Exchange & Learning to Live with Strangers
19.04.2014 - 18.05.2014 14 °C
Finally getting stuck into traveling and snippets of 'life' in France. After mum flew out of Paris back to Oz in April I headed straight to Auvergne in the middle of the country to my first HelpX property. It's like WWOOFing (willing workers on organic farms) but broader opportunities - it doesn't have to be an organic farm. So the exchange worked like this - one offers their labour for 4-5 hours per day (usually only 5-6 days per week) in exchange for accommodation, food and usually opportunities to become involved with the hosts lives. Ie they include you in their socialising, show you what the area has to offer and basically help to make your time with them a positive and enriching experience.
For me it’s an ideal form of travel…. Being surrounded by ‘locals’, talking, learning/ sharing, doing productive activities each day and then spare time to explore the surroundings. Bonuses are staying with people who are of the same mind too and due to the whole nature of the idea, almost all of the hosts are into either growing and eating organic produce, running countryside guesthouses (gites) and cultural exchange, yoga and wellbeing, serious eco-building/being self sufficient or a combination of the above.
My first HelpX was near a tiny village called Vernusse in Auvergne, the middle of France. I spent just one week here which was enough. The family were nice, but they were from the Netherlands (in France 7 years) so spoke English to me and Dutch to each other around me (yes, just a little rude) so my practice of French was next to none. I stayed next to the house in a tiny cabin the first few nights then a really nice wood cabin ('gite') the other 4 nights, complete with kitchen and beds for 4 people. The work was easy, gardening mostly - lots of weeding and I've practically built up tolerance to stinging nettle - and some food prep for guests they were expecting the next week. Plus helping prepare vegetarian lunch and dinner which we ate together. The 4-5 hours work kind of got stretched over the day so I had very little actual free time, not that it made much difference because the only thing to do was go for walks. Overall it was a nice way to spend 1 week - Marika the mother made green smoothies for breakfast each morning, I took part in her weekly yoga class and we discussed the merits of recent publicity about Superfoods and raw desserts.
At the end of April I took the train straight from Auvergne (slow journey but stunning, through gorges in an area of dormant volcanos) , all the way to the South West to the small town/big village of Oloron-Sainte-Marie in The Bearn department, answering the call of Toby - with promises of saunas, yoga, learning about permaculture and lots of social activities !
I have to say I did enjoy my 3 weeks in Oloron. Toby (originally UK, 48) was really easy to get on with and vey easy going with the work. To start with anyway. He'd bought an acre of land that was neglected and in the process of being transformed into a permaculture (beyond organic) vege & fruit garden, with some vines, a greenhouse dome for future tropical fruit trees and many more projects in mind. Plus we were at the foothills of the Pyrenees with the most incredible view from his flat in Oloron.
(similar to this, this was taken down the road)
The first week we did very little work mainly due to cold and drizzling rain (and I went south for the warm !) so some days we did 2-3 hours work, some none and instead went on hikes in the mountains at the foot of the Pyrenees with his friends, reading or doing little errands around town. We had many dinners with Vanessa, Toby's GF and also with a family close by, Harriet (UK) and Jean-Jaques and their daughter Mathilde who is only a couple of years younger than me so I had some 'outside' socialising - often quite a challenge when HelpXing/Wwoofing if you're the only helper there at the time.
Lunch break at the property
1st May the town put on a fete to celebrate May Day (Worker's Day) and it was the most typical rural French festival I've seen - tipsy men in beret's singing, wine tasting, cheese selling, a mini sheep dog demo with the sheep of course in the middle of the square, snail snacking and a completed with the thinnest crepe made with goat milk. That was a happy day !!
Another 'Helper' Agatha from Phillipines joined us for 1 week and we decided to go to the coast one day to explore Bayonne and Biarritz (famous for surfing... and being the French home of Quicksilver, Roxy and Ripcurl). We hitchhiked there and back (don't tell my mum!! - its fairly safe to do for short trips in the South) but it took a couple of hours each way since the people who picked us up were only doing short legs of the journey - 4 cars there and 6 back!
The next two weeks we did a lot more work, planting, shovelling muck (sheep shit), knocking posts into the ground and pulling others up etc. Physical and tiring but I felt great and slept well. I ate well too, we made a proper lamb curry and dahl (god I miss indian food !!!!!) home-made sheep yoghurt, bacon and red wine. His philosophy on eating was 'natural, high-fat, low sugar, few carbs' so I went along with that and was surprised to find it worked for me. We had real bacon from black pigs on a nearby farm, with flavour unlike I've ever tasted before, full sheeps milk cheeses (AOC Ossau Iraty, also from down the road) and I perfected my slicing of jambon paper thin like they do all over Spain
The BEST thing about that stint in Oloron was the regular saunas in his self-made transportable sauna. It was built on a trailer and parked at Harriet's house. Oh my god did I enjoy relaxing in 75 degree (C) heat!!! And afterwards hosing off in freezing cold mountain water with only a hedge for privacy. It was very liberating and somewhat like being a kid again running in the sprinklers outside.
Apparently a small sauna is very easy and inexpensive to build - note for the future!
I am fascinated by how open some people are. I mean really open. I suppose most people or families taking in travellers have to be but some really let you deep into their current life affairs, tell you all about their past, argue with their kids and spouses in front of us without a second thought. I think it's wonderful, to see there are still a lot of people who really trust strangers and also don't give a damn if other's will judge them.
So I left Toby's on the 18th May, very much looking forward to getting to Beziers - just across to the South East coast - to meet up with Lil & Pete and their friends. By coincidence they were holidaying and in France just briefly at that time experiencing the joys of the Croisière - a french canal boat - cruising 5 days through Beziers to Narbonne.
On y va !!!