August 30, 2012 Comments Off on Exchange

The six of us walked single-file into the woods. The German-Costa Rican (I’ll call her T. from now on) lead the way, using a flashlight to illuminate the narrow path before us. She led us to a very steep pile of  boulders. We began to scale it, a formidable task, I learned, if you’re carrying a shopping bag containing digestive biscuits, marshmallows, chocolate, and cans of cheap beer. I stumbled upwards with my loot. The other four followed, one of whom carried a mixing bowl full of sticky stockbrot dough.

We arrived at the fire pit. We gathered fallen tree branches, moss, and dry pine needles. I crumpled pages from an old magazine of mine into balls. We arranged everything into a sort of teepee shape and lit a few matches.

We’d talked about building fire in the woods. Perhaps bringing a few things to roast. Maybe a six- pack or two. A German volunteer who I’ve gotten to know well–the bonfire was her idea–suggested we have stockbrot, or “stick bread.” Bread you bake yourself over an open fire. I was intrigued. T. and I suggested an all-time American classic: s’mores. Most of the people who’d be coming to the bonfire hadn’t heard of s’mores, but they were open-minded.

We decided right then and there that we’d venture into the woods on the next clear, cool night.

While s’mores are obscure in Europe, ingredients for s’mores are readily available in Swedish supermarkets. Apart from graham crackers and Hershey’s milk chocolate bars. So T. and I decided during our trip to the local supermarket to substitute with digestive biscuits and dark Swedish chocolate. These would be “Swedish s’mores,” we joked.

Our timing was impeccable. Our hosts declared that the day of our bonfire would be an “outdoors day.” Which, for us lowly “WWOOF-ers,” meant weeding. We weeded a big patch of strawberries, a big patch of artichokes, and then we capped off the day with a big patch of rhubarbs.

By the time our working day was done, we were ready to blow off some steam.

We sat around the fire, drinking cans of beer and grabbing hunks of stockbrot dough from the mixing bowl and spearing them onto birch branches. The trick to stockbrodt, I learned is to distribute it evenly over the stick. Don’t pack it onto your branch in one lump. Yes, I did that, and I also made the mistake of trying to roast mine like one would a marshmallow. So I incinerated it. A charred outside and a doughy, uncooked inside. Fortunately for me, my subsequent attempts were much tastier.

After a few helpings of stockbrot and a few more cans of beer, T. and I declared it was time to make s’mores. I instructed my new German friends how to make their s’mores authentically “American.” That is, by cramming as many charred, gooey marshmallows in between their digestive biscuits as they could. I also emphasized the importance of burning their marshmallows for optimal taste.

The s’mores went over well. They didn’t garner the ecstatic response T. and I’d wanted. But I like to think that we broadened some horizons.

Our group headed back home around midnight, to rest up before another day of weeding, washing, or whatever our hosts had planned for us.

**And I’ve got to say, those “Swedish s’mores” tasted much better than the American originals. The quality of ingredients was superior and the finished product rich and quite substantial. This might sound blasphemous, but consider switching out graham crackers for digestive biscuits, or thick, moderately sweet cookies, and Hershey’s with dark chocolate next time you want to make s’mores.


August 26, 2012 § 1 Comment

I bailed on my first volunteer post, and I’m about to do it again. I can’t write this off as a fluke. Something’s wrong, though not necessarily with me.

Oh, don’t think I haven’t mulled it over. I try not to dwell on the past. But I can’t tell a lie. I do sometimes.

I’ve asked myself a whole lot of questions these last few weeks:

Why didn’t my first two volunteer posts work out? Was I too impatient? Did I have the wrong attitude? Should I have stuck around, given it a little more time? 

I try not to doubt myself or others. I understand that this is primarily a matter of fit. I haven’t found a suitable volunteer opportunity for me. I know I’ll find the right kind of work and, more important, the right kind of people one of these days. I’m not ready to give up.

When I struggled with the decision to depart Sweden early, I called one of the most rational people I know: my father. My father advised me not expect to find fulfillment in work. Only a small fraction of individuals find their work genuinely fulfilling. Fulfillment often lies beyond work, usually in the guise of hobbies and “secret” passions or talents. The sorts things we’d all rather be doing.

Then he said something that just about killed me. In a good way.

Fulfillment shouldn’t just come from beyond work. It should come from within.

I’m not quite there yet. I don’t think I will be for a long time. I’m not worried. One of the reasons I’m traveling is to learn more about myself. This includes figuring out what brings me fulfillment in life.

I can’t say that I’ll reach a definite conclusion during my travels. But I think I’ll gain a clearer idea as I move on. Perhaps then my volunteer experiences will improve.

Killing Time

August 25, 2012 Comments Off on Killing Time

Why work when you can sit on the docks or hunt for chanterelles? Or why not do both of these things?









J. Said

August 24, 2012 § 1 Comment

I have an announcement: I leave for France in a week. I’ll spend a little more than two weeks at the foot of the Alps, doing odd jobs for a small family. Then I’m off to Brittany to milk goats.

I thought I would stay in Sweden longer. Three weeks in all. I struggled with the decision to depart my current post early. But I don’t see any point in staying if I can’t communicate openly with my hosts and get what I need out of the experience.

In many ways, this volunteer experience has shaped up to be more disappointing than the one I had in Denmark. At least in Denmark I felt challenged. I learned something new every day. In Sweden, all I’ve done is pick tomatoes and stuff myself with sweets.

I’ll have more to say about this soon. I haven’t found the right words yet.

Now I’d like to take a moment to share a story from the beginning of my trip. I think about this story a lot.

I met someone on my first day in Europe. I’ll call him J.

J. and I sat across the aisle from each other on a flight from London to Stockholm. We got to chatting about our travel plans. He was headed up to the Arctic Circle the following evening to camp with friends. I was traveling Denmark to work on a farm.

J. didn’t have a place to spend the night in Stockholm. I told him I’d reserved a bed in a centrally located hostel and suggested that he tag along to see if they had any vacancy. He agreed.

We got lost within minutes of arriving at Stockholm’s Central Station. We asked many people for directions, including two homeless men, a couple of chic French girls, two Aussie tourists, and an ex-Peace Corps worker.

We’d only been a couple of blocks away from the hostel the entire time. I checked in, and he was able to get a bed of his own for the night. That’s when we parted ways.

I keep turning over in my mind what J. said to me when I told him about the kind of work I planned on doing in Denmark. We were still on board the plane when I explained to him my interests. He told me about an acquaintance of his that did more or less the same thing. This individual’s hosts, J. said, often made him feel petty and inferior. The work itself was also physically demanding.

Though in the end, J. reassured me, this person thought the experience was completely worthwhile.

How was I supposed to know that this was how my first two volunteer positions would play out? Even if I did feel petty and inferior at times myself, I’m not bitter. I’m extremely grateful for the experiences I’ve had on my trip so far.

I often thought to myself as I worked on that first farm in Denmark, “This will probably be one of the coolest things I ever do.” Oddly enough, I’m beginning to feel the same way about my time in Sweden.


August 23, 2012 § 1 Comment

My arsenal of Swedish vocabulary is pathetically small.

Hej = Hi or Hello
Tack = Thank you
Fika = Coffee break

(No, I don’t know the Swedish word for “tomato.” You think I would by now, considering the nature of my work.)

“Fika” is my favorite of these words. As a volunteer, I’m entitled to one half-hour fika per day. This happens mid-morning. I down a mug or two of strong Swedish coffee and slather slices of day-old bread or knackebrod (crisp, whole grain crackers) with the creamiest, sweetest honey I’ve ever tasted. My preferred combination is a slice of sharp cheese and a generous helping of honey. There are also plenty of “second sort” tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers available.

Today, there was a real treat: tiny, juicy plums from my hosts’ own trees. A whole plate full of them. One of my favorite fruits. I had a sizeable collection of plum pits wrapped up in my paper napkin by the time fika ended.

I chat with fellow volunteers until it’s time to start work again. Fika breaks up the work day nicely. Then it’s only two- and-a-half more hours of picking tomatoes, sticking labels on cellophane bags, or weeding before it’s time to eat lunch.

Lots of eating happens around here. Hardly any of the food, with the exception of that honey or those plums, is noteworthy. Think pasta, pasta, and more pasta. And salads consisting of tomatoes and cucumbers. With some rejected dishes from my hosts’ restaurant thrown in here and there. Usually roasted potatoes or fish cakes. The fish cakes are quite curious. I’m tempted to hurl them against the floor to see if they bounce.

But sometimes the food itself doesn’t matter. What really matters is the effort behind it and the people with which I share it. My fellow volunteers make fine dining companions, I must say. We’re often on our own for meals. We cook each other lunch and dinner with the limited ingredients we have available to us. (Our hosts won’t spring for olive oil or good spices because they’re not “local” or “fair trade.”) We openly discuss our feelings about work, school, politics, travel plans, and the future.

Even if I ate better meals at my last volunteer post, I lacked the sense of community I have now. There were many occasions in Denmark when I ate alone. My lunch or dinner would sit solemnly on the dining room table, wrapped in plastic to deter flies.

I almost never eat alone these days.

The social component of food inspires me. Food, regardless of how it was made or how good it tastes, always manages to bring people together. Or at least here on the farm it does.

Whenever, Wherever.

August 22, 2012 § 1 Comment

Five of us–one American (that’s me), three Germans, one of whom was actually raised in Costa Rica, and a Brit–cram into a busted-up Audi. This is the “WWOOF-er car,” our primary mode of transportation. We try to ignore the “thud” noise it makes every three minutes or so as we drive to the supermarket. We’re out of soap, tea, cereal, and chocolate. It’s also the German-Costa Rican’s turn to cook dinner. She wants to make Thai food. I personally look forward to finding out if it’s possible to acquire Thai kitchen staples in central Sweden.

We turn on some music. Of the few CDs in the car at the time, we agree on Shakira’s Laundry Service.

The Brit immediately starts belting out all of the lyrics. I snicker.

“You know, you can sing along, too,” she replies.

I continue snickering. I had that CD when I was twelve years old. I’m embarrassed to admit that I still know many of the words.

We wander through the narrow aisles of the supermarket. Yes, ginger root, coconut milk, and mangoes are available in Sweden. But, as with everything in Sweden, they cost twice as much as it would anywhere else in the world.

On our way home, as we make our way up the long, gravel road toward the farm, we pass lawn decorations that can only be described as a crossbreeding of Brothers Grimm and Looney Tunes, rendered in what appears to be modeling clay. We decide they’re quite “Scandinavian.”

Later that evening, the German-Costa Rican prepares a marinade for shrimp while the rest of us sit around the dining room table with mugs of coffee and tea, chatting. We share our views on favorite books and films, contemporary literary phenomenons like Twilight and Hunger Games, and, um, Lord of the Rings-inspired drinking games.

After sitting around with our laptops and magazines, we sit down to dinner: shrimp, swimming in a subtly spicy broth, paired with coconut rice. It’s our first meal without a hint of tomato. When you spend the majority of your working hours picking and sorting tomatoes for sale, and when you must prepare your meals with rejected tomatoes, (we call them “second sort” around here), this is nothing short of a revelation.

We watch one of the only English-language DVDs we can find in our hosts’ meager library–Road to Perdition, featuring a horribly disfigured, balding Jude Law. Before we know it, it’s time to call it a night. A few of us make plans to go on a walk in the nearby forest the following morning.

Oftentimes the work you do as a volunteer is mundane and unsatisfying, and your hosts are absent and indifferent. So you rely on the people around you to make the experience worthwhile. It’s worked for me so far.


August 22, 2012 § 2 Comments

I picked wild blueberries and lingonberries in the forest with a couple of fellow volunteers today. Now the question is what to do with all of these berries. Thoughts?







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