In May, I took a one-month long hiatus that lazily turned into three months. First, I spent a month WWOOFing in Belgium (will explain), which involved a lot of physical labor and little internet. Then, I cut my WWOOFing time a few days short to make it home for a family event, which turned into a few weeks of family gatherings, which progressed into a few months of finally taking care of my body through physical therapy and laying in the sun. I finally find myself with just one month left in my parents’ California home, preparing for yet another 24-hour voyage to France (it’s much cheaper than a direct flight), and guiltily providing a late summary of my summer here. I’m sure this post will be too vague, but I’ll reflect more specifically on a variety of these topics as the months progress. And, as always, I’ve splattered it with some book and travel suggestions to keep in theme with the blog.
In high school, I did a short stint of vegetarianism after reading some literature on meat production. I don’t know what exactly I read, but check out The Omnivore’s Dilemma if you’re interested in recruitment. When I moved away to university, I found myself with a variety of food intolerances and limited cafeteria options, making it impossible to be vegetarian and not starve. So, I reluctantly jumped back on the meat wagon (which proved useful when studying abroad in Strasbourg and Buenos Aires), and have since dwindled back into a quasi-pescatarian lifestyle.
I have a confession to make: I ate so much meat in Provence. The sudden change was again motivated by literature, see: A Pig in Provence by Georgeanne Brennan. The book pretty much summarizes my philosophy on meat (is that a thing?): when I do eat it, I make sure it comes from local, grass-fed, well-treated animals whose entire existence goes to use. A Pig in Provence even offers local provençal recipes for parts of the animal I didn’t even know existed, and emphasizes the point that meat is a luxury, especially when accompanied by grand ceremony and the knowledge all of our ancestors used to have. I have gone back to my vegetable-based lifestyle, but on the occasion that I do eat meat at a local restaurant, I try to avoid hormones and slaughter houses.
After Provence, I traveled back to a city I had once called home for a month: Bordeaux. Here, I kept myself busy with an F. Scott Fitzgerald classic, reminiscing on day trips to Cannes and the Antibes, and a new favorite, L’Usage du Monde (En: The Way of the World). I found the book in a French bookstore, and its back cover suggests that it’s the original travel novel, written before such a genre even existed, and widely popular. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think it’s as popular in the English-speaking world, though it should be! Bouvier’s penniless travels, far more distant and risky than my own, motivated me for the last leg of my journey: spending two weeks on two separate farms outside of Antwerp and Brussels. I made one last stop in San Sebastián, just over the border in the País Vasco of Spain, where I almost stayed (but that’s a whole different story), and then threw on my rattiest clothes and hopped on a bus to learn all about permaculture.
Antwerp is an odd blend of cultures. Oddly enough, I managed to find a ton of fresh veggie juices and vegan desserts that reminded me of California, but those were also blended with tons of meat-laden regional dishes, Asian markets, a little Argentine shop run by a guy from Mendoza, and, of course, beer.
I will take a moment to exlain the WWOOF organization. It varies by country, and each country has its own website and administration, but the general gist is that WWOOF links volunteers with organic farmers in order to spread the word about organic practices. Going into it, I thought it was pretty cool that these farmers (many individuals or couples with land far too big for them) were provided help through almost free labor, but I realized in the process that a lot of work goes into training a WWOOFer (Willing Worker on Organic Farms, or Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms, or Weekend Workers on Organic Farms, as it used to stand for when it was first created in the UK). Volunteers stay on a host farm usually for a minimum of two weeks to indefinitely (I met one WWOOFer who had been with her “WHOST” for the entire year in order to see a full harvest cycle.) Generally, these volunteers come from all walks of life, all age brackets, many countries, and are totally untrained when it comes to agriculture. The program is a great exchange of cultures and ideas, but it’s not for the fainthearted! Though you do receive free board and delicious organic meals (keep in mind the income level of your WHOST when forming expectations, or just don’t form them), it’s up to 35 hours of manual labor per week.
I spent two weeks living in a caravan on the property of a lovely couple who live just off the last tram stop in Antwerp. Excellent chefs with one of the cutest rottweiler dogs I’d ever seen, I felt extremely comfortable there and learned a lot in the kitchen! Looking back, especially after my second WWOOFing experience later in the month, I was of little help to them as a novice. Luckily, it was the perfect location to be a bad WWOOFer, as they welcomed intellectual conversation as much as manual labor. While there, I learned a ton about permaculture, herb spirals, healing tao and meditation. One thing I really loved about the location was how the couple lived SO sustainably. Solar panels were not enough; their dogs served to hunt rabbits (the rabbits were pests with the lettuce) and had basically constructed the house on their own from local materials. I also had plenty of time to visit Antwerp and Ghent, the latter being my new favorite city in Belgium. Throughout my stay here, I spent nights in the caravan with L’Usage du Monde and a beer guide.
A few trains later, I arrive in a much smaller town (think a forty-five minute walk to the nearest train station) to a bed in a yurt, lovely garden, six chickens and two goats. This second experience has changed my views on food forever. Upon return to California, whose produce I used to miss in France, berries just don’t taste the same and goat cheese, especially, is just not worth buying from the store. I would love to have goats of my own, but I’ve also learned that they’re a part-time job. During my two weeks on location, I ate primarily raw from the garden, which boasted fresh strawberries and raspberries, about fifteen different types of lettuce, and even more herbs and other edibles that weren’t in season. I worked every day from ten to four, with a break for lunch, and was too tired afterwards to do much but take a dip in the rain-fed pool, milk the goats and assemble my salad. I can’t lie, there were times when I wanted to haul myself off to a hotel in Brussels, but luckily my budget (and character) kept me at work.
This particular farm was also a Bed & Breakfast run entirely by my WHOST, a retired teacher, who cultivates the land and serves her clients salad and syrups from the garden, fresh eggs and goat cheese. She also makes her own bread from a flour made from ancient grains by a local friend. The year-long WWOOFer who lives on the farm convinced her WHOST to acquire goats. She wakes up every morning to milk at eight, and must be home every evening to milk again twelve hours later. She hopes to be able to take the goats with her when she goes, but knows that the logistics would be near-impossible. To see more of her story, see the WWOOF Belgium website (she’s the president!).
A WWOOF experience depends entirely on your relationship with your WHOST. Luckily, I got along great with both of mine, learned a lot, and wouldn’t have changed locations for the world. If I were to do it all again, I’d ask a lot more questions before choosing my farms. It’s important to know what work you’ll be doing, where you’ll be sleeping and how much free time you’ll have. Will you be close to the cities you want to visit? Will there be other WWOOFers at the same time? What language does your WHOST speak? I spoke English with my WHOSTs in Antwerp, where Flemish is the local language, but French at the second location, which was closer to the border with Wallonia, the French-speaking region of Belgium. There is even more information on what questions to pose on all the WWOOF websites (remember, each country has its own, other than the WHOSTs who don’t have a program in their country, who can be found here.) For information on WWOOFing in the United States (there are over 200 WHOSTs in California alone!), see the website. The most important piece of advice I can give to potential WWOOFers is to go in with an open mind and be open to learn anything; the less you know, the more opportunity to learn. While at my second WWOOF location, a local television show interviewed my WHOST and the WWOOF Belgium president. Check it out to see the local landscape or to practice your French!
Living in another country, which I’ve done three times now, never gets easy. Perhaps one of the hardest parts is reintegrating into my past life. Sometimes, I don’t feel “American”, but I also don’t feel French or South American. The cultural differences between me and my past and present habitats got even harder after living on a farm, an experience totally different from “mainstream” city life. My priorities have changed entirely, and sometimes it’s easy to forget that other people haven’t changed along with me. I’m still learning to integrate my past life with the present and future, but all I can do for now is be grateful for my experiences and hope that everyone have the opportunity to see growth and beauty in challenge, and that we all continue to inspire dialogue through our many visions of this world. Sometimes, in the least expected places or conversations, we learn that we’re more than we thought we were.
Of course, this wouldn’t be a literary-inspired blog without my current list of reading material, which would serve anyone who likes or is thinking about exploring the world of food, travel, WWOOFing, or sustainability:
- Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain
(A friend invited me to join her book club
for one session while I’m home.)
- Wild, Cheryl Strayed (Part of me is upset
they’re making a movie of this. Isn’t the
Pacific Crest Trail supposed to be off the
charts? What do you think?)
- Made in America, Bill Bryson
- L’Usage du Monde, Nicolas Bouvier
- (I haven’t finished it yet, but it’s worth taking my time!)
- Is that a Fish in your Ear?: Translation and the meaning of everything, David Bellos