Our first house-sitting assignment with strangers

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ORT_Logo   Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony 14 May 2014

Trip: Europe, April to December 2014. House-sitting near Großenkneten in Lower Saxony or Niedersachsen, April to June 2014

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Today is Sunday. We arrived two weeks ago. Settling into Lower Saxony near Großenkneten has been a strange experience. We’d had a couple of days in Paris and in Hamburg before we took a train to Bremen and were picked up by Ernst one of our hosts for a forty-minute drive to home.

We’d previously house-sat in Australia, but with friends or through friends.

Whilst tourism is typically dislocating for the first few days, it is not the same as meeting strangers and learning enough to take over their house for two months. Our hosts could not have been more helpful but everything was unfamiliar. And initially, we thought that there was much to learn before they left. This was both true and untrue.

Everything was so strange and new that at times it seemed all too hard. We were prepared for the driving, we’d found it tough to begin with in 2007 — picking up the Citroen at La Defence and after a couple of turns around the car park driving out onto the Peripherique. But, it took us some time.

Even the supermarket seemed hard, particularly when we had no idea and had to avoid pork (schweinefleisch) and pork-based other meats, delicatessen meats and sausages (ham, schinken mainly). We also learned that there was more to kosher food restrictions than we thought and had to be even more careful what we brought into the house. What we did outside was our own business.

I felt like a kid again, when I broke the ride-on mower on the first attempt at mowing; inexperience, going into too long grass and not immediately disengaging the cutting unit. The cutting drive belt or cutting deck belt snapped.

Denise and I were proud of ourselves, when after Ernst had organised a replacement by phone and we picked it up (a small ordeal in itself involving a half hour drive each way and a new town), that we actually fixed the bloody thing!

It wasn’t easy or straightforward. We had to follow a minimalist manual, but found and viewed a good demonstration on YouTube, though a different brand and model. Even so we had to remove the cutting unit from under the mower, replace a six-pulley belt and then get the thing together again and in the right place.

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Later we decided that the design of the mower, while fine with the grass catcher attachment on, was not so good with the mulching alternative. As unlike the push motor mowers we were used to, there was no external chute on the Husqvarna to funnel the cut grass out from under the cutting head. Hence the cut grass tends to clog the mechanism.

We were also lulled by the balmy Spring weather on our first few days. It has been much colder, raining on and off since we fixed the mower, so that we haven’t managed to cut more grass (except to ascertain that our repair worked).

Following on, Denise has dropped the ancient Nokia that Ernst left behind as a contact machine. Mainly with him, I think. We haven’t told him yet. And I’ve broken a wine glass.

I bought a Sim at Aldi but had problems translating the instructions. Denise phoned up the call centre. They didn’t want to deal in English and hung up, so we had to sign up online, translating the registration instructions with Google translate.

When the phone didn’t connect after six hours, I built conspiracy theories based on the idea that we probably hadn’t passed the anti-terrorism provisions. It turned out later, when I sent an email that I had to turn the phone off and on again. Obvious, once learned. We are behaving exactly like school children, caught out in misdemeanors! We just don’t understand the system.

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We’ve also been fighting a losing battle with the moles, but that was expected and we don’t feel like idiots. Our tools are four anti-mole devices that buzz and vibrate in the soil. Initially we were a bit wary of breaking them. Denise firmly believes that they are effective, but I’m more sceptical. (Much later we found that Denise’s step-mother in Australia had the same machines, which were sold as snake scarers.)

Nevertheless, most other techniques that supposedly work from research on the Internet are either patent nonsense (glass and human hair from a barber to put in the tunnels are the most ridiculous) to rather drastic. The only one that commands my biological respect is a method very like the early urban legend of the rat-man. The silent stranger who walks up and down the floor with a revolver patiently listening until he eventually fires the revolver through the floorboards and drills the rat through the head. Shooting a mole is somewhat easier supposedly, one finds an active tunnel, waits sitting patiently on a chair by the end, sees where the mole is digging and blasts the ground with a shotgun.

The last is not a solution here, as moles are protected in the Geeste or nature reserve and also Ernst tells me later everywhere in Germany. We’ve noticed that Ernst and Sylvia’s mole problem seems to be worse than their neighbours. However, when we questioned the neighbours about moles their gaze seems to slide away and the language barrier becomes greater. (I’m probably doing them a disservice!)

I must say despite the messy mounds and breaking into the tunnels and the difficulty of lawn-mowing, I’m with Ernst and Sylvia. Moles have every right to exist and are amazing animals in their own right.

We had afternoon tea with Dieter and Heike, they seemed to have no mole problem. Although, in their defence, they were quite sanguine about ‘bambi’ (the deer) leaping the fence and eating their plants. They have a beautiful garden with more varieties of rhododendron than we’ve seen before.

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But I’ve digressed from the main point about house-sitting and culture shock, that is, being in Germany without German.

The difficulty with house-sitting for two months is that you are not tourists but neither are you planning to live in Germany for the next couple of years. It appears to be a fall between stools, but then I suppose it was always going to be and that was part of the challenge. However, fantasising about it in advance and living it are quite different.

The real issue is culture shock and the difficulty adults have in learning new things. As Denise puts it, ‘We don’t like to feel hopeless and incompetent, in reaction we are anxious and tend to panic.’ And, I am worse than she is!

This is made harder because what we are learning is the basic stuff we take for granted at home, like the electricity, basic home tasks, driving, orienting ourselves, catching a train, shopping in a supermarket. The things we take for granted at home, but can’t do here make us feel out-of-place, alienated, dislocated and disoriented.

I suppose I expected Germany to be easier than it is and the friendly locals to be excited at the prospect of meeting us, which, possibly more surprising, some of them are. I thought all Germans spoke English, except in the East, but we haven’t found that. And Ed in Berlin says that he doesn’t expect anyone older than himself to speak English.

We are in a rural area where the locals don’t meet tourists. Indeed, the neighbours, who don’t get much opportunity to hone their school English of fifty years ago, are in general much better communicators than we are and we feel embarrassed that we don’t speak German.

Denise’s song and dance act that works a treat in Italy and even France, doesn’t elicit as much response here. In bad German: ‘Sorry I don’t speak German, we are Australians. Do you speak English.’ In half the cases this does break the ice, but in the other half the listener quite easily conveys an exasperated, ‘So! Get on with it!’ I’m embarrassed to think what would be the reaction in many parts of Australia. And, I feel a trifle pleased that in Brisbane for a year I tried to aid a few Japanese students’ brusque demands, while walking on the way to work.

Apart from the cultural issues, I’m surprised that we still keep coming upon hurdles. I expected it to be much easier here. After all we did reasonably well in Japan (as tourists) where we expected certain things to be difficult.

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Minor irritations seem to become major difficulties. For example, that only German credit cards work in supermarkets. And we thought initially on ticket machines in the trains and at stations. Also, we can only buy diesel at petrol stations with cash. The dismissive attitude of the checkout woman at Aldi: ‘You don’t have a Deutsche credit card; don’t waste my time.’

When we didn’t have much cash that made supermarket shopping tense at times. Fortunately, the ATMs spit out money quite happily and in enormous sums (we could sometimes only get less than $200 in India, of which ‘bastard bank’ took a large chunk — an Australian joke about the intransigence of our largest bank.)

Ah well, perhaps time to get over it and to start enjoying ourselves in this wonderful rural paradise.

Key words: house-sitting, strangers, culture shock, alienation, learning new things, feeling helpless, moles, Lower Saxony, Niedersachsen, Großenkneten

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