Mom’s Secret Fort is a podcast started by former American Women’s Club of Berlin President, Janel Schermerhorn, during the first week of the COVID-19 lockdown in Berlin, Germany. Janel uses the podcast platform to talk about the many adjustments to daily life with hope and humor, in hopes of building community with listeners that are experiencing the same. This week’s post is the script for episode 3, “Hamster Purchases.”
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By Janel Schermerhorn
Hey out there. If you don’t already know, I’m in lockdown with my family in Berlin, Germany, because of the coronavirus. It’s day fifteen and because we only speak English at home, the longer we’re in this situation, the faster German language is falling out of my head. To be fair, it was barely in there to begin with. I’ve been working on it in fits and starts over the years, but German is no joke. I could spend my whole life just trying to figure out the words a and the and never get it right.
If you don’t know much about German, just know there are multiple versions of a and the and a million rules you have to figure out before you know which version to use. So, while I stand around in a store working out how to ask a question without sounding like a cavewoman, the employee has long gone for a coffee. Of course, what sticks the most are the words and phrases I need in daily life. For example . . . well, let’s just say I can German my way through a bakery just fine.
I’m assuming many of you don’t speak German, so today I thought I’d share a German word that really found its moment leading up to lockdown. I think it’s kind of awesome that a word would even have a moment and long after it’s been around. It’s kind of like in 1984 when Clara Peller became famous at age 81 for yelling, “Where’s the beef” in commercials for Wendy’s hamburgers. God, I love a good ’80s reference.
Anyway, the German word I want to share with you is Hamsterkäufe. It may sound more clear to you if I say “Hamsterkaufe.” Apologies to anyone who is German and is now clawing their ears off at both versions. I know. I’ll get there. For the rest of you, Hamsterkäufe translates to hamster purchases. The Germans are nothing if not a practical people, so most long words are simply two, three, or four short words smashed together. Why make up new words when you can use what’s already there? I love it. If you haven’t figured it out, the reason this word has become part of everyday vernacular is because it refers to hoarding. Picture a hamster stuffing its cheeks full of snacks for later and you’ve got the idea.
So, a few weeks before we went into lockdown, German authorities recommended that we all stock up on a few basics (stock, not hoard, mind you). The idea being that reducing trips to the store, reduces contact, and therefore slows the spread of the virus. I don’t think people understood that there would still be food, so things got out of control quickly. Almost immediately, recommended items were sold out. By now, you’ve probably all seen this where you are and probably for similar items. Here, on any given day, you couldn’t find hand sanitizer, dry pasta, beans, red lentils—but strangely only red. Better to go hungry than eat weird-colored lentils, I guess? What else? Canned fish, rice, and then—this one was probably unique to Germany—no more Nutella. I’m not sure if Germans count Nutella as an essential part of their diet or if it’s just a delicious treat when all else isn’t going well. I’ve had an opened jar in our cupboard for over a year, so I will grant them that it’s shelf stable.
Then, of course, there is the one item that has been all over local and international news. The one thing for which there is no substitute. You probably know what I’m talking about. If not, what’s round and square and has made perfectly nice people say judgy and awful things about other perfectly nice people? Toilet paper. I read somewhere that, because it’s too expensive to store an excess of toilet paper (and there’s never been a need for excess toilet paper), it’s produced almost on demand. So when people start to buy a two-week supply, it disappears right quick. Then of course, when we see it disappear, we conjure an unimaginable image of life without it and lose our nerve to trust that more will come. So here we are, a world brought together by the need for wispy bits of paper to wipe our behinds.
Needless to say, on day one of lockdown, I was immediately nervous about the toilet paper supply, despite having socked some away. My husband and daughter and I agreed we were all going to be careful, but what I thought was a two-week supply has been dwindling rapidly. I’ve been dropping little reminders every couple of days, usually while we’re trapped at the dinner table (yeah, I’ve been a real treat to live with). They swear they are being careful, but it keeps disappearing. Am I the only one taking this seriously? The idea of not having toilet paper has been turning me into a nut. I have imagined them tumbling off long streams of paper to blow their nose or kill a bug. Then a couple of days ago, I caught my daughter Claire red-handed. I walked into the room to find her kicking a brand-new roll of toilet paper between her feet like a hacky sack. When she saw the I’m-about-to-lose-my-S look on my face, she quickly explained that it was an assignment from her PE teacher, then left me to my ranting. What kind of reckless person would instruct children to kick toilet paper at a time like this? It was like he had reached his hand directly into my stores and grabbed a roll. Oh, I was having thoughts.
But then I really thought about Claire’s PE teacher, Mr. Jordan, and what kind of person he is. He has been to our home to share a meal with us. He organized games and choreographed a dance for ten girls for Claire’s birthday party last year. He has invited my daughter to represent her school at multiple sporting events over the last three years and is the reason she got back into sports at all after we moved to Germany. He’s one of my favorites of Claire’s teachers, and the bar for that honor is super high. He’s so committed to keeping these kids active and making it fun, but he knows that not all the kids have somewhere outside they can go to exercise on their own at the moment—and that not all kids have a ball at home—and that all moms of kids who do have a ball at home have a rule to not kick it in the house. So . . . this was his solution. And it was a good one. So what if the toilet paper gets a little dusty.
Mr. Jordan had asked the kids to send in a video of their best attempt, so I loaned my daughter a mini-tripod and told her to go for it. I haven’t said a thing to my family about using too much toilet paper since. It turns out when we’re all at home the whole day, it just goes more quickly. We’re all doing our best and if it runs out, we’ll survive. My friend Sandy said that, once during a mountain guide training course, she learned to use a bandana for three weeks. The same bandana!
I hope all of you have a few rolls of the good stuff around the house.