Touring Morocco, From Marrakesh On (Part 2)

I just spent a week in Morocco – my first time in the country and my first time in Africa – and for such a comparatively short amount of time, I have a lot to say about this incredible place. This is my third post on the matter, so if you need to get yourself caught up, check out Touring Morocco Part 1 or enjoy some travel-log-style writing with this post.

dsc00251

To continue with my advice and thoughts on my own and any future journeys into Morocco, here are some lists, because who doesn’t love a good list in a blog?

Morocco Tips

  • Find yourself a good riad or hostel, because you’re gonna need an oasis as you acclimate. I stayed at Equity Point Hostel which was AMAZING. For 12 Euros a night, I had a bed in an all-female dorm, access to a pool and rooftop terrace and hung around in a beautiful riad setting. The hostel has a hammam, organizes daily excursions to surrounding areas and had some of the friendliest staff I’ve met in a long time. No matter where you stay, you’ll be headed back there to regroup after a day in the heat and chaos of the city, so consider papering yourself a little.
  • Have plenty of small coins in your hard-to-break-into purse for tips. From street performers who catch your eye to a local who helps you find your hotel (trust me, you’ll probably need this the first time so it’s better to just let it happen), to restaurants and bathroom attendants, tipping is an integral part of life here. And really, with 10 dirham being about $1, you can probably spare a couple of coins here and there to show your appreciation.
  •  No matter who you are – but perhaps especially as a woman – it’s best to cover your knees and shoulders in deference to local customs. Yes, even men. Yes, even though it’s god-awfully hot out there. Especially if you are traveling outside of the tourist centers of major cities, you’ll blend in a little better and show respect to the locals (and hide more skin from the hot sunlight) with a little more fabric.
  • One of the many delights of Jamaa el-Fnna in Marrakesh is the nightly extravaganza of restaurants which spring up out seemingly of nowhere. They don’t have names, just a number, and all the food is priced the same, so there’s no need to try hunt for a deal. The eager menu-brandishing staff members of this area were some of the most intense salesmen I came across in the country, so it’s tempting to just sit down at the first place you get swept into, but look for where the Moroccans are sitting. The stalls that start empty tend to stay empty through the night. I don’t think any of the food here is going to blow you away, but by following the crowd you’ll find the best that’s out there.
  • This is an untested hypothesis, but if you are generally allergic to farm animals and/or dust, bring some meds. I was sneezing and sniffling my face off and there wasn’t much plant life to be found which would make my allergies flare. I have been allergic to horses for a long time (much to my personal horror since I adore bareback riding) and with the donkeys wandering the souks, horse-drawn carriages clopping around and general dust of the desert concentrated on such small streets, some Claritin might just have given me some relief.
  • Let yourself get lost in a Medina. Trying to keep yourself straight is probably a hopeless cause anyway, and part of the experience is letting yourself get swallowed in and thrown back out somewhere new, like a tannery, or a neighborhood clean on the other side of town, or the place you were looking for yesterday that you gave up on finding. Also, yeah, there are signs pointing out some landmarks, but I found those pretty unhelpful and often sent me on very roundabout journeys.

dsc00151

Here is perhaps the question I’ve been asked the most since I’ve come home: Would I recommend Morocco for another woman traveling alone? If you had asked me my first full day there, after a hot afternoon of wandering lost through the Medina and being cajoled and shouted at and even followed for several hours, I would have told you that I honestly didn’t know. Now that I’m back at home, safe and relishing the challenge and adventure of it all though, I’d say: yes of course you can.

No matter what, no matter who you’re with, no matter how seasoned of a traveler you are, Morocco is one of many countries in the world where you’ll need a thick skin. Everyone will talk to you, give you unsolicited directions, try to pull you into their shop, walk up alongside you tell you about a market or a museum you need to visit nearby (“But I’m not asking for money! I promise!”) or just outright ask for money.

And yes, I even got the dreaded “Mademoiselle! You should be smiling! You’d be more beautiful if you smiled!” calls from shopkeepers while I made my way through the maze of streets.

Perhaps it was my inability to understand any Arabic slurs thrown my way, perhaps I got lucky and perhaps as a tourist I was shielded from the worst of it, because this article came out (and was shared with me more than once) while I was in the country. It’s worth a read for a better understanding of the situation Moroccan women face daily, which I think even a tourist should take a moment to recognize.

Trying to balance not being rude with actually moving from place to place without getting sucked into any sort of scam or pushy conversation was hard for me. In the end, all of the advice I heard beforehand was right: the best thing to do is answer politely but forcefully “No, thank you” and walk away. This didn’t mean I was actually left alone. Sometimes, there were shouts from behind, usually there was a moment of pleading, of false promises, then a scoff. Once a faux-guide followed and followed me, asking followup questions about my dismissal of being shown to an argon factory nearby.”But why? Where have you seen something like this? You must. You are in Morocco. Don’t you like Moroccan people?” Showing a vague interest and implying that I’d come about around later didn’t really help. (However with a Minnesota, the real meaning behind “Sounds interesting. Maybe I’ll come back” couldn’t be more clear.) When I finally said “I feel sick and I’m going to my hostel” he insisted he had medicine for me. I finally got away and, though I was flustered, shook it off. I was going back to the hostel anyway and could breathe a bit. But Marrakesh isn’t that big of a city, and I ran into said local every single day. He would come up behind me, inquire about my heath, thank me for finally coming back, accuse me of being an ungracious guest in his country, demand I acknowledge him, follow me asking questions for several meters. I couldn’t help but think that even if I had a girl friend with me, it would be more of an annoyance we could roll our eyes at and less of a daily gut-level worry of how long it would take to shake the guy and his comments.

I will say sincerely that even in the annoyances, the Moroccan people felt genuinely kind. They usually told me “Welcome, you are most welcome to your second home!” and it didn’t feel like they were just saying that. But I also just wanted to shout “Listen, can you just give me a second to enjoy your country?” If I had followed every direction or answered every call shouted in my direction, I’d still be in Marrakesh right now. I felt like I couldn’t pause and take anything in, or so much as glance at a shop (dark sunglasses were my best friend) or snake charmer or juice stand without being cornered and it was exhausting.

Though I never actually felt in danger, got pickpocketed or was groped, in the end, I did spend a lot of the time I was alone wishing someone was with me. But this was where my choice of accommodation did what I needed it to. The beauty of a hostel is there are always other travelers looking for new acquaintances. At night, I always ventured out with others and I was much more comfortable even in the day when with other people. I also got better prices bartering when I wasn’t on my own.

dsc00290
In the village of Ait Benhaddou, east of the Atlas Mountains.

I won’t lie: there were times when I found myself on streets that were really interesting, in places the guidebook recommended, but where when I looked around and realized I hadn’t seen another tourist for 15 minutes, I turned back. If I had a friend with me, even another female friend, I wouldn’t have been worried, but the situation felt as if it called for a little prudence. I kept thinking about my boyfriend’s recounting of his time in Morocco and felt jealous of how in so many of his stories he described being a part of the local culture, of really immersing himself, of hopping in a petit taxi and riding to a village and finding a guest house and meeting locals. I on the other hand, felt like I had to keep myself at a little bit of a distance for safety and sanity’s sake.

ALL OF THAT BEING SAID, I thoroughly enjoyed Morocco. I met other women who were traveling farther and more bravely alone. I often did find genuine kindness from the locals: even in their cajoling there’s a bit more interaction and welcome than one finds on the streets of Paris, for example.

And there is no where else in the world quite like Morocco. Any traveler is rewarded for their intrepidness here with stunning, star-filled nights in the Sahara, the sounds and sights of Jamaa el-Fnna day or night and the particular madness that is a Moroccan Medina, which, yes, includes a fair amount of cajoling.

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!

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

August 30th

It is two years to the day since I spent a beautiful, sunny morning on the porch of a farm house on the Greek Island Lipsi. I had a hearty breakfast, sipped my coffee slowly and spent hours breathing deeply, looking out over the vineyards, fig trees and white church roofs, towards the looming hill in the distance: a place legendary for being the home of Calypso and the castle where she kept Odysseus hostage for 7 years.

I was incredibly peaceful, hopeful.

It had been nearly two months since I started my solo backpacking trip across Europe, and I had done a lot of work to weed out and process a lot of things which had been bogging my mind down for some time. I had truly hit my stride. I was centered, focused and happy in so many ways. I had confidence in myself as a woman and my dreams as achievable. For the first time, I felt I could truly articulate  what I wanted in my life, and as such, I had a newfound clarity in what I needed in a life partner. I meditated on this. Let the things I knew and understood soak into my core. Believed so deeply that I would find who I was meant to find when the time was right. And for the first time in my life, I had overwhelming patience, reverence for the journey, and certainty that he would show up eventually. No sooner than I needed him to.

This trip was most certainly not about love, I had decided long before.

DSC05542
Lipsi Island, Greece, in the Eastern Aegean is a quiet, agricultural community where one will find a plethora of vacationing Italians during the month of August.

It was my day off from working out on the farm, so I proceeded to pack up my towel and Kindle, and walked across the island to Platis Galios beach, and happened to sit down next to the love of my life.

Two years to the day later, I’m sitting in the living room of our new home, listening to the voices of Italians rushing just outside the window. I am continually surprised by which things catch me off guard when it comes to the move,  and the proximity of our windows to the street is one of those things. I mean, I’ve lived in BIG cities before, it’s not like I need exorbitant amounts of privacy. But people’s faces just below the window sill, with no grass to speak up separating us from the sidewalk are still a little jarring. Not to mention every time I go to look out the window, I meet the eyes of about 12 old Italian ladies who are looking out their own windows in the surrounding apartments, which makes me quickly retreat. I am not ready, somehow, to stand among their numbers. Partly because let me tell you – eye contact really happens in Italy, in a way that is pretty jarring to me and my Midwestern lookawayquickly habits.

I’ve been here a week. I’ve walked around Legnano, I’ve walked around Milan. I’ve done some nesting, but am anxious to actually hang the art and maps on the walls. I’ve adapted to the time zone. I’ve established that I can, in fact, find the ingredients to cook some of my favorite dishes here. I’ve swam in Alpine lakes with the boyfriend’s friends at a birthday party. I’ve “settled in”, as people keep inquiring, pretty quickly and adequately. It’s kind of a specialty of mine after so many moves.

unnamed
                                                  Streets of Legnano, the newest home.

Physically being somewhere, and mentally feeling at home, are obviously two different things, though. And I ache for routine. In fact, I’ve ached for routine for the last year and a half. Waitressing at two different restaurants for seven months certainly filled my savings account, but all of the last minute “Hey, do you think you can open tomorrow,” texts, and having to choose between making up to $800 in a crazy, double shift studded weekend or spending time with friends took it’s toll on me. Plus, I’m almost scared to admit it, but 27 doesn’t feel as young as I thought it would at 17, and those profound Monday morning aches in the soles of my feet after three 12-14 hours days? Brutal.

I have found myself needing to gently remind myself that no matter what, I’ve only been here a week. And next week I start Italian classes, which will give me at least some of that routine. I know logically that no matter what, no matter where one moves, it’s always a little awkward and strange to get barrings and find meaning. The waking hours of a day can feel unreasonably long in the right circumstances, and having no actual purpose, persay, but my own goals and images of life here over the next 5 months, exacerbates this.

Perhaps what’s hardest is that I’ve been holding out for this moment for SO long. A year only seems long when you stand at the front end, I kept telling myself. It is a long time to build towards something, though. And when you’ve held out that long for some version of a Big Thing, the Thing actually arriving and not being immediately transcendent can be a let down, no matter how many times you remind yourself in the lead up that these things take time. I know this. I’ve moved before. Not to mention this move is bigger and badder than any in the past.

And it is utterly worth it. The awkwardness, the spaces I’m growing into, the challenge of language learning is nothing compared to the ease with which the central part of this move, my relationship and our shared life, wraps me up and brings me certainty in the meaning of this. It is OK – even necessary – to face challenges, even in the most beautiful story. These things do not discount the truth of the incredible journey we are on and the heart of this move or the “rightness” of my path.

At some moments, it doesn’t seem like much has happened in the last two years, or like the real journey is only just beginning. Then the other part of me, the woman who sat centered and focused in Greece and called forth exactly what she wanted most, steps up and reminds me of all we’ve created, all the work I’ve done and the fact that this journey has chosen me – both of these truths at once. It is both the most incredible and the most natural place in the world to be in today, this Italian apartment.

Putting the Cart Before the Horse

Maybe it’s the new year, maybe it’s just about time. I’m going out on a limb here. I’ve decided to own the thing I want more than anything else in the world: I am an artist.

I’m also willing to admit that I’m terrified to admit this so bluntly.

In 2014 I quit my job and spend six months backpacking across Europe, staying in hostels and working on farms and meeting new people every day. I decided early on in the trip that when people asked what I did for a living, I would tell them that I am a writer. And for the first time in my adult life, I was choosing to be a writer: I was working creatively every day, and pulled together a second draft of my first novel. I felt more in tune with myself, more productive and more fulfilled than I had in years. It was really good.

Calling myself an artist is scary. Can you say that you are a writer if you have never had anything published? If only your friends – and mom’s friends – read and like your blog? If one of my friends asked me these questions, I would tell them that yes, yes of course you can call yourself a writer under these conditions. You are who you say you are. But giving myself this same permission is a whole different story. Once I started owning it, though, telling people that I’m a writer and answering questions about the current manuscript, I found that people were not laughing in my face or demanding to see a published hardcover. Instead, they were supportive and excited. Sure, a few people would clearly be thinking something about me saying I’m a writer when I’m only working on the first novel, but that’s feedback anyone receives from some people about any gig or passion, right?

Here’s the thing I realized recently about being an artist: there is going to be a point where you have the put the cart before the horse, be a little presumptuous and do what it is you want to do, even if there are not publishers clambering at the door or an agent asking how the latest draft is going. Yes, the chances of “making it” are slim, but sitting at home, writing away but not sharing with gumption certainly won’t get me any father along this road.

No one gives you permission to be a writer, to travel, or to pursue any of your dreams. These things you have to take for yourself, and prove to others that you deserve them. I’m finally ready to do that.

IMG_2469
One of the many cafes where I found inspiration during my trip.

Sometimes I feel as though my personality is a balance of being at once an audacious risk taker a well as a careful Minnesotan who wouldn’t bother anyone by tooting her own horn. Day by day, both these women wake up, have a cup of coffee then begin arguing about which one I will embody that day. It’s a fight, but we deserve the things we work for, not only those we desire.

Never before have I been so scared to claim anything, but it’s right there in front of me, mine to have if I reach out my hand and grab it.

All of these things that we do in life are risks. Hopefully calculated risks, but risks all the same. And I’d like to think of myself as the sort of woman who takes audacious risks, who quits her job and buys a one way ticket to Europe, who opens up her heart to the handsome stranger on the beach, who is owning who she truly wants to me and building her life up around that.

Now, just watch me.