The weather in Cologne hit the lowers 70s (breaking into the twenties, Celsius), and it was like someone flipped a switch. From one day to the next the parks were full of folks laying on the lawns, walking on the paths, reading books, and just soaking up the warmth. Germans are quick to strip to bikinis and speedos, but this year the transition from parkas to beachwear was especially dramatic.
And it is not just the parks. The streets are full, cafes have put out their tables, and there is a general liveliness. I like it because I like to be alone around other people. I find even the fleeting and anonymous social interaction—seeing the other folks with whom I inhabit this city—invigorating.
My German friends accuse me of romanticizing life here, and there are lots of drawbacks to be sure. Perhaps it is my John LeCarré inspired false nostalgia of Cold War Germany, but there is a palpable sense of socialist realism to German daily life. For instance, I carry around plastic shopping bags with me, never knowing when I might need to buy something; there is an art to having the right size bag handy when the occasion arises. Or the Volksgarten (People’s Garden) down the street from my institute, with its concrete table tennis tables, paths and pond, empty last week and today filled with amiable drunks, not so amiable punks, children playing, families out for a stroll, students and business people reading.
While I tend to optimistically look for the best in situations, it certainly is true that the German system is by no means perfect. In some inconveniences, I find positive externalities. For example, I have a small refrigerator—about the size of the larger dorm refrigerators they sell in the States; and even many well appointed German homes have what to American standards are almost comically small refrigerators. As I result I find myself going to the grocery store all the time. It is hassle, but it also forces me to have the sorts of even nominal social interface that oils the gears of Gemeinschaft.
There are more insidious downsides as well. German notions of solidarity also imply exclusion, and German economic growth has been significantly fueled by guest workers long denied citizenship. There is also a German propriety about social class. Indeed, to American ears, it is shocking how bluntly folks speak of such things, one’s proper place in the social order. Even on television. I have watched a few episodes of a German reality show of real estate agents showing folks potential apartments. It was amazing to see how they overtly guided their clients not just to what they can afford but what is most appropriate for them and their social class—all in a way that would probably break all sorts of U.S. fair housing laws. The distance between professionals and working class is on the whole no greater here than in the U.S., but it is much more overtly recognized as such.