Hello everyone and welcome to the fourth and final part of my Organic September series about our WWOOFing adventures. Our fourth destination was one that was arranged just one week before it happened.
Our intended host had forgotten about our impending arrival and wouldn't be in the country and so we speedily sent out some emails to local hosts offering our services as we didn't want to cut our trip short. Carolien, from Amsterdam, came to our rescue. She had a large house in Saint-Laurent-de-Gosse in the Landes department of Nouvelle-Aquitaine in southwest France. She had just closed the house up for the winter but sympathised with our predicament and agreed we could stay for a week and if things worked out, we could stay for the three weeks that we had asked for. We were so relieved to be able to continue WWOOFing and really appreciative of the chance.
When we arrived we all made our introductions and Carolien have us a tour of the property which was alongside the Adour River. It was an absolutely beautiful setting. The old house belonged to Carolien's family and she lived in a bungalow next door with her two dogs. Also living on the property were three chickens. There was a large garden at the back and then to the side, a small allotment and beyond this a small area of woodland. The garden had an enormous banana tree in the centre and was surrounded by fruit trees, nut trees and shrubs to give Carolien her privacy.
We had the house all to ourselves, we couldn't believe it: it could sleep at least ten people. There were three large bedrooms upstairs and three bathrooms, a large kitchen and dining room, two lounge areas, a utility room and a workshop! This was the most space we'd had on our trip and we laughed about how we had started our trip on a mattress in the roof space of the straw house!
Following the tour we sat outside and got to know one another and discussed what was expected of us during our stay. It was now the beginning of October and there were fewer warm days so we were told there could be a mix of both indoor and outdoor duties. Carolien was very organised and explained that there would be a routine to each day.
We would begin by getting the chickens up and out of their coop, one had a tendency to stay in if she could so we had to physically lift her out and lock the door behind her.
Carolien said that there would normally be a designated kitchen person. As it was just the two of us I put myself forward....although I wasn't entirely confident to start with. We were to have home baked bread available for breakfast. With all of our hosts breakfast was always bread and jam....and this was often dunked in coffee! Carolien had a breadmaker and so I made sure there was always a freshly baked loaf in the morning.
We had to be ready to start work at 8am in the morning and then I was to have coffee ready for everyone at 11am. We would have a short break and then return to our work and then I was to leave the workforce to make lunch at 1pm to be ready for 1.30pm. I had learned a lot about cooking during our stay in France but with our other hosts I was usually just chopping and stirring, I wasn't the ideas person! I was presented with a fridge of organic veggies, a few organic store cupboard essentials and access for what was still available in the fully organic garden (tomatoes, courgettes, squashes and herbs) and had just half an hour to create something edible. I actually surprised myself and whilst I started with lentil stews and stir fry dishes by the end I was making my own pitta breads, falafel burgers and condiments. My efforts were sometimes hampered by the mice which we would see often. They would chew their way info food bags and packets, even plastic tupperware was no match for them. They chewed their way into and out of one of my bags and Carolien said they had even eaten some of her money!
In the first week, most of the work was outdoors. I was mowing, trimming hedges, weeding, planting trees and shrubs and working in the organic veggie patch. Autumn had begun so we had started to wrap up warm for the work. The chickens and dogs were always nearby, interested in what we were doing. One of the most memorable jobs was pulling up and digging out weeds from the bases of the trees. The chickens had become confident enough to stay by my side patiently waiting to grab any insects that I disturbed.
Simon was fully equipped with a petrol strimmer in order to clear away a huge area of land that was being chocked by brambles. The allotment area and woodland area had previously been in the same condition but had been cleared by previous WWOOFers and now was kept in check by regular mowing. It was a difficult job and he was covered in scratches. He even had to climb trees to pull vines down from the branches,
The first week was great. Carolien would sometimes work with us and we were together for breaks and lunch so there were plenty of opportunities to get to know each other. Carolien still had her residence in Amsterdam and would often return there. Her job was helping set up plastic recycling systems in Africa and she was a really interesting and thoughtful person. She was also very positive, which I loved, and with our return to life in the UK looming she was a real help to me when thinking about what the future would hold for us. She was a great sounding board and told us of her mantra which was 'Great things are going to happen!' She introduced me to concepts such as transition towns and I resolved to look deeper into this on my return. We also covered many other topics of shared interest such as consumerism, meditation, education, travel and of course organic farming and the health giving properties of food.
By the end of the first week we were really pleased when Carolien said we were welcome to stay till the end of our trip. It was at this point that the weather did force us indoors for some of the workdays and we took on jobs such as painting, minor electrical jobs, patching holes in floorboards, filling holes in walls and poor Simon had the job of fitting skirting boards despite there not being a single straight line in the house!
After lunch and at weekends our time was our own and we explored a lot of the area on Carolien's rusty old bikes. The scenery in this region was stunning. There were lots of villages scattered around the nearby mountains which led to the Pyrenees. All of the houses had doors and shutters painted in Basque Red.
We had a trip to Biarritz, a seaside town popular with surfers and Bayonne, a picturesque city further along the river. We took a train to the top of a mountain called La Rhune, and managed to get lost walking to the bottom. We even drove to Spain for the day to visit San Sebastian, another beach resort surrounded by hills. Carolien even surprised us with a trip to her next door neighbour's sculpture garden which was quite a collection. They also had three minature donkeys which I then continued to visit each day.
At the end of each long day it had become darker sooner and was much colder so we would build a fire and watch films or read and have cosy nights in.
It was then time to end our trip. We thanked Carolien for being willing to accommodate us last minute but she assured us that she had enjoyed having us there too and was pleased with the work we'd done. On our return to the UK we had to start making a life for ourselves again but we were forever changed by the experience and it's one I recommend to everyone. WWOOFing is a worldwide organisation and you can do it here in the UK if you don't want to uproot your life quite so much. Hosts and workers just need to be upfront about their expectations with each other when making arrangements so that the stay benefits everyone involved and to be open minded. We learned so much during those few months, in particular about appreciating the moment there and then. I thought it would be difficult to say goodbye and move on but I was just so grateful to have had the experiences and optimistic enough to know that in the future as Carolien says, 'Great things are going to happen!'
Thank you for reading my blog entries this month. If you would like to read any of the previous 3 blogs in this series for Organic September, follow the links below.