If you’re looking for really authentic travel experiences, make friends. There are several ways to approach travel and maybe you’ll try all at different times, depending on the season, how far your finances are stretching, if you want to be in the city or deep in the countryside and what sort of social life you want.
I want to put in a good word for house-sitting. I’ve been lucky and had a few by word of mouth, the friends’ network. A month was ideal, enough time to get to know the locals, explore the nearby villages and do some long walks, usually with a dog attached or leaping through the undergrowth to chase a deer or wild-pig.
There’s house-sitting sites too. Google House-sitting and you’ll find a few. Like WorkAway, there’s a joining fee but they seem to be well regulated.
You need to be self-contained and obviously, a good level of responsibility is a plus when someone leaves you with their animals, garden and worldy possession. What you get is usually a gorgeous house to stay in rent-free, some instant pets and often fresh garden produce. I’ve managed chickens, turkeys, geese, cats and dogs, weeded and watered gardens and cleaned a swimming pool (my least favourite thing: add chlorine, pump won’t work, scoop up dead bodies).
One gig was an offer from a woman who picked me up when I was hitching in Spain. ‘Oh, so you do house-sitting,’ she said. ‘I’m off to Thailand for a month, would you like to look after my house?’ So it goes, you never know what opportunities come when you’re open to them.
We’re all hung over and the journey is for dreams. I’m just totally sleep deprived after a night in a cheap and clean but extremely restless hostel. If I had two hours I’d be surprised. The other passengers smell of sweat and pull out their best comfort for the kilometres that hum by. Madrid is in the rear-view mirror and Toulouse ahead. I curl onto the seat and lie on my bag.
At some point I break my zeds and discover that the bones of the mountains are lying naked under an azure sky. The Spanish side is bare and beautiful. Then a long tunnel divides the dry southern landscape from the green-cloaked body of France.
It’s a ten hour trip by bus and thankfully there was a decent sandwich shop on the French side because I left while the shops were still shuttered in Madrid. The driver navigated the tortuous curves with prowess and we arrived at the gare routière in Boulevard Pierre Semard ten minutes ahead of schedule. Sigh of relief because I still had a train to catch.
PS please excuse the quality of the photos. My phone was the lazy and convenient option.
“Breathe in, breathe out. This is a sanctuary. Take off your weary clothes and the shoes that no longer shield your soles from the grit of the journey. “
It’s another hot day at Laguépie in the south of France and everyone is hanging out at the river. The lifeguard has a steady gaze. There’s screams, splashing and laughter as this crazy, inflatable spaceship rock and rolls.
The local kids are smoking cigarettes in the shade, wrapped in each others arms or taking selfies while Parisian girls cluster at the edge and dry their long black braids in the sun.
We are all shapes and sizes, ages and backgrounds with the same language of laughter. We are residents, visitors, travellers and refugees.
Thanks to Val Johnson, for introducing me to some of the guys who have made it to France against enormous odds and found refuge in this small community. Val has been tireless with fund-raising, finding homes and resources and for encouraging diversity and inclusiveness. I’m also grateful to the people I met for their generosity and smiles. I wish everyone a future where peace and happiness is as simple as a day at the river.
This is not a definitive list. Some people are way more adventurous than I am. And as lists go, how to I order it?
At the moment my preferred method for getting around is on foot. Very old school and not going to be for the couch potatoes but fabulous for really seeing things in all their detail – a total winner for artists and poets. No cost except for wear and tear on footwear.
Hitchhiking is another favourite. Every lift is an adventure. Every person has a story to tell. No cost other than be a good listener.
The train is great for stretching out and sleeping when the fatigue of travel or socialising has caught up. It can be cheap. Check Evasio futé in the Occitanie region of France.
There are some great bus companies like ALSA, Flixbus and OUI. Often super cheap and sometimes the WIFI works but not always in the centre of town. A ticket from Madrid to Toulouse cost me less than 10 Euros.
There’s also Blablacar, my favourite for learning the local language and sometimes cheaper than the bus. It’s organised hitchhiking with a well organised and secure site. You can see where the driver is going, the time for the trip, their references and how much it costs in advance.
Finally, the bike is a sheer joy. Australia and New Zealand are currently the only countries where helmets are mandatory so I’m taking advantage of the wind in my hair and the freedom of coasting down a long and deserted hill.
Okay, I have to confess that I’m not a newbie in France. I made a life here once and it was sweet as the grass that Henri Jambart scythed by hand and fed to his tiny herd of cattle. Henri was my neighbour and my friend and he worked the land with sweaty love. He was the tail end of a tradition that went back further than he could count.
He didn’t go to the Second Great War due to an accident where his hand was caught in a machine. I knew that was a fortunate thing but Henri felt otherwise. The other men had stories to tell around the kitchen table and different scars to compare.
I learned many things from this man; that every season had it’s place, independence was to be valued at the cost of relationships and friendship could be made across generational, language and cultural boundaries.
I visited the cemetery recently and sat with his grave but I am sure that Henri is with his fields. I found a ball of string he used to line up his plots of Summer vegetables. The old oak tree knows. It stands sentinel over it all.
I love hitch-hiking. People ask me about the risks involved and I tell them my best stories about grandmothers and women, with children stacked in the back seat, who decide to save me from danger and then happily take me to my destination. Then there are the locals. One of my favourite lifts was from a retired fireman who dropped me off in the middle of nowhere and continued up a track to his mother’s 95th birthday party. Lovely. However it was a stretch of road with no sign of traffic or habitation and a storm was about to hit. Fortunately he left me with his umbrella.
The French know how to walk. Every Sunday, you can see clusters of friends or family making their way between villages after the Midday meal has settled. During the week there are clubs for the more dedicated. Large groups take to the paths that traverse the fields and the forest and work up an appetite for a three course meal with wine in the local hall or restaurant.
I’ve been lucky enough to join a few of these social events, to walk the beautiful countryside, to parley French with the locals and then raise too many glasses with the rest.
I found Maud Rebiere at the bottom of her garden in the south of France, collecting petals in a wicker basket she made when there was more time to play. Plants are her life and this is the busy season. She harvests medicinal herbs from the plants she grows from seed and gathers wild plants from nature in areas untouched by agricultural sprays. The herbal teas and balms she makes are organically certified .
Maud understands the importance of the natural world and the need for biodiversity to pollinate plants and she passes her knowledge on to groups who visit the historical farm, Le Parcot, at Échourgnac in the Dordogne region.
It’s not only black and white. The minor chords of grey that make the symphony complete and harmonious are playing in my mind. I have history here. Stone steps that leave an impression on the soft humous scattered about the earthy floor.
I am travelling light, treading lighter, carrying my creativity wherever I go.
I took the leap. Australia is behind me and a steaming Paris day ahead. My backpack is carefully loaded with sixteen kilos of everything I think need for the year ahead… or perhaps it two? I have my tent, sleeping bag, and a half-sized inflatable mat in anticipation of adventures. My sketchbook, my camera, my Macbook are stowed inside, along with a change of clothes and my toothbrush. The Long Stay Visa was a nightmare but PTS is good enough reason to skip the details – unless you press me. Sharing Tips is part of the package. A solo traveller needs all the help she can get.