1 May 2013

The Summer I Found Myself

This is one of my favourite stories to tell, and so I thought, ‘why not share it here?’In the summer of 2011, I signed up to volunteer for 2+ weeks at a remote vegetable/fruit farm in the Languedoc-Rousillon region (south of France) via WWOOF France. Last year, I wrote a post describing the beautiful farm where I stayed, Les Trois Moulins.In summary: I got kicked out of the farm. After just two nights.

People always ask me, ‘WHY? HOW?’ What did you DO?’ with immense curiosity. Here’s how.

When I arrived at the rather rural Castelnaudary train station, Blanche, the woman who owned the farm, came to pick me up with her car. From the moment we met, I knew she took a certain disliking to me. I could tell by the way she looked at me and by her body language. You know when you just KNOW?

She clearly wasn’t interested in me or in getting to know me. I endured a super awkward car ride that lasted 20 minutes. Nevertheless, I filled my mind with only positive thoughts and convinced myself that she simply wasn’t the talkative type.

When the car pulled up in the driveway, she got out and.. left me there. Again, no matter.

“I have arms and legs.. it’s fine I’ll carry all my bags up myself!”

I was then distracted and struck by how eccentric and pretty the whole place was (click here for more). I met Bernard, her French/Moroccan husband. He had been a chef for over 30 years and was quite the quirky man. He was friendly and funny and warm, unlike Blanche the iron woman.

I felt slightly disappointed that there were no other volunteers like myself at the farm. BUT, after unloading my things in the bedroom upstairs I sauntered down to get familiar with the house and surroundings; and Bernard introduced me to a German guy called Axel.

Axel was sort of a long-term volunteer who helped out at the farm in exchange for food, water, and electricity. He was a nomad. He lived in a caravan happily planted on a plot of land next to the farmhouse with…… his donkey, with whom he had travelled over 10,000km through Europe on foot!!

He also had quite a bushy beard and so I couldn’t help thinking of him as ‘Jesus’ in my mind…

Anyway, Axel was so friendly and accommodating, you would think that HE was the host. He showed me around the whole area and pointed out important things I should know. I met the two resident cats, the dog, and the old horse who lived close by.

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After my ‘orientation’ was over, I got changed into some bathers (it was a sizzling 35 degrees celcius) and went along with Axel to take his donkey for a walk up and over a nearby hill. It was fun! I’d never walked a donkey before..

Eventually we reached a medium-sized lake. It wasn’t the most picturesque lake, but good enough for a quick swim while the donkey grazed on.. dried up shrubbery nearby. In that heat, getting into the water was like heaven!

On the way back, Axel told me more about his donkey (whose name I’ve clearly forgotten..so I’ll just call him Donkey) and the places they had been together. We had a nice chat about some serious things (like his decision to live nomadically) and some nonsense things (donkey poop). According to him, all he needs is himself and Donkey. He later showed me the little enclosed area he had built for Donkey near his caravan, and how Donkey would sometimes be cheeky and try to break through the fence… which was not even a real fence unless you consider two horizontal strings a fence, haha.

DAY 2

The next morning, as instructed by Blanche, I woke up and got ready very early. Had a rather awkward breakfast in the kitchen where she expected me to know where everything was. Luckily, I was saved by a cheerful Bernard who joined in soon.

I spent my first day working on one of the vegetable patches with everyone.. and boy was it hard work.  Hard, sweaty work. And who knew there were such a thing as gardening gear? Special rubbery shoes, gloves, hats, etc.

By the end of the afternoon, I was freaking knackered. I felt totally beaten down by the blazing sunshine. Like the sun had taken the form of a giant HOT shoe and stamped on me. ME, the sun-lover..

Anyway, sensing that I must’ve been a bit lonely without other young people around, Axel suggested that we walk to town to grab a drink, with Bernard. By ‘town’, it literally means one street, with an all-in-one cafe/bar/restaurant, one shop, and some essential amenities. It was the kind of place where everyone knew each other.. and their families. The cafe owner was really friendly and quite the entertaining clown 😉

^Ever so smiley Bernard with my toys, Goliath and Dino.
Dinner was served on the farmhouse terrace later and included wild boar that was hunted the day before. With Bernard’s superb culinary skills, food at the house was always delicious.

We ate and drank and talked and stared into the night sky. As Blanche was rather cold and Bernard spoke little English, I spoke mostly with Axel. He liked to read a lot. He enjoyed the sound of thunder. He liked cold showers. He told me a bit more about his caravan and his nomadic life. He didn’t know where he was going next – I loved this fact about him. I was slightly envious. The four of us also shared a joint (this is an honest blog!), and so I have to say: it was a very nice night.

DAY 3 – KICKED-OUT DAY

On this morning, the men had gone away with the car to do some shopping. It was about 10am and I was working on the same vegetable patch, when Blanche comes up to me and abruptly tells me that she wanted me to leave.

In shock, I asked her why. She said some rather odd things, like ‘I don’t think you’re enjoying it’, and ‘You’re not doing it right’. I figured that they were all excuses for the simple fact that she didn’t like me, so I agreed that I would go by the afternoon (her terms). But who knows, maybe she was right – maybe I WAS really terrible at farm work! When the men returned, I could hear them having an argument with Blanche, questioning her actions. It was a little dramatic, and traumatic.

I admit I did cry a little in my room. I felt dejected, confused, and I didn’t know the answer to the most important question: WHERE TO GO/WHAT TO DO NOW?? 

My return flight was two weeks away and I had never really travelled solo before.

I logged into the one house computer with an internet connection and started researching. I emailed my close friends and looked at nearby farms I might be able to move to, but without much luck.

I later found comfort in Axel’s caravan. He’d invited me there so we could discuss the situation privately. He said he was sorry that this happened and that he was also as puzzled as I was.

Sensing that I was deflated, he started pulling out various maps and spread them all out on the table. I noticed that he kept a LOT of maps with him (well of course). We considered a number of options: I could travel farther inland up to Toulouse and then Bordeaux. Or I could go the coast, to Narbonne, down through Perpignan into Spain. He shared with me places he had been before where you could stay for free – such as a yoga/meditation retreat somewhere.. or a monastery. He knew heaps of things and lots of names of places I hadn’t even heard of! He was so kind, calm, and encouraging.

As I listened to him talk about my options, I realised something. I realised that.. THIS WAS AN OPPORTUNITY.

Suddenly, it became exciting. It was still a bit sh*t, but exciting. I saw the bright side.

I was free. I didn’t have to spend every day doing farm work. 
I could go off an EXPLORE!


^It was just you and I from here on, Goliath!

That afternoon, I packed my bags and said goodbye. Bernard gave me a long hug and whispered, ‘i’m really so sorry’. I told him I wouldn’t forget all those nifty cooking tips he’d given me. I thanked Axel being such a wonderful presence in my short-lived farm experience and wished him lots of luck on his next journey, wherever it might lead to.

At Castelnaudary train station, I politely hugged Blanche goodbye and thanked her for having me.

THE NEXT TWO WEEKS

I spent the first night in nearby Carcassonne.

^I went on a canal cruise and stopped to take pictures at a vineyard.

^I stopped in Marseilles for a while.

^I ended up in beautiful Nice, where I was fortunate enough to stay at the most fantastic hostel, Villa St Exupéry Gardens (thank you Ulf for having me).

^I learnt how to bake macarons (now a forgotten skill).

  

^I went canyoning in the Verdon Gorge (amazing).

^I went swimming by the Promenade des Anglais

^I made a day trip to Eze Village, one of the prettiest little towns in Europe.

^I went scuba diving at St Jean Cap Ferrat.

^I made friends and partied with three Australian girls.

^I sunbathed and swam in Cap D’Ail, a cute little beach just west of Monaco.

^I visited Monaco for the second time in my life.

^I finally got to see the leaning tower of Pisa.

^I fell in love with Florence (can you believe this is part of the riverbank there?).

^I met Tania and Ana, two South Americans whom I asked to please share a 1kg Bistecca Fiorentina (Florentine steak) with me.

^I went to Siena and watched the town prepare for Il Palio

^I climbed up a hill in San Gimignano, which was also home to ‘the best gelato in the world

Thank You Axel

For looking after me on the farm, and for encouraging and inspiring me to live free and challenge myself. Thanks, for letting me see that it was okay to travel alone and live by your own rules. Those two spontaneous weeks marked my transition into a better, more awesome person. It gave me the courage to step out of a long, unhappy relationship – in fact, I did this on the day I returned – and put myself back on the path to becoming the real ME.
You were definitely the most interesting person I’ve ever met while travelling. I mean c’mon.. a caravan, donkey, and a big beard?? Hehe.
Hmm, I guess I should thank Blanche for kicking me out of the farm. It was one of the best things that’s  ever happened to me 🙂

// This post is an entry in the “Win a Trip to TBEX Contest” sponsored by WeHostelsWebjet, and TBEX.

19 Comments

Hannah |

Wow girl what an adventure, just goes to show that every cloud has a silver lining right? Looks like being kicked off the farm was the best thing to have happened to you. The south of france is an area I know little about. I’ve been to Nice and Monte Carlo briefly but I’d love to see more and these photos make it look beautiful. This Axel sounds like an awesome chat to get to know when travelling

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Krissy |

Wow thats def an amazing opportunity you got there! I dont think I could do all those things alone (eg volunteering at some random place!)…I’m way too shy!
You’re very lucky you’ve gotten to experience so many amazing things in the world. I am truly envious.

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Jenna Tinney |

Such an amazing story! Axel sounds like the most interesting person indeed and even though at the time it seemed like getting kicked off the farm was bad it seems like it was the best thing that happened to you! Congrats on winning our contest to TBEX! Enjoy Toronto 🙂

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hollypop |

totally love your photos (as always!)
how lovely to meet such a charming character as Axel!
i can see in his photo that he is so warm!
i am travelling alone because of plans that fell through with a boy. at first i was scared but now i am really excited! i probably never would have booked a trip to europe all by myself but i bet it will be amazing.
i hope i can muster the courage to invite people to eat with me as you did!

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Winnie |

This was such an interesting read! I remember you mentioning this before and reading a detailed account makes me realise how rubbish it was to get kicked out after a day….but then you ended up experiencing a pretty awesome holiday and travel adventure! I admire your determination and travelling on your lonesome!

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jessicajhill.com |

What an awesome story! Making the most out of a strange situation almost always results in a positive outcome. Congrats on winning the TBEX award – you deserve it.

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siangs |

A blessing in disguise! I have met many inspiring people during my travels too, and Axel sounds like a gem. I’m actually thinking of WWOOFing in France this summer, so fingers crossed I won’t get kicked out of any farms, or if I do, then I hope I meet someone like Axel!

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Mike |

Beards are a great thing. They add character and a more laid back approach in most cases. Great post young lady. Loved all the experiences and the Donkey story! My beard is white now! Ha!
Mike

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Buddhaphish |

A lovely inspiring tale, thanks for sharing 🙂

Will be heading to Istanbul and Germany in about a month’s time and will think of your story if things go awry 😉

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Anja |

And Yishyene, could I also use the pic with Goliath from here? And the one with Goliath and Dino? Ofcourse I link back to you!

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Anja |

Great post and pictures, sweetie! And what an adventure. Very brave of you; well done. Understandable that you won the contest with this! I was in Sienna just before they were having the Pallio as well;-).

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Life's a shoe |

wow this is such an inspiring post and story! i’ve never traveled like that alone and your photos look so beautiful! I really miss Europe

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