WWOOFing at Fundació La Plana, first volunteering experience in Spain. December 2015

My new WWOOF hosts

For my first WWOOFing experience in Spain I had chosen a place called Fundació La Plana, which is situated few kilometers from a small village Santa Maria d’Oló in Catalonia and about 70-80 km north from Barcelona. There, hidden in the picturesque high plateau of Moianès region in over 100 years old masia a wholehearted group of 8-10 people run a foundation that receives throughout the year various organized courses and retreats related to human body and mental health and care (like yoga, meditation, psychological courses etc.) La Plana exists since about 30 years, but became a foundation in 2002. One of it’s residents, a girl named Flor, was precisely responsible for a vegetable garden project where she tried to implement permaculture and biodynamic principles. 

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Photo credit: Fundació La Plana

I arrived in La Plana on the first day of December and stayed for nearly 3 weeks. Masia, which is a type of rural construction common to the Catalan countries was very big and representative. As a typical example of architecture of mountainous areas it was made of rough stone and had 3 floors. The place could host over 130 people in its rooms with bunk beds. Besides, the property had a modern and very cozy private library with a study hall and lots of books from various categories and in many languages. I spent there most of my evenings reading and studying. There was also a yoga hall in a separate building, workshop rooms and private dorms. The place was partly surrounded by forest and partly by neighboring fields. It was very peaceful and views were enchanting. Unfortunately except a dog, two lovely donkeys and a horse there were no more farm animals. 

Quickly I noticed that even though not very far from Barcelona, but being already in the mountainous area the climate differed a lot. Mornings and nights were pretty cool by that time of the year, somewhere below 10°C, yet some of the days were still pretty sunny and warm and on occasions I could work in a short sleeve. In the mornings the air was very refreshing and awaking, which together with nice views made it a great start of the day.

My WWOOF tasks

As a WWOOFer to my main task belonged helping Flor in the vegetable garden. But since La Plana received on every weekend and bank holiday various groups of people coming to attend courses, everyone from the live-in community was involved in helping with organization around them. That of course included me during the time of my stay. While I WWOOFed in La Plana we received groups on two weekends, one of which was an extended bank holiday and on that occasion came around 110+ people. It was a lot of work! Courses where organized from outside but we were responsible for the accommodation and meals. I was helping with the preparation of dining rooms and serving the food. Seems like not a big deal, but with this amount of people setting tables and serving meals took about an hour or hour an half before every meal to get it all ready. Of course we took shifts, so that I had to do it usually for one or two meals a day.

Our cooks were amazing! Concha lived in La Plana and also cooked every day for all members of the community. While the assistant cook came in only during these courses. Each time they prepared separate food for people with all sorts of special diets – gluten-free, diary-free, vegetarian or vegan and so forth. Besides that we had a Brazilian guy whose name unfortunately I have forgotten, who made different types of sourdough bread. Delicious treat! 

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During the week time we all gathered to eat together at lunch time, while breakfast and supper everyone ate as pleased. One day I made typical polish food for my hosts. With help of Flor we made 100+ handmade pierogies with two kinds of stuffing (one of it was spinach from our garden!) and a soup we call Ukrainian Borsch. For a dessert we had an apple pie. Everyone loved it! But for me the best out of all suppers was the one with seafood. To celebrate the fact that they managed to make some decent money on selling scrap metal we had delicious meal of all sorts of seafood. From what I remember we had clams, squids, octopus, mussels, prawns, langoustines, razor clams, some kind of sea snails that are called in Spanish búsanos and more. All of these were prepared in a typical Spanish way. It was a real feast! Too bad I lost the photo of these delicacies.

Vegetable Garden

img_20151202_161638The vegetable garden was placed on the lower terrace – flat side of the property that received a good amount of sun. Since it was early December and the temperatures were not too high we didn’t have a lot work planting and harvesting in the garden. However, we cleaned two of the parcels from the remaining previous crop and planted beans and garlic. When it comes to harvesting we had some spinach, arugula, cauliflower, parsley, onions, swiss chard and lettuce that we picked. Spinach for instance I used for my pierogies stuffing and it was delicious.

The biggest task in the garden, which took me few days of work was building raised bed in a shape of number eight. I made it with Flor’s help. We used stones that we plastered with combination of clay with sand, straw and water. It was so much fun! I had never before worked on this kind of projects. I found out how much pleasure it gives to build something from a scratch with your own bare hands. That was also when I realized my interest in natural building, which I tried to explore some more on my further trips. As a finishing touch on the top part of the deep bed we made a mosaic from pieces of some old colorful tiles. It turned out very nicely and super pretty. We hadn’t planted anything as Flor wanted to do it later closer to spring.  

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As I loved so much creating things I also decided to build a bird feeder. There were lots of birds and winter was coming so remembering how back in Poland when I was a little girl we used to prepare bird feeders with my father I took the plunge to do it this time by myself. I made it from a wood fruit box I found in the shed and cut in half and few small boards for a canopy. As a final touch I painted it red. It wasn’t the prettiest bird feeder I’ve seen but I’m sure birds appreciated their own little red house on the tree!

Taking first steps in making homemade natural cosmetics

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Flor besides having knowledge about plants knew also a lot about making homemade natural cosmetics. As she finished a course in aromatherapy and learnt secrets of making wonderful natural creams and oils, now she was willing to use her skills and teach others what she knew. One magical evening she showed me how to make herbal distillates (also called hydrosols) of rosemary and rose petals. It’s actually pretty simple but to prepare it you need a distillation apparatus set. Nevertheless, after doing a little research on the topic I found out that there are ways of making hydrosols using for example a coffee pot. It all reminded me of my chemistry class back in the high school years where we used to do many experiments.

la-plana-making-creamThe other day we gathered together with few other women and turned one of the kitchen-dining rooms into “real” lab. We had many different oils, essentials, powders, hydrosols, fresh calendula flowers and necessary equipment. After few hours of brewing potions like some kind of beauty witches, we received three different creams – for face, eyes and butter cream for body. Too bad you can’t smell these wonderful essences! The creams I made as a present for Christmas for my Mom and some small samples for my besties in Warsaw. Making homemade cosmetics is very pleasurable, natural and not that complicated as long as you have good recipes, ingredients and proper equipment. I hope in the future I will make some more! 

Always in search for more knowledge

Besides homemade creams I also tried to learn how to use the sewing machine. The goal was to make for my friends little aromatic pillows stuffed with fresh rosemary. I made around 10 or 12 of them and felt very satisfied with my job. I think that to know how to use a sewing machine is a very useful skill. My Mom used to have one when I was a child. Maybe one day I will get one for myself and learn how to make some clothes!

Driven as always by indefinite curiosity and interest for knowledge while in WWOOFing in La Plana I decided to take an online course – Introduction to sustainability. This course was 8 weeks long, had great video lectures, readings and tests. I found it on the coursera.org website which is an education platform with world’s top universities and organizations that offer courses online. They have a vast amount of different programs from almost all fields of interest. What’s curious – it’s for free! Of course if you would like to receive upon completing the course an official certificate there is some fee required, but still it’s not a big sum. I can honestly recommended this platform to anyone interested in broadening their knowledge. My course on sustainability was created by University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. It was very informative and interesting, explored how today’s human societies can endure in the face of global change, ecosystem degradation and resource limitations.

But of course in my free time I also went exploring the surroundings. There were some walking trails with gorgeous views and nice paths for running. It turned out of course how out of shape I got in only about a month and a half break. Well ok, also the fact that I was not used to running on hilly terrains was the reason for it. I enjoyed it anyhow!

In nearly 3 weeks I already got used to everyone and it was sad to say goodbye. However, I know how to find them and as they said, I’m always welcome to come back. Now it was time to go back home for Christmas, first time in 3 years! I was looking forward to it for a very long time, longing white polish holidays so with excitement reaching the zenith I took off to repack in Barcelona and catch my flight to Warsaw!

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Fundacion La Plana location
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WWOOFer arriving home – Barcelona 3 months later. November 2015

I made it home pretty late at night and was welcomed by my flat mate Robin and his girlfriend. We had a nice chat, talked about what’s new (or same) in our lives and then I was left alone to myself again. I probably should say that it was nice to be home but actually it felt kind of strange to be back there. My apartment looked the same, familiar and neat, cozy in its simplicity and full of memories of the moments lived in it. My painted white room with large and comfortable bed and huge closet crammed with clothes for any occasion looked unwelcoming to me. I decided to leave unpacking for the next day and went to get some groceries.

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Barcelona by Stan Baranski

Reflections upon… Food

It was around 10-11 pm on the weekday and at that time the only place opened was the Pakistani mini market around the corner. It was small and piled with stuff of any shapes, colors and packaging, stuffy without air-conditioning it felt like I was in a turned-on oven. Mostly everything over there looked to me like garbage in a packaging, all that industrial, processed food of rather very low quality. Bottles and cans, plastic bags and boxes stuffed with food coloring, artificial flavors and its enhancers, made from products grown on pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics, that are often genetically modified and created in laboratories.

Do you ever read nutrition and ingredient labels? Do you wonder what’s inside that bag of potato chips or chicken pate you are buying? How much of peach is in your peach soda? How was grown that tomato when it’s actually not a season for it yet? How far had to travel that mango, which obviously doesn’t come from where you live? And how come these apples don’t rot for so many days even though they came a long way to reach your kitchen table? Well, maybe that’s the right moment to start paying more attention to these things. I used to read labels, but not as closely as one should. I began “to study” descriptions of all bought goods at the beginning of 2015 when I learnt about my intolerance for quite few products. And that was when I found out how much shit (pardon my French, but there is no other better word to call it properly) is stuffed in food we buy. Who would think that ham or sausage are not only made of meat, but also could include wheat, corn, milk and other alike additives? Often it’s modified corn and of course it includes multiply artificial ingredients that help the flavor and color of it. And I could name dozens of examples like this one, each of them as shocking as the first one. When something tastes good it doesn’t mean it’s healthy or good quality, but I believe you know that already.

So why we don’t do anything about it even if we know these facts? There are few reasons that occur to me right now. First of all, this food is cheap and easy to get and usually it comes in big or large packages (or buy 2 get 3rd for half price offers!) Also it’s usually either ready-to-eat or easy to prepare. You know, all sorts of convenience food like dry and canned products, frozen foods, prepared mixes and snacks. Nowadays when everyone lives in a rush, working extra hours, taking additional classes and so forth, we try to decrease the time we spend on grocery shopping or in the kitchen. Usually thinking that it is a waste of our time and effort we go for eating out or buying some pre-cooked and easy to make food. And that’s a pity! Of course not everyone has to be a kitchen enthusiast but cooking doesn’t have to be very complicated or time consuming. Food is our gasoline; if we deliver poor quality gas to our beloved cars they will break sooner and the same happens with our bodies. Pharmaceutical companies are well prepared for these occasions offering us a wide range of medicine and supplements that will help us with all side effects of poor diet and lack of exercise… and cause us even more health problems in the long run. But let’s not get more into the details now. My point is – the more fresh, local and seasonal your food is the better will be your health and overall well-being.

The city that never sleeps and consequences of it

You can probably imagine that after so many weeks of sleeping in pervasive silence it was hard for me to fall asleep in my Barcelonian flat. Unfortunately I used to live close to one of the major widest and busiest streets of the city. But it wasn’t only that. Somehow I managed to forget that the city never sleeps. If it’s not a car or motorcycle, there’s always someone wandering around, talking very loud one to another, skating or dumping glass bottles in the garbage bin. The streetlights illuminated my room making it even harder to get lost in the world of dreams. The air didn’t smell with the same natural freshness. The truth is I could not sleep. Almost every night I was laying on my bed for hours begging for sleep to come.

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Barcelona by Stan Baranski

Too much stuff too many choices

In the next few days I also realized that having too many choices is absolutely overwhelming. My closet terrified me. I had way too many things there. Going out see my girlfriends became a real challenge as I didn’t know what to wear. We were supposed to hang out having drinks and some food, nothing fancy, very casual. However, once you have choice you start wondering what is the best for such an occasion. Maybe a dress? Then which shoes and bag should go with it? The black cardigan or maybe a denim jacket? Don’t get me wrong, I was never a fashion freak compulsively shopping for clothes. Jeans, regular fit t-shirt or a simple dress with a pair of sneakers is what I usually wear. But on some rare occasions when I’m going out with friends it strikes me that choosing what to wear becomes a bigger issue. You maybe start wondering what the others are going to wear? What will match the occasion? The place? The time of the day? The method of transportation you will use? List can go on but I’m sure you’ve got my point. It was so much easier on the farm. You didn’t have to bother what to wear as long as it was appropriate for the weather and comfortable to work in. No one looked at you strangely when you were wearing same trousers for a few days in a row. And getting ready in the morning took me about 2 minutes so I could sleep longer before starting with my chores. For three months I travelled with couple of things I could stuff into my bicycle panniers and not even once I longed for my big closet! Honestly, it was a relief to stop worrying about my daily outfit.

Moving sale and packing stuff up

This way while days passed by one after another I became aware of the fact that for me there is no coming back. I could not live happily in a city anymore. At least not now. Maybe in the future it will change but for the time being I couldn’t imagine myself living my old life again. I had to move on. Continue with WWOOFing, gathering more experience from farms, learning about permaculture and bio construction techniques. Living simple life in surroundings of nature. I made up my mind – I decided to resign the contract for my flat.

Next days I spent on organizing the flee market sale of my clothing and moving sale of my furniture, utility goods and other gadgets. Deciding what to keep and what to sell or give away was definitely not an easy task. However, I noticed that each time it happens, saying goodbye to objects becomes easier. My goal was to get rid of as many as possible things and save all the money for traveling and volunteering. My awesome friends helped me out not only by supporting the idea but also by buying stuff from me and throwing in their old gear for the flee market sale. It felt good to free myself from these objects. I felt an instant release and joy.

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Flea market sale

From among things I decided to keep, some of them I shipped home to Warsaw and the others I stored at my friends’ flats. Alba, Carmel, Carlos & Paul, Dasha & Jesper, and Kathi became my longterm saviors. That’s where the rests of my belongings and both bikes are peacefully resting now. Again I understood how lucky I am to be surrounded by so many beautiful souls who are willing to reach out to a friend in need. Thank you guys, you rock my world!

When all was set, I was ready again to go back on the trail of volunteer opportunities and my journey of personal rediscovery. I arranged for December WWOOFing at Fundació La Plana located in Catalonia, about 70 km from Barcelona and decided to go home for Christmas. After three years abroad it was to be my first Christmas and New Year’s Eve in Poland. I was excited with this perspective of spending holidays at home with family and friends. In January I would be back in Spain to Wwoof in Andalusia. That was the plan!