Monday, September 28, 2009

the relativity of 'of course'

I didn't learn until I was in college about all the other cultures, and I should have learned that in the first grade. A first grader should understand that his or her culture isn't a rational invention; that there are thousands of other cultures and they all work pretty well; that all cultures function on faith rather than truth; that there are lots of alternatives to our own society. Cultural relativity is defensible and attractive. It's also a source of hope. It means we don't have to continue this way if we don't like it.
--Kurt Vonnegut, In an Interview

when we were getting ready to move to germany, lots of people pointed out that 'unfurnished' means something different in europe than here. i kept thinking, thanks, but i get it already. i know about there being no closets.  why else would IKEA sell all those wardrobes? and all those british kids keep popping out of them in stories?

when we landed, we had a place to live for the first month in a furnished apartment in giessen that was owned by the university. it had two bedrooms & a bathroom and worked more like a guesthouse, even though it looked like an apartment building - we had to clean the floors and do all our own food and all, but linens were even provided. we didn't want to be there very long, however, and so we quickly got to work looking for a place to live.

our friend lutz took us to view the first apartment we wanted to see. it was in wetzlar, a nearby town that was much more attractive (sorry, giessen, for bombing the holy hell out of you in WWII). it was a beautiful old building, with three floors; each floor was its own apartment. a surprisingly young woman, the owner, met us all there - all four of us, and our german friend/guide/translator - and began to give us the tour.

now i've looked at lots of apartments over my life. viewed them in various states. i know how to disregard the current furniture, and all that. so we were going through, visualizing the living room empty, that sort of thing, and just generally admiring the hell out of it. then we came to the kitchen. 

i think i said something totally generic and innocuous, like: "this is nice".

then one of the germans - either lutz or the owner - seemed to realize what i was thinking and said, "yes, but you do know the kitchen is theirs, right?"

the kitchen was theirs. it belonged  to them. yep, all of it. the cupboards. the cupboards on the wall. the cupboards on the floor. the counter top. the stove. the fucking sink. when they moved out, it was all going with them. the kitchen would be just like all the other rooms - a bare box, only with a drain hole in the floor and a big outlet for the stove on the wall.

feeling pretty taken aback, we went back into the living room, which looked so nice partly because the floor was a dark pergo-type instead of the dark blue carpet that was in the rest of the apartment. i think at that point in time i commented on how nice that was.

can you see where this is going? i couldn't. turned out the floor was theirs. they had put it in, and they were taking it with them when they moved out. it was pergo laid right on top of the carpet. then we learned more, and it kept getting worse. those lovely overhead fixtures? those belonged to the tenants, too. we would be treated to entirely bare rooms, with just some wires hanging down from those charming 12-foot ceilings. my brain was suddenly in overload, redefining 'bare' and contemplating how a family of four, new to the country, not speaking the language, without a car and with only the contents of 6 suitcases between them, was going to get overhead lights and a ladder tall enough to install them on the day we moved in. not to mention - a sink.

we went back into the bathroom. feeling a little desperate, i asked, is the toilet and bathtub going to be here? the germans laughed. "of course!" they said, like i had said the funniest thing they'd ever heard. the idea of anyone taking a toilet! 

of course? of course, my ass! of course the sink would be there. i had never contemplated a world where the sink was not immutable. in fact, in my world, the sink is so damned immutable, that it's a phrase used to express when absolutely everything else is gone. 'she took/sold/packed everything but the kitchen sink'. the kitchen sink never goes. in a bad divorce you might take the shower head - but no one even contemplates taking the kitchen sink. the kitchen sink will be the last thing standing, the last thing in a house, always. 

then it hit me - turns out that's why ikea sells all those kitchens. turns out that the existence of a kitchen sink is a matter of faith, not truth. cultural relativity, in a very unexpected, small, yet concrete way, hit me like a ton of bricks.

i try not to say 'of course!' too often now.


  1. Wow. This is so fascinating - not just the story, but the fact that you lived it! This is what happens when I lose touch with friends for ten years - they get married, have another kid, and go to Germany.
    I know nothing. Nothing.

    But I LOVE this post.

  2. thanks claud. it was pretty crazy. actually, crazier was moving out...because it was expected that the house would be totally empty when we left. but we were leaving at 5 am in december for a flight back to the US. i couldn't quite figure out how to remove all the overhead lights and wake up and leave in total we left them!