In September 2004, I wrote on the rather unpromising-sounding topic of chemicals in home and garden. Nevertheless, the article references schoolboy bombs, drinking your own urine and packs of fags for under £2. So here goes:
In September, everyone in Germany is back from their holidays, feeling a little glum as the first leaves start falling in the beer gardens and the mini-golf courses close up for the Autumn. People retreat back into their homes, start packing away the summer clothes, inflatable boats, garden furniture and barbeques. It’s the time of year to make a bit of an effort in the garden and a recent visit to the garden centre has inspired the theme of this month’s Extrawurst - the German war against chemicals.
It may seem a paradox that the country that spawned so many chemical and drug giants - Hoechst and Bayer to name but two - should be waging war on chemicals, but please hear me out. To illustrate my point, let’s pop back to the garden centre. I was after something to kill off a few weeds- in the lawn and growing up between the patio stones. I didn’t anticipate any difficulty and had the German word for weeds - Unkraut, literally ‘un-herbs’ – in my head. In the UK, of course, it’s completely in order to pick up products off the shelf to rid your lawn and garden of dandelions, thistles, slugs and even unwanted cats. Only the neat Sodium Nitrate (or whatever it is) that my brother used to combine sugar with to make schoolboy bombs back in the 1970s is probably under slightly stricter control these days. In Germany, however, I searched high and low and couldn’t find any easily accessible products on the shelves of the garden centre. I eventually saw a locked cabinet behind an information desk and enquired hesitatingly if they had anything to rid my lawn of a few dandelions. I was subjected to a complete interrogation as to the dimensions of my lawn (who, other than the average German, knows exactly how many m² their lawn is??!!) and given a lecture as to how the products were not to be let near any footpath, pavement, road or any other public place (accompanied by pointing at large handwritten signs to this effect) before the cabinet was unlocked and my weed killer handed over.
Maybe some of this attitude can be put down to the inherent closeness and responsibility that Germans feel for the Umwelt, or environment. There are many words that exist in German which relate to the environment which don’t have a direct English translation- such as Mülltrennung, or ‘rubbish-sorting’. But the war against chemicals is also fought on fronts with a less direct connection with the environment. Some of you may remember my piece about the Kräuterhexwhich looked into the reluctance that Germans have about treating ailments with something that might actually work. While it’s quite easy to sneak into Superdrug in a UK high street and buy copious quantities of Anadin and Alka-Seltzer (or your preferred poison) to deal with the hangover from Hell, in Germany it is rather different. None of these remedies are available in the Supermarket or even the Drogerie. You are expected to go to the pharmacist where you will be questioned carefully as to the nature of your headache and will be asked which dosage level, pack size and even possibly dosage form (don’t think about this too closely - let’s just say suppository or Zäfpchen and be done with it. Yes. For a headache.) The moral of all this is, go easy at the Oktoberfest.
Within the household cleaners category, the same rules seem to apply. Finding an oven cleaner that is at all effective is hard work, almost as hard as cleaning the oven itself. Ditto stuff to unblock drains - everything proudly promotes its Bio mode of action, which seems to actually mean elbow grease and sheer man (or woman) power. Needless to say, the lurid Oxy-this and Vanish-that types of products with their day-glo packaging haven’t really caught on here. At my last ‘real’ job I remember hours spent trying to convince brand managers at a well-known US detergent company that ‘anti-bac’ variants of washing powder were the ultimate turn-off to German Mums - this is the country, after all, where quite normal women’s magazines run articles about the health benefits of drinking your own urine (although marginally preferable to drinking someone else’s, I suppose.)
The reluctance to spray chemicals everywhere also has its consequences when buying fresh produce. It is not unusual to buy a lettuce and find it crawling with caterpillars or buzzing with bugs, and this is not just from the Bio, or organic section - I imagine one would find a whole menagerie lurking in the Lollo Rosso there! Rather than throwing up their arms in horror and demanding a refund, most Germans would find this reassuring that their salad leaves had been properly raised in a natural ecosystem.
Of course, it is easy to be lulled into a false sense of security and suppose that, as long as we stay away from chemicals and unnatural substances, then we are giving the Germans what they desire. But there are always exceptions to the rule. While paranoid about polluting the environment, many Germans have no such qualms about their own bodies when it comes to smoking. Smoking still bears almost no social stigma here, cigarette vending machines are on every street corner at a height that a four-year-old can reach and even Aldi Süd have capitulated and are now selling cigarettes. At €2.90 for a packet of 19 ‘Giants’ (that is just under £2), there is not much financial motivation for anyone to give up!
Covid has made a little dent into the “germ/ans are good” perception, but other than that, the view on chemicals is just as strong as before.
Plus ca change? Well, not exactly. Remember those £2 ciggies? In your (pipe) dreams. At last, it appears, the tide is turning and we may well be at the fag-end of the great German smoke-fest (to mix more metaphors than is good for me).