This post was contributed by Thomas Wiegand.
Think fortified walls, decorative turrets, marble everything, and so many rooms you wouldn’t know what to do with all of them. If you’ve ever traveled through parts of France, you’ve likely seen old castles lining the countryside in between fields of sunflowers and lavender – seems like a dream, right? But to stay there? Even more unbelievable. My story starts with an interesting little program called Workaway. Meant for people who wanna see the world without seeing an auto draft out of their bank account that could wake the dead (me and every other college student), it was the perfect way for me to get back to France to practice my French and be immersed in the culture I love.
So, the search began around September of last year. My boyfriend and I spent countless hours with our eyes glued to our computer screens looking for any and every family that might let us work for them in exchange for a place to stay and food. Nothing extravagant, just a modest way of traveling that would let us see what small-town France is like.
And that’s exactly what we got. We had agreed to travel to the small village of Marçay in the southwest of France to work as groundskeepers for a family in the area. The family had purchased an old castle years ago and needed volunteers to help with the upkeep of the garden, greenhouses, and the countless acres of property. We jumped at the chance to live in such a beautiful place.
Just before arriving, we find out our host mom needed to make an unexpected trip and was leaving for a whole week. You can imagine what we were thinking. We were told we’d be picked up by the castle gardener. So here we are, sitting in a tiny train station looking out the doors in search of a small British man who had no idea who we were. We were intimidated and nervous, to say the least, but we soon found that the British family was more than ecstatic to have us. They drove us through the city of Poitiers telling us all about the past years they had spent working to make the chateau a beautiful place. I’m half listening, half gaping in awe as we drive down a road lined with beautiful oak trees and a massive wrought iron gate swings open to welcome us.
I’m choking back a squeal as we pull up to a three-story castle lined with beds of flowers. The castle had a rustic yellow tint to it. We were led up a spiral stairwell to a beautiful room covered in green felt walls. Our room was the epitome of Victorian-era living. A glass chandelier was hanging over the bed and we were met with a beautiful view over a walled garden, a nearby lake, and an old chapel that looked like it had been built at the turn of the 19th century. We’re obviously wondering how in the world we got to be this lucky.
At this point, I’m half expecting our host mom to be Marie Antoinette in the flesh. We spent the whole afternoon exploring all of the beautiful rooms and investigating anything that even remotely resembled a trap door. I can’t tell you how many times I asked myself if I was really living this life.
In the next week, we were met by our wonderful host mom and given a warm welcome in the form of a gratin aux aubergines and a nice bottle of rosé. We quickly fell in love with life at the castle. Our biggest concern every morning was having a cafe allonge and enjoying the breeze coming through the kitchen window before worrying about what work needed to be done that day. When we told her we were interested in learning more French, she replied in French and never looked back. It was surprising how difficult it could be to conjure up easy little words that I might have learned in high school French. Of course, our host mom had that aura about her that most French speakers do. Super proud of their language and very specific about the way it should be spoken, but in the end, we walked away knowing more than we did when we first hopped a train to come to this tiny town.
A normal day consisted of several hours in the morning spent watering vegetables in the garden and trimming the rose bushes. We took care of the flowers and learned about organic gardening – every day we’d end work by picking fresh vegetables from the garden and cooking a meal together. To some, this may seem normal, but for a college student small-town U.S.A., it’s a rare thing.
Life in this tiny village was straight out of a scene in Call me by your name. The little village was probably home to no more than 50 people, but it was the cutest corner of France that you’ll ever see. The church was surrounded by small houses lined with orange clay roofs. We’d explore side streets and pass strangers who always said Bonjour! with a smile.
We spent countless evenings after that stumbling over our words in French and exchanging stories about our lives back home in the states. We’d have one too many glasses most evenings and talk about our families and our aspirations to travel in the future until the sun set over the balcony. It was an unforgettable three weeks that left me feeling thankful and excited to return to my life back home.
Sure, my humble apartment can’t compare to a castle with centuries of stories to tell, but that’s the beauty of being abroad.
It gave me a chance to live someone else’s life, to spend time by the lake reading the book I’d spent months swearing I’d get to, to laugh and not worry about what the next day had in store for me.
In a lot of ways, I’d say that Workaway is one of the most enriching ways to travel. It offers you an opportunity to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes and experience the joie de vivre that life back home doesn’t always seem to have. For a little bit of work each day, we lived in style and made an international family that would welcome us back graciously anytime. What more could you ask for?
A few words of wisdom to those considering Workaway:
Make sure to communicate well in advance with your host: Ask what your accommodations will be. Be sure that you understand what work will be expected of you and if there is any opportunity to travel around on the weekends.
Expect the unexpected. Be open towards other people’s way of life. Try new things, think outside of the box, and be mindful that you’re stepping into someone else’s life.
Go above and beyond with your work. Especially if you want to be invited back!
Take advantage of your time off. Plan weekend trips if you’re able to. Often times your host family will let you accompany them on their outings – take advantage of it!
Don’t be extra. There’s nothing worse than a high maintenance person who expects too much of their host. You don’t want to be the workawayer that the hosts s t i l l talk about.
Bring a friend! I lived with a host family for the first time on my own at a Workaway in France two years ago. It made a world of a difference having someone with me this time around to share these kinds of experiences. With that said, I wholeheartedly support solo travel and will say that it definitely changed my outlook on life.
Meet Thomas: I’m a 20-year-old college student from Chattanooga, Tennessee studying French and Environmental Science. I’m a researcher, language enthusiast, and travel junkie of course. Travel pet-peeve: When you try your hardest to speak the language and they still reply in English. Keep up with me on IG.