Communal Cleaning

A sparkling stairway, courtesy of me (this week, at least)!
A sparkling stairway, courtesy of me (this week, at least)!

Sure, there were things I wanted to do this weekend besides haul a mop and a sloshing bucket of soapy water up and down the stairway of my apartment building. But I live in southern Germany (Swabia, to be specific), and that means that every weekend I’m participating somehow in Kehrwoche, the widespread tradition of cleaning sidewalks and front stoops. Since our apartment lies at the end of a cul-de-sac with no true sidewalk in front, we’ve re-appropriated the task to mean that the three families living in our building will alternate cleaning our multi-story shared stairwell.

Before I left for Germany, a German friend living in Petoskey said, “Now, since you’re moving to Stuttgart, you will almost certainly have to do Kehrwoche.” Sure enough, I’d been off the plane less than twenty-four hours before hearing, through some kind of jet-lagged haze, my landlady’s advice to be sure we participated regularly in Kehrwoche. “The family across the hall has already made a schedule,” she said. “I’m sure they’ll add you to the list.” And they did! The day we moved in, I saw that the names of the French family who occupied the apartment before we did had been x’d out, with our names written underneath in three-week cycles.

The basic Kehrwoche duties don’t take too long, and Matthew and I have our different systems. He uses a vacuum; I like the broom. I start at the top and work my way down to collect all of the dirt down in the basement before sweeping it into the dustpan. Mopping follows a similar strategy; I place myself and the bucket below the area I want to mop, then keep moving down so the spots can dry before I track all over them with my slippers.

Some people might grumble. Maybe it seems unfair to clean up after other people. Maybe it’s something the landlady should have hired another person to come in and do. But frankly, I find the task quite reasonable. First of all; yes, this means I’m wiping up my neighbors’ boot tracks, but only once every three weeks. The other two, they’re wiping up mine. Secondly, Kehrwoche inspires a certain sense of ownership. I’ve caught more than one of us going beyond the basic requirements to spruce up our living space. My downstairs neighbors recently spent a couple hours trimming the tree outside our front door. Our next-door neighbors bought– and regularly water– the beautiful potted plant you see in the picture. This weekend, I gave the glass staircase sides an extra sparkle with Windex. We live in a relatively small building, and it seems right to share the work. I’d certainly rather do this than pay extra to have someone else come in and clean.

Most importantly, I appreciate the discipline Kehrwoche inspires. Every week, like it or not, some external social force motivates people to clean, at least on the outside. Everybody’s doing it (as Aaron and I head to the Farmers’ Market Saturday mornings, we pass by house after house where somebody’s out sweeping the front stoop with a broom). In our own apartment, I might let the bathroom go a week too long without cleaning it. I might let the laundry pile up. But I never mess with Kehrwoche.

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