Across the aisle a business woman is scrolling her phone and clutching a coffee from the bakery adjacent to the station where daily she boards in the morning and exits in the evening. Three rows back a twentysomething is wearing all black and listening to music. Everyone can hear it. An unshaven man in a tattered-jeans and a baseball hat is walking up and down the aisle holding a 10-liter garbage bag, tilting open a trash receptacle hung on the wall next to each seat. He’s looking for bottles, glass and plastic. They’re worth ten cents each. When he reaches the twentysomething’s seat, he says what everyone is thinking.

Müssen Sie sich die Musik so laut anhören? The twentysomething looks up from a heavy metal haze and turns down his music. The business woman exhales in relief. Two quiet minutes to sip coffee and skim the news and skim the news before she and her colleagues reach their station.

In a German commuter train, the above scene is typical. It’s your standard societal cross-section, different in class and calling, but bound by a culture that obliges a punk to heed the petitions of a panhandler. The system is governed by order—Ordnung—a strange mix of written and unwritten rules, each observed with equal regard. In my two years in Cologne—and during the two years I spent in Austria prior to coming to Cologne—I’ve puzzled over this social order.

There’s no regular ticket check on a German train. Instead of forcing passengers through turnstyles or tasking conductors with regular ticket checks, the Germans have a system built on trust. Once every couple of weeks, a conductor will board a train and ask passengers to show their Fahrausweise. Other than that, nothing besides social pressure and a respect for the existing order. Ordnung muss sein, as the popular German phrase goes. Order must be.

Germans have an elite lineage of philosophers. You could argue that it’s their philosophical pedigree that drives their desire to maintain an ideal. But I recently came across a different perspective that has me rethinking everything I thought I knew about the Germans.

Andreas Kluth is the Berlin bureau chief of The Economist. He has lived in Germany, speaks the language and is a dual citizen of the U.S. and Germany. But after living in California for a couple decades, a recent return to Germany left him overwhelmed with what he calls the literal nature of the German people—their inability to grasp the intangible.

Kluth tells a story of taking his kids to the zoo and asking the woman behind the counter for the price of admission for him and his three children.

The lady behind it informed me that the price for the elder two was such-and-such and the little’un was free. “What if I pay you a bit extra and you keep them?” I suggested. The kids snortled and started naming prices that might clear the market.

The lady stared back, horrified. Then, slowly, she leaned forward to look at my children, who stiffened. “Your dad does not really mean that,” she said. “He does not really want to sell you.”

Kluth and his children had been speaking German up until that point. But afterwards, his daughter asked him in English why the woman behind the counter didn’t understand the joke. As if the attack on her father’s imagination forced her to retreat to linguistic territory that offers a little more room for play.

Kluth’s broad idea is that irony, exaggeration and metaphor occupy a diminished place in the German consciousness. Perhaps it’s too broad, but perhaps it’s the reason why Germans need to block 90 minutes in a meeting agenda for an “Informal Casual Meal.

Perhaps it’s also why the country has been so resilient in the face of the refugee crisis. Angela Merkel’s “Wir schaffen das,” (We’ll achieve this.) embodied a kind of resolute determination that eradicated room for doubt.

During the month of May, the city of Cologne announced it would be reducing the number of commuter trains coming and going from my station from three per hour to just one. Maybe it was the American in me, but already upset with the steep prices and less than consistent service, I tallied up the days I’d need to take the train, stacked that against how often I’d be out of town, and made a calculated decision not to buy a monthly ticket. I decided to buck order in favor of my own brand of justice.

I was satisfied in my decision. There was thrill in riding without a ticket. And I was convinced that what I was doing was right. I was in line with the spirit of the law, even if the law had no spirit.

I took the train home near the end of the month. As we pulled into my home station, I was approached by a conductor, who asked to see my ticket. In that moment, I realized a blind spot in my customized justice: that it’s not up to me to determine order. That’s why the panhandler can ask a punk to turn down his music. There’s virtue in taking the word for exactly what it’s worth.

Andrew Knot
Andrew Knot (’11) lives and writes in Cologne, Germany.