Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The spectacular blur that was Prague

If there is a place in the world where one is not so vain to maintain delusions of grandeur that they will one day be a famous writer, it is Prague.

The city of books, crystal, statues and strip clubs drew me in from the moment we stepped out from our hostel, in the humid evening after the rain, ready to wander into the twisting streets and find the bar we’d meet our friends at. You must always be looking up in Prague – every building has a story written in the statues at its’ rooftop. You can feel the years of occupation and Soviet closed doors here, in the stains along the sidewalks, in the chips in plaster on corners. But you get closer to Old Town Square and everything feels cleaner, the history well maintained.

I always want to keep walking when I’m in cities like this. No matter how tired I am, if I go back to the hostel for a break, I feel anxious to get back out and see more and more, take it all in. Something must be happening out there, even if it’s just daily life, it’s worth bearing witness to.

I loved everything about Prague, including the Irish tour guide whom I talked to briefly about Donegal. He said “Sure it’s lovely, but stay there long enough and even you will want to break some fiddles.” He doesn’t speak Czech – his teacher told him after eight lessons “you can survive here without it. You’ll be fine, Declan” – and he does fine, loves it in fact. You can feel the footsteps of the artists, the scientists, the engineers who were invited here to make a beautiful, cultured city everywhere you walk: the oldest university in Central Europe, statues featuring Franz Kafka’s nightmares.

You can feel resistance in these streets: see the faces of men who stood up, got killed but are commemorated, looking upon the churches they inspired, watching the square where they set themselves on fire to protest communism. You can feel resistance to the Soviets, the willingness to stay quiet until the precise moment when the door for revolution opened, then the grandeur of their breakthrough here, the Velvet Revolution, named for the band the Velvet Underground.

Segway tour guides are everywhere here. Kafka lived on nearly every corner, if the guides are right. The Charles Bridge was begun at 5:31am on 9 July 1357, making a perfect bridge in time: 1357 9, 7 5:31. Among the thirty saintly watching figures, there is a statue to rub and to make a wish upon, another to touch so you will be back in Prague one day. Mozart played here to a 30 minute standing ovation, when in Vienna they fell asleep in the same opera.

The Astrological Clock in Old Town Square was my favorite. It’s been rated the 2nd most overrated tourist attraction in Europe (after the Mona Lisa), which broke my heart even before I knew the story of the four men standing on either side of the clock; the fears of the time. Death rings the bell every hour, vanity looks down upon you. There is a spinning list below of names that Czech people are allowed to name their children as well, and each name has a day of the year: if you are Czech, you get a birthday and a name day, both to be celebrated with similar ferocity. The astronomical chart spins, leaning into Leo the day I visited. This is one of the most beautiful pieces of living artwork I have ever seen. The rulers at the time it was completed thought so to: they blinded the man who made it so he couldn’t recreated the piece for another city. So the cured the clock, and every time it stops the city floods.

Each corner is a story. This mark? That is where the executioner would sharpen his knife. Here: a window where man after man was thrown out by unhappy clerics, over a few hundred years. There, the Disneyland church of Our Lady Before Time. In this building, the art of hundreds of Jewish children in a concentration camp, clinging to childhood and humanity in the last days. Across the street: the Synagogues still standing in the Jewish Quarter here. Hitler had plans that this city would be a museum to an extinct race.

This country has been owned, traded and shifted between so many hands, their national anthem includes “Where is My Home?”

Then, after only two days, I’m on the bus, traveling beyond the places were 6-lane highways connect cities. We snake on back roads of the Czech Republic, held up by farm equipment making its way slowly across the countryside. Hills, thick with forests rise all around, drop off into valleys of sunflowers and rolling grain, ready for harvest. The bus driver chain smokes the whole way, listening to American music. Houses in villages press up against the road, barely two lanes. All the opulence of Prague is gone, these cracking houses are all shades of orange and beige. Lace curtains are drawn tight over each window.

On the bus, I’m already sad we’re leaving Prague for Vienna. Only a few hours in Austria and it feels expensive, modern and all the bars are filled with smokers.

I could have stayed in Prague, I think, for much longer. 

Tuesday, July 29, 2014


Written July 26, 2014

We are supposed to leave at 5, so I come downstairs with my hair brushed, earrings and bracelets on and as much of the blueberry juice washed off my hands and arms as I could manage at 4:55. But Ronja and Franzi are still in front of the computer, watching videos that have something to do with hair styling, and Silke and Martin are nowhere to be found. We’re going to a party tonight, something that is more traditional and interesting, as Silke described it, at the church.
Out the front window I see Martin, pulling from the back of his car the crate of 4 week old chicks which he said yesterday he was buying, making Silke laugh exasperatedly. There are already 25 chickens on the farm, and they’re only laying 3-4 eggs a day, in total.

“Industry chickens.” Martin scoffs, scowling down at them pecking and clucking away in the grass. “They only lay eggs with industry food. I must slaughter them all and get new, old breed chickens.”

Martin sees me watching and waves me outside. “I will mow some grass for the goats now. You would like to collect it, please?” So I pull my hair back off my neck and follow him with the wheelbarrow, moving the grass into the goat’s pen for the next 45 minutes, not feeling so clean and fresh anymore.

When we finally get into the car, the girls are all in traditional Bavarian dresses (the female version of lederhosen, with embroidered aprons and corsets tied with colorful ribbons) and their hair is braided in wreaths atop their heads, flowers woven through.

“Wow!” I said to Ronja, the only one of the girls who speaks to me eagerly “You look great!”

She beams, throwing her modern purse over her shoulder and flattening her bright green apron.

“No lederhosen for you Martin?” I ask, a touch of sarcasm in my voice. I know him well enough now to know this is a ridiculous proposition.

He rolls his eyes. “This is all silly. I don’t want to pay for the expensive beer when I have work to do at home.” Silke slaps his leg gently.

“Is it a special holiday?” I ask, we’re driving now, through the intermittent mossy forests and bright corn fields, up and down the rolling hills to Amberg.

“It is the – howdoyousay – birthday?” I nod encouragingly, yes this makes sense, “of the church,” Silke says. “This is a very popular tradition in Bavaria. All of the villages celebrate, but this is one of the biggest parties in the region. In the smaller villages, all of the people are in the traditional clothes, also, but at this one, only the children.”

We drive about 10 kilometers past Amberg to Sulzbach-Rosenburg, Silke’s hometown. This is the church she was baptized in, she tells me, not the church they attend now, but it is her church, so they go. As we walk up, we see her father and her sister, waiting for us. Everyone laughs softly as they hug stiffly, in a German sort of way. “We are always late,” Silke says.

The party feels like a mix between a county fair and a Renaissance Festival in the states. There are hundreds and hundreds of people, parking in a wide opened field. The church is on top of a hill and would maybe only seat about 150, very squished in. All around the church are small stalls with delicious smelling smoking pouring from chimneys, selling wursts, kraut, pretzels, ice cream, candy, pizza, and huge beer gardens, steins holding at least 4 American beer bottles clicking in the air and shouts of “Prost!” all around.

We sit with Silke’s mother and nieces and nephews, Martins friends come quickly and join us. We order beer and food. One of Martin’s friends looks my way and asks him something as he points to me. “Katy,” Martin says, and they begin a conversation, looking at me sideways and saying indistinguishable words with “Katy” thrown in the mix. I don’t know if I should be acting like I know what they are talking about or look away politely like I have no idea what’s going on. I opt for looking down at my beer and drinking another long gulp, then ripping a piece of pretzel and some cheese dip.

Something I’ve noticed about being the only one at a party who cannot speak the language at all: you just keep eating and drinking when you have nothing, not even listening, to distract you.

I ask Silke how old the church is, and she thinks about it for a minute, then shrugs and asks her father in German. He shrugs and she asks her mother, who shrugs. Silke says “It’s not such an important birthday as 200 or 500 years. No one knows.” From across the table Martin says “Older than the US!” which I am certain is true. Slike’s mom produces a huge bag of sweets suddenly, marshmallows dipped in chocolate, caramel corn and suckers for the children and no one cares any more how old the church is. It’s just a birthday, which is what counts.

Ronja and her cousins skip by in their bright outfits, flowers in their braids beginning to wilt in the hot sun and ask me if I want to go and see the church now. I’m about to stand up when the server brings me another beer and Ronja shrugs and runs away.

“I’m glad she likes you,” Silke says. “She doesn’t like all the WWOOFers and it’s not so good when she doesn’t like them.” This makes me feel so relieved, just as when Martin said that when I raked the cut grass it was cleaner than other WWOOFers: without anyone else on the farm and all the noncommittal requests for help (“if you’d like, you can weed near to the china cabbage now, please?”) it’s so hard to judge how my work stands. Am I working longer hours than normal? Shorter? Do I get up much too late? Do I communicate more or less? Do I eat too much? Silke and Martin going out of their way to tell me when things are good is reassuring that I’m not out of the norm, or at least on the upper side of the bell curve.

I pull out my phone and snap a few pictures of the crowds and the hillsides we’re looking down on. You can see the church steeples in Amberg from here, a few hills and valleys away.

“NSA!” One of Martins friends starts yelling and laughing at me. I laugh bashfully and say “No!” But I also put my phone away, feeling very aware of my American-ness in this space where there are almost certainly no other tourists.

Silke suddenly sits down again and says proudly, “I ask a woman and the church is 355 years old. But I was thinking it is much older than this.”

We spent about an hour and a half sipping beer and eating sweets, then walk up the hill to see the church. Martin groans a few times, but Silke insists, which makes me glad, because I would have just gone back to the car, but I do want to see, if I can.

From the top of the hill, we can see the whole town of Sulzbach-Rosenburg, the sun setting pink in the hills beyond. Steeples of other churches rise peacefully among the sloped, orange roofts of the houses, a mess of winding streets below. “It’s beautiful. What a nice town,” I say, admirably, always the American blown away by the quaintness and beauty of these old villages in Europe.

“No. It’s not so nice,” Silke corrects me. “When the iron factory closed 4 years ago, 4,000 jobs are gone! Now there is 20 percent of people without a job here. Second worst in all of Bavaria.”

“Oh,” is all I can say that I’m sure she’ll understand. “This is not good.”

On the way home, as we drive back through the darkening forests, speeding on one-lane winding roads, the radio is off and the two younger girls sing rounds of German songs, clapping their hands and slapping their thighs in unison. One after another, what I’d like to think were folk songs (but lord knows, really) quietly float through the air, Silke singing along nearly silently in the front seat as Ronja and Franzi giggle and chorus together, Vroni sighing and turning up her iPod and Martin sleeping deeply in the passenger seat.

It’s strange to think that to this family, I’m just a two week stretch in a string of foreigners who comes consistently from April until October; another person who learns the tasks of the farm, shares their table briefly, then leaves. Will I be remembered at all? Am I the WWOOFer who fell asleep during the final game of the World Cup, when neither Germany nor Argentina had scored and the game went into overtime? The one who raked the best?

I suppose it doesn’t matter. It does us no good to speculate the ways in which we do or do not touch people’s lives. Better to remember and honor who people are to us, what memories and feelings we carry of those who enter our lives.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Bavaria, Germany: Farms and Villages

Written July 23rd, 2014

There is so much that has surprisingly familiar in Germany. The summer weather, the length of a summer sunset, the sounds of the bird calls, even the weeds are the same here. I can see why so many Germans ended up in Minnesota; when I am out in the garden weeding all morning, dogs barking at the neighbors, geese shouting and gossiping, thistles pricking my fingers, I could really be at any of my parent’s neighbor’s homes. Just miles from where I grew up.

But I am in the old country: every hour I’m snapped seven time zones ahead of my homeland when the town’s clock clangs over the hill in the nearest village.

There is also so much that I find unbearably romantic; the moments when the part of me which thought when I was a child that it would be such an adventure to be an orphan, or to sail to the new world in third class, comes alive. Gathering freshly-cut grass with a pitch fork and wheelbarrow and watching the windy sky as thunder raps its fingers at the horizon; spending the afternoon in the forest (pondering briefly all the Grim Brother’s heroines who meet some sort of adventure the moment they enter a German forest) picking wild blueberries then making marmalade late into the night with Silke.

Marmalde made with Silke
I remember many mornings in traffic in Pasadena, cleaning under my fingernails and pondering the coming months when I would not be able to get the dirt out from under my nails. Now I am here, and it’s as peaceful as I hoped. I never knew I’d be so good at being quiet for so long – really it’s been more than a month now, if I include the week alone in the car driving from California. I feel no anxiety to move beyond these simple tasks of busy work.

I’m the only WWOOFer on the farm, which adds to the quiet. I daydream a lot, think about the life I’m hoping to create when I get back home. It’s amazing the songs that will get stuck in your head in silence: the theme song from National American University, the songs the girls here run around singing (without a stitch of their German accents for a brief moment as they sing things like “I’ll give you all of me if you give me all of you” and “I hate these blurred lines!”) I don’t think much about the life I left behind or what’s to come in the next few weeks. There is something about your fingers being deep in the ground, tugging at the roots of a weed that keeps you centered and focused on the present.

Grounded is the word I’m looking for, I realize. I am grounded here.

The language barrier has become less and less of a problem as we’ve all gotten more comfortable. Martin and I talk while we work together, Silke and I swap stories and laugh after lunch. I feel I know them well enough to shake my head and exchange looks with Silke when Martin comes home with a brand new black bucket and she says “Every time Martin finds a new bucket he buys it! I don’t know why he loves buckets!” and Martin counters with “When civilization ends, we don’t need to worry about what to do with the milk, Silke!” The girls are friendly enough, though so many WWOOFers come through I think they could really care less about me. There was brief excitement when I said I lived in California, but I haven’t seen enough celebrities to keep their interest.  The eldest daughter in particular, at 14, obviously thinks anyone who would travel around the world and spend their time hanging out with her dad in the barn is crazy and not worth a stitch of her time. Vroni also speaks the best English, though she won’t say anything to me; she’s always correcting everyone else in the family under her breath when we are talking.

I’ve also gotten to see more of Bavaria, including UNESCO-recognized Regensburg. This city, along the Danube River (actually the first place a bridge was built across the river between 1135 and 1146) has been a hub of activity and trade for centuries. There are ancient Roman walls still standing, one of the oldest Gothic cathedrals in Bavaria, and a wurst restaurant that has been serving meat since 1135. With hundreds of tiny streets leading round and round brightly colored ancient buildings – now housing ritzy cafes and shiny clothing stores – it was easy to get lost over and over all day long. The closest town to us, Amberg, is one of the only cities in Europe to still have full city walls still standing and the old town is another Bavarian maze of colorful buildings and cobbled streets.

The 1000-year old hot dog stand, to be crass.
Bridge over the Danube
I so far have not lost the 10lbs I typically drop at the beginning of every trip abroad (though I know I have gained muscle in the last two weeks on the farm). This is probably a good thing, since I don’t have the Euros to buy all new clothes for the next 5 months! On the farm we have so many fresh vegetables (especially right now zucchini) that every meal has a great salad and always incorporates lots of the freshly picked garden fare – spaghetti sauce filled with vegies, eggs scrambled with vegies, pizza heavy with vegies, curry sautéed vegies. We’ve eaten delicious crepe-like pancakes for dinner, then dropped them into soup the next day at lunch.

There are also lots of wursts, made with meat from the farm, and ketchup with every meal; the kind I’m used to and curry ketchup. There is always goat cheese made here on the farm, as well as butter from the milk to put on the bread with every meal. The beers are twice the size of most American bottles, and good. There is wine, and as I mentioned in this post, Schnapps.  

I’ve been feeling great: sleeping long hours, working hard in the day, reading heavily in my hours off. As I near the end of my time here (three more working days as I write) I will also say I’m ready to move on, see some more cities and meet up with my dear friends in the next weeks. 

Some more views from the farm, below.

“When we slaughter, we drink Schnapps”

Written July 19, 2014

Martin is calling something up to me from the bottom of the small hill, near the entrance to the barn. I turn off the water falling nosily into the watering can, and look down to him.

“Say that again – I didn’t hear you!”

“Do you like Schnapps?” he is holding up two shot glasses and a bottle of clear liquid. It’s around 8:30 in the morning – we’ve only just finished our coffee with breakfast.

“Yes, I could have a little?” It’s going to be a hot day, I can tell already. Hard alcohol wouldn’t do me very good. But I hate to be an ungracious guest.

“When we slaughter, we drink Schnapps.” He says, putting the glasses and bottle into the wheelbarrow and going back into the barn.

I’ve been trying to figure out all week if I’ll be expected to be involved in this slaughtering of a baby goat for the party tonight. At one point Martin’s wife, Silke said “I do not like helping with the slaughter. It smells like death!” and I nodded saying, “I don’t know if I would like it either.”

Which is a massive understatement.

I’m the kid who opted to dissect an earthworm instead of a frog in 9th grade. When I was 5 or 6, my friend Elise’s parents were going to a chicken slaughter, and they thought, Katy is a farm girl, Katy can handle this. Maybe Katy will even like this! I remember arriving, seeing the ax come down once, a headless body run a few steps, then I found my way inside the house and would not even look out the window until the day was over. In my childhood-colored memory, this was a rainy, dark day of killing thousands of chickens, axes, blood; all things I did not want to think about. And I didn’t even like chickens.

As I said, I’m – at least a bit of – a farm girl. We had rabbits since I was 8, goats and sheep just a few years later. I went to farm school during the summer every year of elementary school (yes, this was a thing in my neighborhood). When Martin said “You would like to clean goose shit now, please?” I did not even blink. I’m good at not breathing in for a while.

But slaughter? I have a hard time even cooking with store-bought, white chicken breasts if I think too hard about what the squishy, soft substance I’m touching is. I’m a huge, squeamish (no pun intended) chicken when the animal is dead and yet to be cooked.

So I pick up the two watering cans – each morning I drench the soil of the tomato and lettuce plants in the greenhouses, going down the rows slowly, emptying each watering can then carrying them back up the hill to the house to fill them again, a process that takes more than an hour – and walk to the greenhouse. Two trips go by and I emerge from the greenhouse to see Martin tying the second hind leg of a very still, limp kid (remember: it’s the word for a baby goat, folks) into a tree, thick blood pooling at her neck and falling into the grass below.

Ok, so the actual moment of slaughter I did not have to deal with. Good. I didn’t even hear her cry out, which surprised me.

Martin waves me over and fills both of the shot glasses. A single splatter of fresh blood is on his shirt. “This is tradition my Bosnian friend teach me. Schnapps with the slaughter.” We clink glasses and throw the liquor down our throats. I don’t do shots often and this is strong. I squeeze my eyes shut against the shudder and the tears welling suddenly.

“This is house-made Schnapps from my Bosnian friend also.” I look down at the bottle, thinking maybe his friend produces this brand and Martin says, “No, this just empty bottle. House-made Schnapps.”

I’m trying not to look too hard at the goat behind Martin, the blood spill slowing. “I’ll finish the greenhouses?” I ask.

“Yes. And I must now begin the slaughter.” He takes off his shirt and picks up his knife.

Each time I emerge from the greenhouse – a beautiful fresh breath after the thick humid air that wraps around my neck and waist, smelling heavy with growing things and childhood memories in Sharry’s gardens – I look over to the tree to get myself used to the image of the kid, her skin being cut and pulled slowly from her body.

To be clear, my aversion to seeing dead things has nothing to do with feeling bad for the animal. I came to terms with eating meat a long time ago, and I think it’s especially great to enjoy the meat of an animal who has lived an organic, free-range, happy life. It doesn’t freak me out that I’ve been petting, feeding and talking to this kid all week. It’s just that I have absolutely no interest in what’s going on inside of me, you, our cat or even an earthworm. For some reason the inner workings of our bodies give me the heebie jeevies. I don’t want to see it, or even hear about it, frankly.

Martin is pulling the last of the skin off the goat as I finish in the greenhouses, and he asks me to bring him a full watering can. He tugs the limp skin off the bottom of the body, along with the head, and throws it to his anxiously waiting dogs. I’m standing in the doorway to the barn leaning against the door as he talks to me, tells me about his Bosnian friend who taught him how to slaughter, how he wishes his friend were here because his friend loves the kidneys and liver and they will have to go to waste because no one here will eat them, about how he has a gypsy pot that he made kid stew in three years ago but there is no time for it any more, about how there are so many gypsies in Germany now because the welfare system here is good, about how he wants to move to Romania where he could own ten times as much land but his wife says no.

Martin is a fascinating man. When we work together in the afternoons and evenings he talks pretty much straight through, and I only need to ask simple questions or comment affirmatively to keep him going. He is in his early 40’s, stoic and blunt (he said to me later that day “I can’t drink too much tonight because my friend is coming to the party and his wife is so ugly. I might say something if I drink!”) He licks his plate clean at the end of every meal, then takes what is left from any serving plates and eats directly from them, with the ladle. He loves scream-o music, much to the disdain of his wife and daughters. He finds most people “silly”, commenting on how silly the neighbors are, on how silly people who grow patio gardens in the cities are (“why pretend? Just move to the country and do work instead of talk!”) and how silly his children are for watching TV all day.

Martin does not ask me to do anything, and I force myself not to back away as he opens the chest of the kid and pulls out guts, stomach, heart, liver… you know, all the stuff that goes inside. Some of it he puts aside in the wheelbarrow, some of it he tosses to the dogs, some of it he brings to the pigs (“But they are getting too fat! I must have a look and slaughter them, as well.”) He tells me that he slaughters all of the smaller animals on the farm – goats, chickens, rabbits, pigeons, all 15 geese at Christmas time – and sends the cattle and pigs to the butchers. Towards the end of this, he asks me to scrub clean a long stick with a point on one end and handles on the other.

Nothing too gory - the kid cooking on it's stick.
Now the kid is empty besides the muscles and bones. The blood has all dripped out. Martin has made a hole just below the tail and pulls the kid halfway down the long stick so that between this hole and the neck, the meat is all attached and can be roasted above the fire. He pulls back the hind legs and begins to put a wire round them so they are tugged backwards, but he can’t get a good enough grip on them and the wire at once.

“Hold these like this please?” he asks me.

Other delicious party fare.
I can’t hesitate. I’m not allowed to be freaked out by this, I’ve been telling myself. So I grab those haunches and push them as close to the stick as I can. And yes, they feel just like chicken, besides the fact that he’s already salted the meat.

The meat goes into the cellar for a few hours, and I go back to weeding and moving around animal shit. I help Silke make salads for the guests throughout the afternoon, while Martin starts a fire. Once the men arrive, they are all too happy to grab a beer and sit by the goat, taking turns rotating it for the two hours necessary to cook the meat over hot coals, even though it is 34 degrees Celsius. 

It was a good party, with close friends and lots of laughter. It was like the party my parents threw for me the night before I left on this trip, actually, except I could not participate in the conversations at all. No one spoke any English besides Martin and Silke. I bounced around, helping Silke, watching the goat cook, finishing a few chores so Martin could be with his friends. The goat tasted just fine, but I’m neither an expert nor even a huge fan of meat, so I’ll say that with a grain of salt.

Cutting the meat, ready to eat
At the end of the meal everyone passed around shot glasses again for another round of Schnapps. As we all shouted Prost! and threw the liquor down, I ticked Schnapps off as something I’ll never see the same way again.

The house, with the crowd on the back porch.

Friday, July 18, 2014

On Waiting and WWOOFing in Germany

One of the things people don’t talk much about when they talk about traveling is how much waiting you do. It fades from memory quickly and it’s hardly romantic to mention when retelling the stories, but it is an essential part of the traveling experience, and one that takes hours and hours, if not days and days of any trip.

The bench where I sat for an hour in Amsterdam,
watching tour boats go by and writing.
I’m getting good at waiting again, luckily, after transitioning a few days and forcing myself to slow down. I’m good at pacing the hours of a day and taking 45 minutes or an hour and a half to enjoy a cup of coffee and read my book, to let some time pass before rushing off to another thing, knowing that a day is significantly longer than you think when you travel alone.

But there are many moments – the tense minutes when you wait at the bus stop, certain you are at the right one, but equally certain you have turned yourself around entirely all the same or even when you know the train won’t come for ten minutes, but checking and rechecking anyway just in case you’ve had the poor luck to miss it – that keep me from relaxing in the waiting.

I was waiting in Nuremberg, at the bus station for my friend Greg (who lived with us in California for two summers while attending Cal Tech) and his girlfriend Stephanie. It was very early and it kept raining, on and off. Elderly German couples got off busses, coughed in the seat next to me, exclaimed when they daughters and grandchildren arrived. I bought a cup of coffee and realized (again – I had just forgotten that I knew this) that when I do not know the language, I fall back into some strange mix of French and Spanish, the two foreign languages I do (kind of) know. Which is ridiculous because I don’t speak either of them well enough to follow up if someone responds to my hesitant “Oui” with a French sentence or two.

The man who sold me the coffee – luckily a pretty universal word – asked in broken German where I was from.

“The United States” I said, mixing the sugar and cream into the tiny cup of espresso you get in Europe, smiling.

“Ahhh!” (and, my god I wish I could put his accent and tone into writing. Large accentuation in the second syllable, let’s say) “Obama!”

And for the life of me I could not tell if he was saying this with delight or fierceness, so I smiled again and said “Yes,” taking my tiny coffee and my huge backpack back out to my cold bench.

The overnight bus ride had been smooth. I had actually managed to sleep from basically the instant I got on the bus until 40 kilometers to Nuremberg, when I woke myself up seeing a highway marker telling me I was close. Besides some rowdy scout-looking adults (they had kerchiefs tied around their necks with an emblem on each) that got on the bus and took a bit of time to settle near the German border and a very bright drop off in Frankfurt, I was not disturbed by anything besides my aching body begging me to move around or stretch out or something.

I was supposed to arrive at 8am, though it was 7:30, and Greg (coming from a town about 40 minutes away as it was) was going to meet me at 9:30. I told him I was arriving by bus, and that I’d stay at the place I was dropped off except to get a cup of coffee. Between games of Sudoku on my phone and the book I was reading on my Kindle, I watched 9:30 approach and slip past, breathing slowly and telling myself there was nothing to worry about.

Twisting the golden "wishing" ring in the
fountain at the city center of Nuremberg
It was cold. My fingers were actually beginning to get numb. I thought maybe there was another bus station, another more central place he thought I was dropped at. I considered hoisting that pack onto my back and walking around (it really didn’t feel like I bought much when I left, but every time I have to move my whole bag around I wonder at all of the things that I certainly could have left at home) to have a look.

I decided to stay put: he spoke German. He knew the town. He would find me. Better I stayed where he said we should meet.

And of course he did come. I had been in the right place. Nothing to worry about, so sorry about the lateness. Big hugs and kisses on the cheek all around. 

The surreal experience of seeing someone I know so clearly from one phase of my life in a totally different space has begun to wear off with my traveling, but it was a relief to see a familiar face. Stephanie and Greg showed me around Nuremberg (where I found many familiar knick-knacks that I’ve seen in my grandmother’s home around Christmas time in store windows), to the castle, the churches (including amazing photos of the rubble they were after the end of World War 2 – Nuremberg had been the second largest stronghold of Hitler propaganda after Berlin) and took me for tiny Nuremberg sausages over red slaw and a German beer.

Nuremberg, view from the town castle

Greg left for his new summer job in Zurich and Stephanie and I got on the train, heading to Amberg, where I met the family I’m WWOOFing with.

World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms is a program I’ve participated in before, in Ireland, and which many of my friends have enjoyed throughout the world. Basically, you exchange labor on an organic farm for room and board, usually about 5-6 hours a day 5-6 days a week. You pay to arrive, but you don’t pay for anything on the farm once you get there. I’m doing this in three places (Germany, Bulgaria and Greece) during this trip and it’ll take up more than a month of my time.

In south eastern Germany I’m on a small family-run farm 20 minutes outside of Amberg. They have a few of nearly everything here: cats, dogs, goats, cattle, swine, horses, geese, chickens, bees and pigeons, along with a large vegetable garden, two large green houses and an orchard. There are four children, three blonde haired, blue eyed girls and one darker boy, ranging from the ages of 8 to 14. The children’s English is all from school, they ask me well-used Any-Language Level 1 questions like “What are your hobbies?” and “Do you have a boyfriend?” The adults speak better English, but it is still not great.

I guess I should have expected that – though their profile did say they spoke English – I am in Germany, in the countryside no less, after all.

The garden, where I spend most of my mornings.
I have traveled a lot to places where I did not know a word of the language, or where I knew some but trying to discern what was being said around me from the few words I did know was just too much work typically, but this is different. Being in a home, sitting around the dinner table with a family who is so clearly full of life and fun and joy and guessing at what they are saying to one another, is a profound loneliness that I’ve never experienced. They are laughing and arguing and sharing stories, then they turn to me and said stiffly and shyly “How much full is the goat’s food when you come in?”

I end up trying to guess at what they are talking about. Ronja (who is ten or eleven and can speak the best English of the children) was very frustrated the other day that though her parents said she could get a new horse, they have been having a hard time finding a suitable animal to purchase. Is that why she has been mouthing off and whining so much the last few nights? The youngest, Franzi, seems to be the butt of a lot of jokes, but she always has a smart response that leaves everyone laughing. What in the world is that eight year old saying?

This is not to say that I’m bored, or lonely in a way that I’ve been before, really. I stay busy in the mornings for about 5 hours weeding, then lunch is at 2 when the kids are done with school. I have a few hours in the afternoon to read, write, do yoga, meditate – whatever I want, really, then when Martin comes home from work around 4 or 5 I go and help him with chores. I’ll admit that routine feels good after the wandering and transitory nights I spent in three different countries in the week leading up to this.

The biggest problem right now is what the feed the goats. Before I arrived on that rainy day there had not been rain in 8 weeks and the pasture that is usually for the goats to roam each day is all but dried up. Martin has been going around all the edges of the property and cutting long grass, which I rake up into a wheelbarrow and feed to the 10 goats and kids in the barn. They milk the goats each day and if they don’t get enough greens they milk and cheese won’t be as good. There are also berries to be picked, mulch to be laid, tomatoes to be watered each morning. In the evening as the air is cooling off, we pull slugs from the garden leaves. I go to bed as the sun is setting and sleep deeply. Even if I don’t understand what the people around me are saying, it’s really not a bad life.

I have been profoundly sore and a little sunburned, but all of this is wearing away. They don’t have coffee so the first few days were a bit of a muddle of caffeine withdrawals, but I’m doing better now.

Honestly, dirty hands and some deep alone time is what I have been craving: a chance to really truly slow down and wait some things out, myself simmer and explore some of the parts of myself I’ve been avoiding, as it were. And that is the gift of this place: some stability, a routine, time to surround myself with green and growing things and a belly full of good food for a few weeks. 

The goats, four babies still left, but one less on Saturday when we'll eat
one at the party the family is throwing.
The barn looking over the nearby forest and someone else's fields.

48 Hours in Amsterdam

I gave up some of the time I would have spent biking around the tulip fields of the Netherlands in order to visit Reykjavik, which I don’t regret. I’m glad, though, that I made time to see Amsterdam, despite some original hesitance.

How Long: I arrived late in the evening on the 10th of July and left on an overnight bus to Nuremburg late in the evening on the 12th of July.

Overall Impressions: I had an image in my head of Amsterdam and what I means to be a tourist there. Certainly, all of the things I imagined are happening and it’s not hard to find brown coffee shops, the red light district and drunk, often costumed American and British men all around. But you can also lose yourself over and over again wandering in the winding streets around the canals, enjoy delicious food and coffee and soak in the ambiance of this cosmopolitan city.

I can see why it has always drawn in outcasts and wanderers – by allowing anyone to practice their religions and cultural practices even back in the 16th and 17th century when this was really not possibly in Europe, by being the home to so many artists and merchants, and by never really having a monarch until recently. You can feel something in the air and culture of the city that is opened and accepting to a live and let live, fun loving style of life.

I may not have created the most common Amsterdam trip, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

What I did: I wandered. Really and truly, this is mostly what I spent my time doing. Each street is different, and each house its’ own. I wandered into farmers markets and bought some fresh fruit and I stopped every few hours for a cup of coffee or some food, to rest my feet and write a bit, then I kept walking. I could really feel some new callouses forming on my feet by the end of the second day. My hosts did recommend the canal tour – though touristy, it is a whole different perspective on the city. I didn’t end up doing it, but I considered this.

The kind of umimpressive City Hall and Royal Quarters
I stopped into the current exhibit within the church in the Dam (center square of town), hoping to find something a little like Westminster Abbey. And I suppose it was a little like that, but not nearly as gaudy and full of splendor and grave stones as I may have liked. I did learn a lot about the royalty of The Netherlands (a monarchy only going back only some six or seven generations), as well as the change from Catholicism to Lutheranism in Amsterdam. The church used to be painted and adorned on every wall, now it is a plain white, and many of the religious statues around town or in other churches were destroyed at the time the Catholic priests and nuns were expelled. I also visited the Amsterdam Museum, which I enjoyed as a historical look into the city and country. 

I wanted to go to the Anne Frank House, but the line was hours long and with only 48 in town, I didn’t want to waste my time (you can buy tickets online but when I looked a few weeks in advance they were sold out for my particular days). There are also some fantastic museums devoted to amazing local artwork, but I tend to favor history (dare I say narrative story, surprise, surprise?) over art, so there I went. I also think the Jewish historical museum would have been interesting, but I did not have much time when I was in the Jewish quarter.

Where I stayed: I decided to forego the hostel experience – certain to be full of a particular type of tourist, I imagined – in Amsterdam and couchsurfed with a fantastic couple, Samantha and Jeop and their three lively dogs. Both from The Netherlands, they have also lived in the United States for about 9 months. 

Samantha studied history and Jeop has done enough work in the United States in his line of internet security that he sounds like a Texan when he speaks English. They were so welcoming and answered every question I had about the past and present of The Netherlands – which were many, it turns out.

I stayed up and watched TV with Samantha on Friday night and caught a show made by a Dutch man who is married to an American woman called “My America” in which he discusses things he’s learning about the United States from a European perspective. I happened to catch the show about government and elections (super pacs, benefactors giving hundreds of thousands of dollars for a photo with the president, you know the tales) and man, was that interesting to watch with Samantha, even though she had lived in the US and assured me all politics is the same around the world.

Along with a million suggestions for how to spend my time and a home cooked dinner before I left for my overnight train to Germany, the experience of staying in someone’s home and really developing a bit of a relationship is a very good one.

What I ate: Samantha and Jeop took me to the “best fries in Amsterdam” which I would have no idea how to tell anyone else to get to. We drove across many bridges, near the main river. Near the public beaches there was a little shack on the side of the road with all things fried and delicious. The fries were certainly good and drenched in mayo along with plenty of fixings if you wanted them. I also ate a croquette, which Jeop described as “80% butter and some meat”. It was deep-fried, breaded and fantastic. Basically, if we had been really drunk (or, I mean, it’s Amsterdam, so stoned), these two dishes would have been great, but sober they were good too.

Samantha suggested that I visit Winkle, a lunch café near the Anne Frank House for a piece of the best apple pie in The Netherlands. With thick whipped cream and a latte, it was worth a stop.

Total Costs: I don’t feel so broke after Amsterdam, especially since I did not pay for lodging. It’s still a major city, so meals and coffee and beer are not particularly cheap, but more in line with what I imagined. Being in the Euro zone where I can more easily add costs to the dollar is good too.

What I wish I known: Amsterdam aligned and met all my hopes very well, I must admit. If I had more time (maybe I should rename this section “if I had more time here”) I would have enjoyed seeing more of the country, renting a bike and visiting Rotterdam the Hague and villages in the countryside, or seeing the farther reaches of Amsterdam by bike, though I walked very far each day as it was. 

How many photos of canals and bikes and old buildings
can I post before I become redundant? It certainly wasn't redundant to walk around!

Thursday, July 10, 2014

60 hours in Reykjavik, Iceland

I’ve decided that I’m going to do two different kinds of blog posts – some that are more of my thoughts and the details about Katy Cashman (like this one from the other day), and some that are descriptions of what I did and what I would suggest to other travelers, city by city. If there are every any more things you might be interested in me writing about or questions about my traveling and planning that you have, reader – let me know! I’d love to participate in as much of a conversation as I can here!

So, with that being said, here is my description of Iceland, which I visited July 8-10th 2014.

How Long? I was in Iceland for 2.5 full days, arriving early in the morning on Tuesday and leaving around 4:30 on Thursday.

Overall Impressions: Iceland was great! I originally bought a ticket through Icelandair which had 10 hour layover in Reykjavik, and I thought I’d be able to pop in and see the city. Then I learned that in order to encourage tourism, Icelandair allows you to extend your layover in Iceland for no extra cost! I’m so glad I was able to get out and see more of this country.

See more at the end about what I wish I’d known and done differently, but I hope I go back someday – with warmer clothes and a slightly more grand adventure plan.

It’s easy to be a tourist here: everyone speaks English, transport and the capital city are easy to manage and the natural beauty of the island is simply staggering – even as you are dropping down below the clouds on the airplane you can tell the place is otherworldly. Just the stuff great sagas featuring trolls, Vikings and family legacies which date back 1,000 years are made of.

What I did: I gave myself a full day to wander the city of Reykjavik, which I easily accomplished, even jetlagged and exhausted. I actually ended up going back and forth across the city a few times, just to fill time. There are great places to walk along the harbor and a few hills in the city, but I found it very straightforward and easy to navigate, besides the ridiculous street names in Icelandic, which I couldn’t even begin to try to understand. 

Street signs of Reykjavik
In the saga museum
I visited two museums in Reykjavik. The Reykjavik 871 +/-2 Museum was a well-executed mix of technology and archeology, small but engrossing. Underground and surrounding an excavated long house from the original farmstead where the city now stands (reputed to be the home of the first man to make a permanent home on the island), there are a lot of archeological details and historical information about the earliest settlers here. The Saga Museum sounded totally hokey to me, but I ended up going in and boy, was I wrong. It’s like Madame Tussauds, but the wax figures tell the stories of the ancient sagas of the land. You get a headset and the stories are told to you with the sounds of early life – from sheep braying, to blacksmiths hammers, to blood-curdling screams. Yes, I’m an oral history nut, and this was a really great way to tell the stories.I also saw the Icelandic Phallological Society Museum (yes – that is what it sounds like it is) but didn’t bother.

The second day I took a Golden Circle tour – the day-trip from Reykjavik from which you can explore the top three tourist locations in the southwestern corner of the island. I toured with Iceland Excursions, a well-oiled machine from which one can do everything in the country: get from the airport to the city/Blue Lagoon and back, take many kinds of day trips and even some longer excursions. I did the full day “Classic” Golden Circle tour and probably could have been fine with a half day. Both tours stop at the three major sites: Gulfloss, Thingvellir National Park and Geysir. The full day tour also stopped at a church where the old religious center of Iceland has stood since the adoption of Christianity (but now there’s not much there but a big Lutheran church) and a geothermal power plant. The power plant included a tour, the cost of which was not in the day trip and geology isn’t the most interesting to me, so I passed. From what I can tell, all half day tours still visit the three important sites, without the stuff I didn’t end up loving as much.

Of the three, I found the National Park the most interesting. This is the place the original settlers of Iceland decided to create the first ever democratic state in the world, where the chieftains of all the regions across the country would meet for two weeks each summer and the law reader would recite the laws of the land, a judicial group would decide the outcome of disputes and people would trade and intermingle. This is also the place where two continental plates meet and you get the chance to walk through the gorge between the two, opening by a few centimeters each year. Gulfloss is a spectacular waterfall and Geysir is a thermal pool (the original geyser, actually) which I hate to admit failed to impress after living in Yellowstone National Park (sorry, Iceland.)

Thingvellir National Park, Iceland

The Blue Lagoon
On the final day I went to the Blue Lagoon before the airport. If you are just swinging through Iceland and have more then 4-5 hours for a layover, you can absolutely make it here, and they make it very easy, with luggage storage and towel rental, etc. The spa is amazing and though I only spent an hour and a half here, I can easily see a whole day being passed, drinking beer in the milky-blue water, getting a massage and eating a good meal. For the cost of admission, you get a locker, access to the pools and exfoliating mud facials to put on as you dip around. The day I was there it was in the upper 40s, cloudy and lightly raining, and beyond the lava rocks covered in moss everywhere and the power plant steaming behind you, it’s totally bizarre to be swimming in hot-tub warm water surrounded by lifeguards in parkas!

Where I stayed: I typically use to determine where I stay because of the easy information they display and the up-to-date rating system they employ. In Reykjavik I stayed at Hlemmur Square in a 12-bed dorm which was one of the more comfortable in recent memory. Very nice facilities and though they have a lot of rooms, there is more than one kitchen and lounge for guest use, a bar and TV room downstairs, personal storage in each room and the shades in the bedrooms are dark enough that all nighttime sunshine does not keep you awake.

What I ate: Now, I’m not a foodie and I don’t exactly seek out amazing cuisine, but I do have an insanely sensitive stomach. I figure I’ll throw out anything I ate that is worth noting.

I had a breakfast at a little restaurant called the Laundromat in the City Center and really enjoyed the vibe, as well as the food (can’t go wrong with eggs, toast and a glass of orange juice). Nothing else I ate was worth mentioning in incredibly unique other than a great lamb stew, apparently a traditional dish. My impression was whatever you want in Reykjavik – burgers, fish, pizza, Vietnamese, Viking fare – you’ll find it in at least one or more places. You can also eat shark, whale and horse, but none of those sounded interesting to me in the least.

Total Costs: Iceland is EXPENSIVE, and you always feel like you’re paying an arm and a leg because 1,000 króna are equal to just under 10 USD. I anticipated this would be one of the most expensive parts of my trip, and I sure hope it was – I’ll be broke a lot sooner than I thought if I need to pay this much everywhere!!

Meals were at least $10 (even for something simple like cereal for breakfast) and could get much higher. Coffee was always $3-4. Beer was around $5 at happy hour and $8-10 normally.

Lodging was about $45 a night (very high for a dorm room in a hostel!)

Museums were at least $10 as well.
At Gulfloss, on the Golden Circle Tour
What I wish I known: I just so wish Iceland had not been a last-minute extension of a layover, but at the same time, if/when I come back I want to do it right, which would include an entirely different kind of trip for me. I was cold nearly every time I went outside (I have a fleece and a rain coat, but no long underwear or sweaters since I am mostly in the Mediterranean during this trip) and though Reykjavik is cool and the Gold Circle tour interesting, this is so clearly a playground for outdoors adventure traveling, I was itching to get out and do some biking, hiking, horseback riding… something!

Next time I’ll be only coming here, or maybe continuing on to more cool-weather adventuring in the Nordic countries, and I’ll book a horseback riding tour for a few days, or plan a backpacking trip into the countryside. Hanging in Reykjavik and visiting such well-known tourist traps was just not enough. I say, if you are coming here, really come here and experience these amazing landscapes and outdoors opportunities.
It's no Old Faithful, but a geyser is still a geyser!