Bigger Apples Are Not Always Better
While I was cycling along the river Elbe in former East Germany with my wife this summer, I met a rather interesting man. In Riesa for a day and a night I had left my wife visiting a museum, as she likes to do, while I hung out in cafes, backstreet bars and along the riverfront. It was sitting on a bench by the river that I met Emil. He seemed to be trying to tie a hook on the line of his fishing rod. It was a rough old rod that I could see had been repaired many times. There was almost more glue and tape than rod. Emil was struggling with the task. This was partly due to clumsy fingers and partly due to poor eyesight, I deduced. A keen fisherman as a boy, I eventually offered to help. It was hard for me to watch an old man struggling like that.
The river Elbe meanders from the hills near Prague, all the way to the sea in Hamburg
"Can ich hilfe mit das?" I asked him, in equally clumsy German.
He smiled, muttered something incomprehensible and handed me the tangled mess.
"Francais?" he asked, "American?"
"Englander," I replied.
He patted my shoulder. "Ah, English. I learn English in the school. Could you please direct me to the post office?"
He laughed heartily. Confused at first, I laughed also when I realised this was a phrase he remembered from his English lessons. Putting on my glasses I began untangling the line. Emil introduced himself and began asking me questions about my trip and my life in England. At the same time as satisfying his curiosity, I focussed my attention on the business of tying the hook to his line. The job was soon complete. Offering him some figs and nuts from my backpack, I asked about his own circumstances.
"My name is Emil, I am born in Riesa, nineteen sixty-two," he told me. "I have fifty-two years."
He was younger than he looked. I had him down for around sixty or even more. His lined face intrigued me. I asked him where he lived, whether he worked and whether he was married or had children. He didn't seem to mind me asking such personal questions. He laughed again and banged me on the back.
"Ah this is good questions, my friend, jah very interesting questions."
Emil sighed. I waited patiently for his reply as he muttered to himself, chuckling and repeating the words wife, children and work. Eventually he went quiet, his gaze fixed on dragonflies hovering over the river, squinting against the backdrop of afternoon sun breaking through the willow trees, the trees swaying in the breeze and brushing the water like a dancer's skirt.
"Children no," he said, breaking the silence. "Wife finish, go to Berlin now. I don't have see her for five years. Job no. Working alone. Philosopher!" he laughed again. "Philosopher, yes."
Cautiously I pressed him to expand upon what he had told me about his life. Emil had trained as a mechanical engineer. He had grown up in a communist East Germany and had disliked the factory he had been forced to work in. He had not had any choice over where he worked, he explained. It was dark, noisy and miserable. After years of working in the factory he had become sick. Emil gestured towards a huge derelict brick building in the distance with a blackened chimney rising prominently on the skyline. He tapped his head.
"Sick by the head, my friend."
Emil's former workplace. Disused factories are everywhere in East Germany
Emil explained how he had left the single room flat which was tied to his work at the factory. He slept in an old shack by the river that was used to store lime and sulphur. The chemicals had burned his nostrils and lungs and had made his eyes sore. He had lived on soup that his old work colleagues shared with him from the factory canteen when he met them during their lunch-breaks. He had stolen vegetables from allotments and once a chicken, which he found himself unable to kill. Eventually he had found a better place to sleep where the hot water pipes crossed the river. These large pipes came from the factory. The hot water was a byproduct from the furnaces and it heated the blocks of flats in which he had lived. Little by little Emil had set up a diminutive home, suspended over the riverbank. Careful about coming and going, nobody had discovered him in the eight years he lived up there. There he had eked out a meagre existence, even growing his own vegetables in a corner of a nearby field, while he cannibalised old bits of dumped machinery for parts that he sold on the black market.
Eventually East Germany had been reunified with West Germany and Emil found he could make a good living selling recycled engineering parts from abandoned factories to West German businesses. He prospered and moved into a bungalow in a newly built suburb of nearby Dresden. Before too long he was driving a big BMW and eating out in smart restaurants.
"I have in my house one big TV, refrigerator, microwave, porcelain plates from Meissen," he laughed again, "silk sheets on the bed! Yes yes I am rich. A swimming pool and then a wife. Too much beautiful wife, my friend, too much beautiful. Yes and a spend too much wife, oh yes! When I say stop to spend money she go, away."
Trappings of the Capitalist Dream
I knew the bad news was coming, long before Emil began shaking his head and raising his hands to the sky. He was still smiling, yet now it was a crazy kind of smile.
"So much shit!" he said, "yes, yes, so much bloody shit! Soon I don't care about this expensive stuff. I am all days with pain, worrying. Then my customers telling me they can to buy cheaper the parts in Romania or Czech Republic. Men tell me I must give them too much money or I cannot go to the old machines. I try to fight them with lawyers but it is too much expensive. Gangsters. I spend so much money, so much. Then my wife in Berlin with another man is request me for divorce. More expensive lawyers. I am drinking so much, and smoking. Too much of stress!" Emil tugged at his thin hair and screwed up his eyes at these painful recollections. "Finally I have nothing," he said, calmer now.
Emil sat back on the bench and breathed in the fresh aroma of the river on a summer afternoon. I felt uncomfortable having taken him back to these troubling memories.
"I have nothing once more. And so I am happy. Very happy."
Emil explained how the day he climbed back up to the tiny space between the hot water pipes and found his old home intact, just as he had left it, was the happiest day of his life. He had seen the men arrive in a removals truck outside. He was living in an apartment that he had only recently downsized to, and yet here they were like vultures or wild dogs, ready to take his remaining possessions. He had shoved a few clothes and valuables into a bag and gone out the back way, leaving them to pick over what he had left.
"I was feeling like I am escaping from a prison," he said gleefully. "Jah, I still feel this. I am waking up each morning in my small place between the pipes and when I know where I am, I am laughing. Yes, laughing because I am so happy every day since that time. Communism was shit, but capitalism is not the answer for the problem my friend, no no."
"So what is the answer to the problem, Emil?" I asked.
"Freedom of course!" he replied, laughing again. "Jah, we used to dream of freedom in the communist days, but capitalism is not freedom. Bigger apples is not always better, you know? Sometimes they are not so sweet. I am sorry, I don't like to say bad for another's life, it is a choice for each one, but it is only one more kind of system that force you to do what they say. You can think you will be free but it is a lie. Many blind people my friend, working for another. Working... working for... the man. You understand?"
I understood. I wanted to ask Emil if I could see where he lived but it didn't feel right somehow. It might have seemed to him that I needed further convincing that his way of life was better. I didn't, and I didn't want him to think that I did. Reaching down into a bag as I left, Emil handed me four bright red tomatoes and a sprig of wild thyme, which I took graciously. I bought some fresh bread and shared them with my wife in the park across from the museum. I think they were the most delicious tomatoes we had ever eaten.
The most delicious tomatoes we had ever eaten
My sincere apologies must go to Emil. Within days of me posting this blog he has found himself troubled by people hunting for him along the Elbe near Riesa. However well-meaning, I would ask anyone reading this blog to please respect his privacy and desire for solitude. Thank you.
If you would like to read the bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons' by Mark Swain, you can find this along with his two collections of short stories on Amazon, Smashwords etc.