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Sunday, August 2, 2009

A small house with a big name

Here's another one of those compound nouns Germans are so fond of: "Schrankenwärterhäuschen" (which is just a short form of "Eisenbahnschrankenwärterhäuschen"). It describes the small cottage next to a level railway crossing lived in by the guard and his family. It was the guard's job to crank down the barriers, to stop what little traffic there was from crossing the railway, whenever the one or two daily trains passed through. When I was a boy in Germany, there existed a surplus of cheap labour, men returned from the war had to be employed, and human labour had not yet been replaced by technology, and with railways criss-crossing the country, those little cottages were dotted all along the line.

In my days with the "Fahrenden Gesellen" I hiked all over the countryside and passed many of those seemingly idyllic places, far away from anywhere, flower-boxes on the window-sills, children playing outside, and the guard relaxing in the sun, smoking a pipe or reading a paper. Other boys may have dreamt of driving a fire-engine but I always thought being a "Schrankenwärter" would be absolute bliss as it offered a contemplative life free of stress and with plenty of time to read and write and think.

All this came back to me when I recently discovered a whole website dedicated to the disappearing age of the "Schrankenwärterhäuschen" and I reflected on the different course my own life had taken: instead of a contemplative existence, I went from job to job, some fifty in all, in more than fifteen countries across four continents. However, all's well that ends well as I now live in my own small "Schrankenwärterhäuschen" at "Riverbend".

P.S. Of today's 237,000 employees of the "Deutsche Bahn", only about seventy are still employed as "Schrankenwärter". Here's a clip of one of this dying breed, Schrankenwärter Laumann, filmed at Groß Düngen in deepest Lower Saxonia in 2006:

Click on box next to volume control for full-screen viewing

To lighten "Schrankenwärter" Laumann's 'tristesse', why not send him a pretty postcard? I did! Send it to

Schrankenwärter Laumann
Posten 'Hockeln'
D-31162 Groß Düngen
GERMANY

(No need to write in German; in the new Germany everybody understands English - those who don't will be shot! Just sprinkle your message with a bit of Schadenfreude, Gemütlichkeit, das Ding an sich, Kindergarten, Sauerkraut, Bratwurst, and Prost, and he'll know what you're talking about as there's very little else that matters - to a German anyway! - just don't mention the Blitzkrieg.)

If you can't get enough of the romance of the "Schrankenwärter" 's job (or its loneliness, tedium, and sheer boredom), here's the three-part clip "Auf verlorenem Posten":

Part 1 56132 Miellen an der Lahn, Stefan Löhr, Posten 55
Part 2 5420 Friedrichssegen-Ost an der Lahn, Uwe Ortner
Part 3 65558 Balduinstein an der Lahn, Udo Meister

And there have been attempts made to automate the job - see this clip - but it would help if you understood German!