So I decided to go and work on a German horse farm in December. I had several reasons for doing so — not least of which was the desire to remove myself very thoroughly from all possibility of having to get involved with Christmas that year. I justified the decision very well, I thought. My reasoning was excellent and my resolve was rock solid. Not a single furrowed brow from any of my friends or acquaintances could sway me. I swept all potential obstacles aside and was so determined to escape Christmas that even a strength-sapping cough at the tail end of a two-week cold bug wasn't enough to stop me from embarking on my incredibly well-planned adventure.
Off I trotted, therefore, on the 20th December, having burst forth from work around lunchtime; broken suitcase in tow and exhaustion mysteriously absent. My buoyancy didn't last long, however, since the journey involved two coaches, a ferry, three trains, and a car (in that order) and took twenty-six hours from door to door. The suitcase had to be dragged, worn down wheel and all, in between each mode of transport. (Very good for the muscles, not so good for the mood!) I don't necessarily advise against taking long distance coaches from England to the Continent — they are cheap, after all, and are an experience which lend one an air of hardy adventurousness when talked about afterwards. Only be sure that you can function in a foreign country under conditions of extreme weariness before you try it!
Having changed onto my third and final train at Gießen sometime around 2pm on the 21st December, I found myself rattling down a rural branch line in an empty carriage while the countryside outside the windows grew increasingly wild with every mile. Deserted hills and dark forests replaced the fields and houses. The sky brooded over them in a threatening manner, sulky and monstrous.
On getting off the train, I found myself standing at a tiny, deserted station. Spots of icy rain were falling so I took shelter in the bike shed and watched the darkness of the short day falling in around me with some trepidation. I hoped to goodness that my hostess, Alise, had got the text message I'd sent to let her know I was coming.
Fortunately she had got the message and turned up a short time later. This was a small mercy, however. Every so often in life, my own impulsiveness brings me up short in shock and I suddenly think, "Oh no, what the hell have I just done?!" My arrival at the farm was one of those moments. It sat on the edge of a large area of wilderness, the nearest main road was about a mile away and the nearest hamlet was at least two miles distant. I didn't even know where the next town was. My induction was to be taken round and introduced to all of the animals. That in itself was fine, I love animals. But the December night cloaked the place in such dense darkness that I could barely see anything. I could feel the biting cold, though, it reached right through my two jumpers and clutched at my flesh with icy fingers.
It dawned on me with horrifying suddenness that this was no picture-book farm, this was real. The cold, the mud, the darkness, and the dung were real. The fact that I would have to venture outside if I wanted to go to the toilet in the night was real. The fact that I would have to take a cat or two to bed with me if I wanted any heating during the night was real. (Fortunately one of the six cats adopted me almost immediately and served very well as a hot water bottle for the rest of my stay). For that night at least, I took it on the chin as best I could and unpacked in the room with the broken door which was separate to the main farm house, ignoring the loud roar of the washing machine in the next room, before falling fast asleep, cat, gloves, and all.
I am not the type to be kept in low spirits for too long, so I ventured out with fresh optimism the next morning, ready to start work. It being the season to be jolly, there was no one else working on the farm apart from the proprietor Alise and her partner Julia who doubled as a nurse in a hospital an hour's drive away. I, therefore, had to do the work of two people. I learnt the word "ausmisten" very quickly. Ausmisten means "to muck out" and I had about four hours' worth of it to do each morning from the ten horses in the paddocks at the back. I'm not afraid of a bit of ausmisten. What I didn't enjoy was how dense and weighty frozen excrement can be, nor how I had to gouge it out of the ground. Some of it was so frozen that it made a clinking noise when I hit it with the edge of the spade. This made the work very sweaty indeed.
That first day I set to with a will, however, determined not to be outdone or depressed by a bit of excrement. But that was before I tackled cooking and faced the contents of Alise's cellar...
Read more in Episode 2, to follow soon.