Life's journeys: Language, culture, communication

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Prozedur über alles

Would it be possible to write a piece about the periodic absurdity of German life? The eye-popping, mind-boggling, neuron-grilling absurdity of the bureaucratic mindset? I don’t think so. See, I can’t even come up with the right adjectives…

Remember those Tom-and-Jerry cartoons where a desperate Tom pulls his own tongue, hits himself over the head and has wheezing vapors coming out of his ears? That’s how I feel most of the time. Trying to get a German service provider to understand what service is (or rather, should be) is akin to Tom waking up the big beasty dog. You’d just rather hit your own head against the wall real hard a few times. Because the customer is by no means king, no. It’s all about procedures here. Procedures are the whole goddamn royal family in this place.

I employed a cleaning person for a couple of hours the other day.  Or so I thought. My bad. After 9 years in this country I was still naive enough to believe they were in my service, not vice-versa.

So the guy comes, with his SUITCASE, looking all nice and preppy, very businesslike, and manages to actually crack a smile when I answer the door. I welcome him and hand him the keys to the place, but then – surprise – THIS BEING OUR FIRST ENCOUNTER, HE HAS JUST COME TO HAVE A LOOK AT IT, TO EVALUATE. For the actual cleaning he will come some other time.

My mouth feels dry as I clear my throat. You mean I have waited a whole week and exchanged four e-mails with this guy so that he can have a look at the place??? It’s only an apartment, for crying out loud. A small apartment in the basement that is sort of an appendix to the one we inhabit upstairs, and where (downstairs) my parents live when they come to visit. Don’t all human apartments look roughly the same? Four walls, floor, ceiling, a few pieces of furniture, carpets, a bathroom?…  I had explained as much in my e-mail. He notices my perplexity and makes what in his eyes must appear to be a huge concession in the realm of customer relations:  “OK, I will try to clean now. You are lucky I have time.”  

How about that? I, the customer paying him for this, AM LUCKY THAT HE IS GIVING ME THE TIME OF DAY.

Then he has a look at the place, goes back out to his car, comes back in and presents me with a sheet of paper that is supposed to be the actual order document. Dutifully, I pencil in my name, address and what I want done. It’s not much: wipe the floor, vacuum, clean the small bathroom and the two small windows. By now I am totally kowtowing to this guy. I hear myself asking if he can manage all of that in two hours (even though I know for a fact that a Romanian peasant with her naturally large dose of common-sense would do it in half the time and for half the money, but this guy is legit, he issues invoices)…

So I go back to my kids and he starts working downstairs. I am feeling pretty smug, my place will soon be spotless. I am somewhat bothered by the fact that I still don’t know what it’s going to cost, despite having (sheepishly) asked twice. But apparently, German service is so valuable, it gets sold without even looking at the price tag. It will certainly be very objectively priced, “don’t worry, you can afford to pay” (in his own words) – I promise to let you know when I get the frigging invoice.

Two hours elapse and I am getting impatient. No sounds have been coming from the basement in a rather long time but I never dare distrust the guy, and with two young children prancing around and e-mails piling up, my hands and feet are tied. I cannot go down and check right now. But I mean, what can go wrong, he was recommended by a German friend (a mother of two), right?

Well, to make a long story short, he brings me back the key and I smile and ask: “Finished?” while he actually tries to crack a joke about how FAST  he is…  Then, still without naming his price, he departs. I pack both kids into the car to meet my husband downtown after a long and exhausting day (as fate would have it, in a cafe that completely lacks anything even remotely similar to customer service – surprise, surprise!…).

Imagine my surprise when, upon returning home, I finally go to check our supposedly sparkling basement and find the carpets all piled up in the stairway, and inside chairs still on tables, the objects in the bathroom all moved around and the vacuum cleaner on the bed!

Obviously, I cannot articulate one single word. I am both baffled and incredulous. I rub my eyes and my chest just heaves with the bubbling anger of disbelief.  I let my husband pick up the phone and… what do you know! The guy is covered! He  has done everything right, he has just followed CLEANING PROCEDURES. Did I actually want my carpets back on the floor? Well, I had FAILED TO MENTION THAT IN MY ORDER.  Arrrrrrghhhhh!!!!!!

Can it be, can it really be that any sane human being expects to find the cleaned apartment in an even more disorderly state than it was before the cleaning???? Was I really, honestly expected to expect that he would drag all my carpets out into the stairwell until the wiped floor gets dry and leave them there?! That he goes away claiming to have everything ready and not even TELL ME about this?! Is this guy for real???? I am going to have to pay big bucks to carry my own 15-kilo rugs and carpets back in? To rearrange the bathroom?…

You tell me. Because by now all my reasoning powers are humming tunes in a happier place, a place where other happy people walk the long white corridors in white robes with hands tied behind their backs, and where nurses inject Xanax.

Some day, I tell myself, some day, this will actually seem funny.


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