About six months ago, I began to feel stuck in my life. My boring, meaningless, 9 to 5 job wasn’t bringing me any satisfaction. Then, one day, I suddenly remembered something called a Gap Year. Unlike in the West, in my part of the world, it’s much less common for school graduates to take a year off before university to relax, travel, and generally decide on which career path to choose. Still, I realized that this kind of break was exactly what I needed. Since I couldn’t afford to go abroad as a tourist, I decided to try volunteer work.
Today, I want to tell Bright Side readers about my volunteer experience in France, and to explain why it didn’t last for long!
How to become a volunteer
You can find a volunteer project that suits you on various dedicated websites, like Worldpackers and Workaway. It sounds strange, but people who want to work for free often have to actually pay for the opportunity. For instance, registration on one of these sites costs about $30 per year. But I managed to economize by following a more experienced volunteers’ advice: you can find out the names of host organizations without registering, then find their contact details online, and write to them directly.
Having browsed through various projects, I selected the one that seemed the most attractive. It involved lending a helping hand to the people who ran a XII century chateau in the south of France. A few hours a day of working in the garden, the restaurant, or the kitchen, would entitle me to an accommodation (a separate room with a shower), 3 meals a day, and an opportunity to study French cuisine. I was really intrigued by this offer and e-mailed the host immediately.
I don’t speak French, but a while back I spent a year attending English courses. So, I had no problems communicating with the castle owner, who spoke English fluently. I sent him my CV and a motivation letter explaining why I was interested in that particular volunteer project. In no time at all, I received the reply. Indeed, they needed extra staff around the end of February and were looking forward to seeing me in France. Encouraged, I started packing.
Location and responsibilities
I had traveled long distances before, so I had no difficulties planning a budget trip and a plane ticket to France only cost me about 30 dollars. From Paris, I took an 11-hour-long bus ride south, to the town of Biarritz (on the upside — the ticket only cost me € 0.99). Having completed such a tiring ride, I was surprised to discover that it was going to take another hour of traveling by car to reach my destination. And, finally, I was there… completely in the middle of nowhere!
The village of Moumour
Moumour is a small village with a little less than 850 inhabitants. Located in its center is a 12th century castle, which was restored from ruins by the current owner and turned into a bed and breakfast-type hotel, with its own restaurant. My work entailed helping in the kitchen, as well as weeding the garden whenever the castle staff was preparing to welcome guests or assemble for a dinner party.
I arrived at the chateau during the low season, so there was little to do. However, on those rare occasions when we did have guests, I had to work really hard. Unfortunately, this didn’t involve helping the chef prepare meals — my job was to clean dirty dishes, loads and loads of them. I was also expected to double as a waitress and to set the tables. Since I knew very little about the subtleties of table etiquette, this wasn’t an easy task.
In truth, occasionally I did take part in preparing French dishes. Making orange zest proved to be especially difficult. My hand refused to hold the knife properly, so the zest came out too thick, and was invariably rejected by the chef. It took me a lot of time, effort, and oranges to grasp the skill, but now I’m pretty good at zesting citrus. Not sure whether I’ll ever need this in life!
I was eager to learn the intricacies of running a hotel and restaurant from the inside. But, I had to spend most of my time out in the yard, performing rather pointless (in my opinion) duties — like removing the grass from the gravel parking lot.
A view from the chateau
Initially, it was agreed that I would come to the chateau at the end of February and remain there until late April. But, in reality, I only managed to last in Moumour for one month, instead of the 2 I had planned. The day I arrived at the castle, it’s owner, a Dutchman named Lary, announced that he was planning to sell the property. Which meant that my stay would have to be a short one. Soon, I realized that this was probably for the best. As it turned out, using volunteer labor was a common practice at the chateau. There were no full-time employees there at all and they kept hiring one volunteer worker at a time. As a result, the place was almost empty, except for me, the owner, and the estate agent who was conducting the sale of the castle.
I didn’t live in the chateau itself, but in a guest house nearby.
I quickly grew bored at Moumour. Being a natural introvert, I’m pretty cool about being alone. Still, friendly support and communication are very important to me. I was disappointed that I didn’t manage to find a kindred spirit among the village’s inhabitants. This fact made me really want to leave the cold luxury of the chateau’s interiors, so I could feel free once again.
The owner of the castle himself encouraged me to go on sightseeing trips and provided me with free time to do this. But Moumour’s remote location made any sort of traveling pretty difficult. On Lary’s advice, I visited the Spanish city of San Sebastian, which is an hour-and-a-half’s drive from the village. But, I had to make 2 transfers to get there.
Pau, a city in the French Pyrenees
First, I got to the nearest town of Oloron-Sainte-Marie. After that, I took a train to Pau. And only from there, was I able to take a bus to San Sebastian. It was my first visit to Spain and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
The city of San Sebastian
The beach of San Sebastian
I came back 2 days later, full of new experiences and with a burning desire to visit more cities and countries. On seeing my enthusiasm for travel, and complete lack thereof for doing my chores at the chateau, Lary himself suggested that I should leave in mid-March. After thinking about it briefly, I agreed. I wasn’t at all sorry to say goodbye to the (by now, thoroughly hated) weeds out in the castle yard; or to the high French cuisine, which in truth, didn’t impress me at all.
Expectations, reality, and plans for the future
When I left for my trip, I expected to improve my cooking skills and learn a lot of cool French recipes. In reality, the only time the chef at the chateau let me near the stove was when he needed me to keep an eye on the sauces. As for traditional French dishes — all of them gave me indigestion! Back on my first ever visit to Paris, I was surprised by the fact that a French breakfast only consists of croissants and baguettes with butter and jam. In other words — of bread, fat, and sugar. It’s a wonder how, with such a diet, people in that country manage to remain slim! Main courses proved even more trying: the abundance of vegetable oil, that most French dishes are cooked with, completely ruined my healthy lifestyle!
Besides, to me volunteering is an opportunity to follow your heart, doing something good for people who really need help. This idea doesn’t fit in with the notion of working for a millionaire castle owner, who saves money by hiring unpaid employees. So, with no doubts whatsoever, I left Moumour and spent the next few weeks traveling across Spain.
Am I feeling disappointed by my experience? Not at all. Living in a remote French village with no one for company, except a rich guy from the Netherlands, is definitely not my thing. However, I am grateful to Lary for the opportunity to soak in another culture. I didn’t take my culinary skills to a new level, but I discovered something else: my cooking depends on my mood. When I feel like it, I can whip up an au gratin without breaking a sweat. At other times, I just order takeout!
Also, I learned a really good lesson from the chateau owner’s life story. He bought the castle about 20 years ago and is finally selling it so he can pursue his dream. Ever since he was 16, Lary wanted to become an artist. But his parents were against the idea and forced their son to study economics. Now at 65, he decided to enroll at an art school in Florence. As I was listening to my employer, a thought dawned on me — we don’t have to wait this long to be happy!
As for my own plans for the future — I definitely want to expand on my volunteer project experience. But I’ll be more careful when choosing host organizations, since I want to do something genuinely useful!
Tips on choosing a volunteer project
I chose a host organization on my own, which is a bit risky. There are actually a lot of non-profit organizations that will help volunteers find suitable projects. I advise you to contact one of these. Subscribe to their social network group and declare your desire to become a volunteer. Some of the organizations conduct preliminary interviews to better understand your motivation and to help you navigate through the multitude of available projects.
There are several types of programs for volunteers. Some of them fully cover all the costs, including round-trip tickets. Others require you to pay a small participation fee. By studying the information on the volunteer organization’s websites, you’ll be able to choose the right type of project for an unforgettable volunteer experience!
We’d like to know your opinion on the volunteer movement! Have you ever participated in a project like this?