5 Rhodesian Ridgebacks and a thousand ways to cook zucchini

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We got off the train in Koprivinca, Croatia almost three weeks ago and began searching the platform for our WWOOF host, Lela. “Don’t worry,” she had emailed us. “We’ll find you.”

Matt and I had assumed that the “we” she was referring to was she and her husband, and that they would toss us in the back of their pickup truck and drive us to their little family farm.

“We” turned out to be Lela and her puppy, Fela. And she did find us, and we loaded up in her mini van and she drove us to the farm that she’s spent the past eight years creating almost singlehandedly.

This one woman operation in the rural northern part of the country has a little bit of everything: two small orchards, a large personal garden, a crop of lavender for making oil, and a dozen other projects that are still in the works. In other words, far more than one woman can handle on her own– even someone as tough and hardworking as Lela.

Perhaps the most striking part of Lela’s land is the big, partially unfinished log cabin that she shares with her WWOOFers and her five (FIVE!) Rhodesian Ridgebacks. (Contrary to the name’s implications, a Rhodesian Ridgeback is a breed of dog, not a dragon. And consequently, the only Croatian we learned are dog commands. So if the words sit, stay, and come will get us anywhere, we’re all set.) The cabin is full of beautifully carved natural wooden features and is laid out according to some sort of Indian astrology that we don’t quite understand and that Lela doesn’t quite have the English to explain. The living area is mostly consumed by dog beds and crates, and the kitchen houses one of the two wood burning ovens and a stone sink the size of a small bathtub. A trap door in the ceiling of the living room leads to the second story loft where Matt and I have been sleeping during our stay. Off the loft is Lela’s bedroom, though she prefers to sleep downstairs surrounded by her dogs. The house runs on solar and wind power, so water and electricity are available but limited, especially on cloudy days.

We worked on various projects during our stay at the little farm, the most arduous of which was probably the enormous holes we dug in the clay-rich dirt during our first week here. Lela has a way of assigning tasks so that they seem small, like they’ll only take a couple of hours, and then before you know it you’ve been doing that one job for the better part of a week.

She asked me to clean up a few blackberry bushes in the yard, I spent a few hours on them, they looked happier and healthier and I assumed I was done with the clippers. The next thing I knew I’d spent three days grooming the wild thorny bushes all along the lane next to the farm and was covered in little pricks and scrapes (okay, and some berry juice).Then she asked us to clean about 30 of her recycled bricks to finish building a little wall, and that took Matt and me a morning and we thought we were finished. Four days later we were still sitting on the front porch scraping old cement, dirt and spiders off of the bricks, and the wall had grown to encompass the whole terrace and employed about 600 bricks. After that Lela asked me if I liked to paint, and I nodded enthusiastically as she handed me a can of wood stain and pointed me toward a few beams on the porch ceiling. Three days later I was still standing on top of a rickety ladder putting a second or third coat of paint on the ceiling, annoyed that I’d ruined two items from my limited wardrobe with the goopy stain, and wondering why the ceiling hadn’t been painted before it was, well, the ceiling. Additionally, Matt has mown grass, chopped wood, built a wall and been apprentice to the non-English speaking bricklayer. We’ve also taken part in 6 am dog walking sessions, helped to prepare meals and become expert dishwashers, cleaned indoors, weeded lavender, dug up dead trees, laid concrete and been wheelbarrow mechanics.

The great thing about doing manual labor in extreme heat for eight to ten hours a day is that you don’t have to give even a second thought to your caloric intake. So when Lela piles my plate a first, second and sometimes third time with her delicious vegetarian cooking, I don’t even feel bad when I repeatedly lick it clean.

Which brings me to the food. Lela is a trained and extremely well-practiced chef. She went to a culinary school, has cooked in many hotels, owned a restaurant for a while and still occasionally cooks at retreats and other gatherings. She uses primarily the vegetables from her garden and seems to make everything up as she goes along. For a typical meal, Matt and I spent at least an hour in the kitchen chopping up fresh vegetables while Lela points and stirs and continually amazes us with new dishes for us to try. It’s all unbelievably delicious and has been quite the culinary adventure for Matt and me. She’s made several hearty traditional Croatian dishes for us to sample and repeatedly asks us what kind of food is traditional in America. (“Um.. Fried chicken?” we reply.) We concocted some version of soup every single day, which Lela says is “the best food” for her. We’ve consumed zucchini in every conceivable form, including baked, boiled, raw, grilled, shredded, stuffed, puréed, and in no fewer than three different kinds of cake. Even her dogs eat better than most humans, with Lela preparing them full meals twice a day, complete with most of the major food groups. They get their daily zucchini, too.

Even after spending over two weeks on the farm, Matt and I still can’t get a good grasp on Lela. She’s the kind of person who does everything with passion and impressive vigor. When she digs, you get the feeling that the shovel is going to snap like a twig at any moment. When she eats, she ends up with food all over her face and sometimes even in her hair. When she breeds animals, they’re award winning show dogs. When she meditates, her ohms resonate throughout the house. And when she builds a home for herself, each brick, nail and board must be placed with the greatest care. Oh yeah, and it has to have a DIY swimming pool. But that’s a different story.

She’s a no nonsense kind of person, stressed and impatient, who has a photo of her spiritual guru on her bookshelf and a skylight to see the stars. She values solitude, peace and quiet on her farm but hosts foreign WWOOFers continually and makes trips into town almost daily. Her dogs are immaculately trained and obedient, except when they beg for the table scraps that she inevitably gives them directly from her own plate. Her cooking is all vegetarian and insanely healthy, except for the mounds of salt that she pores into each dish. She loves to meet new people and invite them into her home, yet she doesn’t hesitate to express her feelings that most people are stupid, stupid, stupid. Her English vocabulary is extensive while her grammar is rudimentary. This morning she practically yelled at me for making a painting error, and this afternoon she made a cake to commemorate our last day on the farm. Try as we might, we just can’t make sense of her.

We’ve also met some interesting WWOOFers while we’ve been here. A group of 11 Belgian scouts arrived the same day we did, which made for an interesting week. Fortunately most of them slept in tents in the yard; unfortunately the one that slept in the loft with us was the troop snorer. Lela definitely wanted to take advantage of their manpower, which accounted for all the digging we did those first few days. After the scouts came a Brazilian family who have been WWOOFing all over the world for the past year and a half, in search of the perfect place to start their “community.” They had a four-year-old son who spoke roughly four languages and was a good bit smaller than all of Lela’s dogs. The threat of five lion hunting dogs was a little daunting for them, and they left after only a couple of days. Finally came an American couple who have spent the past three months hitchhiking around Europe, on a trip very similar to but also very different from ours.

Overall we’ve decided to call our first WWOOFing experience a total success. We loved the beautiful setting (which we found strikingly similar to East Tennessee), our quirky host, her simple homesteader lifestyle and everything we’ve learned from it. And a few honest day’s work never hurt anyone.

From Croatia we’re headed for another mini vacation in Geneva, Switzerland (after a brief visit to the Barcelona airport) before hopping a bus to our next farm in southern France. Or in Matt’s words, “My passport is sore from all these stamps!”

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