Building A New Life: A Primer

It’s been just over a month now since I arrived in Italy. Officially, the boyfriend and I have now occupied the same space for longer than ever before. Good news: we still like each other. In fact, every time we’ve been able to be together in the last two years, it has seemed to me that just as we’re getting comfortable, just as we’re hitting our stride together, just when things feel real and easy, that’s when the hourglass dries out. That’s when we’re once again separated by far too much space and I find myself at a friend’s place on the couch, binge watching Making a Murderer and eating ice cream. Because yeah, every time he leaves it feels astoundingly like a break up.

Once again, now that a month has passed, I feel like we’ve really hit a good stride. The first few days and weeks after such separation – when you are forced by pure emotional necessity to develop a fiercely independent lifestyle and mindset – can be harder than you’d expect. Emotions and expectations are so high, and there’s always jet lag and making space for one another when you’re so used to connectivity for only a few hours at a time.

Now, though, we get to reap the benefits of the distance we’ve held for the last two years: even this far into the relationship, even though we know each other so well, it all feels fresh and new. Tenderness sweeps our house, romantic and exciting as we relish in the extended honeymoon phase of something we’ve been building for so long.

Of course, we live in the real world, too. One where we have bills and want to travel and therefore need money. I spent the last 8 months working at two different restaurants, often back to back from 5:45 am to 11ish pm with maybe an hour off in between, padding the heck out of my bank account to make this happen, so I’ve been doing a little recuperating in the last month. But I’ve never been very good at sitting still for long. While my boyfriend is hard at work, with “real” aka salaried work, I also have created work for myself. Some of these things are actual needs (learn Italian, for example) others are more about keeping my brain busy and focused on goals that may or may not be “real” but are essential to my own mental health nonetheless.

Because this is what I’ve learned about moving and building a new life: having tasks, goals and routine are the keys to settling in. And in those first weeks, the first month, when you are still trying to find your place – literally and figuratively – when you’re watching all your friends at home celebrate weddings and drink beer in canoes on your favorite lakes via social media, when you’re aching for something beyond the overwhelming newness that can suck you down, it can be the accomplishment of a goal – even a simple, arbitrary goal – that let you catch your breath.

I’ve speculated that perhaps I’m uniquely qualified to have moved across the world to be with my boyfriend and develop my own life alongside his. Since I graduated from high school, I’ve moved at least 7 times and had the opportunity to practice my process of developing a new life and finding community and could argue that I’ve almost made a science out of it. So, for those of your setting off onto your next adventure, or if you’re struggling to feel at home in a new place, here’s my 2 cents. For what its worth.

Five Tips for Finding Yourself in Your New Home

1. Expect the Ups and Downs. Transitions suck. You’ve pulled back and cut off the fatty layers of life which on the one hand are the things making you busy and keeping you up at night, but can also be the richest parts of your routine. You also are left with a lot of time. Even if you have a job or school to fill your days, in a new place you are exposed to so much emptiness even a few hours can simply be overwhelming.

At the same time, remind yourself that there’s a great reason for the move. Work, school, adventure, whatever it is, you chose this new place and there’s an excitement in the new place you’ve found yourself in. Some days you’ll find yourself riding high on that emotion that brought you here to begin with. Sometimes, though within even just a few hours you can go from feeling amazement and wonder at how much  you love a place,  to the loneliest evening of you life, where you’d give anything to just grab dinner with friends. And sometimes those roller coaster feelings last more than a few hours. There can be really really crappy weeks or months in the heart of a move. Especially when you’re out of your element, you can feel like it was all a mistake, this place is not your new home, never will be.

Honestly, I’ve moved to places that have turned out to be great homes for me, and places that turned out to not fit me so well. For example, I was fundamentally unhappy in Boulder, Colorado and after 9 months there, I knew without a second of hesitation that it was time to pull the ripcord and get my ass out of there. The thing is, I don’t think anyone really knows how the wild ups and downs will ultimately level out on the good/bad scale for at least 5 or 6 months. Give yourself a chance to really meet some people. Give yourself a chance to get comfortable. To be a master of even a small something in the new place. Then make the call. And even if it’s not a great fit for you, there is something to be learned from being in the wrong place at the right time too.

2. Develop a Routine: The best way to keep your mind occupied on those bad days is to create routine and tasks for yourself. No matter how much I love the idea of limitless open days, I simply cannot function in them. My brain melts fast and the sort of jumbled listlessness of a mild depression quickly takes over. So I make myself get out of bed at a certain time every day (8:10), I make myself do a few Sun Salutations, then I have a pattern of work and house care until I leave for class. If I don’t have class, I go to the library to write for a few hours in the afternoon. Lately I’ve been really leaning into the domestics (meal planning, for example) because not only is it something that’s helpful to our relationship when the boyfriend works all day,  I can also focus on and complete these tasks, which is key. Don’t set yourself up for failure because god knows that won’t help.

3. Get out of the House: It’s amazing how much of a relief it can be to simply get yourself outside. I’m the sort of person that struggles to even spend a whole sick day cooped up at home, much less a healthy, empty day. Changing location is really good for my brain especially when I want to get writing doe. But even more so when I’m new to a place, there are the added benefits of getting to know the neighborhood and simply breaking up the day. You head out and exist in this new home of yours, with your new neighbors, be a part of thins. Even if you don’t meet or talk to anyone, you get the chance to join the ranks. Even though it’s awkward at first – especially in a new county, I know – I always feel better for it.

Luckily in Europe, every village has a gathering spot, a central square in front of the church, a park. I can plant myself in the central square of Legnano for as long as I want and spend my time people watching, reading or writing. And if there is a festival or market or something happening, even better. Go to a class, visit a museum, walk around the downtown area. Even if you don’t do much other than look at people and things that you’ve seen before, it’s like you trick your brain into thinking you participated in something, and as social creatures, feeling like we’re a part of a community is really important to happiness.

dsc09454
The town center of Legnano

4. Meet Up Speaking of social community, my new favorite way to feel like I’m in fact a part of the community is to go onto the MeetUp website and hang out with some new people. I’m lucky that in Milano there are a lot of expats and English speakers hanging out (doing everything, from yoga to book clubs to happy hours) almost any day of the week. In most major cities though, you’ll find some assemblage of MeetUps happening, and you can filter based on your interests, therefore honing in on your tribe. Spending a few hours chatting with people who want to meet other new people is awesome, and can really make all the difference in feeling like you’re building the threads that will begin to bind and tie you to a place, in that complex, essential blanket called community.

Then, this is the hard part but I mean it, ask people out on friend dates. If you meet someone cool, especially if the MeetUp isn’t regular or the situation isn’t coordinated, find a way to ask that cool person out for coffee or a drink sometime. I made a pretty strong effort of doing this when I moved to California, since I knew if I was going to last there I needed to make friends outside my circle of other interns, and it felt super awkward, but it worked. I found my way into the circle of some of my best friends ever by asking a quiet astronomer/writer out to coffee after a free writing class, in fact.

And really, most people are looking to hang out with other cool interesting people like yourself too. If you feel a connection with someone, it’s hard to imagine the other person is faking it.

5. Give Yourself Some Grace. It’s OK. Lean into the rough nights and wake up the next day fresh and ready to start over. This time sucks and it sucks for everyone who goes through it in some way, whether it looks like it on facebook or not. Call your friends from home, tell them you love them and miss them and I’m sure they’ll say the same to you. Then step out of your comfort zone and walk around the neighborhood.

Remember to give yourself those 5-6 months for those feelings to level off a bit before you declare how awful the decision was and head home, and enjoy the ride, wherever it leads you. You’re growing from this experience, I promise!

Back roads in the Andes: An Inca Trail Recap

5:00 am. We’re waiting – hundreds of us – huddled in a line before a dimly lit check point. It won’t open for a while yet, and no one is sure on the exact time. So we play games to amuse ourselves, 20 Questions (which proves a little hard with slight variations of the English language between the Americas, Brits, Irish, South Africans and Australians in our group) and Never Have I Ever. We’re chilly: the smoke rising from our lips is illuminated in each of our headlamps, but the excitement of the moment keeps the discomforts at bay as we glance ahead. The last three days of labor and hiking have lead up to this: we’re going to reach the mystical city of Machu Picchu as the sun rises.

998746_10200273142612919_1985722800_n

After an hour of waiting, the line starts to move and we scramble to our feet, pulling out passports and the trail passes we’ve been carrying for the last 40 kilometers, up and down the Andes. Our group is one of the first to go through: Rosa, our guide, woke us early to get as close to the front of the line as possible. The final campground of the Inca Trail is the size of a small village. Other nights we staked out an area more or less to ourselves. But on the last night of the trek all 500 people allowed to start climbing the trail on a given day (including guides, porters and cooks) sleep in this closest campground to the ruins together.

We’ve been hiking for 3 days. We are disheveled, unshowered, most of us a little  sick to the stomach or light headed, but once we make it through the check point, we all but run the trail, making a snake of headlamps midway up the mountain. In the valley below a train can be heard, carrying tourists from Cuzco. We reach the monkey steps: a set of stairs at a nearly 90 degree angle from the ground, which you must climb all all fours like you would a ladder, and at the top our guide waits, shaking our hand and congratulating us as we walk through the Sun Gate.

Below sweeps a dramatic view, and perched upon a small mountain, dwarfed by those that surround us, is the ancient, mysterious Inca city of Machu Picchu.

dsc03318
About an hour after we crossed through the Sun Gate, the sun slowly receded beyond the mountains.
DSC03110
The beginning of the Inca Trail, the 43 kilometer road through the Andes to Machu Picchu.

I don’t remember exactly when or how the idea of climbing the Inca Trail, or even to visit the ruins of Machu Picchu city first piqued my interest. But when I decided that Peru was where I’d spend my summer vacation in 2013, I knew I didn’t want to just see the popular, unfinished UNESCO World Heritage Site. I wanted to take the three day trek through the high altitude Andes in order to reach the city via the stone-paved road built by the Incas. I wanted to camp and to wander the ruins of waysides and smaller cities all along the way. To follow the path the Spaniards never reached when they were warring against the last Inca (emperor) in Ollantaytambo and were lead away from Machu Picchu into the heart of rain forest.

Much has been written about Machu Picchu, and I’m in no way an expert on Inca history. I remember bits and pieces of what we do know about the culture that met it’s match when the Conquistadors showed up. But I wont try to relay any of that here, since it seems trite and beside the point. The point is that when you are actually wandering this back road of the Andes, walking along the stairway built specifically for this journey, all of the details the guide tells you at each resting point create such a tapestry of history and culture against the dramatic mountains, it is more real than any history classroom or museum in the world.

Up and over Dead Woman’s Pass (4,215 meters or 13,828 feet), down the Gringo Killer stairs, through fields of llamas and bypassed by local women carrying huge colorful bundles upon their backs, the Inca Trail is as iconic and difficult as I imagined it to be. The sun is strong and the nights are cold in July, and the oxygen gets thin all the way up there – beginning from the moment you land in Cuzco. Returning to Cuzco five days later is a victory: the knowledge that you crossed those mountains on your own two feet – slept in them, sagged against them, sweat upon them – is buoying.

DSC02910
Cuzco, the capitol of the Inca Empire, is literally layers of conquerors covering one another: the Spanish built their colonial buildings atop the foundation of the city they destroyed.

The Specs

dsc03173-2
Prepping for lunch one afternoon: warm water and soap was provided to wash our hands, chairs, table cloths and napkins shaped like swans waited in the tent.

I traveled with the adventure travel group GAdventuers. It is required that any traveler on the Inca Trail have a permit and travel with a valid tour group. To put it simply, I loved traveling with GAdventures. The guide was informative, helpful and genuinely loved her job (it was almost her 200th time walking the Inca Trail – in 2013! According to Facebook, where we’re friends, she’s still doing it). I loved the company so much, I traveled through Turkey with them a year later – but that’s a different story. GAdventures really went above and beyond just a hike from the beginning to the end of the trail as well: with tours of the Sacred Valley in the days leading up to the hike, comfortable accommodations and great food- they carried a bottle of wine for us to toast the two(!!) couples on their honeymoons and even prepared a cake on the trail for a birthday!

Though it’s not such a problem any more, there was pretty strong porter and resource exploitation in the past. But at the check points mentioned above all porters bags are weighed and travelers are counted, so everyone on the trail today should check out.

The tour was 7 days, with 3 on the trail and 1 hiking the final few kilometers and finishing with a day-long tour of Machu Picchu. We gathered in Cuzco, toured the Sacred Valley and stayed in Ollantaytambo before beginning the hike. We visited village co-ops where we learned how traditional dies and handcrafts are made, and were able to purchase them directly from the women who made them. The price included the entrance fee to the historic site, as well as the train ride back to Cuzco.

Tents were included in the cost of the tour. We were able to rent camping gear (sleeping bags and mats) as well as hiking poles for very affordable costs. Food on the trail was included, but not for the days spent off the trail.

DSC03036
Learning about local handcrafts firsthand on the way to start the trail.

Pro Tip: Carry an extra (charged!) battery and sim card for your camera, because you are going to take a million photos in the three days on the trail, and the last thing you want is to have no more battery left when you get the chance to take that money shot with Machu Picchu behind you, or to be scanning for other photos to delete to make room.

A Word on Porters: Yeah, I felt super weird and colonial about this before I started. I read the description of the hike and thought “I’m strong. I’ve backpacked. I’m walking the trail. Why is someone else carrying my stuff for me? Can I get away without it?”

The short answer is no, and not just because they won’t let you get away with it (by this I mean, you can’t not travel with an authorized guide, and all of the tour groups provide porters). I learned very quickly that even though I had trained for this trip, even though I was a mountain-climbing woman myself, the altitude hit me in a pretty rough way, and if I had had more than my day pack on my back, there’s no way I would have made it.

I also realized once I was on the trail and met our awesome group of porters and cooks, that this is a pretty good job, given the area’s economic situation and the regulations passed to protect their interests. My impression was that they make good money given regional options, have a solid community among the group and take pride in their ability to dash past all the struggling tourists, carrying five times as much as them.

Can You do it? Yes. Absolutely yes you can.

Yes, I did do a lot of hiking and a fair amount of training before this trip, and sure, you should be in decent shape before embarking upon something like this. But the fact of the matter is, you’re not hiking that far every day (the most is about 12 kilometers, or about 7 miles, and you have all day to cover the distance). And no one, not even the most fit, can account for how the altitude will affect them once they are on the ground – or really close to the sky, as the case may be. I was horrified when I started getting as sick as I did, and perturbed by the man who hadn’t done a day of prep for the trek and was able to walk up the steep mountainside no problem, but such is life. There were all age ranges in our party, and many fitness levels.

And even if you do get sick, so sick that you are literally vomiting off the side of the mountain, so sick that you force your body to walk five steps up before you sit down on the next step and gulp for breath for several minutes before you can do five more… Even if the guide has to lay you down on those steps and give you give you five minutes of straight oxygen from a small tank she’s been carrying (something she will inform you with a careful smile she does very rarely), you’ll make it up that mountain and back down the other side.

I promise. This exact thing may or may not have happened to a… ahem, *friend* of mine.

dsc03208
On the final full day on the trail we passed through this ruin. Completely inaccessible except by the Inca Trail, you pass through many more hidden treasures by taking the long way.

As we walked through Machu Picchu, suddenly surrounded by tourists who had woken up that morning in Aguas Calientes (the town at the base of mountain), taken showers and gotten their makeup just right before arriving to pose for their photos, I didn’t at all wish that I was one of them. It wasn’t exactly a spiritual experience for me to have walked through those mountains, as it may have been for the Incas who built the trail and city, but it was a massively rewarding one.

And if it’s one that piques your interest, it’s most definitely the way you deserve to experience these incredible mountains and the history hiding within them.

machu-picchu

Minnesota’s North Shore: Why you need to add it to your Bucket List

One thing that has continually amazed me as I travel and live in different cities around the USA is how rarely people appreciate the incredible place I was raised.The Midwest is so often written off as “flyover country”, and the Great Lakes seen as freezing, industrial, unsalted seas. I have come to think that the North Shore of Lake Superior is an utterly unappreciated gem of our country, and I can’t count the number of times I’ve argued with people who assume I left this place for lack of culture or inspiration. Let me set the record straight: I can’t fully explain why I felt compelled to leave, but it was not  because I needed new trails to hike or lakes to swim in.

Especially if you like camping and outdoor adventure, Northern Minnesota is one of a kind for rugged wilderness. How many other places can you find more than a million acres of lakes, rivers and forest, untouched by mining, logging and motorized vehicles? Where else can you hike for hundreds of miles along the largest lake in the world, all the way to the Canadian Border?

Though it’s a little off the beaten path of many of the classic American road trips, I believe that making a trip Up North is well worth the divergence, and that you’ll start to feel the magic as soon as you drive over the hill in Duluth and see Lake Superior stretching before you for the first time.

dsc08174
At Palisade Head, the highest point along the North Shore of Lake Superior, just north of Silver Bay, MN.

Duluth, MN

Nearly every trip to the North Shore begins in Duluth, and it’s a city worth spending at least a day or two exploring. As the largest and farthest-west freshwater seaport in North America, Duluth’s harbor is busy and bustling all summer long with huge cargo vessels from all around the world (the boyfriend and I have joked about how many a ship will leave Duluth full of grain grown in the Midwest of the USA, bound for Italy to be transformed into pasta “Made in Italy”, then shipped back to the States for consumption) and it’s possible to watch the ships come into the harbor underneath the unique Aerial Lift Bridge. Duluth isn’t the rough shipping town it once was, though. Today it is a fantastic place to live and visit, named Best Town in America by Outdoors Magazine in 2014 and a perfect launching point for a North Shore adventure. You’ll find a plethora of parks and hiking trails in town, lots of unique shopping, good food, good microbrewed beer and plenty of museums to get you antiquated with the history of the area and vast variety of natural resources.

I’d recommend getting a hotel room in Canal Park, where you can walk to historic downtown and along the lake, braving a quick dip into Lake Superior on the beach at Park Point, prepping for outdoor excursions at the Duluth Pack Shop and making sure to drive up the hill to climb Enger Tower where one can truly appreciate the hugeness of Lake Superior from her mouth.

For more about what’s happening in Duluth during your visit (so many awesome summer festivals!) and for all the info you need to plan a great stay in the coolest* city in the USA, click here.

*Note: The huge, cold lake can cause pretty dramatic temperature shifts, even in the middle of August so being sure you’ve got a sweatshirt in your bag for your trek up the North Shore in case the wind’s change direction!

Superior Hiking Trail

unnamed
A section of the Superior Hiking Trail which runs just a few miles from my parent’s house.

Think Appalachian or Pacific Crest Trails, but along the North Shore of Lake Superior. The Superior Hiking Trail runs 310 miles (499km) along the length of the the lake from south of Duluth to the Canadian Border, and is dotted with  93 free rustic campsites along the way. The portion of the trail reaching Jay Cooke State Park and the WI border was just completed this summer, 30 years after the original vision of the Trail was begun.  Along the way, you’ll hike through boreal forests, up and down the ancient Sawtooth Mountains, past smaller lakes and rivers and catch glimpses (and breezes!) of the incredible Lake Superior nearby.

You can take a day hike (I recommend heading north from Silver Bay towards Bean Lake and Mt. Trudee for some spectacular views and a good work out) or you can spend months on the trail, enjoying the changing landscape of the lake shore intimately.

Check out all the trail information, including sections for day hiking, backpacking and thru-hiking here, or stop in the Superior Hiking Trail Association office in Two Harbors.

dsc08623
A section of the Superior Hiking Trail, climbing Carlton Peak near Tofte.

State Parks

Maybe you don’t have the time, energy or gear to get too far off the highway? The great news is whether you’re traveling north of Duluth by foot or by car, it’s easy to get out and experience the highlights of the area. Highway 61 winds up the coast of Lake Superior through a handful of small towns and 8 fantastic state parks where you can stop and take a short or long hike or camp for the night.

Just north of Two Harbors is Gooseberry Falls State Park, a non-negotiable in my personal tour of the neighborhood for newcomers. You don’t need to pay an entrance fee to park at the great visitor’s center and follow the easy, paved path to the breaking point of a three-tired waterfall rushing over the ancient volcanic stones which make the lake shore so unique. A little farther up the shore, Split Rock Light House is an iconic landmark, and in the summer you can take tours of the historic site. Temperance River State Park features a short, moderate hike along the gorges the river must pass through to reach Lake Superior which  you cannot miss.

Check out more about each of the parks you’ll find along the road here.

BWCA

dsc08204If you are looking for wilderness like you’ve never experienced before, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area is a treasure you must explore first hand to believe. Over a million acres have been set aside in the chain of lakes, rivers and short portages where no logging or mining and not a single motor vehicle is allowed. You explore the land the way the French Canadian voyageurs did in the 18th and 19th centuries: by canoe. In order to camp in the BWCA, not only do you need a permit, you’ll need to cross lakes, carry your canoe and gear through the forests for short (less than a mile typically) portages, and seek out the rustic camp grounds that dot the lake shores. It’s a fair amount of work, and takes preparation, but for the intrepid, it is a rare journey into a true wilderness area. One where you can really see the incredible star-filled sky, hear the loon’s eerie calls across the still water and disconnect away from the modern world as you swim, hike and bask in the wilderness.

It is possible to just go out paddling for a day, too. For all sorts of gear rental (by the 1/2 day or longer), as well as for quick tutorials on canoe carrying and BWCA info, I recommend Sawbill Outfitters, on Sawbill Lake, about 20 miles inland from the town of Tofte.

Grand Marais, MN

Of all the towns along the North Shore to stop at, I believe Grand Marais is probably my favorite. It’s far enough away from Duluth that the 1,300 people who live there have really chosen to be up north, whether for artistic or personal reasons, and the town culture reflects this. You’ll find more breweries, outfitters and artist’s shops, a marina and plenty of smoked fish to eat as well as festivals and unique events throughout the year. It was named the Coolest Small Town in America in 2015, in fact. (And I believe that may mean both temperature and quality of fun.)

The first time I brought my boyfriend here, he looked northwards, into the horizon of cold water and said “I truly feel like I’m at the end of the earth here – but there is a whole country and continent still beyond!” This feeling only intensified when we came back in the winter. The fact remains that Grand Marais does have the feeling of the farthest place one can go before they’re falling off the map.

If you’re partial to sleeping in town rather than a tent, Grand Marais makes a great home base for plenty of small day trips into the wilderness. If you want to see something truly incredible and spend some extra cash, grab a table (and or a bed) at the spectacular Naniboujou Lodge.

Winter

Yes, most of the activities I’ve described above are summer-based, but don’t disregard the long, cold Minnesota winter as off-season! Throughout the winter months, the North Shore is busy with cross country and downhill skiing, sled dog races and tours, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, surfing (no, I’m not joking!) and general fireside, hot coco sipping. There are a plethora of resorts that cater to the winter crowds and with a good base layer, you can find just as much delight on a cold January day as a hot August one.

dsc08069
The yard of my parent’s house near Duluth, January

At the heart of my love for Northern Minnesota is not just the artists and adventurers who live here, not just the history of hard work and industry, not just the trees and trails and lakes, it’s not the silence of the forest and the sound of folk music. It is truly Lake Superior, the cool, calm, powerful force of nature that is unlike any other body of water I’ve come across in my travels round the world. Lake Superior is a grand mystery which calms and confounds, breathes quietly and shouts with winter gales. This water is ageless, it is uncompromising. But every once in a while it is forgiving, and you find the tides have turned just enough: you can slip into the water for a swim: an incredible gift, a quick submersion into something more ancient and intimate than any ocean who’s held me.

Go, and discover the gift that’s waiting for you in this incredible place.

13934792_10206874746808898_6175874239688701071_n

minnesota-must-do

On Learning Italian (for real this time) and Working Towards Balance

The Guest House

Rumi

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
As an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.


There is something particular (magical?) about transitions and the art of uprooting one’s life which I believes lends itself towards profound clarity. Outside the protection of routine, light shines in on every part of your life and self, and choices you’ve made or did not make step froward. Relationships that have fallen away, habits you relied on, hopes dreams and fears you’ve been able to ignore all stand before you in the new light of creating rhythm. It’s uncomfortable, and it’s tedious, but I think there is a place for it in our lives from time to time.

I say that uprooting one’s life is an art because like art, it takes practice and you are bound to fail and flail, and then suddenly you look around and see something at the center of it all that you can expand upon, take with you to the next step of the journey.

I started Italian courses this week. Beyond the basics of the language, I learned a lot of things, including that no matter where you are in the world, and no matter how old you become, every language class is essentially the same. The same cast of characters is in the room: the people muttering words under their breath, the eager, the distracted, the utterly lost. They just happen to come from all over the world – Brazil, Nepal, Hong Kong, Yemen.  Even here my classmates lift their feet a few inches off the ground, legs straight out before them when they know the answer but have not been called upon. It is a relief to find myself (after nearly 2 years of beat bopping around with DuoLingo and spending about 2 months combined in Italy before this) squarely in the middle of the beginners class, which is better than I’ve ever found myself in a language class.

I also came to quickly learn that my story – the one I could hardly believe happened in real life, it seemed so unreal and magical – is utterly repetitious. In the class of 9, at least 7 of us are here because we have fallen in love with an Italian. I asked the teacher at the end of the class if this was a common percentage (in all the broken Italian I could muster) and he nodded in a way which I couldn’t  quite read: was it exasperation for the obnoxiousness of all this amore, relief for job security or the normal emphatic nature of the Italian language? The proper pronunciation of these words themselves, I’ve learned, leads to waving your hands around, making dramatic faces. It feels emotional. It feels dramatic. I like it more and more.

Even just four days into the class, I’m anxiously waiting for the other shoe to drop, for the moment when I suddenly stop being able to understand the teacher and loose the basic concepts we’re covering and fall behind forever, which is my typical modus operandi in language courses. Before I arrived I kept telling people (and therefore myself) that what I needed to actually start speaking the Italian I basically understood was this class. I needed to be able to get used to speaking, to be able to make mistakes without my wonderful, handsome boyfriend or his lovely, eager family watching me excitedly. The stakes always feel so high and my fumblings so much more embarrassing. And, as if I called it forth by magic, this class has been exactly what I needed.

More than just the language (though many people, including the boyfriend and the elderly neighbor who always seems to be walking out his door at the same time as me, have told me that I am speaking better and with more confidence in just four days), when I arrived in that first day of class I felt really purposeful for the first time in the two weeks that I’ve been here. I have routine. I have a goal.  And I have 8 other people in this huge city who not only know me – if even just a little bit – they are in the same boat as me. We’re doing this thing together. I found my newest version of my tribe, for this very particular moment in my life. In that knowledge there is such relief, I walked away from the first class electric.

unnamed

I kept saying, in those final long weeks before my plane finally took off, that once I got my feet on the ground here, I’d start walking. I always have. It’s always served me well. And both metaphorically and physically, I’ve been doing a lot of walking lately. Passing time, gaining my footing on the roads through Milan and Legnano, revisiting places that I had been in April.

 This spring, I stood in the courtyard of the Basilica de San’Ambrogio in Milano, an incredible example of Romanesque architecture, one morning and found myself weeping. I had been visiting Milan, staying with my boyfriend at his mom’s house for two and a half weeks, trying desperately to peer forward into my life to come. I felt as though I was looking up a mountain, imagining what the apartment we were moving into would look like completed, envisioning myself walking these streets every day, speaking Italian with confidence. I could see it, but barely.

That morning I was overcome with emotions, and I wept openly. Not entirely good emotions, not entirely bad. The thing about transitions is they are full of emotions, no matter how much you prep yourself for the onslaught. They are like riptides, pulling me under one day and warm waves I can rest upon the next. One minute, the move is the best decision you’ve made in your life, and you can see the community you’ll have, the home you’ll make clearly. The next, you’ve never felt so alone and you can’t believe you gave up the life you just walked away from. There has never been a question for me, from the moment I turned around and really looked this kind, wonderful man in the eyes, that this is my path. But that does not mean it’s not emotional and overwhelming sometimes. The best thing to do, I know, is give into the waves and currents, let them come and go and see where you end up, what the view is when it all calms down. As Rumi says, “Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.”

Today I’m a little bit farther down the road, a few switchbacks up the mountain. Not where I imagine myself to be, certainly (for godsakes it’s been two weeks!), but being here now is entirely different from my visit in April. Today I walked to San’Ambrogio again and stood in the courtyard again. I felt emotional again, but in a different way. Still not entirely good, or entirely bad. Whatever it is, I am relishing it, and walking, if not running, towards it.

 I am here. Sono qui.

14184350_10207027613990482_2155347515945329394_n

Why You Should WWOOF at Least Once in Your Life

Travel cheaply, gain unique cultural experiences and learn some new skills by choosing a whole different way to travel next time you’re abroad (or just over the next state line!)

I think it was from my cousin, who had just bought a book with tips on traveling the world on a budget, that I first learned about WWOOFing. Though it would be years before I had the opportunity to dig my fingers into the soil of my first farm, I was instantly hooked on the idea. The World Wide Opportunities On Organic Farms project allows intrepid and willing travelers the opportunity to work and stay on organic farms all over the world for free, in exchange for their helping hands throughout the day. It’s an affordable opportunity to have a unique experience while traveling.

Since I first latched onto the idea, I’ve volunteered at a range of organic farms across Europe. In 2009, I spent a few weeks on a goat and pig farm in County Donegal, Ireland. We also worked in the garden and helped to run the “Farm Shop” in the nearby town where the hosts sold organic goods from farms around the community. In 2014, I spent two weeks each on a goat farm in Germany and a vineyard in Greece. Each farm was incredibly different, with differing amounts of other volunteers working along side me, different types of hosts – from families to bachelors – and daily routines, including schedules, cooking and days off to explore.

Each time I’ve WWOOFed, I have had an incredible experience, and I’m here to argue that every traveler should consider adding at least one WWOOFing adventure to your next vacation. See why, and how-to, below!

DSC05525
Picking grapes in Greece, on the vineyard where I WWOOFed in 2014

Why you should definitely WWOOF next time you travel

  1. It fits the budget!
    One of the most important aspects of any trip is to set and maintain a budget, and just because something is free does not mean it’s not worth it! When you WWOOF, the basic agreement is you work 5-6 hours a day, 5-6 days a week in exchange for three meals a day and a place to sleep. This means you can have large periods of time where you are not spending large chunks of cash to merely survive in a place, allowing you to even extend a trip while still maintaining a small budget! Do keep in mind that you will need to pay the cost of arriving and departing your farm, as well as any side trips you want to take on your days off, or dinner and drink excursions you want to enjoy with your fellow WWOOFers in the nearest town.
  2. Local experiences
    One of the great joys of travel is authentic, cross-cultural experiences. Yes, museums, historic sites and opulent cityscapes hold a special place in any traveler’s heart, but no one can deny that it is the simple, person to person exchanges which truly create our memories of a place. When you WWOOF, you are invited into someone’s home, you experience their rhythms, food and lifestyle in the most intimate way. I have also been invited to several parties, met interesting neighbors and gotten a first-hand view of the life in the country I’m visiting, from traditional folk dancing in Greece to a beer festival in Germany.
  3. Get off the beaten path
    It goes without saying that if you’re on a farm, you probably won’t be within the city limits of the capital of whatever country you’re visiting. Just by arriving, you’ll push the boundaries of the normal vacation routes, discover hidden gems with tips from your hosts, and get to know a whole new region or village.

    1917697_1096201286944_5303527_n
    The view from the farm in Donegal, Ireland, where I WWOOFed in 2009, across the Foyle to Northern Ireland.
  4. Gain some skills
    Full disclosure: I DID grow up in the countryside with a heavy exposure to organic farm life. My family had a small a hobby farm, with rabbits, goats and sheep in the yard, there were plenty of horses to ride throughout the neighborhood and our next door neighbor had a full-scale organic berry farm, where I “worked” every summer. So, no, heading out to clean the barn isn’t brand new for me. That being said, from what I’ve heard from hosts, the fact that I have any experience with farming makes me stand out from the crowd of volunteers.
    The whole idea of WWOOFing is that you can learn about organic farming, and who knows when potato picking, vegetable weeding and goat milking will come in handy later in life? I’ve also learned how to cook some incredible dishes – including stuffed grape leaves and home made cheese – how to rotate crops and repair fencing on my various farms.
  5. De-Stress and Re-Establish Rhythm
    This can be especially vital if you are on a long-term, think month+, trip. Everyone has their own limit, but no one can be a tourist every day forever, no matter how much fun it is. When I arrived on Lipisi Island in Greece, I had spent 6+ weeks city hoping like it was my job, and I was so tired of repacking my backpack every morning and not sleeping in the same bed for more than two nights in a row.
    For me, at least, a sense of routine and a project to work on, even while I’m in another fascinating country, brings purpose and relieves stress on the road. Getting my hands dirty and quieting way down internally has proven to be a greatly rejuvenating process in the midst of traveling.
DSC04748
Early morning fog rises on the family farm in Bavaria, Germany, where I WWOOFed in 2014.

Tips for making the most out of WWOOFing 

  1. Choose your optimal country and farm type before you buy a subscription
    The first step to finding your perfect farm is the visiting the WWOOFing Website. Nearly every country has their own separate WWOOFing network, and there is a small annual subscription fee for each country where you want to begin reaching out to hosts. They vary in technical skills (the best I’ve seen being Ireland and the worst being Croatia) but most allow you to make a profile for yourself and view the hosts profiles so you can get a sense of who they are before sending them a message. Also, before you purchase the subscription you can usually preview hosts site’s without any contact details being shown, so you can get a sense of who’s out there before forking over the cash.
  2. Communicate with your host before arrival
    Every farm is different, and  you can get a good sense of the daily activities you’ll be participating in, the expectations of hours, the proximity of the closest town, how any other volunteers will be there, etc, just by communicating. You’ll also get a good feel for your hosts English competency, which can make a huge difference once your on the ground.
    Also, be mindful of clarity in communication, don’t lie or exaggerate: you’ll be showing up in this person’s home, remember! One slightly embarrassing mistake I made was telling my host in Germany that my train arrived in the closest town at 4:30, not clarifying I meant in the afternoon. Europe being generally on a 24 hour clock, she assumed I meant morning and was NOT pleased when she took the 20 minute trek into town very early and I never showed. (Luckily I had a German friend who helped clear the situation up before I arrived and we smoothed everything over once I got to work!) In my opinion, there is nothing wrong with dotting your i’s, crossing your t’s, and double checking everything is clear, especially if language barriers are involved.
  3. Be open minded, have patience with yourself, the situation and those working with you
    Try to leave expectations at the door and go with the flow. Try something new, even if it’s not what you thought farming was. You may be surprised, or uncomfortable in some moments, but getting outside of your comfort zone is most certainly going to provide you with a story, and is one of the greatest rewards of an overseas adventure.

It’s fair to say that my WWOOFing experiences have created the vivid memories and are often more interesting than even museums and walking tours of historic city centers (and I’m a sucker for these things). Even if you only try once, you’ll come home with real life experiences and relationships in your back pocket, which are irreplaceable.

Plus, it’s not exactly a direct result of the WWOOFing, but it’s worth mentioning I did meet the love of my life on that Greek island I’d never have heard of if I hadn’t gone to the vineyard! You never know what you’ll find along the way.

wwoofing