Column: Bangers and Mash

The law(s) of the land: Weird and wonderful

In this column, the author looks at life in Germany, as a Brit who is living in Bonn for years. In this edition, he is examining the quirkiest of rules and laws both here and back home, while almost falling off a balcony on the 14th floor in an attempt not to anger a German neighbour even more …

Every nation I assume has its fair share of curious laws, rules and codes of good behaviour — but is Germany top of the league table here especially when it comes to an over obsessiveness in enforcing them?

My friend Luis would certainly agree. After living in Bonn for a few months he was politely but firmly reminded by a posse of neighbours that, given his apartment was on the ground floor, Luis was liable to keep the garden and the shrubs neat and tidy.

A public spirited citizen, Luis got to work as soon as he had some free time only to be confronted by the long arm of the law — the Bonn police — saying stop or be fined and arrested.

His crime it seems was doing it on a Sunday. In Britain, Sunday is in contrast the day to make as much domestic noise as possible especially in the garden. 

Everyone with a garden is out in full force with the air full of the pulsating hum of mowing and trimming machines, the snip, snip of dead heading roses and the over-the fence chatter on the virtues of this or that tree or hedge cutter.

The right to have some sort of orderly, highly prescriptive quietness in Germany seems to also extend to music. My girlfriend, a German musician in Berlin, was recently given the very precise times at which she could play by her apartment resident’s association after a neighbor complained.

It seems it is OK between 8pm-12noon and 2pm-8pm but not later and not over lunchtime. Can you imagine Schubert snacking on his lunch suddenly seized by inspiration for his 8 Symphony only to go „Shit, it’s lunch time, what about the neighbours!?“. Might explain why that great work was unfinished. Experts have many theories, but now we know it was the bloody neighbours.

I am not sure if obstructing someone’s view is a German law or a cultural custom, but many of my friends have told me of complaints over where they parked their car cause it was ‘obstructing a neighbors view’.

I had a similar experience when I first arrived in Bonn. My first, little apartment on Adenauer Allee, was reached through a door into a cute central courtyard. My flat was so small, I chained my cycle up on a railing in the courtyard next to a small Chinese medicine practice.

Within a day, there was a complaint from the said medical person, saying my bicycle had  „changed her view“ and must be moved. I had never heard of the concept of „changing a view“ before, and I protested that it was just a bicycle, not a tactical nuclear weapon, but alas to no avail.

There seem to be all kinds of other curious laws, yet hotly disputed. Some friends tell me that in Germany the government will reject a bizarre name on a birth certificate. In the UK you can pretty much name a baby anything, the only case against this in recent memory was parents wanting to call their child Cyanide.

Some say you can’t hang your washing out on a Sunday in Germany, some say that no longer applies and other say yes, but only in small towns or villages.

One upon which everyone seems to agree is the consequence of being drunk on a cycle—being British I always thought this was the best and least law-breaking mode of transport after a long stint in the pub.

Not here in Germany, not only can you be fined and perhaps be subject to some psychological assessment, but they can actually put points on your car driving license! 

In Britain there is a remote possibility of being fined if you are drunk in charge of a cycle and indeed the same law applies to being drunk in charge of a cow but being drunk in charge of either does not affect your driving license. 

Smoking is bad for your health, but in Germany it seems the disposal of the cigarette butt is far riskier. Staying for a weekend in a friends’ 14 floor apartment in Königswinter just over the Rhine from Bonn, a strong wind blew a cigarette butt of mine onto the balcony below.

Within five minutes the bell rang to reveal a woman, backed up by some serious, grim-faced muscle (boyfriend or night club bouncer, who knows), her face throbbing and twitching with anger, cigarette butt ritual-like in a napkin held by her shaking hands, demanding an explanation.

Apologies, open gestures, I received the said cigarette butt like the corpse of a demented relative, ready for humane disposal: „So sorry, will never happen again.“

Calm restored I returned to the balcony to find the wind had flicked my eldest son’s stubbed-out cigarette high into the air where it landed on the angry lady’s sun blind below and was being lifted by gusts and bouncing ever closer to her balcony. 

In the UK we would have thought nothing of it. But now, newly in Germany, desperate situations required desperate measures.

Too far for me to reach, I grabbed the vacuum cleaner and stretched out with its long handle staring 14 floors down to oblivion, as my son grabbed my legs from behind and we switched on the suction.

After several increasingly tense attempts I managed to suck the floating butt out of the air just before either it, or I, plummeted onto the balcony or (in my case worse) the street far below.

You had infringed her privacy, I was told by a German friend (a bit like the chained bicycle and the Chinese medicine lady).

‘I would have infringed a lot more people’s bloody privacy, if I had fallen 14 floors onto the customers of a coffee shop on the street below as they tucked into their Kaffee and Kuchen,” I snorted.

Not that the British do not have strange laws, customs and peculiarities of their own, some of which date back centuries. 

Just to even things out — how crazy is this? In England a little known law says that you can be arrested for being drunk in a pub — if you pause for a moment at the complete absurdity of that proposition, it would make even the most humourless person crinkle in mirth.

I mean a hospital, a bakery, a tropical fish shop, a flea market selling second hand Hawaiian sex aids — but a pub!

Not that it is apparently ever much enforced. Because if it was, half of the UK population would be in jail come Saturday night, mowing machines would fall silent, hedge clippers would lay idle and British gardens would be as untended and as peaceful as those in Germany on a Sunday.