Once every two weeks the organization I live with sends a van to the Belgian border city of Bouillon. Those wishing to go sign a list of names on the dining room bulletin board. There’s room for nine people in the vehicle, which is usually filled with smokers because the price of tobacco in Belgium is half the price of France.
The white van leaves fully loaded just after lunch for the 45-minute drive. Among the occupants is the big Santa-looking fellow who’s in charge of toys at the thrift shop. He perpetually smokes a pipe, a cloud of smoke at his every breath. The windows are barely open at freeway speed, leaving the van hot and cloudy.
The Semois river cuts a steep narrow path through the thickly wooded hills. Over 1000 years ago a strategic sharp bend in this waterway became home to Bouillon Castle, with the town forming in the little valley below. The first historical mention of the castle is the year 988, with it’s occupants playing major roles in world-shaping events for centuries.
The community of less than 6000 residents hosts a crush of tourists this time of year. The few narrow streets are packed with never-ending stalled lines of bumper-to-bumper traffic, the sidewalks a constant game of pedestrian chicken. The tense scene occasionally erupts in shouting and honks when an out-of-town driver doesn’t realize these streets are one-way. Virtually every downtown business is a restaurant, tobacco shop, or both all-in-one.
One of my comrades counts out the number five on his fingers upon arrival, meaning that the van leaves at 5 o’clock. Three hours here with my only errand being to buy two 210-gram canisters of Pall Mall rolling tobacco for 16.50 Euros each, one of which is for my coworker Sammi. Canisters line the walls from floor to ceiling in the tiny shop I enter, every square foot of space packed with sweaty impatient customers. My purchase is possible thanks to the weekly “allowance” provided by the organization, 40 Euros handed out to each comrade every Saturday morning.
Some of the guys sit at a bar all afternoon while a few others venture out and about. Other than the massive castle rising over the town, one of the first things I notice is a man with one gigantic arm. The second arm appears ordinary. Three old stone bridges connect to the river bend, with one passing through a tunnel under the castle. A variety of sidewalk vendors sell antiques and crafts from folding tables.
Most of the town’s open spaces along the river contain medieval festival tents and events, with costumed participants roaming all about the streets and businesses. There’s wood smoke, the metal clang of sword fighting and the occasional ground shaking cannon blast. A couple dozen family paddle boats pass up and down the river, most having a huge plastic swan head attached to the front.
I follow a wooded path that runs along a tributary, leading into the hills out of town. I’m surprised by an unusually cool blast of damp air. There’s an arched stone entryway to what looks like a train tunnel, but no remaining trace of any tracks. The entrance is overgrown except for a narrow footpath worn into the grass. It’s pitch black just 50 feet in.
As my eyes adjust a tiny light becomes visible in the distance. It’s at least 200 meters away, too far in the dark not knowing what’s there. The town lies on the other side of this hill but it seems unlikely that the other side of such a tunnel would be left open with all the tourists around.
Envisioning the tunnel coming out at some cool old abandoned property, I return to the town in search of the other entryway. There’s several streets leading up the hill and it’s nearly 5PM before I find a pile of branches thrown over a white doorway under a road. One section of the door has been kicked open so I climb over.
Ten feet inside is a relatively modern brick wall with an open doorway to one side. Sure enough, it’s my tunnel, littered with trash and beer cans, the light in the far distance visible again. There are what appear to be the entrances to rooms in the tunnel walls, but my comrades will leave me if I explore more. Maybe another day.
August 13th, 2012:
“The sky tells me it time to leave. Goodbye”, the cook tells me, one of the few people who speak any English here. He’s lived at 17 different communities of this organization over the past decade, all in France. Each is run autonomously so they’re all very different. Some even offer full studio apartments for each “companion”, as they call us French. The cook tells me of one community he lived at with over 1000 companions.
“That must be the biggest one?”, I ask him.
“No that is….. second biggest. There is one that is……whole village.”
This organization refers to itself as a “movement”, and now that’s starting to make sense.
With no work on Mondays, I spend nearly 8 hours upgrading the system software on my phone. This involves a great deal of hacking due to the phone’s obscure manufacturer. I’ve got 20 windows at a time open on the laptop and no private place to work. There are two inhabited buildings on the property, the other of which is modern and spacey.
The new building’s lounge is the most comfortable place to work, also having a wall of windows with a great view, but people keep interrupting at the worst of times. The youngest companion provides the greatest disservice, speaking loud Arabic with a girl on the phone for over an hour, often pacing right next to me.
Having no real privacy is going to be very difficult in the long run. I’m used to getting away on a whim, because on the streets privacy is usually just a few steps into a forest, wherever the sleeping bag lays. A core principle of any future organization that I may build; a room of at least six square meters for each companion, with a lockable door. This basic dignity must always be allowed….a room of one’s own.
August 14th, 2012:
I test a new translation program on my phone that speaks out loud, playing a sentence to a group of companions sitting on a stone wall about to start the workday.
“Rex sait plus Francais que moi.”, supposedly meaning, ‘Rex knows more French than me.’
Rex is the big lazy hairball we call a dog. If the software works well then these guys will laugh, because I know they love to make fun of me.
They respond with confused stares upon the first playing, then bust into hysterical laughter the second time. Looks like I can speak French now, at least when there’s wifi available. Now if I can just get the phone implanted into my brain, I’ll instantly know every language in existence.
I use the software to ask the assistant manager for clothes. It works again. He tells the guy working in the clothing sales area to let me take whatever I want. One of the companions does everyone’s laundry once per week but I only carry two pairs of clothing in my backpack, not enough considering how dirty this job is.
Living here really is like living at home in so many ways. Your time is completely yours after work because all the cooking and cleaning is done, and then comes your 40 Euro allowance on Saturday morning. As for the people who do the cooking and cleaning, they get time off while the rest of us are working.
I try carefully to keep the sales racks organized while picking out my clothing, but the worker there still makes the deliberate gesture of following immediately behind me and adjusting the space between each hanger. Looking around the room I notice that all the thousands of hangers here are spaced to exactly one finger width. These types of little occurrences are exactly how how the process starts of an innocent commune like this becoming a suicidal domesday cult.
For some reason I’ve recently been thinking about microwaves more than could be considered normal. This thought process can likely be attributed to the large number of donated microwaves that I’ve handled recently. My head contains recurring images of spoons and flies in microwaves ever since accidentally leaving a spoon in my coffee cup while chasing flies out of the machine.
The thought of a boiling fly crashing into my coffee was too much to ignore. One of my companions somehow noticed the spoon and came dashing over to the rescue as if the entire microwave would violently explode. Take this from someone who once ran an extension cord into a field and put a pressurized can of automotive starting fluid in a microwave for 10 minutes…….the physics don’t work like that.
There are just too many things to know in the world to know them all. At the the dawn of human civilization there were relatively few thoughts to consider except some basic contemplations of fire, sky, earth, water, food and sex. Valuable space in our brain is now being taken up by facts of life such as ‘don’t put spoons in the microwave’. The more stuff we invent the more overwhelmed we may feel. Just imagine, ‘always check the transporter for flies before you enter. Remember what happened to Seth Brundle.’
My roommate moved to a new room today, saying it was too hot at night. I clean the entire room with soap and hot water and move all my things to the desk and closet in the far corner. Before now the desk had been full of a hundred pill cartons. The window had been so smoked up that the green field with the cows and two ancient abandoned farmhouses was nearly invisible.
I’m just enjoying the first few minutes of private space when my new Hungarian roommate opens the door. He speaks multiple languages including English, having lived in Canada for some time. For the past years he’s made a career of living in this organizations communities all over France, as have many other people. There’s been no new arrivals here since me a week ago, until two showed up today. The other is a young Polish man looking for work outside of the community.
This new roommate may prove to be unpleasant, as he has already wadded up a rug and thrown it onto my desk while I was out. I can probably expect to have little to nothing in common with someone who lays in bed watching pop music videos during the day. I hear that some of the communities are full of really angry people and I wonder if that’s where this guy came from. He just looks really pissed whenever I walk into the room. He also has a problem with explosive snoring. My old chainsmoking roommate Christian didn’t speak two words of English, but I prefered his general pleasantness.
August 15th, 2012:
I begin working full-time with Sammi the Algerian in electronics this morning. For these first few days I’ll be focusing on one thing, getting the spaces organized. Electronics consists of a sales floor, workshop and two storage sheds, all quite small, and an outdoor area of about 50 square meters.
The thing is that I don’t yet know for sure if Sammi is interested in getting organized, but what I suspect is that he took over the electronics department in a severe state of disarray and has never been able to get ahead of the mess by himself. What I do know for sure is that I won’t be able to continue working in the mess, so if he’s not interested in letting me organize then I’ll soon request transfer to another area of the business. But I’m at least obligated to be here for two weeks since I agreed to fill in for Sammi during his vacation next week.
I begin the workday by continuing to move masses of unwanted TV’s and small appliances to metal bins that will be picked up for recycling. The collapsible bins are one-square meter each and I’ve now filled about ten of them in the past few days.
After the 10:30 coffee break we stock the store with “new” items that Sammi tested earlier today. The building opens for business at 1:30 but it’s a public holiday and most people suspect we’re closed. Electronics sells a few items in the first hour then nothing. The day’s earnings of 123 Euros is mostly due to one single family that buys a computer and a steam iron.With 256MB of RAM and a 30GB hard drive, hopefully they don’t plan on more than Facebook.
Just about every customer asks to see the item in action before they buy, so the front desk often contains bubbling coffee makers, hot irons, whirring blenders and just about any other small appliance imaginable. Sammi is quite a patient salesman, especially in certain situations. He spends nearly 30 minutes focused on a cute brunette with an espresso machine.
The dull afternoon hours offer my first test at organizing something. There’s a hideously cluttered metal rack of shelves next to the sales desk. It’s a solid tangle of random objects that have obviously been piling up there for a very long time. Ninety percent of the items are either trash or only good for recycling value.
“Did you forget your coffee?”, Sammy asks, pointing at my little steaming plastic cup when I start casually removing items from the shelves.
“No, I’m working on it”, I say without pausing. He looks mildly perplexed for a moment then turns his attention elsewhere. An hour later he sits down at the desk, blinking at the shelves.
“You make clean”, he says with a genuine smile. I take the paint-splattered shade off a nice lamp base, replacing it with a much nicer shade that had no base. “That is much better”, Sammi says, smiling again. Looks like I’ll be able to continue working in electronics after all.
August 16th, 2012:
Day off. The rule is that we work holidays if they fall on a day that the thrift shop is scheduled to be open for business(Wednesday and Saturday). When that happens we get the next day off.
On this beautiful morning I walk one mile to the nearest village, Vrigne-aux-Bois. There’s a creek running through the middle of town under a stone bridge dated 1830. The houses are built directly up against the creek and the residents throw bread out their second and third floor windows to the many ducks quacking below.
I’ve come to purchase a few small items like toothpaste from the only downtown grocery store. It’s the modern corporate type , but tiny. The cashier also stocks the shelves, not having enough customers to stay full-time at the register. Some city workers paint crosswalks outside while others tend to the potted flowers on the bridge. A woman emerges from a stone-paved alley that’s barely wide enough for a motorcycle. I seem to like it more here everyday, except for when a car rolls backwards into me while crossing the street.
My main thoughts this morning dwell upon the potential to create a thrift shop-based community in the US like the one I’m living at here. I’d want such a place to differ in one major way, though; management structure. Considering the huge outpouring of public support for the Occupy Movement, it is clear that the world is ready to take horizontal leadership to the next step. The logical way to begin is to build communities based on that concept.
The general assembly method used by Occupy is too cumbersome for everyday use, though, and does not recognize individual expertise. Therefore we would need to implement a system like the one that Sarah and I went to work on in Berlin this April. Although the Global Square is not yet available for use, there is other similar project collaboration software that’s good enough to start with.
A strangest coincidence happens as I’m back at home this morning using my computer in the lounge. The manager walks up to my table. He already knows a little about my idea because Sammi mentioned it to him at lunch some days ago. He asks today, “What kind of structure you think your organization should have?”. He literally asked me at an exact same moment I was thinking the very same thoughts.
For an hour we sit talking. He patiently explains the global structure of this organization, very difficult to do with a limited English vocabulary. I’m unable to fully explain my demand for horizontal leadership, but he seems to understand enough to be genuinely curious. He seems to think that this organization may interested in helping me start a community in the US.
Some links for thought: