This week our girls learned volunteer work doesn’t always have to feel like work, while Brian and I saw how a single day of service could have a profound impact on our view of the world. We woke up at the crack of dawn one morning and piled into the car for the three-hour drive to Marija, Gorica, situated near Croatia’s capital city of Zagreb. I’d arranged for us to spend a day on the farm of Renato and Dunja Sabljak. The couple is working to create a sustainable, natural lifestyle for their family and they welcome the help of others who want to contribute to the work, learn about farming, and share some good food.
As always, we had no idea what to expect. We drove inland through beautiful lush hills and eventually passed the city of Zagreb. We left the main highway and followed the directions Dunja had given us, which took us through several small villages and past “a dead policeman”, which I thought to mean a tomb or statue of some kind. Um…it’s not. It’s a term used for a speed bump. However, when we went by a white, stone coffin-like structure, I thought that was the “dead policeman” and made a right turn as instructed. Coincidentally, it took us straight to their house. Only later when having lunch with the family did we realize what dead policeman really meant and had a good laugh about it. Every time I see a speed bump I will think of our day on the farm with the Sabljak family.
When we arrived at the farm, Renato and Dunja welcomed us into their home and introduced us to their four-year-old daughter, Josipa, and their two-year-old son, Simun. A third little sibling will be joining the family in November. First, we took a tour of their farmstead. Our girls were thrilled to see goats, sheep, chickens, geese, ducks, hogs, and horses. The animals graze freely throughout the farm for most of the day, roaming around together in peaceful coexistence.
A couple animals had quite unique personalities. The youngest hog had been bottle fed in their house when it was young and seemed to consider herself to be one of the family. When she would sneak her way through the kitchen door, the family would tell her to leave and she would turn and stalk out, yelling an angry diatribe of grunts and snorts to express her opinion on the matter. One sweet, gentle dog obsessed over the baby chicks. Whenever the girls would hold one (which was quite often), the dog would sit and stare at it until it was put back in the pen. The girls were convinced he wanted to eat them, but I think he was just leery of these little humans grabbing at his tiny, feathered friends.
Our family set to work on different jobs. I spent most of the day working in the large vegetable garden. Brian helped Renato turn wooden pallets into an extended fence line around the property. The girls gathered eggs, harvested plums, cleaned out the horse stalls, herded the goats, and helped take the weeds I’d pulled from the garden to the goats and sheep. Alison and little Josipa focused their time on becoming fast friends and did a very good job of it.
Along with the family, we also met others who were helping out on the farm. Julie, from Seattle, and Emily, from Germany, had been staying with the family through Workaway, a web site connecting travelers in need of housing to local citizens in need of extra help. We also met Jana, a family friend with a love for riding who kept her horse at the farm and helped the family throughout the summer. It was a day of hard work, good conversations and a lot of laughter. During one of Brian and Renato’s many discussions about the cultural and political differences between our countries, I heard Brian introduce him to the “That’s what she said” joke. Really, honey? Must we corrupt these good people with our twisted American humor? As the sun sank lower in the sky, we sat down for a big family meal of traditional Croatian stew, salads, grilled vegetables and bar-be-que. We ended the day with a riding session for the kids, and soon it was time to leave our new friends.
Our last few volunteer days have underscored a fundamental truth we humans tend to overlook in our busy, individualistic experience of the modern world. It’s something that gets lost as we rush around to work and school, zip in and out of stores, and blindly walk around with headphones and smart phones cutting us off from the people right next to us. It’s a simple, yet poignant concept.
We are all connected. We don’t have to be strangers on this planet. When we take the time to stop, reach out, look someone in the eye and start a conversation, it becomes clear how quickly we can connect with one another. How easy it is to turn a stranger into a friend. We spent just ten hours with the Sabljak family and yet by the time we left it felt like we were leaving old friends with the knowledge we will see them again someday.
Given the tragic, disconnected events occurring in our world right now, it brings tears to my eyes thinking about how simple, peaceful and connected this world could be if we would only let it happen. Maybe our world leaders need to have their next summit at a family farm and replace their diplomacy discussions with feeding animals, pulling weeds and building a fence together.