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.
- 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 included: one-armed chainsawing high in a chestnut tree over a steep slope; molestation from 70 year old host; verbal abuse from other host.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
…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.
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…
For Paul and Sandy in Normandy:
Your first tiling job.
And the chicken house:
And then, recently, for Paul #2, in Aquitaine:
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…!”