Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006

The Secret Handshake


Today on the street, I received the secret handshake. After living in the same house for five years, I have finally been initiated into the neighbourhood. The ceremony was brief and simple, but moving nevertheless. It was lead by Frau S, a widow, who lives next door. She has always been very kind to our family, remembering the children’s birthdays and giving them small Easter and Christmas presents. She has also been kind to us, telling us to how to improve the nature of our bins when other neighbours complain about them, sympathising when still other neighbours complain about our barbeque smoke and claiming that she loves the dulcet tones of our children screaming at each other, or indeed me, in the garden. She even goes so far as to say that it is quiet and boring when we are away, and she is always happy when she sees our bathroom light left on all night (sorry planet, but it stops nightmares) because that means we are back making the neighbourhood colourful and interesting once more.

At a recent dinner-party, we discovered that many of our habits are of such exceptional interest to Frau S, who it must be emphasized is a lovely lady, that she shares them with one – probably more – of her best friends, who happens to be the granny of Ollie’s best friend, whose parents came to dinner two weeks ago. Our habits of not rolling down our kitchen blinds at night, of leaving the aforementioned bathroom light on all night, our refusal to fit in with the neighbourhood lace curtain policy or the local manicured garden ordinance, are all newsworthy. But the main thing about Frau S is that she is kind and nice, and if we give her something to chat about with her other granny friends, then we are pleased. Not many grannies get to be neighbours with foreigners after all. We provide Frau S with special status in this corner of the Burg.

So it was especially meaningful that Frau S. chose to conduct my initiation ceremony today. It was also a surprise occasion, timed perfectly for the moment when I was dashing home to grab the pram with five minutes to spare before dashing out to collect Ollie from kindergarten. If I was breathless to begin with, Frau S’s guerilla induction into Burg society left me stunned. Socially, I have made it. I am there. My hand has been secretly shaken and I am one of us. My cruelty to lace curtains and my laissez-faire garden maintenance no longer count against me. I am practically family.

Dear readers, Frau S asked me to call her by her first name. I think it’s time to drop all pretences and apply for my German passport.

Author: charlotteotter

Novelist, feminist, crime writer

20 thoughts on “The Secret Handshake

  1. Thank heaven for laissez-faire granny neighbors! My next door neighbor is also a granny, and she once earned my lifetime love for claiming that she has never heard a peep through our shared wall, not a single shouting match or temper tantrum. Hard to believe, but I’ll take it.

    (Be careful about applying for a German passport–I think they have a section for lace-curtain compliance.)

  2. Ha! I swear your posts always convince me for about 30 minutes that Germany is *the* place to be. My Mom lived there for a few years so I linked her to your blog which she enjoys muchly.

  3. You do have it made! My sister lived in Germany for 5 years – at Lahr outside the Canadian forces base – and she never got past hello and goodbye with any of her neighbors. I visited one Christmas, and was amazed at the blackout shades!!! (and the lace curtains which she had, but that’s another story…) Unfortunately they had the bad habit of making me sleep because it was so dark in the room, that I never got up before 11 am!!!
    Congratulations….I think… might have to give her more insights into foreigner’s lifestyles in order to keep her status up high among her cronies….

  4. My goodness. You certainly have joined the club!

  5. What an honour!
    Here it’s far more likely that we go for years without knowing what our acquaintances surnames are. I don’t know whether that is just city living all over the world …after all our farm is so close to Cape Town that it’ll probably be a suburb in fifty years (I hope it takes as long as that anyway!). It was the same in London and even in Somerset where my mother still lives surnames have been fading out over the last twenty years.

  6. Have you ever noticed that as soon as you step over the border in Holland, the lace curtains disappear? Well, if they do have lace, they don’t obscure anything. I’ve been told to do so would imply you are doing something in your home to be ashamed to tell the neighbours about. 🙂

  7. Well congratulations! You know, I’ve noticed that there are really two kinds of German grannies – the old battle axe ones that make your life miserable and those other ones who bring joy to everyone. My husband’s granny was like that, may she rest in peace.

    Funny about the secret handshake. It took our Doppelhaushälfte neighbours, both about 15 yrs older than we are, 6 entire years to offer us the “du” even though they had been coming over for dinner and giving our kids little presents all along. The ice breaks slowly around here. But they are also the most patient people you could even meet and put up with our nonsense without saying a word. I’m very thankful for that.

    P.S. My curtains are orange. 🙂

  8. My neighbors avoid each other pretty well. You are waaaay ahead of me in the game!

  9. Hey, this made me wonder – Is there a secret internet women-who-blog handshake I don’t know about? Just checking.

    Congrats on your new membership.

  10. I can’t even imagine what our neighbors say about us, we have neither blinds, lace curtains or any curtains at all. Periodicially I catch the woman across the courtyard with her blinds open and she just stares at me in disgust while I stuggle to say in my best German “Guten Morgen”.

  11. I am thrilled that it was a policy of non-co-operation that got you there. At last, the German nation as a whole is moving on in history 🙂

  12. Well done! Moving up in the Burg must feel so good.

  13. Wow Charl, that is wonderful. I am so pleased! You now have a friend for life. I think Germans, once they are your friends, they are like dogs, nothing will shake that! It is also rather nice to be that something that makes other people feel cosmopolitan, because you bring that happiness merely by being yourself! And how hard is that?

  14. Wayhey! She sounds like quite a character. Maybe there is hope that one day our neighbours will actually speak to us…

  15. Excellent news! I’m with Helen though — but perhaps in a few years (if any of them stick around) we’ll be on first name terms with our neighbours.

  16. congratulations, charlotte! you seem to have arrived at a good place in german society!

    and @ ian: hollanders are protestants. they have nothing to hide, hence no lace curtains.

  17. OMG, not sure I would even have made it this far!! Lace curtains & me have never been a happy combo. Garden maintenance… well, it does happen twice a year, when the weather gets hot and when it gets cold. I prefer the benign neglect look to “manicured” though! Well done you on breaking down the famous German reserve with your quiet persistence. If it were up to me the passport would be yours 😉

  18. Hahaha, loved this. We discovered through a friend’s parents who were friends with some previous neighbors that they were watching us like hawks. They seemed to know everything about us, when we ordered pizza, when we had trouble finding enough money in the house to pay for it. And the neighbors told our friend’s parents that they could hear everything and that the man (my partner) was always chasing the woman (me) around for sex and they (us) were always giggling and squealing and having thumping-about sex. You can imagine how mortified I was when I heard that. Actually, what I think they heard us doing was play-fighting while trying to get one another to do the house-work. The satisfied thumping-around sex at the end was actually us finally giving in to one another and doing the housework.

  19. Dear Charlotte, this is most unusual and a big step for Granny. Are you ready to be on a first-name basis with her? She will expecting an invitation to your house for coffee and cake so that she can gather firsthand information on your family.

  20. Pingback: When I Was 35 « Charlotte's Web

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