Tuesday, May 3, 2011

La tercera finca


Our third and final farm in Spain was also in Galicia, outside a city called Monforte de Lemos. The farm had several hectares of land with vegetable gardens, fruit trees and bushes, forest, and fields for crops and grazing their horse and donkey. It was owned by a couple, a German woman and an English man, with three kids. They lived in a massive stone farmhouse that they think is at least 400 years old, and the story is that the name for the farm comes from the surname of a French knight who was given the house as a gift from the Spanish after helping them fight in a war.

We worked mostly with the woman, Emmely, and an American named Laura who is living in Spain for the year and comes to Tanquian every weekend. And boy, did we work. We worked for five hours in the morning before lunch, and then worked in the afternoon until 8 o'clock, when we had dinner. It was a lot of varied work, which was good: planting, weeding, pruning, digging, cleaning, baking, more weeding. It was good to work so much because we learned a lot, but it was incredibly exhausting and by the end of our stay I was pretty burnt out. It was fun to work with Emmely and Laura because they knew so much about plants and gardening and permaculture (sustainable agriculture and land use). The days when Laura was there were always more enjoyable; we learned a lot from her and our interesting discussions made the work seem easier. Even though we only spent a handful of days with her during our stay, she made the experience all the more enriching and memorable.

After about a week at Tanquian, Christopher and I took a little impromptu spring break and flew to Paris to meet up with my brother, Chris, and my next door neighbor Peter. They have two friends who are studying abroad for the year in Paris so they decided to visit during their spring break. We stayed in a hostel in the Latin Quarter and had a wonderful time (obviously... it's Paris) with Chris and Peter and their friends. I've been to Paris before but it was fun to see it with a group of friends and from the perspective of students who live in the city. We did the museums and monuments; Eiffel Tower, Louvre, Arc de Triomphe etc., etc., as well as go to a very exciting Taylor Swift concert! It was so fun to see my brother and friends from home, and it was quite a change from life on the farm. It was an amazing trip and I was so glad that we were able to go.

We flew back to Galicia and got back to work. We stayed at Tanquian for another week and then at the end of March took a train across northern Spain to Santander. From there we took a ferry to England for the last leg of our WWOOFing adventure!

Saturday, April 23, 2011

La segunda finca

As Fadegas

After a long and uncomfortable overnight coach ride north, with a few hours layover spent walking around Madrid, Christopher and I arrived in a small town called Ribadeo on the north coast of Spain. Ribadeo is in Lugo, which is a province within the region of Galicia. This area of the country is known as “Green Spain” because it receives so much rainfall and is very lush and fertile and green.

We were picked up at the bus station by our new host, a brusque older woman named Elia. Once at the farm, As Fadegas (as her husband Vicente later explained was named after a common figure in Celtic mythology), she showed us our room and let us nap after our long trip. Later in the day and feeling immeasurably better and more rested, we began to work with Vicente. They had a large piece of land with several polytunnels (large plastic greenhouses), fields, and animals (chickens, sheep, a horse and donkey). We planted seeds in a polytunnel, which was slightly tedious work, but this was tempered by Vicente's friendliness. He told us about the Celtic and Roman history of the area, which he was very enthusiastic about, explaining the origins of his farm's name and showing us an ancient millstone and mortar and other Roman/Celtic artifacts they had found in the area. It was fascinating, partly because of his excitement about it, and I wished that my Spanish was more proficient so that I could understand him better. Christopher and I began to jokingly call him (among ourselves) Santa Vicente, partly because he was so sweet, and partly because his rotund, bearded jolliness reminded us of Santa Claus.

Unfortunately these benevolent feelings did not last long. Vicente's joy disappeared whenever he was inside or whenever his wife was around, and dinner with the couple and Elia's senile mother was incredibly uncomfortable and depressing. We started to notice the mold and filth of our bedroom and the general dirtiness of the whole house. I tried to have a positive outlook and hope that other aspects would outweigh my disgust at the state of the house and somehow everything would be wonderful. But by the end of our first day there we discussed the possibility of leaving early. We gave it a couple of days to see if things would improve, but eventually we were so uncomfortable and unhappy that we just wanted to get out. We ate bread for breakfast, boiled cabbage soup for lunch, and more boiled cabbage soup for dinner. Every day. We would show up to work in the morning at the time they told us, and then sit and wait for an hour or more until we actually started working. We would work for a couple of hours at most in the morning, and would be ready to work in the afternoon but would never know if Vicente and Elia would actually be there or have any work for us to do. When we did work, it was either planting seedlings or weeding rows of lettuce. It was frustrating and wildly unfulfilling, and the lack of any real work to do left us with even more time to spend in the filthy and miserable house.

Instead we spent most of our plentiful free time outside, walking through the very pretty, green countryside. It's unfortunate that we couldn't stand to be there, because the farm was in an extraordinarily beautiful place. There was a river nearby which ran past adorable old stone farm houses and a literal rain forest on the edge of their property. And everywhere, shockingly green pastures and rolling hills. We walked to the nearby villages that were too tiny to really be called villages at all, which looked antiquated and picturesque from far away but were actually decrepit and all but deserted. Elia and Vicente both grew up on farms in the area, marrying to move only a field away and never leaving the farm. I wonder what these villages looked like when they were young; maybe it was a thriving area with a lively community and successful agriculture. But now it seems that many have left their farms behind, and those who have stayed have definitely seen better days. Even in such a beautiful countryside, the ruins of all of these places and the house at As Fadegas made it feel empty and horrible and depressing.

We emailed our next farm, beseeching them to let us come early. To our immense relief, we got a reply the next day that we could come. So we planned our escape, gave a lame excuse, and fled the next morning.
We took a bus to Oviedo, a nearby city, to stay in a hotel for the night. It was a cheap hotel with a sterile, austere room but still it felt luxurious just to have a clean bed to sleep in: an antiseptic white sanctuary. We spent the afternoon wandering the town, happy to be playing tourists again. We only spent four days at As Fadegas but it seemed like ages, and I felt ridiculously liberated and carefree to be leaving the place behind me.

Friday, April 15, 2011

La primera finca

While in Spain we stayed on three farms, or “fincas.” We started in sunny Andalucia in the south of Spain and then made our way north to two more farms in the northwest province of Galicia.

Cortijo Llamado de la Totovia

Our first farm was outside of a small town called Orgiva, in a valley between the Sierra de Lujar mountains and the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. It was in a mountainous region called the Alpujarra, which is stunningly beautiful, and the dry, sandy terrain with the occasional cacti and an omnipresent blue sky reminded me of the desert Southwest. “Cortijo” is another word for farm (or farmhouse). The couple who owned the place were Welsh school teachers who decided to make a life change and move to Spain to start an organic farm.

The farm consisted of primarily olive and orange trees and also had a small vegetable garden. The house had a few solar panels on the roof and (with the exception of a gas stove) ran entirely on the energy they produced. We worked from 9 am to 2 pm from Monday to Friday, with a tea break midday, and afternoons and weekends off. We did lots of pruning trees and clearing branches from previously pruned trees, with some more exciting landscaping work in the vegetable garden. At times we were disappointed with our experience there; we had been hoping for something meaningful and life-altering and profound. We wanted to immerse ourselves in this couples' life and farm and learn from them. But we lived in a caravan separate from the house, only joining them in their home for meals, and for the most part worked and lived independently. I had wanted another Sengersbroeklike experience (though of course not expecting as much) and though we tried, no matter how hardworking or inquisitive or charming we were we couldn't really cultivate a meaningful relationship with them. Christopher was especially frustrated by this but eventually I adapted my expectations and goals for our time there, viewing it more as a two-week-long, all expenses paid, relaxing, romantic getaway in the stunning Alpujarra! And though it wasn't exactly what I had hoped for, it was still wonderful. Catherine and Anthony, our Welsh hosts, were very kind even if they weren't terribly interested in getting to know us, and they introduced us to the British broadcasting genius that is “Dr. Who.” It was an unbelievably gorgeous place, sunny and warm even in the beginning of February, and we had lots of free time with which to explore and enjoy the scenery. We spent our afternoons reading and soaking in the sun in the orchard and eating the most juicy, delicious oranges picked right off the trees. We often walked with the couples' two big, fluffy dogs down the so-called Rio Seco that bordered the property and explored the countryside. We took a day trip up into the mountains to visit three tiny and ancient villages (the Alpujarran version of Cinque Terre), the oldest of which was settled in 300something AD! The towns were cute but I really loved the walks between the three towns and the panoramic views they offered; upwards of the snowy Sierra Nevada and down into the valley.

I was excited for the next leg of our journey, and I wasn't sad to leave . But it was a truly lovely time spent in a beautiful place that felt a little bit like paradise.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Now, time to be a tourist


I was picked up from Frankfurt's Central Station by Christopher and his friendly and fashionable uncle Paul. I stayed with his family for a few days, seeing where Christopher had lived for the past month. We spent our days visiting a nearby medieval castle in the incredibly picturesque German countryside, an ancient walled city, playing with Christopher's two adorable young cousins, and walking around Frankfurt. I wasn't enamored of the country the way I instantly fell in love with Holland (however I do quite like the German tradition of indulging in an afternoon piece of cake on the weekends!). Frankfurt (like Eindhoven) had a distinctly post-World War feel to it—much of the city was destroyed in WW2 and rebuilt in a much less magnificent and German style. But I greatly enjoyed visiting smaller, older, and more adorable German towns, and admiring the antiquity and beauty of their traditional timber-frame style of architecture. (As an American and belonging to a relatively young country, I am unfailingly impressed by the sheer age of Europe's cities. This feeling was augmented by my subsequent travels in Italy especially, and also in Spain.) And on the first of February, after a few lovely days with the Abbotts, Christopher and I left for Italy.


Christopher and I were picked up from the Milan Bergamo ariport by Stina Nesbit, a friend from Christopher's high school in Northfield who is currently an exchange student through a program called Rotary Youth Exchange. For a year she is living in Cremona, a small city outside Milan, where we stayed with her for four wonderful days in her host family's ultra luxurious, mansionlike apartment. She showed us around Cremona, introduced us to her friends and fellow exchange students, and taught us how to eat pizza like an Italian.
We took a day trip into Venice, leaving before sunrise and getting back long after sunset. Venice was.... incredible. It was a warm and sunny day that felt like spring, and the city was utterly gorgeous. We walked around the Venice all day, admired its duomos and piazzas and other such Italian staples, wandered its tiny back streets, got lost, enjoyed gelato and pizza (of course), and took a boat on the Grand Canal back to the train station as the sun was setting over the city. It was one of the most beautiful places I've ever visited, and I loved it almost as much as Amsterdam (who knew I had such a fondness for canals?).
Most of our days were spent in Cremona, relaxedly enjoying the beauty of Italy and its culture and mostly just talking and hanging out. What an odd juxtaposition: the familiarity and comfort of being with friends, in our new, separate and foreign lives. Stina was an extraordinary hostess and it was wonderful both to see her life in Italy and to catch up with a friend from home.
After Cremona, Christopher and I traveled to Genoa (an urban port city), La Spezia (in order to walk the rightfully world-famous Cinque Terre, a stunningly picturesque chain of five towns on the gorgeous Mediterranean coast that looks like it is straight out of a movie), then Lucca (a Renaissance-era walled city built on an ancient Etruscan and then Roman site) for a day each. We then spent three days in Florence visiting the Uffizi Gallery, Galleria dell'Accademia (home to Michaelangelo's “David”), and the hugely impressive Duomo (Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore). My favorite places in the city were the Medici Chapel, which is decorated with the most gorgeous, colorful, ornate stone inlay imaginable, and Piazza Michaelangelo, which overlooks all of Florence. We spent one final day in Bologna before departing for Spain. It was a wonderful, busy trip. I was impressed with the affordable and convenient train system (there's a lot to be said for good public transportation), not to mention that the train ride down the Mediterranean coast, between the hills and dazzling blue sea, was one of my favorite moments. In our days in Cremona and week of traveling I saw more awe-inspiring churches, duomos, and piazzas; more women wearing fur coats and elegant men with gelled hair and polished shoes; more beautiful and impressive things than I could count. I ate delicious pizza and pasta and gelato every day. Italy is in some ways quite homogenous, however, and after eating so much pizza and pasta we got tired of it—on our last night in Italy (in Bologna, nonetheless, which is renowned for its cuisine) we were thrilled to have dinner at a Chinese restaurant.


We flew into Granada, Spain, where we spent the weekend with another friend from Christopher's high school, Thomas, and his friend Grace. We stayed at a shabby hostel across from the Alhambra, a Moorish palace, the prime tourist destination in Granada. The Alhambra is a massive, walled complex with ornate palaces, bath houses, guard towers, and lovely gardens. The interior of the main palaces were decorated with painstakingly intricate and elaborate carvings. Though it was of a completely different style than the grand architecture I admired in Italy, it was equally impressive. Besides the Alhambra, my favorite aspects of Granada were its tapas and excellent views of the massive Sierra Nevadas.

It was fun to travel in these three countries, to see many beautiful and unique places and visit with friends from Northfield. But being a tourist is surprisingly exhausting, and by the end of the two weeks I was very ready to settle down and my anticipation for starting at another farm was growing. Sightseeing is a blast, but working, living, and learning on a farm is what I am really here for.  

Tuesday, March 8, 2011


I had the pleasure and great fortune of living at Sengersbroek for three weeks in January. The farm is home to 60 Bonte Bentheimer pigs, a (now) rare breed that in addition to being spotted and adorable is native to Holland. The pork industry there is dominated by other types of pigs that are foreign or unnnatural but are more profitable. Peter's family used to raise this commercial type of pig, but he has recently decided to revert back to a more natural breed, the Bonte Bentheimer, and now Sengersbroek has the largest group of them in the country (and the second largest in the world).
On the farm there are several barns, a vegetable garden, and fields where they alternately grow crops and keep their pigs. Because it was winter, it was often grey and rainy and cold. Teresa and Peter complained and apologized for this, but compared to any Minnesota winter it was outright temperate. After two weeks we were joined by two more WWOOFers, a British woman and a British man (who lives in Italy) who are writing a book about WWOOFing. The third week we often worked on larger projects with all four of us. It was astounding how much work there was to be done on the farm even in winter—the projects and jobs were endless. With seven people now in the house it was crowded, in the best possible way. It was warm and lively and with so many cultures and countries represented we were constantly learning from another. (It was especially lucky for me to live with an Italian, a Spaniard, and a Brit—I had access to insider info and advice on all of the countries I was going to next!)
A typical day of life on the pig farm looked something like this:
8:15. Gather for breakfast in the kitchen. The Dutch sure know how to do breakfast, which includes lots of bread with toppings such as chocopasta (chocolate spread, like Nutella) or butter and hagelslaag (chocolate sprinkles!).
8:45. Begin work. The first part of every morning was dedicated to taking care of the pigs. This means feeding them and cleaning the pig pens. Picture it: overalls, rubber boots, pitchforks, and lots and lots of manure. I felt very much like a farmer. I loved it. Surprisingly, the pigs and the stables didn't smell that bad, and shoveling manure is actually quite satisfying—enjoyable, even.
11:00. Coffee break! My favorite part of the day—sipping on cappucinos after a good morning of hard work... and eating more hagelslaag (or occasionally stroopwafels, another Dutch delight).
11:30. Back to work. Every day included various types of work, including lots of chopping/sawing wood for heating the house, constructing wooden fences in the fields, and general cleaning and maintenance of the farm. One of my main—and favorite—projects involved sanding and refurnishing several pieces of furniture (using an electric sander and jamming out to Dessa is exquisitely relaxing). I also enjoyed helping Teresa with cooking or packaging meat from one of their first ever butchered Bonte Bentheimers!
13:00. Lunch time, which was usually soup made with vegetables from our own garden.
14:00. Afternoon break, which meant reading, relaxing, or a little Dutch siesta.
14:30. Back to work, until...
17:00. Happy hour! We finished working and relaxed or enjoyed a glass of wine in the kitchen while cooking supper.
18:00. Dinner time. The Dutch eat fairly early (by other Europeans' standards), usually around 6 or 7 pm, just like back home.
After dinner, I read and relaxed with the family in front of a fire in the living room. A few days a week, I joined Teresa and Bert in watching an English detective show (think CSI, but of a slightly lower caliber; always set in a quaint English hamlet, always basically the same plot, and always deliciously dramatic) or the most popular TV show in Holland, “Farmer finds a Wife” (think “The Bachelor”... set on a farm, and in Dutch).

With such a regular daily schedule, it was easy to feel comfortable and at home (which I was), and to forget the unique awesomeness of my living situation. I often had to remind myself, “I am in Holland. I am living in Europe,” whenever it started to feel too normal or I took any moment for granted.

On the weekends I went into the nearby cities of Eindhoven (which lacked the lovely Dutch architecture and atmosphere that I love, because it was completely destroyed by bombing in World War Two), and S'Hertogen Bosch (also called Den Bosch). Den Bosch is a very old walled city and because it is farther north (nearer the sea, where there is generally more water in the country) it has canals and the same wonderfully Dutch feel of Amsterdam. I biked to the nearby tiny towns of Heusden and Asten, visiting a castle that is only a few minutes from the farm, and following gorgeous scenic bike trails. (In addition to the friendly people and the delicious food, another reason why Holland is the best country in the world: everyone bikes.)

The worst aspect of the whole experience was that it had to end eventually. On my last night at Sengersbroek Teresa made a special meal of cheese fondue, and she even gave me an incredibly thoughtful gift, a book that we had discussed on one of my first days there. The next morning we had panakoeken, delicious Dutch pancakes, and I said my goodbyes to the Sengersbroek family. I was excited, of course, to go to Germany and meet up with my boyfriend Christopher and continue on with my travels and adventures. But it was so hard to leave, knowing I would likely never again see Sengersbroek, which had become my home, and the people that had come to feel like family.

My three weeks in Holland were among the happiest, most full, and most perfect of my life. It was the absolute best first WWOOF experience possible. It was simply the best experience possible. Though I had no reason to know what to expect, I has such great expectations. And somehow it was exactly what I expected, and exactly what I wanted, and different only in that it was better than I could have ever hoped for.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Some final thoughts on NOLS: an endorsement

Another tardy entry to summarize and wrap up my NOLS experience...

As I've been continuing on with life after NOLS I've had time to reflect on my semester and the ways it has affected me. It was fun and it was difficult, but now as I am more removed from the experience, I have a better understanding of the impact and value of my semester.
      It is helpful for personal development to be constantly offered feedback and evaluation. This way you always know, “these are my strengths, and this is what I am working on.” Without being given feedback, how are you expected to know what to work on and thus improve it? The real value of a NOLS course is not to learn how to use a stove or steer a canoe, but so you can learn how to work with others, to give and receive feedback, to resolve conflicts, to know your strengths and limitations, become a leader and support leadership in others, and overall just to become more aware and competent. This is why everyone should do NOLS (a bold statement, I know): to become a better human being and a more functional member of society. So on the list of Things I Learned at NOLS, yes, I learned how to travel in the back country, the rest-step, water rescue safety, and how to crack climb. But that's not what I came for--or at least, that's not all I came away with. There are much more important lessons in the NOLS curriculum—and then there are the ones that no class can teach you, that you learn only from experience when you are with strangers in the wilderness and open to adventure.
      My time at NOLS already seems so far away. I remember one night on the river section sleeping out on the beach with two friends and discussing how we thought the semester would affect our lives. At the time I didn't think that I would return home incredibly changed or that it would much alter my views or my life. And I don't believe that I did end the semester much different than when I started it. But I have noticed a change in myself since getting home from NOLS. Our proctor said that she is still realizing lessons that she learned from her student semester—so it is with me too. As I face new and foreign adventures I only now realize that NOLS has changed me. I feel more capable now, more confident, more prepared to handle challenges. Perhaps the most significant change that I have noticed is an improved self-awareness. I now have a clearer idea of who I am and who I want to be, as well as the ability and intentionality to become that person. It's very rewarding. Everyone says that people can't change, and it's certainly easy to become complacent and live the way that I have always been content living. But it is empowering and really quite exciting to realize that I don't have to be shy or quiet just because that is how people have always seen me. I have the power to be whoever I want to be and whoever I really am. It's taken me a lot to learn this, and even if it were the only thing I learned from all of NOLS, then the semester would still be well worth it.  

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

On the Loose

For weeks I've been putting off writing an entry about the culmination of my NOLS experience. It's so difficult to find the words to describe an experience that is by nature really indescribable. There is no way to convey, in all my ambling attempts, what NOLS and the wilderness and these experiences truly mean to me. I want to write about it in such a way that my family and friends can better imagine my life this year, but it's tiring to attempt such an impossible task and continually come up short. Words are inadequate.
      Of course, I'm going to try. But just remember: everything was more profound in its occurrence than in its retelling.
      To put it succinctly, our last section was the most memorable, enjoyable and empowering. We hiked in the Galiuros for a week with 2 instructors and then split into three small groups of 5 students and traveled independently for almost a week (an “Independent student group expedition,” or ISGE). During the first week we had a “solo,” an incredibly unique and interesting experience: 24-hours of complete solitude, each student given a small area in the woods. That week was bitterly cold [one might even venture so far as to say “miserable”], but when we left in our small groups the weather suddenly and miraculously improved.
      My small group included myself and four friends, one of whom was our designated leader. We hiked and explored and had a relaxed and fun time together. It was the most perfect way to end our course: hiking again, to bring our semester full circle, but now traveling independently and realizing how much we'd learned and changed. As we hiked to rejoin the other groups on the last morning of ISGE I was thinking about one of my favorite camp songs, “On the Loose.” One particular verse had always been my favorite and looking back on the semester it seemed especially fitting for my time at NOLS:

Have you ever watched a sunrise turn the sky completely red?
Have you slept beneath the moon and stars, a pine bough for your bed?
Do you sit and talk with friends, though not a word is ever said?
Then you're just like me and you've been on the loose.

That night we had a campfire, to celebrate our reunion from our separate travels and preparing to say goodbye. Our proctor sang “On the Loose,” and in that moment everything felt perfect.