Friday, October 29, 2010

German Suburbs

Yesterday I took my car to a mechanic for an inspection. While it was done – about one hour –, I walked around the neighbourhood. This made me think about the strange thing called a German suburb.

American suburbs are well-known in most countries of this world (in all where American TV series are shown), the strange thing called a German suburb, on the other hand, is not even known very well inside Germany. While soap-operas and TV series set in the suburbs (such as “Desperate Housewives” or even “The Simpsons”) portrait the live of the supposedly ‘average’ American family, the main characters of German soap-operas (yes, they exist) usually live in big cities, downtown in apartment blocks or at least in a flat. It’s more modern and definitely more hip than the German suburb.

The most distinct thing in the German suburb are the houses, small terrace houses (at least that’s the word my dictionary gives me for the German word “Reihenhaus”) set in rows of five to ten, along a footpath leading from the street (where the garages are placed) to the last house. Each of those houses has a small garden (as broad as the house, but not very deep, because of the closeness of the rows), a garage along the street and each is constructed from the same blueprint.

Historically, most of those houses have been build in the Fifties and Sixties and then from the Eighties onwards. During the Seventies, the dream of a wife, two kids, a dog and ‘our own house’ was suspended for a while, but it came back. The terrace house was ‘our own house’, but far cheaper than an individually build one. Germans tend to rent flats or apartments while moving from job to job and town to town, they only build or buy a house once in their lives – once they’re ready to settle down. This house once in their lives for a lot of people was and still is a terrace house.

I have been inside various of those houses in my life and can give you a basic description of their design. The entrance is usually reached by climbing two, three or four steps, because the first floor is elevated slightly (about one meter) from the ground. This way, the basements can be fitted with windows more easily. And why, you might ask now, do German houses need big windows in their basements? Well, because the terrace house doesn’t offer all that much space, for one thing. The first floor usually offers a small bathroom (toilet, sink, maybe a shower – depending on when the house was build) and a huge area that combines kitchen, dining room and living room. Sometimes the living area is lowered a bit, one or two steps, to set it apart from the rest. The kitchen (and quite often the bathroom window, too), face the front of the house, the living area faces the back, where a terrace is leading to the small garden. The second floor and the attic (which more often than not is at least partially converted into living space) hold more bedrooms and at least one more bathroom (two, if the attic is completely converted). Usually, there’s only space for two bedrooms on the second floor, so once the kids are old enough to want a room each (two kinds still are quite common in the German suburb, although statistically it’s 1.3 children per family), either the attic or the basement have to be converted into living space – partially or even full, depending on the number of children and the size of the house. Usually, it’s the attic. But what about the basement and the big windows then? Suburbs in Germany are very social places – and places with strict social rules. You need to throw a party every now and then and the average German (living in the suburb with his 1.3 kids) keeps a room in the basement (quite often with an exit to the garden for summer parties) for this. The party room has places to sit, maybe a pool table or soccer table in it. There’s a stereo and other party equipment around. Quite often the room also sports a small bar where the head of the house can show his prowess at making drinks. The whole room, basically, is a huge status symbol for the happy German suburbinan. The rest of the basement usually consists of storage space (no attic and the garage is used for the car) and the heating system.

As you can guess from this basic description of the houses and of the suburbs, it’s a place for conformists, not for individualists. But deep in our hearts, all of us Germans are individualists. While those of us living in the suburbs know we need to conform to the social rules there, we still tend to bring in as much individualism in as the rules allow. If you walk along a row of houses in the suburbs, you will see that while they all follow the same blueprint, not two of them will have exactly the same door. They all will sport different details around the door (small figures, a name sign – mostly it depends on whether or not the family living there has kids already and how old they are). There’s not much of a lawn in front of the houses (lawns take up space and terrace houses don’t have any space to waste), so quite often the walkway leading from the path to the house will be different for every house. But they’ll all have the same colour-scheme, even after forty or fifty years and at least one new coat of paint. They’ll all have the same paintjob for the garages (which, in huge suburb areas might make up a small plaza of their own – where kids play during the day while the fathers, usually, are away for work).

Some people, especially the more bohemian ones (artists, freelancers without families) and the more success-oriented ones (yuppies, dinks), abhor the German suburb with its conservative principle (wife, kids, dog, house) and strict social rules. Other people love it, because deep in the heart the German suburb never changes.

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