In Ireland it Rains

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Since leaving home in late June, one of the biggest and most constant challenges that Matt and I have encountered is the weather. We’ve experienced just about every type of weather imaginable in the past five months: extreme heat in Croatia; cold and wind at altitude on the TMB; surprise snowstorm in Iceland; scorching sun in Morocco. The weather itself isn’t the problem; it’s that we are utterly unequipped for any extreme conditions. Because we are traveling ultra lightly (backpacks only, and that are streamlined enough to be carried a hundred miles at a time), we are prepared to deal with only the most moderate of weather occurrences: a drizzle of rain, mild cold, a moderate breeze. As soon as conditions slide into requiring any type of specialized gear, we’re out of luck.

So when we set out for a two-week trek through Ireland’s notoriously rainy western coast in October, we were pretty sure we were in for some trouble. Matt and I both lack proper rain jackets, my shoes protect against only the shallowest of puddles, and our tent has gradually deteriorated into little more than a scrap of nylon that we take turns holding over each others’ heads overnight.

Nonetheless, we were excited to hike the Kerry Way, a 200K circuit of the Iveragh Peninsula. Approximately a nine-day hike sans pack, we allotted ourselves just under two weeks to complete the circuit unsupported.

Our bus to the trailhead was several hours behind schedule, so we started our first day of walking late on a Friday evening. We camped in Killarney National Park, hidden from the path by only a thin smattering of wet shrubbery, and when it started raining while we were setting up camp, I discovered that my brand new rain jacket was not at all waterproof. We had brought along a small tarp which we jerry-rigged to keep the majority of our aging tent dry, and slept to the sounds of endangered Red Deer bellowing their mating calls from nearby fields. (These deer are supposed to be elusive, but we couldn’t seem to get away from them.)

When Matt and I first began our career as wild campers (aka sleeping discreetly in “non-designated areas”), I will admit that I was as nervous as a possum. Every twitch of the grass left me certain that someone or something was coming to get us and either a. Kill us, or b. Haul us off jail for trespassing. I would lie awake in my sleeping bag convincing myself that the land’s owner surely took a detailed inventory each morning and would soon ride up on a four wheeler and blow a hole in our tent with a shotgun; or that the whole forest was certainly set to be bulldozed at sunrise and we would be flattened. (I once had myself completely convinced that I could hear a tsunami coming and we would be washed away, though that particular bout of paranoia may have been induced by unhealthy amounts of MSG-infused ramen noodles). So I didn’t get much sleep in the early days. Of course none of these things ever actually happened (though we were once terrorized by a raccoon in Georgia and thank goodness I was awake for that), so I gradually became more comfortable with sleeping “under the radar.” By the time we hit the Kerry Way, I could sleep tucked away in some little grove of trees or hillside nook with almost no qualms at all.

If only I had reserved a smidge more of my paranoia for the Kerry Way.

I knew the walk would be rainy, so I tried not to be surprised or disappointed when the sky inevitably welled up and dumped buckets of precipitation on us. In fact, I tried not to notice the weather at all, lest it should notice me back and decide I looked a little too dry and happy. (Not commenting on the weather at all became my little superstition along the Kerry Way, along with the belief that it wouldn’t rain as long I kept all my rain gear on my body.)

On our third night, though, things got a little out of hand. We pitched our tent in a forest near a little river, in a perfectly ideal spot for trail camping, and once we were all tucked in for the night it started to rain. Happy with our location and our tarp strung up over the tent with shoelaces, we fell asleep peaceful and dry after a 15-mile day. At some point in the night I remember waking up to notice that the rainfall was extremely heavy and persistent, and had a brief image of flooding, but quickly scolded myself for silly paranoia and went back to sleep.

In the morning it was still raining and didn’t seem like it would abate any time soon. We delayed as long as possible, but eventually decided to suck it up and hike out into the rain. It was only an 8-mile day, and we thought we could handle a few hours of wet walking.

As we packed up in a steady drizzle, Matt looked over a few meters and said, “Wow, that creek over there is pretty swollen,” and I clearly remember thinking, “There was not a creek there yesterday…”

We went to make our way forward on the trail, and quickly discovered that there was no trail– it was totally under water for as far as we could see. Having no clear idea of which direction it went in, we vetoed the possibility of staying in the trail’s general direction until it cleared up and joining it later.

In another few minutes, we determined that the overnight flooding had stranded us on an island in the forest. The nearby river had overflowed to create a freshwater moat of which we didn’t know the depth of extent. Thank goodness, I suppose, that we had camped on high ground.

We determined that we could either wait for the water to recede, which could take days even if the rain stopped immediately, or we could wade through the rising water back the way we had come to the nearest town. Envisioning floodwaters sweeping away cars and homes, I wasn’t too keen on wading out. But spending a few days on that instant island wasn’t too appealing either, and we eventually decided to make our escape. Fortunately, our path followed a fence line through a cow pasture, so we were able to follow it and use the posts to gage the depth of the water.

I stripped down to my undies, took off my boots and began slowly following Matt through the sometimes waist deep floodwater, the soaked grass weirdly soft beneath my bare feet. Luckily the water was mostly clear and still, allowing me to successfully avoid the impressive cow paddies that sat weirdly immovable on the underwater pasture.

We slogged for several minutes in this wholly uncomfortable but undeniably comical situation, which I fully realized about the time that I was standing up to my waist in water wearing a rain jacket and no pants, trying unsuccessfully to keep my pack out of the water and I couldn’t contain a burst of nervous and joyful laughter at the sheer ridiculousness of our predicament. It was much easier to see the hilarity once I was assured that we would not be swept away like a car in a hurricane.

Being in Ireland, the nearest establishment was naturally a pub, which we slopped into dripping wet (to the elderly bartender’s certain dismay) to plot our next move.

After discerning that the deluge would not abate any time soon, we reluctantly checked into a hotel to wait it out. (There are some types of rain you can backpack in; this was not one of them.) A full 36 hours later, the rain finally stopped and within ten minutes of its finale, the sun was shining brilliantly over the Irish coast. We later learned from an old man outside of a supermarket (whose credibility I’ll leave open to interpretation) that this was the heaviest rainfall in Ireland since 1946.

With renewed energy and dry gear, we were excited to get back on the trail, though the rest of it was comparatively uneventful.

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Will work for pasta and red wine

It’s really pretty ironic– almost hilariously ironic– that WWOOFing on the vineyard was such a wholly miserable experience, as from the beginning it was the farm I was looking forward to the most. When we first started planning this trip months ago, Matt asked me to choose one place that I undoubtedly wanted to go, and I immediately replied that I wanted to pick grapes on an Tuscan vineyard. All of our plans were fluid except for that one. We learned that grape harvest is around September and we basically built the rest of our time in Europe around that event.

Our host, Francesco, seemed nice enough in our pre-WWOOF communications. He told us he had a small room for us and that he would pick us up at the train station on our scheduled arrival date.

Our first task upon that date was to “clean out” our living space, which had not been used “in several months,” though judging by the pile up of trash and junk I’d assume that to be more like several years.

The vineyard rented rooms to “argitourists,” which were all full when we arrived, and which is how we were sent to this “apartment.” Newly cleaned, these accommodations were still thoroughly grungy and utterly uninviting. We had two floors, the bottom with a sink and an assortment of old furniture and the top with a skeleton of a bed and another assortment of old furniture.

The floor dividing the two stories was essentially a layer of plywood laid on top of some pipes, which complained loudly and threateningly with every step. The stairs to this upper level were 2x4s built into a narrow crumbly hallway, and two of the steps were totally broken and had to be skipped (which made midnight bathroom a treacherous affair).

We were scheduled to be at the vineyard for about two weeks, but we didn’t actually start picking grapes until the last four days of our stay. For the first week and a half, we spent just a couple of hours each day cleaning out various rooms on the property. We swept and mopped the olive grinding room; we carried dozens of giant glass jugs out of the wine storing room; we spent two very unpleasant days cleaning out horse stalls; and we removed piles of junk and trash from a pizza kitchen that seemed to have been abandoned mid-pizza years ago, there was still dough in the mixer.

There was one other WWOOFer there, Antonio, a career WWOOFer who had been at the vineyard since April and had no set plans to leave. Antonio is from southern Italy and spoke just enough english to tell us that his parents left him when he was very young and he doesn’t know when his birthday is. He’s forgotten to keep track of his age, though he reckons he is somewhere in his mid-thirties, and he insists that the U2 song “Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” was written about him. He was constantly smoking hand-rolled cigarettes and filling our glasses with the vineyard’s thick red wine. Fortunately, Antonio was assigned to be something like our manager and when we were lucky enough to receive any instruction at all, it came from him.

Our host himself was a boar of a man who we didn’t speak a single word to after our very first day. He spoke excellent english but preferred instead to communicate with Matt and me by using flippant hand gestures, yelling at us in Italian or occasionally just by making animal noises.

Francesco smoked almost as much as Antonio, and this combined with his extreme size left him constantly huffing and puffing though his thick layer of facial hair. (His breathlessness could have also been due to the restrictive nature of his clothing, which may have fit him twenty years ago but certainly doesn’t anymore.) More often than not I was concerned that he was going to pass out from the effort of walking from his upstairs apartment to the dinner table. We learned that Francesco had lived in our rickety apartment just three years ago (so I guess that’s how the stairs became broken), and I spent the rest of our stay trying to discern how the meager flooring held up to his great weight.

Dinner at the vineyard was quite an affair, as we dined with the agritourism guests and Francesco and his wife when she visited from Milan. (I don’t really understand this, but if I were her, I’d stay far away, too.) The first course of the evening was always a heaping bowl of pasta that any non-Italian would consider a full meal in itself. Usually this was followed by some sort of “side dish” like eggplant parmesan, scalloped potatoes or, funnily enough, french fries. Finally there was some sort of meat, usually red, often sausage or ribs (or both). And, of course, there was always wine. On our very first night, Matt leaned across the table and whispered, “I’m going to need to buy some running shoes.”

These lavish dinners almost made up for the fact that there was nothing for lunch during our first week and a half on the vineyard and that breakfast didn’t exist beyond espresso. Almost, but not quite.

The actual grape harvest was a surprisingly anticlimactic event. We spent one bumbling morning tracking down and cleaning all the equipment, a grinding machine and some fat hoses, and then spent the next three and a half days doing the actual grape picking. Along with a handful of older men who showed up to help, we walked up and down hundreds of rows of grape vines, snipping off the bunches of grapes and dropping them into our individual crates. When the crates were full, we dumped them unceremoniously into a trailer that was attached to a tractor-esque vehicle that followed us through the rows. When the trailer was full, we all trundled up to the grinding machine and raked the grapes into its grumbling gears, and the machine pumped the murky pulp through the clog-prone hoses and into an enormous vat. We were told by a winemaking student, Lapo (who at one time also lived in our “apartment”), that the juice would stay in this tank for a few weeks before it would be filtered and moved into another vessel to ferment. This, he explained, was the “old way” of making wine– no washing the grapes to remove bugs and dirt. That’s where all the flavor comes from.

Because the men we worked with spoke almost no English, and we speak even less Italian, Matt and I were usually confused and left to puzzle out what was going on– whether we were moving to a new section, which rows to pick and in what order (grape picking formation and strategy has surprisingly strict protocols), if we were finished for the day or had to work for several hours more, etc. We’ve gotten pretty good at following blindly and stumbling around awkwardly while we try to figure out what we’re supposed to be doing.

At last the grapes were picked and ground up, all having been finished in a mere four days. The very next morning, Antonio drove us to the train station (we didn’t even say goodbye to Francesco), and we hustled to the medieval city of Orvieto to meet up with my stepmom, Nancy, and her friend, Valerie. We spent two days there exploring the walled city and its labyrinth of crooked streets and underground tunnels, enjoying pastries and wine (by this point, I was strictly boycotting pasta), and Matt and I were thrilled to be staying in a place with a sturdy floors and non-life threatening staircases. We then travelled with Nancy and Val to Florence to spend a couple of days roaming cathedrals and museums (and, as the city is a tourism mecca, exerting considerable energy dodging gypsies and flying selfie sticks).

Near the end of September, Matt and I ran out of time in the Schengen Zone and flew to Ireland to recommence the backpacker lifestyle on the beautiful Kerry Way.

 

Point A (mass chaos) Point B

Getting to the French island of Corsica might be a bigger adventure than actually being there. For Matt and me, the journey to the famed Mediterranean island was quite a doozy, and it put to the test every scrap of insider travel knowledge that we’ve earned in these past few months.

From Chamonix, we took a minor bus ride from our campground into town and then hopped a bus three hours in the wrong direction to Lyon (intentionally). Of course, this bus ran late and we almost missed our connecting bus, which luckily for us was also running late. After convincing the driver in my very unconvincing French that the tardiness was not our fault, he fortunately let us aboard and dropped us off more than seven hours later at the airport on the outskirts of Nice. (The irony of being lectured about punctuality on a continent that is perpetually behind schedule should not go unnoticed here.)

Since this second bus was also rather late, all normal public transit into the city had ceased for the night. After waiting at the wrong bus stop for half an hour, we finally got on a night bus into town, which we thought would take us almost directly to the hotel room that was becoming more distant a dream with each passing minute. This bus fully lived up to every ounce of night bus infamy and finally deposited us on exactly the opposite side of the city from where we were trying to be.

By this time it was well past midnight and we met a friendly Caribbean woman who took pity on our confusion, though we feared she would abandon us when we told her that we hadn’t bought tickets for the night bus at all. Fortunately she forgave us this three euro oversight and sent us off with excessively detailed instructions to our hotel.

After a 40-minute walk, we turned onto the street of our hotel, a wide avenue with the train station on one side and shops and restaurants on the other. What we found there we can only assume was some kind of crime scene, with police cars parked at jagged angles all along the street and untrustworthy looking people scurrying in all directions.

When we finally reached the haven of the Best Western Rivieria’s lobby, we were greeted by a receptionist who was evidently involved in some sort of competition for Hospitality Employee of the Year, or maybe who was on a mission to singlehandedly disprove every Rude French Person stereotype that has ever crossed a tourist’s mind. Either way, this very friendly man rambled on for at least 15 minutes, offering us ice cream and internet codes even as Matt and I were sidling not so subtly toward the tiny elevator.

We spent the next day exploring Nice, which we concluded to be the French version of Miami, and the following day we packed up and set out to catch a ferry even further south to Corsica. After a substantial walk to the port, lugging our packs through the sun baked streets, we discovered that our boat was a full three hours late. So that’s how we ended up eating sandwiches on the sidewalk and feeling pretty homeless (but, let’s be honest, that’s pretty much how we exist in all the cities we’ve visited).

We finally got on the boat and felt like we were on a luxury cruise ship for about one glamorous hour, until the sun went down and the “luxury cruise” atmosphere was replaced by a less pleasant “outdated overbooked hotel” atmosphere.

We arrived in Bastia at around midnight, and after spending a total of seven hours at a hostel, we got on a train to Ajaccio, a city on the opposite side of the small island. From there we took a pretty quick (but confusing) bus to Petreto-Bischiano, where our WWOOF farm was. The only remaining obstacle was to borrow a phone and call our host to come and retrieve us. The first person I approached responded with what I’m pretty sure was “You’re crazy,” and an unsympathetic eye roll. Our second attempt to borrow a phone was a success and Heidi, our host, picked us up in her VW ten minutes later.

Our actual stay on Corsica was, by comparison to getting there, rather uneventful. We WWOOFed for a family with three small blond kids, their mom Danish and their dad French. (The kids spoke French but were all learning Danish from their summer au pair, Fie.) The family had a personal-use vegetable garden and a fig and olive orchard (which we spent hours watering each evening according to a meticulous schedule), and several bungalows that they rented to tourists. The work we did was pretty minimal and extremely flexible, which we loved. Heidi gave us a prioritized list of tasks upon our arrival and the instructions to get the work done and make ourselves at home. And that was that.

Matt and I had a little room in the back of the house, and we were thrilled to be living indoors for a while. We spent our abundant free time exploring the small village, relaxing by our host’s natural swimming pool, and eating as many figs as possible from the enormous trees in the yard. Twice we were able to hike up Monte San Petru, the nearby mountain that looked down on the village from 1400 meters.

This farm was, until that point, the most “normal” lifestyle we’ve experienced since being abroad. (By which I mean the most like our homes in the US.) This was a family doing regular household things, eating meat with meals and stocking the fridge with Cokes and the pantry with snacks, getting kids in the bath and in bed and to school, feeding the dog, etc. Just like home. (Though at home, you probably won’t find many three year olds eating pate, bilingual six year olds or pre-dinner charcuterie, but still.)

Getting off the island was somewhat easier, though still far from simple. The ride to Ajaccio that Heidi arranged for us forgot to pick us up, but we were able to hitchhike with an amateur sky diver (had he not informed us of this pastime, I think we could have discerned it from the nature of his driving). We took the train back across the island and took an overnight ferry to Livorno, Italy. Next stop: wine country.

Dates on the island: Aug. 24 – Sept. 10
Written: Oct. 2

Up, down… and up again

From the garden in Hermance we rapidly transitioned back into dirtbag mode (not that we ever truly left it), traveling by bus and Bla Bla Car to Chamonix, France, the unofficial capital of Europe’s outdoor world. There, we met up with Matt’s college roommate, Mitchell, and his Norwegian friend, Ola, at a campground on the outskirts of town. Mitchell came to Europe after graduation with a purpose that resembles ours, though lacking in both planning and a return flight ticket. (See, Mom? It could be a lot worse.)

The plan was to hike the famous Tour du Mont Blanc, a 170-ish kilometer trail that encircles the Mont Blanc massif, and leads hikers through three countries and over almost 10,000 meters of elevation gain. So, the morning after meeting up with Mitchell and Ola, we went into town to buy the necessary supplies (food, fuel, map) and to cram down a massive cheeseburger before hopping on the bus to the trailhead in a little place called Les Houches. (While the trail officially starts and ends in Chamonix, it’s extremely common to skip the first 7k of the hike which is, as it was described to us, “not very interesting.”)

Being the tourist attraction that it is, the TMB has over 50 “refuges,” or accommodations where hikers can eat and sleep during the tour, which typically takes anywhere from 9 to 12 days. These refuges ensure that a hiker has a hot meal, a shower and a warm bed at the end of each day, but most importantly, it means that a hiker has to carry virtually nothing but a water bottle and a toothbrush. This makes the otherwise daunting hike enjoyable and accessible for people of all ages and physical ability.

Naturally we decided to forego all of this in favor of a more earthy and less expensive approach. We carried our backpacks and “unofficially” wild camped for each of our eight nights on the trail. (As far as we saw, we were almost the only people carrying more than a small day pack.) While not strictly prohibited, wild camping is generally discouraged and frowned upon along the TMB, though it’s widely accepted that many people do it each year. This meant we had to be a tad sneaky. At the end of each day, we covertly scouted out a camp site and waited until dusk to pitch our tents, breaking them down and moving on early in the morning. We were almost always able to find campsites that had already been impacted by people who were, no doubt, doing exactly the same thing we were doing. While this did have certain obvious inconveniences, we were overall extremely happy with our decision to wild camp and felt a level of authenticity that the refuges, no matter how rugged, just couldn’t provide. Each night after we found camp, we’d spend a few hours patting ourselves on the backs for a day well walked, studying the map and gawking at the next day’s elevation change, doctoring our poor neglected feet, and always capping the day off with story time (which was just me reading aloud from Dan Brown’s Inferno).

Our first couple of days on the trail were pretty brutal. On the first day we gained a thousand meters of elevation almost solely on paved roads in the direct line of the beating August sun. There’s something really depressing about seeing a truck grumble easily by as you trudge uphill, barely above a snail’s pace. The second day was worse. We left our improvised riverside camp early in the morning and almost immediately began a 1500 meter ascent over steep rocks and dirt, with no shade but with plenty of hiker pileups and curse words and despairing glances at the impossibly far off ridge line. I almost took off my pack and kicked it down the mountain a couple of times, but fortunately, good sense prevailed. At a false summit Matt had a physical meltdown and I feared I was going to have to use the “help” feature of our Spot communicator. (He was fine after some food.)

It might seem that these first days should have been the easiest, since we were fresh, relatively full and not yet worn down by the mountains and the weight of our packs. But as with any strenuous activity, it often takes a little time before your body stops its initial protesting and decides to cooperate with the hell you’re putting it through. I like to think that the moment my body gives up the fight is when it can really begin for me. So after about three days on the trail, we were feeling pretty used to it– all rocking and rolling, mostly past the agony of lugging a pack up and back down 5 or 6 thousand feet of trail each day, and psyched to be hiking on one of Europe’s most beautiful trails through some of the world’s most beautiful mountains.

This marked the longest backpacking trip to date for all four of us, though we can’t claim to be totally self-sufficient on the trek despite our strict avoidance of the tourist trap refuges and hotels. The TMB dips in and out of small villages, and almost every day we had the opportunity to restock our food supplies and get a taste of some version of civilization. While I was a little disappointed in the total lack of remoteness and the plethora of day hikers who I knew would be returning to their cars at the end of the day, I can’t complain about the convenience of being able find fresh baguette and a flushing toilet almost every day on the trail.

I think there comes a time on a backpacking trip of any magnitude when your thoughts are totally and constantly consumed by food. When, even though you’re enjoying the breathtaking scenery and reveling in the glory of being in the mountains, each step you take is really just a step toward all the things you want to eat when you reach the end of the trail. On this trek, Matt and I were eating oatmeal for breakfast, a bowl of broth and a handful of granola at the highest elevation of the day, and some form of instant pasta for dinner. We supplemented with hunks of bread and an occasional scoop of Nutella (for morale). We call this the backpacker diet, or in other words, the cheapest, lightest way to eat on the trail. While not totally filling or satisfying, we can live like this for a few days while we day dream about what we want to eat when we finish. I usually crave all things sweet and sugary. I dwell on ice cream and candy bars until I think I’m going to die if I see another pack of ramen noodles. I once found myself actually scolding my past self for turning down a brownie that my grandmother had offered me three months ago. Yeah, it’s bad sometimes. This hunger really hit us somewhere around the 6th day, when we were in Switzerland and couldn’t afford anything, and we rode it like a wave all the way back to Chamonix.

And so for nine days we walked like this, each day trudging up and plodding back down, exhausted but exhilarated by our good fortune to be there at all. The terrain on the TMB is extremely varied but with one constant– it is never flat, which for me means slow going. I was standardly the caboose of our four man hiking party. Usually Mitchell and Ola raced ahead, preferring to make one hard push to the highest point and then stopping to wait. Matt was consistently about 10 minutes behind them going at his own quick pace. And then there was me, always bringing up the rear, typically another 15 minutes or so behind Matt, doing my slow but steady slog up whatever we were climbing that day. I wasn’t any faster on the downhill. It’s a myth that descending is easier. While it’s less of a quad buster, it’s exceedingly tough on the knees and toes, especially with a pack. (I’ll refrain delving into the disgusting details of the state of our feet after this trip.)

A few days after we finished the hike was the start of the UTMB, an ultra-marathon trail race that follows the exact same route we were hiking. Any time I got tired or a little bummed out, I tried to remind myself that in a few days hundreds of people would be completing the circuit in a single day.

On our final day on the trail, we decided to begin hiking at seven, because we were excited to get back to town and because we were totally out of food and wanted to get there by lunchtime. By the time we reached our highest point of the day where we crossed from Switzerland back into France, an ominous front was moving in and the sky was dark and angry as far as we could see. Where the temperature would have been a comfortable 24 degrees Celsius it was rapidly dropping as the wind whipped away our hats and our motivation. We ended up making the decision to take a short cut back to town, skipping the last few ridge line kilometers of the trail in favor of a side trail that would let us descend more rapidly. The last two hours of our hike were a frantic scurry in the rain and we were elated to pop off the trail at a conveniently placed bus stop that put us near our campground. Our first stop, of course, was to buy slices of pizza and pain au chocolat at a bakery that Mitchell had been talking about for days, and then to the grocery store for our other cravings.

We spent the next few days relaxing in Chamonix, wandering around town and recovering from the hike. We got to see one of the UTMB events start, a 290k race that teams of three had up to six days to complete. We got to do a morning run with the North Face athletes who would be running the TMB route that we had just finished. We tried to do a day hike one day, but after sailing up the 600 meter ascent, we realized that we couldn’t possibly see anything that could rival the views we’d had on the tour, and we turned back.

Our days on the TMB, aside from being filled with awe inspiring landscapes, served to change my perspective on backpacking and my other various outdoor recreation endeavors. The tour was hard. It was only nine days, but those nine days were long and difficult and downright exhausting. We were hot in the day and cold at night, hungry and occasionally lost, our feet and knees and backs hurt, we woke up early and went to bed late, and we realized that even if you’re prepared, backpacking is hard. But it’s supposed to be hard. Of course, I’ve known this all along, in a vague sort of disconnected way. The TMB made me understand more about why we put ourselves in these situations that we know are going to be at times a little rough, at other times totally miserable. It’s something that’s nearly impossible to explain, but really easy to feel once you acknowledge that the world is bigger than you, the mountains are tougher than you, and once you can learn how to be thankful to be a teeny tiny speck roaming through all of it. In the past few years I’ve developed an enormous respect for nature, but have naively continued to try to be better than nature, to be stronger and smarter and braver than it is. And while I know that I can still work toward being these things in my life in general, all that I need to be toward nature is humble.

After a few days in Chamonix, we said goodbye to Mitchell and got on a bus to begin the journey to our next destination– the French island of Corsica.

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And then there were tomatoes

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August 11:

Today Matt and I departed from our second WWOOF farm, an organic garden situated on the border of France and Switzerland in a picturesque medieval village called Hermance. When we decided to work on this farm we had no idea that we were about to wander into such a beautiful place. Hermance is a tiny town on the banks of Lac Leman, and if there were no cars or people you might have thought you’d stepped off the bus into the distant past. The huge clear lake is the focal point of the town, attracting sailors and scuba divers from near and far, and on the banks of which Matt and I spent a great deal of time.

The farm we where we worked is called Potagers de Gaia, and is operated by three men and their never ending stream of WWOOFers. The farmer we worked with most is a friendly guy named Jeremie, who wore clothes almost as dirty as ours and whose catchphrase, “Avec pleasure,” was quickly adopted by every single WWOOFer on the farm. Jeremie speaks pretty good English, loves salad and has the kind of attitude that makes you think he’s never been angry a day in his life. He gave us permission to taste test tomatoes if we were unsure of their ripeness, which we did happily and often. (He also loved to make Matt eat all the leftovers, which I think Matt loved, too.)

Potagers de Gaia has a self-service vegetable market in Hermance and also distributes weekly bags of in-season produce to locals based on purchased memberships. There’s also a vineyard associated, Domaines de Dix Vins, which makes fantastic wine that Matt and I were fortunate enough to sample on our last day of work (And it has hands down the best bottle artwork we’ve ever seen).

The garden itself is comprised of several large greenhouse tunnels, a few small fields, a chicken coop, several bee hives and an herb garden. From just these few acres of land we harvested an unbelievable amount of produce just during our two weeks here– carrots, tomatoes, leeks, garlic, patissons, eggplant, cucumbers, onions, lettuce, peppers, beans, and of course, zucchini.

This WWOOFing experience really could not have been more different than our first farm in Croatia. Jeremie was of the philosophy that it was better for us to spend only a few hours happily working with the plants each day than to work for long hard hours and send bad energy into the garden. So, on a typical day, we would begin working at the garden around 7 a.m. and spend the morning picking ripe veggies in the tunnels. At ten we’d break for tea and a snack (they called it tea time, I called it second breakfast), and then work out in the fields until lunchtime. Each day we would cook an enormous lunch from the garden’s reject produce (tomatoes with ugly spots, overgrown beans, etc.) and eat together with Jeremie and the other WWOOFers. By early afternoon, we were free to do what we wanted. After having virtually no leisure time in Croatia, we were a little overwhelmed by all this freedom. We’d usually spend our afternoons reading by the lake, biking into neighboring villages or hiking on the trails around town.

Rather than staying in our host’s home, the farm has two little cabins designated just for WWOOFers. Matt and I shared a cabin with two other workers, and we all had a shared kitchen and bathroom. Once a week, Jeremie would stock the kitchen with groceries based on our requests, and we were able to cook and eat as we pleased for breakfast and dinner.

Aside from the fact that this place was beautiful and the lifestyle suited us, the best part about our two weeks in Hermance was that it made us realize how easily a new place can become a home. The day we got off the bus in Hermance we had no idea what to expect, we didn’t know anyone and we didn’t understand the language. We’ve always known that we’re highly adaptable people, not needing much to be content and good at going with the flow, but I think Hermance brought this to a whole new level for us. We were only there for two weeks, but by the end of our stay I’d kind of forgotten that it wasn’t our home, that Potagers de Gaia wasn’t a real job and that the other WWOOFers weren’t lifelong roommates.

So today we left, sent off with well wishes and hugs and a bag of garden veggies, on to find home in the next place.

 

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5 Rhodesian Ridgebacks and a thousand ways to cook zucchini

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We got off the train in Koprivinca, Croatia almost three weeks ago and began searching the platform for our WWOOF host, Lela. “Don’t worry,” she had emailed us. “We’ll find you.”

Matt and I had assumed that the “we” she was referring to was she and her husband, and that they would toss us in the back of their pickup truck and drive us to their little family farm.

“We” turned out to be Lela and her puppy, Fela. And she did find us, and we loaded up in her mini van and she drove us to the farm that she’s spent the past eight years creating almost singlehandedly.

This one woman operation in the rural northern part of the country has a little bit of everything: two small orchards, a large personal garden, a crop of lavender for making oil, and a dozen other projects that are still in the works. In other words, far more than one woman can handle on her own– even someone as tough and hardworking as Lela.

Perhaps the most striking part of Lela’s land is the big, partially unfinished log cabin that she shares with her WWOOFers and her five (FIVE!) Rhodesian Ridgebacks. (Contrary to the name’s implications, a Rhodesian Ridgeback is a breed of dog, not a dragon. And consequently, the only Croatian we learned are dog commands. So if the words sit, stay, and come will get us anywhere, we’re all set.) The cabin is full of beautifully carved natural wooden features and is laid out according to some sort of Indian astrology that we don’t quite understand and that Lela doesn’t quite have the English to explain. The living area is mostly consumed by dog beds and crates, and the kitchen houses one of the two wood burning ovens and a stone sink the size of a small bathtub. A trap door in the ceiling of the living room leads to the second story loft where Matt and I have been sleeping during our stay. Off the loft is Lela’s bedroom, though she prefers to sleep downstairs surrounded by her dogs. The house runs on solar and wind power, so water and electricity are available but limited, especially on cloudy days.

We worked on various projects during our stay at the little farm, the most arduous of which was probably the enormous holes we dug in the clay-rich dirt during our first week here. Lela has a way of assigning tasks so that they seem small, like they’ll only take a couple of hours, and then before you know it you’ve been doing that one job for the better part of a week.

She asked me to clean up a few blackberry bushes in the yard, I spent a few hours on them, they looked happier and healthier and I assumed I was done with the clippers. The next thing I knew I’d spent three days grooming the wild thorny bushes all along the lane next to the farm and was covered in little pricks and scrapes (okay, and some berry juice).Then she asked us to clean about 30 of her recycled bricks to finish building a little wall, and that took Matt and me a morning and we thought we were finished. Four days later we were still sitting on the front porch scraping old cement, dirt and spiders off of the bricks, and the wall had grown to encompass the whole terrace and employed about 600 bricks. After that Lela asked me if I liked to paint, and I nodded enthusiastically as she handed me a can of wood stain and pointed me toward a few beams on the porch ceiling. Three days later I was still standing on top of a rickety ladder putting a second or third coat of paint on the ceiling, annoyed that I’d ruined two items from my limited wardrobe with the goopy stain, and wondering why the ceiling hadn’t been painted before it was, well, the ceiling. Additionally, Matt has mown grass, chopped wood, built a wall and been apprentice to the non-English speaking bricklayer. We’ve also taken part in 6 am dog walking sessions, helped to prepare meals and become expert dishwashers, cleaned indoors, weeded lavender, dug up dead trees, laid concrete and been wheelbarrow mechanics.

The great thing about doing manual labor in extreme heat for eight to ten hours a day is that you don’t have to give even a second thought to your caloric intake. So when Lela piles my plate a first, second and sometimes third time with her delicious vegetarian cooking, I don’t even feel bad when I repeatedly lick it clean.

Which brings me to the food. Lela is a trained and extremely well-practiced chef. She went to a culinary school, has cooked in many hotels, owned a restaurant for a while and still occasionally cooks at retreats and other gatherings. She uses primarily the vegetables from her garden and seems to make everything up as she goes along. For a typical meal, Matt and I spent at least an hour in the kitchen chopping up fresh vegetables while Lela points and stirs and continually amazes us with new dishes for us to try. It’s all unbelievably delicious and has been quite the culinary adventure for Matt and me. She’s made several hearty traditional Croatian dishes for us to sample and repeatedly asks us what kind of food is traditional in America. (“Um.. Fried chicken?” we reply.) We concocted some version of soup every single day, which Lela says is “the best food” for her. We’ve consumed zucchini in every conceivable form, including baked, boiled, raw, grilled, shredded, stuffed, puréed, and in no fewer than three different kinds of cake. Even her dogs eat better than most humans, with Lela preparing them full meals twice a day, complete with most of the major food groups. They get their daily zucchini, too.

Even after spending over two weeks on the farm, Matt and I still can’t get a good grasp on Lela. She’s the kind of person who does everything with passion and impressive vigor. When she digs, you get the feeling that the shovel is going to snap like a twig at any moment. When she eats, she ends up with food all over her face and sometimes even in her hair. When she breeds animals, they’re award winning show dogs. When she meditates, her ohms resonate throughout the house. And when she builds a home for herself, each brick, nail and board must be placed with the greatest care. Oh yeah, and it has to have a DIY swimming pool. But that’s a different story.

She’s a no nonsense kind of person, stressed and impatient, who has a photo of her spiritual guru on her bookshelf and a skylight to see the stars. She values solitude, peace and quiet on her farm but hosts foreign WWOOFers continually and makes trips into town almost daily. Her dogs are immaculately trained and obedient, except when they beg for the table scraps that she inevitably gives them directly from her own plate. Her cooking is all vegetarian and insanely healthy, except for the mounds of salt that she pores into each dish. She loves to meet new people and invite them into her home, yet she doesn’t hesitate to express her feelings that most people are stupid, stupid, stupid. Her English vocabulary is extensive while her grammar is rudimentary. This morning she practically yelled at me for making a painting error, and this afternoon she made a cake to commemorate our last day on the farm. Try as we might, we just can’t make sense of her.

We’ve also met some interesting WWOOFers while we’ve been here. A group of 11 Belgian scouts arrived the same day we did, which made for an interesting week. Fortunately most of them slept in tents in the yard; unfortunately the one that slept in the loft with us was the troop snorer. Lela definitely wanted to take advantage of their manpower, which accounted for all the digging we did those first few days. After the scouts came a Brazilian family who have been WWOOFing all over the world for the past year and a half, in search of the perfect place to start their “community.” They had a four-year-old son who spoke roughly four languages and was a good bit smaller than all of Lela’s dogs. The threat of five lion hunting dogs was a little daunting for them, and they left after only a couple of days. Finally came an American couple who have spent the past three months hitchhiking around Europe, on a trip very similar to but also very different from ours.

Overall we’ve decided to call our first WWOOFing experience a total success. We loved the beautiful setting (which we found strikingly similar to East Tennessee), our quirky host, her simple homesteader lifestyle and everything we’ve learned from it. And a few honest day’s work never hurt anyone.

From Croatia we’re headed for another mini vacation in Geneva, Switzerland (after a brief visit to the Barcelona airport) before hopping a bus to our next farm in southern France. Or in Matt’s words, “My passport is sore from all these stamps!”

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Four days in the city

 

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In all honesty: Our two weeks in Iceland were incredible– surreally beautiful and absolutely a once in a lifetime kind of trip. But parts of it were pretty rough on Matt and me; namely because everything in the country is outrageously expensive and not at all designed for budget travelers. We spent the whole trip living outside in the cold, wet and very unpredictable weather, eating ramen noodles and slices of plain bread in our leaky little tent. By the time we left, we were dirty, hungry and ready to give ourselves some TLC.

 
Cue Amsterdam. In addition to purchasing the plane tickets that made this whole trip possible, Matt’s mom booked us two nights at a B&B in Amsterdam as a graduation gift. During some of our wetter and colder moments in Iceland, the thought of that B&B waiting for us in a faraway city buoyed our spirits through the never ending rain, fog and instant pasta.

A taxing bout of hitchhiking, a taxi, an early flight and a train ride put us in central Amsterdam right in the middle of the day on July 4th. We dropped our bags in our tropical-themed room at our long-awaited B&B, in a hurry to see the city (But mostly in a hurry to find some food). Our hotel’s host presented us with a map, proclaiming the city “very small” while scribbling and highlighting points of interest. (He highlighted basically the entire map.) He then shooed us out the door, encouraging us to go get drunk and experience Amsterdam and its famous nightlife. I can imagine that he was very disappointed to find that we were home by 8 pm both nights of our stay.

Being the logical people that we are, Matt and I looked carefully at the map he gave us and neatly divided it up into the segments we would see each that afternoon and those we would save for the next day. If you’ve ever tried to navigate Amsterdam, you’re probably laughing right about now. We immediately got lost, ditched our map and decided that aimless wandering was a better approach to exploring the canal-riddled city. The streets are crooked and badly marked, forming a disorienting arc out of the center and that gives each street a curve that is imperceptible to pedestrians but devastating to navigational attempts. So you think you know in which direction you’re walking, and just when you feel you should be reaching your destination, you realize that you’re facing the opposite way because of the subtle curve of the streets and that you actually have no idea where you are at all. We’re pretty sure the whole town would shift each time we entered a building, and we would somehow exit onto a different street in a different part of the city. It felt like the urban equivalent of the moving staircases at Hogwarts; a street leads to a different place each time you walk it and you can never go back the same way you came.

In this perpetually confused way we roamed Amsterdam for two days with no agenda whatsoever and loved every minute of it. We wandered up and down its old narrow streets, lined with buildings that are timelessly beautiful while also looking like they might topple to the ground at any moment. We visited cathedrals, the famous flower market, Rembrandt’s square, saw Madame Toussaude’s, the Hermitage, Magna Plaza, and on and on. We saw the outside of Anne Frank’s house and the hundreds of people waiting to get into it. We followed our noses into bakeries and cheese shops and creperies. On every corner there were “coffee shops” that smell like every bad decision you’ve ever made and don’t actually serve much coffee. On our quest for China Town we accidentally wandered into the Redlight District and were thoroughly disturbed and thankful that it was early on a Tuesday afternoon. Every so often we’d duck into one of the countless tiny pubs for a Heineken and a bout of people watching before continuing on our way. Bicycles far outnumber cars in Amsterdam, and they zoom the crowded streets in speeding clanking hoards so that you can’t even fathom how they manage not to all collide into a rusty tangled heap.

In the evenings we dined shamelessly on fresh baguettes, brie, pastries and wine. (When in Europe, right?) After our 12 days of backpacking with minimal food or other comforts, we really didn’t feel that guilty about it.

We left Amsterdam in the morning and took a train to the Brussels airport for our flight to Zagreb, Croatia. I have to admit I was a little uneasy about traveling through Brussels, though rationally I know that it’s probably a lot safer than dodging bicycles in the streets of Amsterdam. Aside from some military presence in the airport, everything there was business as usual and we got to Zagreb without a hitch.

In Zagreb, the capital city of Croatia, we spent another two days exploring the city and staying at a hostel on the outskirts of downtown.

Zagreb is another beautiful old city, with thousand year old buildings tucked away in the city’s many nooks and crannies. It’s often perceived as being very Slavic and Russian-feeling, but really Croatia is right next door to Italy and has a much more European/Mediterranean influence. It’s most known for its immaculate western coast, but unfortunately Matt and I won’t get there this time around. Much of Zagreb, we learned, was constructed during the socialist regime, so many of its buildings are drab, peeling, and kind of all-around depressing. We spent our days there very similarly to those in Amsterdam: wandering the streets, admiring old buildings, sampling the food and, our favorite, people watching from local bars and cafes.

Our first WWOOF farm is in the rural northern part of Croatia, so we wanted to soak up as much city life as we could during our four days in Amsterdam and Zagreb. If number of pastries consumed is any measure of that, I think we met our goal.