Wednesday, January 27, 2010


WWOOF-ing can take you Here!

Dear Readers,

Thanks again for your patience. When I returned to Massachusetts from Milwaukee I ended up having a very short rest period before hitting the road yet again, this time to the Gorgeous Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York, where we did some pleasant dog-sitting. Now I'm back in Boston, and have finally been able to take the time to answer some of the questions that I've been receiving. I have responded to Morgan and Lenafish's, and will specifically respond to Annalis's in the near future.

What was your monthly budget?

Oh, my. I must admit that keeping a budget was a lofty goal that we discussed a bit prior to and in the beginning weeks of our trip, but wound up being a pretty benign ghost that, as time went by, hardly came around to haunt us. My credit card was actually hacked into in late April (we arrived in Europe on March 11th), so that definitely threw us off and taught a few unexpected lessons about how to deal with international fraud. (I can go into these at a later time!)

Anyway, Matt and I spent about $5,500 while in Europe. When we were at farms we spent very, very little. Money changed hands on occasional indulgences such as Nutella at a town near our vegan farm in France and a Rum and Coke (with free peanuts!) during a trip to the sea in Italy. All of our farms provided us with room and board. This is one of the most basic tenets of WWOOFing - the farmer provides you with a goodly amount of food and shelter for an agreed amount of volunteer work. While searching I found at least one farm that provided one shared meal and encouraged volunteers to shop for the rest of their meals at the farm store. This is questionable and, in my opinion, shouldn't be tolerated by the organization or the volunteer.

Please keep in mind that exchange rates play a huge role in how much money you'll end up spending. We found that many things (i.e. cans of fish) looked like they cost the same amount in Europe as in the States (95 Euro cents, maybe), but due to exchange rates this could wind up looking like $1.50 being sneaked out of our pockets. Last year was a particularly sorry year for the American dollar....hopefully this will turn around for those of you who are American WWOOFers!

In-between farms we spent quite a bit on food, though as we primarily ate non- or minimally-processed foods, these expenses weren't too bad. We typically stocked up on cans of sardines, various fruits and veggies, yoghurt packs (which we always ate a few hours after purchasing so as to not meddle with spoilage possibilities), bread, cured meats (such as Catalan fuet, thin slices of jamón (cured ham) and France's wide range of charcuterie), and cheese and butter. (Butter was quite wonderful to travel with, as long as it was salted and there was an extra plastic bag to keep it in.) Matt loved having his café in the morning, and that typically set us back €1.50 or so. (It always costs more au lait or con leche - with milk - depending on where you are, though that's the way I prefer it.) Sidenote: the two most important things to know about drinking coffee in Europe are as follows: in southern climes, coffee is espresso, so you'll have to order café américain if you want it watered down (which, by the way, I do not recommend). Also, if you drink in a cafe and want to enjoy the open air and a view, you'll have to pay quite a bit more (an extra euro or two) than you'd pay for an indoor table or seat at the bar. Them's the breaks.

Catalan Fuet Sausage. Exquisitely ideal fare for the omnivorous backpacker. Photo thanks to

Cities were the places where we really spent a lot. We Couchsurfed with new friends for free in Barcelona, Paris, Galway and Amsterdam, and if we hadn't I hesitate to even consider how much more we would have spent. Those cities are expensive ones (though Galway's a bit more manageable than its cosmopolitan cousins!), and while certain experiences are Totally worth it (such as going to the top of the Eiffel Tower or touring the Van Gogh Museum), they definitely eat into your savings. It is good to create a mini budget while visiting a city. While you don't want to get too anal - this could be your Only time eating gelato across from a cathedral in Spain! - it is good to write down how much money you would like to spend, and possibly tweaking that amount to some more realistic sums. Keep in mind that while you are making your budget, you'll have no idea what perfect and spontaneous situations may await you. Be mindful.

As far as souvenirs are concerned, these were indulgences that we rarely enjoyed, which is one of the great things of traveling solely with a backpack for luggage. We certainly have several odds and ends from our travels, but didn't buy anything of much of anything that wasn't utilitarian until the last few days of our trip. We bought some nice glass teacups, a few Christmas presents and dried chilis to make hot oil from Las Ramblas in Barcelona. Other than that we pretty much only bought clothes and shoes when ours fell apart, and primarily did this at charity shops (which are never called thrift shops, but are definitely one in the same).

Did you find it difficult to arrange the WWOOFing trips? How much lead time did you generally give them before arriving?

In general, we didn't find too much difficulty. Certainly the easiest arrangements were those that we made while still in America. (When we left we already had our first three farms lined up - two in France (March-April), one in Italy (May-June), plus a trip to Cambridge, England to visit a good friend in June.) Where we did run into a bit of logistical trouble was when we were making plans to stay with farmers who wanted to give us a bit of a trial period before agreeing to house us for several weeks on end. This happened twice. With our first farmer we got along great and were invited to return any time we wanted (ever), though our second farmer wound up being a flake and his wife had to confess to us that there was another couple coming a week into our stay, which meant that we had to quickly find an alternate farm to stay at. Other than that one hiccup, though, we had a relatively easy time finding willing farms.

This is how we decided to stay where we did, and when: While we were planning our trip, we wrote down a master list of where we wanted to go, and the months in which we wanted to be in each country. This was later changed. (Beware of the Schengen Agreement, dear WWOOF-er! In summary, it restricts legal travel in most western European states to 90 days at a time. I will write more about this at a later time, but that link has a quick and essential synopsis for those interested.) Our list, and its (completely legal and doable) second draft, really helped us to know where we wanted to be and when. Our decisions were based on climate and farm cycles. We knew that the Mediterranean has a temperament that allows for outdoor gardening and farming year round, so late March found us at our first farm in southwestern France. (Our first two weeks of March were spent adjusting to the new time zone, gallivanting in Barcelona, getting to know our Couchsurfing hosts and exploring the Iberian coast on a GR trail.) March through June are very nice times to be in southern Europe, though as summer came on we headed north, spending June through September in Great Britain and Ireland (where we worked on three farms). It seems like summer is the perfect time to visit Ireland. It was very rainy (even more so than usual, apparently), so we were thankful to be there when it wasn't wet and cold. Knowing that things would start getting chilly in September, we made our way back to southern France, making pit stops in Amsterdam, Breda (Holland), Brussels and Paris. We arrived at our last farm around October 15th and stayed until November 6th. Then we took a Eurolines bus back to Barcelona, spent three wonderful nights there, before flying home on the 11th.

We tried contacting our farmers and hosts at least a month before our estimated time of arrival. The earlier the better is a good rule of thumb, as the really great places (both farms and couchsurfing homes) fill up fast. The last farmer that we stayed with told us of an American who had emailed him wondering about staying for the bulk of 2010. He was very pleased to be in contact with someone so interested and ahead of his game. While I do recommend planning ahead, it does tie you down a bit, and I know that that is not what everyone wants while traveling. For Matt and I, having a framework of places to stay was immensely helpful and comforting, especially while partaking in such a delightful, yet long journey. Often times we wouldn't plan how we were getting from one place to another (for example, we had two weeks of unplanned travel in between our first two farms), and this led to many of the most spontaneous of our adventures, fraught with hitchhiking, national parks, fantastic cities and villages and great views all around. When times got tough, and even when they were glorious, it was good to know that we would soon be living with a roof over our heads with someone that we were already somewhat acquainted with.

Comrades in WWOOF-ing. There were definitely some chickens that we could communicate with better than some Europeans.

How many languages did you speak between the two of you?

Woefully few. Matt, however, really got to hone his high school and college-taught French, and I got to say "hola" a few times. We had quite a lot of communication issues in the beginning, though, especially in France. Most young people there speak English, but many French people, especially older folks, are reluctant to, even if they are conversational or fluent. It seems like this is party due to being self-conscious and partly due to wanting a bit of give-and-take. The more that we tried to use our French, no matter how poorly we spoke it, the more people were patient with us and often times happy to share their bit of English. Confidence is the key here, and practice!

In any case, I definitely traveled Europe as a monoglot and still made many connections with amazing people, English and non-English speakers alike. I became quite good at miming and became a lot more expressive than I'd previously been. Hand gestures are great, as are a pen and paper if things really get difficult. A pocket phrase book (we used Rick Steves' French Italian and German, which I highly recommend) is indispensable, and helped us in situations from hitchhiking to pain au chocolate ordering. Rick Steves claims to be a monoglot himself, and has really chosen items that are helpful, and sometimes very necessary to know, including a handy page of body parts (with The David and Venus de Milo as models), phrases having to do with a whole slew of medical ailments, and a menu decoder. There are also three cheat sheets that you can tear out (one per language) featuring greetings, the translation of "do you speak English?," numbers, and the totally necessary Wo ist die toilette?

It was really nice to have our trip broken up in a manner that had us in English-speaking countries in between the French, Italian, and Spanish ones. Holland was lovely for many reasons, especially for its generosity, bike culture, and seemingly country-wide fluency in English. I am sure that less English is spoken in rural areas, but in the cities we had no trouble communicating what we needed and felt. We also learned how to say hallo (not quite a stretch) and dank u wel! (with the "w" pronounced as a "v"), much to the entertainment of our Dutch friends.

Another quick note on France - we spent quite a bit of time in the Mediterranean, Paris, and the French Alps, and Matt had the easiest time communicating in the south. People speak much slower there and tend to enunciate a heck of a lot more there than in the north. This means that people occasionally will say "voos" instead of "voo" when saying the French plural word for "you" - vous. There are also a lot less contractions.

That is all that I will write for now. Take care and check back for more info soon. Please feel free to keep the questions coming, too! I am thinking of writing a book about my experiences in Europe, and it is helpful to know just what information people need the most.


Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Hello from the beautiful Midwest!

Some of the Wisconsin machinery and livestock that I've been spending my time with.

Hello to friends new and old! I am happy to say that the last eight weeks have found me settling nicely back into the American swing of things. I am getting used to American keyboards again and have enjoyed a few (local and humane!) cheeseburgers with fries and ketchup. (Ketchup!! Definitely not a mainstay of European cuisine.)

I have been receiving a lot of wonderful comments lately from readers interested in specific advice regarding WWOOFing. This is great!! I am really happy to be of service. Due to the fact that I am currently traveling, I have not been able to keep much contact with readers, but I will be back in Massachusetts on January 19th, after which I look forward to writing back to those interested with a good deal of promptness. Until then, please feel free to keep questions coming.

I want to reaffirm my commitment to publishing various tips and information, such as my thoughts on packing and the best place to get tapas in Barcelona. However, I have been quite busy putting together the pieces for life post-Europe and have had less time for this than I'd anticipated. These things will come, though!

If you're interested in what I've been up to these past two months - it's been a whole lot of knitting, job searching (through the apprenticeship program offered by the Maine Organic Farmer's and Gardener's Association [MOFGA]), relaxing at intervals, and traveling around to visit family and friends. Currently I am having a wonderful, if somewhat stuffy-nosed, time in Wisconsin. Recently I spent a great day at my old stomping grounds of Growing Power, the only working farm in my hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I had a wonderful time seeing my old friends - Will Allen and his internationally-acclaimed crew of people and red worms. I also enjoyed remembering that I have upper body strength whilst transporting dozens of pots of arugula and red mustard, as well as shoveling a lot of fantastic compost made from manure, Lakefront Brewery's spent malt, Alterra's coffee grounds, and many other food wastes donated by the animals of Growing Power and local businesses of Milwaukee.

I also had the opportunity to watch the excellent new documentary Fresh, in which I have a small and silent cameo! For those of you interested in WWOOFing, whether or not you'd like to do this in the States, I would highly recommend looking up this inspiring and brilliantly put together film. It does a great job of reminding one of what is essential in producing good food, as well as why it is so important to be respectful to various organisms on a farm, from a soil microbe to a chicken to a pleasant barbecue. It's also quite artistically pleasing, with a great soundtrack and gorgeous cinematography (especially whenever Joel Salatin is onscreen!).

Take care,