And then the questions kept coming. If you didn’t read part one of this question and answer, you can find it here . Otherwise, here are some more detaily details about living in a wagon community with a whole bunch of people.
What about animals?
There are at least as many animals here as there are people, wild and otherwise. And they make for good argument fodder, tell you what. When I moved to Mainz, there were two dogs and three cats. The dogs were used to the cats, everybody ran around free, and even though the cats killed a lot of mice, the dogs didn’t kill any of the cats and everybody was generally happy.
Then came the chickens, which brings the count here up to three cats, one dog (the second dog having recently gone to dance with Patrick Swayze in the big disco in the sky–pictured above, RIP Moritz, sweet old geezer dog, pat pat), and ten chickens. Of all the “pets” here, the chickens have been surrounded by the most debate. One of the intial roosters was regularly attacking male residents, which landed him in the pot. Then some of the vegans got upset because they didn’t want the chickens to be slaughtered (and had only agreed to the chickens living here at all with the stipulation that they wouldn’t be eaten, but that was before my time), which led to a four-hour plenum, which led to the decision not to let the chickens keep any more of their eggs to avoid the situation where we have too many chickens and slaughtering becomes logical.
But–oh beautiful, stubborn life!–the chickens managed to hide some eggs in the blackberry bushes anyway. The result: a lot of people have their panties in a bunch and there are 10-20 more chickens on the way. The chicken people, meanwhile, are secretly peeved about the no-slaughter decision and have also declared all-out war against punks with dogs who refuse to leash their dogs. Funny, the way every dog owner insists that “my dog wouldn’t do anything,” and how that statement has repeatedly led to another bloody carcass by the coop. Oops. Guess your dog is still a dog after all, huh.
Then there are all the others who live here: the hedgehogs whose coughs you can hear in the bushes at night and the magpie couple who I most often see dive bombing Momo the cat as she attempts to steal their eggs and/or babies from their nest in the maple tree. There are a handful of red, pointy-eared squirrels who throw nuts at me from the walnut tree above my wagon and who look suspiciously like elves in pompous fur coats. In our kitchen is a green and black striped spider (a garden spider, says the dictionary, though their name in German–Kreuzspinne or cross spider–more accurately reflects their ominous appearance) who builds her web above the tea and who we leave alone as an ally in our constant battle against the fruit flies and this year’s overly aggressive wasps. And last but not least are the rats, who I–surprisingly–have only ever seen on the compost pile and who are–lucky for us–more interested in the building across the street than in us. Who knows what other little creatures we unknowingly share this land with.
Are there any families living on the wagenplatz?
At the moment we don’t have any children living here, though one resident’s ten-year-old son comes regularly to visit. Just after I left the Frankfurt wagenplatz two residents gave birth to a son in the mother’s wagon, and another resident’s teenage son has lived on the wagenplatz for years.
The social benefits for a child here seem obvious to me–“It takes a village to raise a child,” right? Well, try telling that to your conservative social worker. I’ve heard people say that they “don’t think it’s right to force a child live in such a place,” and I’m sure children have been taken away from their parents for less.
One mother who often brings her 3-year-old here for the afternoon and who is a part of a group trying to find land for a new wagenplatz in the area explained recently that they haven’t found land yet because they have to be picky about things like water and electricity. Why? Because she is terrified of losing her daughter and is regularly checked up on by social workers employed, among other things, to enforce the status quo. All because of the government’s perception of wagenplätze as asocial, politically radical slums.
Do some people work 9-5 jobs?
I think one of the most common myths about people who live on wagenplätze is that they are all asocial leeches who don’t work and live off of government money. I do know people who live on a wagenplatz and get unemployment or disability money but whether or not that makes them leeches is debatable and a conversation for another day.
There are Wägler (a term we use to mean “people who live in wagons”) who work 9-5(ish). An English teacher comes to mind. At the Frankfurt wagenplatz there were people I rarely saw because they were always at work–one women owned a joke article shop in the city, another worked at a printing company, and oth- ers were students always in class or in the lab or the library.
More common, however, is that people living on wagenplätze work seasonally or freelance. A lot of people build and take down stands at trade fairs or take the occasional job helping someone move, renovating a house, or selling mulled wine at the Christmas market.
Living here are a furniture maker, several carpenters, a sound engineer, several mechanics, a master of props at the state theater, students, and quite a few clowns (due to Mainz’s renowned clown school). There is a man who works one night a week on a factory assembly line, a carpenter’s apprentice, and a women training to be a camera(wo)man. The thing is that wagenplatz living is cheap, and when you don’t need a lot of money to cover your basic expenses you don’t need to work 9-5 and can take the time to do more (or less) work for money and more (or less) work for yourself or as a volunteer. Because this lifestyle involves a lot more work (chopping wood, lighting fires, carrying water), it can be more of a hassle than it is worth to work so many hours a week.
So what does it cost then?
The rent we pay was decided on by a group before my time, and covers the water and electricity we borrow from Haus Mainusch. It is 40 euros a month. If you can’t pay one month, or eight months, it’s no big deal to pay in big later (or earlier) chunks. Generally the ebbs and flows of people paying and not paying balance each other out so that we can continue to pay the trash and electricity bills, which we split with the house.
Besides the occasional wagon repair expense–tar to stop up a leaky roof or new boards for a rotten bit in the wall–the only other living expense is wood, which, if you’re crafty and observant you could scavenge entirely. One man here bought a press at the end of the last winter and has been pressing his own paper briquettes (saw dust and paper scraps courtesy of the trash) all summer, which we sometimes order together in bulk from the building supply store. If you were to buy all of your wood, you would need 1.5 to 2 square meters for one winter here, and this year’s prices are 55 euros for a “shaken” meter of beech, 65 euros for a meter of oak. (“Shaken” meter is not stacked, but poured into a square meter box by a big machine–never quite a true meter, but all that is available in our area this year.)
So your average yearly expenses–not including food–are approximately 630 euros: 480 for rent, 100 for wood, and maybe 50 for wagon repairs. You might also consider things like health insurance and/or doctor’s bills and luxuries like booze and vacations and concert admissions. Me, being an avid dumpster diver and Pfand collector (the cans you can return for cash), I currently live a really sweet life for less than 1,000 euros a year. I think of it as taking the “starving” out of “starving writer.” And once upon a time I made 800-1,200 euros a month, to pay the rent and all the other bills that come with a 9-5 job and apartment life. Wow.
According to the (American) Federal Poverty Guidelines, however, I live in such deep poverty that I would probably be statistically categorized among the bearded hobos who drink Drain-o and live in boxes, even though I am able to own my own house, having running water and electricity, and eat like a sultan on the money I have. According to those guidelines the category “poverty” begins when a $10,000 (6,800 euros) yearly income supports one person. Almost 7,000 euros a year I can no longer even imagine.
At the Frankfurt wagenplatz rent was 5 euros a month, which would have left me with about 150-200 euros worth of solid expenses each year. However as we didn’t have electricity there, I probably would have invested the initial savings in solar panels, 12-volt gadgets, and candles.
I want to know more about the communal kitchens. How do you get food for the vokü? Is there some kind of schedule that makes everyone lend a helping hand for community-based activities or can a wagon owner be lazy and live off of others’ toils?
First of all, I have to stress that there is a very clear difference between the communal kitchens and the kitchen in Haus Mainsuch out of which we run the vokü. The vokü is run by a diverse (and constantly changing) group of people. Each day’s cooking group is responsible for obtaining the food they need to cook what they’ve planned for that day, cooking it, and cleaning up after themselves. This does not always happen (that is, the cleaning part), and we are often understaffed (hey, want to come cook with us?) and stressed out. But then right when you think everything is the worst ever and are about to lose your faith in humanity and communal-living projects completely, everyone comes together and gets everything done and lives happily ever after.
Each of the resident’s communal kitchens are run differently, and I don’t know a lot about what the others do to keep the dishes washed and the cabinets full. In Hell (die Hölle, or hell, is our name for the vegan kitchen that I currently share with two others) we don’t have any specific system. We’re the crusty dumpster divers, and our kitchen reflects it. We have a vague order for whose turn it is to wash the dishes (“I washed the dishes yesterday and Scissors washed them the day before, so it’s your turn again”), and whoever feels like it cooks and cooks enough so that we can all get a portion.
Because all three of us are living under that imaginary poverty line, there’s also no question of counting up receipts. Whoever has money at the time goes shopping and puts all the food in the kitchen. Everything in the kitchen is there for everyone to use as they want. If you buy ingredients for something special, then you let the others know not to eat it or leave a note. Whoever is broke doesn’t have to feel guilty or go hungry, probably largely because we all know that the person who went shopping yesterday will be broke in a week and someone else will have just gotten paid. And when we’re all broke at the same time there are the dumpsters and leftovers to be picked up from the market.
We also have no schedule for whose turn it is to go dumpster diving or to pick up leftovers from the farmer’s market. Whoever feels like it goes, fills up the cabinets, and everybody eats really well, money or not.
All of the kitchens here have refrigerators, but in Hell we toss ours out every winter, and grab a new one from the student trash across the street every summer (most common dumpster finds in the student trash: bags of bags, refrigerators, clothing, oh wait, fucking everything). Why use so much electricity when you can just put the soy milk and the beer on the windowsill to the same effect?
In the residents’ kitchens or in the house kitchen, it is always possible for one or the other person to “be lazy” and “take advantage” of the work of others. However, I don’t find this to be the case. What from the outside might appear to be a “lazy person taking advantage” is often more of a tidal situation–one week I might feel depressed or lazy or be simply too busy to do anything for the kitchen and the others take care of things, and when they feel that same way I am there to back them up and do what they did for me when I wasn’t doing a lot of chores. For me personally the only distressing event is when the tide stops, and people start bitching about individual events instead of taking a look at the give and take of the big picture. But I grant it, in the moment when you don’t fucking feel like doing the dishes again, it can be hard to maintain that perspective.
What’s it like having a kitchen with no running water?
It takes a little getting used to, and a few small changes in cooking style, but is otherwise just like cooking in any other kitchen. We carry water from the faucet in the bathroom to the kitchen in a ten-gallon canister which usually lasts us a day or two. Some people have canisters with little taps on the bottom so that you can just turn a lever and have water run out into your cup/pot, but our canister does not, so we just pour.
To do the dishes we have a large metal bowl in place of a sink. We fill the bowl, heat up the water on the stove, wash the dishes as you would anywhere else, and then pour the used water into the gutter on the street behind Hell.
Who cleans the communal spaces? Do you guys decide on a schedule, or does anyone even clean them at all? And other communal spaces–is there communal cleaning that goes on at all?
The communal kitchens are the respon- sibility of the people using them. In Haus Mainusch, the people who cooked the vokü that day, or the organizer of any event that goes on there is responsible for cleaning up after themselves. Sometimes it works, and sometimes we all get really pissed off and have to clean it all ourselves anyway. But lately it’s been working.
The only thing we have a plan for is cleaning the woman’s bathroom. There we have a schedule with one lady per week to make sure things stay tidy.
As for the other communal spaces–the movie wagon and the guest wagon–it’s not really clear cut. For example a few weeks ago we had a pajama party/double surprise birthday party in the movie wagon, so a bunch of people spent the day cleaning it up and decorating together and did the same the following day. It’s mostly event based. If you walk into the movie wagon and think, eww gross, you either get started cleaning, or find the person you know made the mess, yell at them, and get them to finally clean up after themselves.
The guest wagon has only recently become a guest wagon again–for the last few years various people have lived in it for longer periods of time–so no cleaning pattern has had time to establish itself. When I have a guest coming to stay I make sure it’s cleaned up beforehand and after they leave, and I assume that will be the general trend, with random people sleeping in it, making a mess, and not cleaning up after themselves in between.
And that concludes this segment ladies and gentlemen.
If any of you still have questions, that would make me very happy, and you should leave them in the comments for me to answer in another installment. They’re lots of fun to answer.