“If one leaves Wolfenbüttel on Bundesstraße 4 and drives along the Oker to the South,” writes Professor Taddey, “one sees there, where the ridge of the Oder forest grows densest, close to the river, the spire of an old roman church, which hides under a protective girdle of trees.” From the window seat of my train car, the countryside of Lower Saxony whizzing by the carefully cleaned glass, I pored over an obscure German historian’s description of my destination. I’d acquired the hardcover dissertation at the medieval Bibliotheca Augusta in Wolfenbüttel, purchasing a library card for five euros. “Before even reaching it, a triumphant arch springs up on the left, leading through whitewashed walls into a long courtyard with barns and stalls. These are the most important buildings of the former nun’s cloister in Heiningen…” Problem was, I was looking for a farm, not an old Roman church spire. And anyways, I didn’t drive. I took the train, then walked from Borssum, suitcase and all, which is the other direction from Wolfenbüttel, following the Oker north, instead of south.
This was in my college days, when I spent multiple summers just schlepping around Europe, searching for free places to stay. And searching for work. Without work, I get antsy and nervous. Being on the move cures that, so I spent half my time moving and the other half working.
In Germany, as I say, I’d been searching for a farm to work on. I wanted either a place with horses or a place that made cheese. At first glance there seemed to be plenty of each. But on WWOOF, the organic-farm-network message board I was using, almost no one had agreed to take me. It looked like I was going to be stuck going to the weird horse psychotherapist lady, whose horses were too traumatized to be ridden, and thus of no interest to me. But then, suddenly, I got another invitation. A cheese and dairy farm in Lower Saxony. Two days later I was on my way.
I grew up in the country, but my first real work on a farm was in high school. I immediately found it immensely fulfilling, but also immensely frustrating. I kept working every chance I got, but midway through college even the four or five summers I had behind my back couldn’t compare with the 18 years my coworkers had. It seemed like every time I learned how to sink a t-post or check hydraulic fluid, five new things popped up that I had never learned how to do, and I went back to feeling like a newbie. Nevertheless I would go from Yale in the winter, where I was on top of the world, to a cattle ranch in the Willamette Valley in the summer, where I was made to feel useless and stupid every single day, and then back to school in the fall. There was something addictive about that cycle. Everyone’s cursed to love something they’re bad at. I still cherish the hope it might love me back.
As I say, farmwork is difficult. But imagine working on a farm and not being fluent in the language. Farmwork, generally speaking, doesn’t require that much talking. Still, try remembering your list of German prepositions while faced with forty oncoming milk cows who must be herded, together, in the opposite direction, only you’re not certain exactly where, because you’ve mixed up the words for “inside” and “through,” plus you have no idea if the farmer said “fence” or “gate.” Even the good moments on the farm tend to have a comic element of discomfort, like when your co-workers get out of the car unannounced and begin to take their clothes off and it takes you a moment to realize that the conversation you were failing to understand a moment ago was about how we were all about to stop and go for a swim in the lake.
Then there’s the terminology itself. No matter how many years you’ve studied the language in school, I guarantee nobody ever taught you the word for weed-eater or udder, or sugar beet, or cow pie, or grease gun, and certainly not all of them together. Granted, there are other jobs that could give you the same difficulty. Sailing, auto repair. But few places can compete with the broad range of vocabulary required on a non-industrial farm.
The farm in question, in Niedersachsen, has a herd of 43 milk cows and 40 goats. Well, 39 goats now. Also 5 chickens, an inordinate amount of stinging nettle (think multiple hectares), and various crops to feed the animals that I could never understand the names of. It also has a carpentry shop, a stonemason tower, a house for refugees (containing one Syrian man and his two wives and children, except one lives in Leipzig with seven kids so she’s not always there), a wine salesman, and so on and so forth. I couldn’t meet all of them in a week.
My jobs varied. Many things, as I’ve explained, were unclear, for reason of language. Among them how much I was supposed to work. Some days I got up at 5:30 to milk the cows and came home from the second milking at 9:30 that night. Another day I slept in til nearly 8, went to town at 10, and didn’t work for the rest of the day even after I got back to the farm. It never became clear if that was the way things were supposed to be or if I was being massively rude in my inconsistency.
Of course, it’s more than a farm. That I found out when I arrived, on foot, staring through a 30-foot arch at a cobblestone street leading past ancient white buildings with clay tiles. I had to ask for directions. One lady, who I later found out made cheese, pointed me towards the largest building. “The Degeners live there,” she said. Ten minutes later, somewhat dumbfounded, I was being led up a double staircase (with double french doors) to my room, one of what must have been at least 50 in the house. There was a ballroom, a hundred-year old piano, a tower built in 1686, a church first sanctified in 1000, cow stalls, goat stalls, pig stalls, a smithy, so many places that I continually got lost in the maze of it all.
Still, the farm isn’t what it once was. The Degeners had been fabulously wealthy a few generations back. In 1810, when Napoleon sold the cloister to finance his Russian campaign, the Degener family, which had made a great deal of money selling cloth for Prussian army uniforms, bought the place, nuns and all. And they did well afterwards — Niedersachsen has the best soil in Germany. But in the 1950s the current Degener’s father headed out on a business venture to Argentina, spent all the money, and the place went bankrupt. They didn’t lose the farm, but the buildings are in disrepair, the ballroom is dark and dusty, the piano is out of tune, most of the rooms aren’t occupied. It’s like they live here by accident, or temporarily. They’re really farmers, but they stopped in an abandoned castle. It’s not that they don’t keep the place clean or orderly — they do — but there’s too much of it to take care of without a staff of servants. And that they don’t have.
I was fascinated by Theo and Frida. The farmer’s son and daughter-in-law. They were not even three years older than I was, but married, with two kids. Theo was quiet and good with the kids. Frida had the most beautiful smile I’ve ever seen. They lived in the same wing of the mansion as I did, and in the morning I would wake up to the sound of their baby crying and smile. One night on my way up the stairs I heard her talking on the phone. I stopped at the landing, just to listen to the sound of her voice. I thought she was beautiful, but I don’t think I was in love with her; I was in love with their family. Their little golden-haired girl, Nedje, to whom I read picture books with all the names for farm equipment. How Frida would go out at 5:30 with the baby on her back to help Theo milk the cows. They were so like me, and yet they lived in a world that was so far away from mine as to seem like a distant star. I wanted what they had. A family. Children. Knowledge that after my father died I would inherit a working farm on 200 acres of land, with a river and a forest and a lake that my kids could swim in on the way to milking — yes, I wanted that too.
But it was almost enough just to be there. To be a part of the whole thing: the history, the family, reading to Nedje, mucking the stalls, passing by the paintings of grim-faced abbesses every morning and night. Drinking fresh goat milk out of the milk cans in the morning, unpasteurized, unhomogenized, still with that mild goaty aftertaste. Spreading straw in the stalls, feeding the baby goats grain, helping make mountain cheese from an enormous copper kettle filled with creamy yellow whey and squeaky curds, chopping stinging nettles, eating fresh tomatoes and cheese and Frida’s rye bread (dark, dense, heavy like a brick) with the Degeners, drinking a bitter Wolters Pilsener, struggling to understand and be understood, but knowing that, if I wanted, I could ask to stay on, keep working. I could quit my pale shadow of a life right then and start a real one, I could stay with these people in this place that makes me happy and be content for the rest of my life. I saw that vision, and it felt true. But I didn’t stay. Forward momentum is too powerful. It’s better to leave while you’re still content, anyways. That way the memory, at least, never spoils.
Near the end of the week, Herr Degener sent me out into the field to look for an old goat. “She didn’t come in for milking this morning,” he said, and it was possible she was dead. I ought to check if she needed hay or grain. I hadn’t quite understood where he said to look, but I found her almost right away, stretched out on her side, swollen from death. I came back to Herr Degener, and as I went I began to smile. At first I could not figure out why, and then I realized that I was happy I had done the job right. After a week of struggling to understand simple directions in German I had understood and done what I was asked in less than five minutes. I tried to stop, but I couldn’t. I was happy the goat was dead because it had made my job easy. “She doesn’t need any grain,” I told Herr Degener.
Later that day I went to a mass at the cloister church, right behind the house. It was the one building I hadn’t been in. I’m not Catholic; I just wanted to see the church. While they prayed for various things in German, I prayed for Goat. I almost thought I could see her, younger, translucent, floating above the congregation.. Maybe a couple of happy bleats — or was that the organ? And what was that look she kept giving me? I kept on thinking of her on the train the next morning, as I too floated away, wispy and untethered, pieces of me scattered along the tracks.
Somewhere west of 600 kilometers east of Moscow, on the way to Ulyanovsk, the city of Lenin’s birth as well as my father’s, Zina was telling me about my sign of the zodiac, which turned out to be Ares, and I, listening over the clickety clack of train wheels on tracks, was discovering that thread of superstition in myself that all people have somewhere, buried deep down, or in the case of Zina, not buried at all, but poking out from the surface, like a skeletal arm reaching up through the grass. “Your first wife is a gift from God,” she was saying, “your second will be from the devil. So don’t let the first one go, not if she brings another man home, not if she beats you, not for anything.”
I stared out the window, more convinced than I wanted to be, thinking about my first girlfriend; I just knew I shouldn’t have let her go, — Zina began talking about the typical sex life of an Ares — though of course she wasn’t exactly a wife, and we did have a lot of problems, as described, even if she didn’t beat me —
My train of thought derailed as Yulia came into our cabin, wordlessly, as was her custom. At any rate it had been her custom for the 24 hours we’d now spent together in one cabin. Zina jumped at the opportunity.
- “Ah, Yulia! Cancer, right? November? I thought so.”
Yulia didn’t show even the slightest surprise, just nodded. The whole atmosphere of the moving train cabin, an unknown location, dark forests passing outside the window, the impromptu horoscope session — at some point discomfort began to be replaced by the quiet Russian fatalism which, though not born on trains, was certainly perfected in them. What meaning can the difference between fact and superstition have in a bumpy 36 square-foot train cabin some hundreds of kilometers east of Moscow? You eat on the train, sleep on the train, you have no wifi and no cell service, sometimes no dining car, only the Soviet-era samovar still fed with coal in the corner, and a couple of people along for the ride. Time is suspended, and along with it disbelief.
We’d long since covered the usual topics. Zina was 55 years old and lived in the far North. At the university where she worked she spent all day listening to conversations in the wiretapped dorm rooms, conversations which she proceeded to recite for me with astonishing detail. She assured me, lest I be worried, that in the U.S. they do the same thing. She had a son, Murat, from a Turk who had wanted to take her as his fourth wife. “I could have had everything,” she moaned. “Eight room apartment, servants, money, travel — he promised me anything I wanted. He promised my son Turkish citizenship and appointment as head doctor in the hospital that he owned. And I, a fool, told him I was just fine on my own. Now my son works the night shift guarding an oil field in Siberia.”
She was going home. Some village east of Ulyanovsk, my destination. She’d left when she was 16 and her older brother came home from the tundra to take her away. “Pack your things,” he said. “I’m getting you out of here, and one day you’ll bring me back.” Only later she understood that she wasn’t going to bring him back alive.
“We have the land,” she said to me. “It’s like I told my son, when I saw him off to the army: ‘You have the land. You come back in a year, in twenty years, you have the land, where I will be lying, waiting for you.’” She pointed out the window. We’d crossed the birch forest, and now the valley lay open to the horizon, miles and miles of wheat fields and dry grass bathed in the pink rays of the setting sun. “The people here will always be the same,” she said. “Five hundred years ago they were cutting grass with a sickle, and today, and in a hundred years they’ll be doing the same thing.”
Two days before leaving Ulyanovsk I walked to the Polytechnical Institute with a girl I’d met waiting in line at the local post office. Up the hill was a Soviet-era auditorium known locally as “the saucer,” because it looked from the outside exactly like an enormous flying saucer. But I was looking downhill, at the small herd of goats nibbling at the university lawn. An old babushka in a long dress and kerchief was using her sickle to cut branches from the ornamental birch trees, which the goats munched on contentedly. She looked like the same lady I’d bought goat milk from on the street a week before, in a reused plastic water bottle. And, for just a moment, time, suspended in the train, now reversed. It was 1682 and someone just happened to have landed a flying saucer up the hill from where the village babushka was grazing her goats.