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Last summer, a group of friends and I decided that we would try and find a way to practise our French skills, travel round France, get some sun, see some places, and above all, do it on the mega-cheap. It took us no time at all to discover Wwoofing, an ingenious way for like-minded people from around the world to travel and work on organic farms in exchange for food and a bed. It works like this: you can sign up as a host or a wwoofer, and advertise for a worker, or look for work on organic farms and similar projects, in your country or abroad. Generally speaking, this is a brilliant idea. Mr Wwoof charges a small fee from each member who signs up, and from each host to advertise their farm, and then the information is released to allow contact between host and prospective wwoofer. There are plenty to choose from, and in France, we discovered projects from donkey leading and strawberry picking to manure farming and baking. All that the wwoofer is required to pay is the price of getting to the farm.
It seemed perfect. Our minds immediately conjured images of sunbathing, picking strawberries and then making jam, cycling around sunny southern French fields in our spare time, and sipping rosé after an afternoon’s relaxed work in our little farm house terrace. We began making inquiries, and finally received an email from a farm near Toulouse, which specialised in vegetable chutneys, fresh fruits and salads, homemade bread and potted meats. We checked out their website, and it seemed they had a small, traditional apartment available in half of the house for wwoofers to stay in. It looked quaint, but clean and cute, and above all, totally free. The reality was somewhat different.
We arrived in France, fresh and ready to deal with the farm work, meet the owners, and begin our holiday. The farm was owned by a Danish couple with two young girls, and they seemed friendly enough, and spoke perfect French to us which allowed us to practise; education was of course our premier interest, not the chilling wine and gourmet cheese that we assumed would come with it. We were shown our room, and horror set in. We were to stay not in the clean, sweet little flat that we had been shown online, but instead in a tiny flat next to the family part of the house, which was so derelict and bare it looked like it was uninhabitable. Dust covered everything, from the broken toilet in the corner to the pile of filthy mattresses and sheets that were filled with dead flies and mysterious yellow stains. It was so dark that in the evenings we would have to huddle around the window for light, as there was only one bare bulb on a string available to see by. There were wires poking out of the ceiling, and spiders everywhere, so big that even someone capable of keeping tarantulas as pets would have felt repulsed. We smiled, and tried to make the best of it, as the farmer pulled down a mattress and a sheet, which were covered in flies, and told us that this was where we would sleep.
We were expected to stay here whenever we were not working and eat our breakfast and dinner in here. We had a fridge and a hob, and a sink built into the wall which had no running water. In terms of food, we could take what we liked from their kitchen, but we were so limited in what we could cook, or make, that we lived off vegetable paste, stale bread, and salad for the two weeks. Even our considerable inventive cooking skills and our love of fresh food couldn’t stop this diet from becoming samey pretty soon. In terms of work, we were expected to begin work at 9am, and occasionally we finished as late as 7pm. We had been prepared to work hard, and to muck in with the family, but the living quarters were so bleak that had we not been 15km away from any form of transport out of there, and the idea of asking immediately for a lift back to train station been so unappealing, I think we might have considered leaving that night. It sounds pathetic, but it truly was so miserable that it took all our Girl Scout motivation to attempt to cheer the place up, clean away some cobwebs, and ignore the biting ants that ran riot around our little sitting area.
The work was ok; we were working in bare fields in the boiling sun, weeding huge rows of vegetables for hours on end. Occasionally we got to pick berries, or green beans, which was a nice change, but the work was fairly monotonous. The family were bizarre, and took for some reason a real dislike to us about a week in, when, we thought, we had really got into the swing of work, and were beginning to enjoy ourselves, bond as a little group, and even take pride in our work in the fields. We were nothing but polite, and never complained about the work, or the room, and we still do this day do not understand what happened to make them think suddenly so badly of us.
Despite the setbacks, we all left the farm feeling that our time there hadn’t been a waste. The sun and spiders caused general hysterics, and so much of the day was spent laughing at each other and our situation that we managed to enjoy ourselves, practise our French, get a bit of a tan and lose half a stone each by the end of the fortnight. Although our expectations were totally wrong, it wouldn’t stop me from doing it again, or from recommending it to others. We got a bad farm, we really did, but you can always make the best of it, and it really is a way of getting a true taste of pastoral life. So wwoof away, but make sure you know what you’re getting into…
By Chloë Osborne
The UoB Linguist Magazine
Guild of Students,
University of Birmingham