When my train arrives to Winschoten Station I am a bundle of nerves. My new home is only 30 minutes from where I stand, and I will be meeting my hosts for the first time. I walk through a sea of bicycles to the road in front of the station, searching. 

In all contact I had kept with this farm the notes were signed at the end, "Greetz Arthur and Benedetta." This signature, combined with the my excessive viewing of the Hop en Grut blog that is filled with photos of Benedetta, none of Arthur, had me a bit unsure of who I should be looking for, a man or a woman. Later, it became obvious that Arthur had been my main contact and that the blog was primarily his chore. Of course it would be filled with photos of his greatest love and not himself.

I set my luggage down and lean against a wall where I can easily be spotted and have a good view of my surroundings. A few minutes pass and a short, fat man with a shirt that reads, "Beef, it's what's for dinner," is walking toward me from his van across the way. In my mind, "Oh shit, no. Please, no." He is looking right at me.  As he gets closer and closer, a small European car with loud Indie music pulls up and stops very quickly. A tall man with wild, curly hair gets out. He is wearing a patched sweater in the brightest of rainbow colors, old jeans, and wooden shoes. In my mind, "Oh please, please let it be." The beef man asks, "Are you Malinda?" at almost the exact same time that the rainbow man says, "Jessica?" I jet past the beef man without eye contact, "Nope, not Malinda," as I am already engaging with the rainbow man, "Yes! Arthur?"

On the speedy drive home, Arthur and I discuss politics and the farm. He says things like, "Those Fascists!" and "Are you hungry?" It's perfect. His English is wonderful. Spoken with a British accent, as it was taught to him, we are able to communicate without any trouble. He is well read, intellectual, very opinionated, has a good sense of humor and a big personality - in the best way.

In the days to follow, I would come to know him as an excellent delegator. He offers welcome here that puts a worker in a different mind-frame. It's not really work when you feel a genuine sense of ownership at your "job," you see. He has created that sense for me. His direction is always clear and the tasks are fulfilling, even when they are shitty (lots of shit around here). When he delegates, the assignments are not perceived as an order, but, at the same time, he is not asking either. It's a fine line that he has mastered - a gift really.

When we get to the farm, after the drive, he gives me the grand tour with pride. The house, the caravan, the barn, the meadows, the sheep, the cats, the dogs, the chickens, the sun garden, the spiral garden, the tea garden, the vegetable garden, the pond...I can't stop smiling.

When Benedetta arrives from the market later that day, a sweet Italian voice at a high volume fills the entire home. We slowly become acquainted while dicing pears from the farm's orchard. My knife skills are pitiful in comparison to her swift cuts of the fruit.  She turns the cut pears into the most delicious marmalade I've ever tasted. During our brief conversation at the table, I initially perceive her as a bit reserved. I am so wrong.

As time moves forward, with observation, it is impossible to resist her warm and full-of-life charm. Each time she enters or re-enters a room where the dogs are, she speaks to them loudly in Italian baby-talk. It's obvious they like her best. When I am alone with the dogs I try to imitate her accent and dialogue, "Mi amore...spaghetti." It's quite offensive, but also quite effective. Benedetta is light hearted by nature and it is infectious. Her English is not perfect, but we are able to communicate just fine. Sometimes we will be speaking and then all of a sudden she switches to Italian and speeds up. We laugh when she realizes she's doing it. At times, when speaking English, she displays an expression of slight frustration that says, "I know I'm not saying it right," but often, when she's not, it's so much better - like poetry. My favorite example of this was when we were discussing the difference between tomatoes in Italy and in the Netherlands. With big hand gestures, she said, "I don't know how you say...it's...it's here, de tomat tastes de water. In Italy, is tastes de sun." I'm not sure she knew how beautiful that was.

Arthur and Benedetta, of Hop en Grut



I stand in front of the luggage conveyor belt at Schiphol Airport holding my carry-on's that are painfully compressing the bones of my body. I am convincing myself (to help lessen the blow) that the bag I was forced to check in Omaha will not have made the entire journey with me. The airlines have lost bags of mine on quick flights to LA; surely, with stops in Newark and Lisbon, my bag will never meet Amsterdam. Round and round the belt moves with brands of luggage I cannot read. I am shocked to finally see mine.

Now, I am searching for the Schiphol train station. This airport/mall/circus seems bigger than most towns in Iowa. I find a machine that will talk to me and help me to buy a ticket. I wait in line only to figure that this machine will only work for natives with special cards. I find a new line with a person to talk with instead of a machine. I wait. I order a ticket to Centraal Station and then another for the next day from Centraal to Groningen and another from there to Winschoten. I hand my card to the man for payment and he laughs at me. "Vee dant use zee stripes. Vee use zee chips." The credit card system is different here. He points to an ATM. I lose my place in line as I go to the ATM, discover that my card does not work there either, find an information booth, take the wrong stairs, come back to the information booth, take the right stairs, find a compatible ATM, hold and study euro for the first time, and then sit on a bench to allow brief rest for my spine. I am back in line.

With a new teller, I order my train tickets. When he hears that I will end up in/near Winschoten he says, "May I ask, why are you going there?" He is looking at and speaking to me as I might to a foreigner who was just arriving in NYC or Chicago or San Francisco asking for directions to Scofield, Utah.

I am on the train. I sit in an empty car with one other man. He speaks English. We talk a bit. He has a similar reaction to the 2nd teller when I mention Winschoten, "Oh god. I hope your impression of the Netherlands is not ruined by spending time there." I fish for some elaboration. I get none. It's dark. He helps me know when to exit the train because I can't understand the stops that are being announced. After 15 minutes, we exit the train together. He walks in the direction of the tram I need to get on next and points to where I should wait for it.

I am on the tram. I have entered at the completely opposite end from where I need to pay. I "excuse me, pardon me, oh, sorry, ouch, oops" my way to the back and try to pay a woman with the same look on her face as someone working for the Orange County DMV. She barks back, "I don't have change! Get out of the way." I try. I can't. I miss my stop because I cannot sift through the people on the tram to get to the door. I feel my eyes well up. I get out on the next stop by aggressively muscling my way through. I walk backwards, toward the stop I missed. I'm lost. I ask for directions. I am back on track.  I search for 20 minutes the address of Shelter Jordan on Bloemgracht when I should be on Bloemstraat. Fuck. I see a bearded man with a Chocolate Lab. My chest feels tight. If you know me, you know why.

I've been in an airport or on a plane or on a train or lost in a foreign city for 27 hours - most of which I have been carrying an awkward 75 lbs of luggage.

I am in the lobby of the hostel. I wonder if my back is broken. I try to check in. Not accounting for such a long travel time and the time difference or who the hell knows, I have booked a room for the wrong night. The woman at the counter says that the hostel is full and there is no room for me. We have a back and forth for awhile. I'm feeling defeated at my core. She says that the entire city of Amsterdam will be full, "Even if you had 500 euro, you wouldn't find a room. There is a big conference in town." I originally chose this hostel after weighing options between a self-proclaimed "party hostel" and this one, Shelter Jordan, a Christian hostel. Unable to decide which was worse, Shelter Jordan sounded quieter and safer. I pull it together a bit to try and guilt a spare cot out of this woman - something like, "It wouldn't be very Christian-like of you to turn me away in a strange city, at night, when I am lost, alone, scared, deliriously exhausted..." I was. She didn't buy it. Some American men in their mid-late 20's are checking-in beside me. They see the tears in my eyes and have overheard the conversation. One asks if I would like to stay with them; they have an extra bed. After the woman at the desk says it is illegal to sleep or have an extended sit at the train station, I accept the invite. She interrupts, "No. Sorry. This is a Christian hostel. We allow single gender sleeping arrangements only."  One of the American boys says, "What the fuck is this? The YMCA?" When I smile I can feel that I haven't in a long time. My cheeks feel like the jowls of a Basset Hound.

I am listening to the woman behind the counter explain complicated directions to me. I'm mostly just staring. She is using her hands a lot. I am so tired. It sounds like she is under water. She's just hung up the phone and is now trying to tell me the way by foot to a hostel that has one bed left. I politely interrupt her, "I'm sorry. I am exhausted and I am not walking anywhere. I have 10 euro. Please find me a cab that can take me there for less than that."

I am in the cab and I have no idea where I am going. The cab driver is asking me questions about myself and how I like Amsterdam so far. I begin to cry. It's sudden. I am so embarrassed and holding the tears back in a way that is almost painful. The driver says, "I'm not sure, but I sink you might be beautiful. I kant tell because you are ugly vwen you cry." I know I am not myself because my blood is not boiling when he says it. Now he is singing in an awful accent, "beeg girls...don't cry-ee-i-ee-i..." Fuck. We stop at the end of an alley and the driver points to a door, "you go zair." It stands out because it is the only door with a blue light. The rest are red. Oh, of course, I am in the Red Light District.

I am walking through the alley. It's filled with hundreds of people. It reeks of pot - not in a good way. There is trash and broken glass everywhere and the rumble of the crowd's conversation is filled with many different languages. I get a few, "I could help you turn that frown upside down," and "can I help you with that luggage, baby" comments. I walk by a window where two prostitutes in lingerie sit provocatively in chairs, illuminated with red light. I walk through the door with the blue light. I quickly figure out that this is only a small room with a desk where I pay someone for a room that is located somewhere else. My heart sinks.

I'm back in the alley, down 40 euro and searching for the crepes and waffles business of which my hostel is supposedly located above. Surely, my back is broken. I am so tired. Now, I am forcing my way through a thick line of drunks waiting for breakfast pastry so I can reach the back where a man sits behind a computer in what can only be described as a coat closet. I ask, "Is this the hostel?" He replies, "Sort of." I hand him the receipt I had received from the blue lit door where I paid. I get a key and some directions.

I exit the crepes and waffles joint into the alley and then directly re-enter the building from a different, unmarked door. I am walking up a set of stairs that are much more like a ladder. My shoulders each touch their own wall. Each step is a lashing. My room number is 4. At the top of the "ladder" there is a landing that is only wide enough for one door to swing open and then closed. I see that this door says 1. Then I see more stairs (another ladder). I have three more flights until I reach my room. Fuck.

I enter my room. It is tiny. It houses four bunk beds (eight beds total), four lockers, and one very small desk...barely. I have a piece of plastic that says my bed number is 5. I search for it. The numbers to the beds are not in any sort of order at all. When looking in with my back to the door, mine is the bottom bunk of the first set of beds on the right. I am alone. I unload the weight of my luggage from my body. It doesn't help. The damage has been done. I stuff everything I own - except for my passport, license, money, phone and train tickets, all of which I hide in my pants - into the #2 locker and lay down. I can only think of the fact that I was told this hostel was completely full and that I am in a room with seven empty beds. I am waiting for seven strangers to enter this room at some point in the night. I am absolutely terrified. What have I done? Why am I here? I want to go home.

I am not alone. I see a mouse. Perfect. Now there are three. Fuck. I watch them for awhile. They are around my bed on the floor. When I discover they are excellent vertical climbers, I am up. I remember some trash with snacks that were not finished on the landing in front of room #2. I have an idea.

When I am collecting the trash, I hear a ruckus on the level above me. I wait at the landing so I don't have to slide my body against any strangers in order to pass. It's quiet again. On the stairs between the 3rd and 4th floor I am greeted with vomit. It wasn't there on the way down. The texture of wet dough, it is thick and there is no way past it but through it.

I'm back in bed watching a mouse pick at the trash I have arranged on the desk that sits at the opposite side of the room. My plan has worked, sort of. I wonder where the other mice are now.

I have never been more tired but I don't sleep. My roommates arrive one and two at a time between 3 and 4:30 in the morning. As they walk in, my adrenaline is out of control. They sleep. Finally, so do I. I last look at the time at 5:15 and now I am waking to my 7:30a alarm.

The light of the morning changes everything. It's much less scary. My back feels better. The noise of drunken tourists outside has disappeared. I leave the hostel in search of coffee. I see a mouse on a window sill on my way down the stairs. He's sort of cute. In the alley I am greeted by the man who gave me my key in the coat closet. He is drinking beer. "Morning! Jessica, right?" and before I can answer, "Jessica, I am pissed." This means drunk. He is. His two friends laugh like school children.

The streets (more like alleys) are filled with trash. It looks like the morning after Mardi Gras. Even the businesses throw their trash into the streets. I find coffee. Coffee Americano, per Mona. I'm slowly coming back to life. I keep walking. It's beautiful. It's time to leave.

Once I find the right train, I sleep. I wake. I arrive. The nightmare that was Amsterdam is over just in time for the dream to begin. I will never understand the confusion of the people in Amsterdam as to why I would want to come here. Welcome to Hop en Grut...

Apple and Tomato
Tomato above the bikes
Outdoor bathtub
Bean poles
Chokeberry stem
Bee houses
Bikes up for grabs
Benedetta's Seitan bread
Chicken coop
Koa in the garden
Hibbe napping
Pears and Nasturtium
Acorn from Quercus Petraea (European Oak)
Onions, garlic, and Italian parsley seeds
Pear in the orchard
Pumpkins and various gourds
Puss 'n' Boots
Rain collection
Red rooster
Sheep in big meadow
Sheep in little meadow
Snail family
Sun garden
Tomato and my bike
Apple and the motor
Vegetable garden

Tomato near the ditch