Our day started in Munich frantically searching for Wi-Fi to connect with our flighty host in Falkenberg. Whereupon we discovered that we were not headed to the Falkenberg one hour away by train, but to the one that is a six-hour bus ride, an hour train ride and too many euros away. Our unapologetic host mentioned this about an hour before the last bus ride to Berlin departed. Forever ignoring the red flags from the start that warned us of what this adventure would entail, my traveling partner, Laura, and I hurriedly purchased Megabus tickets northward, ran to the bus station and sat anxiously on the crowded coach. Once in Berlin, we stomped tiredly through the slick streets fresh with rainfall, our eyes glued to our Google Maps app telling us patiently where to go to catch our train to Eberswalde. Letting out a sigh of relief once we boarded, we unstrapped ourselves from the luggage that was attached to us and sat on the quick one hour train from Berlin to Eberswalde, from which we would allegedly catch a twenty minute ride to Falkenberg – the last train of the night to our quaint German getaway.
I had first learnt about Workaway through the extensive research that I’d done to prepare for the trip. By Googling terms like “cheap ways to travel Europe” and “how to travel for free”, I came across numerous blogs and travel sites proclaiming the wonders of Workaway. I discovered something that seemed like a dream come true: a site that facilitates work exchange arrangements by allowing hosts with extra space and work that needed doing to list their needs online for cash-strapped youths such as myself to browse and choose working arrangements that suited our plans and abilities. The deal is room and board for the worker in exchange for work and time for the host. As a way to subsidize my gallivanting, I arranged to do five weeks of Workaway – one in a small town in northwestern Germany and four in the Scottish Highlands.
This is how I had come to find myself in such an unplanned and harried situation – our host had not responded to my barrage of emails starting a month off and leading up to the day of our supposed arrival. “Hi! Just confirming that you have us penned in to come the fifth of October…” Turned into more frantic and agitated, “Thomas, can you confirm that we should come today?” And ended with, “If you don’t respond within the next hour, we will not be coming.” And, of course, at the forty-five minute mark, I received a lackadaisical reply: “Of course you will be welcome to come, we are at the Falkenberg Mark train station.” And with that scant information to go by, we eventually found ourselves stepping off of the one car train at the Falkenberg Mark station, ten hours after departing from Munich earlier that day.
We were greeted by a man who looked like the hippie version of Doc from Back to the Future: his hair was white and wild, shoulder length and frizzled. His face was smooth, tan and lined, looking much like the final draft of a clay sculpture before it has properly hardened. He was tall and skinny, wearing light jeans and an untucked black and white flannel shirt. A woman stood beside him, tall and shorter than him by no more than two inches. Her unruly hair was gathered into a hasty bun on the crown of her head, a light auburn color. She wore a striped thermal undershirt with a colorful wool dress layered over it. Together, they looked like a 1970s version of American Gothic, their background a dilapidated brick train station, a faded “Falkenberg Mark” sign drilled resolutely into the wall.
“Welcome to Falkenberg,” The woman said. “My name is Adrienne.” She extended her hand with a dutiful air and Laura and I both grabbed it and gave it a crisp pump while we exchanged names and how-do-you-dos.
“And I am Thomas,” The man said, smiling shyly and already turning on his heel to walk down the darkened steps off of the train platform.
“Is your home close to the train station?” I asked, curious because Thomas had never given me a direct address to his house, he had only ever said to go to Falkenberg Mark.
Adrienne gave the sort of laugh you expect to come from a pernicious villain in a Disney cartoon. “This is our home,” She explained, her voice full of something close to bitterness and heavy with ire.
We turned the corner, snaking around the old brick building to enter through two large white doors.
“This is the main house,” Adrienne told us. “This is where you will make all your meals and shower, though you will be sleeping in the other building.”
Her tone was businesslike and flat, she sounded disinterested and almost angry that she had to be out of her apartment at ten o’clock at night to welcome two American girls into her home. Thomas, meanwhile, was bumbling about behind us, tinkering around with small appliances and moving pieces of furniture with difficulty. His attention span seemed to be quite short, a fact that made Adrienne turn even colder as the tour continued. The last leg of the tour deposited us in the kitchen where two boys were sat at the table surrounded by hamburgers and condiments and empty bottles of beer.
“These are our current Workawayers, but they’re leaving tomorrow,” Adrienne said. “They wanted to make you a welcoming dinner. They’ll show you around and give you your keys.”
“I hope you enjoy the meal,” Thomas said. “Be in this kitchen at eight o’clock tomorrow so that we might discuss your time here.” And with that, the pair left the kitchen and left us alone with the two boys.
“Hi,” I said. “My name’s Mary.” I extended my hand and Laura and I exchanged niceties with the pair of them. We discovered that their names were Nick and John, they were from Texas, they had been here for a month, they were planning on traveling for eight more months, they were on their gap year following their graduation from high school.
“So,” Nick ventured after a couple of beers. “What’d you think of Thomas?”
“He’s… Nice,” I managed. “He seems like he doesn’t have a much of an attention threshold.”
The boys laughed. “That’s Thomas for you,” John said. “He barely made us do any work, we just moved junk from one room to another for an hour a day then the rest of the time he let us hike around. They’re great though, they took us out to dinner almost every day and let us pick out whatever we wanted to at the grocery store! Whenever we run out of beer,” He gestured to the nearly empty flat in the back corner, “They’ll take us to the grocery store and buy us another one.”
“Sounds like best case scenario,” I said.
“It’s definitely better than what I thought Workaway would be,” John said. “But Thomas is a really weird dude. There are like five other people living here for free that aren’t Workawayers and I’m pretty sure that Thomas is the town loony, he owns like fifty cars and is always driving around town picking up everyone’s junk. They just leave their stuff on the corner and Thomas drives around every day and picks up whatever he sees on the corners.”
“Well as long as our food and room is paid for, it can’t be that bad, right?” Laura said.
“Right,” Said Nick. “Just ignore Thomas for the most part and do what you want and this will be the best place you’ve stayed at.”
And with that, we drank away the last of the flat, played a rousing but half-hearted game of Monopoly and exchanged stories until three in the morning, where we dragged our luggage up three flights of stairs in a rickety building and fell into a deep sleep on a queen mattress on the floor with a kitten duvet cover and old crème colored sheets.
My alarm buzzed me awake, a deafening din of synthetic bells and whistles. The time read seven thirty in the morning. I shook Laura awake and we began to ready ourselves for the day ahead of us: one we dreamed would comprise of at most three hours of work and the rest dedicated to experiencing the forested mountains and green trails that wound through the city. We walked down the creaking stairs, mindful of the woman on the first floor that the boys warned us about last night. Her name, they said, was Dogma and her profession, they insisted, was training dogs. Dogma the dog trainer had six dogs, all of whom she kept in her tiny flat and all of whom would bark incessantly at the slightest creaky provocation. So we tiptoed carefully down the roughly hewn wooden stairs and made it to the kitchen just before the clock struck eight.
The Texans were in the kitchen frying up bacon-wrapped bratwursts. We hadn’t been allotted any food or space in the kitchen, so we just waited there as the boys scarfed down their hearty breakfasts. Other people began to filter into the small kitchen. Some said hi, like the friendly German couple with Irish accents – a souvenir from their recent travels learning English in Ireland. But now their funds were dried up so they found themselves living in Thomas’s train station for free, helping out with light housework in exchange for a room. Some didn’t say anything to us, like the tall skinny man with deep purple bags under his eyes and a bowl cut that would make a mother from the fifties proud. The only thing we would ever see him do was take out the pot that held the constantly stinking compost and the only thing we would ever hear him utter was the light whistling tune that he’d croon when he would take out the compost.
They all made their own breakfasts, apparently unaware of the two new recruits sitting breakfast-less at the table. Nobody offered us their food. The people came and went and it wasn’t until the grease-stained oven clock read nine twenty five that Thomas finally entered the kitchen. He came flanked by Adrienne and the pair of them ushered the Texans, all packed up and ready to go, to the train platform. There were fond goodbyes and lingering hugs and promises to see one another again as the boys left their hosts. Then the train rattled away and the four of us turned slightly awkwardly back to the kitchen, the ghost of the boys’ easy and lighthearted presence mocking our stiff silence.
“Did you have breakfast?” Thomas asked us when we had finally settled into the kitchen.
“No,” I responded, slightly incredulous. “We weren’t told of any food that we could use.”
“Oh yes,” Thomas said, apparently forgetting that part of the deal was that he provide us with food. “Well Adrienne will take you to the grocery store tonight to get you food for the next week.”
“And until then?” My friend asked, her stomach helpfully rumbling in the silence before he answered.
“Well, let’s see…” He said, standing up and rustling through other people’s food. “I’m sure you can have some of this bread. In Germany, we have very light breakfasts, so just bread and butter should be enough.”
“Oh ok,” I said, the lingering smell of the Texans’ bacon-wrapped bratwursts and the German couple’s fried salmon making his light breakfast comment tauntingly laughable.
As my friend and I started toasting the bread and sneaking butter out of the small refrigerator of other people’s food, Thomas started discussing the terms of our working arrangement.
“I am very laid-back,” Thomas started. “I have lived in many places and love getting to know people and learn about different cultures. This is why I have opened my home up on Workaway,” Thomas then went on a long and rambling speech that was rather hard to follow. He waxed poetic about culture and connections and work and France for what felt like thirty stretched out and disconnected minutes. I zoned back in when he finished up his speech with, “I mainly want you here so that I can learn English better, but it will be nice if you would help with lunch and dinner and some simple work around the house, some painting, some organizing, that sort of thing. It shouldn’t take more than two or three hours a day.”
“That sounds great,” I said. “We were hoping to do a lot of hiking and walking while we were here in this beautiful area, can we have some scheduled time for that?”
“Yes, of course!” Thomas exclaimed. “As I said, you are here mainly to help me with my English and to explore German life and culture. I think the best way to do this is to not work so much, but just to talk and hike. But I do not really like structure or schedules, so really, just go whenever you want to.”
“That sounds perfect,” I said. “Will you need us to do anything around the house this morning or can we take a hike now?”
“I will want you to paint this room this morning,” He gestured to the room behind the kitchen where the Texans had been staying, “Then you can have the rest of the day off.” His phone started ringing urgently. “Please wait here for me while I take this call and I will show you where the paint and brushes are. While you wait, please move the furniture into the other room so that you can paint when I get back.”
It was ten thirty when he left. It was ten forty-five when we had moved all of the furniture from one room to the other. It was ten fifty-five when we went outside to wait in the sun. It was eleven thirty when one of the students asked us where Thomas was and we shrugged in response. It was noon when Laura and I finally saw the outline of Thomas’s lanky body staggering toward us, weighed down from carrying large white cabinets. He was coming in from the town and he called to us to help him as he rounded the corner to the main house. We ran to help him and assisted him in carrying the large cabinets into the kitchen, where he insisted on perching the flimsy white drawers on top of the similarly flimsy wooden chest full of the housemates’ food. The towering spectacle screamed of safety hazards and illogical thought processes, but Thomas gazed on the thing with a crazed look full with pride and satisfaction.
“Why is the room not painted?” Thomas asked, looking into the empty and, admittedly, unpainted room beside the kitchen.
Confused, I answered, “You said to wait for you to get the paint and brushes…?” I tried to keep my voice calm and unaccusing.
“Oh, yes,” Thomas said. “Well now it is too late to paint! I would like it very much if you both made lunch for the students and I.”
Thomas called the people staying in his house students, though of the five others, only one was actually an enrolled student.
“Ok,” Laura said. “What food can we use to make the lunch?”
Thomas rummaged around the kitchen and produced a mesh sack full of small red potatoes and a single packet of powdered hollandaise sauce.
“This should work,” He said. “And please don’t use salt, I can’t have salt because of my health.”
“Are there any other ingredients that we can use?” I asked hesitantly. “I’m no cook, but this seems like it will not be much of a meal.”
“Just be creative,” Thomas replied cheerfully, looking at us expectantly with a broad smile on his waxy face. “That’s all the work I have for you for now. Please be ready to serve us at one.”
And so, as best we could, we prepared the meager meal. The result was as I had expected: not much of anything. Laura and I tasted the hollandaise sauce and could not pretend, even for each other, that it was anything close to good. The potatoes were, unsurprisingly, exactly as boiled potatoes would be expected to be: mushy and tasteless. The clock ticked closer to one and Laura and I fretted about our terrible two-ingredient meal. As the crew entered the room and sat around the table, Laura and I prepared to sit with them before realizing that they expected us to actually serve them. They looked up at us expectantly and made no moves to get their own dishes, utensils or food. Astounded, but at a loss for words or knowledge of our rights as Workawayers, Laura and I quietly gathered the necessary dinnerware and made the rounds serving them potatoes and hollandaise sauce. We just stood next to the full kitchen table as they dug in, the lone thank you coming from the soft-spoken woman in the German-Irish couple. They ate with a flagrantly undisguised lack of fervor – Thomas even pushed his plate away after two bites – and left the kitchen one by one, leaving behind their dirtied dishes and half-eaten meals.
The ensuing days followed this harrowing pattern. Thomas became more scatterbrained ever than before – I was aghast that this was possible – and the dream life in Falkenberg that the Texans spoke of became more hazy and unbelievable. We were not taken to the grocery store to get our own food until our third day there – trust me, we asked. A lot. It seemed that every time we were geared up to go on one of our promised hikes, Thomas needed us. Though he would often make us wait around for hours at a time on a sort of lockdown as he decided what, exactly, he needed us for. Ironically, we became the de facto cooks, though we were only given potatoes and hollandaise sauce and had no food stores of our own (we had taken to sneaking bits of bread, cheese and plums from the cabinets cluttered with the students’ food). We were asked to clean and watch their children and move furniture and to wait for Thomas.
Then on the third morning when Bjorn, a so-called student, stopped us and asked us to wait for Thomas before we set off into the village, we said, Okay! cheerfully and then promptly walked away, towards the town and into the woods. I sneaked a glance at him over my shoulder as we turned the corner and saw him actually shrug his shoulders and get back to working on one of Thomas’s fifty junk cars parked beside the train station. Laura and I burst out laughing. I felt like I had just broken out of the loony bin. I was giddier than I had ever been in my entire life – we ran through the empty town streets, zigzagging and whooping as though we had just found out that we had won the lottery. We eventually calmed down and found the trailhead that the Texans had told us about.
“God,” I said to Laura, sighing. “We’ve got to get out of here.”
“I know,” She replied. “If getting twenty feet away from that place made us feel that happy, we should not be in that place.”
We spent the rest of the hike figuring out the logistics of getting out of the small-town German prison we’d found ourselves trapped in. We were lucky: Laura had a high school friend in Berlin who could host us for a couple of days until we could check into our hostel there. Relieved, we spent the rest of our hike imagining life outside of our abandoned train station, dreaming about Berlin, getting excited to eat something other than potatoes and oatmeal. But now came the hard part: telling our hosts.
“If you must leave tomorrow to see your friend, then that should be alright,” Thomas said rather dispassionately after we told him our fabricated story regarding a good friend and urgent plans. “But you are in luck – you will still be here for the barbeque tonight.”
“A barbeque?” I asked, nervously adding, “Who’s coming?” Fearing that we would have to cook for the whole town.
“Well, we have a new Workawayer, Allan, coming in,” Thomas said. “And, of course, everyone who lives in the station and some other friends from the town. You two will do the cooking, yes?”
“I guess,” Laura said hesitatingly. “Is there anything other than potatoes to cook though?”
“Yes,” Thomas said, rubbing his chin and thinking. “I think we have some steak and some liver.”
“Well, then,” I said with heavy sarcasm that I knew he wouldn’t catch, “Let’s get cookin’.”
Allan, as luck would have it, was an engineer from the Czech Republic who absolutely loved to cook. So there we were at five o’clock that evening: in the small yellowing yard beside the train station cooking steak, liver and zucchini for a party of twenty on a lukewarm grill. There wasn’t nearly enough food to feed the entire party (three small cuts of steak, one liver, two zucchinis), but Thomas didn’t seem to care much about people being fed at his own barbeque. As I watched the mayhem stir around me – the screaming children, the sparse food, the angry exchanges between Thomas and Adrienne – I couldn’t be gladder that I would be leaving this place the next morning on the first train out.
“So,” Allan ventured, after most of the party had left and the three of us were stacking dishes and preparing to take them to the kitchen, “How is this place?”
Laura and I looked at each other. What should we tell him? He had already told us that he was committed to staying here for a month, that his travel was all lined up and planned out, that his tickets were sorted, that he was excited to spend time in Germany fixing up a train station and designing a ‘cultural hub’ – the online promise that Thomas had made. Should we be brutally honest and warn him of the perils to come? Should we be dangerously optimistic? I thought of how the Texans’ positivity made the stark reality that much worse. I thought of how the Texans seemed to have a much different experience than us. I thought of how the Texans never mentioned cooking or starving or cleaning. I thought of –
“Allan, why don’t you join us and let the girls take care of the cleaning?” Thomas interrupted my train of thought.
And then it dawned on me. The Texans hadn’t been lying or too optimistic or woefully oblivious… They’d been men. And thus pardoned from the jobs of cooking, cleaning and childcare.
“That’s ok,” Allan said. “I like doing the dishes.”
Thomas shrugged as if to say, Suit yourself, and walked back to the group of lingerers still chatting and pushing around cold steak on their plates.
When we got into the kitchen, I ran my new theory past Laura and Allan. Allan seemed hesitant to jump on our radical-American-feminist bandwagon, but Laura was indignantly with me.
“Well,” She said, “The sooner we’re out of here, the better.”
So we spent one more night in our unlockable room on the top floor of the abandoned train station and woke up eagerly the next morning, bags packed and ready to go. We boarded the train and our two hosts didn’t bother to give us hugs or pretend to be even a little bit sad to see the backs of us. I made to give Allan a sympathetic little wave but then remembered that he wouldn’t need my sympathy so I gave him a friendly smile instead. Then the train doors closed and we zoomed off to Eberswalde, Berlin, Laura’s friend’s apartment.
The couple, Laura’s American friend and her German boyfriend, was aghast when they heard our tale. Our retelling was long and indulgent, plump with injustice and incredulousness. The couple gasped at the right times and interjected horrified exclamations with a satisfying regularity.
“Wow,” The boyfriend said as our long yarn came to a close. “Well thank god you’re in Berlin now so we can show you what real Germans are like.”
“That’s the best thing I’ve heard in four days,” Laura said.
“Come on,” The friend said, grabbing her scarf and purse. “There’s a football game just starting. We can watch at the bar on the corner!”
“Now that’s the best thing I’ve heard in four days,” I said, buttoning up my coat and sliding my boots onto my feet.