My hands are bouncing as I type this, sitting on a business class bus bound for Budapest, Hungary. Business class means free water bottles and snacks, which is outrageously unheard of, and which I took immediate and enthusiastic advantage of, as evidenced by the crumbs covering my lap. My boots are tucked under my seat, the curtain is drawn over the window, I don’t smell awesome and I kind of have to pee. I am feeling tired, content, with hints of desperation. Welcome to backpacking.
The Czech Republic was lovely to me. I got lucky, as I so very often do. It’s so hard for me to tell if the places that I visit dictate my mood, or if my mood dictates my experience of the place. In any case, I have been feeling well and much more whole, thanks to this country or not. Prague is stunning, perhaps the most beautiful city I have yet to see in the world. It seems as though the Czechs’ taste for aesthetics is far reaching and spot on; it touches everything, even the mundane: streets, walls, ceilings, fixtures, paint jobs. Glittering flashes of gold wink from every other surface, laughing at the ages. Were I ever offered the opportunity to live there for good reason, I would accept without hesitation. The city’s spirit remains somewhat a mystery to me, but in a way that makes me want to sit down with it and drink coffee for a long time.
I had the good fortune of staying with a Czech man named Petr, to whom I owe a week of sincere wellbeing. More than his insatiable thoughtfulness and generosity, I loved making a friendship that traverses varying bounds of honesty, reflection, and laughter. For my part, at least, I have made my first friend since traveling that I would very simply like to keep for life.
I had been planning on doing a two week stint of three cities: Prague, Budapest, and Bucharest, as I made my way down to southern Bulgaria. But somehow the thought of repeated tourism, especially in urban areas, wore me down before I even started. Friday I spent almost an entire day inside, hunched over my computer to see if I couldn’t find a farm at which to volunteer on Sunday, and I did.
It’s called the Preserved Seed Farm, about 1.5 hours from Prague. It was beautiful, of course. They have sheep, goats, chickens, an apple orchard, a small vineyard, a homemade greenhouse, a huge garden, three horses, several trailers, two lodges, and two houses in a tiny village. Anywhere from 20 to 50 people live there at once, because as I found out a little late, the people there are part of a religious group called the Twelve Tribes. There is much one could say about them, but all I really have is a witness to their extreme sincerity and generosity. They seek to live a life of love, and that they do.
I spent one week doing more dishes than I could count, sitting and swaying amazingly high in a tree to pick (eat) gobs of cherries, learning how to make cheese, pruning tomato plants, and milking goats. I chopped dried herbs, I started fires for cooking, I hung laundry up to dry and then hung more. I gathered chicken eggs and brushed my teeth in rainwater. I slept in a humble trailer and took enormous pleasure in warm showers. I made faces at kids and held hands while dancing and I think I was full to exploding the entire week. Their food is to die for, that’s for sure. I think that every green growing thing had a different edible berry on it around every corner, and the farm attracted three wild cats, one orange, one black, one spotted, with whom they shared fresh, warm goat’s milk.
On the weekends they play volleyball and duck into the gigantic, neighboring forest to go swimming in a hidden lake. Every morning and every evening they gather together for fellowship, and I was soon accustomed to waking at six am. If something was offered to me, which was about every ten minutes, I rarely said no. I was unceasingly amazed to listen to their kids excitedly rush between Czech, German, and English, without missing a beat. They operate anywhere from candles, to solar panels, to regular electricity, depending on the building. If you get up early enough, the mist is still hovering over pale yellow and green fields like a spirit. I ate almost exclusively homemade bread, cheese, and fresh vegetables, and just as often drank roasted tea with local honey, and goat’s milk. Pretty much my idea of a fairytale.
Being around that many people for that long is a little trying to me, but it also kind of felt like bible camp that I went to when I was little. I seem to have developed a small sinus infection since the end of that week, but before I left, they pumped me full of freshly picked sage leaves, ripe red berries, herb tea with honey and drops of homemade echinacea, notes of encouragement included. I’m sort of terrified of getting sick while traveling, and I know I would be much worse off without their care.
I accomplished everything I wanted: slow down, save money, give back, help out, learn things, grow relationships. I’m on my way to Budapest to sit in the Hungarian pools and eat goulash for two days, and then I’m gone to Bulgaria for a handful of weeks, but I will certainly be farming again. Maybe in Greece, or Croatia, or Italy, who knows.
So, dear Czech Republic, here’s to you. Thanks for giving me stony, cool castles; gold plated halos; a walk in magical woods; a true friend; bridges and bridges over moat and memory; pretty money in the hundreds; an opera both quaint and elegant; expensive water and beer for a dollar; dropping me off in the middle of nowhere in the rain; a museum for communism; mild wine; quiet bookstores; a farm with a lot of soul; an expanded tummy and a thoughtful heart.
I spent my last Czech coins making a triumphant fool of myself at the estimable Czech post office, and on a new bar of European chocolate. I’m thinking about my spiritual enigma, and I still walk through crowded places and let myself imagine what I would do if your familiar face surfaced within the sea. Onward.