WWOOFing in France

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Location: Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

Right now I`m taking a year off from high school. For the past 2 and a half years, I`ve been working towards my grade 10 piano exam with the Royal Conservatory, and I finished in January, with a mark of 83%. Now I want to travel and volunteer, particularily in France because I love the country and I don`t want to lose my French after having gone through 12 years of French immersion. Until I leave for my trip, my days consist of going to work (I work in a restaurant), playing the piano for fun, planning my trip, walking the dog, going to yoga, and going out with friends.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Winding down the trip

Over the last couple of days, most of the work I'm doing consists of washing dishes and picking fruit. Thrilling, I know. I have done a couple of different things, including bottling and labelling some of the wine Estelle makes (crazy kinds like sparkling grapefruit, raspberry, lemon, and quince). Pierre-Yves makes white cheese with his cows milk, and I strained a batch and put it into containers. Other than that, the work is pretty monotonous, and time is going by pretty slowly. However, 2 somewhat interesting things have happened. On Friday, the DaVnici Code was playing in Lamastre, and Estelle dropped me off at the theatre, and arranged for someone that lives in Nozières to give me a ride home. (She thought she would be too scared to watch it). It was in French, of course, without subtitles, but I understood most of it. What was interestingwas the so called "theatre": it's really a big room that they use as a hall for wedding ceremonies and any other gathering, but they had set up chairs and there was a big white screen hanging on one wall.
Yesterday was the Fête de cerises (cherry party, or celebration), and they invited a whole bunch of friends to the farm and had a big hoe down. This was most literally a hoe down-- there was food, wine and dancing in the barn. On of the men had brought his accordian, and he played tradition French songs and taught everyone the dances. It really was your stereotypical idea of a French hoe down. Because the party went so late, we camped out at the farm. They have built a small covered structure out of wood-- I really don't know what else to call it-- it has a roof, but no walls, with a ground level and an upper level. It's not big, but there's enough room for 4 people to sleep on the top level. They laid out mattresses there, and I slept on the ground level in the hammock. At first when they told me I was sleeping in the hammock, I thought, oh God my back is never going to forgive me and I'm barely going to sleep. But Estelle showed me that to properly sleep in a hammock, you lay down at t 45° angle. That way you can control how taught you want the hammock, and you're ultimately laying flat. It was actually really comfortable, and the next day after breakfast (my day off), I layed in the hammock and read for a couple of hours. I had really wanted to spend my day off sight seeing and doing the whole tourist thing, but there's really nothing close to the farm or the town. For me to really get anywhere, Estelle or Pierre-Yves would have to drive me to Lamastre and I'd have to take a long bus ride to wherever I want to go. I figured this was just too much hassel, and I spent my day of rest mostly resting, and I hiked back to the house in the late afternoon.
Another thing worth noting is that I have my day of departure set. I was planning on staying at least 2 weeks here-- that would get me to the 24th of June. But the flights are really booked from that time on, so the best I can do is stay until th 21st. On Wednesday I'm going to get the train to Lyon, spend a few hours sightseeing there, and get a cheap flight to London. Unfortunately, I don't have time to sightsee around London like I had wanted to, because I'm going to try and catch the first flight out the next morning.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Baking in the sun

Yesterday morning I went with Estelle to the weekly market in Lamastre, a town about 20 minutes away. The town is bigger then Nozières (which has 30 people), but it's still not massive, so I was expecting a market with maybe only 10 or 15 vendors. But the stalls went on and on, and just when I thought I had reached the end, I would turn a corner, and there would be a whole other street of vendors. I spent about an hour and a half walking around the market and exploring the town, and we went back to Nozières for lunch. We spent the rest of the afternoon at the farm, and I picked strawberries and weeded the strawberry patch, baking under the sun. I forgot to bring my hat (just as I had yesterday), and when we left the farm I had a massive headache and felt even more exhausted then I had yesterday. Even after resting for an hour and drinking a litre of water, I still felt like absolute crap, and I began to wonder whether I had a mild case of sunstroke. I looked up on the net the syptoms: exhaustion, headache, extreme thirst, fever...these were the symptoms of a very mild case of sunstroke, which I confirmed I definetely had. I drank a lot more water, went to bed early with a cold wash-cloth on my forehead, and slept for 10 hours. I felt much better this morning despite the fact that I woke up in a cold sweat and I still had a hint of my headache left. Today I remembered to bring my hat and extra water.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Hi Ho Cherry-o

This weekend was pretty lax-- it wasn't really off for me, and yet I didn't do much work either. Estelle was away all weekend working a market in another town, so she didn't have a chance to explain things to me about the garden The 2 boys weren't in school, so Pierre-Yves was pretty preoccupied with them. Saturday I went with him to the farm, and I now have it sorted out why on earth they would live 4km from their farm where they have to work everyday: They're buildinga house there, and their house in Nozières is just temporary until it's finished. The barn is less than a year old-- when they bought the farm a few years ago, it was just land and cherry trees. At the farm, I helped him clean the cherry press (they don't sell the cherries, they make juice and sell it), pasturize some juice, and milk the cows (they only have 4).
Sunday morning, I woke up with w determination to get the place somewhat clean-- I started with the worst part of the house: the bathroom. I'll spare you the details, but I'll just say that it took me about an hour and a half, and I didn't do all that thourough of a job, because I'm not a maid. When I came down around 11am, Pierre-Yves had already started cleaning the kitchen. I was a little impressed and somewhat relieved, and immediately started to help him. We did a very thourough job, and it's quite livable now.
This morning we drove about 15 minutes to the farm, and Estelle gave me a tour of the garden, and got me started picking cherries in the grove. Picking cherries is so much harder, more tiring, and a lot more frustrating than it looks, especially when you can barely lift the bigger of the 2 wooden ladders, and therefore can't really reach the higher branches. Bonus: I could eat as many cherries as I wanted...and I did. After lunch I went to the massive strawberry patch to pick strawberries. And I naturally helped myself to a fair share of those too. Estelle explained that her strawberries are a different breed then your average grocery store strawberries. I really noticed the difference in the sweetness (a little sweeter, not so sour), the texture (soft, but not mushy), and the taste (the taste of strawberries magnified, with a hint of what I thought tasted like flowers). Afterwards I helped Estelle, Pierre-Yves, one of their friends and his 9-year-old daughter pick cherries for about another hour. I was absolutely exhausted after today, and I almost fell asleep in the car on the way back to the house. It wasn't just the actual harvesting of the fruit that wa so tiring either-- getting to the plants takes a lot of effort too, because a)the cherry grove is about a 10 to 15 mintue hike from the farm (and I say hike, not walk), and b)the farm is on a mountain, so in order to plant things, giant steps are carved in the side of the mountain, which makes for a steep climb or descent every time you want to get to another part of the garden.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Final Destination: Ardèche

This morning I left St Ouen des Toits and barely made it onto the train at 9:50. I was actually really sad because I really liked the "work" (I wouldn't call it workwhat I would call it because I enjoyed doing it), the family was great (except really for devil child*), the bread as amazing, and Pete and Effie were there. Especially with another upcoming birthday party this Saturday with all the same attendees as the 13-hour one 2 weeks ago, I was tempted to phone my next host, Estelle, and cancel. But I went ahead as planned-- I took a 4 hour train ride to Valence TGV station, and a 20 minute bus ride to the actual city of Valence. I had a 2 hour layover in Valence (a fair sized town with a few tourist attractions), but I couldn't go far with my heavy suitcase. I asked at the tourist office if there was a place I could leave my bag while I explored the town, but there wasn't. Later, when I told Estelle about this, she said they don't do it much anymore because of terrorists and the threat of bombs in people's luggage. After attempting to walk around with my suitcase, I gave up and sat outside at a cafe, had an Orangina (not Orange-aye-na, Oran-jeena), and read my book. It was 28° outside, and quite pleasant sitting in the shade reading, so not all was lost.
I then got on another bus, this one lasting 2 hours, an hour and a half of which was slow winding through the Alps. I finally arrived at Lamastre, where Estelle and her 2 boys Juan(4), and Malo (6) were waiting. Estelle explained to me that they live in a village called Nozières, and their farm is 4 km away. Here they have cherry trees, gardens, and a few dairy cows). She said they're almost finished harvesting the cherries because as a result of a frost in April, there are a lot less cherries this year.
We drove 8km to their small home in Nozières. First impressions were this: It's pretty dark inside the house because the few windows they have are really small. The kitchen, which is at the entrance of the ouse, doesn't look dirty, but not really clean either-- just lived in. My room is a decent size, but has a few boxes with junk in them. The bathroom is just plain disgusting. I began to realize that the more time I spent in each room, the more I noticed how dirty they were. When I started to clear up after dinner, I realized that part of the clutter in the kitchen was just dirty dishes piled everywhere. There are also grease splatters on the walls, and layers of dust on the ceiling and light fixtures. I don't know when the last time the bathroom was cleaned-- the mirror has splatters all over it, the toilet stinks like stale urine, and the bathtub is covered in a layer of dirty soap scum (and there's no shower). My room isn't too bad, although I swear that they didn't change the sheets on my bed from when the last WWOOFer was there. At this point, I honestly don't know if I can live here for 2 weeks. We'll see, maybe things will change when I start the work, and maybe I'll have time to clean up a bit. I just really can't wait to copm home and sleep in my own bed, with all my familiar things, and not have to live out of a suitcase anymore.

*I forgot to write about the events that lead up to me calling Manon, the 6-year-old girl at St Ouen des Toits a devil child. (I think I just tried to wipe them from my memory, and didn't write them in my blog earlier). They are as follows: One evening, I went up to the room I was sharing with Manon to go to sleep (she had fallen asleep on the couch downstairs). I had worked hard today, it was late, and I was really looking forward to going to bed right away. When I got into the room and turned on the light, there on her bed, neatly placed in a long row was my various eyeshadows, blush, makeup brushes, etc. All had been used. One of my brushes was stained and ruined because she had but it in lotion and then rammed it into eyeshadow. As I began to furiously put the things back into my makeup bag, I realized that she had opened one of my eyeshadows that had turned into a loose powder. It's dark green, and the inside of my makeup bag was covered in it. I then proceeded to clean out the bag, and when I had put most of the things away, I realized that my makeup remover and my tube of $25 liquid makeup were missing. I looked under her pillow, and there they were. The makeup tube was half empty, and most of it was smeared on the sheet. As I went to put other things away, I realized she had also pulled out a bunch of my dental floss, and broken my deoderant. I was furious enough as it was because various things of mine had been used. But you also have to understand, that when travelling from one unknown place to another so often, I need a place of my own-- a sanctuary. No matter how awful a place may be, no matter how dirty and no matter how mean the host, I can always return to my self-created sanctuary that is clean, orderly, and that contains my own things. Because I was sharing a room, my sanctuary was a lot smaller here, but it existed-- I had my own little corner. When Manon went through my things, my sanctuary was lost. I really felt I was a drifter, and I had no place of my own-- not even a small corner. I put all my things back into their various bags, and then put those bags all away in my suitcase, not on the dresser where they were before. With all my things closed up, I went to bed, unable to sleep for quite a while.
I told Marie-Laure the next day, and she scolded Manon, but not really to an extent that would make her regret it. Later that evening, I discovered that my things were missing again. I called Marie-Laure, ad we searched the room and found things hidden in various spots, including in her jewelery box and under the bed. Marie-Laure was really nice about it, and she even told me to scold Manon myself. I talked to Manon about it later, but I really don't know if it did anything.
The next day, Marie-Laure showed Pete, Effie and I around Manon's and Nathan's schools (it was an open house). She had to take Nathan somewhere, so she asked us if we would stick around and walk Manon home when she got out. As soon as she got out, she ran to the park, about 100 meters away. We waited for her to play for about 15 minutes, and we fiured we should start heading back. Manon really wanted to stay and play, and ran from us when we told her it was tile to go. We then started to walk away, hoping that she would eventually think we were leaving her, and come with us. We waited behind a building for about 5 minutes, and we were starting to get really mad, when she came. She saw us and ran behind the building. A fence surrounded 2 sides of the building, so there was only space for one person to pass between the building and the fence. This was perfect, and Effie went in on one side, and I on the other. Manon was trapped, and we literally dragged her from behing the building, dragged her across the road, and dragged her 1km back to the house. The entire way, she was screaming and crying and trying to drag her legs and trying to pull her arms away from mine and Effie's grasps. It was the longest kilometer I've ever walked, and the Aussies and I agreed that we would never agree to take Manon home again.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Keeping busy at St Ouen des Toits and beyond

The past few days have been really busy but oh-so-great. Saturday there was another party, although this one was just a dinner party and didn't last quite as long as the last one. It wasn't as drunken of a party either, but there was still a lot of wine going around. I think Phillip had a little too much because when the desserts were brought out, a crème caramel was set near him, and it was announced that Sophie made it. He then proceeded to talk to the crème caramel, calling it Sophie and making faces at it. This honestly lasted for about 5 or 10 minutes. It was sooooooo funny, and we were all falling off our chairs laughing.
Phillip and Marie Laure were so nice and let us take their car for the weekend so we could go sight seeing. It's a massive 9-seater van (massive here, where the roads fit a small car and a half), and because Pete is the only one who has his international driver's license, he was the one to drive it. Now let's remember that in Australia, they drive on the other side of the car, on the other side of the road, and go clockwise (rather than counter clock-wise) in traffic circles. All this added to the fact that the van barely fit on the road, the first while was really interesting. I was sitting on the right side of the van, and I was constantly yelling out when he was about to hit a curb. There was even one time where he got within about 2 centimeters of a cyclist. His driving drastically improved after about the first hour, and we were well on our way. We parked in a town about 20 minutes from Mont St Michel called Pontorson, and we found a hotel where we would stay the night. We explored around the town a little, which had a fair amount of shops and bakerys, and then continued on to the Mount.
Mont St Michel is an island, or more of a giant rock in the English Channel off the coast of Normandy. On top of the island, and abbey was built in the 10th century, and a village gradually followed around the base of the abbey. It's become famous for it's dramatic appearance, it's monks, and it's tides: When the tide is out, it's completely surrounded by sand, but to walk on the sand, it's highly recommended you go with a guide because there's lots of quick sand, and every year people die there. When the tide comes in, it comes "at the speed of a galloping horse", so it's important you don't go walking around high tide. It's also important that you get your car from the parking lot before high tide. The water reaches all the way up to the island, and the guide said there are always cars and tour buses floating around at high tide. At the Chateau Monfreville, everyone talked about Mont St Michel and how great it is. Here in Mayenne, everyone talked about Mont St Michel and how great it is. Naturally, I was really excited about our trip to Mont St Michel. When we got close, we could see it in the distance: a massive mountain coming out of nowhere. The anticipation built as we approached it. Once we got to the parking lot, a short walk from the Mount, I became a little unnerved. There were hundreds of people walking from their cars to the Mount in the sea of silver. Hundreds of tourists. When we got inside the gates, I was greeted with tacky tourist shop after tacky tourist shop with things like plastic key-chains, Mont St Michel mugs, plates, cookies, wine, T-shirts, etc, etc, etc. Walking through the village (all shops and hotels just for tourists now-- no one actually lives there) was elbow to elbow with tourists the whole way up to the abbey, and thouroughly unpleasant. Once we got to the abbey, there was an 8€ fee to get in, although that included a free guided tour, so it wasn't quite so bad. If it wasn't for the tour, the place would have been an absolute waste of time. The guide explained about the construction of the abbey, the purpose of all the rooms, dropped in a few fun facts, and pointed out things we would never have noticed without a guide. Afterwards, I appreciated it a lot more, but if you ever decide to go, I would recommend you drive by it, take a few pictures, and continue on your way.
Monday morning after breakfast at the hotel, we packed our things and drove about an hour to St Malo, a Medieval town on the beach. It was also really busy here, but it was busy with locals, not tourists. We had to park a fair way from the walls of the town, but we walked to it barefoot on the beach. The weather was absolutely gorgeous, and we stopped a few times to get photos of the crystal-blue water, and the surrounding islands that all had Medieval castles on them. Once we got to the town, we walked along the perimeter of the wall and could see out almost forever. Afterwards, we walked around the town and browsed at the hundreds of shops, patisseries, and homemade ice cream shops. The trip that had almost seemed like a waste of time and money after Mont St Michel took a turn today, and I was really glad to have spent half a day at St Malo.
At around 2 o'clock, we got back in the van and headed to Dinan, picturesque village built in the 15th century. All the buildings are those timber houses that for me represent the sterotypical French village, and remind me of the village in Beauty and the Beast. We walked around, took some pictures, looked at the shops, and ate more ice cream (chestnut, litchey nut, salty caramel...mmmm). This finished off our weekend, and we got back in the van for a 3 hour drive back to St Ouen des Toits. About halfway though, we were driving on the freeway, and past a sign advertising the biggest Medival castle in the world. Then we got to a town called Fougères, and there it was-- unmistakable. We had to park, walk around and take pictures, but because it was already a bit past 7pm, the castle was closed, and we couldn't see the inside.
Tuesday we started designing and planting a garden from scratch. We made a circle in the middle where we're going to make a really tall tipi out of sticks and plant creeping flowers around it. Then we have 4 paths that branch out from the circle, making a plus sign. All the veggies are planted within the quadrants in rows spread out like rays of sunshine. I've made Marie-Laure promise to send me pictures once it's finished and grown in a little, because, unfortunately, I won't be able to see the finished product. The evening was really exciting because when we went to round up the cows for milking, there was an extra calf just sitting in the grass. One of the cows was pregnant, and had her calf that afternoon! It couldn't even stant up yet, and I made sure to take a few photos.
Wednesday's milking was equally, if not more exciting than Tuesday's. Phillip and I had to catch the 3 calfs that were in the field so we could put them with the older calfs, who stay in a pen on the farm. Once they're 3 weekd old, they seperate them from the mother because they start to take all her milk. Once they're in the pen, we give them the milk ourselves, only in a smaller quantity. Phillip gave me a rope, and we walked in the field towards the first calf. As it started to run away, Phillip caught it by it's hind legs, and I just stood there laughing as he played wheelbarrown with it. He started yelling for me to give him the rope, and we got it around the neck just in time. The other 2 were really hard to catch, and we had to corner them in another area. It was really dramatic with the calfs kicking in all directions and sticking out their purple tongues as they bleated really loudly. It was a great way to finish off the day, and we came in for dinner extra dirty, extra tired, and extra hungry.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

A day full of variety...

Today started out great. I was up at 7am to help Marie-Laure prepare the bread and the oven for this afternoon. Early in the morning the day of the baking, a big fire is built inside the oven, and left to continually burn for about 5 hours. When the bread is ready to be put in, all the logs and ashes and bits of coal are removed, the oven is quickly cleaned out with a wet coth on a stick, and the bread is put in. It stays so hot that it cooks all the bread, and Marie-Laure said you can even cook things in it later in the evening it's still so hot. There's a guy that came a bit later that does most of the work with the bread, and I helped him shape the loafs, add nuts, chocolate chips and fruit to some, and roll others in sesame and poppy seeds. Then we put all 61Kg (Almost 130 pounds) of bread in the wood burning oven as fast as possible so as little heat as possible could escape. They bake and sell all their bread in a building just next to their house, and inside they have a giant wood-burning oven. I absolutely loved helping with the bread, and I'm excited yo do it again on Friday, even though they said it's harder on Fridays because there are more orders, and we will also make some different bread that needs to be kneaded by hand (they have a machine that does it otherwise). After lunch I went with Phillip in the tractor to see him cut wheat and grass for hay, and then I went with Jean-Yves (the farm hand) and helped him build three gates out of logs and barbed wire. Just before dinner I helped milk the cows, and I'm almost able to do it on my own-- I herded them all into the barn with the help of their sheep dog, Lalou, and once Marie-Laure got me started (with the many levers and buttons), things went pretty smoothly. Except, of course, for the 2 cows that shit all over my clothes right near the end. The cows are on a big step in front of us so it's easier to attatch the suckers (what I call the milkers that you attatch to the cow). Their poo is really liquidy, and comes out in a big arc, like a fountain. I wasn't quite able to move out of the way fast enough when one of them started to let go, and as soon as that one finished and I moved back, another one went off. It's ok, it only took a hot shower and an intense cycle in the wshing machine to solve that problem.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Good Times at St Ouen des Toits

Two days ago I arrived at St Ouen des Toits (Seh whe day twa) in Mayenne, and first impressions were ok. Just ok. Marie-Laure and Phillipe, the hosts, were really nice. The house was a little messy, but they do have a 5 year-old boy with Down syndrome and a 6 year-old girl, so it's understandable. The one thing that I don't like so much about this place is the fact that I have to share my room with the 6 year-old girl. I have a little bed in the corner, and a small place on the floor where I can put my suitcase. Nowhere to put my clothes, or any of my belongings for that matter. (That will change this afternoon though, because I plan on cleaning up the room a little and I'll put away a lot of her toys that are scattered all over the surfaces in the room.) Dinner was a little awkward because it was me, Marie-Laure, Phillip, Nathan (the 5-year-old), Manon (the 6-year-old), and Sylvan (their 22 year old son) , their other older daughter (whose name I can't remember) and their girlfriend and boyfriend, who were staying over for the family reunion. Phillip and Marie-Laure had finished and put the younger kids to bed, so I was left with the 4 others, who made no attempt to make conversation with me, and who kept laughing at all these jokes that I didn't understand.
Yesterday morning I got up at 8:30 and Phillip showed me how to milk the cows. It was really interesting, but I don't think I would want to have it as a career and do it twice a day, everyday. At 11, we all got into the van to go to a big family get-together: it was one of Marier-Laure's brother's birthday, and the entire family, about 45 people, were having a big party. At first, it was soooo awkward because I didn't know anyone, and the only talking I did with people were brief conversations about why I was in France and what my plans were. That all changed when we sat down for the big lunch. I started talking to people around me, they got me to taste different wines and cheeses, and we got a few others to come around us when the cake and champagne started being served. Sylvan and his girlfriend came around, and then we all went ouside to play a game with metal disks. One person starts off by throwing a smaller disk onto the plank, and then everyone has to try and throw their 2 disks as close as possible to the small disk. It got really competitive for a while, but that eventually petered out, and we all just stood around listening to music and drinking beer. I got to know the other people that were closer to my age, and we all talked and drank and ate French food until 12:30 in the morning. Everyone (even the adults) were opening beer after beer, cider after cider, bottle of wine after bottle of wine, and insisted that I drink as much as they did. They went on and on about how it's part of the French culture to drink all the time, and how I should experience this French culture since I'm in France. We had so much fun, and I went from standing on my own in the corner to being in the center of all the action because I'm the "exotique", and I have "des beaux yeux et une belle sourire". All the people my age were going to stay over night at the house, and they begged me to stay when I said I was leaving with Marie-Laure and Phillip. I was absolutely exhausted, and declined their offer, because I knew I would probably get about an hour of sleep if I stayed.