We remain technically (and electively) homeless and adrift since concluding our bike tour in Houston at the end of March. We took two months to catch up on adult life responsibilities: taxes, dentist and doctor appointments, passports, finalizing travel plans, applying to jobs, and executing school work with extra discipline in anticipation of our summer travels.
We structured our journey around volunteering opportunities we found on https://www.workaway.info/. The basic idea of this program is that you work four to five hours a day, five days a week in exchange for room and board, and the rest of the time is for you to travel and explore the local area. As a family of six, in which not all members provide equal output to earn their keep, we flexed on some of the details of that basic arrangement to make it workable for all sides. That said, it is still a very economical way to travel and embed yourself in a different culture.
The types of work sought through WorkAway are wide-ranging from construction projects, farm work and development, to childcare. Our main appeal to potential hosts was our native English skills. Our first position was in Kołobrzeg, Poland, right off the Baltic Coast, for three weeks. Our hosts were language teachers. The husband and wife duo teach at the local high school and tutor privately from their studio. They seek native English or Spanish speakers to assist with their private students and to spend time with their two children for their language development. They too home educate their children and have done a year-long bike tour, theirs across Europe. Our days were spent with our hosts’ kids, riding the city bikes to explore the coastal town, learning its history, regularly indulging in ice cream, Friday night pizza parties, and playing games together. Their school year wound down while we were there, so we got to attend accordion and dance recitals as well. As our schedule navigated around the irregular end of year programs, the adults discussed the trappings of being in the self-imposed, middle-class family ‘box’, and how easy it is to fall back into it even after life-changing experiences like extended bike tours. Many other interesting conversations abounded. As we wrapped up our time there our Polish hosts prepared for their annual summer bike tour.
We left Kołobrzeg by train and spent the night with our army friends currently stationed in a different part of Poland. We shared a fun-filled night in their home. Both families’ kids played well together while the adults caught up on the past 7-8 years since we were neighbors in New York. Amazingly, time did not stop for them, despite my mental image of their kids forever being in the under-5 crowd. Our fleeting time with them rekindled our nostalgia for our former military community.
We traveled another day by train to Wrocław, Poland. Wrocław (pronounced: Vrawswov) is a charming city with over 300 gnomes stationed throughout which make on-foot exploration fun and compelling for those less enchanted by taking in architecture in the city square…. We indulged in some traditional Polish cuisine for dinner to close out our Polish adventure and ended it on a high and full-bellied note.
Another day of train travel brought us to Bratislava, Slovakia. We spent two weeks there in the home of Old Man’s best friend from high school, Mr. Fish, and his family who are currently stationed there. Mrs. Fish is a world-class hostess and made us feel so welcome and at ease despite our imposition of noise, chaos, and food consumption on her orderly and well-stocked household. While based with the Fish family we took a two-night getaway to Budapest, Hungary, and made two day trips into Vienna, Austria (the highlights being an organ concert at St. Stephen’s Basilica in Budapest and both the zoo and Children’s Museum in Vienna). The remainder of our time was spent with our hosts celebrating the Fourth of July, hiking to castle ruins, exploring Bratislava and other small towns. We treasured our time with them and hope less time passes before the next visit.
We departed Bratislava and headed to České Budějovice in the Czech Republic. České Budějovice has one of the biggest town squares in Europe and a 14th-century Iron Maiden, but our main objective in staying there was access to Český Krumlov. Český Krumlov is a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site and offered a window into the past along the Vltava River. We toured the castle, walked through town along the narrow, winding cobblestone roads densely lined with historic structures, and tried to imagine life as it was several hundred years ago.
We hopped on another train and continued north to our second, and final, WorkAway position. It was on a teaching farm one hour south of Prague, in the Czech Republic where we stayed for three weeks. Our hosts were a young family trying their hands at bringing an old family farm back to life. Their goal is for it to eventually be completely self-sustaining and their exclusive occupation, but both husband and wife still work outside the farm as they develop the infrastructure for that reality. We weeded gardens, cleaned out animal stalls, harvested food, cleaned, cooked, and assisted with collecting flowers for their weekly farmers’ market stand. Our main contribution was for the English Summer Camp the farm hosted our last week there. The students possessed varying degrees of English language skills, but that proved no obstacle to the universal language of play. Sissy was a shining star in her ability to put the visiting students at ease, show them around the farm, and involve them in the various activities with mostly only hand gestures and her inviting smile to guide them. At the camp’s conclusion, all four of our kids were sad to say good-bye to their new friends and the farm itself in quick succession.
While at the farm, we did an overnight getaway to Prague each weekend. Prague, like Budapest, is said to be one of Europe’s prettiest capital cities. Perhaps it is, but we were unable to savor it amid the throngs of tourists present. We watched the Changing of the Guard at the palace and got our fill of the crowds. We enjoyed our time more away from all the hubbub and sought out playgrounds and a Model Train Museum to regain some personal space and quiet.
Upon our exit from the Czech Republic we lingered a few more days on the European continent to visit our old stomping grounds from high school in Germany. Has it really been over twenty years since we were so young and starry-eyed? We toured our final castle, stood in awe of our final cathedral, visited a couple of museums, and tried to stay cool in the stifling heat wave that occurred during our time there, which served as good conditioning for the weather awaiting us on the other side of the ocean.
We are now back on U.S. soil and actively re-entering the real world we have dodged for almost a year and a half. We once again own a motorized set of wheels*, our Keen foot tans and sunglass-raccoon-eyes are greatly diminished, and gainful employment appears to be around a nearing bend. Despite our best efforts, it seems we already have one foot back in the ‘box’….
*a funny aside: when our credit score was revealed during our vehicle purchase, Old Man quipped, “Wow, and that’s for a homeless, unemployed vet….”