Where's Sam the Man

48 countries, 12 months, one man, half a brain

Name: Samuel Hathaway
Location: Roaming..., Germany

Monday, February 18, 2008

Confessions of a Christian Maintenance Man

My confession is not just that I haven't blogged since the last blue moon, leaving you all to speculate about where in Turkey I was captured and sold into the white slave trade.

Nor is it just that I didn't didn't send you guys any Christmas presents. Your waiting is not due to the Turkish postal system -- I really didn't buy you any.

No, the heart of my confession is this: I have become a real man. I have been working as a maintenance man for the last four months.

You might as well get all of the laughs out of your system now.

Now shut up and let me explain.

Back in June, as I began to think about the logistics of one full year of travel, I began to realize that I couldn't stay on the move for 365 1/4 days. That last 1/4 day would be certain to kill me. Even the hard-core travelers that I've read about or talked to -- backpackers, motorcyclists, whatever -- said that after 6 months of being on the road "travel" becomes "living". The day plan becomes finding the next pub (or tea garden, depending on your preference) to hang out in. I decided that I need a place to rest from the road, refill my travel juices, be productive (I threw that in for my parents), and hopefully get to know a foreign culture a little better than constant backpacking allowed.

When I graduated from high school, all I knew was that I was leaving for Europe in a month and that I had nothing planned. I was thrown into travel homework as soon as school homework was done. As the weeks slipped by, me frantically trying to address all of the problems that needed to be addressed, I began to worry about finding any employment. Once I eliminated the out-of-season jobs like grape-picking in France, the unrealistic ones like being a female au pair, and the illegal ones like theft, all of the remaining opportunities were only for European citizens.

Those skinny-jean elitists.

When I lowered my standards from "formal employment with pay" to "whatever the heck I can get", things started to look more hopeful. My mother put me into contact with a Christian organization called the Capernwray Missionary Fellowship of Torchbearers, who often used volunteer labor in exchange for room and board. Torchbearers runs bible schools across the world, from Costa Rica to Greece to India (my mother attended the school in Sweden years ago), for students from all denominations and countries. Since they had schools throughout Europe, I knew it wouldn't be hard to end up at a school after my autumn travels.

After dozens of e-mail exchanges, kind offers, and much debating, I finally ended up at one of their German schools: Bodenseehof, in the town of Friedrichshafen. It was a convenient half way point as I finished traveling in Eastern Europe and started moving towards the West. Additionally, I was in close contact with two Germans and two Swiss (all past exchange students), so I had the reassurance of friends either in the country or next door.

Bodenseehof is located on the Bodensee/Lake Constance (the third-largest lake in Europe) in the south-eastern corner of Germany known as Baden-W├╝rttemberg. Looking out of your window at the school, you can see three countries -- the lake borders Germany, Switzerland, and Austria. Germany has the worst side of the lake, but it has the greatest view; on a clear day, you can the see the Swiss and Austrian Alps rising up out of the water. It's such a huge thrill to see every day. To remind yourself that you are seeing the the Swiss and Austrian Alps across the vast, glistening lake surface never fails to excite me. The German side is much more flat, with some rolling hills as you go farther inland. It is thick with miniature farms, vineyards, and pastures -- very lush, very peaceful.

The English-speaking school is an international conglomeration of about 80 odd students and staff. Most of the 60 students are from America or Canada, but there are some from Kenya, Taiwan, Japan, France, Austria, and, of course, Germany. Although the majority of the students are fresh out of high school, there are some college students and even middle-aged men and women in attendance. All come to the school with no grandiose theological goals, but rather with the simple desire to learn the foundational truths of Christianity and to draw closer to God.

Enter Samuel Hathaway: a windswept young man wearing shorts and flip-flops in the below-zero weather (so Germany isn't as warm as Turkey...), slinging two fake Hugo Boss duffels from his shoulders which were slowly sawing off his arms with their oppressive weight (had to carry my bike gear somehow), dragging a grungy cardboard box with Turkish slogans fading on the side (that would be my bike box), wearing cloths that had been washed with dish soap in a hostel kitchen for the last four months, and smelling no doubt rather ripe. What to do with this pitiful hobo at your door? Put him on the maintenance team.

Bodenseehof was in the heat of a large remodeling project, which meant that I and my baby-soft hands were thrown into the thick of things. Week 1 was "Learning How to Tile a Floor with Gerhard, a German Man Who Can Speak As Much English as I Speak German", and it just took off from there. From tiling floors we went to dry walling, painting everything from plaster to radiators to fire doors, building patios, carpentry, sawing firewood in the forest...you know, being Real Man (I had no idea what that meant, until now). In addition, the maintenance team is made up solely of Germans, which means that asking questions or receiving instructions for detailed jobs was much more difficult (anybody know the German word for "hacksaw"? the English word for that strange canister marked "lecksuchspray"?).

The beginning was painful, as I learned completely foreign skills and the calluses they require, but I slowly began to adapt -- and even enjoy myself. The raw, hands-on nature of maintenance work leaves you very satisfied upon completion of a job. And the jobs themselves, although not necessarily fascinating, were constantly changing and demanding new skills. Painting doors would require a patient attention to detail and aesthetics, installing lights would require a brief lesson on electronics, carrying sewer pipes would require my awesome brawn, etc. I appreciated the lack of routine, and the chance to learn and apply new skills -- patiently taught by the German maintenance men. Although the language barrier was frustrating at first, my German grammar and accent naturally improved much more quickly than would have been possible, otherwise.

Of course, these German instructions have their downsides: I'm only a German Christian Maintenance Man. The terms I know, the electronic system I know, etc., are only valid in Germany -- Europe, if we stretched it a bit. So, mom and dad, don't be thinking how nice it will be to have me home so I can be a resident MacGyver. I mean, I am a MacGyver, but the European one. The one with the dark-wash skinny jeans.



So, that's a summery of the last few months of relatively normal life. Settling down has not just allowed me to rest and save money, but has been a great cultural experiance. I feel like I am no longer walking through Europe like a man at the zoo, looking at all of the strange creatures in the cages; living here has allowed me to leave behind the spectators and get into the cage to slap high-fives with the monkeys. Or something like that. Anyway, the culture suddenly seems valid and workable, and no longer as strange as it once seemed. Europe is now a home and not a vacation spot.

My apologies at this delay, and my promises for more prompt updates. I'll try to post some pictures, soon, and maybe a quick list of highlights from my time here in Germany. Meanwhile, I'm working on plans for my spring travels. First destination: Italia.