On the way home from work this afternoon, I decided to go straight to the market to pick up food for tomorrow. I have learned to carry my shopping bag with me everywhere I go. You never know when you will be shopping, and if you find yourself in the store without it, it is going to cost you. They are very, very big on recycling in Germany, and just in case you aren’t as committed as the State, they have ways to make you comply. Mainly through the wallet. All recyclable items have a Pfand associated with them. This is a small deposit you pay when you purchase the item and get back when you return it.

In the grocery market, for example, there will be a Pfand on all plastic and glass bottles. It is typically twenty-five cents, I think. Enough that the homeless are extremely motivated to pick up any bottles laying around unclaimed. You save the bottles and return them to the store where you got them. There is a machine located just inside the door of most markets. You put one bottle at a time into the slot, and you get a ticket that can be reclaimed for cash at the cashier. (I think this is how it works. My apartment is sort of overflowing with plastic bottles and I think I just figured out today how to cash in.)

The Pfand doesn’t just apply to recyclable items. It extends to many things in Germany. For example, if you go to a beer garden and get one of those big mugs that tend to walk off, you will pay a Pfand for that. You pay for your grocery bags, if you don’t bring your own, since those are plastic as well. (This is why I bought my own canvas bag.) You will pay for your plate and silverware. In the student cafeteria where I ate my lunch the other day I had to pay a pfund for my dishes. When I took my tray up to the dish lady, she gave me two Pfand tokens that I can use tomorrow when I get my meal, or I can turn them in for cash.

(Apparently the Germans take stealing dinner items extremely seriously. Brian was cautioned not to steal the beer mugs at the Oktoberfest. Not only is there a Pfand associated with them, but last year an American student who tried to steal one ended up with a two month prison sentence. They don’t kid around with that kind of thing.)

You are expected to separate your trash as well. Each apartment building has several dumpsters marked with the kinds of things that go in them. Paper in one, plastic bags in another, tin cans in still another, etc. This is what is known as a total recycling commitment. I wish we had the political will to do something similar in the US. We seem to think we are the last people in the world who have to conserve the world’s resources.

The recycle bins. Recycling Efforts Everyone is expected to take part in separating their trash and recycling what can be recycled. Every apartment has these yellow bins for paper, plastics, glass, and cans.

The Visitor

I have to share my office this week with a visiting scientist from Italy, who has been invited here to give a talk tomorrow and then spend some time visiting the rest of the week. I felt impoverished speaking to her. She speaks four languages fluently, and a couple of others “well enough to get by.” That is the norm here. Nearly everyone is fluent in at least two or three languages.

At lunch the other day, Karsten and I were approached by a young girl, maybe five years old. She was speaking to us in German when Karsten said “Bon Appetit” in French, so she started speaking French to us! When Karsten told her I was an American, she switched to English. This girl was five years old! Amazing. I hope there is still time for me to learn a language or two.

My visitor had spent two months here at ESO last year. We were comparing notes and I was complaining about how hard it was to learn where everything is in Germany. Each store seems to specialize in this or that, but not in any way that is obvious to a clueless visitor. She had lived in the US, too, so she said, “Yes, it is so much easier to shop in America, but, of course, that is the purpose of America.”

I guess I had never thought of it like that, but I think she makes a good point. Our purpose is to make money, lots of it. So our stores are open until late at night and on weekends so we can shop and spend money. Shops close at 6:00 in the evening and at 2:00 in the afternoon on Saturday in Germany because the purpose of Germany is not, specifically, to make money. (Everything is closed on Sundays in Germany, except restaurants. I don’t know if that is by law or by custom.) I think Germans are more concerned with the quality of life than we are. They have less, but they seem more contented with it than we are.

The Bookstore

After purchasing my supplies at the market I walked back to my apartment by way of the bookstore in the Rathaus plaza. I had finished the couple of books I brought with me and I was curious to see if the bookstore carried books “auf Englisch.” I walked in and looked around, shelves everywhere, sections well marked. Theater books over here (and I think of my son, Jonathan), psychology books over there. The Germans seem to be as concerned with self-help as Americans. No obvious English books as I walked around, browsing.

But, wait. What is this? A rack of used CDs. Oh, great, I could use a CD or two to play on my computer. I meant to put some music together before I left Colorado but I ran out of time before I had a chance to do it. I am music-less here. I found a Best of Bob Dylan album that looked good. But no prices on anything.

Finally, I asked a clerk. “Was kostet das?” The woman I asked looked at me like I had asked a strange question and she was struggling to find an answer to it. But I was used to this. My American accent (if that’s what it is!) is apparently thick. Having people look at me like this after I ask a question in German is the rule, not the exception. I tried again. “Wieviel kostet diese CD?” The CD doesn’t cost anything, she told me, this is a library. You check it out!

“Oh, Dear Lord, is there no limit to how foolish Thou wouldst allow me to appear!?”

“I mean,” I sputtered simultaneously in the three or four languages I apparently know but can’t speak, “can I get a library card?”

Yes, of course, bring your passport. I slunk off to my apartment for my passport and a stiff drink.

There is no overestimating how much a library card can psychologically tie you to a community. If you have a library card, you belong, pure and simple. I got my card (ignoring the snickers of the two check-out clerks when they saw me returning), found the section of the library where you can drink a cup of tea while you peruse those racy German magazines (my German is good enough to understand these), and finally got pointed in the direction of two long shelves of English books. I felt like I was finally at home in Germany. I came back to the apartment with the latest John le Carré book, Absolute Friends, whose main character turns out to live in Munich, and a couple of other CDs to go with that Bob Dylan.

When I got home, I popped the Carlos Santana album onto the computer, turned the volume up as loud as it would go, fixed a damn good tuna steak with fresh vegetables, drank a great wheat beer (in a glass bottle) from one of the finest Bayrisch breweries, and looked forward to an early evening with my new book. Yes, indeed, things were finally really looking up!

P.S. I was just informed by my son that drinking good wheat beer from a flasche is as near a sacrilegious as a secular heathen like me can get in a Catholic region like Munich. He is concerned that my experience in the library will pale when compared to the fall-out from this, when the Germans read about it. Sigh... I’m off to find a glass now.

The city library. The Garching City Bookstore (née Library) I guess I won’t be forgetting the word Bücherei anytime soon. :-(

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