Nuala McCann: Memories of being in a pickle at the German pickle factory


On a sunny day, at the drive-thru under the Golden Arches, I remove the pickled pickle from my burger, toss it in the trash and dream of a long time ago.

A summer in the pickle factory in Hamburg was a student rite of passage.

Jobs have been passed down from sister to brother. The season lasted two months with the option of a cheap vacation in a sleeping bag on a Greek beach at the end.

The first time I went stripping I was 20 years old, I didn’t know anyone else. I traveled solo.

Catch me waving to my dad before disappearing through the swinging airport doors, onto the tarmac, and onto the steps of the plane.

Then for the train ride to Hamburg to the stripping plant. I had a Walkman with two small speakers – they traveled with me to Hamburg blowing up Cat Stevens: “O baby baby it’s a wild world.”

At the gates of the factory, the whiff of vinegar escaped and kissed hard.

By the time you stopped smelling it, no amount of rubbing would wash away the smell.

We marinated and marinated better – jars stuffed with raw pickles before they went into the oven and developed a taste for ladles of melted butter poured over our mashed potatoes by the plump chef in the canteen of the factory.

At the end of those eight weeks, reader, we were waddling.

When the night shift ended, it was at the bar – the Titanic. Friday night was an all night session drinking apple cider and bowls of ice cream and singing sentimental ballads.

We were poor but happy. We discovered Aldi’s delicacies long before it was a thing in Ireland. Their shortbread was cheap and to die for.

We hitchhiked to Berlin and got drunk unter den Linden long before the wall fell.

There’s nothing quite like hours staring at raw pickles on a treadmill to energize you and keep you away from it all.

For us, it was a summer job. For full-time employees, a hard-earned life.

What I remember is the kindness of the big Italian family who invited us to their home for Sunday pizza as the TV was screaming and everyone was clapping and shouting Italian “REF-E- REE “while the football was playing.

Friendships were forged in no time – we laughed with our siblings in vinegar arms.

As I hitchhiked back from Berlin, I remember the cold hippie driving barefoot, hairy toes curved around the gas pedal as he exited Berlin on the highway back to Hamburg.

He was so relaxed that I wanted what he was having… well, not quite.

One of our adventures was to take a peek in Hamburg’s red light district.

A woman had none of us. She went upstairs, opened a window, and poured a bucket of pee on our heads.

There were other summer jobs.

I cleaned the doctors’ houses; I ran into a crowded cafe on a Saturday and knelt in front of a drunk chef begging him to make the customer’s cream before making it myself.

In France, there was a summer to babysit three children under five.

I fell in love with the baby who was adorable even when granny filled her bottle with bright green spinach soup and left me with the explosive diapers … oh, perfect little Jackson Pollock paintings.

I left a little shine of my heart with this baby.

But it was hard work and this summer of diapers, baby bottles and spinach soup proved to be the ultimate contraceptive for a college girl in her twenties.

Years later, the midwife in the prenatal class made a knitted uterus and taught us about childbirth.

That’s all I could do to get up and scream, “Work is the least of your worries …”

There were also other summers … like the one I spent as a doctor’s receptionist.

The patients rang, they begged, I was a soft one. I inserted everyone.

Have you ever seen a kneeling brain doctor?

Now here I am at drive-thru, throwing aside that slice of pickle I could never digest and toasting my marinade mates.

They all grew up with real world jobs … doctors, teachers, lawyers.

When they take their kids out for a burger, do they also take out the pickle and smile at the memory of the barefoot hippie and all the unter den Linden laughter?

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