Have Lipstick and Laptop will Travel: German housing deficits
If you expect light fixtures, wardrobes and the kitchen sink to be intact in your new German home... think again.
As if being homeless through August wasn't enough, I spent the first several weeks 'camping' in my new home in Germany. Even today, I still feel woefully under-equipped. You see, the lovely house I'm renting in Germany didn't come with some of the most basic provisions of modern-day housing. No kitchen. No closets. No light fixtures.
Where to hang the clothes?
We knew that houses in Germany would not have the convenient built-in (and often walk-in) closets we were spoiled with in the US. We are actually very lucky to have a small closet in one of the bedrooms. But for the most part, the storage of clothing in German bedrooms requires the purchase of hanging wardrobes (Kleiderschränke). We've acquired a couple moderate sized ones from Ikea for the kids' rooms, but the larger size and solid-wood style I want for my own room is going to require more of a budget than I have saved so far. Hence, most of my clothes are stuffed into dressers or in boxes and bins along the wall and under the bed. I feel a bit like I'm still living out of a suitcase.
No light fixtures
It's a good thing that I'm a candle addict and typically have a dozen or so lit most evenings, anyway. Because one of the surprises here was that none of the rooms had lights! Apparently, light fixtures are considered a matter of personal taste, and therefore treated like any other furnishing. The previous tenants had unmounted, unscrewed, and otherwise removed every light fixture from every ceiling in the house – and this is considered perfectly normal and okay. Since we came from the United States, we did not bring any lamps with us, because 1) light fixtures are deemed built-in parts of the real-estate and required to stay installed in the house; and 2) the electrical system is completely different, so our lights would not have been any use to us in Europe anyway.
So far, we've purchased a few inexpensive standing floor and table-top lamps (thanks, again, Ikea). But we have yet to decide on most of the ceiling lamps we'd like. Thus, if you try the light switch in any given room, it probably won't work, and if you look up, you'll only see dangling wires.
Everything, *including* the kitchen sink?!
Ever hear the term 'they took everything except the kitchen sink?' Yeah, well, here, they took that, too! And this is not some case of post-foreclosure looting. This is normal for Germans. Like light-fixtures, kitchens are entirely a matter of personal taste. So in most houses and apartments, they move with the tenants. Cabinets, counters, appliances, and sink! Here is what our kitchen looked like when we first moved in, and for about seven weeks as we 'camped out' in it....
Off we went to our favorite economical home furnishing warehouse (Ikea, again) to select, plan, and order our new kitchen. Friends warned us in advance to make sure we paid for the assembly and installation service – and this was probably the best advice I've ever gotten in my life. The kitchen arrived in about a hundred boxes with a thousand small parts. It took a team of two professional kitchen builders three days to put together, especially since the 100-year old house we are renting doesn't have a single straight wall or square corner, and the counters needed to be custom cut around a fireplace chimney that juts into the room at an odd angle.
However, being addicted to food even more than I am to candles, and having a hoard of hungry kids unwilling to fast for 40 days... completing the kitchen was my first priority. And I have to say, I am very pleased with the results.
To make us all feel a little more at 'home,' I first painted over the bright pink/red walls with the same warm green we had in our last house. Then I chose cabinets, counters, and a ceramic sink that would work with the existing white wall tiles and terracotta floor tiles, and go with the house's 'country villa' charm.
Lest we lose sight of what really matters...
I confess, I feel a bit snobby, complaining about not having closets and light fixtures, never mind a beautiful kitchen, when millions of people around the world live in poverty without clean running water or electricity. So this little exercise in learning to live with a bit less than I used to have has been a good reminder that I am blessed beyond measure. It's been good for me and my kids to appreciate the bounty of gifts we do have and remember that what matters most, is that we have each other.
Have a wonderful day!
New Yorker Karen Maduschke first travelled to Germany on a high school exchange in the 1980s. Falling in love with more than just the landscape, she returned 25 years later to live with her German-born husband and their four school-aged children. Passionate supporters of youth exchange, Karen's family has hosted many students from around the world. Have Lipstick and Laptop Will Travel is a blog that chronicles the joys and frustrations of expat life from a parent's perspective and also shares recipes, books and inspiration for living. You can follow Karen's bilingual musings on Twitter as well.
Photo credit: Nick Bramhall (camping thumbnail).
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