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On Community, Compromise & Parcel Karma

When going to live abroad you’re bound to encounter customs, idiosyncrasies, little day-to-day things that are different than you’re used to. For me one of those things was parcel service (DHL, Hermes, etc.), specifically the part where your neighbors accept your package for you if you’re not home, or vice versa. I don’t know if this is a European thing or just a German thing, but for me it’s an uncomfortable thing, especially when newly arrived in Berlin and momentarily shy of interpersonal contact—hence ordering things online in the first place. However DHL seemed determined to introduce me to my neighbors.

My first missed delivery was, naturally, the all-important router that would bestow upon my new apartment the blessed Internetz. This brought me to the doorstep one of the Gartenhaus apartments.  I knocked and waited and then knocked again before the door finally opened, revealing a man standing unapologetically in his underwear while hot, sauna-like air roiled out from behind him into the cold January stairwell. I felt like apologizing for disturbing him, but he seemed not at all perturbed, and I got my router easily enough. Tschau.

The next time I missed a delivery wasn’t handled so eloquently. We’d ordered a drill, part of a convoluted effort to finally install curtains for a bit of looong-awaited privacy. When I buzzed the neighbor no one was home. No big deal. I tried again later. And again the next day. And several times more over the course of the next week to no avail. I wondered, what is the etiquette in this kind of situation? I even went so far as to write a little note via Google-translate that, in retrospect, perhaps sounded a bit cryptic and threatening—“ich weiß dass Sie mein Paket haben …” With each passing day and no answer I grew more desperate, more alarmed: You have my drill. I need this drill for curtains. Give me my drill. Turns out the neighbor had merely gone on vacation. Color me chagrined.

In the following months, more settled in my space, I started accepting packages for other people in the building. I figured I might as well since I’m home most of the time anyway. My husband joked that the DHL guy was taking advantage. I maintained that I was building my parcel karma. Besides, it also gave me a weird sense of belonging/community.

And my good parcel karma did eventually pay off. A large bulky delivery weighing more than I could have carried myself came while I was in class one morning, but instead of leaving it for me to pick up at a nearby shop, the delivery guy made a second trip to catch me that afternoon—Zomg, danke!

Most recently there’s a new DHL guy, super friendly, and he speaks a little English, so we chat on occasion. On one afternoon he was particularly flustered after some rudeness in a different building. “I hate this country,” he confided, “I mean, it’s better than where I’m from, but the way people treat you, because of *this*—” He pinched the skin on his forearm and went on to detail a more recent encounter. What he said really stuck with me for the rest of the day, in part because I love Berlin. But maybe part of what I love about Berlin is that it treats me well—or more specifically, that it doesn’t treat me badly. And meanwhile there’s a side of Berlin I don’t really see or experience personally except maybe referenced in graffiti tags: Racism. I live a kind of privileged life in my apartment on high, working from home, having goods delivered to my doorstep …

The thought made me feel complacent, embarrassed even. So in the course of the next week I started accepting more packages for the neighbors, mostly from other buildings on the street. They’d sit on my floor a few days, and then when no one came for them, the DHL guy would take them back again. Kein Problem. I felt good, I felt connected, helpful in some small way… Until people started ringing my apartment looking for all those packages I’d given back—every single one.

It was almost comical. Awkward German confrontations ensued. “Erm, ich hab leider kein Paket mehr …” I’d attempt to explain through the intercom, followed by verbose inquiries garbled by street traffic. Sigh. “Moment mal, ich komme runter.” And I’d go down and bolster my feeble explanations with exaggerated pantomime and apologies—I had 9 or 10 of these conversations in all.

So this week, for the first time, with no anticipated deliveries of my own, when the DHL guy buzzed asking if I could take a few packages for the neighbors, I refused. And I felt like an asshole doing so, but I had to refuse. I had to. I felt like I was letting the guy down. Then again this wasn’t personal, it was just him doing his job and me living my life, and suddenly the two didn’t intersect conveniently anymore. We had a good thing for a little while. But then it got weird.

Is it just fate that things will always inevitably get weird? Should said potential-weirdness be a disincentive to try to help? As an introvert, these are embarrassingly real concerns.

Here in Berlin we’re this strange mishmashed community of characters, but it’s still fundamentally a community, and I feel it’s only natural to want to help each other out in small nothing ways—even if things occasionally get weird. Short-lived good intentions, or at least willingness to compromise, are better than pure self-interest or jadedness. And at the same time it’s okay to say no when things do get weird.

To the last person seeking their package no longer in my care, I said, “Jetzt nehme ich nichts mehr” while putting my palms in the air in the universal sign of both surrender and “no more”.
Ah, but I lied. I’m still accepting packages for the neighbors. Only just for my building. Compromise!

By Eileen Carelock 
Eileen is a Berlin-based freelancer and tentative explorer of a tiny segment of the human experience. She ends up hanging out with her dog a lot; she also writes things.

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