“If you went beyond this point they would have shot you” Barbara tells us as we walk past lampposts painted with military looking red and white stripes. “Down there you can see our love huts,” she gestures towards a row of small triangular wooden structures just big enough to hold a double bed, cosily set amongst the pine trees.
“Inside them , you're contained but also in nature - it's a beautiful place to make love” she says, a broad smile stretching across her serene round face. Barbara is the public relations person for ZEGG - the Centre for Experimental Cultural Design (Zentrum fur experimentelle Gesellschaftsgestaltung) - a “free love” eco-village housed in the shell of a sprawling Stasi (East German secret police) base on the edges of a sandy pine forest eighty kilometres from Berlin.
It 's a wonderful historical irony that these buildings which are now covered in solar panels and surrounded by permaculture gardens used to be Stasi training quarters, where the “Romeo technique” was taught. This involved training East German men to seduce western women into romantically dependent relationships, so as to coerce them to become spies in western organisations. After the fall of the Berlin wall, the site was bought by ZEGG, and now inside these characterless premises people are living, teaching and practicing a very different kind of loving.
Where deceit and sexual control was once taught, seminars and workshops are now run which promote trust and transparency as the foundations of community. Founded on the motto that “There can be no peace on earth as long as there is war in love,” the 80 members of ZEGG are developing innovative techniques for building new forms of collective life.
In our atomised western societies, living in community has not only been devalued but many of the skills required to enable us to live together have been lost. Thousands upon thousands of radical groups and intentional communities have fallen apart because of internal conflicts, often stemming (whether conscious or not) from issues of love, sex, money and power.
Since its inception 30 years ago, this community has believed that peace and ecological sustainability can only be achieved when such conflicts are dealt with. For ZEGG these conflicts had to be meticulously studied and solutions found. What emerged from the research was the realisation that problem solving and decisionmaking processes are often burdened by emotional baggage. So they decided to split decision-making meetings from emotional exploration by setting up a process called “The Forum”. Forum is a technique for showing yourself and your emotions to others. The community sit in a circle and people take turns to stand in the middle and express what's going on for them. The key is not to tell but to show, to reveal in the moment of performance what your feeling are, sometimes it comes out as words, sometimes as movement, sounds, a song, a gesture. The others respond in a technique called “mirroring”.
“Mirroring is seen as a gift for the person, not a critique” Barbara tells us “when you realise that by revealing your own weakness it brings people closer to you rather than pushes people away, then you are able to trust.”
Before moving to ZEGG, Barbara trained and worked in psychology. “The people who live here have a more complex understanding of psychology than anyone I had met in my work or my professors at university” she explains with a wisdom and authenticity that many of the people here seem to possess.
Isa and I had never experienced a place where love and sexuality felt so healthy, so much part of everyday life, something that was not an individual or couple's surreptitious world but something that could be shared between everyone with such dignity and unburdened joy.