Germans: We don’t need no stinkin’ apartment numbers

It never really dawned on me that the Germans don’t use apartment numbers – until I lived in a German apartment house. The only way the postal carrier (Postbote/Postbotin) can deliver mail to the correct apartment in even a large apartment complex is by the last name on the mailbox. In my case, not even my own last name, but that of the people I was subletting the apartment from. And my apartment complex in Berlin even had a Hinterhaus, another building facing a courtyard behind the front building, and all of them were five stories high. Yet the only numbers in sight were for the floors.

My first reaction to the lack of apartment numbers (Wohnungsnummern) was, “How ridiculous is that?” But then I remembered that the Japanese don’t even have street names in most of their cities (except in Kyoto and Sapporo). They use block section numbers in a confusing (to us Occidentals) address system that makes the Germans look like the height of logic and reason. The Japanese also write a postal address in the reverse order of most of the world: starting with the geographic location and ending with the name of the recipient.

But back to Germany and the Germans. Apparently they are alone, even in the German-speaking world, in their non-use of apartment numbers. The Austrians and the Swiss do use them. The Austrians even have a special abbreviation for apartment numbers: TOP. It comes from the Greek topos, meaning location. (Don’t ask me to explain why they chose Greek. That remains a mystery.) So an Austrian address with an apartment number may look like this:

Mozartgasse 15/2/TOP 9 or just
Mozartgasse 15/2/9 (without the “TOP”)

The 15 is the house number (which in German-speaking countries comes after the street name, not before it, as in French and English), the 2 is the staircase (Stiege) or wing of the apartment complex (if there is more than one) and the 9 is the apartment (or door) number. Each number is separated by a slash mark. (In the rare case of apartment numbers, the German postal system, recommends a double slash, as in: Musterstr. 795 // W 34. The “W” stands for Wohnung, in this case, apartment 34 in the building with the house number 795 on Musterstraße (“Example Street”).

The Swiss recommend apartment numbers in buildings with more than four apartments per floor. Beginning in 2006, with the 2010 census in mind, the Swiss began pushing the use of apartment numbers all across rather decentralized Switzerland. They even suggest a numbering system like that used in the US: apartments 101, 102, 103, etc. for the (European) first floor, 201, 202, 203, etc. for the second floor, and so on. The ground floor (Parterre) uses just 1, 2, 3, etc., while basement or lower-level apartments begin with 99: 9901, 99102, 99103, etc. Very logical, those Swiss.

But that brings us to yet another cultural difference in street addresses: the way house numbers are assigned. As anyone who has lived in Germany knows, house numbers go simply 1, 2, 3, 4, and so on. (In the US, such low digits, especially “one,” are reserved almost exclusively for big businesses, such as the international concern located at 1 Infinite Loop in Cupertino, California.) Seldom do you see a German house number with more than two digits. Numbers over 100 are rare. (Cologne seems to be the lone exception in Germany. For historical reasons – i.e., French invaders – Köln has some addresses with four digits, as in: Venloer Straße 1503 or Aachener Straße 1420. Cologne also has one of Germany’s most famous addresses: Glockengasse 4711, which lent its number to the well-known “4711” brand of eau de Cologne, or Kölnischwasser.)

But anyone who has lived in Germany also knows that the way German house numbers are assigned on a street is not always so straightforward. Yes, you will find streets or districts with the even numbers on one side of the street, and the odd ones on the other side. But, again for historical reasons, in former Prussia (and especially in Berlin) there is another numbering system, known as the “Hufeisen” (“horseshoe”) scheme, in which houses are numbered consecutively down one side of a street all the way to the end, and then back down the other side. (Also known as the “clockwise” or “ox-turning” scheme, at one time this system was used in England as well. 10 Downing Street in London is located right next to 11 Downing.) Addresses under this older U-shaped, or horseshoe system were not changed when the more modern odd/even scheme was introduced. That can make some German addresses maddeningly difficult to find.

But even in the US, notably in Utah and Wisconsin, there are non-standard ways of doing house numbers and addresses. In Salt Lake City you’ll find addresses such as “228 N 3300 W” – where 228 N is the house number, and “3300 W” is actually the street name. Grid systems with numbered streets are common in the US, but using numbers for a street name is not even a German concept!* Apparently, it’s the same with apartment numbers.

So, when in Rome, do as the Romans. (“Andere Länder, andere Sitten.”) Accept it, and just be glad you’re not in Japan! But make sure your name is on the apartment mail box!

*As always, there is one exception in Germany. As in Japan, the Quadrate sections of Mannheim’s city center (labeled A through U) have no street names. The Quadrate date back to 1684. Addresses are given by using a coordinate system in which an address may appear as F2, 13, as on a chess board (64 squares; Mannheim’s Quadrate have 144). One German author claimed that explaining the Mannheim Quadrate system was much more complicated than trying to explain the game of cricket to someone who had never even seen the game. For more, see Quadratestadt (Wikipedia, in German).

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