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…
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.
I 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!