Samariter Doner Has No Toothpicks

After three months in Europe I still cannot reliably figure out how to operate a door properly. The rules around swing direction are different. The locks feel and operate differently. Levers are preferred to knobs. Polite as I try to be, I never seem be able to correctly ascertain who's supposed to go through first when people converge. You could say that I suffer from a provincialism of doors.

The doors here also look different. I lack a concise thesis on the aesthetics of Northern European doors, or an overarching theory on divergence of design principles of doors and locks, but they are neat. The small differences act as a mental laxative. They've helped keep me in a child's-mind state of wonder during my current expatriation. I see this in the kids as well, and I know that it's a mode of consciousness that we'll carry with us when we return to US.

 Enemy Mine

Enemy Mine

This is the door to the AirBnB that I'm calling home for the week. It is very pretty. The knob on the outside is inert. It is actually a dead handle. I foresaw upon my arrival that this portal would emerge as a formidable foe.

I misplace things.

My ability to recollect the random places where I drop shit is near zero. I've worked on mental checklists to make sure I have all the things, but these get disrupted when you're out of routine. I also didn't carry keys with me for 6 years.

I really really really did not want to get locked out of this flat. For 4 days I studiously kept the keys inside the lock while I was inside the apartment to ensure that I would not misplace them.


Friedrichshain is asleep, but not me. Great time for a short walk, clear the head and such. I won't be out long, I don't even need my varm jacka. (Thanks to Berlitz and the cold climate, 50% of the Swedish words I know mean "warm jacket".)


I sit on the staircase and ponder my next move. Every hundred seconds the lights go out. Every hundred and five seconds or so I push the button to get 100 more seconds of light. I am not sure how this is helping.

With no small degree of pessimism I use the AirBnB app to message my host. A minute later she replies, noting that she had forgotten to silence her phone. I hop on my [rented] bike and head down to where she's staying to pick up an extra key. The lobby and stairwell of her BF's building are strangely identical to the one in hers, where I'm staying. It's cold on the bike and the bumpy vibrations of the cobblestone streets add to the shiveriness, but salvation and warmth are both in sight.

Back to the place. Up the steps. Key in the lock. Won't go in all the way. The other key is on the other side, safely tucked in where it's needed. Is this now a problem? Apparently.


Try shimmying the key in all the way, then forcing it. Try to make it turn. Try not to bend it. Attempt to stick my Swedish library card into the door jamb. Bibliotek has the best thinness/rigidity ratio of all the cards in my wallet. No matter. It can't get in where it needs to go. Really, I never understood how you could possibly move a latch bolt with a credit card through a tiny crack anyway. An internalized Hollywood myth.

I come to think that I could utilize something like a bobby pin or a tiny allen wrench to dislodge the inside key from the outside with just the right push. Acquiring one of these items seems unlikely. Maybe the open-late doner place on the corner has a toothpick, and maybe I won't break the toothpick inside the lock.

Samariter Doner Has No Toothpicks.

They do have plastic coffee stirrers which are about 6mm (1/4 inch) wide, but look to be thin enough to shimmy into the keyhole. This approach proves ineffective. The stirrer does crack inside the lock, but I am able eventually to pry out the stub with some effort.

2AM-ish. Back to the bike, in hopes of stumbling upon a locksmith or a hotel. Conveniently, I find both, directly across the street from one another. This may be the closest I will get to experiencing the emotions of Roald Amundsen.

I decide not to call the locksmith's service number in the middle of the night. The hotel is fully booked, but one guest has not yet arrived. The night man suggests I try again in an hour.

It is cold

and everything is closed. I find an old-man bar on a side street with two customers, but 3 or 4 hours here seems untenable even if they're not closing. Using Google Maps I take the tour of area hotels and hostels, and find that they are all either full or more depressing than I am desperate. 

Morning does come, and Locksmith Adam meets me at the apartment. His attack strategy is brilliant and simple. He executes gracefully, with the effortless aura of an athlete in top form. An angle nose pliers is used to remove the peephole. The enemy front pierced, a 3rd-hand gadget penetrates the apartment to remove the key from the inside of the lock. This all takes less than 100 seconds. In.

Attitude of Gratitude

In closing, please allow me to express a moment of acknowledgement for all of the great things that helped resolve this minor mishap.

  • Google Maps: For helping me find schlossern and hotels in a strange city in the middle of the night.
  • Google Translate: For helping me figure out the signage at the schlosserns, so I could know who didn't do service calls at all, and who only did service calls on Thursdays. Google, I'm sorry the EU is hassling you these days. You have made the Star Trek Universal Translator a real thing. We always hurts the ones we need the most.
  • Bicycles: For providing human scale transportation, for exploratory and practical needs.
  • Good cities: I'm sure that someone like Jane Jacobs or E.F Schumacher has already expressed this better than I ever will, but from Stockholm to Barcelona to Berlin, every city has been a livable, human place where you'd want to be to enjoy life, deal with little problems, and ride a bike everywhere. Last night would have been significantly more miserable in NYC, SF, or Rhinecliff. For the most part, we have completely lost the thread on cities and shelter in the US.

Off to sleep!