"Rules are Rules"
Updated: Jun 18, 2020
[Excerpted from my current project, A Jew is Back in Germany]
Renovations are going on now in my apartment building. That’s not against the rules. And although I live on the third floor, every day there are heavyset, cigarette-smoking men walking past my window.
It started with baby steps. I woke up one morning and opened the door leading out to the hallway. At the end of the corridor, I saw a man, dressed in a fluorescent orange suit, scurry and disappear around the corner. The next day I awoke to the sound of hammers. By the end of the week there was almost a symphony of drilling, cutting, sawing, and raucous laughter.
The front desk posted a few notices around the building which informed us that the renovations would be going on until the end of December. Two weeks later, the signs were changed, promising that, at the very latest, the renovations would reach their conclusion at the end of February.
During this period, we did not receive any sort of apologetic language from the administration. But that makes sense. It is total permissible for renovations to occur in a multitenant apartment building. But one day, when I was standing in the middle of my kitchen in my pajamas, three men in fluorescent suits suddenly stormed in. And when I reported this incident to the administration, they apologized profusely. After all, what these men had done was a clear, unambiguous violation of the rules.
One day, when I came back home, after having made my way through the scaffolding, the drilling, the occasional explosion, and a generally testosterone-laden haze, I saw a small note on my bed from the administration. The note read as follows: “It is against the rules of the guesthouse to burn candles in your room. We demand that you cease this activity immediately. Signed, the Administration.”
Yeah, they were right. In the morning, when I do yoga in my room, I like to burn a tea candle or two in order to allow the experience to feel more spiritual. But how could they possibly have known that? Oh, right, of course. The cleaning lady. The cleaning lady, who cleans my apartment every Monday. Okay, it makes sense now. So three men can stand in front of my third-floor window, smoking and laughing together, to the background music of a bulldozer, while I can’t enjoy the calming scent of a vanilla candle in my studio apartment? Yes, correct—rules. I told myself, then, that in the future, I would need to remember to throw out the half-burnt candles, wicks and all, before the cleaning lady would see them and report me.
But one day not too long thereafter I must have forgotten to discard the evidence because, when I went to check my email, a notice from the administration was waiting for me. They warned me again to cease lighting tea candles in my room. I read the letter and sighed. But I could barely hear my own wistful murmuring in light of the bulldozer and jackhammer gleefully shattering earth just outside.
Afterword (Three Months Later)
I stood in the laundry room. I stuffed my damp, washed clothes in the dryer. Suddenly the Head of Administration entered the room.
“It has come to our attention that you are still burning candles in your room.”
Uh-oh. I had been caught. I slowly pulled my clothes out of the washing machine and loaded them into the dryer, peering now and again at the Head of Administration, a guilty, childish smile on my face.
“We have already warned you about this once before.”
“Yeah, I know. I’m really sorr—”
“It’s a security risk for the building. An open flame left unattended could result in a fire.”
“Yep, you’re absolutely correct.”
“If we observe again that you are continuing to burn tea candles in your room, we will need to take further disciplinary action, including the possible termination of your rental contract.”
“Yes, I understand. I’m really sorry.”
“Great. Have a nice day!”
I had the fleeting thought that perhaps I ought to have argued that I needed the candles for religious purposes. (As a matter of fact, I do sometimes light two candles just before the sun goes down on Shabbat.) Today, Germans, in fact, tend to be overeager to allow Jews to practice their bizarre religious customs. But then I thought: “When in Rome.” Perhaps I could learn a thing or two from these strange Nordic people. Perhaps it was time for me to start following the rules.