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June 1991

One of the first German words they teach you in Berlitz is Schlüssel: key. It doesnít take long here to see why. The lease, a 10-page document defining everyoneís rights and responsibilities in great detail also lists the keys that have been transferred. In our case, there is one for the front door to the apartment building, then one for the entrance to our apartment; one for the cellar, then others for our basement storage room and for the cellar exit to the back yard. Since our ground floor apartment includes the garden in the back, weíre the only one with that key.

Then thereís a key for the mailbox, a separate one for each door between rooms, including the entrances from the hall and bedroom to the bathroom (not to be confused with the room with the toilet); even from the hall to the kitchen! Also for the walk-in closet, which used to be a utility room, and the bedroom closet, which used to be another entrance from the hall, and for each door of our "Schrank" (armoire), which is what one normally needs to buy because European homes donít have closets.

In fact, an apartment you rent normally only includes bare walls – except for the toilet and bathroom – but no light fixtures or appliances, not even the proverbial kitchen sink! We were fortunate that the former tenant moved in with someone whose lodgings were already fully equipped, so he left his behind.

A visitor, seeing our bedroom closet, said it was the first closet sheíd seen in Germany; and our walk-in closet was the second one sheíd seen in Germany. Their apartment included a two-door Schrank that didnít have keys and the landlord insisted on having keys made for them – he told them "If thereís a lock, it needs a key."

We also have two garage keys; one to operate the motorized gate from the outside and one from the inside.

One of the MITRE guys said that if he had this many keys in the town he came from heíd be an important man.

Fortunately we donít have to carry all the keys around at once, although I do need the one for my bicycle lock, and for my desk and Schranks at work. (A MITRE guy had his rather nondescript bike stolen from the courtyard in the back of the building we share with the BFS, so I guess a certain number of the locks actually are required.) Although the lock to each office does have a key in it, we donít lock up and take them with us.

However, in the previous building where I was located, the last person leaving each floor of each wing was responsible for assuring not only that each office was locked but that those keys were locked in a box just inside the entrance to the wing. The key to that entrance also unlocked the box. The last person to leave took the key with him, but if he wasnít the first to arrive the next day – when it was me I made sure to come early – one or two trusted people in each wing also had a key. But not for other wings!

Actually, there was little need to hurry in – in general, Germans weren't workaholics who arrived early and stayed late. In fact, one day I was engrossed in something enough that I lost track of time. In my office near the end of the top floor, with my door closed, I hadn't heard people leaving, and when I arrived downstairs I found the front door was locked!

Although I was able to exit the back door, into the courtyard previously mentioned, a apiked iron-barred gate to the street was also locked. Looking around for some way out, I noticed a small apartment at the far end of the courtyard. After some time spent ringing the doorbell I found the resident, a sort of caretaker, was in and was able to spring me. From then on I was much more careful to keep track of what time it was!

The locks arenít just for show – German doors are solid and fit tightly in their metal frames, which are firmly attached to the surrounding masonry walls. Even the windows have solid frames and rigid latches – a burglar could break the glass, but thereís no other way of forcing entry. When the realtor showing us the apartment accidentally left the keys inside while showing us the cellar, we thought we were out of luck for the several hours until the landlord would be available. Thatís when we learned that although the door automatically locks when it is closed, the outside doorpull (it looks like a doorknob, but doesnít turn) and lock plate can be removed and the mechanism manipulated. The realtorís children had provided him with ample opportunity to perfect the technique.

If the door had been locked with the key, that would not have been possible. For maximum security, a second turn of the key extends the bolt even further into the frame. Surprisingly, that seems to be the limit – nobody seems to have yet thought of providing a lock with a third or fourth turn for even greater protection. (Fortunately we hadnít also gone outside, because that technique doesnít work with the front door lock, and the front door is automatically closed by a strong spring.)

The glass door to the garden is also protected on the outside by a "Rolladen," a sort of flexible blind of wooden or metal slats sliding in channels set in the door frame that can be raised and lowered – and locked, although a key is not required here – from the inside. Windows of most houses also have them, which is really useful if you want to darken a room; e.g., if youíd prefer not to be awakened at 4:30 on summer mornings as the sky brightens. Our windows donít have them – I guess theyíre are too big for any standard size. Rolladens can make quite a clatter if people arenít careful when they lower them at midnight – or raise them at 4 A.M.

Although we got two sets of apartment keys, if you need more, itís not necessarily a simple matter to get them made. The lock to the outer door of the apartment building requires a "security" key – to get a duplicate made you need to give the locksmith the original, numbered key. (Early on, Betty Lou accidentally took both our sets of keys when she left to teach a Saturday class and I didnít dare leave the house for the rest of the day!) And even when it is easy, itís not necessarily cheap – getting two duplicates of the car key at "Mr. Minit" cost $15! Of course, itís possible that BMW would have charged $25 – and maybe VW keys would have been cheaper.

You can tell the importance of keys by noting the newspaper listings of emergency service providers during the Christmas and New Yearís holidays – sharing equal prominence with doctors, hospitals and pharmacies are locksmiths!

© Copyright 2000 Jack Ludwick - All Rights Reserved

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