A farmer

It is not what I would have answered as a kid. To be honest I don’t have very strong memories of what I wanted to be when I was growing up. Apart from being a writer maybe, but I think as a child I didn’t really consider it a profession, I just dreamt of writing a book and even made some attempts. With my best friend I came up with a title for the book we wanted to write and we made a start but we never finished it. The title was “The land behind the horizon”. I think we were 8 or maybe 9 years old. We wrote a few chapters and then our interest went somewhere else. I’m pretty sure I kept it somewhere, probably on my mother’s attic where by now it must have been eaten by mice.

It might have been “vet” or “nurse”. And when I started to realise I was a pretty smart kid and my teachers were telling me that I could “do better” than nurse, I thought about being a doctor or a surgeon. But when I had to choose my subjects in secondary school I dropped all the classes that leaned towards science. I chose all the languages and history and added maths and economics because I thought they might come in handy somehow. Why not geography and biology? Looking back from where I am now that would have made sense. I could have become a forester if I would have followed a different path, a “boswachter” as the profession of somebody managing a forest is called in the Netherlands, “bos” is the word for “forest” and “wachter” is somebody who waits, looks over, guards. Waiting in a forest, waiting on a forest.

But I never really dreamt of being a forester. It is just one of those professions I think I would have liked. I kept dreaming of writing. And since I still didn’t consider becoming a writer an option, maybe because I was stimulated by my parents to take the opportunity to study and aim for a proper profession, I decided to become a journalist and be educated accordingly at the Academy for Journalism. But again my teachers intervened in my way of thinking. They told me that it might not be the proper profession for me since I was too shy and it would also be a shame if I wouldn’t go to university. Why not study history? It was just as good a preparation for a future as a journalist.

History it was. Six and a half years in which I completely wandered off from my original plan to study contemporary history and got hooked on Medieval history, studied Celtic languages and culture, followed as many classes as possible in other departments to learn more about philosophy and archeology and finally wrote my thesis about death and funeral rites in the late Middle Ages. Being an artist was never something I considered. Art didn’t exist for most of my childhood and only when I moved to a big city to study did it slowly seep into my life. I never became a journalist and I can officially call myself Master of History, I’ve got a document saying so. But when I became an artist I realised nobody can be a master of history. Some people try, some people seem to succeed in changing the course of history but in the end they are swallowed up by it.

I became an artist. But if I ever have to choose another profession I want to be a farmer. Grow things.

A thinker

I met Konrad a few days before midsummer. I had been walking since the beginning of April and had almost reached Austria. The road I was following had two flows of travellers. There were the bikers and occassional walker on the "Radweg", the bike trail, and there were people in canoes in the Danube. They hardly ever mixed. Two seperated worlds. Different kind of people. Water people and earth people.

A man paddled up to me when I was standing on the bank. "So you are the famous walker?" He said. "They were talking about you in the village where I stayed."
I suspect people talk about me but it hardly ever catches up on me. Early today I had been talking to a man and his dog. Actually I was talking to a biker who was curious about my walk and the man with the dog walked up and joined us. The biker went on and I walked together with the dog man for a while until he had to take a left turn to get home. I suspect he was the source. I smiled. I like turning into a story. And I like it being a story about some woman who walks, somebody without a name, a story that will lead a life of its own. The main result of my walk lies in there. In bringing a new story into the world. Something I can't control. Something I won't have any documentation of.

Konrad had left from Ulm and had been planning to paddle to Vienna but he missed his wife and was thinking about returning earlier, finish at Linz. "The Danube will still be there next year" he said. He was filled with wonder about his journey. He never had the opportunity to go on a long trip on his own. Until last year he had been a farmer and a teacher, teaching about farming. "I think we create the world by moving through it," he said. He told me about the floating feeling that remained with him in the evening after he got out of his canoe. Sitting at a table eating dinner, drinking beer and still feeling the movement of the waves, the body remembering the water. I asked if it was still there in the morning but being stable in a bed or on an air mattress always removed the wonderful feeling, he said. He tried to be in the moment but he found it hard to be there, he had the feeling he was always in front of it or behind it. Maybe it is the water, I wondered. On the water you are always in movement. When you walk you can stand still. Your own body determines your speed. On the water you aren't in charge. Maybe you think you are but you aren't.
My leg injury came up, he showed me the same plant I had been using. Beinheil. Comfrey. He used it for his back.

We talked books. His one book on the road was Marquez' 100 years of solitude. Last winter it was the first winter he was without a job. Retired. He had read Tolstoy's War and Peace and Joyce's Ulysses. He had been thinking about time a lot. It seemed to pass so much quicker now he had so much of it on his hands. "How is it possible" he asked "that I leave at 8, I paddle a bit, look around me, and suddenly three hours have passed?" "What happened in that time? Where did it go?" I couldn't answer him.

In the meantime a man from another village had joined us. He was just sitting there, listening to us. Having a break in his walk. I wondered what he would tell in his village later on.

For some reason we got into talking about the big world matters. Politics. Refugees. Borders. But we were better at the small matters, the ones that were closer to us at the moment.

One thing that bothered him was how during his life he had always been striving for recognition. And still. "Maybe even in this conversation" he said. He was a very honest man.
Maybe we always do, even when we aren't aware of it. But the border between sharing something or wanting something, giving attention or taking attention, is a thin line. I am struggling with it all the time. Even in this writing. Especially in my writing. Choosing what to say and what to leave unsaid. And do I really prefer to be the nameless woman who walks through Europe with a strange outfit over being the artist in the three piece walking suit who is working on small projects on her way and talks to people about living your life in a different way?

The man from the village had walked on. We moved on too. But for a long time afterwards I thought about our small meeting. And I remembered another one, earlier in my walk.

A musician

Late in the afternoon, on my way to Fulda, I passed the Kabachhof in Heblos, a farm just outside a small village. I had been accompanied by St. Mamertus, St. Pancras, and St. Servatius in the past days. The Ice Saints had done their name justice. The nights had been cold and the days rainy.
I had been searching the Internet shortly before, to see if I could find a warm place for the night. The Kabachhof was on my route, they were renting out rooms that were out of my financial reach but they also offered sleeping places in the hay.
The farmer was a man in his late thirties or early forties. He introduced himself with a firm handshake. “Kurt”. He told me there was hardly any hay yet, but he was happy to find me a mattress and I would have the whole attic of the big barn to myself. He showed me around. It was a magic place. It smelled of hay and whereever I looked, I saw big balls of blue thread. In small piles, big piles, in boxes, in corners, inbetween the collection of old bikes. Kurt proudly showed me his bikes. There were a few dozens of them, dusty and immobile in the middle of the barn. He was planning to make something out of them but he didn't know what yet. So much to do, so little time. The daily labour, taking care of holiday guests, odd jobs like building a room in a corner of the attic. He pointed at the room. I asked him what it was for, expecting an answer like "tools" or "storage" but he smiled shyly and answered “I will show you".

We went inside, he turned on the light, there was something hidden under a plastic cover. He took it off and revealed a beautiful grand piano. Naked though, without the keys and no paint or lacquer. Some pieces of wood had been replaced. The woodcarving was delicate. The piano keys, with ivory top-layer were under another cover. The farm would celebrate its 50th birthday in summer, he was hoping to have the room ready by then. Nicely done, windows overlooking the field. The grand piano restaurated and covered in a new colour. He didn't want the new lacquer to be shiny, it wouldn't fit a farm. A matte dark colour. A blue-green. He was learning how to do the refinishing himself which wasn’t an easy skill to learn but he was keen on doing all the work himself.
He explained how the farm had been situated in the village until his father wanted to have more space. They moved the complete building. And now he was building a small room for his big dream in the middle of it.
Kurt had learned to play the piano young but had stopped when he was 13. When he was 18 he found a book with music by Konstantin Wecker, a well-known German singer-songwriter and composer. It got him playing again, he described how he would play firmly, almost aggresively because it fitted the texts, it was his way of dealing with his emotions as a young angry man.
He looked for the music stand. It was his favorite piece. Beautifully carved leaves. I asked him if I could take a photo of him with the stand and he agreed, but only if he could pose in front of some big hay bales. He was a farmer first.

Afterwards he built me a small room without walls in the middle of the attic. A mattress, a table and a chair, a cable so I could use electricity. He fetched me a bottle of home made apple juice. It was only 8 'o clock but I was freezing cold already. I sat at the table, ate bread with cheese and some sausage I had been gifted by a butcher the day before. I got into my sleeping bag before it was even dark. Surrounded by blue balls of thread, with the grand piano as my neighbour. I hardly slept because of the cold but I didn't mind. I was in a dream anyhow.

I got up early. Kurt refused to take any money. I told him I was hoping to come back one day and hear him play the piano. He smiled. “I am not a great piano player” he said. “But I am a decent farmer.” And then he was gone before I had even turned around myself to leave. A farmer’s life is a busy life. There’s no room to waste time on things that don’t really matter, like saying goodbye.

A reader

Frans hosted the Sideways Festival in and around his farm. We had walked all the way there from the west of Belgium, around 360 kilometers. A changing group of artists, on the road during weekdays and on site in the weekend, organising a festival in a different location and with a different content every end of the week. I was a walking librarian, “hired” by the two artists who had developed the Walking Library, a collection of books being carried around Belgium and selected according to the question: what book would you take with you on a long walk or to a deserted island if you could bring only one book? The books were catalogued according to the Dewey classification that is being used by official libraries. We had loaned books to our fellow walkers, read to random people on the road and sometimes to nature as well, reading a poem to a river or a short essay to a tree. We had invited people to donate books and add them to the library and there were writing sessions and performances.

We set up the library in an open barn that had some wooden shelves on the wall. Farmer Frans told us that he sometimes used the hidden spot behind the barn to do some quiet reading after the day’s work had been done. Frans shared our love for John Seymour who had written The New Book of Complete Self-Sufficiency which is a kind of manual but he had also written The Fat of the Land, a book we carried in the Walking Library and tells the story of how Seymour acquired all his knowledge, a story about trial and error, about a family deciding to live off the grid and how often it wasn’t them deciding how to deal with the natural world around them but how the natural world invited them to take certain decisions.

Zutendaal, the village where Frans’ farm was located, was the end of our journey. Most people were travelling back to other countries, some to other corners of Belgium. I stayed around two more days after everybody had left and on the last day I walked with Frans around the farm. It was a warm September day. Today, many years after, I don’t remember what he exactly looked like. But I remember what he said. “I envy you”, he said. “I hardly ever have the opportunity to leave the farm and see what is happening in the outside world. When you are walking there are so many new things happening, every day is different, around every corner there is something new waiting for you.” I didn’t know then that I would spend the next years walking. But I had been leading a pretty nomadic life in the years leading up to that first long walk. I sometimes longed for a place I would feel so much at home that it would make me stay. I didn’t tell Frans I envied him. I told him  that in a way there wasn’t a big difference between his life and mine. In his garden the plants looked different every day. He never knew what he would see exactly when walking around the corner of his house on the way to do his daily routine. There is a repetition in the walking as well. Not only in the steps but also in the things you encounter, the things that happen, the things you have to do every day. “Every day you walk around your farm it is a different walk” I told him. And I thought about that when years later I wrote that all my walks are in fact part of the same walk and that in every new walk all the old walks are present.


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