(Editor’s note: If you have German neighbours, check out the “Notes of Berlin” blog Laura turned us onto. And send us your best anecdotes.)
When my husband and I moved to Berlin in 2014, we were made instantly aware that our time here was going to be spent living in very close proximity to other Berliners.
During our first few weeks in temporary accommodation, we had learned that our temporary neighbours had a fantastic (late night) social life, could not always handle their alcohol, had a very healthy sex life, and regularly enjoyed singing along loudly to the soundtracks from various Disney movies.
Good for them!
When you live in an apartment building shared with so many other people, as most Berliners do, you quickly come to realise that you are not entirely alone in your own home. And if you’re going to make it in an ‘apartment living’ city like Berlin, you best learn how to get along with your neighbours.
Every corner of the globe has its unique set of rules for etiquette and social norms when it comes to living in close quarters with other people. Germany being Germany, however, takes these rules to a new level.
“Every man is surrounded by a neighborhood of voluntary spies” (Jane Austin)
Nosey neighbours are a worldwide phenomenon, and certainly not unique to Berlin. But there seems to be a trend here whereby several of our neighbours (usually above a certain age) appear to take observing and policing our behaviour very, very seriously.
Where this comes from I don’t know. A legacy of the social paranoia of the Cold War era? The stereotypical deeply ingrained German respect for upholding ‘the rules’? Who knows?
But what I do know is that, despite our best efforts, we have been reprimanded by our neighbours on countless occasions.
We were not putting the cardboard in the paper recycling bin in the correct fashion; we had chained our bike in the wrong place; our dog was in an area of the communal grounds where dogs were apparently forbidden; our child was too noisy.
These helpful reminders about our misconduct have never been spoken but instead written and left as notes. Usually anonymously. The writers have often gone to great lengths to make sure their message would be read loud and clear.
Typing and printing their notes, waterproofing them, and helpfully drawing our attention to the most relevant instructions with red ink, or even useful pictures for clarification. Passive-aggressive notes have become a bit of a viral internet sensation in recent years.
However, I am convinced that this particular practice must originally be an export of Germany.
It turns out we’re not alone when it comes to friction with our neighbours. As this article from Spiegel Online points out, Germans expect their fellow residents to follow a particular set of rules, and it can be very easy to annoy your neighbour if you don’t quite understand (or choose to ignore) them.
So much so, that German courts see thousands upon thousands of cases with quarreling neighbours every year.
There are rules pertaining to:
- communal recycling
- vacuuming or mowing your lawn on a Sunday or during Ruhezeit (quiet time)
- how frequently within a very specific amount of time your dog barks
- how often you BBQ
- clearing snow and leaves from the pavement outside your building
- and even washing your car
The rules are plentiful, and not always intuitive. And, as we quickly found, it can be very easy to slip up and annoy your neighbour without even knowing it…until you receive written confirmation.
“He who enjoys a good neighbor has a precious possession” (Hesiod)
So for those of you rolling your eyes with the thought that this is just another unhelpful expat rant about the population of a country that has so warmly welcomed us, have no fear! Because I also have some very positive experiences to share.
Since leaving our temporary accommodation, we have lived in two apartments during our almost 4 years in Berlin. And in both places we have had some truly fantastic neighbours. In our first apartment, our downstairs neighbours (and pseudo-German grandparents) took in our almost daily package deliveries from DHL, and both they and our upstairs neighbour brought over cards and gifts when our son was born.
We made friendly but awkward chit-chat across a very difficult language barrier, exchanged Christmas cards, and helped each other out in emergencies such as when we locked ourselves out of our apartment, or when the elderly mother of our upstairs neighbour got stuck in the bath and needed lifting out.
When we moved to our new apartment we gave them all our new address and were sad to leave them behind.
In our current apartment we share a garden with our next door neighbours, who have an open-door policy for our dog (who is suspiciously gaining weight), and frequently send over little gifts for our son. Our upstairs neighbour recently stopped by to give us a small piece of the Berlin Wall, since we “are Berliners now after all!”
In exchange, we do our best to be good neighbours. We take in parcels for neighbours who aren’t home, we empty their mailboxes when they are away on holiday, we send over a bottle of wine at Christmas, and we try our best to abide by any ‘instructions’ we receive, by note, or otherwise.
High standards make good neighbours
What I’ve come to realise is that our German neighbours are not nearly as frosty and unforgiving as they might first appear. They are just unlike the anonymous, keep yourself to yourself neighbours we have lived amongst in other cities. They have a high standard for what it means to be a good neighbour, and they expect you to abide by them too.
For all the talk I hear of Berliners being unfriendly, we have in fact found the opposite. But to appreciate their friendliness you simply have to understand that it is often served alongside a large dollop of calling you out on your mistakes.
Rather like an overbearing grandmother who tuts, shakes her head, straightens your collar and then lovingly passes you a big piece of your favourite dessert.
Turns out my German neighbours are just more…well…neighbourly; and they expect the same from everyone else!
When in Rome ….
In recent months we have begun to realise that we have taken one major step forward towards becoming true Berliners. We’ve started to become overwhelmingly annoyed by a mystery neighbour who doesn’t seem to understand the recycling system. My husband can frequently be heard complaining about how the “recycling saboteur” has once again put a load of plastic in the compostable waste bin.
Now we want to protect the environment as much as the next person, but this particular frustration is borne more out of a desire to protect our finances, since any fines incurred due to incorrect sorting of refuse are split and levied upon all tenants in the building. A situation that my husband has begun referring to as “the tragedy of the commons”.
This has become such a bugbear for us that I recently spent a fair amount of time complaining about it during a phone call with our editor, Terry Boyd.
His response?… “Maybe you should leave them a note!”
About the author:
Originally from the U.K., Laura Kaye currently lives with her family in Berlin. Having left the U.K. in 2009 to pursue a career in the humanitarian and development sector, she has since lived and worked in multiple countries across three continents.
Laura moved with her husband in 2014 and is currently taking a career break to raise their 3-year-old son.
More posts by Laura Kaye
An open letter to the undecided: ‘My family is right at the heart of the EU membership vote’
Having a baby in Berlin: Medicine, rather than modesty, is the aim of the game in Germany
Having a baby in Berlin, Pt. 2: Learning German whilst pregnant so we’re not ‘those expats’
Having a baby in Berlin, Pt. 3: A Berliner is born, and the German benefits you need to know about
Hugsy: ‘Kangaroo Care’ product for babies doesn’t replace mum and dad but extends their reach
Laura Kaye is a freelance writer, researcher and editor. Her work focuses on social and development issues, parenting and family life.
Originally from the Wirral in the United Kingdom, she is a serial expat now happily living in Berlin, Germany.