Germans have the damndest ideas of a good time. Haul in a wiener wagon and a beer truck to any open area and folks will get dressed up in autumn-colored shirts and corduroys and drive their Audi’s or Mercedes station wagons as fast as they can to get there, honking horns and shouting to pedestrians along the way. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with this, but much like accordions and lederhosen, the novelty wears off rather quickly.
What doesn’t wear off so quickly is the German’s sense of moral resilience. You might, for example, find yourself standing with others at the crosswalk of a long, deserted street, waiting for the signal to turn green. Crossing the street may look safe, but the people around you will literally hiss if you cross prematurely. And folks are hesitant to speak to each other even at the park – that is, unless you toss a Frisbee too close, and then even an old woman will make a fist and curse your ever-loving soul. Many people leave the house, I’ve decided, just to ensure that things are in order. When they’ve finished inspecting the outside world, they come home and find still more things to correct.
I moved to Düsseldorf in the summer of 2009. Shortly after arriving, I met a Kiwi who was kind enough to give me a bike. The thing was beat up, “Cursed” he called it, and showed me where he broke his wrist. He wished me better luck with it.
There was a long bicycle rack in the parking garage under my apartment building. Many of the bikes were sick with flat tires or rusted chains. I found an open space and wedged my front tire between the brackets. All was fine until a month later, at which point I found a note stuck to my handlebars. Actually, note wasn’t a strong enough description. This was an official document typed in perfect MLA format, folded into thirds, and sealed in an envelope. No detail was overlooked.
I couldn’t read German, but the implication was clear: There were many spaces, but this one was his. The whole thing was, I felt, a tad ridiculous. I put the letter back into the envelope and, when I returned from the store, stuck it back onto my handlebars. There didn’t appear to be assigned spaces on the rack, so I went home, hoping the situation would blow over. The next afternoon, I found my bike propped up against a cement pillar near the end of the rack, the letter still attached.
This glimpse into my neighbor’s psyche was interesting, but to think that everyone handled matters in such a passive aggressive manner – that was disturbing. I tried to imagine things from my neighbor’s point of view. To do that, I gave him legs which were as hairless and thin as sign posts. His face was bony, but healthy, and it glowed before the pale blue screen of his computer. I imagined a tall, slick brow that furrowed easily, and a tongue which poked out from the corner of his mouth when he typed. The voice in his head, which sounded like my own, told his soft, pink fingers to type this: “Re: Bike Parking.” Did he use spell check? Certainly. He would save this letter (for future reference) in a folder labeled “COMPLAINTS.”
I brought the envelope upstairs to my own computer and attempted to translate it. Still, I couldn’t stop wondering what kind of man would go to such lengths. The more I dwelled upon it, my mind searched for more reasons to dislike him. What was his private life like? Was he married? If so, what was it like to make love to this man? From his letter, I didn’t get the impression that he was particularly tender. No, with him it was all about control, so I imagined his wife lying under him like a wounded sparrow, twitching in cold, rhythmic sync with the clock on the nightstand. That probably wasn’t fair of me, but aside from the letter, I didn’t have a whole lot to go on.
It’s a funny thing, passive aggression. I used to think myself above it, but when you have enough free time on your hands, the stuff spreads like the dickens! For a minute there, it was almost like having a secret admirer, but instead of possible romance, there’s misdirected resentment. When I went down two days later and saw his shiny new bicycle sitting in my old spot, I almost let the air out of his back tire. That’s my idea of fun, but it would have been childish, and far too obvious. Instead, I parked my bike a few spaces down the line. That was nine months ago. There haven’t been any new complaints yet, but the suspense is killing me.