Thursday, January 13, 2011

And so it begins...

As I sit in my new bedroom in the upstairs of an old farmhouse in the Netherlands, I am reflecting on the past week, and all that has happened since I left Minneapolis last Thursday. I have begun the second half of my gap year. I like to call this part my European Adventure, and so far it has been living up to the name!
      I arrived in Amsterdam on Friday night. I spent all of Saturday exploring the city and trying to see and do as much as possible. I got an “I Amsterdam” pass, a card that gives you access to a long list of museums, unlimited use of the public transportation system, and other coupons and discounts for 24 hours. I took a bus to the first museum, and by a happy mistake I ended up at a large street market—I'd read about it in my tour book and the nice automated man on the tram said it was world famous, so I hopped off and went for a stroll. One of the coupons I had was for a free coffee and sweets at a cafe called Bazar that was on the same street as the market, so I stopped by. They gave me coffee and a curious assortment of small treats: baklava, turkish delight, so-han, and pashmak. The baklava was delicious and the others (small cubes of sugar-covered gelatin, a brown piece of chunky brittle, and a white fluffy heap of something that was similar to cotton candy but had the appearance and texture of hair) were very strange but I'm sure good for what they were. The name was accurate but for a spelling error... it was very Bizarre.
      I visited the Allard Pierson Archaeology Museum and Amsterdam Historic Museum, and by another lucky chance I wandered by Begijnhof, a walled convent from the 14th century that has lots of picturesque, peaceful little houses and courtyards. After a nighttime canal tour of the city, I went to a comedy/improv show that was inspired by the Second City in Chicago (though I don't think it's much to their benefit to boast that fact, since it sets up the audience with too high of expectations; but still, it was entertaining). I spent hours wandering the city, seeing all the places I hadn't had time to visit during the day. It was beautiful—all the lights of the city reflected off the canals—but really Amsterdam is much more beautiful and entertaining during the day. Maybe I am biased, as a young woman traveling by myself and someone who is not particularly interested in prostitution or Amsterdam's famous coffee shops, but there is much more to the city than its nightlife.
      The following morning I visited the famous Rijksmuseum (which did meet my high expectations), the Hortus Botanicus gardens, and NEMO (an interactive science museum). I spent a couple more hours walking the streets and then met Teresa, my WWOOF host, at Central Station. Amsterdam is really an incredible city and I had a wonderful time exploring it... but now on to the real adventure!
Teresa lives on a pig farm called Sengersbroek, which is in a very small town in the south of Holland called Heusden. (To clear up any confusion: my tourbook says that the term “Holland” refers to only a certain part of the country. The Dutch would disagree, however, and they use the names “Holland” and “the Netherlands” interchangeably.) Sengersbroek is an organic farm that is registered with an organization called World Wide Opportunities in Organic Farming (WWOOF), so they host people like me as a type of work exchange.
      Together we drove south for two hours (it takes only about two hours to drive the entire length of the country!) to their home in Heusden. They live in a beautiful old farmhouse with fields and several barns out back. Teresa showed me my bedroom (which in addition to the usual furnishings also has a sink, and is attached to the attic, which is a huge room with a full kitchen, table, and a hammock! They also have wireless internet. So luxurious! This is life on a farm??) and I met her partner Peter (who grew up on this farm) and her son Bert. I naturally tend to be introverted, but my sister's parting advice to me was to become as involved as possible in the culture and get to know my hosts, so I tried to talk and interact with them and start to build a good rapport right off the bat. This is my goal for my time in Holland: to be more outgoing, be involved and present where I am, and to get to know my “family.”
      The next morning I started to get to know the farm! Teresa and I worked together and she showed me how everything was done and gave me a tour of the farm. After we finished our work in the barns, we looked at a list of all of the tasks to be done and talked about what projects I would pursue. It was a short day; the morning's work in the pig barn was more arduous than on a typical day because it had rained and all the wet straw had to be taken out, but the rest of the day I only sanded a small table in the straw barn, had a coffee break with Teresa and Peter, and took two naps.
      The next day I worked with Peter in the morning and learned how to feed the pigs as well. His English isn't quite as fluent as Teresa's, but even so it is surprisingly good. (Everyone here can speak English—it is taught in school, but Peter told me they learn from watching English TV shows.) It was fun to work with each of them, to start to learn from (and about) them.
      On Tuesday morning another WWOOFer joined us, Victor from Spain! He speaks English about as well as I speak Spanish and he really wants to improve. So the past couple of days we have been working together and helping each other learn our respective languages. It's a nice arrangement—I speak in Spanish and he speaks in English. When he can't understand Peter and Teresa I do my best to translate for him. It's a great way to work on my Spanish before I go to Spain next month, so it's really an ideal situation for all of us. It is wonderful to have so many languages spoken in the house, and especially fun for me (as an English-speaker and a language enthusiast) to hear Dutch and Spanish and understand how both Germanic and Latin influences have shaped the evolution of the English language. It's also interesting to communicate with someone who has a limited sense of the language; when you only know so many words, you are left with a sort of simple and beautiful communication that is very honest. There is no superfluousness, no verbose and empty sentences. I don't know how to explain it. An example: Today Peter told me he likes music that is felt, and he pointed to his chest. If I were to ask a native English speaker the same question, they might explain their musical preference with descriptions of a genre or examples of artists or particular type of instrument. But when you can't find the words for everything you might want to say, you are left with the truth: I like music that is felt. It is beautiful, the honesty of simplicity.
      I left home a week ago today, and I can't believe how quickly the time has gone by. It's a strange adjustment to make from home to living on a farm in Holland in someone else's house. The first couple of days were exciting but odd and not quite comfortable yet. But now I think we are falling into a rhythm, getting accustomed and learning the role that we fit into with each other. This is my life, for the time being. I live on a pig farm. I'm getting used to it, but it's still new and exciting (of course). Every day I learn something new: about pigs (which are not only adorable but incredibly intelligent and interesting!), or a new skill, and now how to translate my new knowledge or skill into Spanish.
      Everything is wonderful. Peter and Teresa are incredibly friendly and easy-going, and as much as possible they treat me (and Victor) like a part of their family. I cannot imagine any better place to work as my first experience with WWOOF, and away from home and truly independent for the first time. It is hard work at times, but it is a relaxing and beautiful place and I am surrounded by extraordinary people. I have been imagining and anticipating this trip, my European Adventure, for almost a year. Now it is finally here, and more amazing than I ever could have planned or hoped for... life seems to have a way of working out like that.

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