Sunday, October 07, 2007

Public Beds

Yesterday we spent the day in the garden, it is the time of year for planting bulbs and following a week of solid rain, the day was bright and cool and breezy, a perfect day to rake and dig and dream of spring.

HH and I set out early with our gray plastic laundry basket filled with gardening tools and bone meal and watering cans. Ours is a public garden and we share a dozen or so raised concrete beds in the center of Cologne with our neighbors and with a host of visitors who come for an afternoon or an evening or simply for five minutes in the middle of the day to sip a cup of coffee or eat and ice cream. Some of them even enjoy the flowers, so much so that souvenirs are often snipped, sometimes whole plants, but that doesn’t happen very often. Most people seem to appreciate this cool, green spot in the middle of the city.

We also share the garden with a steady stream of drinkers, mostly beer drinkers, some of whom start quite early in the morning. Yesterday, a little after 8:00AM, there was already a small group of men drinking quietly on one of the benches next to our bed. As the day wore on the group got larger and rowdier and near sunset a fight broke out. Two of the younger men in the group started at each other. The older men pulled them apart and settled them down and the drinking continued uneventfully. It’s one of the odd disconnects here in Germany – the public drinking. I realize that Germans require beer in order to function properly but I never imagined the extent to which the drinking took place in public places. People do it everywhere, at all times of the day and night, in buses, subways, trains, on the streets and in the parks. Yesterday two men pushing strollers stopped and joined the drinkers on the bench near our bed. They drank a few beers with the boys and then moved on, pushing their strollers ahead of them. It doesn’t matter to me one way or another if folks drink beer in the park or in the bus or on the train or hanging out the window of their apartments, but I do get peeved when they break their bottles and leave the shards scattered throughout the flower beds. I also find the raised voices and unsolicited gardening advice annoying: Yesterday there was a good deal of both.

Most mornings I find dozens of bottle tops in the flowerbed, along with broken bottles, greasy take-out food containers, innumerable cigarette butts and from time to time the odd weapon. A few mornings back, as I was making my way through the park, one of my neighbors found a pistol in the children’s play area adjacent to flower beds.

I had imagined the Germans to be a tidy lot – that’s one of the cultural stereotypes I carried with me when I came here. And they are, for the most part, pretty clean folks, except (and here is another one of those disconnects) in public places. There seems to be a feeling of entitlement to trash the parks at will. People unleash their dogs into the flowerbeds and watch as the hounds trample the plants and destroy hours and hours and weeks of work in an instant. If you say something to them – the reaction will likely be one of scorn and indignation: “I pay my taxes. My dog can run and crap where he pleases!”

At times I long for the in-your-face style of my fellow New Yorkers who raised so much hell about dog droppings in the streets of New York that the police actually enforce the law. I have no idea what the law is here in Cologne – I only know that dogs can stop and drop where they please and the citizenry seem perfectly at ease leaving a trail of detritus in their wake as they waddle boozed and bold through the flower beds.

Even with the peculiar challenges of urban gardening in Cologne, there is nothing quite as rewarding as getting your hands dirty in a garden and when HH is along, everything takes on a special significance. Just being with him in the garden is fun, watching him dig or struggle to put the leaves and cuttings into the trash bag. Later today we’ll go back out and finish planting the remaining bulbs. I’ll give him a small bag of crocuses and let him plant them wherever he wants. Maybe I’ll take a picture of the nearly empty bed and show it to him in late March when his small purple flowers have popped their heads up through the dirt.