Certain phrases occur with irritating frequency in things Americans write about Berlin. Edgy East Berlin neighborhood. Innovative repurposed space. Ghosts of the city’s dark past. Nothing bugs me more, though, than purported observations about Berlin which actually apply to just about the whole world except the U.S. For this reason, I would like to crown the 2010 Thought Catalog article “Why Germans Hang Their Socks to Dry” the all-time most annoying American thought about Berlin ever catalogued.
After setting the scene with the oft-invoked dirt-cheap rents of Berlin (“I found a gorgeous four-room apartment that cost less than one room in a Brooklyn ghetto”) and the obligatory mention of the party scene (“some clubs have half-mile entrance lines at 7 a.m.”), the author recounts an exchange on the North American expat Yahoo group Berlin Scholars about Germany’s lack of electric dryers. Apparently a woman named Courtney wrote to ask the group why Europeans had not yet reached an advanced enough stage of economic development to have laundry dryers. A woman named Susan responded: “Most Germans consider electric dryers umweltverachtend, since they accomplish a task that can also be achieved through the combination of time + air.” Susan embedded her observation in a feminist critique of German attitudes toward household labor: Germans’ insistence on time-consuming domestic practices like line-drying laundry, she wrote, is rooted in the assumption that every household has a full-time Hausfrau. On a larger level, I agree with Susan – I’ve been a working mother in Germany, and it’s true that everything from the expectation that babies wear hand-washed wool garments to the limited hours public schools are open to the fact that shops are closed on Sunday presumes a full-time housewife in every home. But I don’t really see line-drying laundry as a part of this phenomenon. Hanging it up takes at most five minutes more than throwing said laundry into a dryer.
The problem with the article is that the author, who concludes by translating umweltverachtend as “environmentally contemptible”, frames line-drying laundry as a specifically German cultural habit. Firstly, there is absolutely nothing German about hanging up laundry to dry. The whole world outside North America hangs up laundry to dry. The article reveals far more about the observer than the observed. One often hears such statements about France/Paris, Americans’ favorite stand-ins for the whole world outside the U.S. More than once, I have heard or read “French people have very small fridges.” No, actually they don’t. French people have pretty average-sized fridges in global comparison, and Americans have freakishly large ones.
Secondly, this framing suggests that taking the environment seriously is some sort of quaint European folk practice. How charmingly quirky these Old World folk, with their dainty wee fridges and their droll little concerns about climate change! This too says far more about the American observer than the non-American observed. Speaking of which, “environmentally contemptible” is not a good translation of umweltverachtend. Calling something umweltverachtend doesn’t mean the speaker feels contempt for another person engaging in an environmentally irresponsible practice – it means the speaker is criticizing a practice as showing contempt for the environment. When Germans call laundry dryers umweltverachtend, they’re not expressing their disdain for people who use dryers — they’re saying the use of dryers expresses disdain for the environment. The distinction is an important one, and the mistranslation is culturally revealing. Speaking as an American who cares deeply about the environment, I find that my Landesleute have a particular tendency to greet environmentally motivated decision-making as an expression of self-righteousness and contempt for others. In conversations with people I don’t know very well, I often avoid revealing to Americans that the environment is one of my motivations to travel by train rather than air, to have only one child, to limit my meat consumption – because a lot of Americans hear “I practice or eschew X for environmental reasons” as “I think I’m better than you.” With Germans and other Europeans I feel much freer to speak openly about environmental motivations.
But if I’m completely honest, there’s another reason the Thought Catalog article irks me so much: it hits close to home. In every cultural comparison I make, every blog post I write, I am inevitably on a certain level doing the same thing as the guy who wrote this article. Observations of a place are always limited by the observer’s personal experience. When I was working as a reporter for the Let’s Go travel guides years ago, I arrived in Poland from Boston to find Warsaw full of little old ladies selling bunches of lilies of the valley – a detail that charmed me so much I wrote about it in my Warsaw city intro. Only later did I learn that there was nothing specifically Varsovian about these flowers being sold everywhere — it was just that I’d happened to be in Warsaw in late May, when lilies of the valley are ubiquitous throughout central Europe. Later, doing the same job in Thailand, I wrote enthusiastically about the little lizards darting along the walls of the first guesthouse where I stayed in Bangkok – only to realize after sending off my copy that every wall in Thailand has lizards darting along it.
As for the photo above, I’d assert that while there’s nothing specifically German about line-drying laundry, it is pretty German to line-dry your laundry by hanging it from your homemade Hochbett.