Right now I’m hitchhiking in a car of an old Russian guy who picked me up next to Grenoble,it is around 3 p.m.. The guy himself is a person about whom one could write a book. High-level engineer in Soviet Union, doing something with satellites in Leningrad – after the fall of communism emigrates to Germany – to do the same for a better pay and with different political allegiance. A few nice stories, coffee break and dropping off 350 km further. Myself, I’m not so well organized – just have a phone number stored on my old Nokia 3310(already managed to get my smartphone stolen) and a vague image of the memorized map in my mind. At that point it’s becoming increasingly worrying- with my huge backpack, violin and after suffering heavy rain which already made my clothes totally wet in France, I’m not really so eager to wander through local fields looking for a place existence of which I’m not even so sure. To my surprise however, the place where I’m headed is just 200m from the McDonald’s where the guy dropped me off what actually might have saved me from sleeping under the bridge.
Seeing the farm from a distance I already knew that this is probably the place where I’m going. Some broken mattresses, a tent, a lot of junk laying all over the place and even some dangerously big , really dirty pigs running around everywhere. There is an “oldish” guy without proper teeth loydering in front of the entrance, he looks at me and smiles weirdly. I nod him back smiling and enter the building which he just left.
There is practically no door and it seems that inside is not much cleaner than outside. In the lounge at the ground floor there are sitting two younger guys. They raise their heads looking at me and go back to reading comic books and rolling joints. It’s early afternoon but I’m so tired after standing in the rain and 8 hours on the way that I immediately fall on the couch in the “living room” to start napping in a second. Of course I don’t forget about keeping my things in the range of my arms in case someone was interested in “appropriating” them. After resting for a while I notice some movement on the other couch under a pile of clothes. A young black guy stands up and without paying much attention to me starts putting his shoes on and collects things from the floor. I don’t know that yet but he is going to be my friend at least temporarily. After a few minutes I’m starting up a conversation Oli (because that’s his name) is a German national of Nigerian extraction. After growing up in Germany he goes to visit his father in Nigeria where he stays for over a year. He comes back to start working as an apprentice in some guitar making atelier. Then, being bored he decides to travel around the Europe to busk and maybe even find a job with a goal of opening a music school back in Nigeria. He is 17 years old.
Anyway in the next twenty minutes by observing I get the basic training in how the place functions and what are the rules so that a moment after I’m rolling myself a free cigarette while drinking a free beer without even having to ask anybody. Things like food, tobacco or alcohol are common property. The farm happens to be quite big and some years before it had to be a prosperous agricultural enterprise. There are at least 4 other buildings which seem to be occupied but are so big and contain so many collapsing and semi-detached elements that it’s difficult to say what actually is my new home and what is not. In the building next door there seems to be operating a “company” since there is a truck with people unloading it. Quite interesting, but at that moment there is no way that I will go to the guys to ask what they are doing. I talk to Oli again to put my stuff in his “room” which is an old, abandoned chicken coop with a mattress inside. I’m told that it’s not really a safe place to leave my things anyway. It seems as well that there is another guy living in the chicken coop – an African refugee “who moved in and refuses to leave”. In the meantime there is another delivery truck coming and then again I see some people unloading it. They carry quite a few wooden crates to a building with a big sign: “Magazine gratuit” (French for “Free shop”). As I found out, in line with its name, you can take everything from there free of charge. At the beginning it was really difficult for me to believe in it. Even though there was obviously no Iphones or Armani suits it was enough food to feed a small village and clothes to dress up most of the homeless in the region. There were some old TVs, vacuum cleaners, electric razors, radios etc. Even if none of these were probably working the collection was quite impressive. Oli told me to take whatever I want as fast as I can, since the best things go away immediately. He filled his hands and pockets with chocolate bars just to subsequently hide them in the henhouse. The origin of food in the “shop” was fairly understandable and there were simply taking it out of the garbage bins behind supermarkets. Later one of the guys told me that they actually have deals with supermarkets and they pick up things that are supposed to go to the bin directly from people working there.
Soon after discovering the source of nutrition for the next couple of weeks I’ve finally met the guy that I contacted about coming there. “Polack”(his nickname) is a very big guy in his late 30s, with a 30cm “Iroquois” haircut on his head (which made him even taller) wore dirty clothes a la 80s and presenting a bit aggressive body language, what altogether gave the impression that he is the person in charge. Being already 35~, after dropping out of school he worked for some months in a shop – just to discover that it’s “not for him” and that he “hates the system” what led to his embarkment on a journey of anarchism. From what he told me, he lived like that throughout his whole adulthood and he doesn’t plan to stop at any point. Anyway it would be kind of too late for him. Born in Poland, at a very young age he moves with his parents to Switzerland where he lives since then. As to his documents, he just has a Polish passport without any address in it. “Trains all over the Europe are for free if you have no address” – he laughs. He never got Swiss nationality because of his refusal to go to the army and some early convictions which prevented him from getting a passport. He treats me friendly and even with basic courtesy what is quite surprising at first. After a minute of conversation about nothing and everything he offers me to show where I’m going to sleep. It’s on the 2nd floor, has no light and there is bunch of worn-out mattresses piled up inside. I’m asked whether I know anything about electricity – and when the answer is no, he explains that just yesterday he threw some cables over the closest high voltage pole and now they need to make it work.(The pole is like 20m high) Personally Polack is a quite intelligent and nice guy, maybe apart from his extremism caused by “living underground” for so long . Except for native Polish and French he speaks really good English and Spanish and is really knowledgeable on many topics with some unique ideas of his own. The only problems with him are psychological – he seems to be really unstable and mentioning some social issues can suddenly make him angry. Few days later I cannot stop myself ask him about hierarchy and how the things function in places like squats in terms of organization.
“Of course there is a hierarchy. There always is. The strongest personality usually emerges on top but on the other hand that is exactly the thing people here are fleeing from. Everybody hates authority here and dislikes people trying to boss around. If you are bored or have some surplus of energy, simply can do something useful, cleaning, installing some new device….. We dont really need much authority here.”
I soon discovered that it’s quite difficult to exactly tell the number of inhabitants or even the exact relations between them. Simplifying things a bit we can say that there is a core group of 6-7 people who are “the founders” and who “run the place”. Distinguished by their outfits, hairstyles and tattoos these guys are “real deal anarchists”. They are all French speaking although most of them have Eastern European background know each other well and have their “private space” inside the buildings. The second group are “travelers” – and these are the people who like me or Oli simply happened to be there, without any ambitions to carry on their lives like that. There were about 8-10 people of various nationalities for whom it’s a free hotel with some adventurous addons. The third group are refugees with the number of up to 60-70. Some weeks before I arrived, not too far from the squat there was a center for refugees inhabited mostly by African applicants for asylum. It has been for some reasons disbanded and the asylum seekers were left alone. How many of them are in the area of the squat is difficult to say but I would guess that more than 30 or even 40. The majority come from West Africa (Nigeria, Senegal, Ghana etc.) however I spoke to some guys from Arab countries as well. There was one particularly memorable guy – “James” from Nigeria about whom I’m only sure that his name was certainly not James. He is the guy who “broke into” Oli’s chicken coop and refused to leave, around 30-40 y.o., his right hand missed 3 fingers, he speaks no French and his English is some form of street Nigerian pigeon. His personal history and even his name change on a day to day basis so “James” changed to “John” and on some other to “Jack” and later on to “Jessy”. Accordingly, I asked about the missing fingers and first he tells me that “he had a car accident” to then change it to “they have been cut off”. In practice however, a surprisingly nice person. He tells me once: “If I had a passport, 6 months and I’m a millionaire.” He contributes quite a lot washing, doing shopping even cooking – probably he feels that he will be kicked out if he didn’t. Talking to the “squat elite” I concluded that it’s not too far from true since the refugees are really unpopular – they break into rooms, steal things and are generally disruptice. I’ve heard quite a few stories about people hiding in some remote places and even in the room where I was sleeping each night I could see 2-3 African guys whom I’ve never seen before. At the near train station, one could find around 15-30 black guys of probably the same origin who were selling hard drugs. As you can imagine there is a whole bunch of funny anecdotes. Once “James” went to the town to do the shopping(I think the only thing that they buy is alcohol since everything else they can steal), taking the bike of an Italian guy living in the squat . As he was inside the shop, the bike got stolen(at least that is what he said) and the Italian guy went mental hitting him and shouting. The funny fact here is that the Italian guy himself stole that bike a day before and now James goes and steals some other bike for him.
In spite of the picture that most people will have in their minds, pure “laisez faire” doesn’t have to come across so badly. The guys there were surprisingly organized. Regularly organized concerts, agreements with supermarkets, some level of acceptance by the police, even some “Squat budget”, gas, water, electricity and basic moral norms(and a mini-cinema with an expensive, “borrowed” beamer!). Deviants or not – in the end it didn’t matter and the rules of the game have proven to be fairly the same. “Dangerous” things of course happened – like for example a retarded girl tapping a gas bottle used for cooking and then, without igniting the fire, waiting for her food to be ready. Shattered glass, giant hogs, desperate African migrants and uninsulated cables everywhere didn’t make it safer. The people there just want to be left alone and enjoy basic things about life on the margins of a rich society. They steal but only as much as isn’t going to draw attention to them. Most of them would be declared mentally ill but I’m not sure how many of us reading this wouldn’t. But on the other hand – I must say that if you live in such place all your life, then you are probably crazy(the eating alien poo kind of crazy). That’s the label which one has to use describing the minority which tries to reject the meanings, values and norms imposed by the ruling majority. It’s like that famous logical fallacy “A guy from Crete says that all the people from Crete lie”. If you want to oppose the system using system’s own means and values- you are condemned to be incoherent and ultimately to fail. But for most of these people that’s irrelevant anyway. Some of them are retarded and totally “de-socialized” and there is not much left for them to do. A useless supermarket job and mental misery or social margin with personal freedom that s the choice that most of them is facing.
After about 3 weeks I finally decide to go away. Most of the people there don’t really like me anyway. I’m just a tourist there and they know it. I just say goodbye to Oli, “James”, Polack and few other ppl – quite sure that I will never see any of them again. It’s quite easy to get to the highway from there and so in a few minutes a get a hitch to my next destination. How to find such places? There are more than you think and there is a high possibility that homeless, migrants and simply strange looking people live in a place like that and from my experience in most of middle size cities in Western Europe you can always find something like this. I would recommend you to check out couchsurfing – there are many squats registered there (usually the best way is to search for “several ppl” with unusual languages). You can go to alternative bars and ask there too. It’s good to remember though that nothing ever comes entirely free.
It was back in 2013 and I lost most of photos I took