Getting Work Experience Through Work Exchanges: The Good, The Bad, & The Odd

Date: 03-14-13

Location: Couture, FRANCE

Recently, a friend sent you an email including this quote:

“Some travel forever in hope and are seriously disappointed.  Others come to accept that the process of traveling in itself offers, if not fulfillment, then relief from the feeling that they should be feeling fulfilled.” —Look To Windward, by Scottish author Ian Banks

After sharing it, he commented, “And since your’e not comfortable unless you’re traveling, it made me hope that’s not what’s driving you.”

You responded, “It is not what drives me.  My goals are what drive me.  And my goal is to see the whole world, among others.  When I am sitting in one place too long, I feel like I am wasting time not accomplishing my goal.  Thus, I have secondary goals to work on, while I bide my time on the first–i.e., learn new skills, improve my physical/mental condition.  I am frustrated by having been rained in for four months.  The cold and the rain of this trip are oppressive, and at times, I am frustrated because I am not making progress with any of my goals.  And then a day later, I get a project that helps me improve.”

If you aren’t busy seeing new places, and the rain/cold/snow prevent you from improving your physical/mental condition, then you’d better be working on a stimulating project–something that you’ve never done before, or perhaps something in which you desire more experience.

One of the reasons you enjoy work exchanges is because they are a stress-free way to get work experience in things you would otherwise never experience.  Since you started backpacking, you have worked in:

  • A B&B/yoga studio/psychotherapist’s office/sustainable living project – You did everything from burying a pig carcass, laying decks and floors; to chopping timber; to felling trees; making compost heaps; landscaping; stable cleaning; animal lassoing; animal shelter construction, fencing, rock wall building, floor oiling; researching organic food and certification, water privatization  and other ecological issues; vegetarian cooking/baking, serving, and cleaning for retreat groups; space cake baking; website design; brainstorming and game design, camp counseling, and scores of other things.   Injuries/accidents/hazards included: potential contamination from the carcass, falling through a rotten deck, busting open your face after a piece of wood ricocheted off your axe, pneumonia, flu, food poisoning, strep throat, substance overdose, strained back, possibly chipped elbow, missed box jump.

    Had to hog-tie Piggy in order to drag her out of her house and into the hole that took hours to dig with a dodgy spade and a rake (for the stones).

    Had to hog-tie Piggy in order to drag her out of her house and into the hole that took hours to dig with a dodgy spade and a rake (for the stones).

  • A mould manufacturing company – web design, product inventory, product photos and graphic design, sales consulting, cold calling.  Injuries/accidents/hazards included: concrete dust inhalation.
  • Private home – installing permeable membranes and insulation for a new home. Injuries/accidents/hazards included: Fiber glass inhalation and skin irritation.
  • A small certified organic farm and farmers market – weeding, harvesting, crating, cleaning and washing, truck loading, market stall set-up. Injuries/accidents/hazards includedone-armed chainsawing high in a chestnut tree over a steep slope; molestation from 70 year old host; verbal abuse from other host.

    Certified Organic - AB

    Certified Organic – AB

  • Private home – digging, watering, weeding for an Egyptologist.  Injuries/accidents/hazards included: None, other than boredom.
  • A vegan macrobiotic kitchen – washing, peeling, slicing, chopping, grinding, and processing kilos upon kilos of vegetables for groups as large as 70 people; plating; serving; washing up; as well as gardening; trench digging; and hours and hours of onion peeling alone in the greenhouse.  Injuries/accidents/hazards included: Stepped on a hornet’s nest, stung to bits, leg swelled, you cried a lot because it was itchy.

    One of the dinners.

    One of the dinners.

  • Sustainable living project in Spain – Trench digging, timber, weeding, rock hauling, cow-shit plastering, straw-baling and building, cooking, salvaging half-rotten vegetables.  Injuries/accidents/hazards included: Smashed your face on the corner of a table after drunk-diving toward a mattress in a pitch-dark room.

    The community center you plastered.

    The community center you plastered.

  • Raw-foods holistic cancer center – flooring, ceiling paneling, plastering, fencing, tree felling, dragging logs up steep mountain slopes, learning about cancer and raw food cuisine.  Injuries/accidents/hazards included: fell through a ceiling, kicked down a door, dead lifted a car out of a ditch.

    The room you had to work in.  Fell through the ceiling (the floor of that crawl space).

    The room you had to work in. Fell through the ceiling (the floor of that crawl space).

  • A small organic homestead specializing in jams, herbs, and pestos – Learned about anarchy, learned about wild edible plants and herbs, learned how to can and how to lacto-ferment, collected and dried your own tea leaves, made your own herbes de Provence, learned, learned, learned. Injuries/accidents/hazards included: kneeling in red fire ants, scratched yourself to tears every night for a week; roommates with a bat.

    Kept a fire going for days just to make a few bags of tea.  Dried them in this room.

    Kept a fire going for days just to make a few bags of tea. Dried them in this room.

  • Organic vegetable farm in France – weeding, soil turning, harvesting, and overdosing on cherries and strawberries.  Injuries/accidents/hazards included: Sun exposure in fields, potential for look-ee-loos while you showered on an outdoor platform at the edge of the field, too many berries.

    Mmmmm, berries!

    Mmmmm, berries!

These experiences have been as rich as your on-the-move hitch hiking and couch surfing sagas, if not more so.  Certainly, you have learned more about cooperating with your hosts (bosses) and fellow volunteers (co-workers) in these situations than you have in all your other paid work experience in retail, bookkeeping, libraries, bar-tending, demolition, construction, knife and newspaper sales, and personal training.

You have dealt with frustrating and/or abusive hosts (namely, Ronna and Honore in France, and Juan in Spain; Ronna was high-strung and constantly screaming and telling you how you were doing everything wrong, and then became enraged and argued with you over her claim (which you disputed) that “bananas are bad for you;” and Honore, the old man with few teeth and a slobbering mouth, who kissed and grabbed you all the time, and loved to hug a loaf of bread against his hairy, sweaty chest before handing you slices.

The culprit.

The culprit.

…and bizarre volunteers (including a bulimic girl who lived in a tent out in the rain and ate nothing but brown rice and sat beating a drum for three consecutive days, and who would later purposely vomit on another volunteer’s bed; a carnie/fire spinner would be found rocking himself and sobbing in a dark room behind a door and would later chainsaw into his own leg; a totally ineffectual gender-queer couple in which the male majored in fashion and prided himself on his soft hands, and in which the hairy-legged girl would always “big spoon” and talk down to her “wife”; a grown man who claimed to have attended an all-girl’s school and would later grope your thigh under the table at a pub; an adorable but tragically anorexic girl who used veganism as an eating disorder; a 70-year old former female truck driver with untold dirty jokes; a Swedish girl who’d recently gone through some serious physical and sexual trauma, which was the first and only thing she talked about; darling Abby, from Liverpool, who was just… utterly…lost, but could queef on command.

The very talented Abby.

The very talented Abby.

Oh yes!  Work exchanges, though a frustrating default in cold conditions, are truly marvelous.  You certainly have accomplished a lot, and have certainly used this work experience to fill out your resume whenever the occasion suited you.

But there was a time in 2011 when you told yourself you were pretty much “over the whole wwoofing thing.”  After all, there’s only so much composting, weeding, landscaping, and vegetable picking one can do before you’ve plateaued.  And if there’s one thing you can’t stand, Maria Stevens, it is running in place.

If you’re not improving, then you’re annoyed.  You’re trapped.  You are in agony.  There is so little time and so much to do!

When you were much younger (still in middle school, you believe) you had the opportunity to attend a Commencement at your former Scientology boarding school in Sheridan, Oregon.  The young man graduating, Adam, gave a speech that was far more impactful than, say, Anderson Cooper’s speech at your own college graduation.

Adam talked about minutes.  When you’re young, you think you have all the time in the world.  You play, you enjoy, you hang out, and you procrastinate.  As the years go by and your deadlines come up, you realize how precious your time is.  How if you use every little spare minute to do something productive, you will get where you want to go.  But you can’t waste your minutes.  Minutes add up.  He made sure to use his minutes wisely, and he now was graduating, having accomplished everything he’d set out to do, but still always wishing he had more time.

…or something like that.

But anyway, here you are, waiting out one of the longest winters of your life.  It was a winter that started last September, when you are Katie quit your jobs.  You went to rainy Seattle and waited.  You started hormone injections and waited.  You had surgery and waited.  You went to San Diego and waited.  Went to Ireland and waited.  Went to Normandy and waited.  Went to the Aquitaine and waited.  Waited, mostly, for the rain, the snow, and the cold to stop raining, stop colding, and stop snowing on you all the time!

For you, there has been nothing new.  Squatting in Seattle is the same old story; Ireland, your favorite place, is the same old story; volunteering in France–you’ve accumulated probably 5 months of that by now.  Same old story.

But there have been perks.  Your focus on type of work has changed.  Were it not for these more stimulating and complex projects, you might not be writing this entry at all.  But for memory’s sake:

For Linda at the Wildwood B&B in Seattle – “I have this great idea for panels!  I just hope we can cover up the big green strip of wallpaper!”  After cutting, gluing, priming, caulking, sanding, and painting…

How to fake wall panels.

How to fake wall panels.  These ran along the hallways and staircase.

For Paul and Sandy in Normandy:

Dig, dig, dig through the mud!

Dig, dig, dig through the mud!  Ground where you are standing would later liquefy, causing major problems.

Geo-textile and a bunch of rocks, so that you didn't end up pouring concrete into a mud-bog.

Geo-textile and a bunch of rocks, so that you didn’t end up pouring concrete into a mud-bog.

All delivered by wheel-barrow.  Sheet metal "boardwalk" laid down so you didn't get tripped up in the mud.

All delivered by wheel-barrow. Sheet metal “boardwalk” laid down so you didn’t get tripped up in the mud.

Your first tiling job.

Your first time tiling.

Your first time tiling.  Look at them lines!  Couldn’t have done it without Katie.

After the grout.

After the grout.

And the chicken house:

Food storage shelves, demi-wall, door...

Food storage shelves, demi-wall, door…

Happy chickens after their first night--laid 6 eggs for you, which you got to keep and eat.

Happy chickens after their first night–laid 6 eggs for you, which you got to keep and eat.

The pop hole and perimeter fence you and Katie had to throw up.

The pop hole (made by Katie) and perimeter fence the two of you had to throw up in a jiffy.

And then, recently, for Paul #2, in Aquitaine:

Framed a few walls with salvaged materials.

Framed a few walls like this with salvaged materials–frustrating in the lumpy grass.

Had to put them in place around this dilapitated carvan.

Had to put them in place around this dilapitated carvan.

A lack of materials made it impossible to add more posts, making the siding tricky.

A lack of materials made it impossible to add more posts, making the siding tricky.

The siding was also salvaged and half rotten.  This is the wall the boys helped with.

The siding was also salvaged, irregular in shape, and half rotten. This is the wall the boys helped with.

And the walls that the girls did.  Scarcely a board to spare!

And the walls that the girls did. Scarcely a board to spare at the end!

You have to admit, you’re pretty chuffed.  And after writing this post, you have consoled yourself immensely.  The work exchanges have been incredible, and you know that you can Katie will look back at this winter one day and laugh and say, “Remember when…!”

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Categories: Belgium, France, Ireland, Spain, Workaway/Wwoof | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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3 thoughts on “Getting Work Experience Through Work Exchanges: The Good, The Bad, & The Odd

  1. You just get better and better. It’s probably against the law to admire that so much. BTW, last month I finished registering and legalizing my new ebook publishing company – getting out of the print business after more than 25 years of shipping and warehousing bills and screwups at the book manufacturer, like putting the wrong back cover on a 10,000 copy print run. Fortunately, I can stay with Amazon as an all-ebook outfit (with print on demand for the troglodytes) – there was some hesitation at the idea at first. Wish me luck. I found a business model that depends on per-book sponsors and donors and went to Washington DC.a couple weeks ago hunting money. Found some.

    • demogirl06

      So when I want to publish something…??? My –a-hem!– “editor,” Katie, hadn’t quite delivered.

  2. Angus

    I am not upset about the fact that you didn’t mention that you also clad the inside of my new house with an air tight membrane which was the reason Katie was so warm and cosy while at mine. Sure tis de schoool of Life Tiny and you getting a Masters!!!
    Love to you both
    Gus

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