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.

IMG_7153

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.

IMG_7115

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.

IMG_7097

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.

IMG_7289

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

IMG_6995

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.
IMG_6977

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.
IMG_1941

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.
IMG_7133

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.
IMG_7319

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!”

IMG_2024

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.

IMG_1736

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.

IMG_6795

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.
IMG_6807
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.

IMG_6809

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.

IMG_6818

Castles and Cathedrals

Did you ever spend time staring at something as mundane as traffic, just trying to figure out how all the cars could be so small?

If you have, you’re probably a North American who has spent a week or two in Europe, or perhaps you’re Sarah Allan.

Sarah spent the last two weeks exploring southern France with us. Her full-time job may be teaching children in Prince George, but her part-time spring break job was reintroducing us to the wonders of Europe. Sure we were generally the tour guides, but Sarah offered us a fresh set of eyes and a heightened level of enthusiasm.

“This cheese is amazing!”
“Wow, there are so many appartement buildings! Where are all the houses?”
“Ya definitely, why shouldn’t we do a spontaneous day trip to Barcelona?”

Just as Jakob and my feet were beginning to grow travel weary, Sarah’s wide-eyed wonder gave us the spark we needed to continue taking in each new place with a sense of awe and curiosity.

Sarah is going to tell you the story herself in her own guest blog post(!!!), but after a wild 65 hour journey back home during which EVERY ONE of her planes was delayed or cancelled, I am sure she is going to need a bit of time before she is ready to reflect fondly on the past two weeks.

So in the meantime, here are some of my favourite sights and stories from our adventures with Sarah:

March 13

It turns out, Nice was the perfect place for Sarah’s first impression of France! Our Airbnb was nestled in a medieval village not far outside of the city and only a 30 minute walk from the beach.

Any guesses where we went first?

IMG_6404

The beach of course!

Sarah was still thawing from her long Prince George winter, so the beach was an obvious first outing. After this I was sure that her jet-lag was going to get the best of her. But as any teacher would, she ignored her body’s exhaustion and pressed on!
Little did she know, the next activity on my to-do list was a steep urban hike.
I’m not sure it was worth it…

IMG_6397

The view from the top!

March 14

The next day we ventured out of our little village and into Nice

Now I know why it’s called the azure coast, everything, including the bikes were a shade of blue.

IMG_6438
Sarah and Jakob were dead set on renting bikes and cruising the promenade. I was a bit more apprehensive. I liked the idea, but as soon as I saw that the pay station required a local phone call, I started making excuses. “I bet the required damage deposit is pretty big…probably need a French bank account…it’s too far to bike all the way home…it’s probably cheaper to just take the bus back.” Really I was just scared to talk on the phone in French #secondlanguageintrovertproblems. Jakob waved away my worries and commandeered the automated phone payment system solo, Sarah unhooked a bike and adjusted the settings, and I stood there completely useless. Guess they don’t need my fumbling translation skills after all.

Jakob and Sarah’s self sufficiency was certainly an asset over the next two weeks since I had work lined up for about 6 days of Sarah’s week and a half visit.

March 18

After a brutal two day work week, I was ready to go back to travel life. So first thing Saturday morning, we headed south from Aix-en-Provence to…

Jakob and Sarah had already explored Marseille while I was cracking ancient codes in the archives. But they didn’t venture into any of the city’s churches without me, knowing that would be an unforgivable sin.

So our first stop was this spire, perched atop a hill overlooking the ocean:IMG_6484

The view from the top was really the best partIMG_6474 2Because inside was mostly a mess of gaudy gold decor and ….boats??

IMG_6476Yup, boats hanging from the ceiling, boats above the alter, even boats built into the pillars. I spent a few moments looking for a shrine to Saint Boaty Mcboatface. As self-identifying cathedral snobs, Jakob and I turned up our noses and tried to explain to Sarah why this basilica was a tacky disappointment. There was no explaining with words, so we set off in search of experiential evidence.

It wasn’t long before we found Marseille’s Cathedral. I prayed it would be boat free.
IMG_6495And indeed it was. As we stepped into the cool dusty expansive sanctuary our eyes widened, our breath caught, and our pace slowed in reverence. Nothing is more awe-inspiring than wandering between the hefty pillars of a 1000 year old cathedral.
“Now this is a Cathedral,” I whispered to Sarah, “doesn’t it feel different than that basilica, it makes you feel…” I paused, lost for words.
“Small?” offered Sarah.
“Exactly.”

IMG_6506

Bliiinded by the liiiiiight

We also had a little too much fun tracking patterns on the mosaic floor.

IMG_6496

Giants should be able to go to church too #equality

That evening we drove to our next destination: Montpellier. Where the real adventure of the day began. I had been having trouble communicating with our Airbnb host. He was in Paris for work and wanted me to call him to get instructions for finding the key. I tried to explain to him via text that my spoken French is not as strong as my reading, and it would be best if he could just text me the instructions #secondlanguageintrovertproblems again. He insisted. So after a fumbling conversation, I determined that the key was in his mailbox, and I was supposed to get the mailbox key from a neighbour(?). He told me to call him when we arrived.

Well that plan quickly deteriorated when we arrived at the apartment and began inspecting the mailbox. It had a flimsy wooden door with a slot big enough to fit most of my hand through. With the help of Sarah’s iphone light, we spotted the keys and our hosts name on the mail. With barely a word exchanged, both Sarah and I turned to the shrubbery behind us and began looking for branches that could fit through the opening. This is how northern girls solve problems.

A new plan was hatched. Sarah offered to keep look out, while I turned a crooked shrub branch into a hook. We paused for a few moments starting up a casual conversation about French mailboxes when an unsuspecting resident meandered by. As soon as the civilian was out of sight, I regained focused, held my breath, tried to forget how hungry I was, and focused all of my energy on retrieving the key.

Seconds later the keys were leveraged up out of the mail slot and into my hands. My mind raced as I began to think of ways to add mailbox heists to my CV, who says I don’t have practical skills.

March 19

Carcassonne-game

Have you ever played this game?

Turns out, Carcassonne is not only the name of one of my favourite games, but also a real place! Aaaand it happened to by only a couple hour drive from Montpellier. On the way, we spotted this monstrosity towering over a tiny village.

So of course we had to check out another church, it was Sunday after all. Weaving our way past a crowd of church goers in the foyer, we peered into the sanctuary wondering if this village was used to nosy Canadians interrupting their baptism festivities. The priest nodded to us and we took that as confirmation that our shorts and flip flops were tolerable. Inside didn’t compare to the grandeur of the Marseille Cathedral, but it was nice to see a more lived-in church space, full of young faces, and at least one newborn.

After hitting the road again, it wasn’t long before we caught our first sights of Carcassonne.

IMG_6517

It even sort of looks like the game box cover!


At this point in our trip, we really just do the free stuff. But we decided to splurge and introduce Sarah to the wonders of the audio guided tour.

We certainly didn’t regret it.

IMG_6554

Ooo another cathedral!

IMG_6558

Ok maybe we have had too much of cathedrals for one weekend

March 20

I imagine when most people go to Barcelona they carefully plan, book accommodation, research must-see sights, scope out a few tapas bars…you know, standard “I’m going to Spain and want to have a good time” stuff. We decided to go to Barcelona about 3 days before we actually went. I was studying googlemaps (as was a common past-time growing-up in my family) when I noticed that Montpellier is not far from the Spanish border. In fact, Barcelona is not far from the French border. BAM! A spontaneous trip to Spain was born.

IMG_6565

First we had to check out this crazy creation.

The Sagrada Familia is a modern cathedral that has been under construction for almost 150 years. The original architect, Gaudi, who seems to have built every other building in Barcelona as well, is long dead, but his crazy project has continued.

We opted out of the 18 euro entrance ticket and the 3 hour wait and continued to explore the city.

Until we stumbled across this gem. Can never have too much cathedral time.
IMG_6573

After doing our routine reverent walk around, sit still and stare up, and then make fun of the saints with silly expressions on their faces, we noticed a small line gathering in one corner. Upon inspection, we realized it was a line for an elevator to the roof!
Yes please.
IMG_1540
This wasn’t your typical cathedral balcony visit, no it was a rickety set of scaffolding perched precariously on the roof tiles. It’s like the reconstruction crew was having their mid morning coffee one day and said,
“Hey Juan, what if we don’t take the scaffolding down?”
“Ya I was thinking the same thing José. Maybe we can throw in an elevator, charge a few bucks.”
“Yup we can start buying the good wine, no more Father Pedros’.”
And like that, Barcelona gained yet another stunning tourist attraction.

We finished off the day with my favourite part of Barcelona, the beach.

IMG_6597

Sarah couldn’t get enough of it! If only we had gotten to the sand before the sun had set.

We finished off the day with dinner in an empty restaurant. It’s not that the food sucked. It’s that we aren’t very good at eating like Spanish people. As in not at 6:30.
IMG_6602

March 25

After a long week of work, during which Jakob and Sarah had too much fun exploring Montpellier and Toulouse, and I had a more reasonable amount of fun discovering things like this:

IMG_6650

My first actually counterfeit coin!! I read about them all day, but they don’t usually keep the actual evidence with the trial papers.

it was time to say goodbye to Sarah.
We spent out last day wandering the streets of old Toulouse.

And before we knew it, it was time to say goodbye to Sarah.

IMG_1625 2

I know we look happy, but those smiles are forced

We are so thrilled that Sarah decided to join us on our crazy trip…but you’ll have to wait until her blog to find out how she felt about it. Stay tuned!

15 Things that Made Italy Unforgettable

March 2-12

  1. Trying to align my hunger with the late Italian dinner hour….well if I have one lunch at 11:30, and another lunch around 3, maybe a snack at 5:30, then by 8 I should be the right amount of hungry to eat my weight in pasta.

    FullSizeRender 14

    A strategic afternoon snack

  2. The pervasive national passion for houseplants.
    FullSizeRender 15
  3. The way the ticket machine at the railway station yells “PICK OUT YOUR CARD” once the transaction is over. Only about 30 seconds after an equally loud announcement to avoid pickpocketers…maybe if they didn’t announce that my card was available for the taking, it wouldn’t be a problem!
  4. Trying to choose a pizza.
  5. Air drying socks, no better way to start a day than slipping on some cardboard booties.
  6. The sound of Italian spoken quickly, which can only be described as staccato.
  7. The effort to make sure no two houses have exactly the same hue of peachy yellow.
  8. BASIL…PESTO….BASIL ON PESTO.
  9. Wine that’s cheaper than beer and sangria that’s cheaper than both.FullSizeRender 20
  10. Pondering why anyone would say “arrivederci” when you can say “ciao”…Who has time for 5 syllables!?! I ran into so many doors craning my neck around trying to stutter out the last few consonants. Just say “ciao.” For your personal safety.
  11. The series of hand gestures I exchanged with a Pharmacist in attempts to get some sort of cream for Jakob’s chaffing.
  12. Seriously considering the necessary logistics to steal a little cash from the Trevi fountain.IMG_6220
  13. Adding “i,” “a,” or “o” to the ends of English words and hoping they come out Italian…ya I told someone “una momento” is that even Italian?
  14. Tomato Basil potato chips that answered the nagging question: What would happen if ketchup chips and all dressed chips made a baby?
  15. Cinque Terre (yes this post is really just a shameless excuse to throw all of these gorgeous pictures online, because Instagram couldn’t even handle them). After two months on the road, it’s the most beautiful sight we have seen.
    FullSizeRender 9

    First sight after stepping out of the train station in Monterosso

    IMG_1191IMG_1194

    FullSizeRender 12

    The hiking begins!

    FullSizeRender 11FullSizeRender 8

    IMG_1222

    First glimpse of Vernazza

    IMG_1238IMG_6318

    IMG_1203

    sooo many stairs

    FullSizeRender 17

    Manarola!

    IMG_1242

    An Australian couple on the trail told us about this great café. Jakob declared it the best dinner of the trip!

    IMG_1228

    Stairs!

    FullSizeRender 16

    STAIRS!

    FullSizeRender 13

    Jakob in his happy place

    IMG_6329

    IMG_6354

    I guess the stairs were worth it

    IMG_6352IMG_1257IMG_1270

    IMG_1288

    Catching the sunset in Riomaggiore

    IMG_6365

    Perfect end to what we both agreed was our favourite day of the trip. Yes, we missed one of the 5 villages…but we did that on purpose so that we would have to come back.

The Forgotten of Florence

March 5-8

Somewhere between Rome and Florence a few things changed.

For one, whatever digestive thing was waking me up 5 times a night somehow resolved itself. After typing my symptoms into Google, I was pretty sure I had contracted a wheat allergy, and considering that we are in Italy, my life span was estimated at about 10 days. But good news, it turns out I was allergic to Rome, not wheat, so now that we are in Florence, I am sleeping through the night again.

These towel swans helped too.

IMG_6247

You know you’re not a real backpacker when there are towel swans on your bed

The second thing that changed was my sandwich game. After nearly two months of meat and cheese lunches hastily stashed in our mouths in coach buses, museum lobbies, and cobblestone squares, I decided it was time to return to the finer details of the lunch making art. So like a practiced flight attendant, I pulled out at least seven ingredients, and put together a lunch that would make my mom proud, all while cruising through Tuscany at about 100km/hr.

IMG_6245

The third thing that changed is our travel resolve. The flight sequence and car rentals of the past few weeks had disrupted our tried and true “bus everywhere” policy. So as we settled into our Flixbus seats we felt a return of the enthusiasm and energy from our trip’s early days. In fact, by the time we got to Florence, we didn’t collapse exhausted into our beds and pull out our ebooks. No, we laced our shoes tighter grabbed a quick snack and headed out into the neighbourhood.

It was nearing dark, but still we decided to check out the nearby park along the river. As we made our way down the well light tramway through the centre of the park, I insisted that we cross the tracks and find a more scenic pathway, nearer to the river. Mere seconds after we had crossed the tramway, we regretted our decision. Under the thick canopy of the trees it was closer to nighttime than evening and the path ahead was dotted with clusters of two or three men. I made a nervous joke about checking out the Florence drug-deal scene and then fell silent when I realized that my voice may tip off an eavesdropper to my tourist status. A few steps further and the clusters appeared to spread and then converge strategically. Our pace quickened and our faces deadpanned as we eyed the nearest tramway crossing back to the light side of the park. 30 very long seconds later, we were safely across and wondering weather we had been too foolish or too fearful. Either way, we decided to leave the park and find other sorts of trouble.

FullSizeRender 7

Exploring in the gathering dark and rain

The next hour of exploring our corner of Florence included attempts to sneak into the Opera house to watch the prep for an indie rock show, Jakob’s rebellious proposal that we climb a fence as a shortcut home, and some casual spying on a soccer practice in a velodrome.

The real mystery was not why two foreigners were sneaking around the dark corners of the Florence arts and sports complex, but what Italian phrase found on a map would translate to “Surmountable Danger?”FullSizeRender

By the time we were done exploring we had found a Mexican restaurant. I know, we are in Tuscany, the birth place of every delicious food with tomatoes and basil, why would we want to eat Mexican food? Try going two months without a burrito and then you can judge. So we happily spent the evening snacking on overpriced guacamole and tacos while the skylight over our heads offered a front row seat to a gathering thunderstorm. We agreed that tomorrow we would eat all the pizza, pesto, and wine we could find.

Our first full day in Florence had one objective: find travel friends. It had been a while since we had met a fellow backpacker or vacationer and we were hoping to stumble across a hilarious Australian or a fun-loving American. Our number one travel friend finding plan, thanks to Elyse, was to attend a free walking tour, scope the crowd for a friendly face, and then ATTACK! So I put on some make-up for a change, Jakob flossed his teeth, and we set off for the walking tour.

The tour turned out to be a total dud. It was your stereotypical old dude rambling on about old things and other old dudes for a couple of hours. Nevertheless, we had our eyes set on a down-to-earth American(?) couple. We had made casual comments about the size of the tour group at the beginning and frequently tried to stand near them at the tour stops. At risk of being total creeps, I even practiced a few introductory lines.

“Where are you guys from?”
“How long are you staying in Florence?”

It’s a good thing I wasn’t on the dating scene for long, because those are really the only half decent pick-up lines I could come up with.

In the end, we abandoned our feeble efforts and the tour group. It’s probably not a very good Renaissance tour if even I’m dreaming about lunch rather than paying attention.

With some help from Google, we made our way to the best pizzeria within 500m and translated most of their menu items. We immediately picked out danger words like: mushrooms and anchovies. Yuck. We were seated at the same time as another English speaking couple at two tables barely an inch a part. As we mumbled back and forth our thoughts on the pizza list we couldn’t help but overhear each others’ commentary. Jakob finally broke the awkwardness.

“I think that blue cheese one looks great too, I’m tempted to get it.”
The guy pondering blue cheese broke into a smile.
“Ya I think I’m going to go with that one. I heard you mention it and now I think I am going to have to get it!”

Any sort of imaginary barrier between the tables disintegrated and we began giving our input on each other’s choices. Margarita for her, blue cheese and pear for him, pesto for me, and prosciutto for Jakob.

They were Masters students from the US in the midst of a 15 month MBA program in Florence. He was from Seattle and she was from San Diego (?) …to be honest I stopped listening after he said Seattle and our travel-friend radar exploded.

Once our pizzas arrived we took turns telling our stories. They met three years ago when they agreed to be roommates in a mutual friend’s house. Before he even moved in, they were dating. The day he moved in, he decided to forgo his room and just move into hers. She agreed on one condition, that they return to Italy some day. She had fallen in love with the country during a semester abroad in undergrad. Without hesitation, he agreed to be the number two love in her life.

By the time we paid the bills we realized we hadn’t even introduced ourselves. So we shook hands, exchanged names and wished each other happy travels and studies.

With out day’s objectives fulfilled we only had one thing left to do. Actually enjoy Florence.

FullSizeRender 5

The centre piece of Florence, a magnificent marble Duomo.

IMG_1123

IMG_1126

Couldn’t get enough of the magnificent views from Piazzalle Michealangelo

FullSizeRender 3

Florence really did feel like it was nestled right in the Tuscan country side. I was pleasantly surprised to find that even a big city could still have a rural vibe.

FullSizeRender 2

Florence is filled with fortress-like palaces from the time when people were less likely to trust their neighbours and more likely to have a personal army.

IMG_6280

Florence is a city of high fashion, including the founding Gucci store. Not to be out done, Jakob had to show off some of his moves.

Day two in Florence was International Women’s Day, and that means all state museums in Italy were free for women! After extensive research I settled on spending the day at the massive Gallery d’Uffizi. With 90 rooms full of medieval and Renaissance art, I was sure that I wouldn’t be disappointed. Jakob needed a bit more convincing.

Here was my solution:

IMG_1111

Jakob was both thrilled and nervous. In fact, the day before museum day, first thing he said when he woke up was: “Just so I can prepare myself, will I be doing a scavenger hunt today?”

Turns out he had no reason to fear, he found three within the first 10 minutes:

IMG_1169

#5 Gentile da Fabriano “The Adoration of the Magi”

IMG_1171

#4 Piero della Francesca “Duke and Duchess of Urbino”

IMG_1173

Sandro Botticelli “The Birth of Venus”

The first two on the list proved a bit more difficult and they were also the two that I was most excited about. Clue number two was for the artwork of a nun from Florence, Suor Plautilla Nelli. The museum had chosen International Women’s Day to unveil (pun intended) their new three room exhibit dedicated to one of the Renaissance’s many forgotten female artists. Jakob wandered past the portraits of nuns without drawing the connection to his scavenger hunt clue.

The first clue on the list was for the one work that I couldn’t leave without seeing. When we reached the exit without laying eyes on it, I balked and immediately began moving against the flow of the museum goers. Searching for the nearest security attendant I fumbled through a mispronunciation of the artist’s name, Artemisia Gentileschi.

The attendant shrugged and looked away with a mix of nonchalance and exhaustion, “well it’s closed.” She gestured briefly towards the 90th room which was roped off. I stared in disbelief and the attendant turned away.

“No, no, no, this isn’t possible,” I pushed further back into the museum and Jakob followed reluctantly, “I’m not ready to leave.”
“Let’s just sit down for a minute,” Jakob suggested.
We sat down and I told him that he wasn’t going to be able to find the first clue in his scavenger hunt. He seemed okay with it. So I started at the beginning of the story, so he could share in my devastation, as he often did when I failed to grasp the gravity of a particular sports upset or victory.

“This piece of art appeared in every one of my women’s history classes. One of my classmates even made her own version of it for an assignment. It was painted by a woman in the Renaissance! That’s incredible because most women didn’t get to participate in the Renaissance. People talk about it like it was this great time of new ideas and the birth of modern society, but really only a tiny fraction of people were privileged enough to take part. We remember the names of the men like Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo, and Michelangelo, but we have forgotten the women and children and minorities and so many other people who also lived at that time. This painting is one piece of evidence that women could be just as talented and creative as the men of their time, we have just forgotten about them.”

I rambled on for a bit longer until Jakob nodded in agreement. He suggested we go find some gelato to help us cope with the ongoing injustices of our world and I reluctantly agreed. Walking past room 90, I craned my neck hoping for a fleeting glance of Judith and her maid servant’s strong arms transgressing the boundaries of gender and overpowering Holofernes. But like so many strong women, past and present, they remained hidden.

IMG_6282

Artemisia Gentileschi “Judith and Holofernes”

Rest Day(s)??

February 26-March 4

This is the story (more of a picture book really) of how one rest day turned into four.

After nearly two months of winter travel we were both craving some beach time. Our level of desperation for sunshine and surf only became fully apparent when we caught ourselves scoping the Airbnb map of Italy for any accommodation as long as it was cheap and close to a beach. Coliseum? Pompeii? Venice? We didn’t care, we just wanted to lay down and let the sun do all of the work. So yes, I would say we have reached some level of travel exhaustion.

Where did this moment of desperate trip planning take place? In Edipsou, Greece, a tiny resort town fed by piping hot streams of thermal water. So we gave our heads a shake, shut the laptop, pulled on our bathing suits, and began searching the deserted town for its famed thermal pools.

Only a few steps away from the beach and we could see billows of steam rising from the shore. In seconds, we had our shoes and clothes piled on a nearby rock and were tiptoeing over mineral encrusted rocks towards a scalding waterfall.

gopr7683

Usually, as a tourist, I am the one trying not to stare at people who are doing something unfamiliar to me, but this time the roles were reversed. As we relaxed in the algae covered volcanic rock pools, Edipsou locals, bundled up in parkas and scarves, took turns peering over the railings to inspect the crazy ‘Americans’ who had taken over their beach.

gopr7696gopr7712

We were eventually joined by a Siberian woman on vacation and a Greek-Australian basketball player on his day off. It seemed we all needed some warmth and relaxation for our own reasons. We chatted off and on, but mainly spent the evening silently submerged in the ocean/spring water.

On our second day in Edipsou, we decided to put a bit more effort into our budget spa experience. At the risk of offending locals, we began hauling rocks of assorted sizes from the beach and redirecting the thermal water flow to create a new pool.

gopr7703-1 Our well intentioned efforts were mainly a failure, and we managed to overheat the one pool with a perfect temperature, while creating one fragile and leak prone new pool. Fearing retribution from the Edipsouians, we bid the village goodbye and headed south hoping for not only another beach, but also better beaching weather.

After a four hour drive and one goat herd sighting:

img_6141

we arrived at the Peloponnesian seaside:

img_0943Where we took our beaching very seriously:

img_6150

While we were happy to see some sun, my favourite part of the day was maybe not what you’d expect…unless you know me well then you might not be surprised.

Some sort of mystery citrus fruit was growing at our beach house Airbnb! It was almost the size of a cantaloupe with a thick spongy skin that, from the outside, made it seem rotten. If the neighbours had been home at the moment, they would have seen a pasty white blonde girl jumping around in the courtyard tossing a massive fruit in the air and begging her husband to get her a knife so she could hack it open and see if it was poisonous. It wasn’t poisonous, but it was impossible to eat because of its incredible size. I offered Jakob a hunk, but he likes to know the name of a fruit before he eats it.

Eventually we did meet the owner of the orchard. On our walk back from the beach later that evening, a deeply tanned Greek farmer stopped his tractor in front of us, climbed down and motioned for us to follow him. He reached over the fence and plucked two ripe fruits (which were recognizably oranges) and pushed them into our hands. What’s with people and giving us free produce? He then began to push open the orchard gate, motioning for Jakob to help. We set down our beach stuff and made a feeble effort to pay off our citrus samplers. He nodded in thanks and sent us on our way. For future reference, I will accept oranges in exchange for small favours.

This was not our last strange encounter with an elderly Greek man. On our second day at the beach house, we had run into problems with the washing machine. As in, we had put all our most essential clothes in, shut the door, discovered it didn’t rotate, and then couldn’t open it again. Our approach to the problem started with a frantic youtube search for “how to break into a washing machine” and ended with an apologetic text to our Airbnb hosts. They ensured us that a mechanic would come later that day, so don’t fault us for thinking that the hunched old man who wandered into our yard around 5:00 pm was the mechanic. He shook our hands and began a spirited one-way discussion in Greek. If “baba” is Greek for grandpa, then maybe he was the grandfather or our Airbnb host, or he wanted to be our grandpa. I’m still not sure. At this stage we still assumed he was the mechanic, so we led him into the kitchen. He followed, inspected the washing machine, and began explaining the issue… in Greek of course. Jakob and I repeated any words we could make out, adding a question mark and some hand signals. The conversation became even more vigorous. Until we realized that: one, he wasn’t the mechanic, and two, we had let a stranger into the house. We fell silent, shrugged our shoulders, guided him back to the yard, and waved good bye.

Eventually, the actual mechanic showed up and we hauled our liberated laundry over to a neighbouring beach house with a functioning washing machine. I spent the next few hours practicing my Greek letter recognition skills, which as an arts major, consisted of no more than π and Θ just five days ago. Painstakingly, I translated the words ‘Cotton,’ ‘door,’ and ‘end.’ Which is really all the words anyone needs to do laundry. Jakob endured my sporadic shouts of “TELOS! I get it, like teleological, like the study of the end times. Telos is the end of the laundry cycle!” Only the coolest kids use theology to do their laundry.

So in case you missed it, in the course of about three days, all we had accomplished was three beach visits, two discussions with Greek grandpas, and one load of laundry. We agreed that we would achieve more in the coming week.

Our first day in Rome was clearly a reactionary response to our recent laziness. Over the course of only about four hours we had:

Explored several narrow medieval streets:

img_6186

Scarfed down some delicious gelato:

gopr7732

Tried to blend into a wall:

img_0988

Walked over some bridges:

img_0980

Sat in the middle of a square: fullsizeoutput_403

Climbed to the top of the Spanish Steps:

img_1005

Stared up at the Pantheon:

img_0992

img_0999

The Pantheon is one of the most impressive buildings we have seen so far and, even better, entrance was FREE! It was built in the 2nd century and turned into a church about 500 years later. Today, it still holds the record for the largest unreinforced concrete dome.

and finally, watched the sun set over the Vatican:

g0187736-1

a papal pigeon

We walked over 20km of Rome’s streets and plazas and counted it as practice for our planned pilgrimage in May. I can’t think of a better place to practice for a pilgrimage.

What are we doing today? Well the length of this blog post should tell you that we aren’t walking 20km. No, we are 50 days into this adventure and today is the first day that our bodies refused to cooperate. Jakob experienced a bad combo of poor underwear choice, friction, and 20km of walking and I was experiencing some sort of digestive rejection of Italian food. So we decided to listen to our bodies and take a real rest day. Not a beach day or a travel day, but a sleep in, eat breakfast at noon, read books, and go to bed early rest day.

While our Airbnb kitty may look sceptical:

fullsizerender-3I am quite confident that it was the right decision.