Molehills of Dirt

When metropolitan, navel-of-the-world Berliners want to snicker about small-minded Southern Germans, one of the most common references is the Kehrwoche, i.e. the duty that home owners sweep the sidewalk in front of their house. This is generally seen as a sign of some kind of collective anal retention and something that would be inappropriate in gritty Berlin, despite its occasional Prussian tendencies towards an intrusive state.

Yes, “gritty”! Berlin has an equivalent of this obligation to care for “your” sidewalk, namely to make it safe for walking in the event of snow or ice on the sidewalk. I’m not entirely sure whether this is the actual legal obligation (liability!) that many make it out to be, but it is taken very seriously. With any sign of frost, snow or ice, Berliners get up early and sweep or shovel snow, and then liberally sprinkle the sidewalk with some kind of grippy substance that will keep pedestrians from slipping and falling.

Salt has long been frowned upon for this purpose as it attacks the nearly ubiquitous trees that line Berlin streets and are very  much appreciated.

These days, many home owners, housing management companies and store owners hire professional services for this duty. Then it is mechanized, golf-cart-sized snow-sweepers (plows are rare) run along the sidewalk and leave regular patterns of the gription-providing substance of choice. This is sand (bright yellow or sometimes red) or various grits, presumably derived from power plants or other coal-burning activities. Dreadfully, this turns Berlin sidewalks into all-grit, ugly landscapes within minutes that last well into Spring.

I suspect that the snowsweepers have a dial that determines the size of dirt/grit piles to be deposited. I imagine that this is a 1-10 scale. At the small end, there is a largely cosmetic application of fine sand, something that might be akin to make-up’s trend of “strobing”. But I suspect that this setting along with other settings below, say 5, require a special key that is only released unwillingly by insurance companies. Most services seem to leave the settings decidedly in the upper end of the scale, some all the way to “10”, making a regular pattern of gritty mole hills all over the sidewalk. I even suspect that some devices have an “11” patterns for sidewalk-alpinism.



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