Our theme for the month of July is “stunt journalism.” Writers were asked to try something new, take on a challenge, or perform some other interesting feat strictly for the purpose of writing about it.
There was a scooter locked outside of the front door, right next to a hook with a leash tied around it: a parking spot reserved for dogs. These are icons of normalcy in Germany, where scooters are an accepted mode of adult transport and dogs rank high enough on the social ladder that they are reserved a parking space right next to the front door.
Any country, any culture, is governed by rules written and unwritten. Germany is no different. Germany is a country with a special regard for rules. You may only pass in the left lane. You must not play loud music after 10 p.m. You must wait for the green pedestrian light to cross the street. You may not trim your hedges during birds’ nesting season.
You could find most of the above rules written down somewhere, deep in the pages of an federal, regional, or municipal ordinance book. But there are a number of rules you wouldn’t find. You may celebrate your birthday at any time after your actual date of birth, but you may not celebrate your own birthday, nor wish anyone else a happy birthday, before the birthday in question has passed. You must greet everyone—everyone in the room before beginning a meeting or a party. You may ride a scooter to the grocery store and still be considered a respectable adult. You may not wear athletic apparel to the supermarket. For the Germans, these rules are just as important and just as present in the governing psyche. They uphold order. They keep things normal.
After a certain point you’ve stood still at one too many intersections, waiting for the green light while nary a car passes by, you grow weary of these unwritten rules. You chafe at their small-minded absolutism. You wonder if you’re the problem. Perhaps your limited comprehension of the German language inhibits you from understanding certain cultural nuances. Maybe that’s the issue. Maybe the nuance is there, you’re just not able to perceive it, and that’s why you occasionally feel typecast into one of two diametrically-opposed roles: the camouflaged wallflower or the foreign eccentric.
That was my experience last week when, perhaps emboldened by celebrations of my nation’s independence, I resolved to take on German temperance with a stunt I’d long imagined but never realized.
It was just past 8:30 p.m., less than a half-hour until Rewe, my local supermarket, closed for the evening. I had gotten home from work and was taking stock of unaccomplished to-dos: the taxes I still had to file, the magazine subscriptions I wanted to cancel, the dishwasher I still haven’t fixed, the fine for riding the train without a ticket that I wanted to challenge. Frustrated by these unmet obligations, I put on a pair of sweatpants and went to the supermarket.
In the US, wearing sweatpants to the grocery store is an act of conformity. In Germany as in many other countries on the continent, it’s an act of rebellion. As athletic wear daily increases its share of and utility in US wardrobes, in Germany sweatpants are reserved for the gym and one’s own living room.
So I marched into the supermarket in my sweatpants, sneering at the scooter and the empty dog parking spot on my way in. I passed the bakery on my way to the produce. Its strawberry season, and I was looking for some fruit to garnish the next morning’s müsli. The woman working in the bakery shot me a look. It’s because of the sweatpants, I told myself.
What a thrill, the grocery store was abnormally full for a Wednesday night. There was a crew of seventeen-year-olds my age returning empty bottles. One was wearing a t-shirt that said, “Green Bay Yankees.” There was an old man at the deli ordering eight slices of sausage made from gelatin, mango, and pork. The absurdity of these two images left me feeling vindicated.
I got to the produce and the strawberries were gone. Germans are big into seasonal fruits and vegetables and they’re not into produce that can sit on a shelf for longer than a week. This was a blow to my cultural defiance. Even when breaking the rules, I still had to play by them.
Rewe was about to close. I bought some milk, eggs, and other essentials and made my way to the register. The older man from the deli was in front of me. The cashier was ringing him up for eight slices of mango pork sausage. Then he took a pack of strawberries out of his bag—the last ones. The ones that were supposed to adorn tomorrow morning’s müsli.
I left the supermarket with my essentials. The man from the deli took his scooter home. I returned home to a broken dishwasher, unfiled taxes, and an unread magazine. I sat on the living room sofa in my sweatpants and everything was normal.