Geriatric German Surveillance Teams
On Friday night, I quietly wandered home after a playing poker with some friends. There was a spring in my step, not because I had won, but because my wallet was now €10 lighter. I guess that’s what sports people call a marginal gain. As I mulled over my loss, I turned the corner into my dimly lit street. There are no lampposts in my area, only orange lights slung across the road, suspended by precarious looking cables. The effect of this solution is that the street is tinged with an unnatural orangey hue and on windy nights (such as this one), the street lights swing back and forth recreating the sensation of being onboard a particularly unstable ship in rough seas. As the shadows rocked around the street, I walked towards my apartment, all the while carrying an unnerving feeling that I was being watched. As I came to the corner, I heard an odd sound above me. Quickly turning around, I saw nothing, until slowly I looked up and my eyes met those of my unknown observer. High in a window, leaning on her arms, stood an old woman, staring directly at me. I physically recoiled in shock, quickly composed myself and waved. She waved back.
To those outside Germany, this might sound like a strange story, but the only weird thing about it was that “Mavis”, as I shall now refer to her, was peering out her window at such a late hour. Actually, the activity of staring out your window, arms folded on the window sill, is a fairly normal sight in Germany. On any given day, at any given hour, there are least three or four “Mavises” in my street alone, all staring intently at the everyday activities of people down below them. Sometimes I see, or more correctly hear them chatting to each other, regardless of whether their windows are close together or not.
Having never engaged the “Mavises” in conversation myself, I can only assume they are like the watchers on the wall, ready to spring into action should anything untoward be spotted. I like to imagine they meet up regularly to discuss their observations, perhaps they take notes and are keeping track of all the residents. I am fairly sure at this point that there is an established pecking order for our group of volunteer watchers, based on which floor they happen to live. Surely the most prized spot is the fifth floor, which commands the greatest view of the neighbourhood. At this point, I would not be surprised to see one of the group, probably someone on the lower floors, scrabbling around on the roof, attempting to light a fiery beacon to warn other vigilantes grannies of the arrival of Sauron.
To say this is a peculiarly German experience would be a lie, given that most cultures have nosey grandmothers. My grandparents back in the UK were the same and I recall once being asked by my own grandmother to see who had just arrived in her tiny street. “Make sure you draw the curtains first” I remember her advising sagely “You don’t want anyone to see you staring”. This is perhaps the point I find most interesting. In the UK, the “curtain twitcher” is usually some busy body who stares out the window at possible interlopers, shrouded and protected by thick curtains and lacey net drapes. The German “Mavis” does not rely on any kind of cover or disguise, they simply open the window, perch and then stare intently.
The German predilection for staring is something that I have already discussed, but it is perhaps one reason that expats find the geriatric German surveillance teams so bizarre. The brazen nature of it, coupled with the fact that a “Mavis” will continue staring directly at you, even when spotted, is fairly unnerving for the British and possibly our colonial brethren in the US and Canada.
I would imagine boredom is the real reason, but having had some time to consider it, preoccupation with staring out the window might be because German streets are quite interesting. My wife recently introduced me to the concept of das Wimmelbild, which the Duden helpfully describes as an “image on which a wealth of details or simultaneously occurring events is shown”. My street is directly opposite a church and so Sundays can be prime staring time, as large groups of people enter or leave the Lord’s crib. My wife, for her sins, will often spend her summer holidays watching weddings going in and out of the God’s holiday home, cooing over the bride’s dress or ridiculing the guests who decided to wear jeans. I frequently join her, which means that I am either acclimatising well to German culture or that I am actually a German Oma, trapped in the body of a 6’3 man. I would imagine the truth lies in the former, but I do really like Tiger Balm and Diagnosis Murder so I can’t discount the latter.
We may never really know what motivates the “Mavises” to stare into their streets like an omnipresent deity. Maybe they all work for the government and are keeping tabs on all of us and relaying information back to some central control. If true, this would explain the dearth of normal surveillance cameras in German cities. It would also confirm that Germany really is the most efficient nation in the world, finding a way to save money but retain all the benefits of a modern surveillance state in one fell swoop. Whatever the reason, I doubt anything will ever change. Honestly, I look forward to the days when I spend my dotage alongside my wife, peering at passers-by and tutting passive aggressively when I see something amiss.