Friday, January 29, 2010

A brief welcome to Bremen and a first taste of the Farming Life

January 13th. After dragging my suitcase through several blocks, an illegal bus ride to the station and a fancy train ride, I made it to Bremen where I was to meet the first woman whose farm I was staying at through HelpX. I was told she’d be wearing a black wool coat with broad yellow cuffs, so after depositing my embarrassingly big suitcase into a 5 euro locker at Bremen Hauphtbanhof, I was off for a quick tour of Bremen. At first glance it reminded me of the Lanes in Brighton, narrow streets with little shops leading to yet more windy pathways. Angelika pointed out that some of the shops have the dates they were built on them, most of them hundreds of years old. I was told of markets, seafarers and craftsmen before she was off to her voice lesson and I was left to occupy myself in this new German city.

I had started learning German two days earlier. The essentials, like “Haben sie soyamilsch?” (Do you have soymilk?), “Wo ist…” (Where is?) and “Sprechen sie Englisch?” (Do you speak English?). You’d be surprised, but throw in a bit of pantomime and you can get quite far. Of course everyone speaks English, but I always feel awkward and rude throwing out English automatically and it takes all the fun out of the experience, anyway.

I wander off in search of a soya latte and free wireless, which I found at Starbucks after trying a handful of other places. I know I should expand my horizons, but sometimes it’s nice to fold yourself up into a bit of globalization when everything else around you is foreign and new.

Barista: *german german german*
Me: Sprechen Sie Englisch?
Barista: Ah, English. This is the worst song.
Me: *laughs*
Barista: What is the worst song for you?
Me: *thinks* I don’t know, probably songs I hear all the time that I don’t know the name of. What about you?
Barista: I don’t know, I’ll have to check my list. *Pulls out list*
Me: You have a list! *laughs*
Barista: *names some German song* Let me find my English list! *pulls out English list and names a few songs I don’t know*

Welcome to Bremen. Where the Starbucks barista’s are not only multilingual, but care about your musical tastes.

After getting a bit lost and getting to use a few of my 15 or so German words, I meet back up with Angelika and we take the trains back to the station nearest their small-holding, Geestenseth. We drive in the dark through what looks like windy roads surrounded by farms and she later explains that it’s not as deserted as it seems. Throughout the ride we talk about organic farming, raw milk, mating chickens, plastics, vegetables, what vegans eat and the lawsuit against a Canadian farmer due to genetic drift of Monsanto’s round-up ready seeds.

I’m just happy I recently read Barbora Kingsolver’s Animal. Vegetable. Miracle. and have a Food, Health and Law class under my belt. I’ve always been interested in these things, but it feels rare that I have a person in front of me, outside of a book, that lives a life like this. In fact, this is maybe the first family I’ve ever met that grows basically all of their own fruits, vegetables, nuts and beans and only eats in season. I make a joke that reading about local and seasonal farming in said book was like reading an exciting fiction novel because of how I grew up. I tell her my grandfather was a farmer, but all I remember from before he sold his land was kittens, cabbage, riding on tractors with my Dad and getting to drive a car on his dirt roads way before I was of legal age, backing into a cornfield to, I’m sure, my father’s simultaneous amusement and dismay. As I’m explaining this, I make a mental note to ask my Dad for whatever details he remembers of my grandfather’s farm. For something that was likely a huge part of his life growing up, he doesn’t speak of it very much and now I’m interested.

When we get to their small-holding, they show me my flat. I have the entire upstairs of their chicken house, equip with a kitchen, living room, dining area, loft, bathroom and shelves of English and German books. One of the first things I did was make a pile of books I wanted to try to rapidly read before I left in two weeks. The flat is beautiful and I’m both overwhelmed and really excited at the same time.

Angelika shows me where the wood-burning stove is in case I get cold at night, then takes me to where all of their freezers for storing their own fruits and vegetables are, next to massive shelves of jams, preserves and chutneys made from their own produce themselves. I inwardly pee myself with joy. If a food museum existed, that would be my favorite kind. I’ll never get bored learning about how food is made and seeing what it looks like.

I get to sample lots of these at dinner. I had only heard of quince mentioned in a book I’m reading currently called Animal Dreams also by Barbora Kingsolver, but I got to taste it for the first time in an apple-quince jam. Also there was strawberry preserve, white raspberry, cherry-wine jam (they make their own wine and this was from some leftovers), apple-cinnamon chutney, some jarred sundried tomatoes in olive oil, among other things to spread on bread they also made themselves, with some vegetable broth to warm us up and their own apple juice. I am in heaven.

I should mention the crazy oven as well. Heated by burning wood in a little compartment inside, the temperature is controlled by opening and closing a drawer to let more or less air in and placement of the pots on the top surface. The pots are old ones designed to fit into the stove, so the bottoms stick closer to the fire.

After dinner, they show me a picture of their sewage system, which has compartments with bacteria that break down the waste and filter it through different sections and plants that eat up the bad stuff, finally releasing it as ground water. We clean up and put more wood in the stove, then I say goodnight to Axel and Angelika shows me the “Apple Chapel” where the apples are kept to last from autumn until spring. It smells like autumn in there and it’s wonderful.

And that’s only the first several hours. I think I’ll be learning a lot in the next two weeks.

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