Saturday, 12 February 2011

Schornsteinfeger - Chimneysweeps

Today we had a visit from the Schornsteinfeger, that is, the chimney-sweep.

By law, in Germany you have to have your chimney cleaned and your heating system inspected twice a year by a Land designated chimney sweep. And you have to pay for it of course.

You don't need to make an appointment, they will make it with you. On the whole this is a good thing - you don't want to suffer from carbon monoxide poisoning from a poorly ventilated heating system, and you wouldn't want a build up of soot to cause a chimney fire. The history is of the risk of whole towns of wooden-framed buildings burning down because of one house catching fire. If only the Pudding Lane bakery in London had had such inspections then the Great Fire of London might not have happened. And then we wouldn't have had Christopher Wren's magnificent buildings in the rebuild, so swings and roundabouts.

In other German towns in past times the regulations were even stricter, and householders had to legally have leather-bellow fire extinguishers on hand in case of fire.

In the UK chimney sweeps are supposedly considered lucky, especially so at weddings, though I have never been to one where a sweep has been present. The media representation of a sweep bringing luck is in the film 'Mary Poppins', and the chim-chiminy.chim-chiminy sweep played by Dick Van Dyke with his peculiar Cockney/Hungarian accent.

In Germany the superstition of a chimney sweep bringing luck is much more prevalent, with table decorations in Kneipen and restaurants of ladders and chimney-sweeps climbing up the foliage at New Year. Other symbols of good luck in Germany, especially at New Year again, and on  birthdays, are four-leaved clovers, ladybirds, and pigs (Glücksschwein). Why? Keine Ahnung!

Sweeps in the past have also had a bad reputation; in the Nazi era their statutory right to enter anybody's house allowed them to collect evidence of un-patriotic anti-National Socialist sentiments. This continued after the war in DDR times when they were often Stasi Mitarbeiter, spying on anti-communist dissident activity.

Unfortunately black kids in Germany were also compared to chimney sweeps in a negative way; a school-yard chant would be 'Neger, Neger, Schornsteinfeger!' because, duh, a sweeps' skin is sooty black. The experience of a black kid growing up in Nazi Germany who suffered these taunts resulted in the autobiographical book by Hans Jürgen Massaquoi, and subsequent film, which are well worth reading / watching. See 'Neger, Neger, Schorsteinfeger'.

An engaging aspect of the chimney sweep tradition in Germany is that they often still dress in traditional top-hat and buttoned-up jacket. They might also become Journeymen after their apprenticeship has finished, travelling on foot with other newly professional former-apprentices across Europe dressed in their traditional gear. This tradition by the way gave us the Australian term 'swagman': so now you know what he was doing by the billabong with Mathilda!

The visit from the chimney sweep might cost us a few tens of Euros, and might seem like the state regulating where it doesn't need to in this day and age, but for the peace of mind of not worrying my boiler or wood fire is poisoning us or about to catch fire, I think it is worth keeping. And if it brings us luck, all the better! (we need a bit after the past year).

This photo is not by me - please contact me if you are the photographer or model and wish me to remove it.
Good though, innit?

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