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?”

Me: “Yes.”

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.”

And then:

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?”

0 Comments on “preconceptions: another outside perspective on wagenplatz life

  1. I am totally fascinated by these questions. What I get asked a lot is this: “do you heat in the winter?” And what fascinates me about that question is the “do.” Not “how do you heat,” but “do you heat.” Really makes you think about people’s preconceptions.

    In Fishie’s experience I’m particularly fascinated by the thought that there could ever be a time when “you couldn’t go outside.” Until typhoons and the like start happening in Western Germany, I can’t imagine ever facing a situation when I couldn’t go outside. But of course the fact that I have to go outside to get to our bathroom is one of the facets of Wagenplatz life that I find most often horrifies people just hearing about the concept.

    Also interesting that people think that walking to the bathroom would mean that we would have an issue toilet training our kid. You walk to the bathroom in a house too. Sometimes even just as far. I find that my answers to most of the “how do you X” questions people ask about Wagenplatz life end up being “just like everybody else.”

    Also: It totally weirds me out that a lot people can’t imagine sharing a bathroom with more than one person. To me that’s a pretty weird thought, a bathroom just for one person. What a lot of porcelain.

  2. Very interesting (but a bit sad) how people really don’t want to hear. And how we’re nothing but people, sometimes not really wanting to hear.

    The bathroom thing was an aspect of a phenomen that amazed me during the 2 years I lived in the US. The maniacal cleanliness (of spaces and bodies) and extreme individualism just felt unnecessary and wrong. Like people affirmed themselves on a level of consumption that was way beyond my… my previous preconceptions, ha.

    I am very interested in your descriptions of life in a Wagen Platz, mostly how you dealt with the horror induced by crawling creatures and weeds – two of the biggest enemies of the American civilization, from what I gathered watching TV there.

  3. Hilarious… yes, I often had this kind of obsessive questioning about where you wee and poo when I was living in my truck (I used the outdoors!) … people are fascinated and slightly horrified. It amazes me. I myself am particularly amazed at this idea of not sharing bathrooms!

    Also – the “typical” colourful Gypsy wagons were actually only in use for a few decades at the end of the 19th century.. based largely on showmans’ wagons, the Gypsies adopted them, and made them increasingly more colourful, until a massive decline in their use with the onset of WW1. There are still a few about, but mostly as museum type relics of “how the Gypsies once lived” … actually for a much larger part of their history they travelled and lived in bender tents when they stopped…

  4. My dad grew up on a farm in Wisconsin and they did not have an indoor bathroom until after he was potty trained – and he (and his twin) were the youngest of five siblings. One only has to look back 60 years in the rural U.S. to see how it was done!

  5. Preconceptions are probably just a reflection of the “I want it now” society we live in today. People possibly are becoming too lazy (or are too preoccupied through or not through fault of their own) to spend the time to look for the evidence for or against the idea themselves. As a result, they rely on nothing but twitter feeds and Facebook wall posts to provide them with half-baked, recycled perspectives. I’ll get off the soap box now 🙂 Nice post.

  6. Pingback: Guest Post | Fish In The Water

  7. I may find this all a bit sad and depressing when I think about it properly but for the moment I just find this post side-splittingly funny. I’m getting funny looks from the other people in this internet cafe from the strange noises happening as I try to smother the laughter a bit.

  8. Other than the kitchen, I’ve always found the bathroom to be the most sociable area of any shared living space. For 15 years now, me and my friends have bathed/showered/peed/brushed teeth/plucked things/squeezed things/just hung out there with each other, often fully clothed in an empty bath at 4am playing “tap or shower head” or telling each other how much we love each other. For a couple of years, my (very sadly departed) rabbit Mr Snickers shared my favourite ever orange bathroom, too, and my housemates all loved getting their feet licked whilst they carried out their ablutions. (Or at least they said they did.) Also, I’ve always found running barefoot across blades of frosty grass in the moonlight only add to the pleasure of emptying one’s bladder in the middle of the night.

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