By Alex Cupples
On the outskirts of the Lüneburger Heide region of northern Germany, in a small village called Lübeln, I spent my summer working at the 1. Deutsches Kartoffel-Hotel.
It was organised through workaway, an organisation that lets people all over the world advertise for help in small businesses or families in exchange for a bed, food and cultural exchange. There was no money for the work, but it is a cheap way to travel and a great way to practice a language; the potato hotel also provided free language lessons for workers.
The hotel takes on 4-5 ‘workawayers’ at a time, and for most of my time there it was myself, my boyfriend and a 23-year-old Italian called Matteo. We ate together every day and spent our evenings drinking beer in the hotel’s Biergarten. We also conducted all of our conversations together in German. The same went for conversations with the staff which meant intensive but useful practice.
The potato theme of the hotel was mostly limited to the food. Every meal was, of course, served with a good portion of potatoes (almost like being back in college) but there were a few innovative uses of potato as well. My favourite was a surprisingly delicious cake, but there was also potato schnapps, which was served in a hollowed-out potato, and bratwurst, which inexplicably had chunks of potato laced throughout. As a vegetarian I ate little else but potatoes for a month and have probably had enough potato for a while.
Outside of the cuisine there was also a wellness centre at the hotel where guests could go and receive some sort of potato massage. I never found out what went on behind the closed doors but the masseuse often came into the kitchen and took tubs of semi-mashed potato away with her so we could only imagine how it was used.
The work we did was relatively easy; we worked five hours a day for six days a week. Complying with rural gender clichés I made the beds and Angus and Matteo chopped wood but we also alternated between the kitchen and outside work as well.
On our days off we explored the local area; the Lüneburger Heide is a massive area of heathland (heide translates to heath) and towns are few and far between. We discovered that German efficiency is a myth and the buses rarely ran on time. Jeremy Corbyn’s plans to renationalise the railway might not solve all our transport woes after all. With buses leaving the neighbouring town just three times a day, it was important not to miss them. One day on a day trip we were almost at the bus stop for the last bus when we saw it leave five minutes early. As a result we had to get a train and a bus to catch up with the original bus back to our town. Thank God for Google maps.
Our German teacher at the hotel came once a week and taught us about the environment and lefty politics. During our first lesson he said that his eighteen-year-old nephew was interested in British culture and wanted to meet us. It seemed like a great opportunity to practice our German with a native speaker our own age. We ended up at his house for dinner where he sang British indie pop songs to us without even the accompaniment of a guitar.
In yet another bizarre evening event we met the cousin of the boss of the hotel who had come from Munich with his business partner, on a detour home from a business trip. They shared expensive whiskey and 9% beer whilst chain smoking ‘ausgezeichnet’ Dutch tobacco. It was these encounters with people from all different walks of life that made the experience so valuable.
On our last night the next batch of workawayers had arrived from France, Taiwan and Italy. We made a bonfire, drank beer and lay on the ‘beach’ (a small patch of sand leading down to a lake) watching stars that can only be seen when you’re far enough away from the light pollution of big cities.
During my time at the potato hotel I made some great friends, practiced my German and, of course, sampled all the potatoey delights known to man. I also learned more about human nature than I have ever done doing work experience for large companies. I was in Germany as the refugees came flooding across the border. I was able to speak to Germans, Italians and French about the crisis, politics and Europe. Before you get bogged down applying for internships this year, consider the benefits of an alternative experience. At the potato hotel I was able to experience a different way of life and escape, at least temporarily, from the career-focussed path of Britain’s youth.
Visit www.workaway.info to see where you could be next summer.
Photographs: Alex Cupples