Thursday, February 14, 2008

Germany - Day 15: 2/14 (The Bog of Eternal Stench)

Days Left to Departure: 9

"If you so much as set a foot in the Bog of Eternal Stench, you'll smell bad for the rest of your life. It'll never wash off!" - Hoggle, from the movie
Labyrinth. See a clip here

Happy Valentine's Day. I was reminded of how much this day rots for so many people by having one of the most sensually unpleasant days of my life. I am one of those freaks who tries to find a life lesson in everything that he sees, hears, and or does, and I did even find one in today's excursion (although excretion might be more accurate about the general feeling of the day). But I will get to that later.

The day started with a mini-break for some of the students and we allowed seven of them to take advantage of late arrival this morning as we were leaving for a field trip halfway through study session. We were headed to Cargill, an American Food production company. I wasn’t sure why were seeing an American company in Germany and still am not quite sure why it was on the docket, although from what I understand, it had something to do with the fact that Gloria, a German student in our group, had a connection to see it because her father worked there.

The tour began with about an hour intro into the history of the factory, an overview of it’s production, uses if its material, and such. I tried to keep interest, and the guide, Helmut Klein (awesome, awesome name), really tried hard in his best English to keep us interested, but it reminded me of why its hard but important to make material engaging as a teacher and what happens if you just slam some info on a PowerPoint. And I guess it really comes down to how much I can really listen to about corn. If I lived in Nebraska, maybe, but I don’t. One thing I found out was that France is the Iowa of Europe. Ha Ha! Take that, France!

When it was time for the tour, I was very excited because I wanted to leave the “classroom” about as badly as any of the students, although Sandra (a German student) was peppering Herr Klein with questions, so at least she was really interested in everything. We went to a locker room and were dudded up with all sorts of safety equipment: special non-slip sneakers, white paper lab coats, safety glass, hard hats, and ear plugs. We were all stylin!

I guess the one item that we didn’t have, which looking back would have made the tour much better, were breathing masks. Once we made out of the “locker room” we began walking toward the first building and that is when the smell of cooking corn really started to hit. When Herr Klein said we would smell corn cooking, I know I was thinking of the smell when I boil corn on the cob or making popcorn, but that was not the smell that I experienced in any way, shape, or form. I guess boiling thousands of tons of corn meal is a little different and it created one of the strongest and worst smells I have ever inhaled. We walked quickly across the lot and stated to go into a building, thankfully, and I couldn’t wait to escape the pungent, acrid, overwhelming smell that literally defies description. Until we made it inside and it was worse. Every room we entered for the next 90 minutes was a gamble. I would breathe as little as possible and when we entered the next room, I would gasp for more air and see that I was greeted with a different variation of foul. Every room, except for the three control rooms that we saw, had a different special nastiness to it. And it was overpowering. I thought Erin was literally going to pass out, with Shannon and J-Fogg not far behind. I couldn’t blame them because at times I wanted to jump out of a window and just end the tour for myself. It was really that bad. If Herr Kramer wants to give out a bigger scare next year about breaking the law and consuming alcohol while in Germany, instead of threatening to send a kid home, he should threaten to have them spend a day working in the corn starch room at Cargill. It would have done the trick with me. If I had to choose between not eating and spending eight hours in that place, I would have hit the hunger strike in a second. Bring it on, Gandhi. You don’t even know what you are in for.

To make matters more disgusting, we have the story of D.J. At one point we saw what looked like a giant cylinder of extremely yellow cranberry sauce (the kind you get from a can). Erin had a btter description of it as it was coming off of the cylinder, but I will try to maintain some level of decorum, here. It was just about as nasty looking a substance as I could imagine. And of course, J-Fogg wanted to touch it with her plastic gloves. We joked that D.J. should taste it and to my absolute astonishment and disgust, he did. Twice. With no promise of compensation beyond getting blogged about.

After this horrifying experience was over and we could de-safety cloak ourselves, we went back to the classroom where I had some coffee and spent time trying to get Shannon to break a rubber band for her braces, but had to settle for getting J-Fogg to spit Coca-Cola all over the floor. The Cargill group then treated us to a lunch of currywurst and fried potatoes (Jessia and I missed French fries because we were the last in line). The currywurst was actually pretty solid, although, in truth, I didn’t have much of an appetite and when I tried my salad, whatever the dressing was reminded me of the smell/taste from the factory, and that was the last bite of anything that I have eaten today. Cargill then gave each of us a gift bag with a coffee mug, hat, lanyard, etc., which I thought was pretty nice of them. When then mercifully made it back on the bus and headed back to GSG.

I can’t imagine why anyone would ever want to go through that tour again, but I did realize the value of it two different ways. The next time someone is talking about industrial pollution, I know I will immediately think of how horrible that place was in terms of just what it smelled like, not including the diesel fumes and exhaust that gave it just an extra punch. Those conversations will now strike home in a different fashion.

More importantly, however, I think that I have remembered today why I always wanted to go to college because I don’t think I could ever work in a place like that, almost no matter how much it paid me. While there were many engineers there, who have obviously attended college, I can’t fathom smelling like that plant when I came home and not getting seriously sick. It makes me have more respect for what factory works must go through to be able to provide for their families and certainly what it must have been like for the millions of unskilled laborers who flooded the West from the East, looking for employment and a higher standard of living when the Berlin wall came down. Often, the unskilled laborer, and even the skilled laborer, are criticized for their lifestyle and situation. However, anyone who willingly works in that atmosphere must have a level of dedication that I cannot hope to achieve. If Burnt Hills High School smelled like that for one hour, the building would be closed, condemned, demolished, and the rubble quarantined for at least six months. If those of you who are reading this have an literary background (hello, Mrs. Gangemi!), think of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle at about 97 degrees with no wind. I think I would rather visit The Black Hole of Calcutta than spend any more time at Cargill. I thing I am going to recommend this place for the T.V. show on Discovery Channel called "Dirty Jobs with Mike Rowe". Its a great show and this place would be perfect for him to do a segment. My hat is off to the workers who spend time there 350 days per year that the plant is in production and I say thank you for braving it so I can things like Diet Coke and toothpaste!

No comments: