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

Adding soil to the hugel mound (it’s a German thing, so of course it’s brilliant, look it up)FullSizeRender 2

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!