Get Yourself Some Insurances: A Berlin Take on a German Custom

Early on the morning of April 30th neighbors in the vicinity of Friedrichshain’s Grünberger / Warschauer Straße were roused by the sound of sirens when a Matratzen store on the corner caught fire and burned spectacularly. There were no injuries, however the street-level store had been completely burned out and the entire 5-story apartment building façade above it was blackened by smoke. The cause of the fire is unknown as of May 2nd reports, but arson had not been excluded as possibility, perhaps even related to the anticipated May 1st riots/festivities.

A friend who lives very nearby told me about the Matratzen incident. After a moment of appreciation for the scale of the damage and “glad it didn’t happen to us” gratitude, I jumped at the opportunity to suggest apartment insurance if she didn’t have it yet. My sales pitch had all the zeal of a recent convert, for I’d not too long ago had my own perspective shifted.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.

It’s a very German thing to do: get some insurances. At surface level it’s a cultural quirk, one that’s found its place on lists alongside other amusing phenomena like Tatort, Hausschuhe, and obeying the red Ampelmann. But at a deeper level one encounters an undeniable element of practicality and accountability.

Naturally I’m talking insurances beyond the usual requisites like Krankenversicherung (hoop that we all must jump through) or Autoversicherung (if that’s something you’re into). The others, like Privat-Haftpflichtversicherung (personal liability insurance), while not compulsory, are strongly recommended, to the point that you might find your German peers giving you looks when you admit to not having them.

Even Berlin, known for its colorful anti-establishmentarianism, isn’t immune to this insurance-happy sentiment. A recent conversation with a hippy friend who does my dreadlocks revealed that even she sees the necessity of basic Haftpflicht. “And you don’t?” she asks me, incredulous.

At first I was reluctant. Old habits. The idea of multiple insurances was a foreign concept. I mean, I come from a country where, until very recently, even health insurance wasn’t a given. I was used to thinking, “I’m still young and the Universe is an unknown, therefore roll the Cosmic Dice and let them fall as they may, I’m feeling lucky.” This attitude propelled me (relatively) unscathed through my 20’s, so shouldn’t the philosophy continue to hold true, especially now that I’m older and wiser?
The future could only shrug in reply, and I accepted that—this was the kind of relationship we had.

When my husband and I were signing papers on our apartment, our landlord recommended two optional insurances to purchase: Haftpflicht- and Hausratversicherung (renter’s insurance). In typical Ausländer style, we only heard the word optional, nodded while abstractly considering, “Sure, insurance is conceptually a good idea …”, and subsequently thought no further on the matter. We were new to Berlin, those were some terribly long German words, and there were more pressing things at hand.

Amusingly only a few months later saw us purchasing our first additional insurance, the Hundehaftpflichtversicherung (liability insurance for our dog). This is a requirement of German law, as dog owners are liable for 100% of all damage caused by their animal, whether they themselves are to blame or no. Liability insurance, in this instance, made sense. Dogs, like children, are occasionally agents of Chaos; therefore it’s good to be prepared for those random acts of mayhem.

Logic should have compelled me then to look into a Haftpflicht for humans, but again I let myself get distracted with more immediate concerns. And after all, I reasoned, for two very conscientious adults, how necessary is liability insurance anyway? I consigned those thoughts to a distant dusty shelf in the priority-library of my mind.

And then things got real. An apartment fire in our building on Christmas Eve served as a surreal blow to my youthful sense of invincibility.

Scenario: You’re in a burning building and you’ve only got 5 minutes to grab a few things, so what do you take with you? It’s a common hypothetical question, an insight into personal values. Having now actually played it out, I can answer this very honestly—I grabbed my wedding ring, laptop, documents of identity, husband, and dog.

We evacuated into the street, joining a throng of neighbors and spectators as the Feuerwehr was arriving on scene. Huge red flames licked the ceiling inside the burning first-floor apartment. I kept thinking, “Holy shit, it’s Christmas Eve—our building is going to burn down on Christmas Eve.”

I like to think I’m not a material person. Things are just things, after all, and I’ve voluntarily purged my possessions at various points in my life. But not like this—not like this. My thoughts flitted to various sentimental items left behind, items of monetary value, items of simple practicality that had taken us a year to accumulate: a helpless and automatic inventory.

While my thoughts were flying, however, the fire fighters were pumping water into the burning apartment, and the smoke began to turn from black to white. Eventually the glow in the scorched windows went dark. The building wasn’t going to burn down after all.

We were very lucky. No one had been injured. It was only material damage, localized almost exclusively to the one apartment. The cause of the fire was likely candles, someone said. All of this drama from something so small.

My self-concern quickly shifted to the woman whose apartment had burned. “What is she going to do?” I said to one of the neighbors. It was more of a rhetorical question, but my neighbor answered with typical German practicality: if the woman had insurances, everything would be all right; and if not, well …

Shortly after the incident, a new notice was posted on the bulletin board in our building reminding residents that the apartment building insurance policy was limited only to the building structure itself and would not protect against loss or damage of individual personal possessions. Charred and water-damaged belongings piled on the sidewalk outside the burned-down apartment on Christmas Day served as punctuation to this statement.

Needless to say, my husband and I were inspired shortly thereafter to purchase renter’s insurance alongside, yes, personal liability insurance. I realized the folly of my former hesitancy. To err is human, after all, and I am human, therefore I too must be prone to error. Knowing that, it’s only logical to embrace it, and to protect against it. Now in possession of said insurances, I’m finding it bestows an unexpected sense of freedom to live my life without fear of the unknown.

There’s the saying “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”, or, “When in Germany, do as the Germans do”—which is to say, get yourself some insurances. 

By Eileen Carelock 
Images © 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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