The Pessimist

We were huddled under a bus shelter in Paris, barely escaping a downpour and frantically searching a departures board when we met our first pilgrim. His voice was nearly as loud as his florescent orange backpack.
“Ye goin’ te Bayonne,” he inquired with a lilting Irish accent.
“Yes!” we smiled relieved that we weren’t alone in our search for the right platform.
Before long, we got to chatting. Like us, he was on his way to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port to start the Camino de Santiago. Also, he was Danish, not Irish. After years of working in Cuba with an international crowd, he admitted that his accent baffled even the most adept globe trotter.

Yet his country of origin was hardly our biggest surprise. He soon admitted that he hated tiny Spanish towns. “They’re all the same,” he waved dismissively, “once you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all.” He much preferred big cities.
Jakob and I looked at each other with confusion. Why spend five weeks walking through rural Spain, munching bocadillos in tiny taverns, and sleeping in parish monasteries if you’d rather be in Barcelona?
Seeing our puzzled expressions, he continued: “well I’m not planning on taking the full four-five weeks, or whatever the book says. I figure if I can do it in two, why not?”

We didn’t know how to lecture a casual bus stop acquaintance on the true meaning of a pilgrimage, so we smiled and nodded. If he wanted to rush through a potentially life changing experience and eliminate a bucket list item, then that was his business. Realizing that we were on very different paths to the same place, I began looking forward to the social solitude of a bus seat, where I would no longer be under the obligation to continue this awkward small talk. Meanwhile, Jakob was all too eager to pry further into the motivations of our first pilgrim acquaintance.IMG_7415

Jakob got his wish, since two hours later, we still hadn’t set off for Bayonne. We were now standing in a small circle awaiting hourly updates from an overly casual bus operator. Our tiny group had acquired two additional members, a young woman from Clermont Ferrand, and another from Calais. I have no idea why these two decided to join a grumpy Irish/Dane, and a couple of tired Canadians, but they stuck with us like they had been assigned as our translators. They were the ones who informed us that the bus delay was due to a broken rearview mirror.

By the time we piled onto the bus, it was midnight, the Dane was singing a half-hearted rendition of Micheal Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror,” I was searching for my ear plugs, and Jakob was already mostly asleep. We all settled in for the ten hour night bus, eager to leave behind rainy Paris and disembark in the sunny south. We bid each other goodnight and goodbye, sure that with our opposing ideas about pilgrimage, our paths were unlikely to cross again.

Fifteen days and 286kms later we caught sight of a familiar face in a busy Burgos street. It was no surprise really, after sharing bathrooms and bedrooms, tables and trails with hundreds of strangers over the past two weeks, almost any face could look familiar. But Jakob has a better memory for these sorts of things.
“Hey stranger,” he called out.
The man looked up casually and smiled, “well if it isn’t the Canadians.”

“Weren’t you planning on being in Santiago by now?” I thought to myself. He was a good 500km behind schedule.

He didn’t wait for my condescending questions, but offered his own summary of the past two weeks. As it turns out, he couldn’t get enough of the Spanish countryside! He even planned on coming back to spend more time in all of the picturesque little villages. He had also taken the time to upgrade his gear. He invested in a higher quality backpack, picked-up a sleeping bag, and shipped unnecessarily bulky items to his destination. Jakob and I were astonished. We thought we had recognized the pessimistic Dane from a distance, but once we were up close, we realized he was a different man entirely.
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The Joyful

He was sitting on the edge of the highway when I saw him. Cars sped by, but he was motionless. His heavy black robes fell like curtains over his folded knees and a single scallop shell hung from his neck. A wide brimmed hat hid most of his serene face. Must be from an ancient monastic order, I thought to myself, probably doesn’t speak English.

Sitting outside a pizzeria, the cloaked figure appeared again, walking briskly this time. My curiosity got the better of me and I wanted to catch his attention. Do I smile? Do I wave? Do I dare to say words that he certainly won’t understand? He smiled and a hundred wrinkles creased his face. I smiled too, assuming that this was as far as our communication could go. He nodded and raised his hands to his chest, bowing briefly in a respectful namaste. My hands fumbled in confusion. Who is this smiling monk man? What religious order does he follow? What country does he come from? How many Caminos has he walked? In what God does he believe? His bare feet slapped the cobblestones as he strode away. Each sole marked with the colours of the earth.

At the garden gate, at the place were we would stay that night, I saw him again. He was kneeling in the grass, playing the part of a masseur for an aching pilgrim. I reached for my phone to capture the bizarre scene. He looked up and smiled. My hand retreated from my pocket, embarrassed to have even considered snapping a candid shot of someone so sacred.

“Five euros for a massage,” another pilgrim explained, “only five euros and he will take away all your aches and pains.” I watched from a distance, still unsure how to ask all the questions I wanted answered. To those who weren’t alarmed at the sight of a grinning monk, the deal was too good to refuse. So my husband laid down on the grass and took his chances on the monk massage. I heard him tell a bit about our life. He spoke quickly, like he would to someone who spoke English everyday. So I got up from my observer’s seat and pulled a lawn chair up close. Like a swim coach overseeing a meet, I leant over my knees and interrogated the masseur monk. He smiled from his place on the grass, his palms pressed into my husband’s shoulders.

“I’m from California,” he said, in a voice forty years younger than his face.
“What sort of monk are you,” I cut to the chase.
“I’m a joyful monk,” he explained, “if someone asked me: ‘Are you a Christian?’ I would say ‘no.’ If someone asked me: ‘Are you a Buddhist?’ I would say ‘no.’ Still yet, if someone asked me: ‘Are you a Christian?’ I would say ‘yes.’ And if someone asked me: ‘Are you a Buddhist?’ I would say ‘yes.’” He laughed and looked up at my face expectantly. Clearly I wasn’t the first curious pilgrim to cross his path.

“Which religious texts have you read?” I pressed on, aiming for a straighter answer.
Without hesitation he rambled off an assortment of major religious texts. Pausing for a second he added, “none of the Jewish stuff though.”
I didn’t press that point, but I was curious why he had also omitted the primary Christian text.
“Have you read the Bible too?”
“Ya but it’s mostly crap,” he admitted with a laugh.
I raised my eyebrows. What sort of monk walks the camino and hates the Bible?
Noticing my surprise, he offered an explanation, “the only part of the Bible that’s any good is Jesus’ words. What people should do is just get one of them Bibles with Jesus’ words in red letters. Skip everything except the red letters.”
An eavesdropping pilgrim pulled out his smartphone. “Just the red letters? Where do you get one of those Bibles? I might actually read that.”

I smiled and tried the reconcile the scene before me with my own love for the Bible and my belief that it is (in it’s entirety) the word of God. In a way, I had to agree with the monk. If you were going to read just one part of the Bible and you couldn’t stomach the whole crazy story, then I guess the words of Jesus would be the right place to start. In a split-second, I made up my mind to agree.
“Yes, read the words of Jesus!” I nodded enthusiastically, “he was a pretty great guy.” I turned to the pilgrim who had entered our conversation. “You can find those Bibles everywhere. The Gideons give them away for free.”
The monk began singing a song about Gideons Bibles as he massaged my husband’s calves.
I laughed and launched into another question: “When did you decide to become a monk?”
The monk thought for a moment and then began to recount a story that most people would only tell their closest friends. His life was once much different. He was a band leader and a husband. He was married for twenty years before it all fell apart. His unique combination of aspergers, bipolar, and alchoholism meant that his fists sometimes had a mind of their own. He spent some time in jail before he realized he needed help. When he got out, he set out in search of God. He read everything he could find, and joined a variety of religious communities. He was given a new name and a new life.
“I am called ‘The Joyful,’” he explained with a grin, “With a personality like mine, there are only two things I could be in life: either an entertainer or a monk. So now I am an entertaining monk.” He bobbled his head, making his wide brimmed hat dance.
I laughed again.

“So why did you choose to do the camino?”
For that he had a quick answer. “Most people do this walk for themselves. They want to get away from something or find something. But I am doing this walk for everyone else.”
I nodded, noticing his particularly thorough massage work on my husband’s battered and dirty feet. I couldn’t help but be reminded of another man, who, 2000 years ago, showed love by kneeling on the ground and touching weary feet.  I couldn’t help but wonder if I would do it. It was easy enough to sit in my lawn chair and discuss religious texts. But would I kneel on the ground and put into action the words that I professed to follow?

It’s been more than a week since my encounter with “The Joyful” and I still can’t quite figure out what to make of it. Should I be sceptical of his story? Should I be ashamed to have agreed with a man who dismissed a large portion of the religious text I follow? Should I just take inspiration from his joyful and compassionate spirit? I don’t know. But I do know that I saw a glimpse of Jesus’ words in action. The red letters come to life. And that I will never forget.

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Camino Family

How often do you know the exact condition of your friends’ feet?

Well I do.
Louise has three blisters on one big toe and a few on the rest.
Dave has a couple of blisters that keep coming back because he always cuts the badges too small.
Marg is blister free (and we hate her for it).
Anita’s got a few sore spots, but she has magic foot wool that keeps the blisters at bay.
Jakob has cracks in his heels..

My feet are scarred too. The topmost layer of skin on my back left heel is replaced with silicone. My big left toe has erected a temporary wall in attempts to resolve recent conflicts with my second toe and my big right toe has seen more needle punctures than a puppy with a porcupine habit. So why the battered feet?

About a week ago, Jakob and I started a pilgrimage, so our feet are showing the natural wear and tear of about 163km of walking. We started our trek in the picturesque village of St. Jean-Pied-de-Port in the foothills of the French Pyrennes.

I have to admit, 163km ago I didn’t have the best attitude. I was pretty certain of 4 things: (1) the trail would be too busy, (2) I would make few genuine friends, (3) I would grow weary of touristy misrepresentations of medieval life, and (4) I would overall find the experience bearable, but certainly not life changing. Jakob would call me a pessimist. Of course, I know that I’m just a realist. Now after a week on the trail, I am reporting the very real fact that I was wrong on 3 of my 4 predictions. Let’s see if you can guess which ones.

No more than a few kms from the start, Jakob and I trekked past a group of three pilgrims. They were blaring music out of their compact speaker and struggling a bit with the steep incline. Just out of earshot we began a somewhat self-righteous critique of “those people.” “Why not just talk to each other?” “Who gives you the right to set the soundtrack for everyone?” “Why can’t you just wear headphones?” We quickly forgot their faces and remembered only the stereotype.

A few kms later, another group of three pilgrims passed us as we sipped water. We chatted briefly. Aussie? Kiwi? Jakob was sure they were from New Zealand. I shrugged my shoulders. A few more kms and they were snacking as we passed. A few more and we were waving at their familiar faces once more and commenting on the beautiful views over the valley bottom.
“Where are you staying tonight?”
“Orisson.”
“Us too!”
“See you at supper then.”
“Yes, see you at supper!”
And just like that, we had our first pilgrim date!

The end of our first day’s hike came quickly and before long, Jakob and I were huddled at a rough wooden table dealing cards and rehashing our day. A short woman with a purposeful walk entered the common space of our hostel/cabin.
“We need to build fire,” she stated sternly.
Jakob and I glanced at each other. Usually we are quick to claim that we are capable Canadians, but at the moment neither of us felt compelled to chop damp wood and kindle reluctant flames. We played dumb and continued our card game. The woman left, apparently deterred by our disinterest. To our surprise, she returned moments later with an armload of wood and explained that she found it under a shelter, protected from the rain. Dropping the logs on the floor, she looked expectantly at Jakob, the only man in the room. Jakob sighed and set down his cards.
“There’s no hatchet. No axe,” he gestured a swinging motion to add emphasis.
“We cut with knife,” the woman explain, hurrying to the kitchen.
I followed, surely she couldn’t be serious. The elderly woman examined the knife drawer with a practiced eye. She selected a large cleaver and handed it to Jakob. His face gave away only the briefest moment of confusion before he got to work peeling thin layers of wood fibres away from the log. The woman shook her head and demonstrated. Smaller strips. She got to work immediately emptying the ash from the fireplace while I hovered helplessly. An elderly German man entered the room, taking in the scene, he dropped his pack and offered his fireplace expertise. Half an hour later, Jakob and the German fellow were busy building an elaborate flammable structure. There were few words exchanged, but a clear master and apprentice hierarchy emerged instantly, with Jakob seeking a nod of approval before placing most of his pieces. I sat at the long wooden table with the project foreman, Lubmila from Latvia.
“I grew up under the Soviet Union,” she explained seriously, “I was taught that when you see an opportunity to improve your life, you must take it.”
I nodded gravely.
“Here I saw opportunity,” she cracked a smile and we both began to laugh.
A few long minutes later, the fire was roaring and we all cheered. The German gentlemen stood up, brushed of his hands, and summarized succinctly:
“Now women happy.”
Jakob nodded in agreement and the French pilgrims upstairs shuffled down towards the glowing common room, bringing all of their socks and laundry to dry by the flames.
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That evening we walked the 1km up to the next hostel for dinner. After a quick scan of the dinning hall we spotted a few familiar faces and invited ourselves to join them. Marg, Dave, and Anita introduced themselves. Yes Jakob was right, they were from New Zealand. After some friendly interrogations we found out that Marg and Dave are on a year long trip around the world, celebrating a “significant birthday” and enjoying some empty-nester freedom. Anita is an Aussie turned Kiwi and a close friend of theirs with an equally bold sense of adventure.

That first night, we probably should have given them fair warning: you won’t be able to shake us off. We should have told them that we would likely interrupt our travel schedule if it meant staying on the same itinerary as them. We might even slow our pace or delay a departure. Upon arriving in a new village we might even ask anxiously if any other pilgrims have seen three Kiwis looking somewhat lost or lonely.
“Oh you’ve seen them?” we might say, “yes, they are looking so sad because they have misplaced their Canadians.”

On our second day on the trail we traversed the Pyrenees and rescued a damsel in distress or a jomfru i nød (a mermaid in need). We had just made the steep descent into Spain and were dusty and exhausted, waiting to check-in to the hostel. A lone pilgrim ahead of us seemed to be having some trouble. She had no cash and there was no ATM in town.
“This is going to be a problem,” she mumbled under her breath.
The clerk looked sympathetic, but remained resolute. He suggested that she begin the 4km walk to the next town.
Jakob leaned over and whispered, “we should pay for her.”
I gave him a skeptical look. Twelve euros is a lot to just throw around. Jakob ignored my hesitation and marched towards the counter.
“We’ll cover her stay,” he offered nonchalantly.
She spun around, surprise and gratitude written across her face.
“You need dinner too don’t you?”
She hesitated and looked down, “yah.”
“No worries! We got this.”

Her name is Louise, she is 24 years old, she is from Denmark, she’s got a crazy sense of humour, she’s served in Afghanistan, and she’s barely left our side for the last five days. For the first few kilometres there were some indentured servitude jokes, but even after the money was settled up, we still couldn’t seem to part ways. At this point we rarely make decisions around food, accommodation, foot care, or travel without consulting her. The deal works something like this: Louise makes sure we don’t starve, Jakob makes sure we don’t get lost, and I keep everyone well informed with useless facts and inspirational quotes from the guide book. Needless to say, we are all quite content with the arrangement.
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A couple of days ago our camino family, Dave, Marg, Anita, Louise, Jakob, and I were inching past the 20km mark for the day when Dave pulled out a compact bluetooth stereo and offered to lift our spirits with a little country music and rock and roll. My eyes widened as I put it all together. Those hooligans blaring music the first day were our beloved Kiwis. We laughed awkwardly and admitted to our snobby prejudice that first day. The Kiwis seemed pleased to have rocked our boat a little. So we turned up the volume, picked up our tired feet, and sang along to George Ezra’s “Barcelona.”

The only prejudicial assumption we regretted more was the time we ran into our Latvian grandma again and she gave us another one of her classic bossy pieces of advice.
“You must skip down the hills,” she stepped one foot in front of the other and demonstrated an awkward lope.
We smiled and laughed, immediately dismissing her suggestion as the crazy ramblings of an exhausted pilgrim.
“No, no,” she insisted, “I am not joking. It is really better to skip. I fly down the hills. Passing everyone and they ask me how I do it. I tell them I skip down the hills.”
The next time our knees were straining and our shins were aching from a restrained downward descent, we heard Lubmila’s stern words in our heads and decided that if anyone knew how to ease suffering, it would be someone who survived the Soviet Union. So we gave it a shot. Louise tried it first. Then Jakob. Then I joined in. We’re now known as the crazy pilgrims who run down all the hills and I have no doubt everyone else secretly wishes we would fall flat on our faces. Still, at every opportunity we try to convince others to convert to our skipping ways. Dave and Marg are the most recent converts. Anita is next.

While our camino family is pretty tight (Jakob and Dave bought matching shirts and have been known to call each other “young bull” and “papa bull,” we do have room for a few extended family members including a couple of Britts, a few other Canadians, and some Aussies. We call it the Commonwealth plus Denmark. In a typical day we each leave at our own pace. Jakob, Louise, and I get up at the crack of dawn and usually stop for breakfast about 5km down the road. Just as we are finishing our café con leches and hot chocolate, a couple other Commonwealth pilgrims are bound to stumble in. Of course, we stay and chat and just as we are finally strapping our backpacks on a few more familiar pasty faces will likely find their way to our table. It is in this rhythm of ‘hello’s and ‘see you later’s that we pass most of our days. In the evening we track each other down in some sort of central square, bring out the wine, and munch on pinxos (basque version of tapas). Even the bustling city of Pamplona started to feel like a small town when we strolled past bars full of familiar looking pilgrims and eventually managed to gather the whole Commonwealth gang together.


Each morning when we head out there is a brief moment of tension. How far are we going? Where will we be stopping? What if we loose track of each other? But I have to believe that our paths crossed for a reason, and they are going to stay entangled for as long as they need to be. By the time we do say “good-bye” it will most certainly be a “see you later.”
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Life at Vrede Rust

“We’re going to build a publicly accessible bike terrace.”
My mind immediately flipped to concrete and table saws and other things that I knew nothing about. Nice idea. But no way is this actually going to work. My doubts only increased when I heard that the plan was to build all the furniture ourselves from beat-up pallet wood. I kept my doubts to myself, picked up a shovel and started digging. That’s one tool I know how to use, even with my chicken arms.

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Before the project

Task 1: Remove tree stumps. Amish style. Minus Clydesdales. That’s right. About an hour into digging and hacking at roots, Jakob and I started dropping hints about trucks and ropes. Our suggestions were laughed off, so we decided to laugh too.

Production was further slowed when Indi showed up, armed with a plastic shovel and steely determination. She considered the stubborn tree trunk thoughtfully and began attacking with her own strategy. A neighbouring farmer stopped his bike on the road and peered curiously at our slow going efforts.
“I can bring the tractor over,” he offered.
Alef smiled and declined. The four of us, two baffled Canadians, one strong-willed toddler, and an equally determined organic homesteader, continued to work away at the tree roots for another half an hour. Finally, Alef felt obliged to offer an explanation.
“I want Indi to know that things can’t always be solved quickly and easily in life. There may come a time when you can’t just grab a tractor to get the job done. Besides this place isn’t about efficiency or productivity, that’s what the rest of the wold is chasing. This is about teamwork and getting back to basics.”

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When we finally pulled that tree stump out with our bear hands, we leapt to our feet in surprise and joy. And Alef’s words started to make a bit of sense.

That afternoon we celebrated the successful clearing of the terrace space with a trip into the village of Muiden for Vlaggetjesdag, which translates to “Little Flag Day.” Yes, the Dutch have a national holiday dedicated to honouring their flag and instead of focusing on the power and strength of their colours, they throw a diminutive on the end and celebrate with seniors’ choirs performing on sailboats. With dirt in our nails, a beer in our hands, and the spunky melodies of Dutch sailing songs all around, we decided we might be able to adapt to this crazy homesteading life.

Task 2: Landscape the area.

The task for day 2 was simple enough. I put my extensive background in landscape fabric to work and Jakob started hauling wheelbarrow loads of wood chips.

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Actually the real challenge of day two wasn’t work related at all. Before I explain, let me give you some context. I come from a family where snacks are frequent, every meal revolves around a meat dish, and food selection bordered on excessive. Just ask any of my childhood friends, they will laugh and tell you that it was a dark day in the Horlings house when there were fewer than five types of juice in the fridge. So I’m sure you can imagine that adapting to a porridge breakfast, cheese and bread lunch, and vegetarian dinner took some time.

So when it came time for dinner at Vrede Rust and I saw one pan on the table, I panicked. My first instinct was to compensate for variety with quantity. I’m sure Alef and Lin both made mental notes…no more hosting Canadians, every night they eat like hibernation starts tomorrow.

It took me a couple of days to realize that the simple spread before me was actually ladened with options. Sure the staple was bread, but no loaf was like another. Anise, sunflower seeds, cumin, apples, berries…you name it, Alef can make bread with it. Then came the cheeses: spiced, aged, and smoked; and the spreads: red berry, apple chutney, black berry, peanut butter, and tahini. By the end of the first week, I was looking forward to lunch and dinner, for the calories of course, but more and more for the surprising vegetables where I usually expected to find meat. By the end of the first week, I was delighted to discover that my body could function just as well meat-free as carnivorous. Of course, that doesn’t mean we didn’t jump at the first opportunity to munch on some roasted chicken dipped in peanut sauce and it was all the more delicious.
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Task 3: Build patio furniture. This proved to be the most challenging (and rewarding) of our workaway tasks. The project took more-or-less eight days of work. On the “less” days drill bits broke, heads were bonked, screws were misaligned, tears were shed, and we decided to call it a day before noon. On the “more” days, table saws ran smoothly, stain dried quickly, every piece fit perfectly, and we laughed while we worked.
Let me give you a quick step-by-step:

  1. Pallet demolition

2. Measuring and cutting boards to size
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3. Sanding
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4. Staining
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5. Assembly:

 6. Completion:
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7. CELEBRATION!!!

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It was a team effort and we even had the chance to meet some of the other workawayers who have lived at Vrede Rust in the past. Hannah and Hale (New Zealand), and Paula and Gabby (Brazil) all now live in Amsterdam.

On our last few days we added the finishing touches to the public terrace:

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We turned the existing Vrede Rust sign into a rest-stop sign

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Of course, I insisted on adding some flowers! A big pumpkin plant will eventually sprout in the big central pot.

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And then I just kind of got carried away with the flowers.

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Of course, Indi insisted on doing all of the planting, and I agreed to dig holes where I was told

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Finally, the finished terrace space!

Other projects of the week included:

Painting a sign for the garden entrance

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and dredging out the old rain-water cisternIMG_7376

By the time we said goodbye we could look out over the property and think, “it’s no longer quite the same as before.” I can’t imagine what it must be like for Lin and Alef to go about their days thinking of all of the busy hands and smiling faces that have worked hard to make their home what it is today. What a testament to the beauty of community and the power of teamwork. We can’t wait to visit in a few years and find out who else left a piece of their heart at Vrede Rust.

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Welcome to Vrede Rust

April 15-30

We couldn’t decide if we should bring anything or not. What are the social conventions for showing up at a stranger’s house with the intention of living there for two weeks? We made a last-minute decision. A plant. A plant is the appropriate gift. Better yet, make it an orange one to show we know a little something about Dutchness.

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When our workaway host, Lin, picked us up at the bus station she said nothing about the plant awkwardly hanging in a plastic bag, slightly battered from the bus ride. I am sure we too looked a little worse for wear after 3 months on the road, so perhaps the picture wasn’t as strange as I imagined it. If you can’t have a house, why not have a houseplant?

We tossed our packs in the back amongst the car seats and farm tools, then settled in for the short ride to our new home. The only way I can explain what happened next is that we drove through some sort of time machine/warp. Here’s how it works. After about 30 minutes of driving through the messy web of freeways lacing Amsterdam, a portal opens to a different time and place. It’s not quite time travel because the setting is not entirely medieval nor interwar. But it is some combination of everything in between: a rough cobble stone street lined with brick shops, a picture-perfect castle complete with turrets and a moat, flat green fields reclaimed from the sea, and finally a lonely farm house where once a family of 10 lived in one room and the animals ruled the rest. The sign on the gate read: Vrede Rust. Peace and Quiet. After nearly 100 days on the move, to us, that sounded like a dream come true.

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Alef and Lin welcomed us to their small kingdom. “Make yourselves at home,” they said, “what’s ours is yours.”

I looked at the little orange flower, relieved to have brought something to offer in return, but realizing immediately that it couldn’t possibly be enough. Lin and Alef were disproportionately thrilled with our offering.
“It’s perfect, we have lots of plants outside but none for the house!”
“Yes, we should repot it. Then it’ll really flourish!”
“Oh I really like it so much.”
We grinned like kids offering a homemade gift to parents who genuinely prefer sticky paintings to store-bought presents.

Alef and Lin welcomed us with the same enthusiasm that they welcomed that silly little plant. Homemade pasta, fresh salad, wine, and then we did the dishes. Nothing makes you feel more at home than grabbing a dishtowel and pretending that you know where everything goes.

We knew things were getting serious when they introduced us to Alef’s parents within the first 24 hours. There were hugs all around and we munched on Easter lunch together as if we were long lost cousins, rather than strangers who couldn’t always remember each other’s last names. Sure it was awkward. There was plenty of smiling and nodding at extended family members, while trying desperately to come up with conversation starters. But I’m pretty sure that’s what Easter lunch is for anyway.

This is also when we realized that our vrede rust would be short lived. Two tiny tornados with the most memorable sky blue eyes tore through the living room, tossing books and toys into our laps. Enter Indi and Jona.

Indi is 3.5, but her confidence rivals most 23.5 year olds, and her determination would put an Olympic athlete to shame. Over the next two weeks I tried to teach her to fold paper butterflies, plant pansies, and exchange English and Dutch translations. It didn’t matter what we were doing or what I had planned, I soon learned it was going to be her way or no way. Indi isn’t the first stubborn 3.5 year old in my life. But she is the first who doesn’t speak my language. So I often had to trade my carefully reasoned explanations for simple 2 or 3 word combinations usually involving one of the following: “Kijk” (look), “Zit” (sit), “Rustig,” (calm). In one moment of exasperation I came up with a brilliant combination knit together from the pieces of Dutch I heard while growing-up in a third generation Dutch-Canadian home: “niet broek, niet spele” (no pants, no play). The second I uttered the words in my stern teacher voice (yes I am becoming my mom) she stopped throwing game pieces around and looked me in the eyes. A few seconds passed as she considered her next move. I kept my face serious, even while Jakob began to chuckle in the background. She narrowed her gaze, as if preparing for a protest, then changed her mind and sat down, as if she actually wanted to put her own underwear and pants on all along.

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Jona is equally forceful in his own way. At a year and a half, he may not have as much weight to throw around, but he compensates with volume. Babysitting Jona is an exercise in distraction. As long as he doesn’t hear, see, or smell his mom he is as content as a cherub in an angel food cake. But the second he realizes that his protector, his solace, his food source has abandoned him forever in the hands of malicious strangers he sounds the alarm and only “Where is thumber,” “twinkle twinkle little star,” or Jakob’s theatrical facial expressions can console him.

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The first few days at Vrede Rust were an intense immersion experience in family life. From 8am until 8pm we were asking what sound cows make, wiping up spillage, and preventing little fingers from finding sharp things. Of course between all of that we were doing our actual workaway work, you know the stuff we thought would consume all of our time and energy, but that’s a whole other story. On each of those first few days, I hit my pillow at 10pm wondering how anyone could possibly stay up past midnight. Who has the energy for that nonsense? Jakob and I watched Alef and Lin closely to learn the source of their super human energy levels. Finally we just asked. Turns out the answer for them lies in a combination of hearty home cooked meals, intentional time spent working on their marriage, and a commitment to setting and achieving collective ambitions. These ambitions come in all shapes and sizes. For example, they take a long term goal like: turning the acreage into a gorgeous multi-apartment B&B and break it down into smaller monthly tasks like: submit building proposal to town council, weekly tasks like: build publicly accessible terrace by roadside, and daily tasks like: stain patio chairs, drop off Indi at daycare, bake bread, and clean-up shop. From our first day, we were incorporated into this family vision and encouraged to make our own contributions…and so we did!

Curious what else transpired at Vrede Rust? The rest of the story is coming soon.

Top 10 Reasons to Get Out of Amsterdam

For most Euro-backpackers, Amsterdam is the only corner of the Netherlands they’ll ever see. Just ask the hostel crowd in Prague or Krakow and you’ll hear something like this: “Amsterdam? Ya I think I was in Amsterdam. I took the train there, don’t really remember anything else.”

Well I guess I am no different, because I have taken the bus, train, and plane in and out of Amsterdam at least six times in my life, and I still don’t have any memories of the city. But my reasons are a bit different. Unlike most travellers in the low countries, Amsterdam has never been my destination. Instead I have wandered through Urk, lunched in Zwolle, cuddled sheep in Muiden, biked in Zwartsluis, sunbathed in Roodeschool, and dined in Kampen. And I think you should too. Here’s my top 10 reasons why:

1. Biking.
Ok obviously you can bike in Amsterdam…if you have sharp elbows and a death wish! The Dutch are confident cyclers, and if you can’t match their speed and stealth you might as well hit the sidewalk. I loved biking in the open countryside where I didn’t have to compete with hundreds of other cyclists for the same patch of pavement.

 

2. Bourtange.
A magnificent fortress village, best viewed from the sky, but bearable by land too. This village is so picturesque that if you google images of any other place in the Netherlands, a few shots of Bourtange are bound to show up in the results.

Bourtange

Ok obviously I didn’t take this photo

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See, plenty of fun from the ground too!

3. Festivals.
Sure Amsterdam might be party central year-round. But the really unique festivals can only be found in the smaller cities. In Groningen, we happened to be in the right place at the right time for the annual Good Friday flower market.

IMG_7032Another notable festival, which we missed, but heard lots about is the Deventer Boekenmarkt! Every August, the romantic cobble stone streets of this town are converted into Europe’s largest book fair. But if you happen to miss that weekend (like us) the beer isn’t too bad either.
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4. The Hunebedden
In the Netherlands, these large mysterious rock formations register as mountain ranges. But like every other geographic feature in this country, they are actually manmade. Very little is known about them, since they are over 5000 years old, but they were definitely used as burial markers and chambers. We found a couple in the Drenthe countryside and just had to check them out. Uncle Eilko shurgged, “they’re just big rocks.” But we thought they were pretty cool.
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5. People living along dikes are the nicest in the country.
We spent one week in the tiny village of Roodeschool, which is basically a huddle of houses found at the northern most end of the dutch railway tracks. With only a wall of cement and dirt standing between these tidy homes and the stormy sea, the villagers are always on their best behaviour. Why you might ask? Well obviously, if there was ever a neighbourhood squabble or even an unpleasant conversation, the ocean would catch wind of the social breakdown in seconds, jump its bounds, and quickly reclaim the fertile farm land. So everyone knows their neighbours, smiles at strangers, and pauses for regular chit-chat, just to be sure that we remain a united water-fighting front

6. A Bookstore in a Cathedral.
The Dutch have perfected the art of never wasting any space, which includes old abandoned church buildings. In Zwolle, a 500 year old cathedral was converted into a bookstore only a few years ago. We found it totally by chance. As we were exploring the city’s streets, my ear perked at the familiar sound of English. A few Britts were chatting about their next destination: a bookstore. I insisted that we follow (at a distance of course, I’m not a total creep) and before we knew it we were wandering through the massive wooden doors of a cathedral. I was about to turn around, realizing that I must have made a mistake, when I noticed that instead of pews, the space was filled with stacks of books! We spent the next half an hour running up and down the levels and trying to get a photo that could do justice to the beautiful space.

7. Cuddling sheep.
There are about a million sheep in the Netherlands and I want to cuddle them all. Ok not all of them, just the cute little baby ones, or lambijes as the dutch like to call them. After unsuccessfully chasing sheep on a dike and frequently begging Jakob to pull over near a pasture, I finally found my sheep cuddling opportunity in the village of Muiden. It was magical.
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8. You may find someone who doesn’t speak English. 
They are rare beasts in the Netherlands, but if you go far enough from Amsterdam, you may find someone who actually can’t speak fluent and effortless English. In this case, I pull out one of my three trust worthy conversation starters:
“leuk kerk!” (Nice church)
“Ik vind paarden leuk” (I like horses)
“lekker?” (tasty?)
Any of these three will easily illicit a smile and they really do cover every possible social situation….just don’t mix them up. I don’t like eating horses in a church

9. The beach.
You may not closely associate the Netherlands with beach bumming, but there are actually plenty of sandy escapes…sure you may be wearing a windbreaker bodysuit instead of a bathing suit, but at least you can get some nice photos before seeking refuge in a beachside restaurant. Then grab some Heineken and bitterballen and watch the waves in warmth and comfort.
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10. People actually wear clogs.
Old farmers, young kids, women working in the flour mill, businessmen on their way to get groceries, EVERYONE WEARS CLOGS. I don’t quite get it, they don’t look that comfy, the average dutch person doesn’t really need the height boost, and they probably let more mud in than they keep out, but still they wear them! I assume it’s some sort of national culture program. “Here is your dutch passport and set of clogs. You will be expected to clock a minimum of 100 clog hours per year. Bonus hours will be rewarded for clog hours spent holding tulips or cycling. These can then be redeemed for dropjes or stoopwafels at the rewards desk. Tot ziens!”

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This is Jona, he loves his clogs, even though they are one size too big and always slow him down. Crazy kid. You’ll hear lots more about him in my next blog post. Can’t wait!

The Anglophone French Experience: The Paradoxical Unabridged Version

Guest blog by Sarah Allan @sarahbrittny

Going to France was something I didn’t know I wanted to do until the opportunity was placed in front of me.

As a first year teacher I had little hope of doing something meaningful over my Spring break besides sleeping in, watching Netflix, and feeling guilty for not spending my time wisely. My attitude towards seeing the world could be described as a little curious but unmotivated. Kind of like when the remote is too far out of reach and you’re to lazy to move the six inches to grab it; it would be more entertaining to do it, but you’ll settle for watching infomercials until someone else comes along and changes the channel for you. (Is that a relevant analogy? Do people even watch TV anymore?) I am a small adventure person and for the most part I am content in my wee bubble.

Two of my favourite people decided to leave their little bubble in Victoria, Canada and travel Europe. One evening when I was visiting them in Victoria over Christmas, I casually suggested that I could come visit them when they were in France. They welcomed the idea with excitement while really all three of us didn’t think it would actually happen. A few weeks later I decided it would. I made them organize everything (remember small adventure person here) and I anxiously awaited my trip.

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Truth be told, I was uncomfortable with the thought of going. Don’t get me wrong, I was excited to be with Jakob and Meghan and to make all the memories, but I just wanted to tap my heels together and voila France! I don’t particularly like airports or traveling alone. I was exhausted from the last two and a half months of work. The thought of leaving the comforts of my own home to fly across the world didn’t really appeal to me. I was worried about how much this trip was going to cost me. I could have really benefited from using that money to pay off my student loans or start saving for a new car. I was stressed about using all my vacation time for vacation. Crazy I know. But with all the love and support from my friends, family and encouraging boyfriend, I tried to put these things in the back of my mind. I am never going to get another opportunity to travel France with two of my best friends. Put on your big girl panties Sarah, you are doing this!

Right after school on Friday, my friend Andrew drove me down to 100 Hundred Mile house, and then the rest of the way to Langley the next day, where I stayed with my family. My brother drove me to the airport the next morning, on his day off, during Spring forward daylight savings time, and I was off on my big adventure.

First stop Nice, France. Meghan and Jakob picked me up at 12:30pm Monday afternoon wide eyed and bushy tailed, thankful to see a familiar face after their 2.5 months of traveling. I was in a daze. I felt like I had landed on a foreign planet; palm trees in France? Was I in the right place? Yes mes amis, palm trees in France. Nice is in southern France on the ocean with a beautiful promenade that stretches for miles–complete with topless women and speedo-ed men soaking up the rays on the beach.

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We got back to our brand new airbnb and I napped hard. About 2 hours later I was awake, fed, and ready to explore. I was still in shock. European towns are like nothing I have ever seen. All I could do was look up because the apartment buildings are stacked so high and close together that if you suffer from claustrophobia I would not recommend walking through the maze that is French streets. We walked for about 15 minutes and came out right on the waterfront. The sun was low in the sky as we sat on some giant rocks and watched the waves lap at our sides. We decided to go back in the direction of the airbnb and climb the hill to the top where a castle sat. We wound our way up through the streets, passing cars that were parked on impossible angles. How did that car even get up here I often wondered. By the time we made it to the top of the hill it was dark and there wasn’t a soul around. We decided that we should eat and settled in at a little pizza place at the top of the hill. We ordered beer, wine, and pizza and mixed with great company we drank and caught each other up on the last two months of our very different lives. The restaurant sat at the top of the hill and our view was of the city lights and hills sprawling in the distance. Having our fill, we made our way back down the hill to our airbnb where we played cards and talked some more. Crawling into bed, we were filled with excitement for what tomorrow would bring.

We woke up fairly early the next morning, ready to start our adventure. Jakob made eggs and we gobbled them up before leaving to catch our bus to Nice. Our bus arrived just as we did. We rode along the promenade to the heart of the city as the ocean stretched out as far as I could see. We got off the bus and started walking. Walking. Walking. Walking. I quickly informed Meghan and Jakob that the sauntering pace I was demonstrating was the pace I intended to keep. It took them some time to adjust, but eventually they were able to slow down and look anew at the beautiful French world that we were exploring. If we saw something in the distance that looked interesting we would just walk to it. Our exploring lead us to a man-made waterfall and a gorgeous view of the beach, the old town, and the expansion of the growing city. We walked through parks and saw fountains, went through street markets and bought post-cards. We ended up in a park that came out right next to a large breakwater. Let’s walk out there, I suggested. We walked along the side walk out along the pier and even went past the allocated pedestrian walking area. Rebel alert! After basking in the sun for a bit, Jakob and I were getting a little hangry so we found a place to eat in one of the many open squares that France has to offer. Our lunch consisted of crepes, which many of our lunches did. Well, Jakob ordered a crepe and he received a pizza. It went well with my white wine that was supposed to be a rosé. Oh well…when in France.

Three things I learned about France that day:

  1. Public bathrooms cost about 50 Euro cents to use. There is also a coin that is worth 50 Euro cents.
  2. Jakob and I were going to be very compatible travel companions.
  3. I was incredibly glad I put on my big girl pants and came to such a beautiful country.

After dinner we decided that if we were going to take the rent-a-bike along the promenade home, that we should probably head out soon. We found the nearest bike station and Jakob expertly figured out how we could ride a bike along the shore, into the pastel sunset. What happened next may just be my favourite memory of the entire trip. I was the first one to get a bike and I was raring to get going. The first thing I noticed was that there were three gears on my bike and I could not feel a change from one gear to the next. I shrugged it off and kept going. I was stunned by the miraculous sky and the ocean to my left. I was experiencing two of my favourite things combined while being enjoyed by biking in France.

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The story continues. Meghan and Jakob were biking in front of me and it quickly became apparent that they were going much faster than I was. I thought this was strange as I didn’t think that I was going slow. I was continuously pedaling and up ahead I could see that Meghan was spinning her pedals backwards as she coasted along the sidewalk. I thought to myself, I am going as fast as I want and I am not going to be pressured into biking quickly. I want to enjoy my ride. After several minutes, the two of them stopped and waited for me to catch up. They asked me repeatedly if I was doing alright while subtly exchanging glances with each other. Being as oblivious as I am, I didn’t make the connection that they were asking about my slow speed. I told them that I was doing awesome! What a time to be alive! They reluctantly accepted my satisfaction with how the bike ride was going and we continued on our way. About twenty more minutes passed when they stopped again to wait for me. By this point my bike had started making some funky noises. I asked if at the next bike station we saw if I could trade my bike in. We quickly found one and I was able to exchange my bike. Instantly I could feel the difference! The gears definitely worked on the second bike. From then on it was effortless to keep up the pace with Meghan and Jakob. After a total of an hour biking, we reached our destination. As we chained up our bikes, Meghan and Jakob confessed their surprise at how slow I had originally been biking. What was going on with Sarah? Didn’t she used to bike to work? Meghan told me. We’re not going that fast. Meghan even had trouble keeping her bike upright as she was riding because she was trying to reduce her speed. All the while I was feeling like a tub of lard, out of shape and pathetic as my friends who have been backpacking around Europe for the last two months were in better shape than I was. It was much to everyone’s relief that my bike was malfunctioning and that I was capable of biking just as well as they were!

We made it home, drank a bottle of wine that cost $1.50 and decided to watch a hilarious comic, Trevor Noah, deliver a hilarious stand-up routine on Netflix. After a full day, we curled up in our blankets, as we had to be out of the airbnb by 10:00 am the next morning so that we could catch the train. We had to pick up our rental car (who was named Gaston) and drive to Aix-en-Provence. Just so you know, I had no idea where any of these places were before going to them. I knew nothing about them. I just knew that I had the world’s two best adult-sitters and that I was going to like whatever they brought me to.

Aix-en-Provence

As my favourite tour guide/historian informed me, also known as Meghan, Aix-en-Provence has the historical atmosphere that the film Beauty and the Best was set in. Once we were driving through the rolling hills and miles of vineyards, I knew I wasn’t going to be disappointed. Because of the cost of getting an airbnb in the city, we found a place in the countryside to stay for our three night visit. Upon arriving, we were greeted by a friendly host, who toured us around his somewhat chaotic property; complete with cats, dog, chickens, a hedgehog or two, cars, and their friendly countryside rat, who we thereafter named Templeton to reduce our anxiety. The suite was quaint and quiet. Here is where I learned that the French use pink toilet paper and most every bathroom is separated by a room for the toilet and a room for the sinks and shower. Yup, that was my big culture shock, pink toilet paper.

Aix, itself was pleasant. It was there that we ate crepes at an underground shop and I used a toilet on the street that washes itself after every use. Jerry had informed me of the existence of these bathrooms from his travels, but Meghan and Jakob had never heard of them before. I was pleased to educate them on something, even an outhouse, since they were the ones teaching me everything about how to travel in Europe. We walked around Aix, looking for old buildings and walking the old streets. I was surprised by the amount of young people that were about. Meghan told me that there were lots of universities nearby. It was in Aix where Jakob’s love for Kabab lead us to a shoe store that had the exact shoe that he had been searching for for months. It was a crazy find. We then found a busy square and we sat down for drinks, our favourite pastime in France. We chatted and people-watched. We spotted a guy who looked like he could have been Joshua Sasse. And everybody was smoking. I am pretty sure that is what every young person’s night consisted of in France: friends, drinks, and cigarettes.

Marseille

Meghan had to work early, but Jakob let me sleep in until 11:00 am. I awoke to the blissful smell of bacon (see I told you Jakob and I would make good traveling buddies). We ate, packed what we needed, and headed out on our first day of adventuring with just the two of us (Insert high pitched Bill Withers song lyric here). The adventure of the day was going to Marseille which is not too far from Aix. It is a port city, which by the way Jakob loves harbours, and there was beaucoup de boats! There was even a little ferry boat you could pay something like 1 Euro to go the five minute ride across the harbour. Jakob and I explored and saw a lot of graffiti. It was beautiful graffiti done by some talented people. We walked through neighbourhoods as we heard church bells chime at noon, saw laundry hanging out of windows, people passed us on mopeds, stopping and going as often as we pleased. It felt very much like a movie set in some places. We walked around the port and saw an open gate. Let’s go this way, Jakob suggested. I followed. We ended up at a huge palace with a gorgeous view of the port. From there we could see the two fortresses that stood at the entrance of the bay, ready to defend at any moment. We sat there and snacked to regain our strength and decided that it was beach time. We walked another 20 minutes and found a sandy beach in amongst the many buildings. There were several people enjoying the sunshine, and some were even braving the water. I walked in to my ankles just to say I had done it, but it was too cold to swim in. After we had enjoyed our beach bumming, we decided that we should probably go get Meghan. It was adorable to see Jakob spending his first day without her in months. Everything we saw, he commented how much Meghan would like this or how we should wait to see that church because Meghan will want to see it. It was beautiful to see my friend miss his wife. We picked a hungry and exhausted Meghan up from the archives, took her home, ate dinner, finished a bottle of wine, had an intellectual conversation about the growing demand of technology on our lives, and went to sleepy.

Sisteron

The next day Jakob and I decided to make our way to Sisteron, which was approximately 2 hours away, while Meghan worked at the archives, studying her counterfeit money documents. I am pretty sure she spent more time talking to the security guard about the weather than actually working. Wink wink. Anywho…I told Jakob that I wouldn’t mind going the long and twisty way to Sisteron and that my car sickness should be alright if we went slow. And slow we went. It took us about 5 hours to get there and that is just a guess because time lost all meaning as we meandered through the sprawling green hills. We passed small villages tucked into and on hills, explored winding walkways as locals said bonjour to us unfamiliar folk, found graveyards, and tried without success to find cave openings. We stopped somewhere for a beer and patted ourselves on the back as we were able to order and get our needs across in French without Meghan there to hold our hands. When we finally got to Sisteron, we found the giant castle, and hiked up the hill to find that it was closed. We took as much of it in as we could, ran back down the hill like children, and hopped in the car to make our way back to Meghan. We came back home, ate some leftovers and headed out to enjoy some St. Patrick’s Day festivities. The streets were full of young people celebrating. We found a crowded Irish pub hoping to find some English speakers, but we had no luck. We drank our beer and talked of the future. I could talk about Meghan and Jakob’s future babies forever!

After Meghan and Jakob had a late night pizza snack, we headed back home. It was an unforgettable day.

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Marseille 2.0

As we were checking out of the airbnb, we had a lovely chat with our hosts, Serge and his wife. She was from the Philippines and spoke French very well. They were a kind family and although it was a nice place to stay, we were ready for the next part of our adventure. It was early enough in the day to make a short stop in Marseille to show Meghan all the things we had saved for her from 2 days prior. If you read her blog, you will get a fantastic description of the two churches we saw there…or one basilica and one catedral. Besides from the cathedral in Victoria, British Columbia, I had never been in one. The first one, the basilica, was…let’s say…really cool! There were so many colours and gold in the ceiling! It was placed at the top of a large hill that I was very glad we did not have to walk up. The view was dazzling from the top of the hill. You could take in the ocean to the left and the huge city to the right. It is unfortunate that a camera just cannot take in the sheer expanse and experience of what you witness from a view like that. We didn’t spend a lot of time at the basilica for all the hype that we had originally had for it, but it was free. Meghan and Jakob have seen countless old buildings and so it was off to find something that was really outstanding. My untrained, non-cathedral going eyes didn’t know the difference yet between a mediocre church and an awe-inspiring cathedral.

From the moment we walked into Cathédrale La Major, my life had changed forever. I finally understood the purpose for building these monstrous buildings. Being a tall woman, I live my life feeling like I take up a lot of space, and there have only been two times that I have truly felt small: on top of a mountain, board strapped to my feet, with fresh snow, and here, all alone and in Cathédrale La Major. The cathedral was tremendous. To top it all off, there was a soundtrack softly playing throughout the church of monks singing and chanting. It was blissful. I cherished the awe that Meghan and Jakob were in, as they have seen dozens of these things, and this was really my first one. I lost track of time as I walked around, my head bobbing up and down, side to side, trying to soak up everything my eyes would let me take in. In all honesty, I spent more time in catholic churches in France than I ever have in Canada.

We began to walk back in the direction of the car, and saw a big porte. It then became a search for wifi, which was a common occurrence. We spent some time in a mall, people watching and resting our legs as we waited for our maps to load that would take us to our next destination. *Takes a moment to be thankful for technology*

Montpellier

We arrived that evening just before 8:00 pm in Montpellier and again, thanks to Jakob, we arrived at our airbnb. Unfortunately for us, our house was out of town and he wasn’t answering his phone. Through Meghan’s exasperated attempts to communicate with him, she gleaned that the key was in the mailbox. We decided to walk through the various parking lots to see if we could at least locate the building, while Jakob waited with the car. We found our building and reassessed our situation. We noticed that the mailboxes were located outside of the main door of this apartment building, which is actually abnormal for apartments, but nonetheless we noticed that there was a 2 inch gap at the tops of each box for mail to slide into. Peering into the slot we could see the key laying on top of our host’s mail. Harnessing our inner hooligans, Meghan and I grabbed some twigs from the adjacent bush. It was at this point that Meghan took over the key extraction and I acted as lookout. Meghan skillfully hocked the key, and she was able to get it out. She all but ran back to Jakob to tell him what we had done. I don’t think breaking into our airbnb was on her list of must-dos while in Europe. Jakob wasn’t all that surprised at what we had done. We parked the car and headed into the building. We unloaded our things and promptly decided that we needed to eat. We headed to a nearby grocery store, but because it was Saturday and 8:00 pm it had just closed when we arrived. Domino’s pizza came to our glorious rescue as we realized that there was one open across the parking lot. We ordered and took our prized pizza home, where we binged watched Modern Family and snuggled into our new beds.

We stayed in Montpellier for 5 nights, as Meghan had been assigned more work in the Montpellier archive. It was comforting to know that we would be in the same place for a little longer. Although we stayed the longest in Montpellier, we actually spent the least amount of time actually in Montpellier. Our first day adventure was going to Carcassonne!

Carcassonne

Among many Christian circles, the fun-filled castle building board game, Carcassonne, is widely known. I for one have never played it, but I am sure given enough time I will play it in the future. I suppose it is fitting that I went to the historic place first, where the game got its namesake. Carcassonne was a fairytale. We drove the hour and a half to Carcassonne for a day trip, packed a lunch, and braided our hair to harness our inner princesses. Meghan and Jakob, in all their love of research, had researched what the castle in Carcassonne looked like the night before, while I decided to keep the entire experience a surprise.

When we pulled up to the parking lot, we were greeted by the front gate and we could only see a glimpse of what was yet to unfold before us. I really thought I knew what a castle looked like. I had imagined how life must have been for people who had to live within the stone walls of these giant structures, but to see pictures and movies is entirely different than hugging the stone itself. We payed for the automated tour that lead us through the castle while narrating the history. We discovered murder holes, slots to shoot arrows through, an amphitheatre, and a church, all within the walls of the castle. Correction: within all the walls of the fortress. This thing was double layered with walls. One to keep the rest of the world out and the other to protect themselves from the people within the walls.

I would have to say my favourite thing about the castle in Carcassonne was walking the perimeter of the castle wall from the top of the wall. I imagined soldiers crouching behind stone shields, and children running across the walls when they weren’t supposed to. I felt as if I had stepped into another world. As cliche as it is, it truly does feel like stepping back in time. I suppose for a day, I experienced what Meghan finds so fascinating about her work: experiencing a glimpse of the past.

We finished the day with crepes and sangria, as the sun set behind our backs. We got back in the car and made it home. I don’t remember if it was this day trip or not when we realized that France has HUGE roundabouts. Either way, Jakob was first impressed with the functionality of having so many roundabouts instead of stop lights, but by the end I am sure that Jakob would prefer never to see another roundabout for a long time.

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Barcelona, Spain

Want to take a day trip to Spain they said. It will be fun they said. Heck ya I do!

When you’re in Europe, four hours away is a small price to pay to get from one country to another. We were in Montpellier with a day to spare, so we went to Barcelona. Why not, when you can go to Spain! You drive four hours in any direction from Prince George, you’re either in 100 Mile House, Smithers, or Jasper, none of which have any beaches.

Barcelona was beautiful. It was strange to go from a French speaking country to a Spanish speaking country in the span of four hours. Our first stop was the Sagrada Família, a relatively new and under continuing construction basilica in Barcelona. This aberrant structure was truly unlike anything I have ever seen. Every surface of this towering church contracted itself. The layers and the variant towers created what felt like an optical illusion as I tried to focus my eyes on one point. It was impossible to take this building in because every time I wanted to look at something my eyes were drawn to something else sticking out of the building. Really, you just have to see it for yourself. We decided against going inside due to the price, which was a bit of a shame, but we had other things to see.

We walked some more to see another church, which let us in despite the fact that we were wearing shorts. It was here that we discovered a free elevator that lead us up to some precariously placed scaffolding on the roof of the cathedral. I can honestly say that one of the best ways to take Barcelona in is to witness it from on top of a cathedral. I literally did feel a little closer to God.

After scanning the horizon of Spain, we decided that we needed to experience the sun setting on said horizon with the sand below us. We made our way to the beach just as the sky turned into streaks of cotton candy. We walked towards the pier looking for some food that was both tasty and in our price range. Since Europeans don’t eat until 8 or 9pm, when we found a place to eat, we had our pick of tables. I think this place was my favourite place that we ate because we were on a patio covered in lights, with the ocean to our left. We sipped on our wine and ate our burgers. I had been craving burgers all week because I am nothing but a lame North American to the bone. Feeling sufficiently satisfied, we left, walking on the sand on our way back to the car. We still had a four hour drive back. Jakob was a champ and got us home safe, even with all the roundabouts.

More Montpellier

Needless to say Jakob and I were tuckered out. Unfortunately Meghan had to work the next day, but Jakob and I got to sleep in and have a slow day. By the time we were ready to leave the house, it was probably close to 2-3pm. We were both craving some good old fashioned McDonalds. It didn’t take us long to find one and that is where we had lunch. Let me just say that McDonalds in France is another experience altogether. Although they look similar to North American McDonalds, they are substantially different. Anyway….

After lunch, Jakob and I made our way to the ocean. Jakob read his book and I beachcombed. The shore was a mosaic of shells. At one point I was knee deep in the water, enjoying the grey day and thinking about how crazy it was that I was standing in the ocean in France. I heard someone calling out to me, and I turned to find a woman trying to speak to me in French. I was instantly nervous and told her in French that my French was not great, but she didn’t even flinch. We began to talk through my broken French about where I was from and what I was doing in France. She was extremely patient with me as she nodded along as I spoke. I learned that she was a geography teacher and that her husband was from Spain. She could speak German and that she liked to travel to Germany. We continued to walk down the beach while talking and I introduced her to Jakob. We talked for awhile longer with lots of smiles and mercis from me. I felt incredibly blessed to talk to her and it was one of my favourite moments of my whole trip. I felt like I wasn’t a fraud. I really can speak French.

We packed up, picked Meghan up, had dinner at home, and then we were off into the city to meet “the girls”. Jakob and Meghan had made fast friends with some girls that they met in Prague who were students in Montpellier. It just so happened that they were free for drinks and a movie on Tuesday night. We met up with them and we went to watch Beauty and the Beast on opening night in France! It was the icing on the cake of my day. I don’t care how much you liked the new Beauty and the Beast movie because there is no way you liked it more than me. I watched it in France!

The next day Jakob and I went to a zoo, went back to the beach, bought some ice cream and walked along a huge breakwater. My favourite part about Montpellier was the beach.

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Toulouse

The last place that we went on our France tour was Toulouse. We stayed in an airbnb with a friendly guy who had a spare bedroom and a big couch. Here Meghan worked for a day (I think?). Jakob and I “church hopped” and ate a baguette panini type lunch in a small cafe. We walked around trying to avoid the rain. By this point I was fading from all the adventuring we had been doing and so we stopped often to sit on benches. We walked over to pick Meghan up at the end of the day. We caught a bus where Jakob made a friend with a curious guy who sat beside him. We also took the first subway train I had ever been on. Meghan told me that the sky train in Vancouver didn’t count. That was cool. We ended up going to a burger/pizza joint for our last dinner together and it was delicious. We went home and watched a movie. I think we went to bed fairly early so that we could be up early enough to enjoy Toulouse before I had to catch my train that afternoon to Nice. We walked around with Meghan, looking at some churches (not really a surprise) and we had some stir fry at a Thai? Place for lunch. It was a great way to end a perfect trip.

Toulouse to Prince George

If you have made it this far through this extremely long guest blog post, your reward is reading about my exhausting trip home. Congratulations!

Meghan was on the ball when it came to getting me home. We crunched the numbers (and when I say we, I mean they did, because let’s be honest, they babysat me for 2 weeks) and determined that it was a heck of alot cheaper for me to travel back to Nice by myself then to have all three of us go. Again, I put on my big girl panties and was train bound to Nice.

You will be so proud of yourself they said. They were wrong.

Ok not wrong, but my sense of accomplishment vanished very quickly.

Saturday – Toulouse – 4:50pm

We exchanged hugs on the train platform in Toulouse and I begrudgingly got in the car. I decided to use the bathroom first and to my dismay I was in the cramped bathroom at the back of the car when we left the station so I didn’t get to wave good-bye to my friends. Such wasted romantic potential. The train ride itself was spectacular. I had to stop thinking about what was going to happen when I got off the train in order to be able to enjoy the beautiful sights that I saw while on the train. The train ride was definitely a highlight of my trip and so I am glad that Meghan convinced me to take it. I got to see Carcassonne again which was such a stunning view. The sun set was beautiful pinks, purples and oranges and the countryside that the train goes through is unlike anything you would get to see by driving.

Saturday – Nice – 11:30pm

I arrived in Nice on time and I had 15 minutes to get to the bus stop. From the train station I had to backtrack a bit on the bus to get to the airport. I asked Jakob at least 5 times to show me where the bus stop would be on the map. I found it with ease and I waited for the bus with about 20 other people. I got on the bus and made it to the airport. The plan was to sleep in the airport until 5:00am when I would then need to check in for my 8:00 am flight. I walked up to the quiet airport and all the doors were locked. I thought about trying to force one sliding door open but I wasn’t sure if that was a good plan since the airport was virtually empty and there was another set of sliding doors right after that I wasn’t sure if they would open or not. I sat down for awhile outside the door and finished my sandwich. I couldn’t get the wifi from outside the airport so I decided I would find a McDonalds. There was one about 1.5 km away. So at 1:00am I walked with my pack to the McDonalds. It was unsettling. I made it to find that they restrict wifi to open hours only. Extremely disappointed I turned around and headed back to the airport, happy to have at least wasted some time. On my way back a guy in a van stopped on the side of the road just ahead of me. As calmly as I could I signaled to him the universal no thank you hand gesture and kept walking making sure not to make eye contact again. He slowly drove past me, I guess to make sure I wasn’t going to change my mind, and he drove away. I mean I must have looked ridiculous at 2:00am walking across a bridge on a highway with a backpackers pack on. Thank you Lord for your protection!

I made it back to the airport and sat on a bench and read my book. Finally at 4:00 am I noticed some travellers arrive. I walked around the building to see how they had entered the building. I noticed there was a doorbell but no one came when I pressed it. I waited there for 5 minutes until someone with a keycard showed up for work and I followed behind her when the doors opened. Finally wifi and warmth! I updated Jerry, Meghan and Jakob about what had happened and waited until 5:00 am to check in.

Sunday – Nice – 5:00 am

When I went up to the desk to check in, my name didn’t appear in the system. So I will break this down for you: I had been awake for 23 hours at this point and I had just traveled across the south of France by myself. When she told me that she couldn’t find me in the computer I almost burst into tears right there. They took my information to a supervisor or something and I waited off to the side for 15 minutes trying to wipe away the streams of water dripping from my face. They came back with some new information and I was checked in. At that point I walked away and lost it. All the stress I had been holding in for the last 10 hours was escaping. I was messaging Jerry and he calmed me down as he always does. I don’t think he knew the full extent of my emotional breakdown though. I walked through security teary eyed and all was good.

8:00 am

I made it to my gate and then after a gate change, we were informed that our flight would be delayed 1.5 hours. Nope, no good. I was going to miss my connecting flight from Brussels to Montreal if my flight was delayed. With limited communication to us disgruntled passengers, we were brought to a different part of the airport to pick up our bags and made our way to the travel agency desk. After 45 minutes waiting there in line, I was finally able to get new flights. I had 4 flights scheduled to get me back home by midnight that evening and so it was a mess to get new flights. They were unable to get me back to PG that night and so instead of staying in Nice for the whole day and getting to a hotel and back again the next day, sleep deprived me decided to change my destination to Vancouver instead. They were able to get me to Vancouver and my flight to Munich, Germany was set for 1:00pm that afternoon. My plan was to hop on a greyhound when I got to Vancouver but after I booked the flights I saw that the greyhound wouldn’t leave until Monday morning. Have you ever been so tired that you have an out of body experience? Yes, that is how tired I was. I should have just stayed in sunny Nice and spent the day on the beach. It was clear that I wasn’t going to get to PG by Monday morning for work. It would have been preferable to stay in Nice than going through what I was about to experience.

Sunday – Nice – 1:00 pm

I got on the plane to Munich and passed out for the first time in 30 hours. I slept for about 30 minutes. Flying into Germany was quite beautiful. When I finally got through security and found my gate, I arrived to find that my flight from Munich to Montreal had been delayed at least 2 hours because of a malfunction with the toilets on the plane. Feeling extra anxious and equally tired I plopped down on some chairs with the roughly 250 people who were waiting for this flight. They kept telling us that we would be taken care of once we got to Montreal but there wasn’t anything they could do for us on this end. So I waited. I called my sister and she contacted my parents. It was handy to have her in a closer time zone so that I could actually call her. We ended up waiting 3 hours for another plane to arrive so we could take that one to Canada. At this point I had given up all hope that I was going to be getting to BC that night.

Sunday – Munich – 5:30pm

While we were about to board I was sitting near this couple and they were talking about how they were going to miss their flight to Vancouver. I decided to make conversation and asked them if they were supposed to be catching the same flight that I was taking. They were and we boarded the plan. Once we were on the plane, I was pleasantly surprised with the German airline as I thought they had excellent service and despite all the changing of flights I had done, I was glad that I had been on the German plane instead of the Belgian one. Although there was one small scare when my boarding pass wasn’t scanning properly and they redirected me to another line. That took 2 seconds to fix, but I honestly thought that maybe I would never leave Europe.

Sunday – Montreal – 8:00pm

I was so very disappointed when we landed in Montreal at 8:00pm and I knew that my flight to Vancouver was leaving in 15 minutes and that there was nothing I could do to make them wait for me. I had gotten maybe 2 hours of sleep on the flight back to Canada so at this point it felt like I had been up for 40 hours with 2.5 hours of sleep. I felt awful. I made it through customs, found my bag, and somehow found my way to the German travel agency to find my new flight and accommodations for the night. When I arrived they quickly found me and gave me all the instructions I needed. Behind me in line was the couple that I had talked to in Munich. We started talking more while we were waiting and it turns out that the woman was named Sarah, was a teacher, and had the exact same back problems as I do. It was extremely strange. They were a lovely couple and we ended up staying in the same hotel for the night and had flights the next day to Vancouver around the same time. They flew out at 5:30pm and I flew out at 6:00pm. Anyways, by that point I knew that it was going to be difficult to get to Prince George the next day if I didn’t purchase a new flight. I was standing in line at the German airline waiting to see if they could help me. After 30 minutes of waiting they told me that they couldn’t help me because I had made my final destination Vancouver when I was in Nice and so the German airline was only obligated to get me to Vancouver. I walked over to the Air Canada booth, at which now it was closer to 10:00pm. I easily bought a new ticket and made my way to find the shuttle to my hotel. Fortunately I made it just in time as my shuttle was just about to leave. It was packed full and the French driver got two of the smallest ladies to sit together on the passenger seat of the van so that I could fit.

Sunday – Montreal – 11:00pm

When we got to the hotel, we found our rooms, and I made arrangements to have lunch with Sarah and Kevin the next day. I emailed my sub that my boss so graciously arranged for me the plans for the next day, took a shower, crawled into bed, and I had the best sleep I have had in the last 5 years. I was so tired and slept so well that the blankets and top sheet were still tucked in at the end of the bed. For some of you that really know me, that is a big deal!

Monday – Montreal – 9:30am

I woke up, ate my complimentary breakfast, had another shower, and then met Sarah and Kevin for lunch. I really enjoyed getting to know them and they were a blessing to have met on the way back. We met up again at the airport and had lunch at a St. Hubert Chicken restaurant that Kevin insisted we had to try. The chicken was good but the poutine was very disappointing. We went through security together and chatted until 5:00pm when they boarded their plane and I made my way to find my gate.

Monday – Vancouver – 8:00pm

I landed in Vancouver at 8:00pm local time and finally started to feel like I was close to home. I was an airport master by this point. I found my gate, laid down on some benches and slept for an hour. My flight to PG was departing at 11:00pm. I woke up with a fright as the screen no longer said Prince George. In my groggy daze, I packed up my things and headed out to find a flight board. My new gate was only 2 gates away. There I waited for about 20 minutes and witnessed an intoxicated man making a scene because they were not allowing him to get on his flight. I felt so bad for the workers who were trying to be patient with him. After that we had another gate change and when we arrived at the new gate we saw that this flight was also delayed for 30 minutes. By the time we actually took off, it was closer to midnight. The ride to PG was not smooth and I almost threw up on the empty chair beside me. Why don’t they have the brown baggies in the seat pocket in front of you anymore?

Monday – Prince George – 1:00am

I was so happy to see Alicia and Jeremy walking into the airport as I walked through the doors. I was finally home. The one thing that didn’t go wrong was that my bag always made it to the next airport with me, and for that I am extremely grateful! After hugging my friends, we headed home. I knew my car would be dead after not having been driven in 2 weeks so Alicia and Jeremy helped me jumpstart it and then Alicia and I went for a drive to McDonalds to charge the battery so that I could get to work the next morning. By the time I crawled into bed it was 2:00am. I was home.

While I was going through all of the craziness of trying to get home, I was tempted to think that the whole trip was not worth the pain of getting home. I hated almost every second of the trip home, but I LOVED every second of travelling in France.

I can’t thank you enough Meghan and Jakob for sharing your life with me and opening up my world. You are extremely patient with me and you challenge me to push my limits. I am tremendously blessed to have both of you in my life and I will forever cherish all the memories that I made, even the challenging ones. I love you!

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