Early last year, a cycling nutter tweeted me that he’d read and enjoyed my book about wobbling through the Marne Valley. He said he was planning to spend two years cycling around Europe and Wwoofing, and I replied that if he found himself near us, he’d be welcome to a beer, or a bed for the night.
He ended up living with us for over two months, and worked like a Trojan to help re-roof one of our barns. He was great company and a perfect house guest. I had never planned on having a stranger staying with us for so long, but it worked really well.
Millar, the cycling madman, and perfect guest in an untypically serious mood
Millar introduced us to Workaway, a scheme to link people from all over the world who are looking to travel and enjoy cultural exchange, living as working guests, to host families. Being
possibly probably the world’s worst housewife, with a pathological hatred of housework, I was hesitant. What would people think when they saw the daily coating of wall-to-wall dog hairs, the chewed-up sticks, shoes and yoghurt pots, the bedding the parrot shovels out of her cage, the shaving foam smeared all over the bathroom mirror, the daily burnt porridge pan soaking in the sink, the shredded blankets the dogs drag wherever they go? How would they react to two exuberant, large dogs monopolosing the comfy chairs, the chickens pooping in the house and the disheveled hostess still in her nightclothes at midday? Could our chaotic lifestyle qualify as a cultural experience?
Well, nothing ventured …. I posted a profile on Workaway, and had an almost instant reply from a young school teacher from Switzerland, surely the cleanest country in the world. Still, she seemed very keen, so I scraped down the walls and swept the dust into the corners.
Andrea was the sweetest, most helpful guest we could have hoped for, and felt like part of the family from the moment she arrived. The Workaway terms specify that guests agreee to work for 4-5 hours a day, five days a week, but I couldn’t stop her. After spending the mornings tidying the garden, she spent the afternoons scrubbing the house. Really scrubbing. From top to bottom. She turned out the kitchen drawers and cupboards (mortifying when I saw the state they were in!), cleaned the windows. She said that she loved her job, but it was stressful and she found peace and relaxation in cleaning. She was also a great conversationalist and we successfully sorted out all the world’s problems. A perfect ambassador for Workaway.
Our next guest was a charming French gentleman who came to us to improve his English. His friends had teased him about sharing our vegetarian lifestyle, but he tucked in and enjoyed our evening meal. Unfortunately after a day here he had to leave suddenly to deal with a family crisis, but we kept in touch and I recommended him to a friend earlier this year , which led to a very successful exchange for both of them.
This year we had a less than enjoyable experience with our first visitor. There was a chasm of cultural difference, and a personality clash. We are easy going and get on with most people, but this case was an exception, and having a house guest who didn’t fit in was uncomfortable for all of us. We would have asked them to leave ahead of the agreed date, but they didn’t have anywhere to go and apparently no money to support themselves. Dumping them at the railway station was out of the question and so we all soldiered on and sighed with relief when they eventually left.
“No more,” said TOH. “I don’t want any more of them here. We can’t have people living in our house and behaving like that.” I agreed, having found the experience extremely stressful.
“I’ll delete us from Workaway,” I said. Before I had a chance to do so, an email arrived.
It was a dignified message from a Spanish man who was in a very uncomfortable situation with hosts who were using him as unpaid labour in their business. Although Workaway is a voluntary agreement between two parties, with no legal contract, he had undertaken to continue
slaving working for them for a further three weeks despite their treatment of him, as their business depended upon him, but at the end of that period he was looking for a new host.
My feelings about Spanish cruelty to animals have never been a secret, nor my contempt for the galgueros, and the stupid elephant-killing king.
If Spain is looking for an ambassador who defines dignity, honesty, kindness and generosity, then I nominate Miguel. What a lovely man. He voluntarily worked long, long hours, always smiling and cheerful. And he’s a fantastic cook – like us, a vegetarian – and most evenings he volunteered to cook for us, which was such a treat. Offhand I can’t think of anything that tastes better than his tortilla. We also shared similar tastes in music, and he restored our faith in Workaway.
Miguel smiling up on the roof
We were so sorry to see him leave after his three weeks with us, as we waved him off to his next host. But he came back, to our great delight, a couple of weeks later. It isn’t my place to describe the strange experiences he had with two of his hosts, but I will say that we were shocked, angry and amused by some of them. Workawayers are not slaves; they are temporary family members and deserve and expect to be treated as such.
During his time away, Miguel had met another Workawayer whose situation wasn’t ideal. I’ll only say that her accommodation where she was staying was in a small tent. He gave her our email, and a couple of days later, Lydia arrived, a bundle of energy and enthusiasm. She had just returned from working as a volunteer in Togo, and entertained us with accounts and photographs of her life there. She also co-opted Miguel and TOH into yoga sessions in the garden. I participated in the role of official photographer. :)
Lydia’s yoga session
Miguel didn’t seem totally convinced. :)
Tally never did understand what he was meant to be doing :)
So by a wide margin, our experience of Workawayers has been very positive, as has that of several friends, although at least one did find themselves lumbered with a very unacceptable “guest”.
The beauty of the system is that you can read feedback for both hosts and volunteers on the Workaway site, and my advice to anybody considering using the system is to check out the experiences of others before making a commitment.
A final note. Having a number of American friends, among them not one has tasted Marmite without pulling a face and declaring it to be inedible at best, and downright disgusting at worst. Lydia’s initial reaction was polite disbelief that anybody would eat it. However, next day she tried a little more. And by the time she left, she was converted and wondering if she would find anywhere to buy it back home in the United States.
Here are Miguel and Lydia having breakfast:
And here they are at the end of their stay with us. We’d love to see both of them again one day, they enriched our summer and our lives. Thank you both.
PS If you wondered why we know him as the cycling nutter, have a look at Millar’s checklist AFTER he dispensed with the trailer. :D