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.
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 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.