Every day there comes a time when the smell of dinner intrusively fills the kitchens, families gather or children prepare for bed. Yet, this is not quite the case for Europe’s sleepwalkers – the ones pushing our economies to their limits during night shifts. Working while the stars are shining is unlike any other job or shift. It is peculiar, it is exhausting, it is special and even breathtaking at times. This is the experience I made this summer in one of many European factories whose lights are never switched off.
First in the list of the sleepwalkers I got to know goes Vitali, he is the spokesperson of the group I am working with. He is gentle and friendly, even caring at times and a just mediator, yet with a frightening appearance. Not only that a past of extensive weight training still finds its way to the observer’s eye, his body is covered with tattoos, completing the bias-based first-sight impression of a roughneck. And his youth – one is tempted to conclude – must have been a dubious one. Yet, his character and behaviour tell otherwise, in that way turning all prejudice upside down, making their foundations crumble and fall down around our ears.
Arthur is a man from Poland in his fifties – tall and gaunt. He is a silent worker with inscrutable thoughts, who, quite randomly, breaks his usual restraint, offering dry and quick-witted insights when confronted with all too existential questions. In that respect, I remember him countering the loose suggestion of a colleague to embark on a trip around the world once they are retired with the question why he should do that if he hasn’t been to his farm back in Poland for years.
Next in the list goes Robert; he is never at a loss of a catchy saying and a pleasant contemporary. He is usually quick with a joke, not all completely sticking to political correctness. Yet, this fact is certainly not enough to spoil the appeal and popularity of his humorous interjections amongst the group.
Richard is a true craftsman and if you should ever be in the situation to concrete something, he is the guy you should be calling. He is a man of principles with one credo occupying centre stage: to each his own. This ambiguous statement, clearly oscillating between convinced laissez-faire attitude and profound incomprehension serves for him as blanko answer to a multiplicity of opinions he doesn’t identify with. So it occurred that “to each his own” in conjunction with a sceptical furrowing of a brow was the way he countered my answer (European Studies) to his question about my study programme. I saw a thousand questions popping up in his head and I knew he would slowly release them in the course of the next hours – in his own labour-saving pace imbued with prudence and calmness that is unique to experienced blue-collar workers.
Meanwhile the continuos hammering of the machines blazes its trail through the sound-swallowing darkness and their interplay with each other in a recurring cycle resembles a symphony. The symphony of our times, so it seems, orchestrated by industrial leaders aiming at ever-continuing expansion and growth. Being united in this purpose, hundreds of workers come together to form a daily army of shadows, originating in the vast expanses covered in the anonymity of the night.
What it means to work while the street lights in front of the factory are guiding the way for people that don’t seem to guess what’s happening behind the high walls, is hard to phrase in words. But if I can tell one thing about working night shifts, then that it changes people. It changes your perspective and it changes your rhythm. And it certainly alters your perception of the working people. On a microlevel, you leave with a different mindset than you came every single day. Moreover, the difference in your biorhythm compared to large parts of the society renders you a half-time participant in public life unless your main correspondence happens between Central Europe and, say, Mongolia.
And sometimes it’s back. Even in the dusty sultriness of the factory, being impregnated with the sobering coldness of artificial light. It is back. The feeling you had when you first tried to stay awake the whole night while you were on this school trip to the next big town or stunning countryside. When the specialty and uniqueness of this very moment occupied all your thoughts, dreaming of girls and tomorrow’s adventures, only fearing the sharp night controls of the relentless supervising teacher.
The next time your switching off the last light, the next time you say good night to your loved ones or decide to value your sleep higher than the next pressing episode of your favourite TV series, you might want to pause life for a second and think of the armada of the sleepless that once more sets out to maintain our economic thriving throughout the night and beyond.3