Moving to Heidelberg

Altstadt

Near the end of November 2013, on an idle weekend morning, my wife spotted an advertisement for an apartment in Heidelberg. It was located in the altstadt, on one of the narrow lanes we walked through often during our visits to the city, and the prospect of living there, amid 19th and early 20th century buildings and monuments, left us breathless with excitement. The apartment itself did not look bad: we liked what the pictures revealed. On Monday I called the builders for an appointment, and some days later, on a cold morning when Heidelberg lay quiet under a layer of mist, we made our first visit. Despite the weather outside the rooms were airy and bright, and this answered one concern we had noted from the pictures. The apartment was good, the location great. A week and two visits later my wife and I decided to formally express our interest. Thus began our project that has kept us busy for most of the last five months.

Four and half months after that first visit, in the middle of April, we moved into the new apartment. It seemed like a year had passed. In the beginning there was a long and complicated contract negotiation phase. At one point, when a silly argument between our lawyer and the builders threatened to scuttle the deal, we stepped in to mediate. Evenings were spent poring over the twenty-six page contract in German; I would have given anything to be reading a novel instead. After two postponements to the contract signing date we finally put pen to paper early in February. But there was no respite. Work began on the alteration we had asked for, a project that needed regular coordination between suppliers and workers. We also had to make a number of decisions, never easy when both husband and wife are involved: shade of tiles, size of wash basin, type of shower, design of sliding door, model of shower cabin. In parallel came all the planning and packing for the move.

These months revealed facets of Germany we had not been exposed to in our thirteen years here. The cast of characters we met and spoke with draws an outline of our story:

  • The salesperson, the general manager, and the CEO of the building company
  • The lawyer and the notary
  • The financial advisers
  • The insurance agents
  • The bank clerks
  • The kitchen planners, the kitchen measurement guy, the kitchen installers, the granite measurement guy, the granite installers, the kitchen electrical-water connections installer
  • The Internet-connection guy
  • The window blinds guy
  • The shower-cabin saleswoman
  • The sanitary-ware saleswoman
  • The carpenter
  • The painter
  • The architect.
  • The apartment manager
  • The moving company manager, the movers
  • The second-hand goods company folks
  • The cashier at the garbage disposal center

Our interactions were mostly in German, and everyone was patient with our mistakes. Some of these people were foreigners themselves, Eastern Europeans who lived in Germany and worked in the building industry, and for others we were customers: so this matter of language leniency was not altogether surprising. What did surprise us, initially, was the lack of precision and punctuality among German engineers and architects known for exactly these qualities. Although we have moved in, our shower cabins are not yet in place: the ones delivered had the wrong dimensions. The man who delivered them was unapologetic. We’re only humans, he said. Those words could have come from an Indian contractor.

Packing and moving was both cathartic and exhausting. Less than four years had passed since our last move, and on many occasions I was surprised by how much we had acquired in this span. Our homes are great reservoirs, their doors act as one-way valves; new objects enter, and apart from garbage little else leaves. For six weeks we sifted through unused artifacts in the attic and the cellar, gathered what we both agreed was not needed (a consensus that needed no small number of arguments), and gave them away. This last step was the most complicated. Waste disposal in Germany is an art, an activity that requires from an ordinary human powers of classification typical among collectors. Regular garbage falls into four categories — paper/plastic, glass, bio-degradable, and the rest — but disposal of household artifacts needs further discretion. Batteries, electric bulbs (energy-saving and ordinary ones separately), metal, wood (indoor and outdoor furniture separately), electric/electronic items (small and large separately), Styrofoam, old clothes (wearable and non-wearable separately), shoes: there are different collection points for each category. Those with no time to classify their waste have to pay a disposal fee. In the end, even after several weeks of classifying and disposing unwanted articles, I spent thirty six Euros for three car loads of semi-classified junk. In India someone would have paid me for taking away all this stuff. The irony here is that the e-waste rich nations dispose ends up in countries like India, a country that also imports a billion US dollars worth of scrap paper each year.

Living in the new home has altered our perception of the space in and around the apartment. These subtleties, impossible to gather when one simply visits the space, reveal themselves gradually, in the way, for instance, the morning sun slants into the upper-floor studio where the bookshelf stands, illuminating a column of books, asking me to look closer at the orange-tinted titles; or in the dim glow of the translucent glass tile on the floor, which appears on evenings when the lower floor is lit and the upper floor still dark; or in the view of the hilltop while lying in bed, whose glimpse each morning indicates the weather outside and, at times, brings with it a yearning for a walk through philosophenweg, a path that begins its climb beyond the Neckar, about a kilometer away.

Already, memories of the old home are receding, as new images take their place. We loved our previous apartment, we thought we’d miss it a lot, but the curiosity and excitement of the new has left little space for the old. We are under Heidelberg’s spell, unable to break away.

13 Replies to “Moving to Heidelberg”

  1. My heart jumped when I saw your picture and reading your post brought me back to my years as a student in Heidelberg. In my four years there (1976 – 1980), I moved three times within the Altstadt, albeit each time with just a couple of boxes, a bicycle and a guitar. No hot water, very basic heating – always freezing in winter – and never enough money. But oh what a wonderful life I had, many of the houses in the Altstadt were shared by students and we had spectacular parties and very experimental kitchen arrangements – to put it mildly. Our parents despaired of course.

    1. Ever since I first visited Heidelberg, I’ve wished I could turn the clock back and be a student in this city. So what you describe above is a life I’ve wished for. Living here now, at forty, is the best I can do to make up for what I missed.

      You must write about those spectacular parties and experimental kitchen arrangements.

  2. I never realized that the English translation for the “cast of characters” would look so amusing 🙂 It was also a bit shocking for me to learn that sometimes the “handwerkers” get into big debts because the builder does not pay them their money even in a country like Germany. Also, even when they have bought the material from their own pockets. And they are not allowed to then remove the material from the building. The battle in courts also lasts long in such cases. I guess the longer one lives in Germany and “integrate” in the society, one learns the true and hidden facts 🙂

    1. I didn’t know that detail about handwerkers — interesting. And yes, the building industry shares many common elements across countries and cultures!

  3. Congrats. Moving although tedious is always fun as you rediscover your belongings and prioritize your preferences. We’re going to need pictures of this lovely space you’ve moved into.

  4. The beautifully written words that decribe the wonderful time of your life is profound. The time when you shifted from one house to the other, little did you know that you would be so fascinated by it that the images of the old house would just be looked at as memories and nothing beyond that. Very well described!

  5. some pictures would be good you know. The waste disposal part was funny. Though it’s nowhere close to the German system, our apartment in Bangalore has recently started waste segregation. Though it’s going well (after much hand-holding and education), the after effects have been hilarious.

    1. I noticed this initiative at my parent’s apartment in Bangalore this time. They come and collect the waste at the door, though — so it is easier. Not sure what they do with the segregated bags — does the chain extend to the final disposal point, I wonder.

      Pictures? You’ve seen some on the wife’s FB page, surely?

  6. Hello – I just stumbled across your blog and have thoroughly enjoyed reading some of your pieces, and love your style of writing. My husband and I are South Asian Americans currently living in Frankfurt (just completing a year here) and it’s been a treat reading your Germany pieces in particular, as we do not know many English-speaking folks here. If you and your wife are ever in Frankfurt, it would be a pleasure to meet up with you. Until then, I look forward to going through more of your writings.

    Sincerely,
    S.

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