Recalling my first experience collecting bottle deposits
In NYC, most people don’t bother collecting bottle deposits. I never did, anyway. What are they worth, five cents? It’s normal to place them in a recycling bin and move on.
In Berlin, it seems like everyone returns their bottles. I’m not even sure how much they are worth (it varies based on the material and size of each bottle,) but their worth doesn’t matter. Most young people are scraping by at least a little bit, so not only is it normal to let the bottles pile up in a corner somewhere until someone can be bothered to return them and collect the Pfand, but not doing so would practically be shameful.
As usual, the two wooden crates in the hallway of our flat are overflowing with bottles (though the ones I’m responsible for have been placed neatly alongside the crates, thank you very much.) It has been like this for a while, and I am sick of looking at them whenever I walk by. I’m hoping that if I ask, my flatmates will take a hint and return their bottles as well, but I haven’t the faintest idea what to do with mine.
“Normally we just take them to the Späti across the street,” my flatmate explains. “Remind me again, how’s your German?”
I snort. “Um. Non-existent?”
“That’s OK. Just take them across the street and say, ‘Pfand back.’”
Google Translate tells me that the word for “back” is züruck, which makes sense. It reminds me of the automated voice on the U-Bahn which announces something that includes the word züruck as the doors are about to close, something which is obviously akin to the MTA's, “Stand clear of the closing doors, please." So, plastic blue IKEA bag full of bottles in tow, and a simple German sentence prepared in my mind, I leave the flat and walk to the Späti.
The woman behind the counter doesn’t look like she is in a great mood, and I’m prepared for her to scoff at my pathetic German request. “Hallo. Pfand züruck, bitte?”
She points to an ice cream freezer over my shoulder, one of the horizontal contraptions with sliding glass doors.
This doesn’t make sense to me. She knows that I don’t want ice cream, right? Could I seriously have butchered three words that badly? “Tut mir leid,” I offer in apology. “I should put them here?” as I point to the freezer.
I am thankful that this didn’t have to be any more awkward of an exchange, and I line the bottles up in rows on top of the glass. Hopefully there aren’t any children who come in here wanting to buy an ice cream, I think to myself.
The woman leaves her post behind the counter, and with lightning speed, rearranges the bottles. There is clearly some method to the madness, but it whizzes right over my head. She points at each bottle, muttering numbers under her breath, and goes back behind the counter. “Alles?”
“Ein und dreißig,” she says, handing me the coins.
It’s just enough for a bottle of fizzy organic lemonade (the raspberry and black currant flavor is my favorite.) I buy one in celebration.