Germany's messy minority tries to get itself in order

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The Independent Online
GERMANY'S MOST persecuted minority hide behind an answering machine. You leave a message, and wait for the conspiratorial return call. Five days later, at last the phone rings. "You called, Herr Crackers," a woman intones in a soft voice. "We are the Messies."

There is barely enough time to grab a pen. The caller is wrestling with a baby, and her two other small children are making noises in the background. A perfect moment for the interview. Her name is Susanne Herms and she was teacher of English and Religious Studies at a Gottingen grammar school. Now she is at home, and when she has some spare time, she acts as the national co-ordinator for one of the fastest-growing movements in the country "Messies Anonymous".

It is an American organisation, invented by a Florida housewife, which has found fertile soil in Germany. In two years, 40 local groups of "Messies Anonymous" have sprung up, organised - if that is the right word - by 300 contact persons. Ms Herms and her army of anonymous supporters who meet in secret locations share a shameful secret: they are disorganised.

They rally behind the English word "messy" because the German language does not have an equally forgiving equivalent. In their native tongue their crime is Unordnung, the opposite of Ordnung, or order. Ordnung is what all Germans aspire to. To be lacking in Ordnung is akin to being afflicted with bubonic plague.

"This is not a joke," Ms Herms says. "Many people laugh when you miss an appointment or can't find your things. But there are dramatic cases: people whose personal relationships break down because of their Unordnung. If you're not punctual, you can lose your job. And you can lose your friends if you don't dare let them into your house, because you're too messy."

Though you would never believe it, an estimated 10 per cent of Germans suffer from this ailment, and their numbers are rising. Scientists believe disorganisation is an inherited trait, but the erosion of social conventions is also blamed for this increase in aberrant behaviour.

Modernity and loose morals are wreaking havoc. A whole generation of Germans has grown up never having been clipped on the ear for smudging the door handle. Thirty years ago, young Germans protested against their elders by becoming urban guerrillas. Today they defiantly walk around with untied shoe-laces.

As the traditional society unravels, great changes are in store. Soon you may no longer see the women of your neighbourhood sweeping the pavement in front of their houses at 8.25 every morning. There might even be a noticeable decline in car hygiene. Until that happens, though, the disorganised must keep their disability in the closet.

"A lot of people in Germany are successful at work, but they hide their disorganised home life," Ms Herms says. Those who want to come out can go to meetings of "Messies Anonymous", to meet like-minded people and share tips on how to cope.

This being an American movement, there are sure-fire cures, developed by its patron saint, Sandra Felton. She has identified three types of messies: the "hoarder", the "time messy" and the "chaos worker". In the German environment, the second syndrome is the most socially crippling. Once the malady is diagnosed, each sufferer is offered an individual cure.

Britain, for once, is sadly lagging in domesticating this bit of Americana. Despite the obviously higher proportion of slobs residing across the Channel, Ms Felton's book, published 16 years ago, has bombed in Britain. "According to the British publishers, this book doesn't suit the British market," Ms Herms says. "British people who are disorderly seem happy with their lifestyle."

In Germany, of course, the book is selling like hot cakes.

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