Sunday, January 17, 2010


Two weeks ago, I had a job interview. The location was around four kilometers from where I live. The streets were still covered with the thickest layer of ice I had ever seen in my life, specially the narrow alleys in my neighborhood. I had three options to get there.

Option number one was walking on ice. It would take forever and I was sure I would fall more than once.

Option number two was regional bus number 43, which is powered by gas and comes around once an hour, but not necessarily on the scheduled time. That would be the most environmentally-friendly option, but not very appealing in all other aspects I could think of.

Option number three was cycling on ice. It seemed the craziest option, specially considering I only really learnt to cycle when I moved to Germany at age 16. Needless to say, I had never before cycled on ice, and the idea alone was scary.

I left the house on time and started cycling. It was even worse than I had imagined. A few times, my heart skipped a beat when I thought I was going to fall. At some parts, I could choose to cycle on what looked like fresh snow, which seemed safer than ice. However, since it was around 5 degrees below zero, the untouched snow was frozen, and when cycling on it, all I heard was 'crack crack crack', which was not very comforting. When I finally arrived safely and while I was waiting for my interviewer to come pick me up from the reception, I started thinking of the newest developments in Dutch ice management. For it wasn't like nothing was happening.

Much to my surprise, the Dutch media covered the ice situation more extensively than during the previous weeks. In some towns, salt had run out but they were doing their best to get new one. Other towns announced, much to the inhabitants' relief, that they still had plenty of salt.

Even Dutch Prime Minister Bakenende caused a sort of entertaining snow-shoveling scandal. Yes, just like Nixon had his Watergate, Balkenende had his own little 'Snowgate'. So here is what happened: On 9th January, the Prime Minister asked the inhabitants of the Netherlands to keep their driveways clean of snow and ice. He said "It would be good if people keep their doorstep clean. This is important for others and also relates to your responsibility towards society". Two days later, a newspaper published an article and a picture of Balkenende's own doorway in his house in Cappelle aan de Ijssel, totally covered in ice and snow. When they interviewed the Prime Minister's wife, she answered that she tried to clean it up, but that once it became ice, it was very difficult to remove. Also, since her husband worked long hours, she was in charge of it all by herself.

What's really funny and, at the same time, illustrates the diversity of the Dutch population are the 765 reactions to the scandalous revelation. Some people called him a hypocrite and a liar, others quoted the Bible, others said the Prime Minister should not be commenting on trivial things like this, other comments were in the line of 'who cares about that bit of ice?'. Others reasonably proposed to change the law again, and make it obligatory again for everyone to clean their doorsteps. So, it seems like until a few years ago, the Netherlands had some sort of "Kehrwoche", and it may come back. Other than that, I do not think Snowgate had any real repercussions for the Prime Minister.

Tomorrow is the first day at my new job. It feels a bit like my first day of school. My new employer is a government agency, and it will be my first job outside of business life.

Fortunately, the ice has totally melted away in the last few days. It seems like some problems do indeed solve themselves after all.

Asking her about the secrets to a successful Kehrwoche?

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Ice Ice Baby

Five and a half years ago, I left Germany. To be honest, while I was still studying in Heidelberg, I felt an urge to leave. Precisely one month after graduating, I moved to the Netherlands. Having a German passport and having spent part of my youth in Germany, I could not help wondering 'why can't I wait to leave this country?'.

One of the reasons was that since I was not of 'pure German blood' (as terrible as this may sound), I did not feel I was assimilating well enough. I did not look German, my name did not sound German, my sense of humor never became German (thank God for that). Also, compared to the Argentinean part in me, Germans always seemed so incredibly serious about everything. Only once a year, around Carnival, suddenly absolutely everything officially was funny. The remainder of the year, se Germans were seriously concerned about something, rarely lighthearted, never relaxed.

One of the things my Southern German neighbors constantly seemed to be preoccupied with was the 'Kehrwoche'. Once a week, one of us would be responsible for cleaning the communal pavement. In the Spring, Summer and Fall, this would mean sweeping leaves off the pavement and onto the street - a purely cosmetic routine. In the Winter though, this meant a lot of work and had a huge impact. Snow needed to be shoveled meticulously and salt needed to be scattered to avoid the snow from becoming ice. According to German law, if a passer-by should fall and break his bones on your house's pavement, you would be liable for the damage done. I did not like the Kehrwoche at all. And while I was shoveling snow for hours, my rebellious heart kept thinking Germans should just lighten up and relax a bit more. While shoveling, I always saw the big yellow snow plugs of the German 'winterdienst' driving by, removing snow from the roads and highways and scattering tons of salt in order to avoid cars from having accidents due to slippery conditions. What an excellent teamwork.

Five and a half years later, I am experiencing the exact opposite situation. It has been snowing for a few weeks. This is very rare in the Netherlands, but it is happening. In The Hague, for example, we have had around 20 centimeters of snow. At the start, it was wonderful, like a white miracle. The kids were making snowmen, the trees turned their depressing leave-less appearance into idyllic white beauty. Everybody was so excited and happy about the snow that nobody even thought of shoveling or removing it, let alone scattering salt. The result was a gigantic ice-skating track spreading over entire cities. People were slipping on the pavements, cars were slipping on the roads. On the radio I heard the newscaster say that the hospitals were starting to become overcrowded due to patients with bone fractures. And still, I saw no single neighbor doing anything about their personal ice-track nor was the city scattering salt except on national highways. Neither did I hear any radio, newspaper or TV station ever say something like 'The Ministry of Street Safety is asking the civilians to remove the snow and ice off their pavements. Please comply!'.

Admittedly, one of the reasons I moved to Holland was that the Dutch were indeed more relaxed, laid-back and funnier than their big Eastern neighbor. However, in terms of street safety and dealing with snow, the Dutch might be able to learn something from the Germans. At least they could ask for a few addresses for buying salt and teach people about the 'Kehrwoche', even though they should better not give it a German name if they want it to be a success.

Die schwäbische württembergische Kehrwoche beruht auf einer Vielzahl von Erlassen, die seit Ende des 15. Jahrhunderts in Württemberg herausgekommen sind, um die Menschen zu Ordnung und Sauberkeit im häuslichen Umfeld anzuhalten. (Source: Wikipedia)