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Reality Czech: A Rural Workaway Experience

08 Jan 16
Heidi Kumm
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When I decided I needed to put my “tourist card” to use for the last few weeks I had in Europe I started looking into Workaway opportunities in a variety of countries. A few days after I started my search I had myself set up with a Workaway host in rural eastern Czech where I’d be helping out on a small homestead. I wasn’t sure of all the details and didn’t ask a ton of questions — I think the overwhelmingly positive experience I had with Chalet Martin had me dropping my guard a bit. Luckily it all worked out great…here is the full story, as I wrote it with pen + paper in my bunk in my downtime during my stay at David + Anna’s small farm.

I was oddly calm about my adventure into the unknown when I boarded my train in Vienna headed for Czech Republic. I planned my trip so I had a few hour stop over in a Bratislava to spend some time exploring another city. As soon as I stepped off the train in the small border town I got overwhelmed…it turns out Czech is one complicated language! I had no idea I understood so many French + German signs until I attempted to navigate a city with neither! I had no idea where I was going.

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I followed it “i” information signs, snagged a map at the tourist center and spent the next two hours walking around the small city before I settled in for an amazing meal of a local meat dish [per the waitress’s recommendation] before hopping on another train to Vsetin, where I was to meet my Workaway host. That odd calm never left me, even as I struggled to communicate with every person I came into contact with. I guess I figured in the worst case scenario I’d…figure something out! Apparently I had gained a lot of confidence in my own ability to survive whatever got thrown my way…

As I stepped over the railroad tracks on my way to the dark train station in Vsetin I heard my name called out in a lived-all-over-the-world accent and looked up to see a tall, bearded man smiling my way. I breathed a sigh of relief I didn’t realize I was holding in — my Workaway host, David, and I had easily found each other and he spoke smooth English! I followed him along the tracks as we chatted our way to his 4WD Suzuki Vitara. I tossed my pack into the back next to a carseat and a few bags of dog food before buckling into the tiny car.

David pointed the car away from the lights of the city and we drove off into the night. Okay, it was only 6pm or so but darkness had set in over an hour ago and the world beyond the beams of the headlights was pitch black. The conversation was easy as we drove along the dark road, even as we slowed while David searched for the side road he needed to take the “back road” up to his home. He eventually found it and we pulled off…then sat there for a few moments while David talked about his farm. I was momentarily confused then realized he was just letting the 4WD kick in before turning the mini-SUV up a steep, rutted single lane road that lead into a thick forest.

My first thoughts revolved around “well, he was right about having good trail running!” as we crept up the road. Then the road stopped looking like a road and became quite grassy…we were driving across a field, into the dark night, under a sky of a million stars. The farm girl in me was ecstatic, this felt like home…the home I had left behind years ago in Wisconsin. As we bounced across the open field I stared out the windows, taking it all in, as David talked about neighboring farms and his runaway sheep.

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…the field we drove across, as seen in the morning light…

Just as I was starting to wonder when I’d see the hints of rural civilization David pulled the Suzuki to a stop where the field met the forest, killed the engine and turned out the lights. Our conversation had switched from sheep to dogs and he paused a story about his dogs just long enough to say “okay, we’re here”. Here? Where? I looked out the windows expecting to see the twinkling of lights or something resembling a path…I saw nothing. Okay, so maybe this was all too easy and I had just walked into my own murder scene? Well…at least I really enjoyed the last drive of my life… [yes, an actual thought I had]

I followed David’s lead and unbuckled my seatbelt then headed to the back of the Suzuki to…grab the axe + shovel that would assist with my death? Yes, also real thoughts I had. Somehow I actually entertained these thoughts but never had a single panicked feeling. I was completely at ease with where my trust in a stranger had lead me. I’m not sure what this says about me [please, internet world, don’t try to murder me…I don’t actually want to die!] but it did make me realize how at ease I am with the reality of my life.

IMG_20151107_091530...the trail leading down toward town, it was a 15 minute hike to the road where the other car was parked…

When David opened the back hatch of the tiny Suzuki he didn’t have a shovel or any other murder weapon to hand me, instead he offered me my backpack and a bag of cat food. I inwardly laughed at myself as I realized how ingrained the “American alarmist” way of thinking is in my life. David was exactly what he presented himself as — a chatty, rural farmer who was opening his house to a stranger in the name of sharing stories, experience and cultures. I loaded up my arms with a few bags of cat food and followed David across an open field toward was I assumed lead to his home. It did…and after picking our away down a dark flight of stony stairs I met the rest of his family, Anna and Jakub. Anna was immediately welcoming and Jakub, an outgoing three year old, climbed on my lap to show off his toys as soon as I sat down.

IMG_20151106_162007...sunset from the hill above the house…

This was the beginning of a very eye-opening experience on a rural homestead in Eastern Czech. Sure, I grew up on a farm and had a solid idea of what I was getting into but I learned so much about life priorities while I was living in this small house tucked into the hills of the rolling Czech countryside, a solid 15 minute hike away from any drive-able roads. The family was incredibly welcoming and answered all the silly questions I had about their current and past lives [they both lead very nomadic lives].

The home was small — three rooms in total with a loft they used in the warmer months. There was running water but it was directly from the well and was frigid. If you wanted warm water it needed to be heated on the wood burning cook stove in the kitchen. All electricity used to light the home after dark was pulled from solar panels connected to a few car batteries. The nights did get chilly but in the comfort of the home the wood stove did an excellent job of keeping us all warm.

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My days were spent harvesting apples…I literally picked hundreds of apples in my first few days on the farm. By my third day we worked out a bit of a routine with the apple mill and juice press — I would mill 2-4 buckets of apples then we’d boil them down until they were juicy enough for David to put them through the juice press. When I was milling apples I would bring in a few boxes of apples from outside, sort through them [the bad ones went to the goat bin] and wash them individually in the wash basin. After washing all the apples I’d pile them into the hand spun mill and force them through the shredder [think massive Kitchen Aid shredder] with a wooden spoon. Once the apples were all milled [think shredded cheese] they were either put directly onto the wood stove or covered and stuck in the cold room until the stove had room for them.

Once a pot of apples had simmered on the stove for 4-8 hours they were ready to be juiced. David took care of this with his hand cranked juice press. As the apples were juiced they were put into jugs to become straight apple juice, apple wine or apple kombucha.

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As I waited for the apples to cook down I spent hours coring, slicing and drying apples. Oh, and I spent plenty of time entertaining the two farm kittens that loved to ride around in my hood while I picked apples. I found myself a routine with the apple slicing and drying. I had about 12 flat pans that I rotated throughout the kitchen as the thinly sliced apples worked their way through the drying process. There was a small oven in the back of the wood stove but it burned too hot to bake the apples in, instead I had apples placed at various level above/around the wood stove. It was an interesting production that I created and modified as I went. When the table was overtaken with the apple juicer I got creative and moved my whole apple slicing production to the sleeping room where Jakuby plopped down next to me to help chop up apples with his butter knife.

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No part of the apple went to waste. What wasn’t used during the slicing/drying process we either set aside for the goats or added to a big pot to cook down with pears, raisins and seasoning to create a tasty compote that went perfectly with healthy servings of rice. Anna and David took charge with the compote — boiling to down then filling jars to be canned. Compote days were my favorite…it meant we got compote for dinner!

When we weren’t working directly with the apples [aka, we were waiting for them to simmer or boil] we spent a fair bit of time tidying up the garden [mostly Anna], working on the sheep sty [mostly David] and smashing walnuts out of their shells [mostly Jakub and me]. The walnut smashing production was another one that evolved as the week went. It started out with Jakub asking Anna to step on the shells and escalated to multiple makeshift mallets on the sleeping room floor. I liked walnut smashing…I ate a lot of “too small to save” chunks of walnuts. #resourceful

IMG_20151107_174327Near the end of my stay I also took to milking the goats each morning, it was refreshing to know I hadn’t lost all of my farm girl skills when it comes to animal care! The goats and the sheep were very friendly and liked being around people — the little goats were even stubborn enough to expect you to hand feed them apples! Silly creatures! We also had to wrangle their runaway sheep. David + Anna took care of that process but I was around to help out a bit with the sheep sheering and herbal medication for a thorn in her foot. I was surprised by how calm the sheep was as they sheered her! Heck, the entire sheep sheering process was intriguing to me.

Did you know sheep are sheered to keep them clean, not necessarily to make their wool into anything? That is why they sheered their sheep — to avoid any mites or parasites that are known to burrow into the thick wool off a sheep. Also, sheep are skinny! Like goat skinny! Even after they had sheered off a solid 2-3 inches of wool I still had to bury my fingers up to my palm to actual touch sheep skin. I found this to be amazing…no judging me if everyone else in the world already knew this!

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Everything we did on this small farm was hand powered — from apple milling, juicing and slicing to milking the goats to washing your laundry. Sure, it was incredibly time consuming to do everything by hand but it was also rewarding. I mean, I sliced a few hundred apples and never chopped off a finger! That’s kind of a big deal in my world!

The one thing I really let lapse while I was living on this homestead in the country was my personal hygiene…I did brush my teeth, wash my face and put my stash of baby wipes to use on a daily basis but I seriously slacked when it came to full blown bathes and doing laundry! If I wanted to take a full bath I needed to heat two big pots of water to a boil on the wood stove then dump them into the bath basin that was just big enough for me to crouch down into. It worked just fine…when I had the patience to wait for the water to boil! And laundry…well, I only did that once with my left over bath water. Thanks to my Columbia Sportswear shell layers I didn’t get my clothes very dirty outside the house and slicing apples isn’t exactly a strenuous task!

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When I wasn’t working with the apples or animals on the farm I did a lot of reading [actually finished 1.5 books while I was there] and wandered off through the rolling countryside to simply explore the area. Once again, I had high ambitions when it came to running but most days I simply hiked up rutted roads and along imaginary paths in the forest.

Overall, it was an incredible experience. I can’t say it’s a life I want for my forever — partly because it requires a long term commitment [farming really is a lifestyle] and partly because I like people way too much to live that far away from them. But I’d go back, simply for the reality Czech [see what I did there!?] that comes with a week or two of living so far outside of my version of normal. If you ever have the opportunity to do a Workaway volunteer exchange…do it! It might make you uncomfortable for a bit but if you go in open minded and willing to respectfully question + learn about the family you’re working with it will open up a whole new world to you!

1 Comment

  1. The Padre January 11, 2016 at 10:23 pm Reply

    Fantastic!!

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