In Berlin, nobody does shopping on Sunday. You literally cannot go to a shop because it will be closed. This simple fact means that in Berlin, Monday to Saturday is for turning the wheels of capitalism. But Sunday? That is reserved for recuperation. Because, you know, capitalism is quite a piece of work.
What is wonderful about the Berliner and broader German pace of life is that it forces people to do something else with their time once a week.
Like most people who moved to Berlin from a non-German speaking country, I was initially in disbelief.
I was confused and then indignant when, on our first Sunday in Berlin, I realised that the two supermarkets that were within walking distance from our apartment were closed. Where were we supposed to get groceries? In Singapore and many other big cities, Sunday is exactly when people go to do their groceries shopping!
I soon found out that most shops close on Sundays in Berlin. The only exceptions are pharmacies, petrol stations, and some shops at the Bahnhöfe (train stations) and airports.
That means no going to IKEA to browse for a new chair, to the bookstore to buy a new book, or even to buy a tube of toothpaste if you had just run out. The handful of shops that stay open on Sunday are restaurants, cafes and bakeries, and they usually close by the afternoon.
That first Sunday was enough to force us to start trying to acclimate to this new lifestyle where shopping on Sunday is impossible. I got over the shock and embraced this cultural difference as my own. We started going to IKEA, the bookstore, and the supermarket on Saturday instead of Sunday. A few months later, we were acclimated.
And now, after a year, I have come to love this aspect of life in Germany. It is a hassle, sure, but many more benefits come from a weekly, quiet Sunday other than convenience.
I have had so much more time for myself since coming to Berlin because I no longer plan to go buy something on Sundays.
So while on a typical Sunday in Singapore I would go to the neighbourhood mall to buy my groceries in the supermarket, in Berlin I would not step foot into a mall at all.
It makes a big difference psychologically to not step into a place designed to maximise consumerism in any given day. You look inwards to yourself and to the people you live with.
I counted - I have resided in Berlin for 56 weeks. In the past 56 Sundays, I have used my not-shopping time to: take long walks in public parks and recalibrate in nature, write and publish a weekly article on this site, write my journal, care for my houseplants, repair my leaking washing machine twice, work on a couple of new side projects like my upcoming newsletter, clean up the house, read books, hang out with friends in Berlin, cook elaborate meals, bake new cakes, text and video call friends, and play frisbee in the park, to name some of the more common things.
Also, I am writing this article on a Sunday morning. I wrote in the wee hours of the morning, went for a run (yes, in winter!) with a fellow Singaporean who recently moved to Berlin, took a hot shower, made lunch at home, and edited the article by mid-noon.
In general, I have found much more time every week to do physical, psychological, and spiritual maintenance because I am free on Sundays.
I am free. On. Sundays. Once a week, the perfect pace. Harmonised with the rhythm of modern society. Thank god it’s Sunday.
And all this goodness? They come mostly at no additional cost to me. I am spending less money than I did because for 1/7 of every week, I am not shopping. Spending less money means needing to stress less about earning more money. We buy with time, not money.
Okay, but you might be thinking, what is the economic impact of such a law? What would happen to the economy if the shops were to be closed on Sundays? Also, aren’t people going to have less work?
Well, Germany closes shop on Sundays, yet remains the economic powerhouse of Europe producing and selling BMWs, Volkswagens, Porsches, and soon Teslas, vaccines for COVID-19, and many of the world’s cutting-edge machinery.
We need not worry about the economy collapsing. The numbers are running, powered by a knowledge-based workforce that adds significant value to the global economy. It is the case in Germany as it is in Singapore.
I was curious about how things came to be the way it is in Germany, so I did some research. This German way of organising weekly life began more than 50 years ago with the Ladenschlussgesetz, or Store Closing Act, in response to the demands of Germany’s trade unions. It came about as a way to ensure that all workers are assured a day to rest and to continue to be economically productive.
Piece of work.
The earliest enactment of this idea as law, keeping Sunday as a lawful rest day, goes way back to the Roman emperor Constantine the Great in 321 AD in Codex Justinianus, the Roman law codex:
On the venerable Day of the Sun let the magistrates and people residing in cities rest, and let all workshops be closed.
And the idea has since taken root in Canada, the US, Norway, and other German-speaking countries like Austria and Switzerland. These are broadly referred to as Blue laws. It’s a thing.
In Germany since the Ladenschlussgesetz 50 years ago, despite a 2006 Föderalismusreform (Federalism reform) that let states regulate their opening hours, all states have stuck to the “close shops on Sunday” rule, liberalising only the operating hours on the other 6 days of the week.
Old habits die hard? Or is this the wisdom to not fix what does not need fixing in action?
I was at ease in Singapore because I spoke the language and was part of the culture, but I was often quite wound-up because of the pace of life.
Here, like the Berliners, I am less exhausted and more relaxed. These true restful Sundays have helped me to systematically pause every week to heal my mind, body, and soul.
I think there are many intangible benefits for society when its people have more free time:
- It democratises the “good life” to all, not just those who can afford to buy more things or to take leave from work
- It creates more time for cultural activities because people have more time to patronise events and stay around to chit chat
- It bonds families because they spend more time together
- It reduces the need to escape on a holiday because life is already enjoyable
- It helps our children grow up with work-life balance built into their lives
I have had the great privilege of working with people from all over the world and here is one thing I have observed: almost all Europeans I know appear calmer and less tired than Singaporeans. When I was in Finland for a 3-week business trip in 2019, for example, I noticed how I was the only one ever running in our Helsinki office.
I think it is wonderful that we have shopping malls at every corner in Singapore. It makes life interesting and convenient. But this achievement also brings with it a curse.
Shopping is theatrical. We dress up to go to the mall to buy new clothes to then dress up to go to the mall again. It is a hamster wheel and we are the tired hamsters running, only ever stopping to sip water and swallow food.
And it’s particularly problematic that many of our supermarkets are inside shopping malls. It is as though we have willingly handed our freewill over to Capitalism (CapitaLand?) to molest.
We must be cautious of the Diderot Effect at play. Denis Diderot was a French philosopher who was too poor to even provide a dowry for his daughter’s wedding. But in 1765, he sold his Encyclopédie to Catherine the Great, the Empress of Russia, for £1,000 and was suddenly rich. With his newfound wealth, he bought an expensive scarlet robe. From that day, he made more and more purchases because there was “no more coordination, no more unity, no more beauty” between his beautiful robe and the rest of his possessions.
“Love people, use things. The opposite never works.” Joshua Millburn, a minimalist
I sometimes think that Singaporeans (including me) are like little Diderot’s. Singapore went from fishing port to global financial and tourism hub in less than 50 years. Our minds might not have caught up with the reality of what we have lost yet.
When do we stop, rest, and enjoy the fruits of our labour?