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WWOOFing in France: an American Débutante’s First Experience

Packing my bag to head to Haute-Savoie, I donned a pair of working boots and left my expectations in the city. With a curious and eager spirit, I opened up to an alternative way of engaging with my environment and share those impressions of living and working on an organic farm in France.

For Via and Alex, accepting WWOOFers was a way to share what they had learned WWOOFing while bringing diversity into their farm lives

I started WWOOFing in France in the spring of 2018—and continue to do so periodically when nature calls—my first farm having been in Evian, France. I know what you’re thinking; and yes, it is where the bottled water comes from! I didn’t go there for that reason, but because I was interested in a) trying out this WWOOFing I had heard of through a friend b) exploring a new way of traveling that aligned with my values and beliefs in sustainability and eco-travel and c) I wanted to explore a new region of France I had not been to before and my hosts were open and excited to receive me as their first WWOOFer.

So, after my classes finished in the Spring, off I went to stay with Alex and Via: a french couple who were practicing urbain sustainable living and permaculture in the small city of Evian. Sustainable living and organic farming practices in the city—Is it possible? I thought. What I learned was not only is it possible, but immensely important for the future.

My host inevitably became a sort of WWOOFing guru for me, an experienced veteran who would teach me the ropes and profoundly influence me in the philosophy of a sustainable organic lifestyle.

Alex picked me up from the train station just in time for lunch (a beautiful salad made from all ingredients picked in their “potager” or veggie garden). Alex was so natural and patient with me. I was fascinated by her and her lifestyle as she had WWOOFed for 15 years non-stop all over the world, and now that she had a sustainable place with her partner, she wanted to open her home and share with other WWOOFers; I didn’t stop asking her questions from the moment I arrived until my departure. She inevitably became a sort of WWOOFing guru for me, an experienced veteran who would teach me the ropes and profoundly influence me in the philosophy of a sustainable organic lifestyle.

WWOOFing—What is it?

One of the first conversations we had when I arrived to their home was about the work, or how to organize ourselves into a rhythm of work/play conducive to all parties. “We don’t care when you want to work—morning, afternoon—whichever fits you best, just as long as you put in the 20-25 hours per week,” they explained to me. It could be five hours a day five days a week, or more hours one day, less on another, etc. We decided on the former: I worked five hours in the morning, 8am to 1pm, five days a week. That way I had my afternoons off and two free days to explore the area or have leisure.

WWOOFing is an an exchange. For being self-autonomous and self-sustainable, taking WWOOFers was a way for them to share the practices they believed in, get an eager helping hand in the process, and also to have exchanges and diversity from all over the world.

They were even environmentally mindful in the set-up of their house: there was a compost toilet and a water system they rigged to collect excess water from activities such as washing dishes that they could then reuse to water the plants. In my later WWOOFing experiences, I would come to encounter hosts that employed all kinds of eco-sustainable techniques, like one guy that built his own home out of plastered straw and wood and used solar panels for energy.

Everyone morning, after the sunrise, we would go to Lac Lemac to a ‘wake up’ dip before work, and then again at the end of the day as a refresher before sunset, apéro and dinner.

I would start after breakfast in the morning and finish at lunch time. The work was dynamic and varied and they always asked me if I was okay with the tasks proposed.

I learned about permaculture, working in their gardens, which is what I was initially interested in. They were always so patient, teaching me things along the way, like how you can eat the flowers that grow off of eggplants, put them in salads, fry them up. And they’re tasty! Or how you can use the grass you’ve cut from the yard to put around the base of plants to protect the plant from the heat and the sun in summer.

The constraints of the boxy Parisian life had come down, and I felt infinite and vital again, and like their was a renewed sense of meaning in my life.

It wasn’t until one day, hard at work hacking down an old wall that I felt a parallel breakthrough in a metaphorical ‘wall’ within me. And boy, did it feel goooood.

Before, in Paris, I was feeling stuck, stuck in the same cycles—métro boulot dodo as they say. Deciding to take-off and do something out of the norm, to live with strangers and adjust to the beat of their lifestyle, to take-up a pic ax and feel my body move in new ways that a desk chair doesn’t allow for, to be working in the elements feeling the warm sun on my skin and the fresh open air expand my lungs…well I could feel something shift inside of me. The constraints of the boxy Parisian life had come down, and I felt infinite and vital again, and like their was a renewed sense of meaning in my life.

The water was so fresh you could drink it straight from the source

After lunch at 1pm, the rest of the day was my leisure time that I could spend to my liking. I was finishing a paper for a class in the beginning, but after, I would explore the city and the surroundings. For a couple of my days off, I walked to the dock and took a ferry over to Geneva, Switzerland (only a 30 minute ride). Sometimes I did activities with my hosts. On one beautiful day, they brought me to a scenic spot in the mountains to hike. Alex would point out plants every now and then, we would discuss environmental subjects we were passionate about, and the water was so fresh you could drink it straight from the source.

On one of the free days, my hosts took me hiking in the mountains, where we stopped here to guzzle some natural spring water along the way

Alternative traveling

WWOOFing is many things. It’s a way to travel off the beaten path—getting out of personality-less hotels and pricey tourist traps and into local’s homes and lives. At Alex and Via’s I only spoke French for the most part. I learned things I would never learn staying at an Air Bnb by myself or with other Americans. I got to experience how they live and go about their lives, learn new things about French culture and even new words. Like “mauviette” from how Alex jokingly teased Via when she was too scared to take a swim with us in the chilly water of Lac Léman. I taught Via the English word for “wheelbarrow” and one lunch we made tex-mex tacos; she taught me how to sand wooden windows and taste local French cheeses.

WWOOFing was a way for me to take capitalism out of a means of experiencing places and people, and putting respect, wholesomeness, and generosity in its place.

Through WWOOFing, I was able to meet others who held the same values as I regarding eco-sustainability and organic. People who are more connected with the land. For me, it became more about holistic living in all facets of life, not only organic food but organic exchanges and relationships with other people—not based around money, transactions, or profit, but around deeper values and practices that are becoming more imminent in a world strife-stricken with environmental crisis, with immigration crisis, with class wealth and poverty crisis. WWOOFing was a way for me to take capitalism out of a means of experiencing places and people, and putting respect, wholesomeness, and generosity in its place.

I too one day want to have my own sustainable farm and home

Little did I know that in my first experience WWOOFing, it would come to play such an integral role in my life, and who I would later become. Since then, I’ve gone to other farms, and bit by bit my own personal journey and future goals have changed and been influenced by what I’ve learned in the process. I too one day want to have my own sustainable farm and home.

WWOOFing is the only way I now slow travel to authentically engage with the traditions of local people and the spirit of place.

 Others, too, I’ve encountered along the way have expressed similar desires. An American couple I met on a farm had been WWOOFing all over Italy and France to learn their hosts’ best-practices, to afterwards go back to the US and start their own organic farm. Another WWOOFer, after having been a student all her life realized that studying is all she knew, and wanted to reconnect with nature and diversify her skill-set. Perhaps the most influential I met was a couple from Brazil. They had been WWOOFing non-stop for three years, all over, and said they would do it for the next ten, making this a sort of sustainable lifestyle.

Experience for yourself all it has to offer to you, and you to it.

All in all, WWOOFing is the only way I now slow travel to authentically engage with the ways of local people and the spirit of place. You’re welcomed into homes instead of hostels. You meet locals and taste authentic, farm fresh food. You can give something back to the hosts and enrich their lives. If your body able and your spirit willing, try a world wide opportunity on an organic farm in France, and feel alive in all your senses. Hoe the earth with your hands, hear the soft murmur of the french language, taste local Camembert cheese, smell the lavender fields of Provence, hike to and see the view from atop a mountain in the alps. Experience for yourself all it has to offer to you, and you to it.

Bon WWOOFing !

See my hosts’ profile here

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