The brief train ride from Bullay to Traben-Trarbach is astonishing. In early fall, the rolling hills and mountains of the valley brim with the yellow-green leaves of trees and vines which droop down from the weight of healthy bunches of grapes. A gaze out the window reveals this spectacle against the calm neutrality of plentiful evergreens and the gently flowing Mosel river, from which the wine region takes its name. Mosel is Riesling country, and any varieties of wines that can be made from these grapes can not only be found there, but found in excellence and plenty.
My girlfriend and I are living for three weeks in a little apartment above a little bakery just down the street from the winery where we eat all our meals and drink all our wine. Greta and Augustin, our gracious hosts and winemakers, had been able to score the place for a reasonable rent from the baker (also named Greta) under the condition that we never even think about bringing our work boots inside, so they live at the winery. On the first day, we show up ready to work. I bring with me the gardening gloves that had served me well on our last farm in Austria. “Wesley,” Greta lilts in German-tinted English at the sight of them in my back pocket, “those gloves are *hm* wrong. Too thick.” They have their own gloves. I can use those. I respond that it is fine, but Augustin picks up where Greta left off. “Oh yes,” he grins, “these are certainly the wrong gloves.” He begins to giggle. “Yes,” Greta agrees, “I told him he can use the gloves we have in the van.” She begins to laugh openly. “Oh yes,” Augustin chimes in with mirth, “those would be much better.” I stand between them utterly stupefied as their laughter ascends into hysteria. Another worker slips on her thick, woolen mittens.
On the edge.
The vineyards around Traben-Trarbach and its neighboring villages are mostly on slopes that are so steep that harvesting must be done by manual teams without machinery. Each vineyard has a name, which pairs the name of the town outside of which it is found with the distinct name of the hillside. Perhaps the most dreaded vineyard from which we harvest (which is also home to our oldest vines and highest quality grapes) is Enkircher-Ellergrub. Enkircher-Ellergrub is a slatey, gravel-y side of the Mosel valley. The sections of its vineyards are divided into punishingly steep rows of individually trained vines, which are separated by plateaus with about a five foot drop between them. The best way to get to the vines at the top is on the ricketiest, death-trap-iest miniature monorail on God’s earth, which at points in its ride dangles its seatbelt-less passengers from near 90-degree inclines. Augustin once told us that we were in no danger of falling, only to follow up the reassurance with a story about falling and going to the hospital.
“Wesley, can you take the edge?” sings Greta across the vineyard. “Sure,” I shout back, and wobble along the plateau’s edge hundreds of feet above the river. I am not afraid of heights insofar as I do not have a crippling phobia of them, but I respect them. Gravity kills people all the time. My boots nudge rocks off the cliff to the long fall below and I am reminded not to miss bunches shaded under the big leaves. Later, during our lunch break, Greta calls me aside. She asks me to follow her away from the group, and her experienced legs stroll her up the terrace while I half-crawl, half-gallop behind. She takes me to a small collection of vines quite high up, and asks me to look out over the vineyard. “See?” she says, “it’s safe up here. You don’t really have anything to worry about.” And there was the end of our talk. Greta’s day job as a therapist supports the winery, and while her cool encouragement does not make me feel more comfortable on the monorail ride back down, at least someone else sees that I’m a bit hung up on mortality this fall.
Andrei is a guest worker from Romania. He seems to me a giant, but it is only because he casts such an immense shadow over me from above. Bullishly strong and broad, he hulks around the vineyards hauling multiple rectangular bins of grapes which he loads onto the cart that tugs them to the top of the hill. He checks all my giant, Romanian guest worker stereotype boxes. Andrei never drinks water on our water breaks—he has black coffee and a cigarette. Andrei brings homemade plum schnapps with him when he works in Germany which he smuggles across the border in unmarked water bottles. Greta once went downstairs to find him blackout drunk and pulling out one of his own teeth despite having dental insurance through the winery. One night at dinner, another worker was showing us pictures of his dog. “You call that dog?” Andrei laughed hugely.
Andrei does not join us most nights for dinner because Greta is vegan and Andrei is the opposite of vegan. We go downstairs to do the dishes in the kitchen where he and another Romanian worker (a relative he brought with him also named Andrei) eat every night. There we are privileged with moments of quiet observation—glimpses of a father and husband tenderly missing his family in words we can’t understand.
There is an Italian family in Traben-Trarbach that makes ice cream from scratch and sells it by the scoop. They only summer in the village, their Mediterranean blood being too thin for Germany’s winters. Germany is getting drier and hotter and their little ice creamery’s customers are more satisfied each year. There is an age-old wine festival in the village, too. At the beginning of every harvest, the families of the town would open up their cellars and sell their excess stores off cheaply to tourists, and their children marked the date and followed suit. Everyone drinks and sings like they do every night but during the festival they get to do it in public. Recently, they've kept the date but the circumstances have changed—the grapes mature too fast in the heat and now they imbibe in the middle of the season.
“I think there will be much war in this time no?” says Augustin one night as we all fret over impending changes to the planet. He may be right, but the tone of our discussion disturbs me. Augustin is a good person, but he is twenty years my senior and German. Around this table, it is an intellectual exercise. Soon, I will fly over places where this will matter, back to my swamp, where the creatures will be gone and the land will be flooded. The people who can afford it will have moved and those who can’t will fade with the rest of the land.