Marco’s hair impressed me, attempting to be a number of distinct styles at once: mohican, mullet and dreadlocks, the thick slugs of matted hair swayed and bobbed on his head like a dilapidated fascinator as he negotiated the pocked back roads of northern Slovenia. Occasionally, the rhythm of the car would direct a waft of his hair in my direction, always catching me on the in-breath so I’d get a mouthful of must and sweat. I sat in the front seat while my two travelling companions sat in the back. Marco explained to us that he recently returned from a music festival in a nearby, ex-Yugoslav airbase and was feeling ropey. Couple this with the embitterment he felt at having lost the toss to come and collect us from the train station and this was not quite the warm reception I was hoping for.
We were WWOOFing. No, not a subsidiary of dogging – let’s get that clear from the off. ‘World Opportunities for Organic Farming’ allows a traveller to stay and work in farms around the globe for free in exchange for four to six hours of labour a day. You will be fed and housed, usually in some barn or creaky bunk bed. In 1971 Sue Coppard, a secretary living in London, recognised the need for city-types such as herself, who did not have the means or the opportunity to access the countryside and support the organic food movement, to get out to the sticks, drive some dirt under their nails and suck some clean, fresh air into their smoggy lungs. Since then, WWOOF has expanded to run programs in over fifty countries. The only conditions imposed on a ‘WWOOFer’ are that they make their own arrangements with the farm and they stay for at least three days. The concept sounded good. As a young person poor in money and (with a little coercion) rich in labour, the exchange was expedient for both parties.
The image in my mind’s eye comprised of some wholesome outside work in a temperate climate, tending crops, pressing oil and scrumping apples balanced with sipping on farm wine, reclining in hammocks, obtaining insider knowledge of the country from some locals, and seeing what the farmer’s daughter/s were like. Best of all: the price was right. So last Summer we signed up.
A couple of friends and I had planned to go to Dimensions festival, so I decided that Croatia would be where my first taste of WWOOFing would take place. I paid the £20 membership fee which allowed me to browse the host farms. This brought to light the first flaw with the system. There were only six host farms in Croatia and they were booked up for the entire summer. WWOOF promises to have farms in countries around the world but it does not guarantee availability.
Damn. £20 wasted? Not yet. Let’s turn this trip trans-Europe. We looked to the Croat neighbour Slovenia and found a place in the remote north east, the nearest town being Maribor. Eventually arriving at the correct train station, we were collected by Marco. A native of Slovenia, Marco and his wife Miranda had bought a farmhouse with some land around it three years ago. Marco was a friendly enough guy in his late twenties. He spent his time doing odd jobs around the farm and he enjoyed making guitars, which, like his hair, tried to be many things at once, each instrument boasting two or more stringed necks. The hybrids resembled a lute, a bass and a Spanish guitar colliding at great speed. Intended to be versatile, these instruments were effectively rendered unplayable.
We arrived late on Friday and stayed up late enough to meet Miranda. We were surprised to learn that she was Canadian and that her first language was English; such was the incomprehensibility of her email exchange before the trip. In one email she told us that she would take us to a squat party which we would love because it was full of ‘metal people’. I guess she was talking about the music rather than a commune of androids like I had hoped. But her bizarre speech pattern revealed the source of her strange correspondence. Having a conversation with Miranda was tricky. In the habit of talking at you rapidly and loudly, Miranda would often get herself hysterically lost in an anecdote, fizzle out in an anti-climax, before starting up again with fresh zeal a moment later. She claimed to be, at one point, the best charity street fundraiser in the world and carefully outlined her plans to turn the small pond outside into a trout farm and convert the barn into a hostel. Other permanent residents included their young son Loki (named after the Norse god of mischief) and Hank. Hank was a 6 ft. 7 Dutch friend who would curl himself and his dog Donder (Dutch for thunder) onto a small bed in the living room every night. Donder was a rescued dog who had once been poisoned by a cruel owner, leaving him with limited and uncoordinated motor skills. He was very affectionate and if he got very excited he would trip himself up.
The location of the farm was beautiful. Thick green woods gave way to rocky outcrops which rose quickly out of the ground and would often obstruct your path, meaning you would head off in another direction and get lost. There was a 30 metre waterfall a little way up the valley which attracted climbers and had previously provided hideouts for soviet-led partisans who would hide in the caves behind the falls. Many of the surrounding houses had their own vine groves and Bee hives would hum as you walked down to the small village.
Our hosts were pretty relaxed about our labour. On the first day we helped clear out the barn, but after that we did not have much to do at all and often were left to babysitting duty, which soon became very boring. So in the end, we stayed six days instead of the planned ten. By then, we could feel the pull of the capital Ljubljana and it seemed like we had got all we could from the little farm. The problem was that it was not actually a farm. Marco, Miranda and Hank were all welcoming and friendly but farm management was a faculty that eluded them all. This was partially due to the copious amount of weed they all smoked. Every day, breakfast would be accompanied by a joint stuffed with the choicest and evidently singular produce the farm would yield. Hank especially would be difficult to spy without the familiar white carrot flopping from his moustachioed top lip. Climbing amongst the rafters of the barn and firing a chainsaw to make adjustments was a job not to be attempted without a joint.
I couldn’t quite work out what was in WWOOFing for them. They had not really gained any labour from us. Perhaps it was simply company; the chance to have a constant stream of new people coming through their house. WWOOfing wasn’t quite as I imagined it, but I would give it another try. It’s a good way to extend travelling in a cheap way and the excitement of WWOOFing is that each host farm is a surprise. We may have left too soon. It would have been interesting to have taken our hosts up on their offer to travel with them to the tiny stretch of Slovenian coast in the south. Maybe we’ll go back for some hair of the dog next year…