Spain came and went easy as a carafe of sangria. It was soothing for my weary traveler soul, perfectly fulfilling for my kitchen-missing-soul and surprising, even for my ‘seen and done a WHOLE lot lately’ soul.
I decided I was just over being ‘on the go.’ And so, I made a game-time decision to trade in the beautifully bustling Alicante for sleepy, olive-producing Algodonales. Again, I traded my hostel bum for the country girl life, where I met Mike.
Mike, like all three of my previous hosts, greeted me with the most generous spirit, beautiful home and invitation to take on his nemesis [aka one of my greatest joys]–cooking. All I did for three weeks was cook to my hearts content. Old favorites and new experiments. It didn’t matter. I was in a kitchen and I blared Michael Buble and I sipped on a fat glass of red and Mike and I shared meals and stories galore and I was completely content.
And when I wasn’t in the kitchen, I was by the pool.
And when I wasn’t by the pool, I was making sweet new friends and soaking up views so pretty they may as well have been a painting.
And when I wasn’t by the pool, I was PARAGLIDING.
And when I wasn’t paragliding, I was working. Cause yall, from a million miles away, I was recruited for a pretty amazing job opportunity. Proof, that taking time away from the hustle does NOT make you less desirable. In fact, I think this journey and letting go of the ‘need to succeed,’ is precisely how I found a job offer just dumped into my lap. It just makes sense. Take care of yourself and others and God will take care of you back.
Yep, my Spain was easy livin..really, it was just like gliding.
“Drrreicccchhhh…you have to roll the ‘r’ in that throaty way… If you can learn to pronounce ‘dreich’ like a Scot, then you’ve really accomplished something here in Scotland,’ said Mairi.
I’m not sure I learned how to perfectly pronounce ‘dreich,’ but I do think I perfectly understand what it means…gloom, drizzly, grey, ‘blah’ Scottish days. Days that aren’t all that far off from a sluggish Seattle February day. I get that. I get that way deep.
Mairi also taught me that the way you spend your birthday sets the intention for how you’ll spend your year. And so she, along with her precious little blue-eyed blonde kiddos, made sure I did a lot of birthday smiling.
We sipped proper Scottish whiskey with proper Scots in a proper Scottish bar. We drove through those green, green highlands that Pinterest tells you, you must visit [an absolutely accurate Pinterest reco. Do the highlands. Find the cows. Drink the whiskey. Thank me later]. We pulled over for photos with waterfalls and to hike around old castle ruins.
And they gifted me with a grey and white brush-stroked canvas to remember that sweet place that set the intention for my year. At the end of a foreign fairy-tale birthday morning, I hugged my new friends with an overflowing heart and walked off to catch my train [a train that would wander through the most beautiful valleys ever…an opinion apparently shared with J.K. Rowling, as yes, it was indeed the setting for Harry Potter’s Hogwarts Express]. Three hours of gorgeous train ride later, the announcer with the Craig Ferguson accent invited me to ‘alight’ the train at my final stop back in Helensburgh, and it slapped me in the face….
I spent my birthday in the Scottish Highlands alighting the dreich. I left the gloom. I’m deboarding that dreich train, yall. Birthday intention set. Bring it on, 27.
It’s so blissfully quiet. Just the faint humming of the heater, the tap of my fingers touching the keyboard and birds chirping in the distance. I’m sitting cross-legged on an old comfy couch with a piping hot cup of vanilla chai. I’m surrounded by glass windows in every direction, leaving a sweeping view of a Scottish loch, the rolling Highland hills and the greenest lushest earth on the planet. Week one in Scotland is in the books and I’m now finding this blissfully quiet moment to reflect on yet another powerful period of self-growth, graciousness and the best that humanity has to offer.
I’ve found during my first week in Scotland, that the absolute, purest, best that humanity offers, comes in the form of a few characters I’ve met recently; each showing me a different lens to life and each showing me something new in myself. Heathfield [[the old, original name for the 1870s Scottish estate, turned yoga retreat central, that I currently call home]] is a special place. It’s old. Really old. And parts of it are fairly battered up [[for which I’m thankful, getting to live out my HGTV dreams, tearing down old atrocious wall paper and revealing the real bones, ready for some love and a fresh coat of paint]]. But atrocious wallpaper aside, this manor has real soul. And so it attracts soul, too…
Sonya. For an accent-obsessed gal like myself, I have no idea how Sonya’s French-ness evaded me for three days. Though horrible to admit, maybe, I usually find a French accent quite piercing. But Sonya’s voice…it’s the softest, calmest voice I’ve ever heard. A yoga teacher for a reason. She left me with a softened ear and Indian incense to practice my yoga with. Soothing beyond measure. All of it.
Paula. She brought me back to one of my happy places. People always ask me, “so, do you miss anything about ‘home?’ to which I always reply…my kitchen [[and the gym, but that’s another story]]. While I still miss my kitchen, Paula tucked me under her wing in the Heathfield kitchen last weekend and it brought me back to the rhythmic meditation of chopping veggies. Done with so much love and so much focus, it was exhausting. Like Thanksgiving on repeat for three days, as we cooked for the yoga retreat group, 15 strong. But oh, how fulfilling those sweet hours in the kitchen were. Community is built around the table. And an adoration for Paula is built behind the stove.
Angie. With bold black specs, fierce blonde hair and a firecracker of a personality, I was drawn to Angie like moth to a flame. A professional matchmaker for the millionaires, an elegant cook and an even more elegant wine-o, some of my fondest moments this week were spent listening to Angie’s stories about relationship and partnership and family. I don’t think her life is perfect, but I think her journey is. And that’s what it’s really all about, isn’t it?
Mairi. Mairi might be my Scottish kindred spirit. She gets me. I don’t know how or why someone should ‘get you’ after only a few hours of newfound friendship, but somehow she does. She gets my story. She gets my fears and hopes. Hell, she even brought me on her precious family vacation back to her hometown in the Highlands for a night. She showed me the Scotland I dreamed of experiencing. And so here I sit, in this blissful quiet moment of reflection, all because of her. She’s a picture of generosity and understanding. For that, I hope she feels my overflowing grateful heart.
Lawrence. The reason I’ve come to meet any of said souls. My host. My teacher. My yoga partner. My Ty Pennington. Sonya and Paula’s friend. Angie’s brother. Mairi’s partner. No label defines him, but all somehow coalesce into the important print he’s stamped on my life in the last week. About a year ago, Lawrence bought into a dream when he took on Heathfield. He’s poured out his soul into the place, ripping up old tile, sanding down the beautifully strong wooden floors, creating a yoga studio out of ram shackles. But I hope he knows that the soul he pours into it is doled back out tenfold for the blessed souls who step foot on that estate.
More than the breathtaking views [[truly, I sometimes forget to breathe while gazing out at those snow-capped mountain peaks and lush valley fields]]; more than the viticulture lessons that I’m soaking up like a sponge; more than unabashed puppy kisses, rich Italian food, and the joy of watching the cherry tree ripen with each passing day, the last three weeks have given me the gift of solitude and connection.
Some might scoff at the idea of going on ‘vacation’ and purposefully plopping down on the middle of a mountain–no nightlife, no shops, no restaurants, no beach, no civilization, really. But for a country girl at heart–a heart who needs some work– these may have been some of the most abundant few weeks of my whole sabbatical. It’s given me what I craved while I was still at my buzzing office desk in the Seattle metropolis. It’s given me distance from the buzz, time to reflect, space to work on me and the reignited desire to reconnect my body, mind and spirit. Cheesy? Sure; I usually am. True? Yup. No. Doubt.
I’ve spent my days in a slow but unfixed routine…
I wake up to the sound of the birds, not honking cars…
I sip on coffee and savour breakfast while reading the Bible or catching up on EastLake, rather than scarfing down as much caffeine as possible while cursing the HOV lane traffic that shouldn’t be…
I practice yoga without any expectations or distractions or raced agenda. Slow flow. Slow breaths. Strong holds…
I wander out into the vines to work with my hands and nature, where my mind is free to go wherever it needs to go, without an over-saturated calendar of conference calls and decks…
It’s there that I think about God. I pray. A lot. More than I’ve ever prayed before. Maybe it’s that at halfway up the Alps I feel a little bit closer to His house? Maybe it’s the quiet that guides my heart there? Maybe it’s that I saw a snake a few weeks ago and that just screams ‘pray?’ Regardless, real, raw, prayers have been said on the side of this mountain…
It’s there that I think about boys. Boys and men. The difference between the two. The one who broke my heart. The ones who’ve filled my time. The one I think about now. The one I pray for…
It’s there that I think about my family and my friends who feel like family. I do miss them. Four months is a total blink of an eye. No time at all. But it’s enough time to miss Jessica’s graduation and Papa’s health scares and Val’s wedding planning and one girlfriend’s mama-hood announcement. It’s enough time to ‘miss’ in general. And that I do. So hard…
It’s there that I think about what’s next [[such a contradiction to my ‘be present’ prayer that I pray every day]]. Sure, Greece is next week. And then Norway. But what’s next, once I hit American soil? Where do I want to be? Why do I want to be there? How do I want to spend my time? Who should I surround myself with? So many questions. So many ideas. So few conclusions. And thus the prayer repeats…
Sometimes at the end of the day, those rains sweep in over the valley so quickly I can’t even make it back to the house before getting soaked to the bone. And so sometimes I just stay put and let the rain fall on my face.
And then when I’m too cold and wet to bear anymore, I head inside and make homemade cherry crumble.
This trip has been four months chock full of dreamy, surprising and delightful, but I may have found the trump card here in northern Italy.
There’s this travel secret called Help Exchange [[there are others too, WWOOF & Work Away included]]. Why it’s such a secret, I have no idea, cause it’d have been about the coolest way to spend a college summer or 4 that I could think of. [[Get ON it, Joey, Phillip, Jess & Catie!]]. Truly, it might be the greatest thing invented since wine.
In a nutshell, travelers can apply to go volunteer with hosts from around the world who need any range of help–from feeding baby goats on a farm in Australia to working on a yacht in the Med, to sous-cheffing it up at an organic cooking school in Turkey. In exchange, hosts offer a range of comforts, mostly including lodging and food. It’s pretty much a win-win, no matter how you slice it, though I suppose the richness of the experience largely depends on the host / help match.
But with a little bit of luck finally on my side, I hit the HelpX gold mine of all gold mines on my FIRST try.
Yall, I live on a vineyard. THIS vineyard:
For at least the next few weeks. I live and work and play and eat and drink on a vineyard with the loveliest Italian couple and their incredible amount of pups. Twenty years ago, Paolo and Marisa bought this little chunk of land nestled in the northern Italian Alps looking out over the Valtellina Wine Valley. They built a gorgeous home, expanded the vineyard and created a total haven up here in nature. A haven which they now graciously share with me.
From my new favorite coffee / wine perch, depending on the time of day, I have an unobstructed view of their sloping vineyard, the valley and river down below, the snow-capped peaks, almost Switzerland and absolutely heaven.
It’s perfect timing too, cause the last few weeks have been filled with an unquenchable need to be productive. I know, that sounds crazy… ‘just relax and enjoy the dream you’re living right now,’ they say. For the most part I have, don’t get me wrong. But after four months of relative ‘downtime,’ it was time to entertain my Type-A for a bit.
And here, I find my balance.
I unpacked my suitcase for the first time. I have a room and bathroom to myself, thanks to my generous host family. I get to put my hands to work while I let my mind wander. I have ELEVEN gigantic and gorgeous playmates [[oh, as if Paolo and Marissa aren’t busy enough tending to 4000 bottles of annual wine-worth-of-vineyard AND working full-time, they’re also European champion Bernese Mountain Dog breeders…real life?!]].
I get to be in a kitchen again [[oh, how travel makes me miss this novelty]]. But I don’t get [[nor want]] to be the boss chef, cause Paolo may as well have his own cooking show too. Then we sit together, with that heavenly view, a heaping plate of authentic local cuisine, a glass of red harvested from the grapes not 10 yards away from our table [[10 yards, but 4 years prior]], and they entertain my incessant questions about wine making.
Around the table, I’ve learned all about the year-round labor of love that producing my favorite good requires. And in June, it’s vine-perfecting-time here at the estate, so I spend my ‘help’ time surrounded by baby grapes, with Michael Buble blaring, the sun tingling my skin, all the while making the vines do what they’re supposed to do and scolding the unruly.
What a life metaphor, huh? Unruly as things feel at time, with a little focused TLC, all things grow straighter, stronger and more fruitful.
Raising my coffee cup / wine glass to THAT, from my vineyard home in Italia today, friends.