I chose to go to France mainly because it was familiar, and I knew people there. I’d studied French for seven years, and I’d visited twice during my high school summers. I spent most of that time living with a lovely host family near Marseille, where I was really able to practice the language. My French got pretty good for an American, but I’m telling you, that particular language is really freaking difficult to pronounce. I still mess up all the time. And I still have lots of trouble understanding people when they speak quickly. And forget jokes – they all go right over my head. So, I’m not fluent – I hope to be, someday – but I really try my best to learn new words every day.
The south of France truly looks like a never-ending postcard. There’s something about the sunlight that’s absolutely perfect. Fields of lavender and sunflowers, sunny olive groves, dry yellow mountains, and the Mediterranean Sea – honestly, it’s breathtaking. My old host family, who I hadn’t seen since high school, made me feel right at home in the small village of Grans. We hung out by the pool and ate endless apératifs (French people love food and I love them for it), and we went on a day trip to Chateau D’If, which is like the Alcatraz of Marseille. It was fascinating to learn about how the prisoners were treated according to their personal status and wealth. People could basically buy themselves a nicer prison cell if they had the money – perhaps with a window for a lovely view of the Mediterranean. Everyone else had to just rot in the dungeons.
After a brief but wonderful visit with my host family in Grans, I took the train to Périgueux to start my first Workaway job – helping out on a homestead in the middle of the countryside in the Dordogne. For those who don’t know, Workaway is a website through which you can find work-exchanges of any type in pretty much any country. Basically, you get free room and board in exchange for any kind of work, from childcare to olive harvesting. You generally don’t make any money, but you hardly spend anything, either, so it’s a great way to travel on a budget.
Pretty much anyone who has done a lot of work exchanges can tell you at least one horror story about them, but I couldn’t have been any luckier with my first Workaway. The hosts were fabulous, my fellow volunteers were wonderful, and the food was delicious beyond words. The countryside was stunningly gorgeous, and I ate wild plums and blackberries all day long. That said, the actual work was really hard, and I truly earned my keep here. Our task was to build a wall out of misshapen stones and lime mortar, which looked pretty simple when you watched someone else do it, but it was extremely hard. We had to mix the lime in a cement mixer, put dozens of heavy stones in a wheelbarrow, run all the wheelbarrows back and forth a thousand times, and we had to make sure the stones all fit together the right way, which you can only learn through practice. We did all of this under the scorching August sun, for five hours every morning.
It took me absolutely forever to get the hang of building this wall the right way. I felt so stupid for having such a hard time, since the concept seemed simple enough. I even spilled lime into my shoe and it started eating away at my skin – literally, I had a chemical burn that didn’t go away for a couple of weeks. I mean, it happens. But we made some good progress on that wall, and despite the fact that I complained endlessly about it, I did have kind of a good time.
When we weren’t working, we went on super long walks through the countryside. It felt like a dream. We also went swimming in the river on hot days, and we had lovely bonfires at night where we drank a bottle of wine each and told funny stories and looked at the stars. It was hard to even imagine a more beautiful place to be.
Possibly my favorite thing about being here was the outdoor concerts in the countryside. We went camping at a little venue called Renamont, where we ate hot dogs and drank beer on the beach. There was a local jam band performing and we danced the night away with all the French folks until we were literally crying with happiness. I got a lot of random hugs that night. Then I puked on a bonfire. It was a wonderful, wonderful night in the middle of nowhere and I felt so lucky that I got to go.
Another weekend, on our day off, we went to Périgueux, a small city. It’s absolutely lovely, and I liked it much better than other huge European metropolises I’d visited. We walked around in the sunshine, visited the cathedral, went to a thousand pâtisseries, ate a fancy lunch, and admired all the people dressed up for Vintage Days. I’d highly recommend a visit to this relaxed, charming little place. I thought one day was just fine to marvel at all the loveliness and eat a few too many pastries.
I was extremely hesitant to leave France. Everything about it was just so nice, and I had gotten very comfortable at my Workaway house. I purposefully “forgot” to buy a bus ticket, so I extended my time there by a few days, but then I decided I just needed to suck it up and move on. My next stop was Spain – I was majorly scared to go there, because I was under the impression that I didn’t know any Spanish. But I spent forty euros on a cab just to get to the bus station (there was no other way to get there in the middle of the night), and made the overnight journey across the border all by myself, not having a clue what I was getting myself into. I almost cried on the bus because I already missed the south of France so much, but my adventure continued, and even more wonderful things were to come.