Lessons from manual labour
The only true measure of status, according to Lenka’s grandpa, was in the time you woke up. Principally, this status was in whether you had a choice in the matter. “Dobré ráno, malý panko,” he liked to say when I came into the kitchen to make my tea. Good morning, little lord. There was a twinkle of mischief in his eyes as he looked over my sleepy face. He would have been on a break, sitting in his chair with a back as straight as a fence, sucking on bone cartilage or drinking coffee, tapping a forefinger on the table to remind Grandma about the sugar.
That’s where I met Grandpa on an autumn morning nearly 16 years ago, when Lenka first brought me here. We’d travelled to the village in eastern Slovakia on an overnight train from Prague, me in a sleepless state of curiosity. In the warmth of Grandma’s kitchen, beneath a low-hanging light, I drank the shot of spirit and large bottle of beer placed before me. To approving nods, I ate two bowls of goulash, its meat from the goat Grandpa called Svetlana the First.
I spent my first day among rotting apples, carefully picking the rosy specimens off a tree using the picker – a long stick with a metal-toothed canvas bag at one end. Later, there would be the privilege of cleaning out the pig house, the ammonia coming further up my nose with each layer of crap and straw. It made my brain feel itchy.
During the early visits I made drawings and paintings and wrote in tiny notebooks. Grandma referred to the latter as mravec, or ants. In a place where no time is considered “spare” and no material taken for granted, all of my “work” activities, including the trips I made across Europe to visit museums, were patently aristocratic.
Writing at my desk the other day, I watched through the window as a procession of villagers pulled carts packed with junk mail leaflets. It was like Sunday morning, only without the neat clothes. I wondered what it was before remembering the announcement on the PA system a couple of weeks back: Five kilograms of paper in exchange for one roll of toilet paper. There was a reason for the stacks of neatly bundled catalogues in the basement – freelance recyclers were buying up the village’s waste paper.
The catalogues and leaflets arrived daily through the mailbox. When Grandpa was alive, Grandma had to intercept them, particularly in summer, when her husband would go on and on about how beautiful everything looked, anything from swimming pools and lawn mowers to a pair of red shoes.
There was a lot of meat on those glossy pages. The digitally enhanced dissections appeared with no background, no history. More than likely they came from animals pumped with antibiotics, living in factory farms where there wasn’t enough room to turn around. They didn’t taste all that good, the ready-made cuts, but they were cheap.
The leaflets being driven away in the carts were at odds with traditions of subsistence. The year-long project of raising a pig, climaxing in a sacrificial event so fundamental to family and village life, would begin to fade the minute the supermarkets arrived.
Pig-killing days seemed to go on forever: 10 to 15 men and women carefully preserving an entire animal, from dawn until the early hours of the next morning. I have a mental vignette of Lenka’s uncle, the butcher in the family, shaving the upended mass in heavy fog, a cigarette hanging from his mouth. The pig was having its blood drained into a white enamel bowl. Its severed head watched on from a plate a few metres away. The blood would later go into sausages, while a breakfast of scrambled eggs with brain arrived just in time to soak up the first rounds of vodka.
It was vodka that we also drank to celebrate the 17 rolls of toilet paper with which Lenka’s aunt came through the front gate, having spent an hour lining up behind the Polish recycling truck. She had offloaded an impostor into the economy of necessity – junk mail is the only paper that doesn’t burn easily – and brought home something I would no longer be able to take for granted.
It sounds like “bizniss” when he says it. The gesture of the hand is to make sure I understand: an upwards-facing palm corkscrewing down as it sneaks its way into a money jar. It is when talking to Jano, the Romani worker who Grandma has been hiring for more than 20 years to complete odd jobs, that I am made acutely aware of my rank. I feel his eyes scanning me for clues, having asked for the hundredth time how it is I make money, a hand the size and texture of an old baseball glove rubbing its fingertips together. I murmur something about art while reading names and words haphazardly tattooed across his forearms, a register of lovers or deceased loved ones.
Business is the only English word Jano knows; it neatly summarises the world beyond the one in which he lives. After a shift of heavy labour last week, for which he was paid €5 and a bag of assorted items – some frozen soup, a piece of old cloth to make a curtain, a half-finished bottle of Coke left over from Grandma’s birthday three months ago – Jano looked worried while gently rocking on the garden swing. He was rolling cigarettes, one after another, with tobacco that comes in large zip-lock bags. It turned out that there was a funeral the following day: it’s going to be like “herding sheep” … they’ll be “on the ground” and “pulling their knives out” before it even starts, he was telling us.
It was a hot morning and would be a very hot day. I was cutting through knee-high grass and nettles with my new Whipper Snipper when I noticed the neighbour, a goatherd, scything through a section of land near our boundary. He lets himself in through a broken section of fence, usually bearing gifts: bags of greengages and walnuts; chocolate bars for my daughter, Elise; a giant wheel of fresh goat’s cheese. He never says goodbye when leaving.
I took off my protective mask and earmuffs and went over to say hello. The goatherd kept working. I observed as his wiry frame, lost beneath clothes too big for it, hardly moved, the blade casually wiping away six months of undergrowth. A smooth rock the size and shape of a sardine was used to sharpen the ancient-looking metal, in swift alternating strokes. It rested in a metal pouch clipped to his back pocket, in a small pool of water. Together they made a soft clanking noise that reminded me of a distant cowbell.
My neighbour is always telling me to take rests, which I’ve decided relates to the manner more than fact of my working. Time and work co-operate here in ways my city body finds hard to adapt to. It’s precisely because work never ceases that one must not be in a hurry. If I’m scything correctly, my hips hardly move; they don’t anticipate the arc of the tool, only follow it. For an artist, a little lord, that’s a very important lesson.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 15, 2018 as "The sycthe". Subscribe here.