| In the summer of 2016, following my graduation from the University of New Mexico with a degree in creative writing, I took a solo backpacking trip to Europe. This blog is a series of personal essays and photo journals detailing that experience.
Backpacking alone was something I had always wanted to do, and the regions of the South of France and Tuscany influences on my imagination since youth. As a writer, these regions also held a strong fascination for me. During my undergraduate degree, I used my limited resources to work lower-paying jobs tutoring and volunteering on literary journals to ready myself for graduate school, rather than to study abroad. Still, I envied those who traveled to study art in Italy and France, among other places. I wanted such an opportunity myself: to walk the streets my beloved writers did, view the birthplace of the Renaissance, and devote myself to a solitary writer’s life in a place of inspiration and unparalleled (if not romanticized) beauty.
To provide myself this chance I jumped through an opportunity window provided me, put my few belonging in storage, and began saving my pennies. Most importantly, to ensure myself an economical traveling experience, I signed up for a year’s membership to Workaway and began contacting hosts. For those who are not familiar with it, Workaway is a unique way to travel the world wherein you, as a volunteer, stay in the home of a host family and exchange your time and work for lodging and accommodation. It is incredibly fair and well-tested — most Workawayers leave lengthy reviews for their hosts that you can read — though you have to do your research to find the right hosting opportunity that fits your needs and goals.
The opportunities for Workawayers are endless: you can work with the land on a farm, an orchard, an apiary, or a vineyard; you can learn various forms of animal husbandry. You can work as an au pair in any number of countries across the world, taking care of children or practicing your mother language with them, as many families so desire. You can work in a B&B in Denmark, bake bread in Portugal, grow cacao in Hawaii — the sky is truly the limit, and sometimes not even then if you want to volunteer with an airplane tour company!
Most hosts are amiable to people with no experience wanting to learn something new, but I find it is better (in terms of presenting yourself more competitively in an area everyone wants to visit like the South of France or Tuscany) to write a stellar profile clearly articulating your past work experience and your skills, and to apply to places where your abilities or expertise might be needed.
For example, I have much gardening and farming experience, as well as a professional culinary background. I have also managed many small businesses, and worked as a personal assistant. These skills greatly influenced my net of possibility, and I wrote far and wide looking for someone who needed what I offered. After many emails to and from, I ended up settling on two places to stay for the summer, each for one month.
In the South of France I stayed in a small hilltop village called Bormes-les-Mimosa, in a Provencal villa with a regionally famous flower garden. The villa itself was occasionally rented out for the summer and served as a guesthouse; Workawayers were sometimes needed for tasks like cleaning and maintenance, but mostly we were needed in the gardens. This particular exchange was five hours of work a day for lodging only — no food provided, though everyday we did have a mid-morning coffee and pastry break together. I stayed in a small apartment by myself, down by the gardens with a view of the sea, and I walked everywhere I needed to go.
In Tuscany I stayed just outside of Florence, in another small hilltop village called Certaldo, where I worked in a guesthouse converted from a 13th Century Benedictine monastery which once supplied almost all of Italy with its wine. In this exchange, for about five to eight hours a day, I worked cleaning rooms in the hostel and the guesthouse, driving guests to wine tours around the region, and performing various office management duties like admitting guests and filing paperwork. I stayed in a private apartment located in a nook of the old buildings, and was provided with a stipend for food; we (myself and the other Workawayers) rode bikes to get around the village and to and from the grocery store.
This blog could be useful for those looking to try out Workaway for themselves, or for those who want to learn more about an economical, vagabonding style of travel. For this two-month journey I carried only one small bag. I ate out at restaurants no more than twice, obtaining most of my food from outdoor markets and food co-ops; I took the train where I needed to go using the Captain Train app to find the lowest prices, or I used ride shares like BlaBlaCar, communicating with locals using WhatsApp. Since my food and lodging were mostly paid for, I averaged about $300.00 USD of spending a month, and that usually came when I stayed in hostels (as I traveled a bit around each workaway adventure to Paris, Florence, and Rome).
This blog also serves as my personal travelogue, and is a completed work of nonfiction. My goal was to write every day, to set deadlines, rigor, and routine for myself outside of a classroom setting. My goal was also to experiment with publishing, which is why I chose the blog format. I produced twenty-three personal essays on this trip, which can be read chronologically. Beyond practical value, my hope is that readers will enjoy these essays, and possibly be moved to consider their own writing adventures and projects.
2014 • French Castle Farming
| In 2014, in-between semesters finishing my bachelor’s degree in creative writing, I decided to take a few weeks out of the summer to try out the WWOOFing program. For those of you new to the acronym, WWOOF stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. Started back in the 1970’s, WWOOF is a way for people interested in farming and organic gardening (volunteers) to connect with farmers (hosts) all over the world. In exchange for 4-6 hours of work a day, volunteers are provided food and accommodation, and offered a chance to learn new skills, languages, and regional traditions and history.
As you can imagine, the opportunities with an organization like this one are endless. It really depends where in the world you want to go, what kind of work you want to do, what you want to learn, and so on. You can volunteer on dairy farms and learn animal husbandry, on an apiary or a vineyard or vegetable farm; heck, you can even volunteer in a monastery where monks brew their own ale and make their own essential oils.
One of the best things about WWOOFing is that everyone has an opportunity to travel in an affordable manner, and to see the world without merely consuming their way across it — if you can manage a plane ticket, you can embark on the truest form of a cultural exchange (even with children!).
In the past, I’d WWOOFed in my home country of America in California, New York, and my home state of New Mexico, but I’d never gone international. Since my partner, who also had past farming and WWOOFing experience, spoke fluent French, and since we both had always wanted to visit France, we decided to try our hand in Europe. This short blog details our experience volunteering at Castle Escorpain, the Chateau d’Escorpain, located in the village of Escorpain in central France, an hour or so outside of Paris. Our exchange centered around castle restoration, biodynamic farming, and peony flower production.
For those of you looking to try out WWOOFing, this blog may help you to expand your awareness of what you’re looking for in a host and in an exchange in general. For others, it may simply provide an pleasant reading experience. My intention was to capture a few of the more charming and sincere moments, and to try my hand at writing this experience. I hope you enjoy it, and please contact me if you think I can answer any of your questions as you plan your WWOOFing adventure!