We are supposed to leave at 5, so I come downstairs with my hair brushed, earrings and bracelets on and as much of the blueberry juice washed off my hands and arms as I could manage at 4:55. But Ronja and Franzi are still in front of the computer, watching videos that have something to do with hair styling, and Silke and Martin are nowhere to be found. We’re going to a party tonight, something that is more traditional and interesting, as Silke described it, at the church.
Out the front window I see Martin, pulling from the back of his car the crate of 4 week old chicks which he said yesterday he was buying, making Silke laugh exasperatedly. There are already 25 chickens on the farm, and they’re only laying 3-4 eggs a day, in total.
“Industry chickens.” Martin scoffs, scowling down at them pecking and clucking away in the grass. “They only lay eggs with industry food. I must slaughter them all and get new, old breed chickens.”
Martin sees me watching and waves me outside. “I will mow some grass for the goats now. You would like to collect it, please?” So I pull my hair back off my neck and follow him with the wheelbarrow, moving the grass into the goat’s pen for the next 45 minutes, not feeling so clean and fresh anymore.
When we finally get into the car, the girls are all in traditional Bavarian dresses (the female version of lederhosen, with embroidered aprons and corsets tied with colorful ribbons) and their hair is braided in wreaths atop their heads, flowers woven through.
“Wow!” I said to Ronja, the only one of the girls who speaks to me eagerly “You look great!”
She beams, throwing her modern purse over her shoulder and flattening her bright green apron.
“No lederhosen for you Martin?” I ask, a touch of sarcasm in my voice. I know him well enough now to know this is a ridiculous proposition.
He rolls his eyes. “This is all silly. I don’t want to pay for the expensive beer when I have work to do at home.” Silke slaps his leg gently.
“Is it a special holiday?” I ask, we’re driving now, through the intermittent mossy forests and bright corn fields, up and down the rolling hills to Amberg.
“It is the – howdoyousay – birthday?” I nod encouragingly, yes this makes sense, “of the church,” Silke says. “This is a very popular tradition in Bavaria. All of the villages celebrate, but this is one of the biggest parties in the region. In the smaller villages, all of the people are in the traditional clothes, also, but at this one, only the children.”
We drive about 10 kilometers past Amberg to Sulzbach-Rosenburg, Silke’s hometown. This is the church she was baptized in, she tells me, not the church they attend now, but it is her church, so they go. As we walk up, we see her father and her sister, waiting for us. Everyone laughs softly as they hug stiffly, in a German sort of way. “We are always late,” Silke says.
The party feels like a mix between a county fair and a Renaissance Festival in the states. There are hundreds and hundreds of people, parking in a wide opened field. The church is on top of a hill and would maybe only seat about 150, very squished in. All around the church are small stalls with delicious smelling smoking pouring from chimneys, selling wursts, kraut, pretzels, ice cream, candy, pizza, and huge beer gardens, steins holding at least 4 American beer bottles clicking in the air and shouts of “Prost!” all around.
We sit with Silke’s mother and nieces and nephews, Martins friends come quickly and join us. We order beer and food. One of Martin’s friends looks my way and asks him something as he points to me. “Katy,” Martin says, and they begin a conversation, looking at me sideways and saying indistinguishable words with “Katy” thrown in the mix. I don’t know if I should be acting like I know what they are talking about or look away politely like I have no idea what’s going on. I opt for looking down at my beer and drinking another long gulp, then ripping a piece of pretzel and some cheese dip.
Something I’ve noticed about being the only one at a party who cannot speak the language at all: you just keep eating and drinking when you have nothing, not even listening, to distract you.
I ask Silke how old the church is, and she thinks about it for a minute, then shrugs and asks her father in German. He shrugs and she asks her mother, who shrugs. Silke says “It’s not such an important birthday as 200 or 500 years. No one knows.” From across the table Martin says “Older than the US!” which I am certain is true. Slike’s mom produces a huge bag of sweets suddenly, marshmallows dipped in chocolate, caramel corn and suckers for the children and no one cares any more how old the church is. It’s just a birthday, which is what counts.
Ronja and her cousins skip by in their bright outfits, flowers in their braids beginning to wilt in the hot sun and ask me if I want to go and see the church now. I’m about to stand up when the server brings me another beer and Ronja shrugs and runs away.
“I’m glad she likes you,” Silke says. “She doesn’t like all the WWOOFers and it’s not so good when she doesn’t like them.” This makes me feel so relieved, just as when Martin said that when I raked the cut grass it was cleaner than other WWOOFers: without anyone else on the farm and all the noncommittal requests for help (“if you’d like, you can weed near to the china cabbage now, please?”) it’s so hard to judge how my work stands. Am I working longer hours than normal? Shorter? Do I get up much too late? Do I communicate more or less? Do I eat too much? Silke and Martin going out of their way to tell me when things are good is reassuring that I’m not out of the norm, or at least on the upper side of the bell curve.
I pull out my phone and snap a few pictures of the crowds and the hillsides we’re looking down on. You can see the church steeples in Amberg from here, a few hills and valleys away.
“NSA!” One of Martins friends starts yelling and laughing at me. I laugh bashfully and say “No!” But I also put my phone away, feeling very aware of my American-ness in this space where there are almost certainly no other tourists.
Silke suddenly sits down again and says proudly, “I ask a woman and the church is 355 years old. But I was thinking it is much older than this.”
We spent about an hour and a half sipping beer and eating sweets, then walk up the hill to see the church. Martin groans a few times, but Silke insists, which makes me glad, because I would have just gone back to the car, but I do want to see, if I can.
From the top of the hill, we can see the whole town of Sulzbach-Rosenburg, the sun setting pink in the hills beyond. Steeples of other churches rise peacefully among the sloped, orange roofts of the houses, a mess of winding streets below. “It’s beautiful. What a nice town,” I say, admirably, always the American blown away by the quaintness and beauty of these old villages in Europe.
“No. It’s not so nice,” Silke corrects me. “When the iron factory closed 4 years ago, 4,000 jobs are gone! Now there is 20 percent of people without a job here. Second worst in all of Bavaria.”
“Oh,” is all I can say that I’m sure she’ll understand. “This is not good.”
On the way home, as we drive back through the darkening forests, speeding on one-lane winding roads, the radio is off and the two younger girls sing rounds of German songs, clapping their hands and slapping their thighs in unison. One after another, what I’d like to think were folk songs (but lord knows, really) quietly float through the air, Silke singing along nearly silently in the front seat as Ronja and Franzi giggle and chorus together, Vroni sighing and turning up her iPod and Martin sleeping deeply in the passenger seat.
It’s strange to think that to this family, I’m just a two week stretch in a string of foreigners who comes consistently from April until October; another person who learns the tasks of the farm, shares their table briefly, then leaves. Will I be remembered at all? Am I the WWOOFer who fell asleep during the final game of the World Cup, when neither Germany nor Argentina had scored and the game went into overtime? The one who raked the best?
I suppose it doesn’t matter. It does us no good to speculate the ways in which we do or do not touch people’s lives. Better to remember and honor who people are to us, what memories and feelings we carry of those who enter our lives.