Bigger than a shoebox with much more inside

For the most part, homes in Germany are smaller by comparison to North American homes. Obviously, with a larger population, and a smaller landmass you get roughly 230 people per square kilometre in Germany, whereas in Canada you have 2.3 people per square kilometre. Consequently, living arrangements are on the whole different, but I have often wondered about all the stuff that people supposedly amass.

I realize that family homes can quickly fill up with items in a short period of time – I arrived with two suitcases and a dog – and now have a house brimming with items. A new fad is of Spring cleaning is making headlines, and changing lives. For odd reasons people have even shown me personal photos of their closets where very little is left after a big purge, but what remains somehow fills the owners heart with joy, and things appear more accessible due to colour coding.

There was a growing market for storage facilities. People seemed too attached to all there stuff, realized that they needed some room to live, and instead of clearing out, an expensive heated secure storage room is rented to accommodate all the extra stuff. I haven’t seen anything like this in Germany, but perhaps I am just ignorant. I’ve noticed fields that fill up with caravans and camping vans for the winter, and now that the Spring sun is brighter and some flower petals are emerging, some of the tattered tarpaulins have been folded up, wheels inflated and caravans hitched up to the backs of cars, ready for a new season of European holiday making.

Where do they put all the stuff? Do they even have that much? Do people just buy less, or do they secretly throw it out?

It is now the season of the ‘Spurrmüll’ where people purchase a certain amount of cubic metres of disposal. Wood, metal, and plastic get placed upon the curb ready for a large truck to come along and a team of burly men to start hauling it away. If your neighbours are friendly with you, they will say that they still have some space and you are welcome to add a cubic metre or two. Sofas, dinning tables, beds, cupboards etc. all sits out on the side of the road and it is this time of year that you see the garage doors opening to reveal, ‘one mans treasure, and another mans garbage’.

In our neighbourhood I find people to be rather inquisitive, and at times nosy, about what is actually in a garage. If, on a sunny afternoon, I have our garage door open, and sit in the garden I observe the pedestrians walking past the house a little more slowly. Head turn, necks bend, but they keep on walking past, taking in the view of whatever it is that might be in the garage. I find myself doing the same thing, as most of the homes will, come evening, clatter with the rolled shutters which hang over the majority of windows. Only pinhole light emerges from the lighted interior of the homes, and your guess is as good as mine as to what is inside. Perhaps it is this inability to really see into other peoples homes that makes an open garage door so much more attractive. In Vancouver, with multi-million dollar homes and properties often making the news the reverse happens, as wide windows, and bright interiors gleam out like signals of wealth and great opulence onto the night sky. In fact, I recall one home/mansion which I frequently passed on the way to university being in the news for a number of reasons. One reason for the newsworthiness was that the amount of money that was estimated to have been spent on the renovations; the other was that the owner was the owner of Lululemon, the Yoga fashion label. In a tongue in cheek comment passersby could enjoy the beachfront as you could look right through the home from one end to the other. It just so happened that this took place around the unfortunate time that the Yoga leggings were making the headlines due to some error in design and quality of material, as the tightly stretched fabric became remarkably thin when stretched. This caused both the design of the house and the flaw in the leggings to be similarly transparent.

I have to admit that while I was out walking the dog I walked past one apartment block which has a series of squat garages lined up in front, and saw that one young fellow who has a hobby, or business, of fixing up old cars had his garage opened up and one of his new projects parked in front of the garage door. It is magnificent to see the transformation of the cars, that usually arrive on a flatbed truck in some major state of disrepair; only to see them several months later looking like they have come from the movie set of one of the Fast and Furious films. I completely expected to see a miniaturized auto detailing set-up with a garage lined with tools and specialized equipment. As I slowed my pace and turned my head to see what was in the garage I was astonished to see boxes and boxes of shoes and a small rack of clothes. Some of the shoes seemed to be out on display, more so than any of the cars I had ever noticed in passing. Blue Adidas shoe boxes seemed alternately stacked with orange Nike shoeboxes. Trainers of all sorts of designs and colours lined the walls of the garage so tightly I can only think that once a small car is parked inside, the driver would have no choice but to exit the vehicle through the rear hatch-back.

Returning back to my own home I realize with more interest that ‘stuff’ has pilled up far beyond a meagre two suitcases. A neighbour comes over and offers a couple cubic metres of space on his large pile of rubbish. My neck feels a bit cramped from looking sideways at the neighbouring garage whilst being pulled along by an ever excited dog. The buds are forming. The birds are arriving from distant lands. The garage doors are opening to disgorge the amassed collections.

Surely, this must be Spring in Germany.

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World Poetry Day

Yesterday, according to various emails that I found in my inbox, was a trifecta of world celebrations. In no particular order, it seemed as if the stars had aligned so that we simultaneously celebrated World Recognition of Down-syndrome Day, World Poetry Day, and World Commonwealth Day. And here I thought my own calendar planning was poor as I battle mistaken double-bookings and overstretched responsibilities.

Recently I found myself fielding a number of questions about my blog, and why I write one. I let it be known to a small gathering of people that I also enjoy poetry, and when I said that I write a blog, I know in my heart of hearts that there are really blogs that I write, not just this one you may be reading now.

Poetry, fiction, general writing, and for a large part, English classes, were not seen as a highlight of my academic career. More a point of humorous embarrassment and ineptitude. English was a subject for other people in my family. I cannot ever recall learning the building blocks of English grammar, and I think that I grew up in an era of English teaching reform where the students would just ‘know’ English and come to practice it without having to go into all the details; something like ‘new maths’. As such, I tend to blunder my way through writing but get immense pleasure from reading and writing. I even like the sound of words and marvel at people who have provided the world with silly rhymes, or majestic marvels (like Gerard Manley Hopkins). If I was to compare my English studies and eduction, it would be not dissimilar to building furniture from IKEA without the directions — you could manage, and in the end you have something recognizably like a sofa, but with a lot of left over metal washers and screws. So far, the sofa in our house is holding together, and I suppose the same is true for my writing and general use of the English language. Just don’t move it around too much.

Family will likely read this, or if they are smart, only see that a new post has arrived in their ‘inbox’ and promptly ignore it. Reading, writing and general composition were painful events. I read faster upside-down than right side up, and especially when tired, I will simply turn the book around and read upside down as it is not as difficult. These actions truly annoyed professors as they thought I was mocking them, but in reality it makes my brain hurt less. I get emotionally attached to what I have written, so much so, that I will sulk and pout if others wish to edit and correct. I am not always as clear as I think I am in my writing (or at any time), as I feel that my brain jumps to conclusions that are easily made, but others tell me that they cannot follow. Catch up!

In order to enter university studies I needed to take English classes until my final days of high school. I think I skimmed most of the reading, and played dumb for a lot of the response that was needed to speak about plays, novels, and poems, especially poems because only girls read poems. That’s what was the underlying message from my peers and so I, wanting to fit in, acted in this way. I think that I have now, later in life, rediscovered the books that I read in school or was suppose to have read, and have gone and done my penitence and re-read all of them. Well, there is still Doctor Zhivago, but I enjoyed the movie more anyway.

My mother and sister are the English buffs, as the bookshelves in our family home can attest to a prolonged love and study of English literature. I have to admit that as my grades were not good I needed to take a test for English in order to register for English 100 in school. Those of my peers who had done better at English 12 immediately jumped into English 101 which was only one digit higher, but held a infinitely greater prestige.

To this day I do not know what I did on that placement test, but I now look back at it with a smile. After standing in a long line of students at a registrars office I received my test score which allowed me to try for enrolment, not in English 100, but (gasp!) English as a Second Language classes.

So why am I writing this blog? Why do I like to read poetry? Why do I even bother? I suppose a lot has changed in my attitude about how I learn and in what ways I have progressed enough in my own self that allows me to write more publicly. When pressed by friends and acquaintances as to the reason why I write at all, let alone on a public forum like a blog, I need to think deeply about this question. I can say I don’t often enjoy it. No, it isn’t like that. I enjoy writing, but it is hard work. It feels like something I just have to do. Perhaps it is a compulsion or a laborious event that just has to happen.

Writing is something that takes a great deal of effort, and at times, I cannot be bothered and have learned other methods to express myself. When re-taking the English placement test, I did get into the regular English classes. Mostly those tests taught me absolutely nothing about English, and everything about my own determination, desire, and destiny.

There and back again

Not all travel is easy. We often forget that while we sit so comfortably in a cushioned seat that we are speeding through countryside at nearly 300 km/hr, or traveling at even higher speeds, and loftier heights. The past few days has brought with it much travel.

Having returned from the UK after finishing the residential session for becoming a diocesan Spiritual Director, I now sit at home, phone in hand, sending short messages to my daughter who is, at this moment, stuck with her friends returning from their Harry Potter excursion in London. A cancelled train in Brussels, and now a bus ride to Germany to be put up in a hotel. They are all in good hands, and we will see each other tomorrow.

My own travels to and from the UK were also challenging. High winds were such that flights were cancelled out of Basel, and my own airplane remained on the runway for nearly an hour, but if I closed my eyes it felt as if we were high up in the air. The jet was buffeted by strong gusts of wind that made the wings tip back and forth. Getting to the UK was a bit delayed, but the return trip was also interesting.

Leaving the retreat centre, a number of our group caught a taxi to the main station where I am sure some clown music played faintly in the background and we anxiously played a game of Tetris with luggage and people in amongst folded seats and a rather small mini van having to leave one person behind for another cab. Most of us hopped onto the coach upon our arrival at the train station, which then took us to the various airport terminals. Exceptionally polite bus drivers carefully examined each ticket in turn, and personally loaded the baggage which left me feeling rather stunned as de rigour of Flixbus travel in Germany is elbows out whilst throwing your baggage onto the bus in amongst other passengers removing luggage. As a sure sign of belief, we all hope that in the confusion my nondescript black suitcase which is of the identical dimensions of every other traveller on a discount flight will, by some miracle, arrive at our destination, and that I will find all the same clothes to wear as I had placed in the bag to begin with. In the short space of time it took me to travel from the bus to the main door of the Heathrow departure terminal – about 100 metres – half a wheel fell off my luggage and just as the large glass sliding door opened a pigeon placed a well aimed splat of white guano to go with my emerald green puffy jacket. I tried to think of it all as a sign of good luck; or, if this is happening now, surely the wheels and wings of the airplane will stay on.

In the lift to find the baggage drop I examined myself in the mirrored wall of the elevator trying to clean myself off. At least it gave the other travellers something to look at other than just the numbers flashing above the door as we rose to the fifth floor. Thinking I was finally finished wiping myself clean of the signature bird poop I felt yet another drop of something on my head. How is it even possible that an interior elevator leaks? Why is it that I have to stand under the place of the drip?

The checked in baggage has great advantages being almost solely automated. There are no longer snaking lines of tired travellers navigating labaryths made from movable pillars with seatbelt railings; instead, there is a series of touch screens which ask you for more, and more, and more information until finally the system can be sure that it has no idea who you are and you must look for an actual person to help explain to you that the documentation would have already been emailed to you as an e-ticket. This is when I realize that in spite of all this, my phone has chosen this moment to give up and need recharging. This is exactly why I like to leave a little time before boarding; to give the airplane a fighting chance of leaving with out me. That, and the feeling of Murphy’s Law which works its way to the front of my thoughts.

I then found myself with bag on conveyor belt standing next to another fellow, also with bag on a conveyor belt. We looked at each other an wondered if that was it. “Is that as far as it goes? Just sits there?” We tried wheels first. Wheels last. We tried throwing my bag a little further along to the other set of conveyor belts which joined the nearest set. Nope. We banged the conveyor like one does with the Deutsche Bahn luggage assist that runs beside concrete steps of the German train stations. Nope, still nothing. We need to look for an actual person to help us. Very soon a helpful employee wandered by to toss, not our luggage, but a rhetorical question, “Why does someone keep turning on the defective station after I’ve turned it off!” Why indeed.

Card scanned. Code words entered. Hidden switches switched. Laser scanners activated. Bags handed over to be sorted out by the staff person, conveyers whizzing and whirring, only to find that I would be paying 178 Pounds for over-weight luggage. What!!!

My shoulder bag had been tagged as the other passengers, whilst I was now left ‘holding the bag’ of the other fellow. It was quickly discovered that of the two broken conveyor belts to choose from, both of us passengers shared the same first name which led to some confusion as to who’s bag was scanned. With a rubber-like arm, the staff member again flipped a hidden switch, and both sets of bags were once again regurgitated from the belly of the mechanical beast, no longer having our personal items shipped to Tarshish and Nineveh respectively.

Life is exciting enough without all the travel stress. Having landed safely – now more than a week ago – as like the false starts, the groundings, the tiny taxis and well-aimed poop, the internet broke and I lost this story until I could finally put the finishing touches on it just now.

I think I am about full up with my Lenten penitence and will be glad to remain in one place for a while.

Posting about Post

There are a couple differences to the postal services of Germany and Canada, as well as some similarities. Now that Spring feels like it is budding forth more and more each day with still chilled mornings met with afternoon temperatures, at times, in the balmy double digits, the window in my office is opened and the sound of birdsong fills the air. Along with the metallic squawking of the pair of Magpies constructing a nest of twigs in the neighbours tree there is the familiar hum and squeak of the Deutsche Post’s uniquely made yellow cube-like postal vehicle. With electric motor and (maybe purposely) noisy brakes, the postman makes his rounds.

The dog, from a dead sleep, can hear the garage door opening, the foot falls of children returning from school and a cheese wrapper being opened in the kitchen at 2 in the morning. Yet, day-by-day the dog has yet to realize, as I do, the faithful sound of the postal truck and so he is rudely awakened most mornings by the ringing door buzzer like a hound stung by a hornet.

I have to admit that I have long held a great respect for the postal service, as in Canada they were people, which for the most part, were fit, friendly, and got to drive around in little right-hand drive jeeps that parked on the sidewalks. Perhaps the postal service was also idealized in my Richard Scarey books growing up, or that they always seemed invincible wearing shorts in any weather. As such, the tradition has long been that, come Christmas time, we usually left a small present out for the ‘postie’.

Now in Germany, I would hazard a guess and say that 98 percent of the time the arrival of a package is not for anyone in our home, rather for one of the other two apartments as our neighbours seem to do the majority of their shopping online so the parcels with grinning Amazon logos sit at our respective doorways after being signed for by yours truly.

I have, due only to the frequency of meeting, become more acquainted with the postal worker who, day after day, pounds the pavement (after parking his little yellow electric van) in our neighbourhood. There is usually a polite request over the intercom at the door asking if I would be so kind as to sign for the parcels that have arrived for my neighbours. I’m referred to by name — Herr Parsons — and told that “it is very nice of you to always do this!”. Recently, just after signing my signature on an mobile phone like device, and already being handed a few small packages and envelopes, I was asked to wait at the door for an extra package that was large. Looking from our front steps out onto the street the postman walked up to the bright yellow cube on four wheels, and after rolling up the rear door, proceeded to struggle with a cardboard box which looked incredibly heavy. Seeing the scarf-clad postman hauling and sliding a large box to the edge of the vehicle door it was like watching a mid-wife helping the postal van give birth to another little cube. I ran out in my bare feet and surprised the postman as I stood next to him so as to take one end of the crate. Taking hold of the package: it took the two of us a great deal of effort to manhandle it through the narrow doorway of the house. I’m still not sure what was in the heavy box, but in the past I have received everything from a set of winter tires to a plate-full of steamed broccoli in a Styrofoam box which was forgotten as part of a meal delivery, so your guess is as good as mine. With a glistening of sweat on our brows there was a polite thank you (we are on ‘Sie’ terms) and a handshake. The electric hum of the postal van as it drove down the street seemed to be less strained, less burdened, its yellow a bit more shiny, as if it was now a proud parent handing out cigars.

There are also some postal mishaps that can be frustrating either in Canada; like striking under-appreciated postal workers, or in Germany, as with postal agent who sent an important parcel to Edmonton via Hong Kong and Australia by surface.

Recently it felt like Christmas in February as a batch of Christmas cards were delivered, allaying my fears that I had unknowingly annoyed a great many people and had been struck from the list. As my oldest prepares for Confirmation, the letters of invitation and announcement were sent out weeks ago. We had one letter returned with a pencilled apology from a Canadian postal worker which said, “Sorry! I tried very hard to find this address but couldn’t in the end.”. We had, in our rush, forgotten to put most of the address on the envelope, but a valiant effort was seemingly made to find the recipient.

For a time I lived and worked in a neighbourhood which had an noticeably ugly house. A colleague said that he had devised a test for the postal workers, sending a stamped postcard addressed to something similar as, “TO: the Ugly Eggplant Purple bungalow with Bile Green trim on the corner of Arbutus Street and Broadway”. No numeric address and no postal code. A week later, passing the ugly house on the way into work he knocked on the front door and inquired if his postcard had arrived – it had! Soon afterwards we noticed that the house had been freshly painted with new colours.