I just acquired the most beautiful new German word. We are discussing privilege and a new acquaintance says he has to do something ehrenamtlich – oh, how divine, can ‘ehrenamtlich’ mean ‘voluntary’? An ‘Amt’ is a bureau, government department or office. But ‘Ehre’ means honour.
Germany is overrun with Amts. Ordinarily they sound faintly menacing: the Ordnungsamt, Department of Order, takes care of ticketing people’s unlicensed dogs, illegal parking &c: a histrionic graffito in the local drug park screeches, in orange, Ordungsamt = Terror!!. Online I find a website called Ehrenamt Deutschland, which offers a definition: honourable offices can be anything which is performed “freiwillig, gemeinwohlorientiert und unentgeltlich,” that is, anything that is pursued of one’s own free will, is oriented towards the common good, and is unpaid. The formality makes it sound almost stultifying but there is all this generosity and warmth beating away underneath.
As Australia turns itself into a vast gulag for imprisoning children, and other countries up and down the escape corridor into Europe close and razor wire their borders, Berliners are opening refugee cafes, holding garage sales and donating food, organising ‘Asylum Seeker Airbnb’ to help match people’s spare rooms with exhausted new arrivals. I find it so moving to think that by teaching German once a week in the giant refugee camp that was once the old Tempelhof airport, this Berliner becomes part of the Department of Honour.