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.