Ada Abroad: Living and Working in Germany

An online journal recording two years spent as a Fulbright/Pedagogical Exchange Service Teaching Assistant at secondary schools in Germany. (2003-2004 I was in a village near Bautzen; 2004-2005 I will be in Nordrhein-Westfalen.)

Location: Münster, Nordrhein-Westfalen, Germany

I'm an American living in Germany, working as a foreign language assistant at a secondary school. Future plans: getting my Ph.D. (probably in Germanic Linguistics), becoming a professor, living an ethical and meaningful life.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

The Human Lagoon

I had another interesting bus experience recently.

Last Monday I took the bus to Bautzen. I had just settled into my seat and placed my purse securely inside my backpack when an old lady climbed on board.

This was no ordinary Oma-type. This was a flashback to the Middle Ages.

To give you some idea what I’m talking about, I will now quote a short passage from Patrick Süsskind’s novel Das Parfum. (Translation mine.)

“At the time about which we’re speaking, a stench which is hardly imaginable for us modern people prevailed in the cities. The streets stank of manure, the courtyards stank of urine, the stairwells stank of rotten wood and of rat feces, the kitchens of spoiled cabbage and mutton fat; the unventilated rooms stank of musty dust, the bedrooms of greasy sheets, of damp featherbeds and of the pungent sweet aroma of chamber pots… The people stank of sweat and of unwashed clothes; from their mouths they stank of rotten teeth, from their stomachs of onion juice and from their bodies, if they weren’t all that young anymore, of old cheese and of sour milk and of tumorous diseases… The farmer stank like the priest, the journeyman laborer like the master’s wife, the entire nobility stank, indeed, even the king stank; he stank like a carnivorous animal, and the queen like an old goat, in summer as well as winter.”

This woman reeked. It was obscene. I have never, ever in my entire life been in the presence of a human being who smelled that bad. This was way beyond B.O. This was what happens when you don’t bathe for weeks at a time (judging by the amount of grease build-up in her hair), don’t wash your clothes, and have never so much as looked at a stick of deodorant.

She smelled so bad that the odor wasn’t even identifiable as human. It was greasy, cloyingly sweet, sharp and metallic all at the same time. She didn’t smell like a person; she smelled like a pig farm.

When I related this story to an associate of mine, he commented, “Well, maybe she works on a pig farm.” A perfectly logical comment, but one that makes it painfully apparent that my listener failed to grasp the magnitude of the situation. The lady didn’t smell like someone who’d spent a lot of time on a pig farm, or even like someone who’d just spent the day rolling in manure—she smelled like she WAS a pig farm. Specifically, she smelled as if she were what the hog industry euphemistically refers to as a “lagoon”—a pit full of pig feces the size of an Olympic swimming pool.

She sat right behind me.

The little girls at the back of the bus pointed and giggled. I resisted the urge to hold my nose. Partly because I felt sorry for the old woman, who probably had some sort of psychological problem, and partly because I didn’t think it would do any good. Frankly, I’m not sure that a self-contained portable oxygen tank would have done any good.

She got off at the next stop. The bus driver drove with all the doors open for a quarter-mile or so. As I gasped in fresh air, I considered the fact that I will never again have to ponder what medieval peasants smelled like. I know.

(Note to readers: This is not typical. With the exception of some 14-year-old boys—a demographic group not noted for its oustanding personal hygiene—I can count on my hands the number of times I’ve run into Germans with serious odor problems. Contrary to what some Americans who’ve never been abroad think, most Europeans do bathe frequently. When planning a European vacation, there’s really no need to pack a dozen bottles of Febreeze and your own portable oxygen system. Unless, of course, you’ll be spending time on Bus 104 from Bautzen!)


Anonymous Anonymous said...


My eyes watered at the thought of such a person. I live near a pig farm so I have an idea of the stench that you mentioned. All you can hope for is the source of the smell go away quickly or just hold your breath.


5:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your desciptions provide great visuals so I could really imagine this situation and your need for oxigen. Funny! Mom

10:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i can barely stand the smell of i can't imagine what you went through:)

11:42 PM  
Blogger Ada said...

Judy-- Sorry you have to live near a pig farm... I hope that the wind usually blows in the other direction. There are a lot of pig farms in the Lausitz, too, and sometimes there's a bit too much 'fresh country air' in the village for my taste.

Mom and Christina-- From now on, I think I'll be biking to town!

10:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hope you don't have to bike past any pig farms :)

3:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


And I thought some of the prisoners smelled quite ripe...

7:32 PM  

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