Saturday, October 11, 2008

How to spot a German #1: The Closed Door

The Germans love closing doors. When I was little I was taught to close the front door behind me, or to make sure the bathroom door is closed, but the Germans take this affinity for locked thresholds to an extreme. When I walk down the hall at the lab, every office door is shut. This makes it difficult to know who is in, who's sick and who's gone home for the day, leading to frequent knocking and frequent tension with distracted office neighbors. Gone is the friendly wave as you stroll past a professor's door. You only see someone if you really need to see them. It's probably a more productive way to do things, but the social network is a bit harder to crack.

The dorm I live in takes this door-closing to an absurd degree. The place is a fortress, a concrete tower built to resist Mongol hoards and laptop thieves. Your room's door automatically swings closed behind you and locks itself. The same is true of the kitchen and the bathroom. None of the doors have rotating handles and can only be opened with a key. This means my wad of keys can never leave my pocket or neck when I'm at home.

Today I was making dinner and needed to run to my room to grab a bowl. I closed the kitchen door behind me and heard the lock snap into place. I padded down the hall to my room, unlocked my door and grabbed my swanky new muesli bowl. As I walked out the door I checked for my keys by feeling the pressure from my right pocket on my thigh. It felt heavy and metallic. I walked out the door and heard the lock click. At that exact moment I realized the metallic poultice wasn't my key ring, but a ridiculous amount of change. I haven't quite figured out how to handle all of my coins. Usually my pockets are bulging with enough currency to go on a cheap date (I could treat a decent night out in the States with the current exchange rate) and can feel like, well, a ring of keys for one.

I stood staring at my lock realizing I was trapped. There was no one else on the floor. The kitchen was locked, the bathroom was locked, my room was locked and if I wanted to go to the elevator to somehow get help I would have to go through a hallway door that also locks. I couldn't even leave the building because - together now - it locks.

When I was originally shown my room, my guide told me to make sure I locked my door with my keys which engages the deadbolt. Otherwise someone might be able to open the door with a credit card. That would be one persistent thief to get all the way to my door and he would need some impressive lock picking skills, but I needed to acquire those skills quickly.

Before I left for Europe I stripped down my wallet, only taking cards that I would absolutely need, but one of them needed to be sacrificed. My Scuba certification card promptly plunged between the jam and door, searching for the catch. It was no good. The locks are solid German construction and PADI skimps on the quality of their certification cards.

At that moment someone appeared in the hallway. He saw me crouched by the door with the card, my bowl on the floor and no shoes on my feet and immediately understood my predicament. His name is Ernest and he's a Ghanaian graduate student who also happened to know this amusing tidbit: the housing supervisor who takes care of the keys was gone for the weekend and wouldn't be back until Monday at 9. But, more helpfully, he also told me about The Fork.

In the drawer of every kitchen is a fork that has its tines bent into a lethal-claw, cutlery as imagined by Tim Burton. This tool can be used to jimmy the latch provided you apply a skillful hand, a bit of patience and liberal swearing. I apparently didn't employ one of these fully because the door stood solidly in place. Suddenly another floor-mate appeared. He saw Ernest and I shoving silverware at the lock and offered to try his hand as he'd done this before. I was more than willing to watch a master at work.

There was much elbow waving, gnashing of teeth and cussing. Finally, click. And the thing reluctantly gave way. I think the key skill (pun intended) was swearing in two or three languages, as my floor-mate did. Regardless, the keys are staying in my pocket as long as I live in this fortress and never will I leave a room without making sure it's difficult for someone to get back in.

I can be a good German. I can learn to shut the door (provided I can get back in).

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