The instructions were as clear as they could be, given the fact we were using Google Translate to communicate with a complete stranger in a new language. His message read:
“Find cafe Chez Monique’s.
Ask the owner for directions to the farm.
Drive until you find a bike against a citrus tree.
You arrive my house.”
Even in the rain, Monique’s was easy enough to find as it was the only shop in La Chabanne. My entrance into her cafe was akin to the Fonz entering the diner in Happy Days. Running up the wet steps in cheap jandels had caused a momentary slip which led to a half skidding, half crashing, performance just to get through the doorway of her coffee shop, The difference on my stage, was that there was no jacket collar to flick up or hair to run a comb through. Just an on set footwear malfunction, in front of her morning customers.
“Bonjour – Monique?” I quizzed the lady standing behind the counter.
“Oui”, she smilingly replied
“I’m looking for Viarney’s place.” I asked, replacing the fixed footwear in a hunched swoop.
“You’re the New Zealand family coming to work on the farm?” she asked, turning from the customers that had just witnessed my impromptu circus act.
“Yeah” came my subdued reply, and then, before I could say “ where can a man buy a good pair of sandals around here?”, I was whisked outside and given the remaining directions on how to find a bike leaning against a tree.’
Back in the car and we were on our way to meet the latest farm hosts that had agreed to take us on as ‘willing workers’. Which, goes something like this; in exchange for 4 to 6 hours work a day, we can park up our caravan away from other English speaking tourists, we can clean ourselves properly in a shower…and not just use baby wipes. And, here comes the big trump card, we can dine on authentic French cuisine and soak up the experience of living with a European family.
Depending on the time of year you arrive it can also include, but is not limited to, being invited to the neighbour’s birthday party, finding yourself booked in for ‘local dish nights’, as well as an invitation to sell freshly harvested produce at the local market on a Friday.
But that was all ahead of us. First we had to meet.
Perhaps it’s the newness of our entry into the world of WOOFing, or maybe it’s just an intrinsic human defense mechanism, but either way, I often feel a sense of apprehension during the final turns that lead out to our host farms. It’s a feeling that bears fruity thoughts like ‘what is the statistical probability of arriving to find a red stained shower curtain drying on the maiden? Or, what do we do if we find ourselves arriving to a family of slack dungaree clad locals, tuning banjo’s whilst their pitch forks balance precariously against a nearby fence.
That’s why we take precautions…
“O.K boys, Mummy and Daddy are just going to turn the car and caravan around for a quick get away, you go and see if anyone’s home…” and voila, just like that, they descend like a mini cyclone at the sight of new toys, fresh food and other kids and suddenly our job is done. The junior Monk’s first impression of the farm is a fait accompli.
And what a farm it was! There were fields of vegies ready for harvesting in the ‘outdoor garden’, as well as several glasshouse tunnels laden with juicy tomatoes, Zucchinis and ripe eggplants. Walk on further and rows of green beans hung ready for harvesting, fresh for Friday’s market.
But that wasn’t all. Beyond the vegetable’s we found a delicious fruit we would all succumb to over the following weeks. Fat, juicy blueberries, thousands of them. Falling off four hundred laden, ripe bushes. They called to us every time we went out. At night they would whisper in our ears commanding us to stroll down for a moon-lit feast…. and it was there, as the full moon rose clear of the tree tops, with sweet blue nectar running down our chins that we ran around gorging our faces and laughing like lunatics.
It was pure hysteria. Not that we minded – at least it wasn’t the Bates Motel!