Frankly … social A Topical Comedy

What do you do if the heating doesn’t reach your flat at the top of the building? After consulting the caretaker, Maximilian Buddenbohm mulls the matter… and considers asking his downstairs neighbours to share some of their heat.

By Maximilian Buddenbohm

A man in a cap and scarf works at a desk Freezing at the Desk | Photo (detail): Mark Dyball; © mauritius images / Alamy Stock Photos
I’m typing this with frigid fingers because we can’t get the room temperature here any higher than a nippy 18 degrees. And that’s only with a bit of luck when the meagre winter sunshine warms up the south side of the building a little. Sometimes, on grey, rainy or foggy winter days, it’s only 17 degrees here. I know people disagree, sometimes considerably, on the ideal room temperature, but I find 17 or 18 degrees a bit chilly when you’re just sitting there at your computer. Even with thermal underwear on and a cup of hot tea, it still feels chilly. Sitting there for hours typing away won’t warm you up. Yes, of course I could get up and do a few knee bends or something like that every now and again... but then you don’t. At least I don’t. And that would only help for a little while anyway, I figure.

Last in line for central heating 

The chill in our flat is not an upshot of the policy of grim frugality adopted in early autumn owing to the international political situation, inflation and soaring energy prices. The actual causes are of a more mundane, technical nature, as our building’s caretaker has just explained to us. We finally ended up calling him up because the central heating was only keeping us about as warm as a cup of tea does that’s been sitting on your desk for half an hour and has long since stopped steaming. It’s getting colder and colder outside, it’ll soon be Christmas, the dead of winter, maybe with snow and ice, so we figured we’d better sort this out now.

Our flat is last in line, the last one to be reached by the central heating, the caretaker explained to us after laying a hand on the lukewarm radiator. And since the thermostat for the whole system got turned down considerably weeks ago, on account of the energy crisis, needless to say – at which point the caretaker gave us a questioning look, as if to make sure we were au courant – yes, we nodded, we’ve heard about that. Anyway, the caretaker resumed, it’s on account of resetting the central heating thermostat that not enough heat is making it this far upstairs anymore. He explained all this with that “here’s-the-story” look on his face with which people in technical professions tend to explain stuff they consider dead simple to us know-nothing laypeople.

The heat stays downstairs

The more the downstairs neighbours heat their homes, he went on to explain, the less warm it gets at our place. They use up all the heat before it can make its way upstairs. The heating system is old, way too old, and it can’t do what it’s supposed to under the circumstances. I have to credit everything the caretaker says because I don’t know a thing about technical matters. If the neighbours heated a little less, he suggested, our flat would be warmer. We could always take it up with them … I didn’t immediately get whether he was kidding about that or not.

It was an intriguing idea, though, that’s for sure. I could go round to the other eleven parties in the building asking them to turn down their radiators a little, pointing out that we’re freezing up here the whole time. Would it be any use? I tried to imagine the ensuing conversations: the neighbours standing there in the doorways of their well-heated apartments, peering at me quizzically, wondering whether I’d taken leave of my senses. And whether they could seriously be expected to sacrifice one degree of their room temperature for their neighbours. I imagined ringing the bell and being kindly invited in by at least some of them, whereupon I would immediately exclaim, “Oh, how nice and warm it is here!” I guess that’s what you call cutting to the chase.

“My name’s Buddenbohm and I’m cold”

I assume the neighbours have doubtless already given some thought to their finances, their soaring utility bills and their thermal comfort, and have already made up their minds as to how much to heat their homes. Just about everyone in Germany, if not all of Europe, must have thought this one through by now: How much heat do we want and how much can we afford this winter, in which room and at what hours of the day or night? And then this upstairs neighbour just barges in and says he wants a degree or two of our room temperature.

I should add that, as is often the case in big cities, especially in northern Germany, I don’t know most of the folks in my building. We don’t stand around gabbing with others, not in the stairwell either. We tend to be on nodding terms at best, silently acknowledging their existence. So I’d have to introduce myself first: “My name’s Buddenbohm and I’m cold.” I imagine some rather theatrical scenes that would make for a good comedy – and a very topical one at that. Just around the corner from here is the Ohnsorg Theatre, which puts on plays in Niederdeutsch, the Low German dialect. They’re usually humoristic, so this ought to be right up their alley. Then I thought about it some more. Are theatres still heated these days? Is it nice and warm in there?

I went on to imagine how all my neighbours, after I’d briefly explained the problem, would reassuringly nod, “Yeah, sure” – and then do nothing about it. Of course they won’t do anything about it! I pictured them in the evening, after work, telling their partners that the upstairs neighbour had dropped in with a really wacky request. What a weird dude.

Better off not talking to the neighbours

So, no, I definitely don’t want to talk to our neighbours about their heating and our freezing. I want the caretaker to come up with a quick fix, to tweak the system somehow for me. I don’t know exactly what he should do, I don’t even want to know, the details don’t interest me at all. He should just do what caretakers do. Or maybe the building’s management or owner should do something, maybe that’s their job, maybe they have to order or decide or buy something first. Whatever, whoever – I don’t care. The point is someone else should fix it. Not me.

Am I not entitled to 19 degrees at the very least, if not more? I’d be perfectly happy with one or two degrees more. I could of course look into what exactly the law has to say about this state of affairs, but what’s the point? Shouldn’t the heating simply be shared more equitably in the building, and shouldn’t someone should see to that? Because it’s a no-brainer, an open-and-shut case, no need to puzzle it out. 

And come to think of it, why does everything that’s going on seem like a parable to me lately?

I’m going to mull the matter some more, maybe over a steaming hot cup of tea.

“Frankly …”

On an alternating basis each week, our “Frankly ...” column series is written by Maximilian Buddenbohm, Susi Bumms and Sineb El Masrar. In “Frankly ... social”, Maximilian Buddenbohm reports on the big picture – society as a whole – and on its smallest units: family, friendships, relationships.