
An Avid Reader
"You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll wonder why."
Jonathan Claay, Literary Composer
"I'm Jonathan Clay, and I approve of this book."
Jonathan Claay, Author of
Rucklingsdorf - An American Surrounded by Germans
With love to my lady friend, whose company was always the best part of all of those many travels – thank you for the sunshine.
A Club Meeting
Answering the Door
Small Town Life
At the Book Store
A Little Surprise
The Germans' German
A Social Visit
At the Supermarket
The Coffee Klatch
A Train Ride
The Waiting Room
At the Street Market
(Former) East Germany
The New Friend
Between Democracy and Nazism
The Playground Incident
Germans on the Job
Guests from Abroad
The Dark Side
The Little Dog
After years of living and working in Germany and traveling around to many of its cities and small towns, I decided to head north – but I found that the nearer I got to the edge of the country, the closer and closer I came to its very center, to that one very point which is directly in the middle – the middle of the culture, of the people, of the German soul – and as I continued further, I got so close that I entered that center and came out the back end, so to say, in a place that was no longer on the map, exactly; a place that progress, globalization and evolution has in many ways forgotten… and that place is the town of Rucklingsdorf.
Tap into the brain of a Rucklingsdorfer (as I have often had the urge to do myself) and, after the bats and spiders fly and scurry out, you will find a primordial ooze, and far, far beneath that – you will see the German in his rawest form.
The people of Rucklingsforf have some ways and behaviors that are uniquely their own (in spite of also sharing them with hundreds of other little cow towns across the region), but these are variations on a theme, mere local habits inlayed mosaically upon ancient Germanic tendencies, tendencies which are found in nearly every German and nearly every sign of Germanness, whether in a high-rise office in Frankfurt, a town in the American Midwest that had been settled generations before by ancestors of modern Germans – or a Rucklingsdorfer standing over the sprouts in his corn field, silent and scowling.
This book is about Rucklingsdorf – a small cow town which is located on the border and, mysteriously enough, also in the the middle of Germany – but it is also an instruction manual about Germans – how they operate, how to maintain them, and ways in which they can often malfunction. Not everything that is stated applies to all Germans at all times, but if you deal with the people of this culture, you will notice definite trends.
This book shows what it feels like for an outsider to be in Germany, to live amongst the Germans – what it's like to really interchange with them on a regular basis.
Do you deal with Germans in your private or professional life?
Then read this book!
Are you planning to travel or relocate to Germany?
Then read this book!
Are you German yourself?
Then, for your sake as well as everybody else's, please… READ THIS BOOK!!
It was a big day for Hans Stempelkauer, for today was the day of the evening of the first annual meeting of the "What a Town" Neighborhood Association, which itself branched out as a committee of the Rucklingsdorf Works Council.
In celebration of this glorious morning, Hans Stempelkauer groaned as he sat up and hunched on the side of the bed, scratching his sagging belly.
His wife was already out distributing leaflets for the Works Council's "Under the Apple Tree" dance, which was not as big a hit last year as had been expected, and against council from various sources (as well as not a few lightly veiled pleas) to let it just quietly fade away into the archives of town history, she decided to let herself be inspired (largely by fear) to give the occasion an extra "Stups", as she said, and do her devoutest duty to try and rally up interest, support and attendees for this year's event.
Hans was one of the voices on the nay side, but his voice was quickly blown over by the whirlwind of his wife's zeal – a result that he (and everyone else) basically expected from the beginning.
Today carried other concerns for him besides his wife's planning of the dance.
Tonight, he was going to be called upon to open and lead the meeting of the "What a Town" Neighborhood Association, a responsibility that he had never had to bear before.
He had always sat in the front with Jürgen while Karl handled the ins and outs of such affairs of various association meetings and local political events. Karl, as Chairman of the association (since he was already Chairman of the Works Council), was comfortable in this position, being accustomed to gaining the attention of the local crowd, be it at the pub or when working together with a couple of the other boys at repairing a tractor. There was always the right mixture of a light joke at the right time (sometimes a bit bawdy, depending upon the company), along with a dosage of wise statements that seemed to come from years of experience and generations of good, solid, rural upbringing.
Hans was, well, better as back-up than as the front-runner. He was more the type to let himself get caught up in the stream of current behind the man in front and make a good show of being somewhere at the head of the pack. He was not the head, though; he was more of a "neck and shoulders" type. When Karl needed someone to laugh at one of his less well-honed jokes, he just had to look over at Hans and could be sure of a throaty chuckle to set the mood.
Karl was called away from his duties due to a matter that concerned his son, who was living in the city and who had apparently gotten himself involved in a matter of which Karl did not find it best to go into detail.
As the Assistant Chairman of the association, Hans was suddenly thrust into the glaring spotlight of the village eye, and everyone knows that this eye can be as endearing as an early spring meadow or as fickle as the wind in the run-up to a late November storm.
It's a lot of stress in a little village like Rucklingsdorf to stand in front of these people, one's own people, because they are, in fact, ALL of one's people. When the whole world's events occur within the limits of Horst Peter's cow pasture to the east and the Schweinsteins' property to the west, the opinion of this few is the opinion of one's entire world.
For Hans to stand before the association tonight meant that he was putting himself in the position to be the subject of discussion, conjecture and judgment of the entire neighborhood citizenry, one by one and pair by pair.
It would start the next day with a "So, how did the meeting go last night", or, for those who wanted to get an early start on the gossip for the next day or two, "How did Hans do last night?", in a voice a few degrees deeper than normal and with a tone of expectation as to what the answer was going to be before one was even offered.
To start with, each of the other members in the small audience would talk with each other, soon after having left the pub where the meeting was held. Then, their wives would ask their husbands "how things went", a phrase which, when everyone involved is well aware of the conditions at hand, is far more laden with meaning than such a statement otherwise would be. The wives, of course, would then talk with each other (although nothing would appear in print on anyone's social media sites; that's too scientific and definitive for a matter as amorphous and indefinable as smalltown neighborhood gossip).
Then, at some point, Karl would be back from the city, would have gotten the various coded and decoded messages and insinuations about the evening in his absence, and would approach Hans, one way or another, with a "So, Hans, I heard…", and Hans' performance tonight would be the force which was destined to shape whatever it would be that Karl will have heard.
Hans knew all this, and he was filled with a sense of unease and foreboding. He didn't say anything about it, of course, because that was not his way. He just went about his day, handling the latest matters of work and family life that arose for the moment, but with the ever grinding wheel in the back of his head, "Tonight – the meeting".
The sun started to set and cast yet another miraculous swath of pink and cottony orange across the sky above the fields, and Hans opened the door to "The Golden Mule" where the meeting was to be held.
As the door opened, Hans saw that Jürgen and the boys were already seated at the bar, waiting, and Hans suddenly remembered a scene from a mafia movie when an ill-fated member of the group had entered a room much like he had just entered this one, and in the movie, there were already a few people waiting for the guy, just like Jürgen and the boys were already waiting, and…
"There's Hans", Jürgen murmured to his neighbor at the bar, as he raised his beer just perceptibly in greeting to the Assistant Chairman entering at the door.
As he got nearer to them, Hans sat down halfway on a stool and joined the chat for a few minutes, but after a while, Jürgen said, "Well…", which to Hans was like a blare of trumpets to initiate the event.
They all collected their things (that is, their hats and beers) and marched into the back room that is used for such events as these (of which there are surprisingly many in these little German farm towns, for some reason).
Hans was uncomfortable to notice that a train of other people from the bar started to collect behind them and follow them into the room. He had never noticed how many people went to the meetings of the Works Council in the past, but he was suddenly aware of what seemed like a mass or a mob behind him (it was Paul Paulson and his wife, the two Spuck brothers and a few of the other regulars).
Everyone settled into their usual seats (the same ones they had sat in during the previous Work Council meeting, which were more or less the same seats they had occupied in the meeting before that, with minor variations).
Hans started to plant himself in his familiar place to the side of the center of the table in the front, when Jürgen unexpectedly slipped his own weight into that chair, forcing Hans to remember that his place was one step to the left this time, in the spotlight (there was no actual spotlight in the room, which was actually rather too dim, due to nobody having gotten around quite yet to having repaired one of the lamps that had broken – but Hans was not aware or conscious of such subtleties as lighting and ambience. For him, he might as well have been about to begin his speech with "Dear members of the United Nations").
He let the chatter continue a little while longer than it should have, until it started to die out on its own accord a little, and then he realized that he had no other option but to dive right in, with or without his swimming trunks on.
Jürgen handed him the little gavel that they had been using for a while to open the meetings. It was just a rounded out block on a stick that one of them had whittled, but it served the purpose.
"Oh", Hans said, almost forgetting it, and he fumbled it a bit during the hand off, making it clack and clatter on the table like a bag of marbles dropped in church in the middle of a sermon. One of the Spuck brothers chuckled low to the other one, and this low tone of laughter caught on and made the rounds of the entire audience.
Hans recovered majestically and gave the mallet a tentative little "Tap, Tap, Tap" on the tabletop, and the laughter subsided into reverent and obedient silence. They were not used to this leader, who had so suddenly climbed to the mountaintop from amongst them, but there he was, gavel in hand, tapping on the table just like Karl usually did (well, not as adroitly and succinctly as Karl usually did it, but tapping anyway), and their inbred sense of accepting their place in the hierarchy and following their leader began to work its magic in Hans' favor.
Hans looked out at the mass of faces before him, all of which belonged to people he knew long and well (as far as he understood those concepts in this regard), but now they were not only Paul Paulson and his wife, the Spuck brothers, Holger Jansen and Jens Hansen and the others; they were faces with eyes that suddenly were looking at him with their full attention, observing him, waiting for his words, his guidance, his leadership; they were already clearly submitted (thanks to the little gavel and the seating arrangements) to his newly-bequested authority.
And this, in a town when eye contact is saved for moments of argument and discord or safe discussions about the weather and is not otherwise distributed lightly during day-to-day life, and particularly not in matters of relative intimacy.
He swallowed as he stared back at them, all of them as a faceless mass, and for a moment, Hans Stempelkauer almost let the ball drop.
Then, thankfully, the very characteristic that had settled the others into their positions of blind submission and obedience inspired Hans to a likewise respect and appreciation of hierarchy, of the necessity for order and regimented categorization that the moment inherently required.
Whoever the leader was, that person was to be obeyed and followed, and if that leader happened to be Hans himself, well, he was nobody to oppose the natural Germanic order of things. If he was to be the leader of this hierarchy, then that was what this hierarchy demanded of him, and he was to obey. He suddenly had a vague sense of himself in some kind of uniform with a shiny sash and some unknown medals, even though he was just wearing his yellow flannel shirt that he had pulled back out of the hamper that morning.
A warm wind seemed to rise from below him, and he was touched and transfigured by the gravity of his sense of duty.
He raised his hands aloft and spread his arms in greeting, wider apart than anybody in this town perhaps had ever done before, be it a wedding, a funeral, or the purchase of a new horse.
He had nothing in his mind particularly to say as a starting point, but he knew he had to say something, so he didn't let that stop him. He opened his mouth and became extemporaneous.
A great proportion of association meetings in Germany open exactly in this way, season after season, year after year. It results from a general lack of orderly thinking – not being able to grasp the overall structure of a matter and the relationship of its parts to one another, and therefore not being able to know which part is at the front, which is at the end, and how everything needs to be aligned, cohesively, all the way through.
As to summarizing the general points with an all-encompassing introduction: forget about it.
Germans generally conceive of minutiae, of individual details cut off and isolated from one another. They are able to hyper-focus upon one particular of a matter with laser precision, to a point that can shake fear into other humans… but ask them to open a meeting of a local town association? "JAAaaaaa…".
There are exceptions. After all, there must be, considering that Germans manage to produce so much high-precision machinery as to flood the world with its meticulous, state-of-the-art accuracy. Naturally, at conventions at which the forefront of medical technology is presented to a specialized public, audiences from far and wide will normally be greeted with a momentarily heartfelt "Meine Damen und Herren" ("Ladies and Gentlemen"), but if those same captains or Kaisers of industry find themselves in somewhat less formal gatherings and venues on another date, they might very well resort to the ancient, traditional Germanic opening of "JAAaaaaa…".
Hans Stempelkauer was no captain of industry. He was a man of his people, and a good portion of them sat before him on this very night, enthralled by his leadership.
"JAAaaaaa…, meine Damen und Herren", he said, following the preconceived pattern, even though there was only one female present, "I would like to WELCOME you here, toNIGHT," speaking each segment of words separately as he managed to dredge them up from his rather infertile imagination, "to the FIRST annual meeting, of the "WHAT A TOWN" Neighborhood Association…"
There was a long pause, because Hans Stempelkauer had at this point essentially reached his climax and was feeling about ready for his closing.
Sensing this, the members in the audience performed that unique ritual that I have only seen in Germany and which can thoroughly fluster a public speaker and make him take a quick step in the direction of the nearest open door if he is not aware of or expecting it: they all started to knock in unison with the knuckles of their middle fingers on the table top, creating the sound of a flock of woodpeckers to voice their approval and agreement.
It strikes me that human beings, who as a species have collectively developed the ability to express themselves in song with the grace of Maria Callas and the soulfulness of Sarah Vaughan, are selling themselves short by resorting to the smashing of their hands against hard, wooden surfaces in order to voice their approval. Then again, does slapping one's articulate fingers and poseable thumbs together in applause make much more sense, when you come to think about it?
Be that as it may, Hans was encouraged by this show of support and good will, and he carried onwards, wherever it might lead him.
In lieu of anything else to mention (since the matters of the "What a Town" Neighborhood Association were not very grave, after all, and the town itself did not offer a particularly wide milieu that would warrant such an occasion), Hans followed the current that was in his Germanic nature, for generation upon generation.
He spoke of data and history.
"Uhhh… the 'WHAT A TOWN' NEIGHBORHOOD ASSOCIATION was founded by KARL NUSSHOLZ, three years ago. It began in his GARAGE. Jürgen and I were there. Right, Jürgen?", he said, turning to his friend who was seated next to him and, to Hans' surprise, located somewhat below him at the moment.
Jürgen smiled at the recollection, and Hans' confidence and spirits soared.
'This is going well', Hans thought, so he kept saying things.
"It is THEREFORE, my great HONOR, as the DEPUTY CHAIRMAN, of the 'WHAT A TOWN' NEIGHBORHOOD ASSOCIATION, to WELCOME you, to this IMPORTANT event."
Again, the woodpeckers, knocking on the table in agreement. They all exchanged a quiet look of satisfaction with the orderliness of the proceedings, and Hans was soaring high with them.
"Karl's garage was built in 1947, when –"
"– Perhaps we should talk about what we mentioned last Saturday, Hans", Jürgen interrupted, fondling the little gavel in front of him unconsciously.
"Uh, YES", Hans responded, thrusting his entire body skywards with the interjection. "Thanks you, Deputy Assistant Chairman." He looked at Jürgen with an expression of relief and gratitude, although his eyes fell briefly upon Jürgen's fingers caressing the gavel before Hans turned his attention back to his audience.
"We are gathered here today", he resumed, in his more casual and less officious manner, "to talk about the 'What A Town' plaque that stands at the entrance to our beloved Rucklingsdorf. As you may know, the plaque was granted to us by the county back in 1952. We are all very PROUD of that plaque" – a round of self-satisfied table knocking broke out, accompanied by several upwardly raised glances of mutual appreciation dispersed around the dark little room – "ja, ja… and Karl had the idea that it was about time for us to maybe freshen the plaque up a little."
He was tentative here, for he had reached a point at which action and consensus would be needed.
German farm town inhabitants are sociable amongst each other, at least superficially, as long as they have known one another long enough and find that no risk awaits them in the relationship. Exchanging and evaluating ideas together and deciding upon what parts of each suggestion to retain and which to dispose of, integrating those suggestions into a cohesive, effective, actionable whole – these are not strengths to be found among the members of such a sociological grouping.
"Do you mean cleaning the sign up a bit?", Holger Jansen offered.
"Maybe with a little paint", Jens Hansen added. "It does look a bit faded at this point."
"NO… no", Hans bubbled, before collecting himself again. "I mean… well, it was KARL'S idea… right Jürgen?"
Jürgen nodded his assent and support of Hans' innocence in the proposal, and Hans proceeded tentatively.
"Anyway, it was Karl's idea that maybe we could win the award from the county again this year?"
There was silence among the population in the back room of The Golden Mule. Winning the "What A Town" plaque again? AGAIN? That would take a lot of… nobody was sure what it would take a lot of, exactly, but it certainly seemed like it would be hard to come by, whatever it might be.
The people began to become visibly uncomfortable. One of the Spuck brothers leaned forward on the table, balling himself like a fetus and hiding his otherwise lengthy torso behind his elbows. Then, he saw his brother slump back in his own chair and sink a bit, and the first brother then did likewise.
"Does Karl really think that's necessary, Hans?", Paul Paulson asked, in kind of a whine.
Hans felt his seat on the throne getting a little shaky at somebody else's mentioning of Karl in this way, so he added, "Yes, and so do I, Paul. Why, they did it back then, I don't see why we can't do it again." He didn't really believe in what was saying, but he said it anyway.
"We're probably going to need a lot of shovels", someone said.
"Yes, and flowers and plants," came another. "Those can get expensive, if they're going to be all over the town like that".
"We'll be up against those folks in Trottelskirschen", someone added, with a quiet tone of ominous warning while looking around the room – and everyone thought simultaneously of the beautiful traffic circle with the blossoming purple irises and yellow tulips right at the entrance to Trottelskirschen, which was about four towns removed from where they were on the earth, there in Rucklingsdorf. Nobody knew of anybody having any relatives in Trottelskirschen, and so there was a feeling of something foreign and somehow dangerous about the place – in spite of the pretty tulips and irises and the well-manicured façades of the prim little houses.
"I don't know if it's such a good idea to change everything anyway", said Jens Hansen. "Everything's going along pretty good the way it is. Why shake everything up?"
"Ja," Holger Jansen added. That would take a lot of time, too. I don't think anybody will be able to get free to do it all."
They started to think about that traffic circle at the entrance to Trottelskirschen again, and they all sank a little deeper into their chairs.
There's a sense of doom among the Germans. It's not always present, and they can be quite light and chipper on the surface in day-to-day life. But present them with a circumstance in which there has to be change, which means taking a… taking a… risk, and everything becomes different.
It could come out all wrong.
Maybe things will be worse.
What if we can't do it, and everything just collapses one after the other?
What if we regret it?
THEN we'll be pretty sorry that we ever took up the notion in the first place.
After all, things are pretty good as they are.
OK, there are potholes in the roads and a few houses have a progressively large amount of car parts and building scraps in their front yard… but is that so bad? Is it bad enough to warrant… doing that thing you said, taking that… what was it called? Oh yes… R-I-S-K.
Among the habit-oriented citizenry of Rucklingsdorf as assembled this evening for the First Annual Meeting of the "What a Town" Neighborhood Association (and it was a group that was rather representative of the whole), there developed the sense of looking into the abyss, of the Rucklingsdorf Apocalypse as they could imagine it. They thought of the teenagers of the town they had seen sitting at the bus stop and listening to tinny music from their cell phones and smoking, they thought of their friends who had problems at work, one of them remembered reading something about the national gross domestic product the other day, and, though it didn't have any DIRECT connection with planting flowers in their little town, it was something bad, and this competition for a new "What a Town" plaque could also turn out badly, so it was basically the same thing, and just as catastrophic.
Hans Stempelkauer looked likewise into the abyss, but as the Assistant Chairman of the Committee, he knew that it was up to him to lead his people to the light.
"Well", he offered, "there's that tree nursery just off of the highway. Has a bunch of plants too, if I remember right. Maybe he would be interested in helping us out somehow."
This is where the Germans can get particularly anxious. Here was a solution, a chance, but if they took it, they might fail… and then where would they be? Isn't is better to just stay low, keep your head down and eat your soup? It was worse now that Hans had made the suggestion, because there was no longer any good reason for sitting passively in bleak despair, and a few of them hated him a little for it.
Just to avoid admitting to himself that he felt so helpless, Holger Jansen interjected, "Now, that's not such a bad idea". He stated it more to the group than to the Assistant Chairman, almost as if he were asking permission from them for him to believe in this wild idea by such a fearless leader.
The general body posture of the audience members slowly improved with this tentative foray into optimism, and the Rucklingsdorf Apocalypse broke apart to make way for what looked like it might turn out to be the brightest, most beautiful spring the town had ever seen – including that Spring of 1952, when everyone's parents and grandparents saw the picture of the mayor of Rucklingsdorf in the paper as he was being presented with the "What a Town" plaque… the FIRST "What a Town" plaque… perhaps the first of many...
There was pleasant chatter among the audience members, and a lot of heads nodding in agreement.
Jürgen looked up smiling at Hans, and Hans look out at his audience and townsfolk, as he beheld the result of the fine work in this, his first foray as Chairman… uh, Assistant Chairman… as leader of the people who needed him.
He pulled it off. He was a hit, and he knew it. He was going to be holding his head a little higher around town from now on, and he might even be telling some of the jokes to the boys himself after Karl got back.
Then, he did it.
He had a good thing going, Hans Stempelkauer. He was pushed onto the stage and found that he was a natural orator, and all because he just said what came to his mind. How could that strategy ever fail him now?
So he added, "Yes, maybe if someone asked him to donate a few plants."
"We could offer to put his name on the plaque!", said Holger Jansen, almost in a fit of glee.
"Great idea!", Hans erupted. "Holger, why don't you be the treasurer of the association and ask that man at the tree nursery if he might wouldn't be interested?"
The knocking on the table was louder than ever, and although there would be no official inauguration of Holger Jansen as first Treasurer of the "What a Town" Neighborhood Association, this was as irrevocable a confirmation as any pact among any group of people has ever been.
Hans went on.
"Yes, Holger, I think you would be good at it. You've always been good at attracting people."
There was silence.
There was more silence.
One beat after everyone else had realized the Assistant Chairman's faux pas, Hans himself recognized the implications of what he had just said.
If there were someone present at this meeting who was not a member of this village (there wouldn't be, for nobody else would want to come, and they wouldn't really be welcome, if they did), that intruder would not know why there had been such a sudden seachange in the current that had, until so recently, been upholding the Assistant Chairman in his newly found position of leadership.
Long, long ago, when everyone present had still been teenagers in school… there was a girl.
She was a pretty girl, and all of the boys thought so, but Paul Paulson was the one who… well, Paul Paulson was the one. It went rather well for a while, to the point that Paul Paulson didn't think it too presumptuous to start bragging about the matter a bit.
Word got around, and they were a couple.
Then, somehow… maybe it was the moon shimmering over the lake that night when Holger Jansen had rowed in from fishing and saw that girl – Paul Paulson's girl – standing alone on the shore while Paul Paulson was out visiting his cousins. Maybe it was the hot breeze that came along and rustled up her skirt a little higher than it ought to have been rustled up.
Whatever it was, it happened, and everything changed afterwards.
The change lasted for a long time, even long after the girl lost interest in Holger Jansen and went off with a boy from another village. They say that girl and that other boy moved to the city somewhere after school was done, and then, who knows.
Well, the friendship between Paul Paulson and Holger Jansen was mended as well as it could be over time, like a fence with a piece busted through and then replaced, so that the cows can't get out but you can still see the different grain of the wood through the paint if you look closely enough.
Paul Paulson went on to date another girl, and that girl he married, and that married woman was sitting right there next to him when the Assistant Chairman of the "What a Town" Neighborhood Association decided to take it upon himself and call everyone's attention back to the fact that, of everyone present, Holger Jansen had a way with attracting others, particularly others who were, for one reason or another, desirable.
Nothing further was said about the matter then and there, but everyone knew that it would be said soon, and for a long time thereafter – including Hans, the Assistant Chairman.
Holger Jansen was instantly flooded with guilt and shame – for having taken the girl from his friend, for having lost the girl in front of the whole town like that, and for a blot being placed upon his reputation on this, his first day as Treasurer of the Association.
Paul Paulson didn't dare look at his wife, who, as everyone already knew but were now publicly reminded, was second choice after that other girl. Everyone tried to look away and pretend they didn't notice as she tried to pull her head into her shoulders while her face started to turn a shade of dark pink, and having nowhere else in the room for their collective glance to fall, they let the full weight of it fall upon Hans Stempelkauer, their once and short-lived leader.
Hans was now aware of his fall, and he knew instantly that the plummet would not end tonight, or even tomorrow. He would not reach the bottom of his fall from grace for a long, long time.
He couldn't, not in a little town like this one.
It was Jürgen who finally said, "Well, we'll see what happens with the plants," and with this, every single chair in the room slid instantly back, as if connected with each other. The space was tight for so many people, though, and the chairs were all pushed back up against the wall. As a result, there was no place for anybody to get out, and each chair blocked his neighbor's escape. The idea of some people pushing their chairs in and letting the other person go first simply did not occur to anyone; it was not in their nature. Instead, there was a lot of climbing over and a gangly stretching of legs.
After the crowd left, Hans stood there at the head of the room, in the cool of his faded spotlight, wondering just how it all happened and trying to make sense of it all.
Jürgen looked up at him for a little while. Then he said "Well", stood up, put the little gavel into his pocket, and left.
Later that night, after a long walk in the darkness, Hans opened his front door and closed it softly behind him. He didn't say anything to his wife, and she could tell from the way he left the room that she shouldn't ask him anything just yet.
That night, he lifted up the sheet and slipped himself into the bed where his wife already was.
She watched him, waiting.
After a period of heavy silence, and in a moment of self exposure (which, after years of further evolution, would otherwise have approached intimacy), he said. "I never should have entered 'The Golden Mule' tonight".
He was marked for life in this little German farm town.
"Hans Stempelkauer's Meeting", they called it.
Usually, when someone's doorbell rings unexpectedly, it makes the person instantly happy. Their heart beats a little faster, and they anticipate the pleasure of opening their front door and beholding the pleasant surprise of finding out who it might be who has come to see them. It's like a present at a surprise party. Of all the people that there are in the nearby area, and considering how many people are accessible near and far thanks to cars and highways, from all of those opportunities, somebody has decided, "No, this one is the right one. I shall ring the bell of THIS person. THAT'S who I want to see."
Not in Rucklingsdorf.
When the bell rings unexpectedly here, it is usually someone who wants to get something from the you, one way or another. Socializing, when it occurs, usually takes place after the visitor and guest have established a specific date and time for the event, like for a medical procedure.
Moreover, he rarely comes outside of five minutes before or after that appointed time – which is incredible, considering that our watches and clocks cannot be PERFECTLY synchronized with everybody else's watches and clocks – unless the Germans are all connected by radio wave to some sort of network (which would explain a lot of other things, too, by the way).
Therefore, when the bell rings unexpectedly, it's a rather safe bet that it is not going to be a purely social encounter, with someone just stopping by to say hi, ask you how it's going and generally feel good while sharing some time; usually, it will be business, and a business of unilateral interest, at that.
After so many years of answering the door in Rucklingsdorf, when the doorbell rings now and I am not expecting a package, my reaction is, "Oh, crap. How is THIS person going to be rude and inconsiderate and soil my contentedness?".
It almost always turns out that way.
Even when the mail truck is outside, I can never be sure from one end of the experience to the other that the interchange will not end up pissing me off thoroughly, through that tendency that Germans have of stepping beyond the boundaries of civilized mutual consideration to one degree or another.
The people of Rucklingsdorf have a subtle way of casually and unnecessarily stating the inconsiderate, of disregarding how what they do or say affects the other human being standing across from them, and sometimes they go straight for the jugular.
Sometimes they clearly do so with a demonic pleasure, like a cat murdering a bird just because he can, and sometimes they really just don't get it.
There's something missing in them that otherwise serves as a certain lubricant in immediate social situations. In Rucklingsdorf, there is a dryness – not like that fresh feeling after you have toweled off coming out of the shower – it's more like those pictures of arid land with withered trees where the pale dirt cracks into separate cakes of infertile soil, and nothing grows.
Here are some of the ways it can go when answering the doorbell in Rucklingsdorf…
It's Haike, from next door.
"Moin," she chirps from the front porch, as if in a state of contended joy and glad to see me.
"Moin, Haike", I say from the other side of the threshold. We use the word of greeting that is typical in this northern part of Germany. "Would you like to come in?"
Then, her state of peace is shattered, and the dance of awkward refusal begins.
"NO, no… I just wanted to borrow a hammer. We can't find ours."
"Sure, I'll go get it. Come on it", as I reach naturally to open the screen door to make way for her, glad to be hospitable and to welcome someone into my home.
"No, thanks. I'll just wait out here."
I pause in reaching for the handle and I look at her through the screen. It's like being in one of those confessional booths in a church and looking through that little grating at a priest, but this time the priest is guilty; there's a sense of shame involved in it, somehow.
"You want to wait outside while I go in and get the hammer?", I say, calling attention to the peculiarity of the situation. She expects me to close the door and leave her waiting outside, like a chicken in the front of a barnyard, while I walk through my warm, clean, secure home to spend who-knows-how-long looking for a hammer that I might or might not be able to find, after all.
"Ja, that's OK. I'll just wait here." The chirping in her voice is still there somewhat, but it has turned into more of a trill. She's nervous.
I take a moment to reflect upon the fact that people in different countries have their own ways of doing things. Then, I weigh that with the fact that this human being wants me to lend her something of mine but doesn't even dare to step foot in my own home to get it.
I have made my decision, and I throw down the gauntlet.
"That's ridiculous", I say. "Come in anyway."
Her sharp, darting eyes show that I have just broken a German covenant that, for all I know, might go back as far as the Holy Roman Empire and Karl the Great.
As I am opening the screen door, she starts shifting back and forth on her legs, like a giant, lanky whooping crane. She seems to be making the effort to maneuver the turn around the screen door and enter while simultaneously holding herself back, far back, and it wouldn't surprise me entirely if she just suddenly bolted and ran in a straight line in the opposite direction, to then just stand in the street and look away.
She makes herself enter, clearly against her will to some degree. She stands rigidly, as close to the threshold as possible, as outside as she could be while still officially being inside. The very moment after she has passed the border of the threshold, her eyes start darting wildly, searching desperately for something and, AH, she has found it – with one foot firmly planted at her scouting point in the doorway, she stretches her other leg a-a-a-lll the way to the side where there is a little doormat for people to put boots on when it's raining out. After a rather graceless and widespread pause, in which she assesses that she has attained sufficiently stable footing on the mat, she then hauls her other leg to join the rest of her and she stands, like a soldier, on the door mat, determinedly within the rubber border and surprisingly equidistant from all edges simultaneously.
I now call it the Prussian doormat. It's where the Prussians stand at attention and await further command.
To make conversation, I ask her how her husband is, and she lets out a quick, sharp "He's fine", a little overly loud for indoors. Her eyes are still darting around everywhere; progressively so, in fact. "He's fine", she repeats, although I did not ask again.
"I hope I'm not disturbing you", she adds, in a disturbingly high pitch, almost yelling. She is still standing at attention on the Prussian carpet, in obedience to I know not whom.
"No, I'm not disturbed", I say, leaving open the possibility that somebody else in the entrance hall might be.
I imagine the act of trying to continue a conversation at this point, and I see that any hope of a normal host-guest relationship is not in the cards.
I look at Haike, and I conclude that this has been a lot of effort for a German to make in one afternoon. I decide to claim a kind of victory and I go and look for the hammer.
It takes a while to go get it and bring it in, and my neighbor is still standing there, seemingly more comfortable in her transparent guardbooth but still well within her self-imposed boundaries.
I hand her the hammer, she takes it and thanks me, and I reach for the screen door. Her body leans into the doorway before the screen door has been opened yet, eager to go.
"Bye", she says, waving the hammer at me over her head behind her.
I open the door to a man who is dressed casually but still somehow looks proper and orderly.
"Hello", I say.
"Hello", he says. I hear him say it, but I don't see his mouth move at any time. "There's going to be a parade for the Fire Department this weekend, and you'll need to keep your car off the street between 7:45 a.m. Saturday and 9:45 p.m. Sunday."
Again, it's not a polite request. It is an ordinance.
I also notice that the mentioned time-frame is precise down to the nearest minute.
Besides that, the man's voice is void of any intonation whatsoever. If we were to record what he said and look at the modulation of the sound waves in some printout, he would be flat-lining.
"It's nice that there's going to be a parade", I say.
Then he makes a comment that is entirely inaudible through the narrow slit of his thin mouth. It was evidently some comment about the parade that he found humorous, though, because he laughs a bit. When I say laugh, I do not mean a jovial throwing back of the head and a rhythmic heaving of the shoulders, and there was no sound that would echo across the wheat fields for miles, endearing everyone who heard it. The man's laugh sounds more like when you are trying to flatten a plastic bag and the last little puff of air wheezes out, barely perceptibly, before everything is deflated.
After he leaves, I stand in front of the mirror and try speaking like this to see how it even works. I even practice the laugh.
It's not easy, but after a while, I get a hold of how to do it. I look in the mirror and, like a ventriloquist using himself as his own dummy, I mumble to myself, "I think I am ready for the parade."
The door opens to a friendly face I have never seen before.
The woman is about 45 and has a version of the only hair style that German women of this age can conceive of, for some reason. It is short, with each individual strand basically just chopped off, as though instead of going to the hairdresser's, she went to the butcher around the corner, bringing her own meat cleaver (since she cannot trust that anyone else's meat cleaver will be honed to precision quite to her satisfaction), and when she sees the butcher, she bends to lay her hair on the butcher's block and shouts in a tone of domineering military command, "Chop it off. Just CHOP IT OFF!!".
Sometimes German women of this age manage to reorganize the ends of the hair strands in one way or another, curving them a little all in the same direction perhaps, but the underlying design is basically always the same.
The hairstyle makes her look like a 45 year old boy. She is also bone thin, as though somebody at home has forced her to live on dry crackers and disappointment ever since the final days of youth passed her by. If her sweater were left on a hanger overnight, it would not look less filled out that it does on her skeletal and shapeless form, which is devoid of any and all femininity. Her body type reminds me of those pictures of prisoners in concentration camps from so many years ago, a similarity which makes her gleeful smile seem peculiarly out of place.
"Hello", she says musically, as though earnestly glad to have the pleasure of seeing me in life, finally. "I'm collecting money for the XXX (it could be anything. There is an endless stream of charities in Germany, and so there is an endless stream of doorbell ringing. I think it has to do with some kind of individual and collective soul purging for the past.
Why this can't all be organized federally and paid for through our taxes as needed is a fact which eludes me. If people are in trouble, than let's make sure that our tax dollars go there in a supervised fashion. Between that lady's jeans pocket and the needy hand in question, there are so many steps at which the donations can be siphoned off into some administrator's private fund. As a person who is interested in the wellbeing of others without myself being made into a patsy in the process, I need transparency.
She shows me her list of signatures with the name of the charity printed at the top, and she seems to just expect that I will be donating, without any question. She doesn't make a request as much as she states the cold, hard reality that she is, in fact, collecting money for XXX and that this is clearly the right time to hand over a few bills to her, so that she can send them along to others who need it more than I do.
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