Volunteer Challenges

I applied for this volunteer placement in the south of France because the house looked fabulous in the photos, the reviews of the experience by other volunteers were positive, the hosts are my age (in fact older) and I wanted to spend some time in the south of France. I somehow failed to fully register that since the hosts were Scottish, I would not get to practice the French I’d worked on so hard in Paris. I knew I’d be doing manual labour, but rather imagined it would not be too demanding. I think I forgot that Scottish people like to get their money’s worth…


Canal du midi (all photos this post taken on my walks)

A young Francophone couple from Montreal also volunteered for the 2 weeks I was here. They are travelling for a year and a bit, doing a number of ‘workaway’ gigs. I enjoyed their company very much – and we were, at least initially, in agreement that despite the gorgeous surroundings, this volunteer placement was a tad disappointing. Largely because the hosts expected too much of us (or so we thought, no doubt the hosts had a different perspective!)

Our hosts met in Glasgow later in life. They moved to the south of France fairly soon thereafter – about 15 years ago. Both work very hard: she gardens all day long, he works both on the house and in his study. So it’s not like they sat back, lord and lady of the manor style, and watched us work. In all fairness, they stipulated in their posting that volunteers were expected to work 5 days a week, 5 hours a day. Upon arrival they told my young friends that in addition to the 5 hours, we were to help make and clean up after meals – which added at least 2 more hours per day.

The first day the three of us went to an utterly disused but quite massive attic to clear it out of bricks, junk, mostly dirt. The windowless, airless space instantly became so full of dust that I was soon coughing uncontrollably – despite wearing the mask which the young folk had insisted the hosts provide (the young lady has worked in health and safety). Once we bagged the debris, we had to carry the bags down what amounted to 5 flights of stairs. The sun shone outside… we felt rather murderous inside.

IMG_1582I bailed on the project after a couple of hours and was sent to work in the garden, which was much better. The kids spent most of the two weeks up there, although once the debris had been cleared out, the work became less unpleasant, I think. We’d work from 9:30 to 1:30, then help with the large midday meal (served at 2:00 on the dot), and then were expected to go back to work for another hour at 3:00 – basically working all day.

Our lady host complained about how much the young man ate. He complained of being constantly hungry. Both were right: he did eat a lot, but she did not serve lavish portions – and he was working very hard. We ate a light supper at 8:00, accompanied by very nice wines. As time passed, we all consumed more and more of it – and the evenings became jolly. I grew quite fond of the hosts and the place – but I am certainly ready to leave now the 2 weeks have ended.


I learned a number of lessons.

Physical labour is not my thing – nor a particularly good use of my talents. The jobs I did included gardening, housecleaning, washing windows, digging up piles of pebbles, cleaning them and carting them to a new location. The work made me tired and grumpy. This was not, of course, the hosts’ fault – obviously they wanted workers to help with house and garden projects. I knew this was an experiment; it is not one I will repeat (although in the end I decided not to work so hard as to become bad-tempered, and that made things more manageable). I might take another workaway posting, but would be more selective about the kind of work required – and maybe a little less easily seduced by location!

Those of you who know me will be astonished to learn that I also do not like being in a subservient position. I found myself irritated by having no say in menus or meal times. Both the hosts were good cooks, though the suppers were a tad dull (variations on salad, bread and cheese every night). But I realized how much I enjoy cooking and planning meals and having some flexibility about what and where I eat. They have a gorgeous outdoor patio but never ate there. When they went away for a few days, we three volunteers ate lunch outside every day, at a slightly earlier hour.

I guess I had imagined we would all work collaboratively – on the projects and on meals. We did work together preparing and cleaning up meals, but always under direction, direction I did not always agree with!

However as time passed the hosts relaxed – almost as though they felt they had to start very tough in case we were lazy buggers, and once they realized we weren’t trying to duck out of work (or at the least the young ‘uns weren’t), they eased up.

So although I did not love the work and got rather annoyed with the set-up at times, in the end it was a stunning location, the weather turned beautiful and I continued to enjoy fantastic long walks along the canal in the late afternoon.


I also got to know some people I would never otherwise have encountered and obtained some fascinating insights into their lives … more on that next post!




Grand Living in the south of France

So here I am, volunteering as a “workaway” in a maison de maître on the canal du midi in the south of France. Not so sure about this particular leg of the experiment, although the setting and house are stunning. For the moment I’ll concentrate on the positive.

The house is like a small chateau (minus the turrets and towers): truly grand proportions, broad patio with balustrade overlooking the canal, vineyards, and tree-lined roads stretching off to the Pyrenees.


The house – seen from pool level 


IMG_1503It is three storeys high, every floor with immensely high ceilings, extravagant moulding and trim, all floors tiled, the halls wider than most rooms in my house. The staircases could have been used in Gone with the Wind. There is a tiny door off the (seemingly unused) dining room that leads into the “original’ part of the house, which is older and consists of a kitchen/living/dining room with wooden beams on the (considerably lower) ceilings – but still magnificent views. One imagines that once the grand house was added on in the early 1800s (I think), this part of the house became the servants’ quarters. The couple who are my hosts have reclaimed the area for somewhat cosier living.


My room

IMG_1526IMG_1518IMG_1510IMG_1514Down one level from the main floor, there is a pool, surrounded by lavish gardens including a massive palm tree – and beside the pool is small building which contains a full kitchen, bar and ping pong table – with a large wooden outdoor table. And there is a gigantic garage with steep steps up to the gardens. They rent out a number of parking spaces there. So it is vraiment an estate. My room is on the third floor (where there is also another fully equipped kitchen, a yoga room and 2 other bedrooms.) I have an incredible view, heated bedding and en suite.


Pool (frightening colour just now) and gardens

The town of Ventenac-en-Mirevois is tiny and hugs the canal (along which I walk each day). The ‘commercial area’ (sorry, can’t stop laughing) consists of two café/restaurants side by side, next to the cave where you can fill up plastic jugs with wine for 1.50€ per litre – and it’s not bad at all. The two cafes face the store – which is open for 4 hours each morning and sells a few basics plus bread and croissants (I think there may be a law in France stating that everyone must have easy access to a boulangerie). And that’s it.



I took a bus, for 1.20€, into Narbonne yesterday morning just for a change of pace. It’s quite a charming town with a lovely cathedral and chateau and some Roman ruins – also a huge indoor market where I was tempted by cheese and artichokes, etc. etc. The canal runs right through Narbonne and there are wide patio spaces and treed pedestrian walkways on either side of it.



IMG_1555IMG_1556I am here for another week – and starting to get a bit of tan. Next post will share more re. the work situation, hosts and the young Canadian couple who are volunteering with me.

Au Revoir Paris!

I can’t believe I’m leaving Paris already. Where did the time go?

I have walked and walked and walked some more. To the Marais, the right bank of the Seine, the Tuileries, the Jardin du Palais-Royal, the Cimetière Père Lachaise, the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, Parc Belleville, Montmartre and Sacré Coeur. I did not do anything indoors! I have been to pretty much all the galleries and my favourite museum (the Musée Carnavalet) is closed for renovations for 3 years – so very French. Three years!!!

IMG_1436IMG_1486The fact is, I love walking and being outdoors (and yes, taking the odd café crème or glass of wine in a café) and I tire of museums and galleries almost instantly. I had moments of thinking, but you should do something…and then I thought, why? I didn’t come to Paris to SEE things, I came to enjoy the aura of the city and to brush up my French. Also to see friends – and it’s been wonderful to spend time with Stratford friends Marcia and Roger, Sue K. and her daughters from Niagara-on-the-Lake, and Parisian friends from my childhood Berry and Claire Hayward.


I had never been to the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont (pictured above), but it is lovely, very large, and has a promontory with a great view of Paris rooftops and the Sacré Coeur. It was a sunny day and the Parisians were out in flocks, sunning themselves.

I had, I am sure, been to the Père Lachaise cemetery before but like Buttes-Chaumont it is close to my flat, so I wandered through en route to meet Marcia and Roger. It is not like any cemetery in North America…more like a small city of monuments. I did the obligatory stop at Jim Morrison’s grave (bottom left above), now fenced off and not particularly impressive, but still a tourist destination.

IMG_1447And Parc Belleville is small but also lovely, and about 2 blocks from my flat.

The Tuileries remain magical and I took in a fabulous Paris Art and Design show there (above). The Seine and its bridges are gorgeous. The Parisian architecture, streets, light are all enchanting – so just walking was its own delight.

IMG_1389IMG_1433So far, I would say this experiment in solo travelling has been a success. Travelling alone is certainly not as enjoyable as travelling with someone else (and it is more stressful, as there is no one with whom to discuss options or to help figure out problems, like where the hell I am) but it is not bad. And travelling with someone new would have its own issues.

I have found myself missing Jay a lot. I’ve spent far more time in Paris without him than with him … but he loved Paris as much as I do, so there is a hole here, and I have had lonely moments.



But overall, much better to travel alone than not travel!

I ended my time here last night having dinner with Roger and Marcia at their new lovely apartment in the Balieue (suburbs). These suburbs bear no resemblance to North American suburbs, they are quaint quiet little towns a couple of centuries old. We sipped bubbly on their little patio and then had a 4 course feast, including truly spectacular cheeses and pastry. A perfect finale.

This afternoon I take a train to Narbonne and begin quite another leg of the journey, volunteering with a family in a maison de maître on the Canal du Midi. Who knows what that will be like!

Of Parisian Schools, New and Old

Yesterday was my last French class. As it was also the last Friday of the month, and a number of students were finishing their time at the school, we had a potluck pique-nique after class in the grand salle. Everyone brought food: cheeses, baguettes, fruit, salads, charcuterie, dips, cake – and the school supplied other treats and very nice wine. It was a lovely way to end the course.

I think my French has improved. Certainly my vocabulary has, but the intricacies of French grammar often still elude me. We had a strangely discombobulating final week. On Tuesday our teacher Vanessa was ill, so did not show up to class. The director/administrator of the school, Annabelle, was also ill. Désastre! Another teacher, Anne-Sophie, came to tell us we had a choice, to join her higher level intermediate class or to get reimbursed for the day. She warned us she would not be able to adapt the material, so it might be difficult. Most us went to her class and it was very challenging, despite Anne Sophie’s welcoming manner. I had a headache by 1:00pm. Then Anne-Sophie reported that Vanessa would not be back for the rest of the week, but she had no idea what the plan for us might be. We left feeling inordinately downcast. I couldn’t believe how attached to Vanessa I had become in a single week, and how difficult it was to imagine continuing classes with anyone else.

On Wednesday, no one came to talk to us. Three of us had decided if the only option was to continue in the higher level class, we’d ask for our money back. We waited for about an hour. Then Annabelle showed up and told us we should join Anne Sophie’s class again, but that she would adapt the material this time. Feeling apprehensive, we obeyed the directive – and it was, in fact, much easier. We left under the impression we would get a new instructor for our final 2 days. As it turned out, the director, Annabelle, became our new prof. We certainly bonded as a group (at least the four of us who continued to attend classes, including a 16-year-old Brit, here for a week to improve his French for A-levels) – and the quality of instruction was high…but the lack on continuity was a challenge. Nonetheless I felt sad saying good-bye to everyone today. Much kissing on both cheeks!


en route to my school 


IMG_1436I feel like quite a local and hardly needed to think about my route as I walked back and forth to school. Honestly walking anywhere in Paris is a treat, the architecture is so grand, the avenues so wide and light. The weather this week has been fantastic, warm and sunny – so Paris at its best. I have my favourite boulangerie and supermarché (where I could fill a bottle with orange juice, pressed from oranges while I watched – and excellent wine could be purchased for $10 or less. And the cheese! Say no more.).


6 rue Nicolet, where I lived in 1963-4


view down rue Nicolet, my house on left

On Monday afternoon I walked from the school up to the area of Montmartre where my family lived for a year when I was eight. I first learned French there, via brutal immersion, at a school where even the teacher declared me an imbecile because I could not speak a word when I arrived. The neighbourhood has changed quite a lot, but the house where we lived is still there, as is my old school. I went in and talked to the school secretary, hoping to speak with the directrice to see if she could find class records from my time there. I have written a memoir of that weird year – but cannot recall the surnames of my friends. The directrice was far too pressée to see me (some things never change) but I did get a peek into the old courtyard where we spent recesses. It has not changed at all!


my elementary school in Montmartre


the school courtyard 

The two schools could not be more different: the most recent one cosy and inviting, hidden on the first floor of an anonymous building; that elementary school cold and forbidding … although memory does tend to cast a golden glow over childhood years.

Mon école, L’Atelier 9

The school where I am taking an intensive French course, L’Atelier 9, is located in the 9eme arrondissement. Sometimes I take the metro to get there (25 minutes, 1 change); more often I walk (about 50 minutes). The school is located in an apartment building, one code for the outside door, another for the door to the staircase, then up one flight: the school occupies that floor. There is an office, 4 classrooms, a little kitchen and foyer. It’s very cosy.


view out the classroom window

I am in the lower level of an intermediate level class (this was my best guess when I enrolled online, and it seems about right.) There are 6 other students in the class (or there were last week, 2 of them have finished, but perhaps others will come for my second week.) Maximum class size is 9, so again, quite cosy.

My classmates are of varied backgrounds and ages. Monica is Argentinian, in her mid-fifties. She took the course for 3 weeks and has finished. Viviana is Italian, Lucia Slovakian and Andrea from Mexico All are in their twenties I think and have been in Paris for some time. I believe they will have been taking classes for a month by the end of next week.


All my classmates (except me!)  Vanessa in the centre

There were 3 newcomers this week: Neil, a paediatrician of middle years from Bath, England (he was only here for a week), Yasemin, a 19-year-old German, on a program working in Paris for a year, and me. Yasemin and I are both here for 2 weeks.


All of us except Lucia and Andrea

Our teacher Vanessa is a delightful young French woman: animated, expressive, clear – and quite fierce if we get things wrong (which we do all the time.)

Class runs from 9:00-1:00, five days a week. Utterly exhausting to try to bend one’s mind to French for that much time each day. They say learning a language keeps the mind alive. I say, if it doesn’t kill it completely! The classes are entertaining and mostly conversational, but Vanessa gives us interesting topics to discuss (this week, for example, the cinema. I learned a whole new vocabulary.) I was a bit stunned when she announced on the first day that we would now learn the subjunctive tense. I thought it wouldn’t do any harm to start with the present…but I guess I’d need to be in the Beginner’s class for that.

It is an interesting mix of accents and knowledge levels in the class. Most of the students have a better understanding of grammar and vocabulary than I do. I have a good French accent because I learned French in Paris as a child, but my grasp of grammar is very weak. I think some may have found this peculiar if not a bit offensive: if I can pronounce the words properly, surely I should understand the fundamentals better! But alas, I do not, so it is good to be receiving instruction. We spend time reading aloud, practising the use of certain words, prepositions, verb forms and tenses. We even did a dictée ((dictation). Quelle horreur! That definitely brought back memories of my French schooldays, when the teacher would read a passage and we had to write it down perfectly. I had more Xs on my page than I could count.

We also play games and have little competitions – so it is very lively, and the other students are friendly and fun. So all in all – an excellent experience. Although I am happy to have a week-end off (with only a bit of homework.)

The school also organizes optional activities a couple of afternoons a week (included in the price of the course). On Tuesday we had a session on French music, specifically the music and life of Serge Gainsbourg: absolutely fascinating, like a history of 20th century pop music. Vanessa taught this session, which included lots of recorded music and videos.

On Wednesday, about 18 of us went on a guided tour of the Latin Quarter. Our guide, Antoine, was fantastic and explained everything in both French and English. I’ve been to the Latin Quarter many times before – but learned a lot of this tour.

For instance. it is one of the oldest parts of Paris and the site of one of the earliest universities in Europe. For centuries people came from all over Europe to study there – and the common language was Latin, hence the name of the quarter. The Sorbonne is there, as well as several other colleges and schools.

The remains of Saint Genevieve lie in one the quarter’s churches. She became the patron saint of Paris when she faced down Attila the Hun, begged him to leave Paris alone and destroy some other city instead. Apparently he agreed.

The Latin quarter was largely razed when Haussmann “renovated” Paris for Napoleon III, but parts of the medieval city exists, side by side with Haussmann’s grand avenues. Only 25% of the churches in Paris survived the renovation. One of those is the only church in the city to still have its cemetery. For a thousand years bodies were buried inside church walls in Paris, until there was no room left and bodies were just piled up to rot. The odour became so offensive that in the late 18th Century the king ordered all cemeteries emptied – into the catacombs. According to our guide, it took 40 years to empty them all.

So – life is full and interesting – and I’m feeling deep sympathy for the Spaniards in the Pueblo Ingles program. It is hard work!

Paris, je t’aime

I always forget that initially Paris is rather formidable. I forget because that memory is later overshadowed by the light and beauty and joie de vivre of the city, but at first….ooh la la.

Everyone is Paris seems to be in a hurry, moving quickly and purposefully. No lollygagging here. People seem to have a sixth sense about when the streetlights will change or even when waiting is simply not required. I patiently watch for the little green man, as most people do, most of the time – but at other times it’s like the crowd has been given a silent sign and they surge forward regardless of the colour of the little man. I run the risk of obstructing the flow if I don’t go with them, so I do, feeling just a little anxious that a gendarme or angry motorist will upbraid me.

Pausing to check my map makes me feel quite out of step, so generally I too try to stride along purposefully. The street names are clearly posted high on the sides of the buildings (although some signs are old, worn and a bit tricky to decipher), but of course Paris was not built on a grid, or indeed according to any plan. The first day I set off to find my school on foot, I made a wrong turn because I misread a street sign. Feeling panicky that I’d be late for class and have an irate professeur, I thought about asking the people rushing past me for guidance, but really they seemed so pressés, I didn’t dare. I found a Tabac and asked if I could buy a map. 5€ later, I had a fantastic little book with maps by arrondissement. As it turns out, I was about 2 blocks from the school, and made it exactly on time.

Some things have changed in Paris over the past 50 years (I lived in Montmartre for a year in 1963-40, when I was…quite young.) It does not smell the same at all. I have the most distinct memory of the smell of Paris from my youth – a strong and somewhat repulsive mixture of French cigarette smoke, garlic and urine. I don’t miss this odour. Well, maybe I do, just a little. The air seems very clean now. Fortunately so do the sidewalks, although even today the French do not clean up after their dogs as well as, say, Canadians do – so it is worth watching one’s step.

What I miss most are the little specialty shops, which used to populate every street. Some few remain: the ubiquitous boulangeries and pâtisseries (usually in the same shop) and the boucheries. But I have not seen a single charcuterie or epicerie, shops that sold charcuterie and lovely little French shredded salads, nor any papeteries or fromageries. In their place are many supermarkets, where the food is very good, but…it is not the same. It is, in fact, easier to shop in such all-in-one places as a foreigner, but it lacks the intimacy of the Parisian shopping of old. Still, the food is fresh and good. I bought a very basic package of chicken thighs – not organic or expensive or anything, cooked them quite simply and could not believe how good they tasted. Like chicken, not…whatever it is that most chicken tastes like at home.

The metros are cleaner and more automated, of course, but there are still long walks within metro stations to get from one ligne to another. The streets remain either very narrow – and the sidewalks even narrower – or wide – beautiful boulevards; there is little in-between. People are still both friendly and formal: “Bonjour, Madame (or Monsieur)” is de rigueur upon entering a shop – and they are rather more forgiving of bad French than in days of yore.

My first week here has been grey and rainy, but tomorrow, it will be springtime in Paris and I have the whole weekend to explore old haunts. Fantastique, alors!

Paris: Ma Petite Maison

I have so much to say about Paris, I hardly know where to begin, so I think I will start small and expand outwards.

I am enchanted by the way Parisian accommodation works. I have rented a tiny airbnb apartment in the Ménilmontant area (sort of on the border between the 11th and 20th arrondissements). This is not a part of Paris I know at all. In the past I have stayed in Monmartre, the Latin Quarter and the Marais (and probably elsewhere….I have spent quite a lot of time in Paris. It is my favourite city in the world).

I received check-in instructions from my host, which did not make perfect sense to me, but I thought I would figure it out….and when I got to the address, I realized that when Jay, Jamie and I stayed in the Marais in 2006 (I think), it was a very similar system for entry. First I entered a code on a keypad to gain entrance through a barred gate onto the street into a very small area, visible from the street, where I faced a locked metal door, with another keypad beside it.

I entered another code which admitted me to a small outdoor corridor leading to the actual door to the building, which, as it turns out, was not locked (and remains unlocked.) So far so good, except I had now used all the codes I’d been given but was still some way from the flat. 5 sets of spiral stairs away, in fact. Ahem. Quite the climb with two bags – fortunately they are small.

IMG_1246When I reached the fifth and top floor, I knocked on the door to my left (which the host had identified as “mine”) – and Olivia was there to greet me. There was barely room for both of us in the flat – and after giving me a brief tour (more like a turnabout), she left me. It is perfect for one person: a small living/dining room/study with view of the neighbours (at night, no need for TV, I can watch all their activities!); a small bedroom with miniscule balcony looking out on church steeple and more lovely rooftops; a closet of a kitchen, but well-equipped, as long as I don’t dislodge anything, including a washer; and the piece de resistance: a bathroom which is a shower stall containing a sink and toilet. As my host said, you wash down the whole room every time you shower.

It takes some getting used to, but it is a delightful challenge. Another student in my course (much more to come about that!) took the option the school of living with a family, an option I considered briefly (more French practice, cheaper). She lives in a lovely location and a large flat but the woman of the house sounds like a royal bitch who mocks her French and refuses to wash her towels (she has been there almost 3 weeks.) In comparison my arrangement seems like heaven. And I do love the views!

And it is only a 50 minute walk (flat out) to school.

So if I walk both ways, does that offset the whole baguette I eat each day, not to mention the wine…?