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On The Joys and Sorrows of Ikea

February 22, 2015

So, this got brushed over at the end of our last post, but I thought some more words needed to be said about this.  Ikea in Germany is, at least from a surficial view, nearly identical to U.S. Ikea.  There are giant stores, blue and yellow everywhere, tags hanging from everything with absolutely meaningless or sometimes so punningly cheesy “Swedglish” that you feel an insatiable urge to find the nearest blue and yellow striped clerk to take your anger out on (I’m looking at you disco light named “Dansa”), giant warehouse areas, Swedish Meatballs, and a near-unending variety of forms into which particleboard has been forced.

There though, the similarities pretty much end.  First, here in Germany it isn’t a question of whether some of the things in a person’s apartment are from Ikea, it is how much of their stuff is from Ikea.  Everyone has stuff from Ikea.  It is the default place to acquire furniture, bedding, glassware, flatware, even kitchens.

Further, you have to remember that a lot of people here don’t have cars.  How exactly are you supposed to get home all this Ikea stuff?  Well, you can get it delivered, which is actually pretty convenient, simple and fast.  But, there is a big breakdown in this brilliant system.  You still have to go and pick all the stuff from the warehouse, bring it to the cashier to pay, and then bring that stuff to the delivery desk.  Which doesn’t sound too hard until you want say, a couch, a couple foot stools, a bed, a mattress, a tv stand, a couple bedside tables, a wardrobe, a stove, an oven (more on those later), a bunch of lights, and a few other random things.  Oh, and your wife is working, so you have to get all this by yourself.  Suddenly you may find yourself attempting to push three overladen carts by yourself while your floppy mattress does its best impression of a petulant child in a shopping cart by trying to pull everything off the shelves and displays you pass.  Funnily enough I wasn’t the only one there with this problem.  The people in the checkout next to me had five carts loaded with enormous bookcases and other things.  I am in the process of patenting a cart-train system which I shall license to Ikea.

But there is something to keep you sane through all this.  Something gloriously Sensible, something typically German.  Along with delicious meatballs (just don’t ask which “meat” said balls are made from), the Ikea cafeteria sells half liter bottles of beer which they encourage you to take with you on your shopping adventures.  This of course would never fly in the U.S. for reasons that escape my understanding.  Oh, and did I mention these beers are €2?  Yeah, inexpensive and plentiful delicious beer really has a way of making almost any situation seem much more manageable.

Ok, so it took three trips to Ikea to get this much stuff.  Admittedly mostly my fault because I can’t make decisions.  But this was only the beginning of the Ikea.  Remember, our apartment came without a kitchen.  So, I needed to design, order, and build one.  Fast.

There are a surprisingly large number of kitchen design and appliance stores in Germany.  This is because it isn’t uncommon for an apartment to come without a kitchen.  Also, German’s think that 10 to 15 years is quite old for a kitchen.  So, when everyone is putting in kitchens every few years it is no surprise there are quite a few options for where to get them.  What is surprising is how many Germans opt for the low, low, low low, lowww end option.  But after you think about it for a bit, it actually makes sense.   In Germany most people live in much smaller spaces than even city dwelling Americans and those spaces are divided very differently from the U.S.

Remember from our “apartment hunting” post that most peoples’ kitchens are in a separate room from the main living area, and down a hallway?  The Germans seem to really like this idea of rooms separated by a hallway.  When you only have 700 or so square feet of living space, these hallways can really eat into your living space and at least in the U.S. would be considered a bit silly.  For example in our new apartment the hallway is over 100 square feet, compared to our 50 square foot kitchen…

So, what does all this have to do with cheap kitchens?  Well, Germans don’t show off their kitchens to guests.  If you are at a German person’s house for dinner you probably won’t even see it.  It isn’t necessarily a public space per se as it is in the U.S.  This is of course changing and younger people are pushing for open kitchens that are permanent and part of the apartment.

The upshot of this all is that there is a lot of competition at the low end and I can go to Ikea and for about €3500 I can buy a kitchen that most Germans would consider, if not upscale, at least nice (and our landlord will buy it from us for at least 50% of the value when we leave).  So that is what I did, after about five more trips.

The kitchen design was pretty well constrained by the geometry of the room.  The biggest issue was along one wall where I was pretty sure everything would work out but it looked like I might have less than 1/2 inch of spare space which was a bit nerve-wracking.  The other big issue was with Ikea itself.  It is surprisingly unclear how exactly you can go about ordering a kitchen from them.  It very much seems like you should be able to order it online.  In fact, on a visit to Ikea to finally nail down and agree on the finish of everything from the counters to handles, an associate told us that we could order our kitchen online.

Naturally that turned out to be lies.  Now, granted, there may have been some language issues.  Alexandra is pretty great at understanding what people are saying and they sure seem to understand her, but we still have issues occasionally.  But you definitely cannot order kitchens on Ikea’s website.  You can order a lot of the parts of a kitchen, but you cannot order cabinet fronts and things like that.

So, after approximately eight visits to Ikea in about two weeks, I finally found an incredibly helpful Ikea clerk who spoke english and was happy to help me through the process.  She was very sympathetic and even got everything organized so that all the cabinetry boxes, the fridge, and basically everything they didn’t have to order from a central warehouse was delivered the next day!

So, last Friday a whole lot of flatpack boxes arrived and I got to work on building a kitchen as my full-time job for a week. In the mean time, we had the important business of continuing to be tourists to get on with.

We decided to rent a car for the weekend, and we used it to go to our friends’ place to pick up free furniture (thanks guys!) and then went to Meißen for the afternoon on Saturday.  Meißen is the historic home of European porcelain.  If you’ve ever seen porcelain with two crossed sabers as the mark on the bottom, this is where it is from.  It is a beautiful old town along the Elbe with a wonderful church up high on a hill overlooking the river and town.  It is filled with old winding alleys and wonderful architecture.  We even found an old barrel vaulted restaurant to have a nice Valentine’s day dinner at.

On Sunday we met up with our friend Aron, who lives in nearby Leipzig, and who came down for the day to go hiking with us.  We drove east toward the Czech border to a region called Sachsich Sweiz, or Sachsen Switzerland in english.  The area lies along the Elbe where it passes through a large sandstone deposit that it has eroded into impressive canyons and rock structures.  The whole area is a wilderness park of sorts.  Amusingly though, there are so many walking paths through the area it can be a bit difficult to find your way as it is confusing when you intersect a new path every few hundred feet.

Eventually we did find our way to a beautiful overlook where we enjoyed a nice lunch including the requisite beer.  On the way down however things got a bit fun as the steps leaned a bit downhill and were packed with snow which had been trampled into ice which of course banked up further to make the steps even steeper and slipperier.  It was exciting as some stretches had perhaps a hundred stairs going straight down a hill without interruption and no handrail.  Thankfully none of us found out just how far you would indeed fall before being able to stop yourself.

On Tuesday the problem of our apartment not having a washing machine finally came to a head when Alexandra ran out of shirts and I ran out of underwear.   She did not think my proposal that she simply wear my shirts and I wear her underwear was a particularly good solution and suggested we buy a washing machine.

Ever on the lookout for a deal, and since we didn’t really want to spend the kinds of money that a new washing machine would cost, we went on which is Germany’s version of craigslist and found a good washing machine for a great price.  There were only two problems.  One, it was about an hour’s drive away, and two, we needed to get a car that would fit a washing machine.

After calling the car rental companies and looking online it seemed by far the cheapest option was something simply titled “van” on  I thought to myself that maybe at worst it would be a transit van or something and booked it figuring we could get them to just give us a wagon when we got to the rental car place.

Well, turns out “van” meant “moving van”.  As in, a 20 foot wheelbase, cab-over, moving truck.  So, Alexandra got to experience driving a manual truck through the tiny streets of east Germany.  She of course did this perfectly even if at one point after we picked up the washing machine we had to turn around in a narrow car park and almost ended up in an Austin Powers-esque situation between two giant boulders.

After an exciting week of cabinetry building and doing laundry, this weekend we went to Leipzig to visit Aron.  We did a bunch of fun sightseeing including the church where Bach was the organist and where his tomb is.  Alexandra found some of the first flowers of spring (how’s that snowpocalypse treating you guys in Michigan?).  Then we found a nostalgia store that only sold goods from old East Germany and was made to look just like it did back then.  We went to a museum which was dedicated to the history of East Germany from the end of WWII up to today which was also very interesting.  Especially seeing the difference between goods, ads, and news in East and West Germany.  We also had dinner at the Auerbach’s Keller, a restaurant that was supposedly one of Johann Goethe’s favorites when he lived there in the late 1700’s and is famously discussed in his play Faust.  Interestingly, this restaurant, which dates back to the early-1500’s is only the second oldest restaurant in Leipzig.

All around a very fun and busy couple weeks.  Hopefully this next week we will get the remainder of the kitchen finished and maybe even get internet access!  Right now we’re relying on the data connections from our cell phones.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Jim Zevalkink permalink
    February 22, 2015 7:59 PM

    Big hello from Connie and Dave Molesta. We are staying in the cottage and enjoying your dads company and getting to know Laura. Things are good! Enjoy your sabbatical.we are jealous

    Sent from my iPad

  2. cbancino permalink
    February 25, 2015 9:44 AM

    This narrative made me laugh!! So entertaining to hear your version of navigating the “conveniences” of Ikea! Thanks for keeping us informed. Miss you guys !

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