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The Leaving Journal

The Opening Number: Les Riols, France

FRANCE | Tuesday, 24 September 2013 | Views [486]

Welcome to The Chocolate Box.

That is what Simon Curtis calls the new home he just bought with his partner, Linda Walsh, on the banks of the River Aveyron in in Southwest France. This sweet little cottage is nestled on a rural, country road outside of the tiny village of Le Riols Bas in the Tarn region. Previously a Dutch woman's summer home, the house requires a lot of general updates and improvements: insulation, new windows, landscaping, etc. Simon is a handyman by trade and the couple has decided to do most of the remodeling themselves. They have also decided to enlist the help of travelers, whom they will house and feed in return for 20-25 hours of work a week. I am one of the first workers they have hosted. 

I arrived at The Chocolate Box on a rainy September Tuesday after spending the night in Toulouse, the nearest large city, and taking a bus and train to the Lexos station, where Simon gathered me and a fellow workawayer from Belgium, a nineteen-year-old boy named Bassche. Simon was accompanied, as he often is, by the sweet and unconditionally-loving Tara, whose large caramel-colored eyes will have you slipping biscuits to her under the dinner table before you can say, "Bonjour!"

Linda greeted us at the door with a hug and a delectable, hot lunch of home-made bread, cherry tomatoes and savory carrot soup. From the moment I entered the lives and home of these two, there has been a continual theme of warmth, generosity and delectable food. Linda is, above all, a mother, and her maternal nature comes through in all of her genuine, caring actions. She speaks with adoration and admiration about her three children, who are scattered across the world living their dreams. It is clear that each of them has successfully pursued love and happiness above all, which is a testament to her parenting. Simon is a tireless worker and an engineer at heart and in mind. He is deeply invested in the project of renovating their home and his excitement is palpable. 

Linda and Simon met seven years ago and have lived in France for the past six years. They did a working holiday last summer throughout France, so they have experienced the "other side" of the work-to-travel experience. While most of their experiences were positive, they also shared some that were... more challenging. They said, from a host's perspective, the workaway.info website on which we met is a "pervert's paradise," in reference to the plethora of young, single women looking for hosts. I was surprised to find that women are in the majority on the site, and somewhat heartened to know there is a large community of travelers like me, but also slightly disturbed about how vulnerable I must appear. This entire experience is an exercise in trust and faith in humanity, two things I have very little of. I hope that will change.

The nature of a working holiday is very unusual. You are part guest, part newcomer and stranger, part friend and roommate, and part employee. Linda and Simon are consistently working on their home - it's their project, their life, right now. I am supposed to work 20-25 hours a week according to our agreement, which I think is fair in exchange for room and board, but I struggle with feeling inadequate or even rude when I am writing in my journal, reading in the hammock or going on bike rides to explore the countryside while they slave away sweeping up construction dust or applying plaster to the ceiling. The deeply-buried Southern belle in me is pained at feeling rude and unhelpful. But I also try to remind myself that I am here first and foremost to travel, to explore and think and learn, not to help them build a home. I am so grateful to have the opportunity to be here, which I wouldn't have if it weren't for them, so there's a definitive sense of obligation. I want the arrangement to work for them, too. I don't want either of us to feel used or improperly recompensed. Furthermore, they have become my friends more than my hosts or bosses, and I feel an emotional obligation to help them and be supportive of their project simply because I like them and want them to be happy. It's a delicate balance. 

I am astonished with Bassche's maturity. He has given me an entirely new perspective on 19 year old boys. Or perhaps just on Belgians and the European way in which they are raised to be adults by his age. He is polite, moves and interacts with ease (even in a foreign language) and is knowledgeable on a myriad of subjects, most notably ants. We've been clearing out a colony that was living in the roof of the house (nasty work) and Bassche has enlightened us about the behavior of several different species of the tiny creatures. We have had many a conversation where I never would've guessed I was talking to someone younger than myself. I rarely meet people who impress me in that way.

Above all, I feel lucky. It's a bit of a "pinch me" experience, as I know it's rare to meet and get to live with people whose company you enjoy so much. The perfect beginning to this journey!

Tags: culture, family, france, homestay, host, les riols, river aveyron, rural france



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