Have you ever seen those dictionaries in the humor section of the book store titled “Woman-English, English-Woman” (or sometimes Man-Woman, Woman-Man)? On the escalator in the train station several days ago I saw a cardboard cutout advertising one of them from the window of the first-floor bookstore.
A pudgy, middle-aged cardboard man in a Cosby sweater stood holding a copy of Langenscheidt’s “Deutsch-Frau, Frau-Deutsch” dictionary. He was smiling, as if he’d finally been given the key to a lost civilization he’d always wanted to contact, but now knew how to conquer.
Maybe I would find these books mildly amusing—and I do assume that they are meant to be humorous—except for the fact that there is always an entry in them that goes something like this: “no means yes, and yes means no.” You’re supposed to laugh and think things like: “How true! Those crazy women! So passive aggressive! Never saying what they really mean!”
I doubt I need to actually point out to you why this is incredibly fucked up, but I will anyway. 1. It furthers the stereotype that woman aren’t capable of communicating what they want, thus leading to a tendency to not take them seriously, and 2. it furthers the fucked up mindsets of the kind of people who rape and/or abuse other people, because of course that “no” meant “yes!” I mean it must have, that’s what humorous books and television shows have been communicating to me my whole life, and we all know there is some truth to every stereotype!
Blech. Barf. Yack. And the dictionaries about men? They translate almost everything a man could possibly say into “I want to have sex.” Sigh. There is still so far to go, and I think we lost the map.
In the dressing room I removed layer after layer of coats and sweatshirts, and the scent of my sweat and my skin filled the tiny compartment. In context, I don’t smell bad. I like the way I smell, my lover likes the way I smell, and the people who I spend most of my time with smell similarly.
In the context of a store full of formaldehyde out-gassing clothing, however, my scent stands out. I wondered whether the other shoppers in the store could smell me. I wondered if they were offended. I wondered if my smell was capable of giving them the headache that the store smell and perfumed-people smell was giving me. I doubted it.
I shimmied in and out of pants, most too tight or ridiculous to actually buy. I don’t usually sweat much, but the store was hot—the employees were walking around in the T-shirts that had already replaced the sweaters on the racks—and I was dressed for outside temperatures. All this is to say that I started to sweat like I had been jogging, and I started to think about standards of hygiene, sweat, and scents.
Once upon a time I showered everyday, but these days I shower maybe once a week, usually once every two or three. As I gradually stopped showering so obsessively, I started to dislike the penetrating aromas of many soaps and perfumes. There are still some I find pleasant, but it’s an area where I appreciate moderation. Excess gives me a headache, and when a group of people run past me on the track for the sixth time, and I smell only their deodorant and shampoo, then, well, wow.
Back then, I used at least five scented products daily. There was the shower gel, the shampoo, the conditioner, and the shaving gel. After the shower there was lotion, under-arm deodorant, and a spray of perfume on the nape of the neck. Oh, and there was also the mousse I put in my hair when I blew dry it straight. That means some days I used as many as seven. How many do you use?
When I stopped shaving my armpits I also stopped wearing deodorant (I’m not much of a sweater anyway). When I stopped shaving my legs I cut out the shaving gel and the lotion (when I stopped shaving my legs, the skin on them stopped getting dry). Not wanting to carry around a heap of bottles when I went somewhere to shower, I also cut out the conditioner (didn’t need it with shorter hair anyway) and the shower gel and used the same soap for both my skin and my hair. I can’t fathom how much money I’ve saved since.
A story from one of my platz-mates: at the doctor’s office she sat down in the waiting room with a handful of other patients. A woman to her right sniffed a few times and became agitated. “What smells like smoke in here? Do you guys smell that? I think something is burning! Maybe we should tell the nurse.” It was just the scent of wood stove on her clothes, unnoticeable at home, but in the sterile waiting room context it stuck out like two sore thumbs.
Another time I sat outside near the bonfire and listened to two women talk about how irritating it was to always come home from our summer concerts smelling like wood smoke. And I wonder, why is it that Summer Rain, Paris Hilton, or Twilight are more desirable scents than Wood Smoke, My Skin, or Your Hair?
Is advertising to blame? (Absolutely.) Is it “civilized” human’s desire to separate themselves from the animal kingdom? (Very probable.) Is it a puritanical desire to repress the sexual? (Maybe. You can read a blog contemplating that here.) Is it that cities mean living in such high concentrations of people that we are constantly forced to come in close physical contact with people we wouldn’t like (a situation that can become especially unpleasant when crammed together on poorly ventilated public transport) and must shower obsessively to make the situation tolerable? (This is probably what helped advertising get its sticky little fingers in the hygiene product door in the first place.)
When I think about the smell of un-scrubbed skin, I smile, and then I think of something Karlsson once said. Paraphrased, it went something like this: “My theory is that there are so many shitty people in the world because everyone showers too much. Nobody smells the way they actually smell, just like soap and perfume, and they end with a partner they never would have been able to stand being close to otherwise.”
An interesting theory, and though I doubt that the children that come from partners tricked by a delicious perfume could really be so shitty, I do wonder what effect a mismatched scent could have on a relationship’s health. (Though I kind of hope science never manages to wrap its stainless steel claws around. I can see it now, “‘Attraction’ Pheromone, Isolated, Perfume Companies in Bidding War for Patent.”)
In the end I don’t know that it really matters which we choose, but I do think it’s important to ask ourselves why we’ve chosen it.
The last time I scrubbed off all the dirt, a few friends came up to me almost ten hours later, sniffed a few times, and asked me what the hell was going on. “I had an interview.” Ooooh, they said, so that’s why you smell like that. The rest of the time it’s skin, unwashed hair, and wood smoke. Home.
One cup of coffee. Just one. You don’t need to drink anymore, Nikki. One is more than enough.
No matter how often I tell myself this, I still find myself with an empty pot beside me, and weird jittery energy that I don’t want or need. One cup of coffee is just right sitting next to the pile of greens and scrambled neighbor-chicken eggs and toast on my breakfast plate. Just one. So far so good. Today, I think, will be a good day, even if it is raining.
It has reached that dangerous time of year when you can’t come inside without tracking mud all over the place, and you can’t really go outside without a coat, but well actually maybe you could, so you do and one last head cold lurks in your lack of caution.
Although I prefer snow to rain when it’s cold, this rain is welcome, because this rain heralds the coming spring. I can barely wrap my head around the idea that next month I can start planting things in the green house. Every year I find myself shocked that spring really will come again.
This afternoon with my little pink umbrella I will brave the city in the rain because I need to buy a new pair of pants. Yes, buy. Why? Because next week I am starting a job where I actually have to show up at an office twice a week, and I do not own a single pair of pants not patched and/or ripped in several inconvenient places. I think you can probably patch pants in a way that would make them acceptable in an office, but I tend to prefer the obviously patched with the pretty hand screen-printed something-or-other from that band that played here last week/artist friend.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that my new employers didn’t seem to mind the pink dreads, so I figure the least I can do is scrape a little of the crust off for those two days a week. As of next week I’ll be the editor man for the website I’ve been blogging for for the last year or two (this one). Indeed.
I have mixed feelings about starting a not-from-home job, but curiosity got me in the end, curiosity and the scent of a new challenge. That and the price of plane tickets that I would very much like to buy for Banjo and I’s epic trip stateside next fall, and for the wedding-celebration I so very much would like to be at in July even though buying so many sets of plane tickets goes against all good reason.
For now, however, I must leave you: the kitchen is unheated, my breakfast plate is empty, my fingers are going numb, and I can’t find my fingerless gloves.
Local readers! I’m putting on another concert! It’s going to be great! There’s going to be hot chocolate with amaretto (as well as the usual cheap beer and free kicker) for sale to warm your belly one last time before spring finally rears its soppy disheveled head! Haus Mainusch, Staudingerweg 23a, Mainz, doors at 9 pm! Exclamation point exclamation point exclamation point!
If you made it to the Old Seed concert/three-course dinner last month, and liked what you heard, Bird is the band that Old Seed can be heard playing with on his latest record, The Terror.
Bird on Bird: “Bird plays subdued, melancholy songs with a folk-y character, now and then a bit raw around the edges. Kick-back music which allows you to stare, contemplate or to drink a pint by…it all depends on the weather…” But don’t take their word for it. Watch some videos, turn off your computer, and come over.
Lisa Freieck of Knertz Collective (in)fame will be starting the evening with her deliciously spooky-sweet songs.
Freieck on Freieck: “Guided by a gentle and inconspicuous voice which mostly is backed by subtle guitar playing, sometimes interrupted by glockenspiel, meldodica, accordion or other spooky little interludes, she conjures honest, conclusive compositions between a blue smile and calculated irony. listening to her doleful stories one can confidently dispense with the rest of the world for some short time or, in case of getting their point, maybe for a little while longer.”
Another picture by Mr. Himmel. This is our kitchen. Somehow, in black and white, I love the chaos even more. And now by request (and because I’m not feeling very chatty this week), the answering of a few reader questions.
Would you describe your own personal experience finding these communities and getting a place in them? Did you know someone who introduced you to this community?
I had been in Germany for an entire year before I ever heard the word wagenplatz. I’d called off au pairing two months early so I could go back to the states for Sleeveless’s wedding, and I came back to Frankfurt without an apartment or a plan.
At a party my first week back I met Akv, who told me about how people in Lithuania had thrown stones at her for dressing differently, like a punk, and that she was worried that she had left the roof open on her wagon. It had just started to rain.
The way she explained it, living in a wagon was like living in your van, but with a wood stove and a lot of other people living in vans around you. She had left Lithuania with her dog to get away from her boyfriend, who’d decided to become a junkie. She didn’t bother saying goodbye, just packed up a bag and her dog and left.
When she showed up in Frankfurt she had lived on the street with the Zeil gutter punks until someone told her about the wagenplatz, though it didn’t turn out to be the dream community for her that it was for me.
We became friends, and I came by to visit. We’d sit outside around tables full of dumpstered food and eat and chat and drink amaretto hot chocolate until I had to go to work at 6 (by then I was an English teacher with the occasional night class). I liked to visit but that I could live there never really occurred to me.
Another year passed. I moved to Dresden. I moved back to Frankfurt. I needed a new apartment, but they were all so expensive, they would all mean working more than I had before, paying big realtor fees that I couldn’t really afford. Did I really want that? There were sometimes whole days when I thought that I did.
But really? I didn’t. I barely wanted to go back to working part time, let alone 40 to 50 hour weeks. Asriel suggested I come to the next platz meeting to ask for guest status, and when they said yes I packed my things onto a bike trailer and moved into the guest wagon with the open-able roof that Akv had told me about at that party two years before.
Usually it goes like this: you meet a few people who already live there (or you don’t—it isn’t necessary but it helps) and you come to a platz meeting to ask to become a guest. If everybody says yes (decisions are made by consensus) you move into one of the guest wagons that most wagenplätze have. After a while, however long it takes you to get to know everybody, you come to another meeting and ask if you can become a resident. If you get another yes you’re in.
Did you have to buy a wagon?
Eventually, yes. In most cases you can stay in the guest wagon for a long time (which sometimes turns out to mean years), but it’s better to have your own little house and to keep the guest wagon free for short-term guests.
If I had stayed in Frankfurt, I would have started to search for my own wagon frantically the minute I got resident status. But as I moved to a Mainzer wagenplatz soon afterward, I took my time because my lover and I decided to move into a 7-meter wagon together, and I waited until something free fell into my lap. Now we live together in the 7-meter number, and I’m fixing up an old 6-meter number for myself.
Also, how do you stay in Germany? Do you have a visa, or did you just show up and stay?
Yes and yes. I do have a visa, but I also “just showed up and stayed.” There are some countries where this isn’t possible (as in countries that you move to Germany from), but with Americans, Germany says, just come over and get things sorted out once your here, and we’ll give you three months to do it. So I’ve always just shown up and taken care of the job and the visa later.
The first year I got my visa through the au pair job. That became a visa to stay and teach English. (With work visas you are only allowed to do the job they’ve visa-ed you for. The point is that they will let you stay so long as you can prove that 1. you’re financially independent and 2. you aren’t “stealing” work from a German citizen.) Now I have an interim visa that will soon become a you-married-a-German visa, which I suppose is similar to America’s “green card.”
“Oh. No. Oh. I really don’t want to go outside again tonight.”
I say nothing, knowing we are both thinking the same thing and hoping that his voice and not mine will chide him out of bed with me tonight.
“But I guess if we don’t go we won’t have anything to eat tomorrow.” He sits up and starts to slip into layers of long underwear and hooded sweatshirts.
It’s not true though, that we would have nothing to eat if we didn’t get out of bed. He reminds me night after night that it will never be true as long as we live in a community like this. It is hard to start believing in that kind of security, that kind of dependable mutual aid, when you’ve been raised capitalist, when your history books used the term “dog eat dog” so much when talking about life.
We walk because both of our bikes have flat tires and because the roads are still icy. Almost to the first stop we meet someone just returning from dumpster diving. He hasn’t found much, he tells us, just the eggplant and salad and Brussels sprouts laying exposed in his back bike basket. I am surprised that he offers us nothing because I have become so used to sharing food that I don’t even think to ask before eating off of a friend’s dinner plate.
He might have missed something, we assure ourselves and walk on. He had. There are two bags of bread, two small fruit smoothies, and a bag of limes. The rest is already frozen. At our last stop we kiss for a moment so that a man walking his dog doesn’t realize that we’ve actually stopped to raid the dumpster. But when he passes we find that it is empty and walk home.
In the morning I am hungry. I think of beans and lentils and pretzel-dough rolls and all the things I would like to eat for breakfast. The dumpstered bread looks wrong; I don’t know why but I don’t want to eat it.
So I go to another kitchen and take three eggs from the refrigerator. The eggs are from the chickens we live with, and there is dirt stuck in small clumps on the off-white shells. I haven’t eaten an egg in something like three years, and I am nervous. Maybe I won’t like the way they taste. Maybe they will hurt my stomach (there was, in those three years, one failed egg-eating attempt that ended in volcanic pain). Maybe, maybe.
I fry them over easy in margarine and eat them with ketchup and a heap of fried zucchinis leftover from the Vegetable Man (last week I bought a cabbage and our beloved Vegetable Man gave me a head of lettuce, six zucchinis, and seven or eight avocados—thanks Vegetable Man!), and they are delicious, all the more so because I know the chickens they came from.
Photo: Another Mainusch moment brought to you from Mr. Himmel. Yihaw.
Photo courtesy of the esteemed Mr. Himmel. Do not steal it without his permission. Also: abetting the gnomes in their escape from The Cage is strictly forbidden.
If you’re new to this blog, I should probably explain. I live on a wagenplatz in Germany, and a wagenplatz is something like a trailer park, a gypsy encampment, and crust punk wet dream all shaken together. People live in converted vans and trucks and in old wooden circus wagons. If you’d like to read more, I explain in excrutiating detail here and here.
The time of the thaw has come. It is the ugliest time of the year, when all the trash emerges from beneath the snow. It is too soon to say that winter is over, but it’s not too soon to start singing my favorite end-of-winter melody.
I could talk to you of paranoia, of people watching me from the sky, and I would be telling you the truth. And I wonder, as I pee in the bushes beside my wagon and listen to hard-hatted men yelling to each other from the construction site behind our wagenplatz, if those manning the cranes watch me from their steely heights. I flip them off, just in case.
What is now frozen muddy construction was once a part of this wagenplatz. It used to be wild and green. There were blackberries and elderberries and so many snails that one resident described walking to the bathroom “like walking on cornflakes.” Once upon a much longer time, there wasn’t even a road dividing the two plots of land.
Back then, after the road and before the current construction, it looked like this:
Today, it looks like this:
(In favor of my point is the fact that the first picture was taken in spring, while the second was taken in winter. However, I doubt that the construction site would look much different either way. There would be more brown and less white, is all.)
They’re not building on the land where our wagons once stood—where the guest wagon where I spent my first night in Mainz used to look out across a grassy field at the chemistry building—but on the land next to it. They needed the other bit of land, they told us, to park their bulldozers and metal container offices.
So we moved wagons and the university “gave” us (read: sold us) another piece of land a kilometer away for the displaced wagons. Is it an improvement? A defeat? It’s hard to say for sure. I can only hope that one day they are finished and that the land they destroyed for a temporary construction parking lot, for another steel-and-glass borg-ship architectural atrocity, can be taken back.
Sundays quickly became bike days, days for exploring streets I hadn’t noticed before, discovering playgrounds, empty buildings, useful trash. Dresden is full of beautiful, crumbling secrets.
Outside of Dresden, if you manage to pedal out of the valley, are others. On the bike ride to Radeberg, all up hill, all cool forest and empty Sunday roads, a familiarly eerie feeling came over me.
The German landscape looks like home to me. Maples, birches, sections of pine forest, ferns, nettles—so many of the plants I remember from walks in the woods as a child, here too. There are train rides when, looking out the window, a strange feeling comes over me. As if there has been a dimensional shift. As if I have gone back in time.
Where the hell am I? I ask myself. Am I in Pennsylvania? Upstate New York? Have I slept? Was it all a dream? Then the conductor announces the next stop over the loudspeaker, and I remember. On the road to Radeberg, I pulled to the side of the empty road and took a picture, a nostalgic tourist, home.
Dresden’s valley dissuades the fearful bicyclist from leaving. It rewards the daring with pairs of bulky calves. I had picked the destination at random. I had been dumpster diving the night before, and I had never been to Radeberg, though I drank its beer often.
The brewery itself turned out to be sterile and awful, a geometric insect balancing on sharp square columned legs and fronted by two gigantic copper breasts meant to invoke images of brewing equipment. Before Radeberg were ruins where I had stopped to rest. There were no signs to tell me what the building once had been, but the light was magical. Though my camera was not I took a few pictures to remind me. Close your eyes and fill them with late-afternoon twilight and you might catch a glimpse of it too.