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.

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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 Sand Dune and the Sandwich

April 1

Vineyard, hot tub, boarder collie. It all sounded too good to be true. There had to be a catch. So when we pulled up to our Airbnb just outside of Bordeaux, I began a mental checklist. Vineyard: yes. Boarder collie: oooo he’s adorable. Guess I won’t see much of Jakob for the next few days. Hot tub: Wahoo!!!

Our room? Ah yes. Online it was described as a private room and appeared to be a cozy loft. In reality, the cramped farm house (read: converted tool shed) had barely enough room for one bedroom, let alone two. We would be sleeping in the walk way space between the top of the steep attic stairs and the hosts’ bedroom. Two of the “room’s” sides were made up of railings overlooking the kitchen below, one was a flimsy portable divider, and the last was an angled attic wall.
Thankfully, what our new home lacked in comfort was made up by our hosts’ generous hospitality and liberal wine pour.

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This wine was actually grown in the fields surrounding the house!

In fact, we were barely in the door before our hosts, Jennifer and Thomas, invited us to join them for dinner. Of course we agreed. We were eager to experience the authentic human interactions that travel sometimes lacks. Unfortunately, they did not specify the hour of that dinner. By 8:00 I was using very little restraint on the bowl of cheezies on the coffee table. Just when I thought I might disappear into the black hole that was once my stomach, Jennifer headed into the kitchen to begin preparing hamburger patties. I asked to help in any way I could. She smiled and insisted that she didn’t need help, clearly not realizing that it was not an offer, it was a plea. I’d like to think that I’m pretty good at adapting to other cultures, but evidently my stomach is not.

By 9:30 we were seated around the dinner table, stacking our burgers with carmelized onions, french cheeses, and thick slices of avocado. All evening our conversation had been a halting mix of French and English, accented with hand gestures and broken up with long stretches of silence while we all tried to think of what we could say and how to say it.

We had already covered the easiest topic: What do you want to do while in Bordeaux?

I had sheepishly replied, “nous voudrions voir le dune du Pyla.” I thought they might laugh. Is seeing a sand dune really an acceptable tourist goal for a 24 year old?
To the contrary, they nodded enthusiastically, going on to explain that the dune was big, beautiful, and interesting….Whether or not it really was is hard to tell, really those were just the words we could all understand.

“We are hoping to go on Saturday.” Jakob explained, “when Meghan has a day off of work.”
They frowned and shook their heads, “no the weather not good Saturday. Go tomorrow.”

Really we had no choice, I worked Thursday and Friday in the Bordeaux archives, so we were going Saturday, come hell or high water.

We checked the forecast daily, hoping the clouds might notice our persistence and delay their April shower’s mandate by just one day. To the contrary, the forecast managed to get worse. By Saturday morning, there were warnings of thunderstorms, unpredictable high water, strong winds, and quickly changing conditions. Sounded like a perfect west coast beach day to us, so we slipped on our raincoats and adventure pants (only the highest fashion in waterproof zip offs), packed a picnic, and headed to the beach.

We saw the dune before reaching the parking lot. It towered over the jungle-like-forest, the white sand contrasting dramatically with the deep green of the trees and the brilliant blue of the sky. The hulking 3km long 100m high dune looked entirely out of place. It was as if a piece of the Sahara had lost it’s way and decided that life on the Atlantic was too pleasant to pass up. A set of stairs appeared equally out of place, tracing the curve of the dune, ending near the crest. An elderly couple and a family with children dawdled towards the stairs, while a group of five young guys ambled up the free flowing sand. Reaching the obvious conclusion that stairs are for the weak, we slipped out of our shoes and eagerly began scrambling up the dune freestyle. Our dash slowed to a plod after a few meters, a few more and the stairs looked unbelievably good. By the time I caught my first glimpse of the ocean, my thighs and glutes were begging to be back in the archives.

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The dune, which has allegedly swallowed a hotel and the homes of innumerable woodland animals, stretched for as far as we could see towards the south. A few houses to the north clung to their foundations sending up nearly audible pleas for mercy. Jakob, realizing that he was in for more of a hike than a beach, put his shoes back on, while I insisted that barefoot was best. Each of us assumed that the other would eventually regret their decision.

By the time we were almost half way across the dune’s expanse, heading for the highest point, we noticed that the sky was no longer blue. Somewhere out on the Atlantic, sheets of rain were pelting the waves and picking up speed in their land-ward journey.
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Still we had no interest in letting impending weather interrupt our picnic plans, so we found a sheltered dip in the sand and hunkered down to munch on sandwiches. Not long after the cheese and meat were in their rightful place, the wind began to pick up. Jakob stood up, offering a full report on the progress of the ominous clouds. The warning was too late. Seconds later a million tiny spear points pelted my bare feet and legs. By the time I realized that it was wind-whipped sand, not a barrage of arrows from an army of mini sand-dwelling fairies, my sandwich was entirely covered in sand. Jakob yelled at me to stand up to avoid the worst of the sandy onslaught and raced off to check the progress of his GoPro footage.

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Pre-storm GoPro set-up

In minutes, his footsteps were covered and most of the GoPro was buried. I managed to get my pant legs rolled down and my shoes back on just before the pelting rain began. By now my teeth were almost as sandy as my toes, and I decided it was time to abandon the sandwhich. I felt compelled to bury it. As if it had been the unlucky soldier in this battle and deserved a respectful resting place. Of course it would be uncovered again in mere minutes in these conditions, but it’s the thought that counts. With one last look towards the far end of the dune, we admitted defeat, turned our backs to the storm and began our trek back to the parking lot.

A few hours later we were sitting on a beach not far from the dune, enjoying suggery waffles and watching kite surfers under a once again beautiful blue sky. If it weren’t for the thick layer of sand on my scalp and the grainy layer under my clothes, I would have assumed that the battle of the dune hadn’t really happened at all.

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Introducing: Helena

February 22-26

If you asked me before we left which part of the trip I was most excited for, I probably told you: Greece. Sure enough, the country of epic poems and heroic legends has not disappointed. In every direction there is an ancient ruin, a turquoise sea, or a snow capped mountain.

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Exploring the ancient theatre at the base of the Acropolis (because it’s free and none of the other ruins are!)

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View of the Aegean from the peak of a mountain in Athens where the muses lived or something

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MOUNTAIN!!

It seems like every highway is sea-to-sky and thanks to our little Helena, we can drive them all.

Introducing Helena:

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A feisty Nissan Micra, who’s overbearing GPS and gutsy first gear has brought us through the mountains of Delphi, to the rocky pillars of Meteora, and to the shores of the Aegean.

We’ve had a lot of fun taking buses, trains, metros, planes, and ferries over the past seven weeks, but there is something irresistibly thrilling about regaining the freedom to depart from the typical tourist track. In fact, no more than four hours after signing the rental car paper work this is where we were:

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Ten kilometres down a dirt road, looking for a cave-shrine dedicated to the Greek god Pan. With only two short sentences in my lonely planet book and a GPS coordinate as our guides, we parked the car in a field and started hiking up a steep set of switch backs. Jakob’s complaints were endless.

“Classic Meghan, ‘Oh I read about this thing, now we have to drive to the middle of nowhere to see if we can find it’.”

Welcome to being married to a Horlings.

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“Onwards and Upwards”

Halfway up the steep incline we realized we probably should have taken our passports and wallets with us…this wasn’t exactly the little roadside pitstop we thought it would be. Another 200m straight up and we were peering over the side of the cliff, hoping that the lonely dirt biker coming down the backroad wasn’t there to break into Helena and take off with our travel documents and potato chips. What were we going to do from up here anyway? Send Pan after him?

Eventually our upward ascent brought us to this:

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A pretty cool cave…until I saw the bats hanging from the walls inside and then I wanted none of it.

Taking a few deep breaths I put my historical logic to work: if people have really been coming here for thousands of years to worship the hoofed god of nature, then these bats are probably pretty well behaved. In we go!

Once inside I wanted to explore every corner and look for signs of the ancient writing mentioned in my guide book. Jakob stood frozen about 10 metres from the cave opening.

“Well this is as far as I go,” he hastily snapped a few GoPro shots and moved back towards the exit.

My suggestion that we explore the dark passageway in the back of the cave was quickly declined.

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Me trying to show how big the cave is, if you can even see me

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The mysterious abyss at the back of the cave

Back out in the fresh mountain air we took a few minutes to take in our surroundings. The snowcapped mountains appeared to run straight into the desert below, as if Pan couldn’t decide if he liked summer or winter better, so decided to do both at the same time.

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The remaining daylight hours were spent navigating windy Greek backroads to Petroto, a tiny village boasting a church, a corner store, and the cheapest Airbnb in all of central Greece!

We had the entire house to our selves, but we didn’t touch most of it…in fact most of it appeared untouched since at least the 1950s. That first night in Petroto was spent in fear that the propane fire place was going to explode with each bang of warping metal. There was also at least one paranoid check for intruders when the wind and window shutters decided to take a midnight tango. Finally, in the morning we were woken by what must have been a military grade loud speaker declaring what we assumed was a hostage or bomb threat situation.

The second night we wore ear plugs and just hoped that the impending furnace explosion wouldn’t be too hot and that the thieves wouldn’t be too loud on their way out with our few belongings. Oh also we took our chances and glanced out the window when we heard the loud speaker…turns out that’s how the local veggie seller gets his produce to his customers. When we listened closer we realized that the aggressive bark was actually an informative song: “Potate, tomate…” Now don’t we look silly peering timidly through the shutters at a truck bed full of cucumbers.

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Home sweet home

Our nightmares were also terribly misplaced, because Petroto turned out to be a town nearly as charming as Avonlea or Stars Hollow. On our last day in the village, our Airbnb host, Dimi met us just as we were leaving and offered to take us for coffee. How could we decline such a generous invite to bypass the standard tourist experiences and get to know a real local? We eagerly agreed and a few minutes later we were following Dimi into a large cafe filled with mismatched wooden tables and a handful of Greek men enjoying a Sunday morning smoke. Dimi called out to each patron by name, and before long a little receiving line appeared at our table. We shook each large leathery hand, and smiled to convey our gratitude, all the while regretting our failure to learn more Greek. It didn’t take long before each of us around the table held a coffee in one hand and a smart phone in the other. We took turns typing words into google translate.

“car salesman”
“graduate student”
“historian”

It didn’t take much to find out that Dimi’s son also has a graduate degree in history!

Sensing the halting conversation, our server returned to the table. “I work at a hotel in the nearby city, but I come home on weekends to help at my family’s business,” she explained in confident English. Having introduced herself, she began to quiz us: “How old are you?” “Are you together?” “Do you work or are you students.”

She didn’t hold back her own personal details either. “You have watched My Big Fat Greek Wedding?”
“Ya I love that movie!” I responded, eager to make a connection with a local my age.
“Yes, that is my life. That is how life really is in Greece, and that is how my life is. I am 32 and my mom is always yelling at me: ‘get married!’ and my boyfriend is always yelling at me ‘get married!’ and I will always work in my family’s cafe. Just like the movie.”
“Really?” I laughed, unable to believe that she was willing to claim the popular stereotype of her culture.
“Yes,” she insisted, “I am just like that girl in the movie.”

We chatted a bit more and soon the conversation turned from movies to the complexities of politics and the economy.

“Greece is not the problem,” she explained, “Greeks have lots of money, it’s just that Germany is taking it. Everyone around Greece attacks us. They want our money. They are jealous because Greece is in the best location, it’s not so cold, we have the islands, we have the tourism. We are not the problem, they are the problem.”

I was fascinated to hear her perspective on the financial crisis. The last few days we had seen countless boarded up shops in Athens and row upon row of incomplete construction projects in the country side. I wanted to ask the other men sitting around the table what they thought of the situation, but our server, having satisfied her curiosity, had returned to the counter and I was unsure how to discuss an economic recession using largely hand signals and google translate, instead we discussed our previous day’s adventure.

Like every other tourist who forsakes the islands for the Greek interior, our main goal was to visit Meteora. The men at the table nodded. I am sure 500 year old monasteries perched on massive stone pillars aren’t as exciting if you’ve lived in their shadow for most of your life. For me they were the pinnacle of my trip planning, and I enjoyed every minute of exploring their ancient halls and pathways:

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Getting serious about seclusion from the world #monklife

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How amazing is this view?

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This is what a happy church historian and her husband look like

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Check out these two cuties #TooCuteToMonk

The men at the table were more interested in what we did after our visit to the touristy holy sites. Using a combination of google maps, charades, and collaborative story telling, Jakob and I explained that from one of Meteora’s view points we had spotted a dirt road snaking up the opposite side of the valley at an impossible angle. We checked our GPS, and sure enough, it was a real road, with what seemed to be a village(?) at the top. So with some hesitation we left the tourist crowd, crossed a river near this medievalish bridge:

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dodged some road side chickens and some sun bathing farm dogs, and made our way up the windiest road I have ever seen in my life.

In most ways I think my husband is pretty different than my Dad, but seeing the look of thrill and determination on his face as he geared down and coaxed our little car up that mountain, I realized they may not be so different after all.

I quickly slipped into my mom’s role:

“Are you sure it’s not going to over heat?….What is that smell, is that burning? Do I smell burning?”

After twenty-five switch backs, we hit a stretch of road better suited for a 4×4 than a Nissan Micra and we unanimously decided that we had better give Helena the rest of the day off before she declared a strike (she is Greek after all).

The view was decent, despite the clouds rolling in:

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But much greater was the thrill of driving up a road that even the Sunday morning coffee crowd in Petroto would never drive. After recounting our story, Dimi shook his head in dismay.

“Why? I give you map? I show you to go mountains like Switzerland!”

I don’t know what to tell you Dimi. There’s no accounting for the crazy things two small town kids will do after six weeks of living in cities and depending upon public transit.

We tried to explain, but all I could say was,
“We come from the mountains, this feels like home.”

Project Icy Rust Bath

February 22

Our adventure in Greece began with a bottle of wine and a tub of tzatziki (as it probably should). Our Airbnb host was a Greek Orthodox priest, who evidently had no need for a corkscrew. Instead of doing the reasonable thing and walking down the street half a block to buy one, we hacked the bottle open with a creative combination of kitchen knife, screw driver, pen, pliers, and desperation. Once the haggard cork was landed in the bottom of the fruity red, it was time to bust open the carton of tzatziki. Jakob had a genuine conversion experience when he realized that he actually didn’t hate creamy cucumber dip soaked in garlic and together we finished the carton in no more than seven minutes.

Happily full of wine and tzatziki, and exhausted after our uneventful day of wandering ancient Athens, I declared that I was going to take a bath. Oh how naive. I returned a few moments later reporting that there was only ice running in those pipes, and no bath could be had. Jakob, the eternal optimist, maintained that there was a way. So the kitchen kettle was filled and two pots were set on the small hot plates. A slow paced water relay began, as we took turns dumping the boiled contents into the icy half filled tub.

Twenty minutes into the endeavor I returned with a scientific assessment of the situation: The temperature is improving, but the water levels are dropping. I think it’s time to abort the mission. Jakob was not to be deterred. I returned to the cold tiled bathroom to find the rust coloured water was tinged even more red.

“What did you do, plug it with your own blood?”
“Nah, just a red wash cloth.”

I looked down at the opaque water wondering if it even had any cleaning properties. Regardless, I chose to believe in that moment, that the water we were drinking from the kitchen tap was not coming from the same source as the orangey brown liquid filling the bath.

The water relay continued with renewed vigour, and within another twenty minutes, I was sitting in the meagerest bath I’ve taken since I was seven years old and my water conscious parents were in charge of the faucet.

If the goal was getting my hair clean, then Project Icy Rust Bath was a moderate success. If the goal was to have a unique experience in the carefully curated tourist trap of Athens, then it was a laureled victory.

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