gorilla mama: pickled shorts from no time to blog land
I spend most of my day in close physical contact with Pickles: wearing her, holding her, laying next to her, nursing her. So when the Beard comes home, and I give him a hug, his head strikes me as being grotesquely huge. We are all grotesquely huge, us adults, in comparision to these little slips of people we call babies.
One day I read in a book that at three months babies can hold onto things. I gave Pickles a rattle and all of a sudden she was holding this rattle. It was the tiniest thing, the most normal thing in the world, but it was like someone had set off dragon fireworks. When the Beard came home from work I told him and we spent over a half hour giving her the rattle and watching her shake it with huge, euphoric eyes.
Two months ago I lit one of our cloth diapers on fire. Indirectly. See, there hadn’t been any more room on the drying rack, and so I had hung it over the back of the wood stove. Then the Beard came home and lit the wood stove, not noticing the diaper. This was followed by the burnt toast phenomenon. That is, us, smiffing the air and wondering what that strange smell was for whole minutes before realizing the obvious: one of my favorite cloth diapers for night time was on fire. Whoops. We cut off the burned bits and are still using it.
Today we went to visit one of my Baby Mama friends. Her baby is ten months old. She was fascinated by Baby Pickles and showed it by poking her directly in the right eye. Baby Pickles didn’t even flinch, just smiled back at her. Me, I get screams when I try to apply sunscreen. Don’t even ask about the bath situation. It’s still all drama.
After Pickles got poked in the eye we looked through some Sandra Boynton books and ate Bratwurst and mashed potatoes. Pickles fell asleep on the corner of the bed. “She can fall asleep on her own?!” my friend asked. She was excited and incredulous. “Sometimes,” I told her, “though usually only when she’s with the Beard. She’s only done it with me two or three times.” My friend was totally excited and happy for us. Sometimes I need other people’s perspective to realize how good we have it.
People always want to know how she’s sleeping. It’s one of the big four questions every stranger asks (age, gender, weight and/or name, sleep habits). “She sleeping through the night yet?” I don’t think many babies sleep through the night, so I don’t know why anyone bothers to ask this. She doesn’t sleep through the night, but our sleep is fantastic. Every couple of hours she wakes up to eat, shimmies onto my boob (usually with help), and within thirty seconds we’re both asleep again. I heart co-sleeping forever.
Only three people in Germany have ever commented on the fact of my breastfeeding Pickles brazenly in public. All three were men. All three said “Guten apetit” (enjoy your meal). After all the horror stories I’ve heard about nursing in public in America, I am (once again!) so thankful to be living here and not there. Shit, baby head covers more boob than most swimsuits, and no one on the bus would prefer a screaming baby to a visible boob. I mean, come on, boobs and silence! No one loses in that equation.
german food: an ode to spaghettieis
Have you ever hunkered down over a plate of spaghetti and thought to yourself “you know, this would be better if it was made of ice cream!” No? Yeah, me neither. That’s the stuff I expect from the Willy Wonkas of the world. And apparently Dario Fontanella is an honorary Wonka because, though lacking in the department of chocolate rivers, oompa loompas, and candy landscapes, he asked and answered this very question in Germany in 1969. The result was spaghetti ice cream (Spaghettieis), the most delightful and whimsical ice cream creation I have had the pleasure of guzzling with abandon. Take a look:
It really looks like spaghetti, doesn’t it? I imagine that it is made using a machine much like the one that came with the Play Dough restaurant set I had as a child. (Yep, it is, says the internet. Shops use a fancy automatic press, and you can make it at home with any old noodle press.) I’ve never tried it myself, but I’m willing to bet that it’s as much fun to make as it is to eat. A heap of noodle-shaped vanilla ice cream on a bed of whipped cream and covered in strawberry sauce and coconut chips (or nut chips)? Yum.
But the whimsy doesn’t stop there. Oh no! There are other varieties. Carbonara (with a brownish liquor sauce and nuts), and oh crap I can’t remember the rest (I was at the ice cream shop a couple of hours ago, but I’m going to have to call breastfeeding brain on this one). Just take my word for it. It’s a theme with a number of amusing variations.
When Spaghettieis and I met, we fell in love instantly. It was tasty, it was novel, it was cheap (2 DM to the dollar in those days), and it was responsible for at least half of the ten pounds I gained during our month-long high school exchange. I ate it every chance I got, which turned out to be every day during our final week in Krefeld. But the pounds melted back off once I was out of the land of noodle ice cream and sandwiches for breakfast. Did I say yum?
snapshots from bottom street
Those of you who have been reading for a while will remember the au pair chronicles—a serial about how it is that I ended up in Germany and what it was like spending 10 months au pairing for a insanely rich family in Frankfurt am Main. Well, I’ve been busy writing new installments to share with you during operation whirlwind baby. But since a hell of a lot of new readers have become regulars since I first began the series a year ago, I thought I would start by re-publishing the series thus far—both to buy me baby time and to get everyone caught up before continuing the saga. You can find an index of the entire series here. This segment was originally published on February 21, 2010.
Monday morning: extract body from bed, stumble in an attempt to put on pants, pray the caffeine gods make consciousness a little easier to bear. And I used to be a morning person.
Trudge down the stairs and into Jo’s room. Say good morning. On autopilot the words play from the tape somewhere behind your ear.
When Jo wakes up with you sitting on his bed, running your hands through his hair, and whisper his name. He wakes up slowly, sees you, shouts your name and throws his arms around your neck, sleep-warm. “I dreamed of you!”
Hug him back and hope the aliens don’t come back for the replacement they’ve left in Jo’s bed.
It was a morning like every other morning had been for weeks: go downstairs, wake up Jo, and get him out of his pajamas and into school clothes.
But that morning, kneeling in front of Jo with his school pants in my hand, I came face to face with the last thing I was expecting: four-year-old morning wood. I stifled a laugh, he pointed. “Look, Nikki! It’s standing up!”
“They simply can’t go outside without hats on anymore,” Janet chided on the way out the door. Astounding logic from the woman who dressed her daughter in a skirt this morning.
Despite the lingering holiday cheer (or is that just the Gluhwein buzz?), it’s business as usual in the Cole fortress. Three maids a bustling, two twins a screaming, and an au pair hiding behind the tree.
When I got back from a week in Barcelona, Jo and Franci came running down the stairs squeaking and calling, they were so excited to have me back. Had I missed them too? Their excitement was almost contagious, but in two hours Jo was screaming and toppling furniture again, and it was like I had never left.
At first when I told Franci it was time for a bath she grabbed my hand and started to skip up the stairs. But then she stopped. “Nikki, do I have to wash my hair?”
“Yes. Yesterday you didn’t take a bath at all.”
Before the words were out of my mouth she was on the ground screaming.
“Washing your hair isn’t the end of the world, Franci.” More screaming. “If you don’t wash your hair you’re not going to have any friends.” Now kicking too. If she was clever, she’d have pointed out that the person saying this hadn’t washed her hair in over a week and had friends. Janet’s words coming out of my mouth.
After more yelling, and a chase in which I almost bit it trying to run on wood floors in only socks, I forced her into the tub, which I’d already filled with water and bubble bath. But in the water the screaming and thrashing got worse, and then there was water sloshing everywhere, which finally brought Jens out of the master bedroom two doors down where he had been attempting to read.
Janet had told me that your entrance is really important in ending a tantrum. Make a loud and theatrically angry entrance, and you’ll have them quiet in a few minutes. Jens burst into the bathroom screaming (like father like daughter), knocked Franci upside the head, and stormed out even more dramatically than he had come. “Women!” he declared in my general direction, as if that explained why his children were tantrum-loving brats. In the bathroom, Franci was quiet.
Our eyes met as I walked back to the bathroom, and he gave me a look that seemed to say “I’m sorry, I know, I hate them to.”
“Nikki look!” We were at the park and a woman—a midget who I’d often seen strolling through the neighborhood in a decadent fur coat—was standing next to the bench where we were piling coats and snacks, and Franci couldn’t take her eyes off of her. “Nikki, look, the small one, the small one!” She pointed and I pushed her hand back down to her side.
“Franci, it’s rude to point and talk about people like they aren’t even there.”
“But Nikki,” she said, now in a whisper, “she is so small.”
You could almost see the circuits beginning to toast as the gears ground together in her head, trying to comprehend this new being. Small like child. Face like adult. Can’t be child. But small like child. Can’t be adult. Can’t be child. Adult? Child? Childadultchildadultchildadult- childadult. Sizzle.
preconceptions: another outside perspective on wagenplatz life
Today! Another guest post from Fish in the Water about her interactions visitng the Wagenplatz! This one revolves around the reactions she gets from folks back home when she tries to describe a form of living nonexistant in America (not that many Germany wouldn’t react in exactly the same way…I’ve told Germans about Wagenplätze who’ve never heard of them before as well).
In this culture, it is a vast understatement to say we generally have difficulty communicating. We all come to conversations with preconceived notions that are often based on inaccurate information, and instead of listening to what’s being said, we sit back and let our own preconceptions inform how we take in what someone’s telling us.
For example: I frequently find myself turning up my nose when I hear the handsome fella (ccg’s note: the handsome fella is the writer’s partner) rambling on about his private boarding school where he attended high school and how it had it’s own golf course. Having gone to a failing, falling down public school that prided itself on being the third poorest in the county, I can’t help having some preconceived notions about the snobby lazy drug snorting jack offs who went to private school (or public school in a wealthier area). Ahem. Excuse my preconceptions.
What would be much more plausible would be to tell myself, ok, yes, his school was for rich people, but rather than making assumptions, wait and hear what he has to say and how that experience has influenced him. Because really in the end it’s about what a person makes of their experiences, not the experiences themselves.
I find this particularly amusing every time I come back from Germany. Boy, do people have preconceived notions about the whole Wagenplatz concept. What’s funny is how preconceived their notions are when they’ve never even heard of such a thing before.
I was out to dinner with some old friends, who had previously met my sister at heart and heard much about her doings through me, and a friend of theirs who I had never met. This was a week or so after getting back from Germany. The conversation went something like this:
Me (to the stranger): “So they live in this Wagen community—technically you might translate Wagen to trailer but they are much prettier than trailers, they are usually wood and painted in fun colors, and it’s a fairly small community, but each community is pretty different and makes decisions about how they want to live—”
Friend of mine: “And they’re all anarchists.”
Me: “No, no, they’re not all anarchists. Some of them are anarchists. But you don’t have to be an anarchist to live there.”
Friend: “But most of them are anarchists.”
Me: “No, for real, there are whole communities like this where there aren’t any anarchists at all. It’s just people choosing to live a different way. Off the grid, you could say. And they make decisions by consensus.”
Other old friend: “But don’t they have to share the bathroom?”
As the conversation continued into more detailed descriptions of Wagens, bathrooms, and living with other people, the stranger in this conversation sat there looking increasingly appalled. Consensus decision making? Shared bathrooms? Limited space? Anarchists? You’ve got to be kidding… right?
I had a very similar conversation with one of my mother’s coworkers, who had apparently heard something about my adventures from my mum.
Coworker: “So it’s a gypsy camp?”
Me: “What? No. There are no gypsies.”
Coworker: “But they live like gypsies, right?”
Me: “No, not really at all like gypsies. They mostly stay in the one place and go to work and hang out just like anyone else.”
Here my mother joins the conversation.
Me: “Mom, did you say N lives in a gypsy camp?”
Mom: “Well, she does. They live in gypsy wagons.”
Me: “Mom, gypsies are an entire ethnic group, and there are for real gypsies living in Europe. Totally different.”
Mom: “But the wagons look like gypsy wagons!”
This is true. The Wagens totally look like gypsy wagons. But I find if I lead off an attempt to explain a Wagenplatz with “they look like gypsy camps,” not only am I perpetuating ethnic stereotypes, I’m also putting this idea into people’s heads that everyone living there is nomadic, does magic shows, and is quite possibly a thief. Because these are our cultural stereotypes about gypsies.
By the same means, if you start out with “and a lot of them are political and are trying to live outside the system,” people get this idea that the Wagenplatz itself is political, like a commune for socialists or a political cult or something, as opposed to a place to live. People automatically make this assumption that there is a hell of a lot more organization going on with these places than there really is. Yeah, some people who live in wagenplatzs also happen to be politically involved. But some people who live in houses are also politically involved. No direct correlation.
But it all comes down to the bathroom. There is always a point when someone will ask me to describe the wagens themselves. And I’ll say something like, well, my cousin has two, and one is their bedroom and living space for her and her partner and baby, and the other is her personal space, and is kind of an office/library/spare bedroom/kitchenette. The person I am talking to will process this for a minute.
Person: “Do they have electricity?”
Person: “Do they have running water?”
Me: “At this particular wagenplatz, there is a house on the property that has running water, but you have to walk up to the house. It’s not a big deal.”
At this point, inevitably, you can watch the slowly dawning realization.
Person: “But wait, does that mean there’s only one bathroom?”
Me: “Yes, up at the house, there are two toilets and a shower and laundry—”
Person: “You have to share a bathroom?”
Me: “Yeah but it’s not such a big deal—”
Person: “Oh, I could NEVER share a bathroom. I have trouble even sharing with my partner/housemate/whatever.”
Me: “You’d be surprised.”
Person: “Wait. If the bathroom is at the house—don’t you have to walk outside to get there? But what if it’s raining? What if it’s hailing?!? What if someone else is in the bathroom?”
And after this particular trip I also had:
Person: “But what about the baby? How is she going to toilet train the baby?”
Me: “Well, you usually toilet train babies with those little training toilets anyway.”
Person: “But what if it snows? What if you can’t get outside?”
Me: Long pause. “It’s pretty much the same concept as the training toilet. Have you ever peed in a bucket?”
trash to treasure: a dumpster-dived floor
Way back in February, before Baby Pickles had arrived and when there was still snow on the ground, B brought a new Bauwagen back to the Platz. It looked like this. He needed more space, and he had been planning on doing the inside up real nice. But, whoops, no money. So the trash collecting began, and bit by bit, he pieced together a patchwork floor that, in my humble opinion, looks much awesomer than any regular old orderly looking purchased flooring ever could have. And it has a chess board!
gorilla mama daily life // tiny house, tiny baby
Every once in a while I like to do a day-in-the-life post to give you all an idea of what it really means to live in a squatted, intentional Wagen community, to try to get past any romanticization and directly to the nitty gritty details. You can read some others here and here. I just re-read them both, and I was totally awed to revisit the way my life was pre-baby. And now here I am, typing next to a sleeping three-month-old Pickles. Wow and wow. This is loosely based on last Thursday, though this is more of an average day portrait then the tale of one single day. Though mind you, this is a portrait of a day without the Beard. When he’s around there’s a lot more time for two-handed activities. So, ready then? Here we go.
life with baby pickles, volume three (months)
Days start so much earlier now, earlier than they have since I was in college and made the mistake of signing up for a 7 am ballet class. Not only was that class not fun at all, I ended up getting a B in it, one of the few of my academic career. Because seriously, who gets a B in ballet? A B in Comparative Literature I could understand. But Easy-Ass Ballet For People Looking For a Funny Easy Extra Credit and Good Grade? Sheesh. But I digress. These days mornings start somewhere between 6:30 and 9:30. This morning Baby Pickles twitched me awake around 8. I moved a few feet away so as to avoid getting kicked in the scar or scratched in the face and attempted to will myself into consciousness. Some mornings it’s easy, and I spring up singing and tickling smiles out of my tiny companion. This morning it wasn’t, and I managed to get another half hour of sleep before Pickles got bored with staring at the ceiling and started getting loud.
Once I moved Pickles to the fold-down changing table she was content again, so after changing her diaper I rushed myself into clothes. Every morning it’s a race against the seconds during which she is willing to quietly lay around, entertaining herself. Will it be enough time to get dressed, brush my teeth, brush my hair (sigh, it’s now too long not to), sterilize the supplementary feeder bottle, pee, and eat? Usually it isn’t, and my teeth and hair are the first to fall to the wayside.
If her quiet gurgling time hasn’t gotten me to food, I put a (possibly screaming) Pickles into the Boba wrap or sling her over my shoulder and head outside and over to the kitchen Wagen where I either fry up some eggs and bacon or mix up a bowl of yogurt, quark, and fruit. On the good mood days, I lay Pickles on a blanket on a bench or on the table while I cook (or she sleeps, content in the carrier on my chest). On the bad mood days I juggle the baby and my cooking hand and think longingly of the days when breakfast was a relaxing, enjoyable event. We eat back in the Wagen, her laying on the bed or against my shoulder, me at our little table.
The days when I have a lot to do outside of the house—fleamarkets and vegetable markets to visit, errands to run, and so on—are the easiest. I put Pickles in the Boba and off we go. She naps, stares, breastfeeds, and repeats. Sometimes she gets pissed on the bus (if, for example, I deign to actually sit down or the bus stops rolling), but otherwise she’s content, and I’m content. If only I had the stamina to walk around during my waking hours all day, every day.
The days when I’d just like to stay home and relax and maybe get something done on the computer are the worst. She doesn’t want to lay in the same damn place all day, and I don’t blame her. Watching someone type on the computer isn’t as interesting as watching the town go by from the safety of your mama’s pouch. On those days I take a minute here and a minute there, answering single emails over the span of days or taking three hours to do some piddly paperwork. There are diaper changes, there are breastfeedings, and if luck is on my side, there is a nap or three. Often, there is a lot of whining followed by walking around outside—one of her favorite activities and an (almost) guaranteed cry-stopper. More often, there are long breastfeeding sessions in bed, during which I read blogs and news articles and, if the position allows it, books.
Evenings tend to be more relaxed. By then someone else is guaranteed to be awake and or home from work, and Frau Doktor, Clementine, Pickles, and I spend a lot of time together chatting, eating, sitting, dreaming, complaining, planning. If it weren’t for Frau Doktor and Clementine, I would not have survived the Beard’s eight-day absence. They are always ready to take Pickles while I go shower or cook or hang up laundry or just because she’s so damn cute. In the Church of Pickles, they’re Saints. I am going to weep when they both head off to Switzerland for the summer, as is their habit, to get up at four am to milk and herd cows.
Pickles goes to sleep somewhere between 7 and 10 pm. We lay in bed stomach to stomach, and I nurse her until her eyes close. Theoretically, this is when I would scoot off to get some writing done. But more often, I end up asleep myself. Despite the low-brain capacity of the hour, it’s one of my favorite times of the day. Teeny tiny baby cuddles are a great drug. Not enough to make you completely forget the day’s obstacles, but sometimes enough to make you stop caring.
cyprus: escape to larnaka
Those of you who have been reading for a while will remember the au pair chronicles—a serial about how it is that I ended up in Germany and what it was like spending 10 months au pairing for a insanely rich family in Frankfurt am Main. Well, I’ve been busy writing new installments to share with you during operation whirlwind baby. But since a hell of a lot of new readers have become regulars since I first began the series a year ago, I thought I would start by re-publishing the series thus far—both to buy me baby time and to get everyone caught up before continuing the saga. You can find an index of the entire series here. This segment was originally published on February 10, 2010.
My journal entries from that lonesome week in Cyprus are full of embarrassingly adolescent ramblings about a boy I had a crush on at the time. (Embarrassing because he turned out to have the intellectual capacity of a cave troll, while I assumed, for entire days at a time, that we didn’t talk about anything interesting because my German was still too elementary.)
For those around us Cyprus was the escape, the fantasy. I fled the beach for the page, dreaming up dates, jobs I would be hired for, books I would write, countries I would live in, languages I would learn—anything that would transport me for even a few minutes from my daemonic charges. The resort walls were not there to keep others out, no!, they were there to keep me in, and I was trapped there until an angelic voice would speak to me mercifully from above: “Now boarding flight 386 to Frankfurt International.” Oh hark how the herald angels sing!
While Franci became more and more aloof, Joseph became more and more doting. “Somebody has a cru-ush,” Janet sang at me across the dinner table, nodding toward Jo with her head. He looked up from the plastic car he’d been racing down the white table cloth and up at me. “Nikki, I have to poop.” I contemplated strangling her, smashing my wine glass on the table and leaping across the table, but the alcohol had already stunned me into placidity, an escape just as effective as my journaled daydreams. Instead I stood up and led Jo off to the bathroom.
My other escape was the small fitness studio where I ran on my plastic hamster wheel until blood had pounded every last thought out of my head. It was the one and, I am certain, only time in my life in which I will ever have washboard abs. So this is why people in prison end up with enormous muscles, I thought.
In two hastily taken pictures—”I guess I just want some sort of proof that I was really here,” I shrugged as I forced the camera into Janet’s hand—and the only two pictures of me from those ten days, my smile is a grimace.
The three of us slept in the same room, in the same bed; they were both afraid to take a turn on the small cot symbolically placed there upon our arrival and I refused to accept discomfort during sleep on top of the insults and the spit. They spread out, snored, kicked—there was no physical escape. Sleep, my most holy of rituals, was disturbed and cut off each morning too short. All that was missing was the yellow wallpaper, and I would have been ripe for a straight jacket and pills served regularly in little paper cups.
Halfway through the trip and with the theatrical grace that was quickly becoming her trademark, Janet told me to take a day off and go on one of the day trips the resort organized for the guests. As if giving me one day off in ten was a special gift she didn’t have to give me, but would, because she was just that nice. Technically it was illegal for me to work for eight days straight without a day or night off.
Technically. Some of my au pair friends were required to work hours like this all the time, and I was only being asked to do so because we were on a Greek Island. Maybe I never would have seen Cyprus otherwise, maybe I was the ungrateful little snot in this equation. Drink yourself numb! Cry yourself to sleep! Aldiana Cyrpus is perfect for everyone! The words took on a gruesome, futuristic tone, the way the would sound if I’d read them in Brave New World or 1984. And we would be leaving in two days. It was a tome I chanted until it became a prayer. “Two more days, two more days, two more days.”
My mother had wired me some money so that I could take a few interesting trips, and I signed up for Nicosia. Nicosia, I read, was the capital of Cyprus and a violent, tumultuous city since the 60s when it was first divided into Turkish and Greek sections. I could, an Aldiana barbie told me, pay someone to let me climb a ladder and peer over the wall at the Turkish side. (In 2008 a dividing wall was torn down in an attempt to symbolically create unity. Of course symbol and reality don’t tend to drink at the same bars, and the city remains “the world’s last divided capital.”)
But none of the other resort guests wanted to deal with tumult on their vacation, the trip was canceled, and I ended up on a bus to Larnaka instead.
How refreshing it was, to be out of the resort and away from my keepers! How refreshing to see a city whose architecture was influenced by eastern winds. My escape from Aldiana lent an exotic air to everything I saw. The man with skin like bark hunched over and between mountains of fabric in a tiny stone garage, the sandstone church and fort, the ragged tops of buildings that stretched out beneath the fort terrace and away from the graying sea, the Greek-lettered signs.
I wandered aimlessly through town, snapping pictures, inhaling my temporary independence like a fix-starved junkie. Little junk stores seemed as if brimming with treasure, alleys careened with sensual vines, and the old man sitting on the corner was most certainly a seer.
The town was everything that Aldiana was not: crumbling in places, pulsing, a little chaotic, alive. There was dirt and there was magic, there were real people filled with joy and sorrow and ambition. There were no hoses snaking the streets, and so there was little to green the landscape. There were most certainly poisonous spiders lurking in the cracks, and no one said hello to me pleasantly as I wandered down narrow streets.
gorilla mama: when your partner is off on tour with the band you’re not in together aka project meltdown
Eight days. It doesn’t sound like a long time, and it didn’t sound like a long time when, while still pregnant, the Beard asked me how I felt about him going on tour with one of his bands for eight days when Pickles was about three months old. “Fine!” I said. “Shouldn’t be a problem. I mean, who knows, but why not?” Ha! Hahahahahahahaha! Yeah right.
Now I know that five days is my approximate limit for single parentdom of a three-month-old baby. On day five I have nothing left, so when Pickles chooses day five for an hour-long screaming marathon, I am this close to completely losing my shit. But it is a perfect example of the “it takes a villiage” principle. Instead of starting to scream at the top of my lungs and flail around on the bed myself, I took Pickles over to my neighbor’s Wagen where two of my friends were relaxing. They hadn’t been with a baby non-stop for the past five days or just spent an entire day counting the minutes until Saturday. They had patience for some screaming. They were well-rested and had done many things involving two hands throughout the day. I passed off Pickles and went back to my Wagen, where I finally did throw myself on the bed to squeeze out a few tears and talk to the Beard on the telephone.
It only strengthened my resolve to give all single parents total ultimate hero status. Seriously, how do you people do it??!?! You are amazing, and I bow down in humble awe of your abilities. Where do you find the patience? How do you deal with the fact that after an impossible day, you still don’t get a break and have to get up again the next day and keep going? Have you even brushed your teeth in, like, years? May the universe shower you with wealth and attrative, loving partners, and rainbows and kittens and eternal happiness.
the path to escape: renouncing becomes reclaiming
This is part two in a series. You can read part one here.
I had always wanted to spend time outside of the United States, but I hadn’t wanted to do it by spending a college semester abroad. I loved my school, and I felt like spending a semester somewhere else would be a waste of a chunk of the only time that I would ever spend there. I would go abroad later, I said, once I’m finished studying and on my own terms. From the sounds of it semesters abroad were a lot more about drinking, avoiding classwork but getting credit for it anyway, and completely failing at mixing with any locals, and those weren’t my terms at all.
After a year of proofreading, I also knew that 9-5 corporate work wasn’t for me. Everything I read, everything I thought—it was all pointing to one inevitability. I had to quit, and I had to go do something that would give credit to the short years of my life. Back then I had detailed plans about spending a year in France (where I would learn French so that I could take the UN translator’s exam and get a job that probably sounded a lot more interesting than it actually was), but I didn’t really have any savings to speak of—all of my extra cash had gone into paying off my loans. So instead of planning a care-free, job-free year abroad, I started looking for jobs in Europe. I threw resumes at everything that moved, and when the government didn’t take me (thank cod), an au pair agency did.
The decision to move to Germany to spend a year au pairing for some rich family’s brats (you can read all about them here, by the way) may be the only decision I’ve ever made that inspired vocal doubt in my mother. But after she briefly stated her concerns (that au pairing was “below” me, by which I assume she meant “a really stupid career choice for someone who just spent over $100,000 for a college education”), she never mentioned it again. And look at me now, ma. Still in Germany seven years later, a kid, a husband, and a job doing something I love, something that is even related to what I studied. It’s not what you expect from the front-end of an au pairing job. I didn’t know it then, but it was the first baby step in the direction of what Shannon Hayes refers to as “reclaiming” in her book Radical Homemakers. In case you missed the quote the first time I posted it:
RECLAIMING: In the second stage, the “reclaiming” period, Radical Homemakers were recovering the many skills that enabled them to build a life without a conventional income. This “phase” can take a few years or a lifetime, and homemakers will perpetually return to it as they build even more skills. Initially, this is an exciting and tremendously fulfilling period, as people regain their self-reliance. Interestingly, if the homemakers dwelled only in this realm for too long, they began to manifest some symptoms of Friedan’s housewife’s syndrome—maliase, feeling lost, aimless, or occasionally depressed, or wondering “what’s this all for?”
Though my year au pairing didn’t leave me with any skills that would enable me to live without money, it was a year of exploration. I oscillated between the doldrums (an unavoidable part of the start of expatdom) and inspiration born of more reading. I put together a zine called These are our weapons, which I never got around to photocopying and distributing (you can read some of the words meant for those pages in the zine graveyard), but which centered around the idea that our weapons in this fight against everything that felt wrong could be spoons and pens, paint brushes and sewing needles. Radical Homemakers would have blown me into next week if I had read it back then; it was exactly the wavelength I was just starting to find my footing on. I became interested in the little messages spread across the walls of the city through graffiti and rain-wrinkled flyers.
When I decided to stay in Germany, I got a job (teaching English) that would allow me to pay my bills with only about 20 hours of work a week. I dumpster dived constantly, and I continued to suck in inspiration by way of the printed page. Living My Life by Emma Goldman. Days of War Nights of Love by CrimethInc. Rules for Radicals by Saul D. Alinsky. And so many more. I prefered drinking a 30 cent beer in the park to going to a bar, though I did plenty of both. I rode my bike everywhere. I learned how to build a tall bike. I was in love with life and enjoying every single second of it. No corporate job was going to steal another minute of my all-too-short time to enjoy life as Nicolette Stewart. It was another small step.
an outside perspective on bauwagen life
In April my cousin aka heart sister aka Fish in the Water came by to visit and meet Baby Pickles. While she was here she stayed in my Wagen aka Trash House aka my kitchen and workspace. Back home again, I asked her if she would write something about what it was like for her to stay in a Bauwagen for a week. Turned out she already had. So without further ado, her thoughts on Bauwagen life.
the real thing
There are some moments you are simply happy to be alive. I find these occur more frequently when you’re living your life outside. My sister lives in a wagenplatz. I won’t go into detail because she explains it herself here. But picture the Boxcar Children and you’re well on your way. When you’re living in a wagen the weather becomes of utmost importance. It was rather cold when I was there, and that mostly means heating with a wood stove. While I did finally learn the secret of lighting the woodstove (thank god for matches, because I’m horrible with lighters), you don’t always feel like lighting it, or you won’t be there for very long, and this leads to heating with candles. It had never really occurred to me that you could heat with candles, but duh, fire.
The first night the wood stove was lit, and I snuggled into bed with a comforter and read by candlelight. It’s actually about the same level of light as a bedside lamp, if you do it proper. And it feels infinitely more cozy. More real, somehow, more true. You have to watch that they don’t burn all the way down, and somehow, that increased level of attentiveness makes you feel all the more alive—that, and the occasional pops from the woodstove, and the rain beating against the roof.
Because of the small space, many things are done outside, or at least in another wagen. It’s a walk to the bathroom, which is the only thing that can sometimes be a pain in the ass when it’s warm inside from the woodstove and you just don’t feel like putting clothes on…
Otherwise you just wait for the weather. For the sun to dry your clothes, a clear day for chopping wood, a warm one for washing dishes. I can’t use my phone here and there’s no clock so I never have any idea what time it is, which can be a blessing and a curse. When time is irrelevant, all you have to go by is the weather. And when it’s raining, you wake when the rain starts making enough noise, and schedule your day around when you can manage to get outside without getting wet.
To go about dishwashing, you start by hauling a tub full of water from the tap. If you’re me you attempt to do this all in one go and get fairly wet. You set the washtub on the porch or somewhere similarly elevated (because wagens have wheels, doors, and thus porches, are 2-3’ off the ground) And then you go about it all in the usual way—wash, rinse, set out to dry. We handwash all our dishes at home, so it’s not a big chore, but it’s different outside, wagen door open, Florence and the Machine blaring. You notice things. Birds watch you work, and there’s a snail in the ivy under the tree. A leaf falls in the washtub. Like reading by candlelight, it somehow feels right, and more real than being indoors with a faucet. You use biodegradable soap, and when you’re done you dump it in the weeds, which are actually nettles and henbit and ivy and other useful plants.
A perfect moment, an immense feeling of satisfaction, having done a job well while standing in the sun. More alive than I’ve felt in ages, I can finally hear my thoughts again, and they are full of quiet and the snail and the song of the kohlmeise who has been watching me all along.
There are going to be some changes when I get home.
This post was originally published here.