Standing in a darkened train compartment waving goodbye to Katarina Milenkovic, co-founder of WWOOF Serbia, at the Belgrade Station, I had the electric nervousness I often get when visiting a foreign place I know little about.
As the old, reliable Soviet-era train rattled into the dark countryside, Beth and I sat silent, desperately grasping to the pronunciation of our stop: Cortanovci. I must have repeated the name fifty times in my head, but when the young man next to us asked where we were going all I could come up with was ChorTonaSki (emphasizing the capital letters in my best Russian accent). He looked at me blankly and I tried again, this time butchering the village’s name into something I didn’t even recognize. Finally, Beth pulled out her journal and in the dim light of a fading station he said, “Oh, Cortanovci!”
For the next 40 minutes, we traded stories with our new friend about 21st century Serbia, America and his time as waiter on Martha’s Vineyard. As we neared our stop, he gave us the heads up and without this notice we surely would have missed the stop.
Stepping down from the train onto the chunky gravel tracks, we could see two people standing in the dim orange hue that enveloped the station’s platform: a female conductor flagging the engineer with a flashlight and another gentleman in shorts with a white poodle sitting by his side—our WWOOF host, Dragan Crnomarkovic and his dog, Filip.
Started in 1971 by a London secretary who wanted to support organic farms in the English countryside, WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) now operates in more than 50 countries. The organization gives volunteers the chance to work and to learn about biodynamic farming from hosts who produce a variety of organic products, including wine, cheese and jam. In return, hosts provide them with free room and board and pass on their knowledge about their respective farming practices.
The road to Dragan’s house cuts through a row of dimly-lit houses that are like caricatures of the 1960s-era ranch homes so prevalent in San Diego’s East County. Turning onto a dirt road, large trees loom overhead and scant houselights dot our way. I wasn’t sure what to expect of the WWOOF farm, so as we stop in front of Dragan’s house I’m surprised to see it is a chalet-style home and not some large farm, like I had imagined.
In the morning, we meet Dragan in the kitchen preparing a red pepper dish (his wife, Olivera Rosic, was out of town for a few days) and after a light breakfast, he gives us a tour of their property and explains their goals—wine making and raw food preparation. The couple’s house fits their needs perfectly; it’s a nice, multifamily home–which affords them ample space to host volunteers while pursuing their agricultural passions–with some organic grape vines and vegetable plants. `
For the first couple days, we help Dragan prep his garage for an incoming grape shipment and prepare vegetables from their gardens for winter. In our down time, Dragan encourages us to explore Cortanovci, which is a small two-bar village with a quiet, slow paced mountain charm. When Olivera returns, Beth starts helping her prepare for her upcoming raw food seminars, and Dragan and I begin hauling up the dozens of wooden crates of grapes from his neighbor’s house that we would later destem and store for fermentation.
Spending time with Dragan and Olivera was a really special experience for me, because there lifestyle reminded me of my great grandmother’s, who used to make wine and grow her own fruits and vegetables at her small home in western Pennsylvania. That’s not to say the couple’s lifestyle is dated; instead, I found it refreshingly modern. In fact, what Dragan and Olivera are doing in Cortanovci seems to be a growing trend in America, so getting to experience their sustainable lifestyle firsthand, while delving into Serbia’s amazing culture was what made our first Serbian WWOOF farm so memorable.
Volunteering with Olivera and Dragan was also a great reminder that WWOOFing isn’t just limited to large organic farms, like the one we worked on in Pontassieve, Italy. Each WWOOF chapter encompasses a large network of diverse farms–large and small–that bring together people from all walks of life who are interested in promoting organic farming practices and lifestyles.
Just in case you need a few more reasons to volunteer in Serbia, here are three of my favorite things about WWOOFing in Serbia.
Editors Note: In the upcoming months we’ll have a lot of photos of Serbia coming out. I took all them with my trusty Nikon D300s and if you’re shopping for a new camera you can visit Argos for a great selection of Nikon DSLR Cameras.
During the next week or so, we will be publishing more from our time WWOOFing in Serbia, but if you can’t wait for our updates, I highly recommend checking out wwoofserbia.org or following them on Facebook and/or Twitter.
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