Tuesday, August 27, 2013

My Communal Living Experience at ZEGG

A usual day for volunteers at ZEGG begins at 8 when we gather for a communal breakfast after which we convened for a volunteer’s group meeting where our tasks for the day were explained.  We worked 6 days a week from 9am – 1 pm (with a short tea break) and then had the rest of the afternoon to ourselves.  Once a week, we helped clean up in the kitchen and we also worked one afternoon in the week.  

We spent our first few days working with Almut.  She is responsible for keeping the place looking beautiful (a job she crafted herself) and we enjoyed working with her because it enabled us to be outdoors.  As we cleared the paved areas we learnt a lot about her experience of community.  Almut has been doing lots of English reading lately but has not had the chance to speak with native speakers so she is happy at the opportunity to practice another language.

Almut is on of the long-term members of this community although not a founding member.   She had come here originally as a volunteer and then decided to go through the process of becoming a full time community member.  The process includes a year of living and working in the community, enabling the community to get to know you and determine if you belong.  Of course this process works both ways!   

Almut says the winters in community are very different.  It is freezing cold and many people prefer to eat at home rather than be communal.  There are no summer guests around and the buzz you feel in the summer is gone.   If you haven’t carved a niche and made your circle of friends, the community can be a lonely place on a cold winters day.  The probationary year is meant to give you a real sense of this place and Almut was glad she was accepted at the end of her year.  But living in community can be quite an intense experience and the urge to travel and explore other communities is also strong in many of the people I
have met.  Almut is no exception.  She spent time at Tamera, the sister community of ZEGG based in Portugal.  She has also lived in Brazil, experiencing quite a different type of life and culture there.   However, living in other communities helped Almut realise that her true place was at ZEGG, and she came back to continue the work she started here.

I ask Almut about the provision for older people, as I had not really noticed people of my parent’s generation here.  She then shares with us a heart-warming story of how her mum has come to join her in the community although there is no formal program for older people as yet.  Almut’s mum is in her mid eighties now and has always been extremely independent.  For a long time she resisted the opportunities to move in with any of her children but by chance there was a vacant cottage at ZEGG that provided the perfect chance.  Of course such a decision had to be approved by the entire community and it is a validation of Almut’s contribution that no one opposed her proposition.  Perhaps it is the start of paving the way for parents of others to move in here.  Almut says her mum was always a pioneer of new ideas and it was the summer camps she ran for young people that originally planted the seed for communal living in Almut.

Volunteering has not only given us a chance to make close contacts within the community, it has also helped us chat to some of the other volunteers.  I get a chance to work in the gardens for two days and meet some of the younger volunteers who are completing an ecological volunteer year here.  When a
year of service in the military became optional, many young people opted to do other things and a year as an ecological volunteer seems to be a popular choice.  The young adults I meet are passionate and full of hope of creating a better world for their children, and this is wonderful to see.  I loved working in the garden.  Harvesting the fruits and vegetables is a truly rewarding job and on my last day in the garden we celebrated with a morning tea to say goodbye to a couple of the young volunteers whose year was up.  As we say on blankets and feasted on the harvest, they reflected on a year that has meant so much more than anything they could have learnt in textbooks! 

It was also during my volunteering work that I got to know Hendrik.  We were organising the clothing boutique, where donated clothes are arranged according to size and type, enabling community members to trade and exchange unwanted items.   While folding pullovers, Hendrik tells me about his work on a project that deals with a European Citizen’s Initiative for an Unconditional Basic Income.  The idea is that each European Citizen will be provided with a basic income of 1,000 Euros a month, irrespective of what they earn.  The idea is gaining momentum around the Europe, and Switzerland might just be the country that triggers this into a worldwide debate.  Activists there have collected more than 100,000 signatures in favour of this idea, which means the
country will have a referendum on the debate within the next two years.  More than 19 EU countries are also working on collecting the million signatures they need, to get the EU commission to examine the feasibility of this idea at a European level.

While we learnt much and had many positive experiences at ZEGG, we found the language issue a real barrier to fully appreciating our time here.  In the evening, we meet for a time of reflection and sharing.  The process requires each participant to share inner thoughts about their experiences and lives, which never seems to quite come through in translation and left us feeling rather disconnected.  This was probably amplified because while we made positive connections with some of the people we met, there were a couple of people who were openly hostile to English speakers.  Later we learn that the German obsession with perfection means that many people will be reluctant to speak a language till they have mastered it.  A couple of people were resentful that English was considered to be the Global Language and that even
in their home country, they were still not able to come to a summer program and operate solely in German.  Most English speakers who have grown up in the US, the UK or Australia rarely speak more than one language and this reluctance to even learn a few basic words in another language can be irritating to Europeans, who often speak at least two or three languages quite fluently.

But there is something else here – a heaviness that hangs in the air around us.   I can’t quite put my finger on but I sense something different to the freedom and lightness I felt in cities like Copenhagen and Amsterdam.  Interestingly, in three separate discussions I had with community members at ZEGG they share with me that many Germans carry a deep sense of guilt and shame on their shoulders because of the atrocities committed during the Second World War.  I have visited Germany previously but never experienced this.  Perhaps it is because we are in the East, perhaps it is the change in the weather, but I sense this cloud that hangs over the people here and wonder if this contributed to some of the friction we experienced. 

We come away having found a well functioning community, having made meaningful connections
with many people but also realising that language is vital to communication and hence to creating community.  Shared values, a common goal, a shared cultural identity and a sense of humour also go a long way toward creating the bonds of community.  Perhaps this became clearer while living for the first time in a community that was culturally and linguistically quite different to our own identities and to where we have come from.  Though, we both grew up on continents quite apart from each other, the British culture that is fundamentally part of my make up, the Christian upbringing, the emphasis on family is quite similar to Steve’s background.  We also share a love for discovery and have questioning minds that refuse to just accept the status quo.  More importantly, though we are sharing a journey and striving towards a common goal. 

Forming community for us is not necessarily about living in the same space but about going in the same direction.  About striving to achieve a common purpose.  About co-operating so that we might find time to be creative and supportive of each other’s dreams!  

"We become human only in the company of other human beings.  And this involves both opening our hearts and giving voice to our deepest convictions. ...When we shrink from the world, our souls shrink, too".  Paul Rogat Loeb

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