“The world comes to our doorstep” – by Jane Appel
With retirement looming, my partner’s body was battered, suffering badly from too active a young life. Despite this, Martin and I left England and our families for adventure: to buy a set of derelict farm buildings in France. The only sensible part of our decision was that I speak good French.
After 5 years of work, peppered with a financial crisis, a year of near blindness and a knee crushed by a beam, the site came alive again. Former WWOOFers from New Zealand pointed us towards volunteering websites, insisting that with its sustainable technologies and our instinctive use of living and building skills passed down through generations, this would be a really attractive placement for volunteers.
There were goats, a couple of hens, and latterly a litter of kittens. An occasional helping hand would definitely have been welcome, and so we embarked on our next adventure and signed up to become HelpX hosts.
Our first HelpX guest was a charming traveller of large proportions and a Texan appetite. He could eat a whole bowl of hard-boiled eggs in one go, followed by enough bread and salad to last Martin and I a full week, finishing off with a huge hunk of cheese that cost us that week’s housekeeping money. And that was just lunch. Evening meals were even more epic.
He thanked us with lively discussions each evening and by cooking us a great barbeque at the end of his stay. He opted for manual work, but in fact was useless at it. He had never done any manual labour in his life, except with his thumbs which texted messages faster than lightening and so frequently that we had to ask “please, no texting at meal times or during work hours”. We loved him.
Next came a complete contrast: a seasoned traveller, a small wiry guy with a bright open mind, an entrepreneurial spirit, a Glaswegian accent and a woollen hat. You could tell we weren’t yet used to HelpX hosting by the questions I asked over our first night’s supper; nervously inappropriate and gently evaded in reply, until Martin, my other half, who always likes to be the centre of conversation, started on about the difficulties of his childhood. Suddenly our newly arrived guest became very focused and asked some very specific questions. Martin opened up and so did our guest, and we advanced big time in our understanding of trust and what it means to be a host.
Since then our lives have been greatly enriched by the quirks of HelpX hosting as a succession of potential volunteers ask to share in our project and with our seasonal tasks.
We said no to half the requests. The rest have been a variety of adventurous folk, of whom we knew little before their arrival. They usually turned out to be exceptional people one way or another; restless and homeless, with interesting stories, many of them travelling light.
At its best it is rewarding for all concerned. We couldn’t host full-time for it is an intense experience which leaves us tired, and we cannot afford the extra costs. It can be great fun, but also hard physical work and at times stressful for both volunteer and host – no doubt about that! Often we have had to adapt to suit volunteers’ individual capabilities and sometimes vulnerabilities.
Without volunteer help we would still make progress, but more youthful energy and enthusiasm speeds things up. Sometimes we can return the long term benefit. Recently I remembered website design was the professional expertise of a former volunteer. I offered him the job and he was kind enough to give me a good rate – an excellent spin-off from his week here. Others have left and returned as friends, and even with their parents and partners.
We don’t run our business on volunteers. Paid workers are quite different. For a start, they come with job-specific skills. They are registered to work in France and contribute to the French system. They don’t require 3 meals a day, nor help with their English or French, nor a listening ear to applaud their successes and to sympathise with their vulnerabilities, nor clean sheets and towels and access to a washing machine, nor a bedroom and a bathroom, nor heating, internet access or hot water, nor leisure facilities and transport, nor a space in our private lives to fit into.
Volunteers come as helpful friends and usually try to meet our expectations. The most resilient know when to ask, when to step back, when to laugh, when to put in that little bit extra and when to talk through a problem to find a solution.
We help with lifts to town or elsewhere, days out to visit the Périgord, loan of a bike or a laptop, introductions to the local music venues, swimming lakes, and our local walking group – sharing a skill for their future, even if it just the value of attention to detail and concentration.
Because HelpX is above-all a cultural exchange and a learning opportunity on both sides, including how and why people tick, how to enjoy other people yet also respect their lives and privacy, and how to cope with inevitable ups and downs.
Friendliness and honesty are important; as is an ability to laugh, to keep things in proportion, to give each other space, and to walk away without sneering when it doesn’t work.
Martin and I work hard. Martin is alpha-male and focused on advancing our project. He has little patience with those who accept our hospitality but don’t take the trouble to understand a task and so do it badly. Volunteers have helped us in so many positive ways but a few have walked off.
When it goes wrong I ask them to leave very quickly, for this is our home and I will protect it like a mother hen.
It is all to do with trust, not just in our home but also in our openness. Usually volunteers are disarmingly straightforward and open about themselves. One couple disturbed and confused us. It put us off hosting.
The few we didn’t get on with could be very upstanding but apparently programmed to flee from difficulty; overly smug about their skills; or just too arrogant or immature to work things through with us. We’d all be fine if we met casually, but the quirks of HelpX tied us in to bursting point.
The majority survived, did well here and left as friends. We honour them by our positive memories of their stay. Amongst them is one known to at least 90,000 Nomads, who came modestly, and who has given us more than we ever gave him. During his stay Gary launched the NOMADS Facebook group. Proud you did it on our internet connection, mate!
Jane Appel began her adventure with Martin in France in 2009 after an eventful life in the UK. French country neighbours offered them a warm welcome and joyfully made up their wedding party, bringing the derelict buildings back into party mood after 30 years of neglect and termite infestation.
Facebook page: Le Clos du Verger
Helpx reference: http://www.helpx.net/host.asp?hostid=23334