Volkskrant Stories From Out of Left Field

In its continual quest for innovation, today EuroSavant reverses the matrix, so to speak. (No, not “Matrix” – there will be no more discussion here of that pseudo-philosophical, black-leather-and-Ray-bans film series). Usually I take a topic and go see what newspapers in a given national press have to say about it. Granted, occasionally it’s just “newspaper.” Today, though, I present you reporting from today’s Volkskrant on a couple of topics – a smoker’s responsibility, a singing trash can – mainly because, as far as I can tell, that paper is alone in staying on top of these vital issues.

To start with: Did you know that, when someone who has smoked two packs of cigarettes a day for most of his life dies prematurely from cancer, that is basically his own damn fault? You can read all about it in Gauloises Home-Free from Lung Cancer.


That proposition seems self-evident, but jurisprudence in the United States has nonetheless often cast doubt on it, opening the way for multi-million-dollar lawsuits brought forth by life-long smokers, outraged at how the tobacco companies could have simply let them carry on, unsuspecting, with their deadly habit for so long. (Most of them were probably also miffed about never getting to be around all those glamorous “beautiful people,” smoking, laughing, and joking in all those high-class locations – you know, like you’re promised all the time in cigarette advertisements.)

But we’re not talking about the United States and, say, Winstons here, we’re talking about France and Gauloises – and a blow being struck for straight European common-sense. The chief attorney for Altadis, the company that makes Gauloises, basically put it that way after the judgment had been handed down. (The smoker at the center of the dispute, one Richard Gourlain, wasn’t around to provide his comments, having already died in the late 1990s.)

However, that judgment was issued by the Cour de Cassation, France’s highest court of appeal. That makes it definitive, i.e. not able to be overruled further, but it’s remarkable that the case (pursued in recent years by Gourlain’s family) went as far as it did. He was only thirteen when he started to smoke two packs of cigarettes a day, and by the time he was 38 had come down with cancer of the throat and tongue. A lower French court did rule in 1999 (by which time Gourlain was no longer around) that the manufacturer could be held liable for the deficient provision of information to this smoker about the health effects of its products. But the highest court has now put a stop to all this, noting that neither the death of a close relative (a smoker) from lung cancer in 1980 nor his own diagnosis of cancer in 1988 had put any dent in his cigarette habit.


So all the blame is on himself, then? Not quite; the Cour de Cassation in its ruling also pointed its finger at the French government, which in the ’60s and ’70s let the Finance Ministry overrule the Health Ministry against the placing of health warnings on cigarette packs. (Now, how effective those are, even in the language of Flaubert, is another matter.) Finance needed that cigarette-tax money, you see, and also didn’t want to watch cigarette makers being driven out of business. One wonders where the economist was from the École Nationale d’Administration – France’s most prestigious institution of higher education, the vast majority of whose graduates go into government – who could have explained that, since demand for cigarettes is inelastic, at least in the short-run (it’s hard to really respond to price-rises), the French government’s recent policy of drastically raising its taxes on cigarettes was actually the correct way to proceed if tax revenue was the goal. French governments don’t even have the excuse of wanting to protect the income of tobacco-growers.


Anyway, we can move on to something a bit more German, but nevertheless a bit more cheery. But Berliners have always diverged in one way or another from the standard German stereotype. As the Volkskrant explains, in Berlin Employs Singing Trashcans Against Untidiness and Melancholy, the German capital has in recent years considerably raised the profile of municipal garbagemen, employed in the Berliner Stadtsreinigung (BSR – the sanitation department, basically) by fielding garbage cans with a certain artificial but very winning intelligence. They can detect when someone is passing by, and pipe up with “Got something for me? I’m hungry!”

(Most of them say this in German, although some cans in heavily-touristed areas are set up to speak other languages. I just hope that the Berlin city government was willing to spend the money to do this sort of thing right, and hired native-speakers for the recordings. I don’t think a heavily-accented garbage can, sounding like Colonel Klink and barking out “I’m hungry!” is going to do much for the BSR’s public relations. “Ve haf vays to make you surrender your rubbish!”)

Contribute a bit of trash and you’re rewarded with munching sounds and a “Danke Schön!” (No burp? These cans are obviously made of well-tempered steel indeed!) And yes, the more-advanced among them are even programmed to sing, slyly flashing a string of green lights around their trash-opening to attract an audience before breaking out in song. (How about “Throw That Beat in the Garbage Can,” by the B-52’s?) Hidden cameras used to observe test-models indicate that this sort of behavior tends to attract a surprised and amused crowd.


It’s all part of a larger campaign, four years old now, by the Berlin city government to raise the BSR’s profile and so forge a “partnership” between the garbagemen and citizens (and visitors), so that the latter do their part by throwing less trash out in public in the first place. And it hasn’t stopped there; no, in an effort to put names and faces behind the ordinarily-anonymous sanitation workers, the city regularly features them in posters put up all over Berlin. They’re always in their trademark-orange sanitation overalls (which, the Volkskrant reports, even enjoyed cult status for a while at the yearly Love Parade – reported in €S here, but back then I wasn’t yet au courant about the cool garbagemen), and embodying some joke or funny theme that passers-by can’t refuse (get it?) – like “Men in Orange” (like the movie, versions I and II, with the similar-sounding name – get it?). Or, in English, “We kehr for you!” – kehren being German for “sweep, clean up.” Get it?

Is it all working? It’s still hard to say, the newspaper reports. But it does seem that Dutch visitors – who, at least historically, are the ones who should know – are finding Berlin to be much cleaner these days.

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