Gotta say WWOOFing ain’t always a dream. One day you might find yourself holding an over-sized ladle stirring “confiture du lait” (literal translation: milkjam) for four hours at a time, in a rapidly heating room, accidentally burning yourself and trying to defy the romantic pursuits of another WWOOFer. You might find yourself with bad cooks (What?! Bad cooks in France?), antisocial farmers, or hippie-therapists with negative energies. But when life hands you a microwaved bowl of over-salted couscous, you make a story out of it. And reconsider your life choices.
Spoiled American: Lily, (me). 22 years old, on a WWOOFing adventure in France. Tall, lanky, used to friendly smiles, words of encouragement, independence, friends, the English language, and having fun.
Soiled Room no.1: A French Fromagerie
Location: Normandy, France
Date: Mid October 2018
Evelyne, the 38-year old WWOOFer who recently went to a french barber and asked them to shave her head until only 5 centimeters remained, stands in the French fromagerie holding a giant tomme de vache (cow cheese). She is shaking it vigorously and laughing. It is 14h30, my third week at this French sheep farm, and I still feel like a lost lamb. The two of us were instructed to work with the cheeses by the farmer with quick and incomprehensible directions. Something about turning the cheese upside down and salting them. And cleaning something- the tables? Also something about working with the fresh cheeses… apply another layer to the cheese already drying out? We laugh because we understand that what we are experiencing is ridiculous. Minimal instruction, a man who is incomprehensible even sometimes to fluent french speakers, a title we both fear we will never be able to hold ourselves. But at least we are in the same boat: two intermediate french speakers holding giant cheeses and imagining whatever the hell the farmer intended us to do with them.
I have an idea.
“Est-ce qu’on peut appeler Stéphane, Evelyne? Peut-être il peut nous instruire un peu mieux…” Can we call Stéphane, Evelyne? Maybe he can instruct us a bit better…
“Oui, bonne idée. Tiens.” Yes, good idea. Here. She hands me her phone. “Vas dehors.” Go outside.
I call Stéphane.
“Salut Stéphane, alors, erm, qu’est-ce qu’il faut faire avec les fromage frais une fois de plus, je ne comprenais pas toute avant.” Hi Stéphane, so, um, what do we need to do with the fresh cheese again one more time, I didn’t fully understand before.
“Le fromage ldkjg dslkgjbs lkjgbwlkj frais, lkhgbssk tourne, jgbldkfbh lesse le, apres kfhbkdfhb et ca va.” The cheese ldkjg dslkgjbs lkjgbwlkj fresh, lkhgbssk turn them, jgbldkfbh leave them, after kfhbkdfhb and it’s good.”
“Fais comme avant. Dans le fgbsldkh et flkbgjsegd. Commence de nouveau les fromage frais dxlfkghbfk, la grande boit.” Do like before. In the jfgnsdlhb and lgskhbgsl. Start again the new fresh cheese flghfkgd, the big box.”
“Ok… j’ai compris un peu. Erm, merci.” Okay, I understood a little. Um, thanks.”
I return to Evelyne and explain what I understood. We start a new batch of fresh cheeses. There are two different shaped boxes with holes in them that shape the cheese. One is round, the other is rectangular. On the table are about 15 already drying fresh cheeses in rectangular boxes. So, we decide to follow the example and make more rectangular cheeses.
Once we have salted and turned all the cheeses, filled new batches of new cheeses, cleaned all the tables, the floors, the appliances in the sink, not to mention having already gone on a long excursion trying to find creme fraiche and St. Nectaire cheese earlier, and fed all the sheep, I’m tired. And perhaps a bit starved of positive feedback.
When Stéphane comes back he asks why we made rectangular cheeses.
Soiled room no.2: A dim-lit room with a low hanging ceiling.
Location: Plaisance, France in an eco village
Date: Early November, 2018
I am staring at a pile of slightly dusty towels, holding a label, flabergasted and frustrated. It is my eighth day working at an eco village in the South of France, and my fourth day breathing in dust and sut from the inside of this dark room with a low-hanging ceiling and beams that stick out and hit you in the head anytime you stand up too quickly without thinking. Days ago, though it feels like years, I was given the personal nightmare of a task to, after trying to teach English to a child who refuses to learn, enter this hell room and organize every single item. I’m talking rugs with cat pee stains, sheets of random proportions, feet pillows (Yes, FEET PILLOWS!!??), little pieces of fabric, giant comforters with giant holes in them, children’s clothes, ski equipment, etc. My original partner in crime in handling the room quit, straight up left the eco-village (tempting me to do the same). Today was supposed to be the day I would have the honor of labeling all of the items, having finished the cleaning and organization part of the work. Except Raphael, the man in charge of the eco village, begins explaining how he would like me to reorganize the sheets, the towels, in fact just about everything I thought I had finished organizing. So, I’m standing here trying not to start screaming, wondering why in the world did I ever willingly come here? when suddenly Raphael’s ex-wife enters the room and begins complaining that he should have consulted her because all of her stuff is now reorganized by a stranger and I didn’t organize it the way she wants it. All the while I’m standing there waiting for even a hint of praise or appreciation for what I’ve done. Also wondering why French people love to make their guests incredibly uncomfortable all of the time. (In America you would obviously wait to complain about the changed organization until the poor tired worker is out of the room).
Am I spoiled? I think to myself under the hum of French conversation around me. I begin to dislodge the piles of towels. Maybe I’m just spoiled.
Yes, maybe I’m a spoiled American, but where is the, “Hello, Lily, how are you liking it here? How was your day? Wow, look at all that folding of disgusting stuff you did! Thank you, I appreciate it! Look’s great!”
I know what it is, I think.
In France, there is a lack of insincere compliments, the needlework of American social life. The way we fill up dead air, lighten the mood, and encourage ourselves. The pleasantries of small talk. If you’re a sensitive baby like me, you just might miss it.
You also might not have found the best farms to WWOOF at.
It’s a gamble, those three sentence reviews.