*Post originally published at the wonderful Humane Pursuits.
Snow’s all right on a fine morning, but I like to be in bed when it’s falling. —Sam Gamgee
Sam Gamgee’s words resonated with me as I looked out over the six inches of snow I had to clear from the driveway. It was morning, but only barely light underneath a German sky that promised more snow to come. I clutched my coffee mug with chilled fingers, and inhaled the warm fragrance—steeling myself for the job ahead. Even though it created a daunting morning task, I could not deny the snow was lovely. It had transformed the stark German countryside into a landscape as soft as a lullaby. The sharp edges of the slate mine down in the valley were covered with a blanket of white, and the bare branches of the trees were shelves, each holding a dusting of powdery flakes.
As beautiful as the snow was, it could not be allowed to stay in my driveway. Just that morning I had rushed out into the snow to help my husband get the car out of a drift in the drive so he could get to work. We had cleared just enough to get his car out, and mine still needed to be released from its wintry captivity.
Across the street I saw the bowed back of our neighbor, Herr Schroeder, and heard the scrape, scrape, of his shovel. I had scarcely ever talked with him in our year of living here—a cheerful nod was the limit of most of our interactions, a greeting that fortunately transcended language barriers. Even so, as my husband and I wrestled with the car in the darkness of that morning, he had appeared out of the snow to lend a hand, and afterward showed me how to sprinkle salt on the drive to gain traction for the cars and melt the ice our shovels had left behind. Now he stopped for a moment to exchange a cheery word with another neighbor, similarly engaged in scraping down their portion of the sidewalk.
Here in Germany, every person has a responsibility to shovel off the section of sidewalk in front of their house, a distribution of labor that keeps the sidewalks of the entire village clear. Like most forms of personal responsibility in Germany, it seems to be something that the Germans do not just because it is the law, but because they feel it is their duty, perhaps even a way that they can care for their neighbors. This principle largely guides life here: from the rules regulating recycling to those rules (which do exist) regulating the autobahn. The Germans really seem to understand that hackneyed saying of Donne’s: “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent…”
We were warned when we first arrived that Germans are strict rule followers, and they expected others to follow those rules as well. If you did not obey the rules, you could expect a German, whether a neighbor or a stranger, to shortly arrive on your doorstep, tell you what you were doing wrong, and expect you to fix it post-haste. For example, a friend who has lived here for several years told me that she asked her German neighbor once if she could put her bulk trash out in front of the house early, because they would be leaving for vacation on the collection date. The neighbor frowned, and replied that she supposed so, but was afraid the gypsies might take the trash. My friend shrugged: “They can have it, and welcome!” Her neighbor looked aghast. “No they cannot!” She said. “They don’t pay taxes!”
This strict observation of the rules made me nervous at first. In a society governed by such standards, how would a stranger survive? The answer was obvious I suppose, but did not come to me fully until that day as I watched the snow gently falling in my village; no man is an island, and when you join a village, the village also joins you regardless of whether they chose you or not. The people here were as ready to welcome my husband and me as they were to welcome the family of refugees that arrived two summers ago. The thought of the refugees always reminds me of one of the most poignantly beautiful things I’ve ever seen. During our last village festival, I remember watching one of the girls from the family of refugees dancing gleefully with a German girl about her own age. The two twirled to the music of the band in the middle of the community hall, golden and ebony hair flying, shrieking with laughter and completely unaware that they were the perfect picture of a community coming together to love, share, and take care of insiders who had all at some point been outsiders.
Putting down my cup of coffee, I zipped on my heavy winter coat and slipped into my boots, hefting the huge snow shovel over my shoulder and trooping out into the cold to clear away the snow. Thirty minutes later I was working on salting down the last bit of the sidewalk. My arms burned from the exercise, my face was cold, and the hair peeking out beneath my hood was windblown. I looked up during a moment of rest to see the neighbors for yards down the street doing as I was: the scraping of snow shovels interspersed with a shared word or a laugh, while the shrieks of delight coming from a group of children pelting each other with snow punctuated the sounds made by the adults. With a smile I noticed the black hair of one of the refugee children and the fair skin of a village child as they played together in the snow, bonding in the cold in their own way, while the adults did the same through their common work.
As I was spreading the salt, my hands bare because I did not have any work gloves, I heard a loud “Hallo” from the next yard. My neighbor, Joanna, appeared with a bundle of pink rubber gloves. “For your hands mit the salz,” she said in her usual mix of German and English. I was touched by the kind act, and went back to the cold, hard, but incredibly rewarding work with renewed vigor, know that in a small way I was caring for the village that had, tacitly perhaps but nevertheless truly, welcomed me into its heart. I had been allowed to take up residence here: an outsider who now felt on the inside. As I walked back inside to fix myself a fresh cup of coffee, I smiled at the sound of the dull rasp of the shovels echoing through the village—the sound of others in my home participating in the same communal duty that bonded us all together on a snowy day in Germany.