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.