Thursday, May 27, 2010

My House in Umbria

When a backpacker from Hawaii first told me about Workaway when I was in Amsterdam, I was slightly dubious. I mean, it sounded like slave labour... working half the day just for some food and shelter... it sounded a bit medieval. But I met the backpacker at a Christian hostel and I thought maybe it was divine intervention... so I signed up.

Basically there are heaps of organisations and families who put advertisements online for volunteers at their farm or hostel or hotel and poor backpackers like me hoping to save a  buck and soak up some language and culture get in touch with them to help out for a few weeks. So I contacted a family that sounded friendly who were living in an old farmhouse right near the border of Tuscany and Umbria in the countryside in Italy. I had no idea what to expect.

Beth and I parted ways as she went on to Rome to continue her adventures. I was met at the station by Alex, an Englishwoman who immediately seemed friendly and hospitable. It was with her I would be spending the next two weeks slaving away in the garden strimming, mowing, weeding, composting, digging and planting. Now don't faint people, I haven't done a whole lot of gardening in my life, so most of this was quite new to me. But I found it to be quite enjoyable when the sun was shining down and it felt good to see the garden take shape. I thought hauling a 20kg backpack around was good for my muscles, but gardening has definitely given me a workout. However, it hasn't all been hard work.

The day after I got there we went to some natural hot baths in the middle of nowhere to soak our muscles, which was great. On the hot days we have also made afternoon visits to the outdoor swimming pool that sits in the middle of a grass field with a great view out over the hills and towns. Alex and her husband (who is currently in America visiting family) also have two gorgeous little girls, Thomasina (10) and Isolde (8). My second day in the garden Thomasina didn't go to school because she had a "tummy ache" which turned out to be a guise so that she could spend the day gardening with us and listen to me tell her stories all day. Funnily enough, Isolde had a "tummy ache" two days later and I had to dig deep (pardon the pun) into my story bank to entertain her for the day. These kids are pretty well-read... I had to think outside your regular fairytales and greek myths, because they had heard them all. "Can't you stay forever?" They asked me. I'm pretty sure I would run out of stories.

The house itself is a beautiful old two-storey orange-brick thing surounded by lush garden and grass with wild poppies and other such flowers growing everywhere. It's a bit of an explosion inside as they are in the proces of rebuilding parts, but it has a certain charm. The view of the surrounding country is amazing. I often enjoy it as I am having a shower outside with the sun shining down or sitting in a deck chair in the front yard.

Last weekend we did a day trip to Assisi, which is really only famous because of St Francis who stuck it up the Catholic Church by telling them they were becoming greedy and not helping the poor enough in the 15th century. But it really is a beautiful city in its own right. We took a long walk to an old fortress that looked out over half of Umbria, visited Francis' tomb and ate some world class gelati before driving home for a delicious dinner of mussels in tomato, garlic and olive oil wth salad.

I love travelling around, but the last two weeks have been good to be still for a while, to sit back and relax with a beer and a book as the suns sets over the countryside and think about where I'm heading next. Maybe Croatia if I can get in contact with Beth (who wins worst traveller of the year award... yes, Beth, it's official). I've made it halfway, but I swear it already feels like a year has passed. I can't wait to see what the next half has in store for me. I definitely think I will be giving Workaway another go.

Love Megan

Monday, May 17, 2010

Nudity in Florence

After Paris I felt like I needed a good bath. So I caught a 5 hour train down to Nice, on the southern coast of Spain. And after a few days of straight rain, the sun once again showed its face for a beautiful day in Nice. I did some much needed laundry then walked around the coast where people sunbathed on a pebbly beach beside azure water without a wave in sight. I climbed a big cliff to look out over the view of the city with its terra cotta houses jutting out of green hills. This must have been the better part of France. That night I caught a train to Cannes for the red carpet opening of the Cannes Film Festival. I snuck into a restricted area with all the stalkers with step ladders and craned necks waving their cameras over the heads of the people in front to get the good paparazzi shots. It was funny to see what goes on around the red carpet, the parts you don't see on TV. The atmosphere was awesome with music and excited people everywhere, wannabe celebrities walking around in suits and glittering dresses... or maybe they were famous, but I certainly didn't recognise them. One Australian guy I met snuck onto the red carpet right at the end in his tuxedo with bow tie and then started pretending he was famous and signing autographs afterwards. I got a photo with him and then all the French girls were asking "Excuse me, but who is that?" I got my paparazzi shots of Tim Burton, Cate Blanchett, Salma Hayek, Russell Crowe and Eva Longoria (just to drop a few names) and then went to watch the Gorillaz play on a stage on the water. 

The next day I caught another 5 hour train to meet my sister Beth in Pisa, a town really only famous for one thing; a tower that defied the laws of architecture and physics. The highlight, however, was not the tower but the awesome hostel we were staying at. It was in an old monastery with 300 year old stained glass windows and an enigmatic owner, Marco who mad our stay very comfortable. Him and his Thai wife cooked us dinner which consisted of three different types of pasta cooked Tuscan style and some bruschetta washed down with some Sicilian red wine. We were like a big Italian family all sitting around the dinner table and after dinner Marco showed us his pet ferret. So that day Beth and I got some dumb tourist shots of us leaning against the tower and hugging the tower (I can't describe how stupid people look when they do this - see below and that was Pisa.

The next day we went to Florence, an old city most famous for Michelangelo's David, but there were plenty of other things to see, including a lot more nude Italian men in the form of marble sculptures. They really were amazing, but David did top the lot. He was massive and so perfect in every way and the expression on his face is so mysterious. It was hard to peel our eyes off him, but we braved the cold rainy weather (what the heck? this is supposed to be sunny Italy) to see some art and history in the museums then walked to a lookout to see how big Florence really was. On Saturday night we decided to test out the nightlife at a nightclub after having some dinner. Sounds simple, but in reality getting a good cheap feed on a Saturday night was near impossible. There were so many queues and after trawling the streets for ages getting hungrier and grumpier we scoffed down an expensive meal at almost 11pm. This was after Beth had been basically sexually assaulted by a crazy Italian guy who groped her on the street yelling "Ooh, Americano". We weren't sure what was more insulting; being considered American or being considered a sex symbol. We then met 2 Italians at a gelati stand who walked us to a nearby club. We weren't really that impressed with it, so we walked to another club called Babylon and this is where we really got a taste for how Italians party. The dancefloor was crazy. There were half naked DJs on the podium and other guys in nothing but jocks and sunglasses dancing next to them, while the barpeople sprayed everyone with champagne at regular intervals. In fact, the bartenders were so drunk I managed to score quite a few drinks for "free". After getting quite a lot of Italian male attention, Beth and I decided to escape back to our hostel before we got groped again.
The next day we had a stressful morning dealing with banks and phone companies (both of which are evil) before finally boarding a train to Siena, which was gorgeous. There was a major soccer game going on there, so the streets were eerily empty of tourists and people, which was a nice change. Crowds of people who obviously couldn't get tickets to the game were sitting on fences and at the gates trying to watch. At one point people went absolutely crazy with flares and cheering, jumping up and down. I'm pretty sure their team scored a goal. I have never seen Aussies so passionate about football, it was contagious. So in better spirits we walked around the stony streets of Siena with burnt brown houses jutting every which way and a big cathedral on the hill.

But yesterday Beth and I parted ways as I was scheduled to meet a family who live in an old farmhouse in Umbria and Beth was off to Rome. I am going to help them with some gardening and entertain their two daughters for 2 weeks while they give me a place to stay and some food. Sounds good to me. Now if only the weather would clear up, it will be just like a scene from Under the Tuscan Sun (technically I'm in Umbria, but it's right on the border with Tuscany).

I will tell you all about it next time. Now I'm off to bed.
Buona notte,

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Trouble With Paris...

Have you ever had that feeling that even though you might be miles away from home, you still feel like you're competely at home? Well I was starting to feel that way after two weeks in Vorstenbosch. The sun had shined his smiling face on my visit so the Spring weather was beautiful for exploring (and maybe sometimes getting lost in...) the area by bike. My relatives are also possibly the most hospitable people in the world and they made sure my days were filled with plenty of things to do and people to meet. I stayed around long enough to see my cousin Eefje's beautiful baby girl, meet an old guy at a farmhouse museum who knew my Opa, celebrate Queen's Day and I think meet almost everyone in the neighbourhood. I certainly met nearly all the Dortmans in the area, including the guy who owned "Dortmans Music Store" who claimed we all came from a French soldier during the time of Napoleon.

Now, I have been quoted in the past as saying "I would rather have a hernia than have a baby" but I have to admit when I saw Eefje and her husband Tom smiling down at the cute little baby girl they had created, I may have found just a little hint of maternal feeling stir deep down inside. Only a little. Don't get too excited mum, I still find them a little scary (my mum is totally jealous of the new Opa and Oma).

Another party worth sticking around for was Queen's Day or Koningendag as they call it. Basically, it's the Queen of Holland's birthday, but no one really gives a hoot about that because it's a day off which here means let's chuck some big stages in all the cities in Holland with DJs and just let everyone drink on the street for a day. All while wearing as much orange as possible (it's like their version of green and gold). It was crazy. I went to Eindhoven, a relatively big city where there was just a sea of orange people drinking and dancing in the city centre and every street was full too. Every trip to the toilet was an adventure... you needed to allow at least 45 minutes, because the queues were so long. At least guys could use the he pees which were located right in the middle of the street. I'm not sure if underage drinking is a problem here, I mean kids can drink at 16 years old anyway, but I'm sure I saw younger cruising the streets with cans of beer. I tried out some local cuisine such as oliebollen (a familiar favourite from home), krokette (also same as home) and the Frickendel Speciaal, but I've been assured that I don't want to know what's in it (sorta like our sausages I guess...). In Amsterdam some of the street cleaners were going on strike the day after Queen's Day. After seeing the mess on the streets, I can undertstand why. I have never seen so much rubbish in my life, just piles of it everywhere.

Now, my relatives Jan and Ine are so hospitable, they even organised a ride for me to Belgium, tour guide included. Who needs Lonely Planet? It was actually the son of the people who live across the road who was selling a house he owned in Gent, Belgium. He is also the brother of my brother's ex-girlfriend. And he offered me a lift to Gent, accommodation at his apartment there where four students live and to show me around the city the next day. So we hopped in his car and drove the one and a half hours to oh, another country. Crazy. There I stayed at his house where I met the four uni students and they were the loveliest girls and helped me to find my way around Gent. It is a really old city with big cathedrals and old buildings and a big medieval castle smack bang in the middle of the city. It was nicer even than Bruges I think, because the next day I went to Bruges and it was a tourist circus, which kind of took away the charm of it all. But I bought some delicious Belgian chocolate and cruised the cobblestone streets anyway. The girls also introduced me to a game called 'Molkee'. All you Dortmans at home would love this game, it reminds me a little of Kubb. I will have to get my hands on a set. So we were in the park eating frites and drinking red wine and playing Molkee and it was fun. So that was Belgium.

But another day, another country and Paris was calling. Paris is not the dreamy city everyone thinks it is though. It has some great history and the Notre Dame Cathedral and The Louvre were amazing, but it's not like a scene from Amelie. Actually it is just another big dirty city with not so friendly people and lots of tourists. But still a lot to see. I hired a bike and rode around town only once riding on the wrong side of the road and once getting burped right in my face as I rode past. If I wasn't so disgusted with how filthy the city was already I might have laughed. The Louvre was too much to take in, so overwhelming. The Mona Lisa wasn't even the best; she was surrounded by people and you couldn't even get close. I liked the sculptures the best. The Arc de Triomphe was cool, but walking back along the Champs Elysees alone at night was a mistake... I kept getting hassled by Africans asking me to go to a discotecque. I had to get brutal to shake one of them off who followed me for ten minutes. The Notre Dame was beautiful and the view from the tower (which I queued for like two hours for) was great, especially as the sun was setting. I saw the Eiffel Tower but I couldn't be bothered climbing it after waiting in the queues at the Notre Dame towers.

Now I am catching a train tomorrow to Nice along the French Riviera where I hope to do some star spotting at the Cannes Film Festival. Hello paparazzi!

Megan xo