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.”