Wednesday, July 27, 2011

A bit old, only by two weeks.

I am leaving Europe in less than a week. Five days to be exact. One hand’s worth of fingers. My blog fell by the wayside as access to the internet dwindled and the desire to be on my computer seemed more and more counterintuitive to the context of my daily life. Right now, as I type this, I am sitting in a train winding its way down out of the foothills of the Alps from Austria, through Slovenia, and then back into  Zagreb. Only this morning did I wake up in East Berlin to find a bag full of freshly baked rolls and a business card with the words “Les Humphries…singers/Kansas City” written on the back. Germany. Italy. Austria. Slovenia. Croatia. Need a timeline? After leaving Zagreb in early June I headed to Istria to work/live on an organic-mostly-self-sustaining organic farm. The lovely Sarah Stites and I spent one month hoeing, watering, stacking hay like building blocks, giving the grape vines constant trimming or thinning, and feeding the cows. Istria is a part of Croatia that has three kinds of soil: red soil, white soil, and brown soil. It’s like Tuscany but with a coast. Most people there speak a hybrid of Croatian and Italian and my ears weren’t tuned into Istrian Croatian which switches back and forth so smoothly you never quite sure if you just don’t understand or if they are speaking a third language altogether. Cao punctuated the end of every conversation and old Italian bake (grandmothers) sat in front of their doorways hunched over in below-the-knee length floral dresses, gray hair pulled back, keeping an eye on the neighborhood dogs and the children who still populate the tiny villages snuggled in valleys or perched on mountain tops.
The farm was an oasis of sorts, but not one I’d necessarily seek out as a long-term lifestyle choice. The matriarch of farm life in Sverki is Helga, German born, married a Slovanian, at some point they decided (well 29 years ago to be exact) to buy some land in what at the time was Yugoslavia and begin an organic farm. I asked Helga if she had a background in farming and she just shook her head
“oh no, horrible” She went on to say how the first two years or so were really hard, but if you watched Helga chop away at wicked weeds with a lightening pace you would think she came out of the womb hoeing her way right into organic bliss. Sarah and even adopted a new name for ourselves, “team one Helga” If we really put our best into it the two of us could keep up with Helga, but never with such ease. Somehow at the end of the day we’d be covered in bug bites, red soil staining our toes and hay accessories in our up-dos. Helga on the other hand would simply change her shirt, run a comb through her hair and you’d think the dirtiest thing she’d done all day was bake bread. With an apron on.
The first time I stepped out in the fields it was afternoon and the sun peeking through the trees and it smelled like warm earth. All you could see any direction were fields and it was quiet and peaceful. The field itself look alive and flowering, little did I know it was my task as plant killer to-over the course of the month-eradicate the wilderness, the blooms, the variable heights creating a skyline of sorts that popped up between the zucchini and pumpkins and watermelons. By the time we left, I have to be honest, the field maybe had more edibles but appeared more desolate, tamed, and dry than that first afternoon.
So, it wasn’t all romantic sunsets and working on the land. There were some funny things about farm life too. Take Herr Meyer for example. Herr Meyer and I are buddies. I like to think were the best kind of buddies, were the relationship is always constant, the friend you know you can always call to bitch to and they will ALWAYS say, ya, I know, ain’t life a bitch? Herr Meyer is a handsome goose, a little old and frazzled these days but I can imagine him in his prime…feathers glistening never ruffled, feet and beak as orange as a peeled carrot, and that god forsaken tumor that now plagues his left foot mysteriously absent. Herr Meyer apparently moved to the farm some 18 years ago (I probably need a fact checker, but this is grapevine reporting here in Croatia). Herr Meyer arrived from Germany shiny and new with wife in tow. The two struggled with children for awhile, eventually having two who each in their own turn paid their dues to the circle of life and ended up on the dinner table. Maybe this is all well and good for farm life until Herr Meyers long-time lady friend got goosed and Herr Meyer was left alone in a foreign land without another goose-ly friend in sight. As a result (as I am sure not one of us could fault Herr Meyer!) Herr Meyer is the grumpiest old rag of a goose I’ve ever meet in all my live long farming days. Hiisss swawk, deep breathing exhaled in your direction…this is what kind of welcome he gave you every morning as you hiss and swaked and blew back as you tried to maneuver around Herr Meyer’s surprisingly large body to get to the grain in order to feed the chickens who are so busy pooping from the barn rafters you have the irrational fear that at any moment, splat, time to shower even though I haven’t been to the fields yet… Herr Meyer was constant though, reliable, a good old buddy who you could let some steam off at and he would always treat the same, the resounding sound of disgruntledness of a meaningless life on a farm-oh Herr Meyer? Why are you here? Go wander to the sea! Stop sleeping near the cows they never loved you anyway.  As much as I portray Herr Meyer as a crotchy old man, he has his moments of grace still. In effort to maintain his nimbleness and good health into his old age, Herr Meyer can be spotted doing his daily yoga routine. Not only does this help with his sore joints and achy back but also helps him come to peace with his anger at losing the only family he ever had and being exiled to friendship with the cows that only care about dirt and hay. He reaches his neck tall and proud and draws one leg up into a piquet and gracefully extends his leg out into an arabesque chest pushed forward, wing extending out. Its goose lake frozen for a moment in time till he tucks his down into his body and folds like origami into the grass under the trampoline resting his mind and body in the shade.
Like Herr Meyer, we all napped on the farm. At least an hour a day I passed out after lunch either from the weight of the heat or the tightness of my hamstrings only dissipating when total REM kicked into full gear. Post nap we did a few more hours of work at a small dinner and either played cards, headed into town to watch folk dancing, or simply showered and read then bed time. It was rhythmic. It felt like cycling with the moon. One afternoon with the cool evening air Helga told me about why we had to pick onions that day-it was a good harvesting day according to the moon. Luckily the onions slipped out of the ground like a hand of a well fitted glove, sometimes needing an extra twist or turn. But then pop, and into your hand ball covered in thin flakey onion peel. Mmm.
While the farm was great. Is great. And I have only a bajillion more stories and details to describe and savor over and over again Sarah and I also needed a break from the loss of control and schedule that happens when you enter into someone else’s life as an interloper. We spent a weekend in Venice devouring art and dreaming of our own canal side homes, eating the best eggplant lasagna ever even imagined and drinking aperol spritz as if we were old retired women with nothing to do but circulate the town gossip. We rented a car and cured our unwelcome-accidental hangovers in a cool dark cave in Slovenia and then ate dinner in the house of the man who invented valium, which, is now a pizza joint in Opatija. Opatija is a town on the coast in Istria built solely as a vacation resort during the Austro Hungarian Empire and all the buildings look like some sort of cake in a pastel color and they all face the sea. It is like a toy town sitting on the coast. They have beach bars and swimming pools built into the sea and small Italian, Croatian, and Slovenia children run around naked pulling little plants out of the sea and jumping off rock ledges.
(a side note: Now were in Ljubljana and I can’t help but think back 8 months ago when I had spent the day here alone to work around some Visa issue. It was just what I needed, a day when I wasn’t trying to learn Croatian or figure out how to have a life in Zagreb. It seems very distant and I remember feeling like I was really struggling with getting things moving here. Now, as the train pulls away I have that same pang of regret that must happen constantly as you age, if only I had known how to do it the first time-how ask the right questions, how to get interviews… In some ways its nice because you see the progression and feel the learning curve. In other ways, when time is bookended like this, you reluctantly wonder if it really is possible to waste time and if that is a forgivable offense? An unavoidable mistake?)
Sigh back to the serious matters at hand, post farm life, post the building of a hay mountain, the cleaning of literally hundreds of nectarines, the baking of many of loaves of bread and a handful of pleasant swims in the sea—Sarah and I decided to head to a more urban setting: Berlin. To be perfectly honest I don’t know much about Berlin and had to do some basic fact searching just to come to terms with the littler knowledge that had somehow been rattling around in my brain. Berlin felt strange to me, I didn’t have a context for it, a map or a timeline or a grasp of the cultural norms, meaning I missed out on the ah-ha moments of clarity that sometime accompany traveling to places you’ve only known before in intangible ways. Berlin was unknown to me and surprised me with its broad avenues and quiet bars and decentralized sprawl.