By this point the phrase, ‘May contain traces of gluten’ has taken on a whole new meaning. Traces are everywhere. They’re in my shoes and in my pockets and in my hair and on my floor. Everywhere but in my small intestine, so we’re all good. Keep your enemies close, right? Isn’t there a saying like that?
Anyway, the harvest is over and now I get to spend 9 hours a day processing what I just spent 4 weeks harvesting. This week I picked apart and cleaned barley seeds by hand for the whole day, everyday. Its the same three actions repeated 345 million times; I swear that’s a modest exaggeration.
The morning usually goes by pretty quickly, but I always hit a slump after lunch between 1 and 2:30, where I have a full on existential, “What are you doing here? Why are you here? This can’t be worth it!” time.
I call it my mid-day crisis.
On Tuesday it was 37 degrees and we were inside, but on the third floor without ventilation and I was seriously concerned that my body would soon cease sweating and I would surpass the ability to cool down. In that moment I thought, “Why are you here? This can’t be worth it! Have you ever been this hot before?” (hehe) That last one though…when have I been this hot? I thought about it.
Kilometer 81 and my time in Paraguay came to mind and maybe some intense summer days at camp. As I reflected on the beads of sweat dripping onto the freshly cleaned sheets I was putting on hotel room beds back in Paraguay, I compared the motives between the work at Km 81 and the work here at Gut Eckendorf. At Km 81 I made the equivalent of $20 a month and we all know no one works at camp to earn money. In both situations I was earning significantly less money than now. I was voluntarily sacrificing my comfort and safety because I found meaning in my work and was there for a larger purpose. What is the meaning at Gut Eckendorf, when I’m sorting through seeds that will most likely be weighed and then end up in the trash?
My siblings and I sometimes joke that we were not raised to make money. The children of a chaplain and a nursery school teacher, we seem groomed to care for people and to seek meaningful interactions in our day-to-day. I often wonder how we, generally as a society, arrive at the sums for salaries paid to different jobs. How do we go about monetizing life? I know I most often care about and find joy in things that aren’t monetized. In fact, it often feels like monetizing them would reduce their value.
And yet, everything costs money. I mean everything – like even going to the bathroom in Germany. (Don’t get me started on this trend of charging to use the bathroom. Relieving oneself is a time-sensitive basic human need. What’s next? Charging to breathe? ). This, amongst other things like rent, is why we work. But back to the meaning…
The meaning I have sought and found at Gut Eckendorf is in the conversations and contact with international colleagues. I have been given a rare chance to see the world, at least partly, from their point of view. Mostly from Romonia, Poland, Macedonia and Latvia, the employees live in housing on company property provided for by Gut Eckendorf and work as many hours as possible. Their only goal is to make as much money as possible, because as they have told me, they cannot find adequate work to survive in their home countries. Legally, they are only allowed to work 60 hours a week and they are unhappy if they don’t fill that maximum. While I am saddened by their situations and amazed by their ongoing positivity, I can fathom why they put themselves through this. Circumstances permit them from enjoying a balanced work to home-life ratio and they have no other options.
Once in a while, a feeling of unfairness sneaks up on me. I catch myself thinking, “I work faster than they do. They work slowly so that they can get paid for over time, but if I get the work done in regular hours, I should get paid what they do and go home on time.” I immediately reign myself in though, and am reminded that nothing about the corruption in Romania is fair. Nothing about the wages they earn in Latvia is fair. They have every right in my mind to work at a moderate pace with breaks and they deserve every penny of the low wage they receive at Gut Eckendorf. It is all perspective.
What I find more difficult to understand is why german employees that live here and have their entire families and social circles here, work that much as well. The other day I was eating my lunch with some german employees. I had a piece of a zucchini loaf that I had baked and I was eating plums and figs from the fruit trees in my relatives back yard. My lunchtime companions were amazed that I had had time to bake a zucchini loaf and couldn’t believe that my relatives had a large garden which had, at this point, seemingly endlessly replenishing delicacies of zucchini, figs, plums, apples, tomatoes, potatoes etc. etc. etc.
Far too often, I hear this conversation. “I don’t know when I’ll have time to go grocery shopping. By the time I’m done work all the stores are closed”, or “I’m too exhausted to cook. When I got home at nine’o’clock last night I just ate ice cream and then went to bed.”
And yet, everyday when I deny the offer of ‘over hours’ (this is the literal german translation that is used exclusively in a thick german accent), and leave promptly at 4:45 after a 9 hour work day and 45 minutes of unpaid break, I get the stink-eye. They don’t understand why I don’t work more. I don’t understand why they do. We are mutually confused at one another.
On the one hand I see that it is an enormous privilege to be able to not depend on every hour and by extension, euro. I also know that I am here for other reasons, such as to spend time with extended family and get to know other aspects of life in Germany. On the other hand though, I wonder if it is not so much a privilege, but a different set of priorities. Yes, I could use the money I would make if I worked more well, but I think what I do in my time off is worth more than what I would make.
In the room where I sort the seeds, there is also a seed sorting machine that is so loud it discourages any conversation .To drown that noise out, my colleagues like to blare the pop hits featured on “Eins Live” (pronounced ‘Eins Life’ which makes me think ‘One Life’, or ‘Life first’ every time I hear it). From time to time I like to drown those layers of unrest out with a podcast.
The other day I fittingly tuned in to a podcast discussing the possibility and potential effect of a minimum income. If you’ve never heard of this before, it is a proposed social right that every citizen of a country would get a basic minimum income – no strings attached. While this is often dismissed as utopian and in support of laziness, I couldn’t help but see the benefits that a system like that would have for me, never mind my colleagues and friends from all over Europe. What if none of us had to work to survive? What if we measured success not in monetary terms, but in well-being? What if we could do things because WE WANTED to do them. Would we want to do things? What would you do with your time? Would you feel free to donate your time and effort to meaningful things that you’ve dismissed because they don’t ‘pay the bills’? Think arts, think caring for parents or children, think social services and volunteering. Hell, I’m thinking I would do a whole lot more writing. And I wouldn’t think twice about working at camp.
As I sort the seeds, I know that they will land in the garbage. This particular genotype of speed barley has run its course and has proven to be not fruitful enough to pursue as a marketable, profitable species. This project has already been discarded, but the work of recording it has to be done. I am reminded of the all too common analogy of planting the seeds of an idea in the hopes that it might throw down some roots and one day grow into a solid tree. This genotype has been carefully bred and countless hours have been given to it by workers such as myself. The company has invested substantial funding, and now we know that this seed is not effective and will never grow into a solid, reliable crop. Gut Eckendorf specializes in trying to give as many seeds a chance as possible. What if we let ideas that seem like little fickle seeds have a chance to grow into solid, reliable trees? Call me crazy but I think then we might just have things like a minimum income where folks don’t neglect their lives in pursuit of money so that they might have a life. ‘Eins life’, am I right?