In the second year of the Second World War — I had just turned 12, my maternal grandmother remembered from her youth a farm girl she had known. Off went a postcard: could Eric spend the summer vacation with her? Yes, came the reply. A small suitcase was packed. I traveled 4 hours by train and walked another 2 to a tiny village consisting of perhaps 8 farms. Maria, my grandmother’s friend, was an elderly unmarried woman living with her 90 year old widowed father, whom I called Grandfather.
Their living quarters, barn and stables were all in the same building, under one roof. They owned 3 cows, 2 pigs, a dozen chickens with a proud rooster and several bee hives in the abutting garden. In the garden grew all their vegetables and fruit that they needed.
There was no indoor plumbing. There was a water pump inside the kitchen. No hot water, no bathtub, no water closet, no cars, no refrigerator. I had a guest bed in the old man’s room. I still remember him snoring dreadfully and getting up in the middle of the night to use the chamber pot that would be emptied in the morning.
Maria worked until midnight baking bread, darning socks, washing and cleaning and then getting up at 4 in the morning to take her old bicycle and pedaling to the nearby forest to pick mushrooms or berries. Not for us, these were washed and carefully packed and delivered by her on the bicycle to the nearest city to be sold to the “rich city folk”.
My summer vacation with Maria and Grandfather will remain one of the most glorious experiences of my youth. Learning to milk a cow. Watching the bees around their hives in Maria’s garden. Searching for eggs in the barn. Picking wild blueberries and cranberries. Feeding noisy pigs. Quietly spending hours in an abandoned stone quarry where I watched frogs and salamanders in puddles of water. Observing the local cheese maker making cheeses. And, of course, enjoying the robust, yet delicious meals.
All this and more in this sheltered and pastoral place while a murderous war was ravaging Europe.