against the current

“After a swim like that, you don’t need to ask ‘what is the meaning of life’,” says Efi, a friend of my hosts who is visiting from Israel.

It’s yet another lovely summer day in Germany. The lake is wild around the bank and clear, cold, and fresh in the water. It’s quiet, just a couple of other people barely visible through the trees and long grass. The lack of people is explained by the fact that we are lying about underneath a sign that says, “Achtung! Privatgelände. Das Lagern, Grillen, Surfen und Baden ist verboten.

The German word for ‘forbidden’ was one of the first I learned, and it’s a good thing I did otherwise I might have been walking on train tracks and mixing up my recycling all over Germany.

Admittedly, I’m not too surprised to find myself floating in a semi-secret lake. I’m visiting Klaus and Sabine, friends of my childhood neighbours Jeff and Kate, and during the days I’m with them I see the many small ways they choose to live alternatively.

Schloss Hamborn, where they live, is a pretty unique place.

In the 1930s the castle (the schloss) became a Steiner school. At first it stood alone in the forest and housed everything and everyone. Over the decades more buildings and many homes have sprung up around it so that it is now a village – but a village unlike any other.

At Schloss Hamborn, the school is the beating heart. It is specifically for kids who struggle at school, or have a learning disability, or come from a disadvantaged background. (In addition there are adults with disabilities who live and learn here.) Students live in groups, usually in a big family home, and their schooling is individual and holistic.

The day after I arrive, Klaus takes me on an informal walking tour. The castle itself is now used for meetings and private tutoring and day groups of young kids from other villages. Next to the castle is the woodwork shop. Down in the valley is a little publisher. On the other side, past the offices of the social workers, is the café. Across the street is the bio supermarket, the second-hand clothing store, the gift shop. Up the road is the bike and car mechanic. Nearby is the commercial-sized vegetable garden. All around us is a beautiful forest, managed by a forester.

A regular kind of village on the face of it. But the shops and workshops all have a dual purpose: they are legitimate businesses run by professionals – the woodworkers sell their furniture across the region, the books are sold in bookshops, the mechanic serves the transport needs of the whole community – but they also exist to teach the students, who can learn the skills of whatever they have an interest in and aptitude for.

Another day we take a longer walk and visit the farm. Dairy cows, pigs, sheep. A cheesery. Fresh hay bales cut from the fields. A butcher will soon set up shop. You can fill your glass bottles with raw milk from the automatic milk machine. This is also where Schloss Hamborn generates most of its own power using a combination of solar and some kind of ecological woodchip method.

We walk and walk, stopping at the village cemetery where the founder of this particular Steiner school is buried next to the guy who donated the castle. Just over the hedge two farm workers are trying, with many frustrated exclamations in German, to coax a very pregnant cow up to the barn.

On we go, past reclaimed forest on the left and a small band of milchkühe on the right. We leave the main track to climb a hill and here it feels like we’re in the middle of nowhere, paddocks to our back and forest to our front. As we’re walking we pull blackberries off a bush, small clusters of dark purple juice. Here is a pear tree, and here a plum. We pick up pears from the ground and take a few bites. I try a plum from the tree but it is definitely not ripe. Apple trees and more apple trees. Under an avenue of shady trees a mirabelle has dropped delicious little gems of fruit to the ground.

I’m not used to this kind of fertile, verdant land. Things just grow. Of course in Schloss Hamborn even the wilderness is put to work, so many of these trees will have been planted and monitored. But some of them will have just popped up on their own. Sometimes the simple fact of a tree growing with nothing but soil and water and producing a fruit that feeds me blows my mind.

I’m also delighted by the way Klaus and Sabine connect to their environment. They turn raspberries and blackberries into jam. They pick “middle Europe olives” (a tiny wild cherry) before they are ripe and pickle them. Under apple trees they collect any that have fallen before their time to feed the horses in the school stable. They avoid cling wrap and plastic packaging in the kitchen. They choose not to eat meat and to drive a cheap ordinary car as a “helpless protest” against a society that always wants more-bigger-better-faster-cheaper. In their life at Schloss Hamborn I see ways to live differently.

So when it is Sunday and sunny of course we are here, enjoying a glorious lake swim under a sign that says “forbidden”, leaving no trace except the slightly squashed grass. Swimming against the current.

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