Gastarbeiter

The year is 1994. A pale intellectual arrives at the Munich train station with a small suitcase and many hopes. This is Germany—blossoming, as orderly as a village home expecting guests, a country groaning under the lash of the tyrannical Brothers Grimm (as our hero will discover a bit later on, they are pictured on the 1,000 deutsche mark note). The pale man meets a wide range of interesting characters such as Poles, employers, and crawling airplanes, as well as a mysterious desperado known as The Haskovite, with whom he soon finds himself shoulder to shoulder in the rows of pickling cucumbers. 

Martin Karbowski plays the pale man/Gastarbeiter, citizen of an allied country, who has fallen under the capitalist Friedenberger’s cruel boot. Will Karbowski survive this hell of betrayal, sinister intrigues, and getting up before dawn? Will he manage to save up a few marks and return to his homeland and his own people driving a used Mercedes? One Gastarbeiter’s story about spiritual strength and Slavic resilience in a hostile Teutonic environment. 

Day 1. I get on the train. It’s the beginning of summer. I get off at some town called Easter Courts (Osterhofen). On the train you realize yet again that this is Germany. If you decide to fart in the compartment—you immediately violate the New World Order and the cosmic hygiene of the country. Outside the window of the train, fields pass by one after another. Yet they don’t look anything like our fields. In Bulgaria, the corners and edges of fields are trampled and misshapen. Here the fields are trimmed down to the final cornstalk, the edges are as straight as an arrow, the corners are filigreed to form various shapes. From an airplane it surely must look like an embroidered pattern stitched by a German virgin, who remained a virgin her entire life. Because she did embroidery. 

I arrive. I get off the train. There's no one here. Everyone is at work. I need to reach my goal: the village of Fast Village (Schnelldorf). There is no such village. I wander for hours through the immaculate streets. Where have all the Germans gone? Some Pole gives me directions. Unemployed people in Germany are called “Poles.” I leave the city limits. I walk for hours between two cornfields, divided by a perfect paved road. Clearly, in this country no one comes and no one goes. I sense the desperation of loneliness. Horror at the thought that I've gotten lost in the most orderly country in the world forces me to pull myself together. My Balkan heart chuckles inwardly. I'm sure I'll be OK. It's just Germany, the state of Bayern (Bavaria). This is the Country of Tied-Up Loose Ends.

Day 2. My boss is named Peaceful Hill (Friedenberger). It's not clear what his wife’s name is, because she speaks a German-Swiss dialect. I call her Scheffin (Bossette), she looks at me suspiciously. The Friedenbergers have three children, one grandma, one dachshund, one Mercedes 200. They also have a small house, a farmyard with huge barns, agricultural equipment (enough for the whole Stara Zagora Region in Bulgaria), and their own diesel gas pump. Everything Friedenberger owns is diesel. Even his wife is diesel, his children are diesel. And his Gastarbeiters are diesel—they are cheap, economical, and pollute the environment terribly. Fourteen Poles and two Bulgarians (the Haskovite and myself). We’re all around twenty-three years old. It later became clear that Friedenberger didn't take older guest workers, because they supposedly steal a lot.

Scheffin is like a German teacher from a Russian film. She is blonde and as powerful as the deutsche mark. Blue eyes, wire-rimmed glasses, blonde hair, German flab. A typical German matushka, who works all day and who has given birth to three blonde-haired, blue-eyed children. Except they’re boys. The aura of Nazism lingers around Scheffin. Unlike her, Friedenberger looks like the local drunk from a Podunk village outside Sofia. Haggard, thin, unshaven, disheveled—all he needs is a hood and he'd be set to hawk homemade yogurt on a Bulgarian rural route. I wonder how such a fat woman could have such a thin husband. I assume that Friedenberger drinks on the sly and by the bucketful. This isn't the case. Friedenberger simply gets up two hours before his Gastarbeiters and goes to bed three hours after them. Get rid of Friedenberger and the deutsche mark would dip slightly on the international markets. No one has ever seen him eating, drinking, or sitting down. No one has ever seen him lying down or snoozing in the Bavarian meadows. Probably because there are no meadows in Bavaria. There are only cucumber fields. And all of them have to be picked by Friedenberger and his Gastarbeiters. I am one of them.

Day 3. Work is hell. On my very first evening I come to understand that cucumbers are picked with a Flugzeug (airplane). Nobody can explain to me exactly what this cucumber-picking plane is. The Haskovite—so-called since he hails from the little town of Haskovo in southeastern Bulgaria—is at first happy to have a fellow Bulgarian buddy, then he gets tired of trying to explain it. “You'll see the airplane. What can I tell you? A German came up with it."

The first time you see Friedenberger's airplane, you look around for a forest of cucumbers. The thing really is built like a biplane. Only it doesn't fly. It's made to crawl. It's actually just an old Mercedes truck with wings welded onto it. The wings span eight rows of cucumbers on one side and eight on the other. The Gastarbeiters lie on top of the wings. On their stomachs. Their arms hang down and pick the cucumbers with frightening strength. They toss them into little chutes in front of them. Inside the chutes there’s a conveyor belt that transports the pickling cucumbers back to the airplane’s trailer. The airplane itself crawls through the cucumber fields of Bavaria and nothing can stop it. Now and then Friedenberger puts the airplane on autopilot, leaves the cockpit, and goes back to rummage through the cucumbers. He checks to make sure we haven't missed a cucumber. If he finds a cucumber—he grumbles. If he finds a second cucumber in your row—you're fired. And he insults you on top of it—he told one Pole that he was lazy. The Pole wasn't insulted—he just left. He was happy, because he knew that he’d still be able to steal something from Germany. He couldn't just go home empty-handed like that, now could he? 

Day 8. Work is hell. After the first week everybody's chests broke out in horrible pus-filled pimples—that’s from the moldy mattresses on the plane’s wings that we lie on from 05:30 to 23:30 Central European Time. We have a half-hour break for lunch. No one showers, no one eats much. There's no time for that. We sleep in bunk beds in the barn where Friedenberger parks his tractor. Have you ever been awakened at five in the morning by the roar of a Swedish tractor?! Your horror at the sudden noise is replaced by frantic fleeing outside to escape the poisonous gases. Blood even gushed out of one guy’s (a Pole’s) nose. The heat, the lavender, the mechanical shoulder movements, the cucumbers’ prickly vines, the dust—all of this enters the orifices of the human body and forms a callus. And from that callus—as the poets know—the soul becomes callous. By the tenth day everyone wants to go home.

Add to that my squabbles with Janusz the Pole. You know that type of Pole: bony, blond. The Poles are blond like the Russians, not like the Germans. Janusz the Pole claims that he’s a Greater Pole. Greater Poles entertain the pretense that they are practically Germans. Janusz the Pole told me flat out in German (picking a fight): “Judging from your glasses, not all Bulgarians are gypsies.” In such moments I get depressed for some reason. If there's anything that really saddens and confuses me it's unnecessary bad blood between two people. What can you say to a person like that? I said: “Judging from your teeth, however, all Polacks are total horses.” The joke and the insult are lost in translation. While we may insult each other with “cow,” the Poles insult each other with “horse.” 

The Haskovite and a few other less touchy Poles calmed us down. It's tough being a guest worker—everyone hates you. You’re always on the brink of just up and leaving. 

Day 15. After the second week a dust-covered non-Great Pole tells me something that makes me laugh out loud. It’s the Polish equivalent of the Bulgarian saying, “Even if you twirl someone around by his cock, he’ll eventually get used to it.” I give the Pole a high-five. And we do that which capitalism’s oppressed and degraded victims all over the world have done: we unite around the international principle. And we stop caring. Nobody can chase us away from Friedenberger's fields—because we're sly old Gastarbeiter dogs and we’re starting to learn some tricks. To make our life on the airplane wing easier, we talk about women. The conversation is held in English, German, and Russian. Mostly in Polish and Bulgarian. Friedenberger senses who is stirring up dissent on board his airplane—the Bulgarians. He constantly grumbles: “Bulgarisch nur blah-blah-blah!” But he still can't catch us out. The Haskovite and I work harder than everyone else. And we always ask for extra work. During our breaks, Friedenberger is always lugging, unloading, hooking up, or unhooking something. We, the Bulgarians, are the only ones who help him. Probably because the Poles don't suffer from such a strong case of Donkey Syndrome. The Haskovite and I have only one thing in common—if there's work, it’s got to get done. And as it turns out my horrific German is the most understandable Bavarian language in these parts. So Friedenberger uses me as a translator. The Haskovite is the leader of the group, however. With his Balkan familiarity and his charming helplessness (due to his lack of language) he wins everyone over. He earns an extra mark here and there from bets, trades, zlotymark exchanges and so on. He's a natural-born economic genius, the Haskovite is. Leave him to man the toilets, and he’ll open up a snack bar. In the beginning I mocked his hick Bulgarian accent and called him Mr. “Hoo-say-wha?” But we gradually formed a team. He brought his innate worldly decisiveness. I contributed my acquired nonfunctional intelligence. Together, this made us adaptive and capable in every situation. I saw him stealing petty cash from the Poles—he’d pick their pockets. I didn't say anything. Wha could I say? 

Day 26. Hailstorm! Huge chunks of ice ripped up the airplane’s awning and sent us running through the mud like a bombing raid. Friedenberger's cucumbers were turned to pulp in a matter of minutes. I'm sure when the Lord God himself looked down on that orderly country, He got annoyed. The fields were a wreck, all of us Gastarbeiters fell silent under the overhang, realizing that this was the end of our jobs. You make good money in Germany. 7.50 DM an hour. What would we do now that the most hateful things in the world—Bavarian cucumbers—no longer exist? 

Friedenberger once again demonstrated that he had nothing in common with a Bulgarian villager. And that German hail has nothing in common with Yavorov’s hail.* That very same day a group of four-eyed, bald, weakly suits arrived and paid out his insurance claim. But he didn't take the money, instead he asked them for something else and they agreed. In half a day, the insurance agency had arranged the delivery of tons of cucumber seedlings, along with a machine to jab them into the ground where the old crop had been. After another half day, the new cucumbers took hold, ripened and the Lord God's hailstorm was for naught. Friedenberger told me to translate for the others: "One week vacation to let the cucumbers fatten up.” I translated and told him: “I'm going to travel around Germany.” His eyes bugged out and he tried to dissuade me. During our argument I realized something terrible. Friedenberger and his wife had never gone to the seaside. Friedenberger and his wife had never gone further away than Munich. And that was on business. All summer and winter long Friedenberger and his wife stay in the Fast Village of Schnelldorf and support the German economy. And finally: Friedenberger and his wife are not rich Germans. They claim that they work only to make ends meet. I had no reason not to believe them. But their way of life didn’t interest me. What interested me at the moment was the Pink Floyd concert in Munich.

Day 35. I came back. I had slept in train stations and communes, hitchhiking had worked like a charm, I had covered 2,500 miles in ten days. The police didn't even stop me once. I could've not gone back to Friedenberger, but I had promised. If I had immigrated, the police would have made a lot of trouble for Friedenberger. I kept my promise. In exchange, whole wide fields full of pickling cucumbers were once again waiting. Waiting for us and Friedenberger.

Day 36. Work is hell.

Day 37. Work continues to be hell. 

Day 40. I’m a slave. And work is hell.

Day 52. I come up with a blues tune. The Haskovite calls out a refrain and the Poles take it up. This is Esperanto blues. Even Friedenberger is impressed. Work is motherfucking hell. 

Day 56. We beat the Germans in the football World Cup. Even Friedenberger is impressed. “The thing is,” says that wise man, “that you have players. But Germany has a team.”

Day 60. A day off. Nobody's impressed by a day off. Nobody asked for it. The Haskovite and I go to Dagger Village (Degendorf). We gape at the German stuff and hunt for bargains. I notice that the Haskovite uses me as a smokescreen. He sends me over to the salesgirls to ask something and while they’re answering me, he swipes various things off the shelves. That boy is quite the little thief! Bravo, he’s put one over on all of us! I lose him in Karstadt, though. I find him five hours later sitting by the entrance of a huge shopping mall.

“What the hell are you doing, Haskie?!”

“Well, they caught me, Mr. City Slicker.” 

“Whaddaya mean they caught you, Haskie?!”

“Uh, stealing wallets from the leather goods counter.” 

“How so, man?! I thought they could never catch you!”

"Turns out they jammed a little thingy into the wallet, like the head of a pin. And when I got to the exit all sorts of sirens started howling.” 

“And what’d they do to ya?”

“Well, first they wanted to call the police, but when they saw I couldn't speak the language, they took a picture of me, gave me this sheet of paper, and escorted me to the exit.” The paper says that this individual, the Haskovite, is banned from visiting all Karstadt stores for three years. In the event the ban is violated, he will be subject to a fast-track case hearing to face charges for the offense, as well as a fine and prison sentence. A German came up with this, obviously. 

Day 60. Afternoon. I steal a Pelican pen. I can't help it. The urge to steal exists in everyone. In my case, however, its development is stunted. I would never make a grab for something simply because I prefer not to experience negative emotions. Fear, shame, distress. Best to leave it to other, more worthy hands. The Haskovite already has two bags full of booty: umbrellas, wallets, socks. Towels, a leather vest (!), a car tire pump. Two pounds of potatoes and hot peppers (from Grandma Friedenberger's flowerpots), a voice recorder, office supplies, and other such flotsam and jetsam. I also suspect he had a hand in the dachshund’s disappearance. Grandma’s dachshund barked at him a lot. Haskie and I get into an argument. I tell him either to stop stealing or to give me half the loot, since he’s using me as a smokescreen. He’s livid. He is the one who has worked so hard. And taken so many risks, while I just want my rewards served to me on a silver platter. I tell him that if they had pinched him, they would've pinched me, too, for hornswoggling the salesgirls. He could've at least informed me of his intentions. But have you ever seen an honest thief? The Haskovite gives me the little voice recorder. With the greatest anguish, he hands it over. After trying to sell it to me. We decide to call it even. 

Day 61. A third Bulgarian shows up. But that's not important. The Haskovite has bought himself a car. I would've bet good money that he'd stolen it if I hadn't taken care of the paperwork for him myself. An Escort for 1,100 DM. I thought that he would quit shoplifting from stores now that he has property and something to lose. Nothing of the sort—during lunch break on the very same day someone whistles to me from a nearby cornfield. The Haskovite has swiped a twenty-four-gear mountain bike from Degendorf. He asks me to help him take it apart and load it into the Ford’s trunk. Have you ever tried to take apart a bike in the middle of a cornfield?! I explain to him that for me stealing is associated with far more effort and stress than honest shitwork. I think he understands me. I still help him with the bike, though. 

Day 70. The amount of work is dwindling. Janusz the Pole is the enemy of the Bulgarians. At night he snores like an “underfucked Polish woman” (as the Haskovite put it). I try to wake him up—fuck me right in my enterprising head. Janusz the Pole roars, leaps up in bed, and waves a knife at me. That jerk is dangerous even in his sleep. Our hatred is spontaneous and sincere. And not based on international causes. Clearly I can't stand Greater Poles. 

Day 88. The Haskovite arranges a day off for us. He bullshits Friedenberger into believing that we have a religious holiday. The Haskovite is the man. When Friedenberger sneezes, the Haskovite says datiebamaykata, or “fuckyermama,” to him in the politest of tones. I was forced to explain once that this means Gesundheit (bless you) in Bulgarian. It came as no surprise that one day when I started sneezing, the littlest Friedenberger courteously wished me “Datiebamaykata! Da?!”

For our day off we go to Oktoberfest. That's what the Haskovite has decreed. I try to explain to him that there won’t be Oktoberfest at the end of August, but he succeeds in convincing the Poles that they have a religious holiday, too. 

We go to one of those huge stuffy tents where it smells delicious, the beer flows, and you drink sweat. We start off unconvincingly, because the Poles don't like beer too much and we think it’s too expensive. However, after a certain point when we start ordering some 1.5-liter beer steins and hunker down with some wursts and kabobs—it's not clear who paid. Probably no one. The whole group on religious holiday really let themselves go—as well as all the buses back to Schnelldorf. Some swipe bikes, others beer steins, still others—a forgotten moped helmet, so as not to feel left out. It’s as if the Bulgarians and Poles want to show at all costs how much more soulful they are than these crappy little Swabs. Chauvinism and alcohol are directly proportional. We're walking back to Friedenberger's through my familiar old Bavarian fields. Poetry. Everyone is screaming something in his own language. We have a new nationality and we’re proud of it. In my passport next to my visa it should simply state: “Nationality—Gastarbeiter. Not permitted to be German.” The Haskovite says we should “sing sumpin’.” He asks me what song both the Bulgarians and the Poles would know. I don't have to think for long. It’s poetry to me—stupid Polacks, crooked Bulgarians, German beer in the heart of Germany. There's only one song fit for such a situation: Kalinka, Kalinka, Kalinka moya . . . 

Now there’s poetry for you. Such a night goes down in history like the Kursk Bulge, the Battle of Jasz, Drava and Szabolcs, like Zbigniew Boniek and like Mercedes Benz. In the morning Friedenberger lets two Poles go. While the rest of us pretended to be picking cucumbers, those two were puking in their rows, lacking the strength to cover up the puke. 

I don't know how they do it, but the Germans always manage to get even for every victory over them.

Day 96. The work is almost finished. The Poles are taking off one by one. Janusz the Pole is also leaving. Half an hour before heading for the Polish-German border he starts screaming that somebody has stolen his money. The money he earned with sweat and blood alongside us over the last three months. The Haskovite and I are just returning from the Danube, so we don't know anything about it. The Poles get together and single out the third Bulgarian. The poor kid had tried to secretly pinch a piece of Janusz the Pole’s chocolate a while back. He got off without a beating then. Now there's mention of police and prison. We're talking about 3,500 DM, after all. 

Friedenberger is beside himself. He really likes us a lot. He can't believe that any one of us would commit such a dastardly deed. Scheffin is fuming, she keeps looking toward me and repeating the word “police.” First, she is going to call the police right away. Then, if we don’t fess up, she is going to call the police in five (fünf) minuten. Then it’s fifteen (fünfzehn) minutes. Then she decides to give us another hour and put a box in the middle of the dorm, making us go in there one by one. So that whoever had taken the money could give it back. No one leaves any money in her stupid box. When I ask Scheffin why she keeps looking at me, she says she hopes that I am translating her words very precisely for everyone else. 

Scheffin says there is also another solution—each of us could give 150 DM of our salaries to replace Janusz the Pole’s money. Then the Haskovite says something in German that shocks me. I am shocked first because it is very ballsy, and second because the Haskovite has finally started speaking German. He says coldly: Besser polizei! (more or less: Better to call the police!) 

So we go to bed without the police, without Janusz’s salary, and with the vague sense that as of tomorrow the Haskovite and I will begin working our scams in a well-ordered German prison. 

Day 96 (from another point of view). I'm not ashamed to admit it. The Haskovite stole the cash with my invaluable assistance. I first noticed that Janusz the Pole had left the envelope full of marks on the bed. Everybody is outside, lightly roasting in the sun while Friedenberger is muttering, fixing something, screwing something down. I tell the Haskovite that Janusz’s cash is there. He jumps and asks me reproachfully why I hadn't taken it. I tell him that it is theft and that I am simply informing him of how nice it would be if someone screwed over Janusz the Pole in such a vile way. The Haskovite asks me to create a diversion. 

The adrenaline in such a situation is more powerful than alcohol. I jump in the Ford without a moment’s hesitation and peel out, running right into the clothesline with the Poles’ laundry. Friedenberger straightens up and starts screaming that I’m crazy. I tell him I’m only drunk and happy. I make three circles around the farmyard with screeching tires and accelerate toward the diesel pump. Everyone is screaming and cursing at me. I run over one of the littlest Friedenberger’s toys. In hindsight, I feel pretty bad about that toy. The Haskovite comes running toward me out of the dorm and starts angrily yelling that I’m messing with his car and that I’ve already scratched the fender. He gets in next to me, and as he is lecturing me, I floor it toward the Danube and the numerous picturesque riverside lanes. The Haskovite says he’s taken it. He pays no attention whatsoever to my statement that he didn’t need to take all the money. He says that was the most ingenious smokescreen he’s ever seen in his life. He is this close to kissing me. Indeed, later no one connects my bizarre behavior with the incident. When you’re a Gastarbeiter, at least twice a day one of your coworkers loses it and starts howling or foaming at the mouth or at least breaks down crying. We go back to the farmyard—it’s in an uproar. Everybody is up against the wall getting frisked by Janusz the Pole. In the pandemonium we manage to throw the cash into the only nettle plant in Germany, which grows as a weed there. The nettle plant under Friedenberger’s main tractor. 

Day 97. No cops come after all. Friedenberger finds jobs for everybody and says we’ll all work another week so that Janusz the Pole can earn a little something. Clearly the Friedenbergers’ Gastarbeiters’ paperwork isn’t quite in order, so he and Scheffin prefer to work things out without the police. Everyone’s a bit of a scammer, even Friedenberger. 

Day 105. We personally drive Janusz the Pole to the German-Polish border. He is convinced that the third Bulgarian swiped his cash and even apologizes to us for having treated us so badly and not realizing what kind of person the third Bulgarian is. We just smile at him. On the way back we stop at a gas station and break the 1,000 DM bills, from which the Brothers Grimm eye us conspiratorially. The Haskovite doesn't object to my idea of splitting the money three ways. The third Bulgarian is delighted over the deal and isn't pissed at me at all, not one bit. 

That very night the Haskovite throws a feast. We drink whiskey with the non-Greater Poles and celebrate our evildoing. Our very own, irrational evildoing. As well as global and international evildoing. I think it’s September 9.**

Day 111. I'm leaving. The Haskovite is driving me to Nurnberg. When I see his car I just about lose it. The car is overflowing with stolen stuff. I recognize a set of wrenches and some fishing rods from Friedenberger's basement. I recognize stuff that I wouldn't have even bothered picking up and putting down again, yet he'd stolen them. He’d even taken the TV antenna that Friedenberger had brought in so we could watch late-night World Cup matches. I make him put it back. He obeys. He takes a dozen or so steps with the TV antenna, then he turns around and says: “I can't put it back. Some people only know one way to live. You're happy because for you shoplifting a pen is entertainment. You just don't get it.”

And he takes the TV antenna that Friedenberger had given us so we could watch Bulgaria beat Germany in football for the first time ever. 

I still love that boy, the Haskovite. I think that people like him are the Bulgarian nation’s energy potential. 

The next day. I travel back to Bulgaria. I never see anyone from the Bavarian saga again. Always, when I enter (officially now) into the Well-Ordered World of United Europe, I feel like a barbarian. Always, when I go through their fancy border checkpoints, I think that a person is what they take him to be. The Gastarbeiter is an economic animal that cannot survive without biting off a chunk of its host’s living flesh. Without infecting him with illnesses like Social Scabies and dissatisfaction. Germany is an unholy fairytale for everyone who is not German or at least a tourist.

Gastarbeiters are the bad guys in the story. But without the bad guys not a single self-respecting fairytale would exist. 

* Peyo Yavorov (1878–1914), one of Bulgaria’s most beloved poets, wrote a poem “Hail” in which starving villagers suffer year after year from hailstorms seen as divine punishment. 

** The date of the 1944 Communist coup in Bulgaria 

“Gastarbeiter” © 1994 by Martin Karbowski. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2014 by Angela Rodel. All rights reserved.