The Baumarkt: An expat survival guide to DIY in Germany
I’ve never pretended to be skilful at DIY, and I’ve always had to rely on the professionals to do the job of fixing stuff around the flat. Ok, this is not quite true. When I was in my twenties, and thought I knew everything and could do anything I put my hands to, I tried my fair share of fixing stuff around the flat. More often than not, I ended up failing miserably. I’m even talking about simple things like painting the walls.
Before I embarrass myself further by divulging such stories, I do have to mention the fact that Germans love their DIY. Going to the Home Depot store, known as the Baumarkt, is one of their favourite things to do on a Saturday (in Germany Baumarkt is to Saturday as church is to Sunday).
To me, the experience of going to the Baumarkt is akin to going to the dentist to get my teeth pulled out, or spending my day doing taxes. You get the gist. Let’s start by examining why the Germans love it so much.
German tenancy law: DIY is a-okay
Unlike in Britain, in Germany tenants are allowed to do small cosmetic renovations on their dwelling, provided they return it to its original state when they vacate the premises at the end of their tenancy.
Thus, if you so wish, you could paint the walls black, hang Avant Garde paintings, put up shelves, or even install an entirely new kitchen. Actually, the kitchen is very often a necessity, since a lot of flats do not have them when the tenant first moves in (or floors, or light fittings, for that matter). This is, in fact, the reason many people find themselves at the Baumarkt on a Saturday morning.
Getting started with DIY terminology
In order to qualify for a visit to the Baumarkt, one must first “graduate” from the University of DIY. In other words, if you are foolish enough to think that you can just stroll in, report to the information desk as a complete novice (read, idiot), and have a friendly employee sort you out with everything you need while you pick out wall colours and sip on a chai latte like they do in the adverts – well, to put it mildly – you’re wrong! I’ve made that mistake and had to learn the hard way.
First of all, you have to learn the correct terminology – by which I mean the names of every possible item you might need to complete your task: including, but not limited to, the exact type of plywood you need, and the exact type of appliance you should use with it; the exact type of screw, the exact type of wall and the exact measurements of your walls.
Failure to get these details right will leave you blank-faced as you quickly become overwhelmed by all the terminology that’s being rapid-fired at you. You’ll start to sweat. You’ll stutter. Then you’ll probably mumble something along the lines of, “Oh, I didn’t know,” which will confirm the assistant’s suspicion that you’re a complete idiot.
German customer service: No easy feat
Even if you pass Stage 1 and learn all the necessary terminology like “Hohlraumdübel” or “Federklappdübel”, as well as the exact size of the hole you’re facing and therefore the size of wall plug you need, you are still a long way from “mission complete”. You’ve merely passed to Stage 2.
To complete Stage 2, you need to successfully get a person to help you – and finding an employee in a building as huge as the Baumarkt is about as rare as finding a polar bear in the desert. If you actually manage to locate one, chances are he or she will be busy helping someone else, and your only chance will be to hover awkwardly by them, like a vulture, waiting for the exact moment the other customer finishes and you can pounce on your prey.
You’ll have no more than a split-second to get their attention before someone else does. Even if on the inside you’re screaming, you need to remain calm and, stepping firmly towards them, say, “Entschuldigung” (excuse me) as loudly as you possibly can without shouting.
If you naively believe that standing in their line of sight with a lame smile on your face is going to do the trick – well, my friend, you’ve never experienced German customer service and you’d be just as well off lighting a camp fire right there in the middle of the store to get their attention.
Another novice mistake expats like me often make is trying to stop an employee while they are busy helping somebody else. This will guarantee you the same reaction that you would get if you had just stopped a stranger in the street asking them for money. Best case scenario, they’ll just ignore you. But if you’re not so lucky, they might bark something to the tune of, “Can’t you see I’m with a customer right now!?”
How many Germans does it take to paint a ceiling?
All of this explains why, at some point after countless attempts, I decided DIY was not for me and that the best idea would be to call the landlord and ask them to get things fixed. After all, in the rental agreement, there is a whole list of things that must be fixed by the landlord if they are faulty.
One fine day, I had a visit from the company that was supposed to paint over a tiny part of the ceiling that had had a leak and now needed repainting - a job that would literally take two minutes, done professionally, but I had no desire to get the paint from the Baumarkt myself.
To my amusement, two people turned up. They stood in the bathroom for half an hour, staring at the ceiling. Then, one of them got up on the chair to paint, while the other one stood by with his hand on the chair. He was presumably making sure it didn’t fall, but since the chair only went up to knee height, it was about as useful as propping up a tree.
After one of them had finished painting, I asked if they could fix the same type of problem in the guest toilet, but was summarily rebuffed and told that I would have to make another appointment for that with the office. Marvellous, I thought to myself, perhaps the Baumarkt really is the lesser of two evils.