Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Last Writing in my First Notebook

I filled up my first little notebook I brought along on this trip in 2 months – faster than I ever have before. This is the last thing I wrote there.

I arrived on Lipsi when the moon was hollow, a blank shot into the sky and the stars were drunk on their own brilliance in her absence. On my first night as we walked across the valley to the little house where we stayed, amid the profound silence after so many cities, the three of us stopped dead in the road, dumbstruck at the constellations we couldn’t name. Above us the Milky Way was a clear road running northwest and the Big Dipper pointed to the North Star, but the rest of the sky was a mess of signs, maps and signals the ancients knew but we had no ability to decipher.

I arrived in Lipsi all out of words, my pens running dry, my back aching from trains and so many beds and the heaving and rearranging of the pack.

I left Lipsi the night of the full Harvest moon, unable to put down my pen on that silver midnight, sitting upon the porch, looking over the vineyard and valley. I felt clear headed and energized again, a little bit of nothing and a lot of everything. What a gift, I thought, both the time when my words run dry and the new rush of stories.

The night before Abby, Genevieve and I had walked up the hill to another party, this one at a neighbor’s farm. We rounded the crest of the hill top and the bright lights reflected the smoke rising from barbeques and dust rising from the ground where everyone danced. The same band played, several pigs, goats and fish had been roasted up for guests, wine was being poured generously by the host and the singing, dancing mayor made another appearance, with that same winning politician smile and clean button-down shirt look.

There were hours of dancing: the same simple circular steps we learned the week before, faster, jumpier jigs, dances only for the men that involved the singer calling out silly things the young men had to do while an old man who wasn’t pleased with their performance would whip them. While the men danced, the three of us would sit to the side, sipping wine and appreciating a place where young men were willing to participate in folk dances, jumping lightly to steps they’ve been practicing since they were toddlers.

I had to work in the morning the next day, so at 1am I stumbled away from the party alone, kissing my new, sweet friends goodnight on their sweaty cheeks. The music followed me, echoing through the hills, but the lights were gone as soon as I turned the corner around the top of the hill. And suddenly I’m alone in the silver light of the nearly full moon and I could cry again, this time for the delight of it. There was nothing I couldn’t see here – the sheep and goats maaing quietly around me, each rock on the gravel road before me, the island of Leros across the water threading waves through the moonlight – it was like a winter night in Minnesota when the snow reflects the light of the moon and you are immersed into such a state of silence by the silvery, gentle love of this rare light.

My heart was so full as I waked home that night, breathing in the fresh, warm air, watching my shadow drift behind me on the road, seeing my freckles change colors in the moonlight. Everything on Lipsi, all the joy, newness, swimming, late nights, long walks, moonlit scooter rides, all of it had lead up to that moment of complete fullness and contentment.

Sitting on the porch on my last evening, I thought about how I kept saying as I was leaving Los Angeles that I felt a part of myself was missing and I needed to go reconnect myself to it; though I couldn’t say exactly what this meant. I still don’t know, but I suddenly realized I don’t feel disconnected from myself in that way anymore. The act of shaking and changing my physical circumstances so thoroughly, all the quiet time, getting my hands dirty with soil, writing nearly every day, seems to have brought me back to a part of myself I drifted away from. Or to a new side of myself at least.

Neale Donald Walsch, the author of Conversations With God, says that the point of life is to continually be striving to create ourselves anew in the grandest version of our greatest vision of who we are. If this is true, and I believe that it is, life is a continual kneading of the dough of ourselves and pulling the insides out into fresh air, finding experiences that rhyme with and enhance our pasts, though don’t repeat them. I’ve been allowing a new version of myself to arise these last 60-odd days, speaking my truth in a new way in so many new places. Come to a new side of the prism of my life, a new shade of light after all the last delights I’ve felt and reflected.

And thank god for it: my insides pulled out to breathe a little in this clear Aegean air. Turning, pulsing, meeting new eyes, finding new electricity and connections. New versions of the story, written and re-written at another table at twilight, another valley sweeping before me as the wine glass shivers with the movement of my pen upon paper.

My porch on Lipsi

Friday, September 5, 2014

The Inauguration

August is a busy time on Lipsi Island. Not only are the grape and fig harvests in full swing, but the island is also crowded with tourists and the weather is beautiful yet hot, a confluence which seems to mean sleeping goes onto a back burner.
The days are so hot that it’s not until the sun sets that you can begin to cook food. After dinner everyone goes into town to congregate. The ouzeries along the port are filled with people drinking and snaking on fried octopus and other fresh seafood until all hours of the night and morning, enjoying the months of hustle and parties. There is even a club opened for the summer months.

Lipsi village and port in the early morning
On the last Saturday in August, the town celebrated the inauguration of the first new mayor in 28 years, as well as the end of the Italian tourist season. In the month of August nearly every voice you hear on the beach is speaking Italian – the island was occupied by Italians during the Second World War and now it’s a very popular holiday destination. In September, when the weather is more manageable, as Jenny our British housemate tells us, the tourists from the UK and other northern countries arrive.

It was a surprisingly chilly night: an incessant breeze was coming in from the north and I was wearing jeans for the first time in a month. As we left the farm and began the steep walk up and down the hill to town, we could already hear the music in the square two kilometers away. We arrived into town and were greeted with round after round of “Kalispera” from neighbors and friends who have stopped by the farm in the last few days.

Lipsi is truly a small community. Within a week I feel as though I’ve seen, if not met, nearly everyone and it’s nearly impossible to go anywhere in town any time of the day without running into at least several people you know. Abby, another American who has lived here more than a year sighs wistfully as she speaks about being anonymous again. Making everything more complicated, everyone seems to have one of just a few names. Kostas will take out a bottle of wine in the evening and say “This is from Manoli’s vineyard.”

“Manoli who we saw today in line at the petrol station?”

“No –”

“You mean Manoli who owns the restaurant?”

“No, no. One of the other 45 Manolis living here.”

Of course, to be fair most of the American women who are on the island right now seemed to be named Katie, so maybe this goes both ways.

Once the summer tourist season is over, most of the restaurants in town close for the winter, the tourist shops and street stands shutter. It’s just locals, goats and fishing boats left and only the bakery with 24 hour WiFi remains opened consistently. Even now, there is a single gas pump on the island and it’s only opened for fuel from 11:00 am to until 12:30, three days a week. The import and EU costs of gas are so high, it would cost Kosta nearly $200 to fill up his 4-door Suzuki. Luckily there’s only so much driving one can actually do on the island.

The four of us from the farm sit together at the ouzerie next to the water, order wine, ouzo, octopus and other small plates. It doesn’t take long for four women to become very intimate in a space like this: sharing small rooms with creaky beds, picking figs and stomping grapes together in the sun, no internet and phone connections to distract ourselves, late nights with long walks from the farm to town and back again. We have very quickly become close friends, sharing and laughing about a little bit of everything, but always inevitably we seem to circle back to love. How we’ve found it, lost it, woven it into our lives, cut it gently or sharply from our hearts. Our hopes and fears. Somehow there was a push for each of us to come to this island, this lonely crop of hills in the sea, and in some way, love has to do with it for each of us.

Catie, from New Jersey, has a theory which she told me on my first night here: you can’t come to Lipsi and not get kissed. I laughed and shook my head. Romance abroad has not only not been my goal, I’ve actively recoiled from the offer of it more than once already. Well, all I’ll say about that is you laugh at fate and you get proven wrong.

Me, Jenny, Abby, Catie and Genevieve 
Our table at the ouzerie gets bigger and bigger, we get sufficiently cozy from wine drinking, and we walk across the port to the square where most of the town is gathered to dance and drink more. There’s free wine being passed out, a fiddle, piano and drummer and circles of Greek dancers spin round and round, people slipping in and out throughout the upbeat 10-15 minute ballads. We stand on the sides watching, until one song ends and a well-dressed man in a button-down shirt and neck tie takes the microphone and begins singing. People step forward and start a solo, spinning, arm waving dance before him, looking otherworldly in the bright lights.

After watching this for a few minutes I ask Kostas if the new mayor is around anywhere, anyway.

“That’s him singing,” Kostas nods towards the well-dressed man smiling out at the crowd, like any good politician. “We’ve got ourselves a singing, dancing mayor.”

The mayor sings a few more ballads and we sip at wine from the sidelines, watching the locals of all ages and sexes come forward to dance, either spinning in the center, clapping their hands, or kneeling along the side of the circle, clapping encouragingly. The slower songs end and with a faster paced opening, people rush into a circle, hands clasped together and held high, the mayor at the front of the line. Genevieve and I look at each other, set our wine and purses on the ground – it’s really so small a place you can leave any amount of expensive electronics or your drink around and not risk anything being taken or dropped into it – and break into the circle, learning the simple steps in just a few turns.

Something that I think is wildly missing from American culture is space to dance without being overly sexualized. When I was a little girl we had friends and neighbors who would gather every few months at the town hall and play the fiddle, banjo and drums and call out dance steps. My memories of these Wild Thyme Dances are utterly gleeful: spinning round a room full of skirts, bells, laughter and community. There were May Pole dances in the spring as well, tying and weaving long ribbons round the tall pole, skipping and ducking around your friends at the end of the long North Woods winter. At some point around middle school these events petered away and now every time I visit Europe I feel the astounding lack of tradition in my own culture and wish for more Wild Thymes.

In Greece there was a taste of this, smiling across the circle. You feel a part of something in moments like this, even if you can’t understand the language everyone seems to be shouting around you, holding hands and stepping in time with strangers. Even ten minutes of the same step, round and round, didn’t feel boring.

We were out until 2:30 am – almost unreal for me, tending to be a bit of a sour puss when it comes to staying up late at night. I have to work to change my internal clock here, but it seems to be haoppening, at least for a few weeks. Which I guess is all the people of Lipsi are doing anyway, because in the winter everything goes quiet, the hills turn green and lush, the people sleep through the long nights.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Wine Making and Olive Cracking

A week slipped by here at Dimitris Farms faster than I could have anticipated, probably faster than any other WWOOFing site I’ve been at. We work six hours a day, either in the morning or the evening, spending the rest relaxing by the ocean, or walking two kilometers over the steep hill to town for a treat at the bakery. It’s hot: we work slowly and determinedly, waking early and moving to the porch to rest and drink tea during the hottest hours at midday.

Sun drying the figs.
We are in the middle of the fig harvest and after we feed and water the animals we spend our mornings on all three nearby properties, tugging each soft fruit gently from the stiff, hard branches. We have long bamboo hooks to pull higher fruits down to us, but I like to climb for the ripe figs when I can. I feel like a little girl again: always day dreaming about other worlds and lives, but here I actually am in a total different world, able to live out a totally different life.

From the ground and the highest branches we pluck the already sun-dried, browned and withering figs, which we cut opened and lay out in the sun to fully dry for two weeks, then roast in the oven with sesame.

Nothing is growing as well as it should this summer - a common complaint I’ve heard from nearly every farmer I know around the world. On Lipsi this spring there was a late, heavy rain and the next morning the weather turned brutally hot. This abnormal weather caused a mildew to spread throughout the grapes too quickly to be stopped by organic methods and the fig trees to lose much of their top leaves. Only a small barrel of wine is fermenting now, the rest in the wine room lying empty until the smaller batch of late harvest grapes come in. I’m told by people who were here last summer that crates and crates of figs used to come off the trees each day, and this year we’ve lucky to get 2 and a half.

When I arrived, Kostas and the other WWOOFers had just completed the stomping and barreling of what grapes had been harvested. On my first afternoon, he pulled the dried thyme plugging the hole at the top of the barrel so that I could hear the frantic fizz of fermentation within.

The grapes, ready to be stomped
But I got lucky: Kostas decided we should try an “experiment” with a batch of green grapes he received from a neighbor this week, so I was able to help with the making of one batch, hopefully we’ll get around 100 bottles. It’s certainly not the traditional way he makes wine here, or a method I’ve ever heard of before, but it looks more and more like I’ll be staying in Europe longer and coming back to the farm in February and March in order to learn to prune and plant the vines. In this case, I’ll get to taste a bottle of this wine, which Kostas will cork in 40 days and I’ll report back about the quality of the experiment.

Catie and I ready to stomp for a few hours
After Catie had spent an afternoon pulling stems from the grapes, she and I put them into buckets and began stomping. With a normal crop of grapes, the floor of an entire room of Kostas’ wine house is covered in the fruit and a whole group of people stomp together for an afternoon. It only took Catie and I a few hours to stomp out most of the juice from the few buckets we had. We left a layer of the skin and pulp on top of the juice and waited to see if fermentation would start overnight.

Luckily it did, and for two days the juice fermented in the buckets which we stirred every few hours. On Saturday, Genevieve and I began to filter the juice from the pulp into glass jars, setting aside the pulp and skins. To get every last drop of the grape juice out of the pulp which was still swimming in unbottled liquid, Kostas thought the easiest way – rather than another round of stomping – would be to hand-squeeze the pulp.

So for another hour and a half, we picked up lumps of skins, seeds and other grape innards and squeezed then in our fists like angry children, dropping dry remains into a bucket to be mixed with the aging vinegar later.

Normally, there is a grape press for this stage, but there were so few grapes Kostas said the cleanup would take just as long as we spent squeezing, filtering, squeezing and filtering.

The pulp, still with some juice, and the bottles
we filled with fermenting wine.
The juice in the bottles looks like fresh cider, not clean and clear wine. All of the thickness should fall to the bottom of the bottle and will be filtered out in 40 days at the bottling stage. The pulp will go aside and be dropping into the vinegar barrel. For now the four huge bottles of liquid will rest and ferment, simmering gently as the sugars dance the juice into alcohol.

I’ve learned a lot on the farm: how to make stuffed grape leaves, cheese straight from the goat’s teat, the details of organic wine cultivation and the basics of the Orthodox religion. There are too many processes and stories to tell, but I’ve been photographing nearly everything, so enjoy these details.

I also spent an afternoon hand-cracking olives between two rocks, then wandering to the ocean to collect sea water for them to soak in under the hot sun for a few weeks, softening and ripening. The olive oil pressing will happen later in the year, so I don’t get to help with this, but as we squeeze the juice from the grapes, we boiled the last of the alcohol from 15 year old vinegar, which we will bottle later in the week. 

The cheese we made on the stove from goats milk.
Jenny, Geniveve and I making the stuffed grape leaves
The stuffed grape leaves
Cracking the olives before they get laid out in the sun

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Sea Cliffs

From the calm beach cafĂ©, I decide with sudden and staggering conviction that I should walk into the dry hillsides along the ocean. I can see a path there, leading past smaller, steeper paths to Orthodox monasteries and around the natural bend of the island. It’s a hot, dry day and it’s 1pm; not exactly the idea time for a hike, but I need to get away.

I have realized that I have not been alone since I picked blueberries in the forest near the farm in Germany. Anonymous, yes. Surrounded by strangers with no one to talk to, certainly. But actually alone, in my own bedroom or settled somewhere without the chance or someone walking up to me; not at all.

So I wander off into the hills overlooking the bay where I was swimming, knowing what’s coming once I get away from everyone.

The hills where I wandered.
Kalymnos Island is arid in August, with very little vegetation beyond grey shrubs on dry, tan hills. The trail I walk along is rocky and steep, without much room for error before the drop-off towards the sea below. Everything that used to be a plant has shriveled and browned, as if slow-cooked here on the sunny hill. About a kilometer from where I began, the sounds of the beach disintegrate behind me. I round a curve in the hill and find before me exactly what I have been looking for: emptiness.

Beyond the place I’ve stopped, the trail continues, climbing and falling, twisting round the next few curves of the seashore midway up the same dry, dead hills. There are no other hikers, no churches, not even sail boats pass right now.

I drop my bag, kneel down and begin to cry with abandon.

I wouldn’t say that I am sad. Even that I’m feeling anything negative right now: I cry because I’m simply overwhelmed by not doing so in nearly a month.

I cry because this country is so beautiful, so spectacularly ancient and subtle and intricate and I am blessed to be here to see it. I cry because I’m here all alone, seeing one of the most amazing places in the world, and there is no one else to share these moments with me. I cry in gratitude for my solitude, and in a desire to shake it off. I cry because I am exhausted with traversing situations on my own again and again.  

I cry thinking of my life, of all the things I know and things I cannot know which hang before me, waiting in the wings when I think about going home. All the things I want and don’t know if I will ever have. All the things I don’t yet know I want and need. All of the things I need to take care of once I get home: a job, an apartment, reinvigorating community, establishing my routines. I cry for all the time I have left on this trip – the multitude and lack of it. I cry for California, for my friends traveling and living and loving without me, slowly forgetting I’m even missing, just as everyone in Minneapolis continued to live once I left there.

I cry for a ghost that’s standing next to me: a letter I wrote on the hot Ash Wednesday this year, sitting outside of the Mass the school I worked for hosted. I was checking in stragglers to the service, writing between each attendee.

“What-cha doing?” my coworker asked, straightening the name tags before us.

“Writing a love letter.” I said, shyly, smiling secretively.

I remember writing the words that morning in February, “May we stand together and look over the shores of many more oceans.” Just as I had done with this man who I’d loved so suddenly and ferociously.

And here I am: in a place so similar to where that man and I held one another on the coast of California, looking west again, across more seemingly endless water.

It was determined by me and only me that I should come to be here alone today. All the things I wished for, wrote out earnestly in that letter, spoke about from the bottom of my heart never came to be. I took them for myself, in the end.

I apologize and cry for a ghost who stands next to me. It’s enough: the memory turns and walks away with my acknowledgement.

The tears stop, and I stand in the swollen, hollow space that descends after grand emotions. Grace sweeps in like wind fills vacancy. In the quiet, soft thereafter, something solidifies in my heart, aligns. It’s not an epiphany, it’s not a grand moment of realization. Just quiet and peace.

I breathe. Turn around and walk back to the beach. Find a little white Orthodox church along the way and light a candle. My ritual: little lights of my prayers for this trip burning in holy places grand and humble up and down the continent. 

The Island of Lipsi

“Here, taste this,” Kostas holds out a bunch of grapes that he’s just pulled off the vine.

I pluck one of the sun-warmed grapes from the bundle, stick it into my mouth and mummer “Oh my god!” almost sensually. “That’s incredible.”

That is a 200 year-old vine,” Kostas says proudly, popping a grape into his own mouth. “We’ll make wine tomorrow.”

The farm house and vineyards. 
For a while now, I’ve been imagining this part of the trip, when I WWOOF on the organic vineyard on the tiny island in the Aegean Sea, as one of high points of the trip. I am not disappointed.

Coming to Lipsi was a bit of an adventure. There is only one weekly ferry from Athens to the island, and it didn’t come any time near the day I was supposed to start working. So I took a 10 hour ferry to Kalymnos, one of the nearest large islands. I spent two days there before the one hour ferry here to Lipsi.

On Kalymnos, the sea sponge diver’s island where the first scuba diving gear was invented, there were no cheap hostels, no couchsurfing options. So I found an Air B&B for the three nights I needed to stay there. The woman who rented the room in her house – I’ll call her Jane – was one of the kookiest ladies I’ve met in a while. In her 50’s and spending her life bouncing between Australia and the Greek islands, Jane is truly kind hearted and fun. She’s incredibly relaxed, thanks to the joint that is always in her mouth, and one morning talked to me for at least an hour and a half without asking me a single question about myself.

She wanted me to come out and party with her and her friends every night usually to go clubbing in the town on the island. I would politely decline, begging off because of too many days spent in cities within the last month, and sit on the back veranda of her house, reading, drinking wine and playing with the 6 puppies, all of different breeds, living there.

On my last night Jane did get me to go to dinner with her, where she ordered for herself a Cesear Salad, garlic bread, fries, fried rice and spring rolls, along with an ouzo. We were sitting with her friends, unable to talk because the music was so loud, when her sister walked in. “Fuck fuck fuck,” Jane started mumbling, pulling the joint out of her mouth and hiding it in her purse, “My sister is the biggest blab on the island!” Of course when only 8,000 people live on the island, I’m not sure how secret anything done in public can be.

The next morning, I get on the ferry to come to Lipsi, frankly a little relived to be on my way, when one of Jane’s friends from last night sits down next to me. He’s British, but has also been living on the Greek islands for more than 20 years. If he stayed out with Jane last night after I walked back home, he probably didn’t make it to bed till 5am. The intensity of the stale alcohol on his breath, mixed with sweat and the nausea I already have from the small boat and choppy sea does not bode well for the next hour. I stare straight ahead, feeling antisocial and maybe a little rude, but unable to look away from the horizon. He’s a tour guide – heading off to lead I tour, he tells me, on the island Patmos – so he gives me a quick tour of everything we’re looking at.

He points east. “That’s Turkey right there,” he says, meaningfully. “A whole other continent.

“Wow,” I respond, genuinely. “That’s insane!”

He shrugs, all of a sudden too cool to be impressed. “Well, come on, the line has to be somewhere, doesn’t it?”

Finally the boat pulls up to a tiny port, and I nearly jump out of my seat, “Nice talking to you, I have to go grab my bags!”

“Hey, seriously, you’re gonna hate this little place,” he says, dismissively throwing his hand in the direction of Lipsi. “Fake an injury on this vineyard, meet me here this afternoon. You’ll see.”

“I doubt it!” I say and run away down the stairs to disembark.

Kostas, my host, has told me to just get a taxi and tell them “Dimitris Farm – they’ll know where it is.” But there is no taxi to be found. The ten other passengers who have gotten off the boat all seem to know exactly where they need to be going, and no one is looking for a ride. I walk along the port, filled with tiny 3-person blue and white fishing boats, passed empty restaurants. I find a main square of town, such as it were, with a few tired old men sitting in the shade of their stalls, selling bracelets and wind chimes made of seashells. I walk towards one corner, where there are steps and shade, hoping a taxi will drive by eventually.

“Where are you from?” The old man sitting nearby asks in heavily accented English, gesturing to the opened seat next to him.

“The United States,” I smile and drop my bag, but keep my eyes on the road.

“Ah! Very nice!” he says, and gestures to the chair again, though this seems to be nearing the extent of his English.

We sit quietly for a few minutes. I keep getting up and looking at the road every time I hear a motor, but it’s always a scooter with tanned people in bathing suits, heading to some beach or another.

“Where you go?” The man asks, gesturing again for me to sit. “Please, please!” he says.

“Really, thank you, I’m OK,” I say, smiling as much as I can, not wanting to miss any taxi that might go by. “I’m going to Dimitris Farm.”

“Kostas!” The man says, happily.

“Yes! Kostas!” I nod, happy for the small island, suddenly.

Arriving at the farm.
“Very good.” The old man nods. And suddenly a taxi pulls up, and of course he knows Dimitris Farms. “Kostas!” He says happily.

There is always a moment of anticipatory panic when you knock on the door of a WWOOFing farm, or a couchsurfing host: you just don’t know what you are about to walk into. But once the door opens and I can drop my bags, I’ve not yet been disappointed by my experiences.

Greek music is playing from inside the shop. Out on the porch wine bottles, vinegar bottles, sun dried figs and olives are lined up. Three other young women are sitting around, chatting in English. There’s Catie, from New Jersey, Jenny from Britain and Abby from Santa Cruz, who worked on the farm last summer as a WWOOFer and just never left – she now lives elsewhere on the island. Genevieve, a French-Canadian, arrives from her day beach hopping soon after.

Kostas himself speaks English with an American, even Midwestern accent, which, though I really loved Silke and Martin, is a great relief after Germany. Seeing other WWOOFers on the farm is also a relief. My first WWOOFing experience of the summer was quieter, one of reflection and quiet at the beginning of the journey. Here I'm glad to have other people to stay up late, work and cook with every day. Kostas tells me he spent most of his childhood and early adult years in Ohio, before moving back to the family farm on Lipsi. He gives me a cup of tea and has me sign in - I'm the 178th WWOOFer.

No, I don’t think I’ll be leaving on the next ferry back to Kalymnos.

The beach just over the hill from the house
Lipsi is picturesque in so many ways. Dry and arid this time of the year, yet the ocean is around every corner when you need to cool off after your shift. The hills are spotted with vines, fig trees, olive trees, goats and sheep, their bells tinkling gently from every field. Outside the village there are no street lights and the stars are simply majestic – better than I’ve seen in years, even at home in Northern Minnesota. It's a great relief to be away from cities and have routine after a month of bouncing from capitol to capitol and spending my days in museums and walking tours. Not having to repack my bag for 2 weeks is a glorious feeling. 

We're surrounded and steeped in myth and ancient history as well: This is the island where Calypso kept Odysseus captive for 7 years in the Odyssey, and the next island over is where John received the Book of Revelations.

The grape harvest at the base of the hill
where Calypso's castle stood. 
Work is different, but also very similar to most farms I've been on. The vines on the farm range from 1 year to 200 years old, and the first harvest of the year finished a few weeks ago. We pick figs every day, looking especially for those that have fallen on the ground and can be sun dried for a week then baked with sesame. There are olive trees that will be ready for harvest in a few months, the late harvest grapes on Kostas’ vines will be ready at the end of October. After the long working days in Germany, and general confusion about exactly how much I was expected to work, the schedules on the fridge, with shifts and expectations, are a relief.

On my first day, Genevieve and I were sent to the neighbors to help with their grape harvest all morning. We arrived and were given sheers and buckets, then went out to cut bunches of grapes from the vines, most of them already shriveling and raisin-like from the heat. (I know so little about wine making, here espeically - I was surprised to learn that these were still good for wine. I always thought grapes needed to be juicy and fresh for that.) We were surrounded by deeply tanned, mustached men, shouting in Greek and laughing at one another, bobbing up and down in the hot sun. We finished before it got too hot in the afternoon, had lunch and walked to the beach. It is all almost too picturesque and beautiful to be real. 

Suffice to say I'm very happy to be here for the next two weeks.

Monday, August 18, 2014

My Road Along the Danube

I’m not sure I had ever heard of the Danube River before I came here; certainly I had never remembered its’ name. I didn't know that it was wide and engulfing like the Mississippi I know so well, or I would be following it south through the heart of Europe and using it to piece together the history of this region.

From Regensburg, to Vienna, east to Bratislava, southeast still to Budapest and down to Belgrade, I’ve darted back and forth across this wide, brown river for a month, through what I found to be one of my favorite regions I’ve ever traveled through.

The Danube River's course
When I’m traveling I find myself always balancing the urge to really stay somewhere and get to know the place and people with the desire to see more and more cities, to hit the road again and check off the next place. Throughout Central Europe I’ve really only been skimming my hand along the surface of history and culture, stopping in the capital, going on the two and a half hour free walking tour, taking a photo of the most important buildings, soaking in an understanding of that place which I’m sure will muddle and be lost from my memory in a few months. But in the moment, while I’m in the city center, it adds the narrative I need to all the bells (from Catholic Cathedrals in the north, to Orthodox Cathedrals beginning in Belgrade and finally Mosques in Sofia), the ancient stonework, the buildings hugging cobblestones, strangely gaping with modern hair dressers and clothing stores.

I’m a storyteller, after all. None of this means anything to me without the story.

 The river in Regensburg, Germany
Each place I’ve been widens the context for the last and next country I’m stopping in. Like a patchwork where the cities hinge upon one another: beginning with stories of the Holy Roman Empire, which always holds hands and pulls you south to the the Hapsburgs, where you hear rumors of the Turks on borders, then come face to face with battlegrounds, the cities where they were held at bay, then the places the Ottomans occupied for hundreds of years. More recently, different stories of Communism sweep this land. I've been fascinated by the differing tones people use when speaking of the Russians and the different narratives of whether there was scarcity or surplus 40 years ago. Each country’s story of independence, of the many names and states they’ve lived under in the last century, make my head spin delightfully. 

Suddenly before Sofia, the river has cut east, along the Romanian border, to the Black Sea. Here the Greeks, the Slovaks and the Turks meet, and the story takes a new tune, which I will follow southwest into Greece, finally coming to Istanbul in a month.

Trains, buses, beers, wine, bridges, photo after photo only remarkable because of the folder I remember to put it in within my computer’s hard drive. Strange to think I spent so much time running my fingers over maps, planning and counting days and hours, trying to anticipate, give myself enough time between and around. And here I am.

In Budapest, Hungary
I’ve been thinking lately about how I feel, how many of the emotions and experiences I’m having are new but stable and joyful for me. It reminds me suddenly of one of my Papa’s favorite stories, from when I was about three years old and he was watching me dance around our living room in Clover Valley, round and round the coffee table on my stick pony. I was completely absorbed and delighted, always a child somewhere else, deep in imaging a different world.

“Katy,” my papa asked me that day. I stopped and looked at him. “Will I ever be as happy as you are?”

I didn’t even think for a moment. “No!” I said, with certainty and continued my skipping game.

I’ve asked myself lately if I’ll ever be as centered and happy in the particular way I’ve felt traveling along the Danube ever again. And that little girl says to me, just as seriously as before, “No! You won’t!”

Maybe it doesn’t really matter, though. Maybe different kinds of happiness are for different parts of our lives anyway and it’s better to love whatever happy we’ve got when it comes to us. To know and to open ourselves up to all the contours and corners of this life of ours, wherever we end up at any given time. I’ll be happy in a new way some other time, I know.

Looking across the Danube from Bratislava Castle
This Central European contentedness, it’s special, and I’m excited to have gotten it for the last month. 

Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Night Train

Waiting to get on the train, Belgrade.
Traveling the world sounds so fun and amazing until you are on an overnight train through Eastern Europe. Begging all of the gods the universe has ever prayed to that no one will take the seat next to you so that you have a chance of sleeping. Watching a couple and their huge German Shepherd say goodbye in the aisle next to you, and not really being sure if the woman will miss that dog or her boyfriend more – she’s kissing both with the same longing. Being jabbed awake with a flat hand to the rib cage over and over again by Russian-sounding, fat men. “Tickets!” “Passport control!”

Really, there’s not been much to say about my transit experiences so far. Western Europe is too comfortable for a good story.

The three Germans who ended up taking over the end of the carriage all around me are making me wonder again and again why I didn’t ask the price difference for a sleeper. How much more could it really have been? They are drinking beer after beer, pulling fresh cans from their bags each time they finish and crush the empty can under their feet. They seem intent on getting wasted before any of the beers get cold, and their voices rise accordingly. One goes into the bathroom shortly after we pull out of the Belgrade train station at 9:50, and returns sniffing wildly for the next ten minutes.

No one has sat next to me, and I lay my head onto my black bag, crunching my body between what is barely two airplane seats. In the precious bag is my purse, my laptop, my camera, the cords for all of my electronics and various other necessities like pill bottles, a hair brush and my glasses case. It’s a shit pillow.

Its moments like these that a boyfriend would really be a nice addition to the trip: lap laying privileges and a stable hand on my shoulder while I drift under the flickering, but never dark, florescent lights. But still, the bag has to go somewhere, and after a deluge of rain just before we left Belgrade, the floor of the train is a map of rivers and lakes of dirty water, crawling across the floor with each shift and shake of the train. Napkins and papers dropped by other passengers have grown soggy and collected near my door, in a wet pile.

In each Serbian town throughout the night, made more obscure by the dark outside and the light in the carriage, we screech to a stop and the doors don’t open unless passengers throw their whole weight against them with a grunt or a panicked yelp. The Germans have all fallen asleep, including the one I briefly worried had snorted some cocaine a few hours ago. Every 45 minutes or so, my hips and arms groan to wake me and I stiffly sit up and move the black bag to the other side of the bench to flip over, rearranging the cords and other various lumps within the bag.

The sun rises around the time we’ve at the border with Bulgaria, where we wait for the Serbian then the Bulgarian authorities to take our passports, sort through them somewhere else, stamp them and bring them back. Heavy headed, I gaze out the window at the other trains also waiting at the border, the people in sleeper cars leaning their heads out the windows and chatting with passengers from our train.

We finally begin moving again, but the train is going so slow you can see cars on the roads nearby passing us by. I wonder if we’ve been at this pace all night long. “Bicycling would have been faster,” one of the Germans snorts, then asks me if I took trains in Germany, wanting to be sure I know they are not like this everywhere in Europe.

In the heat of an August day in the Balkans, two hours behind schedule, I push out of the platform in Sofia, passed the hawkers “Information madame? Information please?” and into the most Soviet train station I’ve seen yet in the region.

My head is spinning with the heat, exhaustion and loss of direction in a new country with yet another new alphabet. I can’t rally as well after a poor night sleep – I’m getting older, I think. Just get to the hostel. Just get the bag off, I tell myself. Coffee and the bathroom can wait. (As a side note, I think one of the most impressive things I’ve done on this trip is get into a bathroom stall with my 35lb pack still cinched round my waist and the black bag hanging from my shoulder, gotten my pants off, stood up and hiked the pants back up again.)

I didn’t plan this part of the trip. I was supposed to be WWOOFing in Bulgaria but a miscommunication left me to plot my own way rather last minute; and a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants traveler I am not. I don’t have any hostels booked here in Sofia, but I do have one in mind and a google maps dotted line pointing me from the train station to their front door in the photos of my iPhone. After probably being ripped off for a metro ticket, then wandering the streets named after Bulgarian politicians for another 15 minutes, I find the tiny door to the hostel hidden between grey apartment buildings.

I get into the lobby, where a tired young mother is breast feeding her baby at the computer. I drop my bags and sit down across from her, pulling my tank top away from my skin and my glasses off my face as they fog up from my body heat.

I try to explain my haughty attitude by saying "I was on the night train from Belgrade." She looks at me meaningfully. I don't think I'm the only tourist on this road.

They have a bunk in the 4 bed dorm for the next two nights, with the widest hostel beds in the Balkans.

I get a cup of coffee and a delicious vegetarian meal at the local bakery. Really, the night wasn’t so bad. And I definitely don’t feel so old anymore. I really didn’t need the sleeper.