Thursday, January 26, 2012

Germany's One-way Escalators and the Value of Small Travails

In Germany one frequently encounters one-way escalators, an escalator going up and stairs to come down.  In the grocery store, in the airport—if not quite the norm, they still seem to be everywhere.  In one view this reflects a German propensity of austerity: just providing the necessary, convenience that shies away from excess.  It is also emblematic of the little difficulties and challenges that fill daily life here, much more so than in Nashville.

There isn’t a good German translation for “convenient.”  “Bequem” works in some contexts, but it carries the connotation of “comfortable.”  “Praktisch” comes closest to convenience, and indeed is a high complement in German, frequently heard, but it too misses the nuance of the English sentiment.  Praktisch is a rational practically, an efficient solution to a problem that maximizes benefits against costs.  Convenience implies efficiency as well, but with more of a sense of indulgence and greater trade-offs with costs and quality.

I find the little difficulties of German daily life to be sometimes aggravating but generally fulfilling.  It forces one to be more aware of certain aspects of life, especially in terms of consumption, that serve to promote a common good.  The grocery store closest to my apartment is in a pedestrian zone; as would commonly be the case in Manhattan (but not Nashville), I have to haul everything I purchase home (in bags that I brought to the store).  It makes one more conscious of the marginal costs of any extra purchase.  This is a hassle when buying bunch of drinks or bottled water, for example, and then, on top of hauling them home, I have to carry all the empty containers back to the store for the deposit.  (And carry them in the bags I will put the new groceries in—very praktisch.) 

One also is made keenly aware of the amount of waste one produces.  I have to sort all of my trash into a confusing array of color-coded trash bags and rubbish bins, the bags carry taxes corresponding to the type of refuse.  I have to look closely at each piece of trash I produce, a process that seeps into the consciousness, affecting the way I look at all sorts of quotidian activities and anchoring a certain form of prudence.

Washing machines here are super efficient in terms of water and energy usage.  But a normal cycle may take almost two hours to complete.  Many houses and apartment buildings have only a washing machine, and clothes are hung up to dry.  This is changing as dryer sales increase, but the German dryers are as slow as the washing machines.  This requires a serious time commitment to do the laundry.  No wonder Germans tend to wear their clothes more often between washings than Americans do.

Robert Nozick famously poised the question if one would prefer real life or an “experience machine” that could fully replicated reality with all of the good and none of the bad.  He suggests that most folks would choose real life.  We want the challenges, we want to create our own destinies, the work of becoming is what gives meaning to our existence.  It is in this light that I appreciate the little inconveniences of life in Germany, as much of a hassle as they may sometimes be; the little extra effort and forced self-reflectivity give greater meaning to life’s little chores.

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