I get my desk set up. My roommate, who is about 20 years my senior and a longtime friend, has offered to let me stay at her house as I get settled back into life in America. She buys me a large desktop monitor from Costco to connect my laptop to. I place it on my desk, nestled next to a window that becomes a welcome distraction. I try to make my desk “homey” – I place a candle, a notebook, a homemade ceramic mug from the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, and a myriad of crystals to busy my hands while on Zoom calls. Part of me is excited that I get to start a routine again, and part of me resents it.
For the last 13 months, I’ve been traveling around the world, literally. I left Portland, Oregon, on June 2, 2022, for New York City. Three days later I hopped the pond and landed in Paris, France. For the next three months, a close friend and I lived in Airbnbs across the city, discovering different neighborhoods, parks, boulangeries, and cafes with amazing €1.50 wine specials. During this time, I worked part-time for a fully remote startup, which allowed me to spend too much money on cheap wine and live a nomadic life. I must admit that Paris isn’t the greatest city for digital nomads though, since most cafes don’t allow laptops (Americans can’t even imagine such a thing!) and in the sweltering heat of the summer, it’s nearly impossible to find an air-conditioned place to comfortably send emails. Luckily for me, I used this as an excuse to stay away from my laptop as much as possible.
Instead, I found myself daily visiting Buttes-Chaumont, an idyllic grand park in northeast Paris where locals have birthday parties, play football, and sunbathe nearly nude. This park became a second home within my second home, and I spent hours lying on the green grass reading or just soaking up the sun. Since I’m from the Pacific Northwest, I know good parks, but Buttes-Chaumont was something different. The energy was electric, the happiness contagious, the warmth from the sun perfect. I suppose it was Paris in general that felt this way.
On my second day, after the jet lag subsided, I went on a long walk around my new neighborhood and was quickly overwhelmed with the energy of the community. Everywhere I looked, families sat on benches and watched their kids ride bicycles, friends kissed each other on the cheeks as they greeted outside cafes, and people were walking from cheese shops to butcheries or just to catch some fresh air. The entire neighborhood was intoxicating. When I got home, I exclaimed to my roommate that I was never leaving.
But of course, leaving was inevitable. I had the rest of the world to explore, and only nine months left on my timeline. As summer drew to a close, I started to stress about not only where I was going to go next, but also what I was going to do. The idea of traveling the world and having to spend hours of each of my precious days behind my laptop depressed me. Part of the reason why I left in the first place was because I didn’t know what to do in my life to make me happy, and I realized that doing what I have always done, working, wasn’t going to suddenly solve this problem. I had to test out other solutions. That’s when I signed up for Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) and started to explore volunteer opportunities.
WWOOF is an amazing global organization where hosts sign up to take volunteers who will then work on their organic farms and in return, they provide housing and usually meals. I didn’t exactly know what I was looking for, but I knew that I could no longer stare at my laptop for the majority of the day. So I spoke with the startup I was working for and told them I had decided to take some time off. And that’s when I closed my laptop and the virtual world I spent the majority of my waking hours inhabiting and entered what I like to call, the “real world.”
I encountered the “real world” in France, Croatia, Cyprus, and Turkey over the next several months. In France, I helped a small homestead outside of Toulouse harvest grapes for wine, and tomatoes, potatoes, and beets for a local CSA program. Every Tuesday neighbors would gather in the backyard under a huge oak tree for an aperitif, and for hours they would laugh, pour wine, and eat cheeses paired with vegetables we harvested that morning. As the night grew darker, one by one they would kiss au revoir to the homestead hosts and carry off their weekly vegetable baskets. It was a simple setup, a house on about an acre with several sections for different plantings and a large natural pool that filtered the water through grasses and rocks. I stayed in the far corner of the property in a large tent with an outdoor kitchen and a hose draped over wooden pallets for a shower. As my first WWOOF experience, I felt lucky. I had warm and gracious hosts, amazing French food, and a groundskeeper eager to teach us about the food, the land, and the symbiosis of it all.
In Croatia, I joined eight other volunteers in Vojnić, a small village south of Zagreb at a permaculture farm called Bogata Sûma (which means “rich forest.”) For the first week, we took part in a permaculture course, learning the basics of its ethics and principles. I stayed for 3 additional weeks afterward to volunteer, which “paid” for the course. We learned about “Earth Care,” “People Care,” and “Fair Share” – each related back to land use and our relationship with our food sources. Every morning after boiling water for coffee we’d stand in a circle in the sun and one by one share how we were feeling that day. I found this to be awkward at first, but quickly adapted and looked forward to it. Although this experience was about land, food, and resources, it was also about relationships. How we work together, how we relate to one another, how we can help each other. On the heels of the pandemic, I found this exercise the most fulfilling. It reminded me that true connections come from standing close, breaking bread, sharing a hammock, and learning together.
After my time at Bogata Sûma and a quick trip to Split, I headed to Cyprus on a €25 Ryan Air flight. After several bus rides and anxiously checking Google Maps, I arrived outside the small village of Katydata. I was volunteering for two friends who lived a block apart and had side-by-side fields nearby. The woman, who I was staying with, grew herbs that she turned into tinctures while her friend grew vegetables that he sold in the capital of Nicosia. I spent a month in Katydata, and at first my hosts were anxious about my free time, constantly telling me that I could go into town, apologizing for slow village life. I was perfectly content, however. Every morning was spent in the herb field harvesting, listening to the birds around us, and feeling the increasingly warm Mediterranean sun. I spent the afternoons pulling apart dried herbs like lavender, lemon balm, and oregano while a podcast played in my ear. After a lunch break and a siesta, I’d walk to the vegetable field where I’d do tasks that I now have a new appreciation for, like hoeing the ground to plant potatoes, which is still the second hardest workout I’ve ever done, after a Muay Thai Kickboxing class.
My time in Cyprus was one of reflection and solitude, and as the Earth tilted on its axis and the nights grew colder, I knew it was time to move on. After another brief volunteer session in Dalyan, Turkey, in December, I looked at my bank account and knew that my time away from my laptop was coming to a close. The harsh reality of bills and student loan payments started looming overhead as I planted seeds and harvested food for communal meals. As I started to chart my course back home, I began working again little by little. I spent less time outside and more time behind my screen as I continued East until finally, in July of 2023, I found myself back in America.
As I sit at my desk staring out the window at the tops of the trees surrounding the Columbia River, I can’t help but wonder about this version of a life I briefly held. A life where I touched the earth every day and ate fresh food straight from the vine. A world where emails and decks and Zoom calls and return-on-ad-spend were just pixels, floating through the air with no weight or meaning. And I wonder if I can be satisfied again, knowing that there is another life out there, where I could plant seeds instead of clicking on my keyboard. My time volunteering through WWOOF was the closest I’ve been to the land during my adult life and the closest I’ve ever been to my food sources.
Some people say I took a year’s vacation, but I know that I took a year to live life the way it’s supposed to be lived. A “real life” filled with reciprocity, balance, and (un-wired) connection.