Friday, July 18, 2014

On Waiting and WWOOFing in Germany

One of the things people don’t talk much about when they talk about traveling is how much waiting you do. It fades from memory quickly and it’s hardly romantic to mention when retelling the stories, but it is an essential part of the traveling experience, and one that takes hours and hours, if not days and days of any trip.

The bench where I sat for an hour in Amsterdam,
watching tour boats go by and writing.
I’m getting good at waiting again, luckily, after transitioning a few days and forcing myself to slow down. I’m good at pacing the hours of a day and taking 45 minutes or an hour and a half to enjoy a cup of coffee and read my book, to let some time pass before rushing off to another thing, knowing that a day is significantly longer than you think when you travel alone.

But there are many moments – the tense minutes when you wait at the bus stop, certain you are at the right one, but equally certain you have turned yourself around entirely all the same or even when you know the train won’t come for ten minutes, but checking and rechecking anyway just in case you’ve had the poor luck to miss it – that keep me from relaxing in the waiting.

I was waiting in Nuremberg, at the bus station for my friend Greg (who lived with us in California for two summers while attending Cal Tech) and his girlfriend Stephanie. It was very early and it kept raining, on and off. Elderly German couples got off busses, coughed in the seat next to me, exclaimed when they daughters and grandchildren arrived. I bought a cup of coffee and realized (again – I had just forgotten that I knew this) that when I do not know the language, I fall back into some strange mix of French and Spanish, the two foreign languages I do (kind of) know. Which is ridiculous because I don’t speak either of them well enough to follow up if someone responds to my hesitant “Oui” with a French sentence or two.

The man who sold me the coffee – luckily a pretty universal word – asked in broken German where I was from.

“The United States” I said, mixing the sugar and cream into the tiny cup of espresso you get in Europe, smiling.

“Ahhh!” (and, my god I wish I could put his accent and tone into writing. Large accentuation in the second syllable, let’s say) “Obama!”

And for the life of me I could not tell if he was saying this with delight or fierceness, so I smiled again and said “Yes,” taking my tiny coffee and my huge backpack back out to my cold bench.

The overnight bus ride had been smooth. I had actually managed to sleep from basically the instant I got on the bus until 40 kilometers to Nuremberg, when I woke myself up seeing a highway marker telling me I was close. Besides some rowdy scout-looking adults (they had kerchiefs tied around their necks with an emblem on each) that got on the bus and took a bit of time to settle near the German border and a very bright drop off in Frankfurt, I was not disturbed by anything besides my aching body begging me to move around or stretch out or something.

I was supposed to arrive at 8am, though it was 7:30, and Greg (coming from a town about 40 minutes away as it was) was going to meet me at 9:30. I told him I was arriving by bus, and that I’d stay at the place I was dropped off except to get a cup of coffee. Between games of Sudoku on my phone and the book I was reading on my Kindle, I watched 9:30 approach and slip past, breathing slowly and telling myself there was nothing to worry about.

Twisting the golden "wishing" ring in the
fountain at the city center of Nuremberg
It was cold. My fingers were actually beginning to get numb. I thought maybe there was another bus station, another more central place he thought I was dropped at. I considered hoisting that pack onto my back and walking around (it really didn’t feel like I bought much when I left, but every time I have to move my whole bag around I wonder at all of the things that I certainly could have left at home) to have a look.

I decided to stay put: he spoke German. He knew the town. He would find me. Better I stayed where he said we should meet.

And of course he did come. I had been in the right place. Nothing to worry about, so sorry about the lateness. Big hugs and kisses on the cheek all around. 

The surreal experience of seeing someone I know so clearly from one phase of my life in a totally different space has begun to wear off with my traveling, but it was a relief to see a familiar face. Stephanie and Greg showed me around Nuremberg (where I found many familiar knick-knacks that I’ve seen in my grandmother’s home around Christmas time in store windows), to the castle, the churches (including amazing photos of the rubble they were after the end of World War 2 – Nuremberg had been the second largest stronghold of Hitler propaganda after Berlin) and took me for tiny Nuremberg sausages over red slaw and a German beer.

Nuremberg, view from the town castle

Greg left for his new summer job in Zurich and Stephanie and I got on the train, heading to Amberg, where I met the family I’m WWOOFing with.

World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms is a program I’ve participated in before, in Ireland, and which many of my friends have enjoyed throughout the world. Basically, you exchange labor on an organic farm for room and board, usually about 5-6 hours a day 5-6 days a week. You pay to arrive, but you don’t pay for anything on the farm once you get there. I’m doing this in three places (Germany, Bulgaria and Greece) during this trip and it’ll take up more than a month of my time.

In south eastern Germany I’m on a small family-run farm 20 minutes outside of Amberg. They have a few of nearly everything here: cats, dogs, goats, cattle, swine, horses, geese, chickens, bees and pigeons, along with a large vegetable garden, two large green houses and an orchard. There are four children, three blonde haired, blue eyed girls and one darker boy, ranging from the ages of 8 to 14. The children’s English is all from school, they ask me well-used Any-Language Level 1 questions like “What are your hobbies?” and “Do you have a boyfriend?” The adults speak better English, but it is still not great.

I guess I should have expected that – though their profile did say they spoke English – I am in Germany, in the countryside no less, after all.

The garden, where I spend most of my mornings.
I have traveled a lot to places where I did not know a word of the language, or where I knew some but trying to discern what was being said around me from the few words I did know was just too much work typically, but this is different. Being in a home, sitting around the dinner table with a family who is so clearly full of life and fun and joy and guessing at what they are saying to one another, is a profound loneliness that I’ve never experienced. They are laughing and arguing and sharing stories, then they turn to me and said stiffly and shyly “How much full is the goat’s food when you come in?”

I end up trying to guess at what they are talking about. Ronja (who is ten or eleven and can speak the best English of the children) was very frustrated the other day that though her parents said she could get a new horse, they have been having a hard time finding a suitable animal to purchase. Is that why she has been mouthing off and whining so much the last few nights? The youngest, Franzi, seems to be the butt of a lot of jokes, but she always has a smart response that leaves everyone laughing. What in the world is that eight year old saying?

This is not to say that I’m bored, or lonely in a way that I’ve been before, really. I stay busy in the mornings for about 5 hours weeding, then lunch is at 2 when the kids are done with school. I have a few hours in the afternoon to read, write, do yoga, meditate – whatever I want, really, then when Martin comes home from work around 4 or 5 I go and help him with chores. I’ll admit that routine feels good after the wandering and transitory nights I spent in three different countries in the week leading up to this.

The biggest problem right now is what the feed the goats. Before I arrived on that rainy day there had not been rain in 8 weeks and the pasture that is usually for the goats to roam each day is all but dried up. Martin has been going around all the edges of the property and cutting long grass, which I rake up into a wheelbarrow and feed to the 10 goats and kids in the barn. They milk the goats each day and if they don’t get enough greens they milk and cheese won’t be as good. There are also berries to be picked, mulch to be laid, tomatoes to be watered each morning. In the evening as the air is cooling off, we pull slugs from the garden leaves. I go to bed as the sun is setting and sleep deeply. Even if I don’t understand what the people around me are saying, it’s really not a bad life.

I have been profoundly sore and a little sunburned, but all of this is wearing away. They don’t have coffee so the first few days were a bit of a muddle of caffeine withdrawals, but I’m doing better now.

Honestly, dirty hands and some deep alone time is what I have been craving: a chance to really truly slow down and wait some things out, myself simmer and explore some of the parts of myself I’ve been avoiding, as it were. And that is the gift of this place: some stability, a routine, time to surround myself with green and growing things and a belly full of good food for a few weeks. 

The goats, four babies still left, but one less on Saturday when we'll eat
one at the party the family is throwing.
The barn looking over the nearby forest and someone else's fields.

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