Underslept. Underfed. Under-hydrated. Under-warm. All you want is sleep. Or, at the very least, to be horizontal–staring blankly at the ceiling, as you remember the mental events of the night before.
After your night of puking and tripping, you and Katie managed to get a lift from that no-account town in Belgium back to Gent, where Griet (an old pal from your early volunteering days at Sli na Bande) had sweetly offered to let you crash out for the day.
She herself had done the medicine. Twice, actually. She knew how exhausting it was. You figured it would be nice to have a sympathizer around, who wouldn’t judge you when you did little else but stare at said ceiling.
Ahh yes. Griet’s apartment! Where you would be warm! Where you could sleep! Where you would drink vats and vats of hot liquid and relax!
Of course it was a long shot that she would actually be home when you arrived a bit before 1pm. People do stuff during the day, don’t they? Perhaps she would have errands to run.
And yet, she was expecting you.
You rang the bell. No answer. You rang again. Dead.
You looked over at Katie and told her it was her time to shine. Lead the way! Drive this buggy! Take Maria to a warm place! Put something in her belly! You felt like melting on the cold, concrete steps leading to the door of Griet’s building.
You went to Starbucks and split a venti coffee for 2.90 (which is amazing value for caffeine in Europe). You pulled out the laptop, tapped into Starbuck’s free wifi, and went onto Facebook to send Griet a message.
You saw the message, sent just 25 minutes before you rang her door bell:
“hej, i am sorry but something came in between and i am not home on sunday! i hope you find a place to sleep! have a nice trip in europe! x:”
You smiled back at the screen, trying to find amusement in the irony. You weren’t upset. You just… god, you were so tired. You just wondered how she would do such a thing. Such short notice! When you were relying on her as a hostess! When you were recovering!
You sent emergency facebook messages to your former hosts (Sven and Liesbeth) in Gent, but no one was online. You bummed a phone off a Starbucks patron and called tried Liesbeth’s mobile number, and then her home phone–but no answer.
Doors slammed in your face everywhere you turned.
It’s okay… they’ll be home later. They’ll have to be!
But you weren’t too keen and killing another full day out in the cold, as you had the day before. Sleeping in churches isn’t exactly as peaceful as it sounds.
Katie came to the rescue. She’d managed to score the two of you a couch a few miles away, with a nice young kid with a penchant for “naturalism;” that is, hanging around his house naked–though he made a point of guaranteeing that he would remain clothed for the two of you.
It was raining the next day, and you had about 650 km to hitch hike. You knew it was going to be a two-day effort, so you set out with the lowest of expectations and…
It all went fairly well.
You spent the majority of your day with a Belgian truck driver named Gino, who took you from the Belgian border to the other side of Paris, but you had to sit in with him while he “worked.”
Truck drivers have an interesting lifestyle and moreover, an interesting job. Their hours are complicated, but basically after four hours of driving, they must take 45 minutes worth of break time (which always eats into a hitch hiker’s daylight).
You hung around with Gino as he maneuvered his rig through too-narrow streets in search of non-existant addresses. And when he did find his drop-off point, you and Katie asked for a moment to use the toilet, and were escorted through what turned out to be a Play Station 3 factory. Super cool! Rows of women were seated at tables, testing games to make sure consoles were functioning properly.
Gino was quite a character. A man who had, on three separate occasions–with three different women–walked in on his girlfriend sleeping with another man.
The plight of a truck driver, he explained. It was difficult to maintain relationships. “I can understand why a man would want to kill his wife, ” he said.
More interesting than that, when Gino was 17 years old, he was struck down by a car and put into a coma.
He suffered 44 separate bone breaks in his body. He came out of the coma three months later with absolutely no memory of his life or relations. He had to re-learn everything at 17, and by the age of 21, he was starting his life over as an autonomous individual. He had metal bars and plates all throughout his body, and explained that he could walk less than one mile before he suffered too much pain from the exertion.
You thought about this man who had been perfectly helpful and polite to you and Katie. He shared his space, offered food and drink, and even thoroughly washed his hands after taking a moment to pee behind the cover of his truck, while fully obscured from the view of your side mirror. He’d certainly had suffered traumas you could scarcely comprehend.
But his energy was light.
He didn’t seem to let the shitty hand he’d been dealt weigh him down–and he didn’t like to brag about it, or rub it in anyone else’s face. He hadn’t even wanted his children to know. It was their grandmother, to his dismay, who’d spilled the beans.
And Gino had been pissed. Parents don’t want their children to see them as vulnerable.
You resolved then and there that you must complain less about your aches and pains, even in jest. They are nothing–truly, nothing, compared to what other’s suffer.
And that leads you to your next point: Paul and Sandy, your new hosts in Normandy.
This couple claims to suffer from chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromayalgia, partial deafness, IBS, and scores of other health problems–not to mention one party’s suicidal depression and alcoholism.
Oh yes, they are quite a pair.
Talkative. But not the best listeners. Overly-enthusiastic about describing their aches and pains, and the difficulties of frozen joints, sudden bouts of diarrhea, and dislocated shoulders. They are a truly sensible couple, and very sweet–but intrinsically dysfunctional. Their health issues hold them back to such an extent that they have fallen behind in the work required for all the projects they have inadvertently taken on.
They are the care takers of 10 horses; 4 goats; 4 dogs; 11 cats; 1 ferret, and several chickens–no fewer than 30 animal souls! (Plus three volunteers!) Feeding and cleaning up after these animals is literally a full-time job; it consumes so much of their time that they cannot pursue the numerous building projects required for finishing the latest addition of their house.
They are also hoarders.
Furniture, appliances, and fixtures for their would-be spaces are crammed into unlikely places.
The sitting room, kitchen, mud-room, dog room, and everything else is crammed with stuff. There does seem to be order, thank goodness, but the clutter can feel oppressive.
“I feel like I’m on an episode of Animal Hoarders,” Katie said.
You denied it at first. You gave your hosts the benefit of the doubt. But then… well, things started to fall in place. Paul and Sandy both seem to be fairly OCD. There was too much food in the pantry, too many out-of-date cans, too many old papers, too many boxes of tea. Too many microwaves. Too many cabinets. Too many hiking poles. Too many tools.
Too many tools. Especially too many TOOLS!
How does anyone amass 19 phillips head screw drivers?
You thought this as you and Katie devoted three entire days to cleaning the workshop, which at first looked like the wreckage of an Act of God.
“They have so many animals here, Maria,” Katie insisted. “Guard dogs? No one needs three German Shepherds locked in pet-store cages as guard dogs.”
The back room was filled with caged animals.
Okay, okay… cool it a minute. Despite their eccentricities, Paul and Sandy have been super cool hosts, the projects have been stimulating and varied, and the company of your other workawayer, Clementine (22, from Dublin) has been stellar.
But it rains cats and dogs every day… (pun intended). You struggle with the lack of sunlight, the oppressive weather, and the formidable tasks of organizing the belongings of a pair of married hoarders.
Difficult situations teach patience. Remember that.
And despite the energetic and climatic road blocks, this is how your memories of Normandy will go down: