For the last several summers, I have traveled to France, in part because I love the country and culture, but also to boost my French skills. In 2015 and 2016, I took French classes while staying with a famille d’accueil. These were rewarding experiences that definitely improved my French. This year, however, when asked by friends if I planned to return to France, I hesitated. As I explained, my travel budget was in need of a hiatus. I wanted another immersion experience and was thinking about Quebec, but I didn’t want to pay for classes. The difficulty I faced was how to come by the kinds of wide-ranging conversations one has when living with a family. If you’re simply traveling about like a normal tourist, most conversations do little to enhance your proficiency. One evening when I was revisiting this quandary, a friend pointed me to the Workaway website. There I found a cultural exchange program that gave me exactly what I was looking for: two weeks of French immersion in a beautiful area of the world for almost no cost.
If you’ve ever used Uber or rented an Airbnb, you are familiar with today’s share economy. Workaway employs a similar model. Employers, seeking temporary help, post jobs on the Workaway web site. Travelers, looking for inexpensive ways to see the world, apply for those jobs. If accepted for a post, they agree to work 20-25 hours per week in exchange for room and board. People work their way across entire continents, simply by moving from one Workaway job to the next.
When I went to the Workaway website, I was immediately impressed and encouraged by the sheer number of interesting-sounding listings. Want to see Berlin? You can help a family restore their grandfather’s house and garden. Interested in trekking in Patagonia? Consider working in a family-owned brewery that needs help during tourist season. Always wanted to visit Thailand? You and your spouse might like lending a hand at a dog rescue shelter, located on the beautiful island of Koh Chang. The possibilities are vast and since the lingua franca is English, communication is rarely an issue for Americans.
One of the first positions that caught my eye was a goat farm in Quebec where they make chèvre. I love animals and food and was immediately attracted to the cute goat pictures that accompanied the listing. Knowing that Quebec is a bilingual area when I applied for the job, I made it clear that speaking French was my primary motivation for seeking a Workaway post. The owners immediately replied saying that they needed two people to work during the weeks when I was available and that they wanted to offer me a spot. They added, however, that they had already filled one of the positions with a woman from Austria, and she only spoke German and English. Grateful for their candor, I thanked them for their interest and moved on.
Another listing that had caught my eye was a spa, located near the remote town of Eastman, about an hour east of Montréal. I’m not much of a spa person. When I want to pamper myself, I go for a walk, read a book, or drink a glass of wine with a friend. However, the region surrounding the spa looked beautiful and worthy of exploration. The job entailed working in the spa’s garden, helping the gardener harvest and cultivate food for the spa’s kitchen. After reading the reviews of former spa “workawayers”, all of which were glowing, I signaled my interest to the listing’s host, Alain, the gardener.
Within a few days, I received the following message, J’aurais peut-être de la place en début juillet pour me donner un coup de main au jardin, indicating that there might well be a place for me in the garden at the beginning of July. From there, we exchanged half a dozen messages and the deal was sealed. Very easy. No contracts. No guarantees. Just two people trusting in the good faith of the other. Two months passed with no further communication. In mid-June, I realized that much of my summer (and that of my family’s) was largely organized around this experience. At the risk of appearing paranoid, I contacted Alain to confirm that the gig was still on. His courteous and lighthearted reply put an end to my concerns.
As it turns out, I can’t imagine having a better Workaway experience. Alain proved to be a wonderful host and boss. For two weeks, I lived in a chalet on the spa property with other Workaway and temporary employees. My roommate was German and had been living in Montréal for about a year. Like me, she wanted to improve her French, so we agreed to only speak French even though she was fluent in English. (Oddly enough, she had been an exchange student in high school, and for one year had lived with a family within 40 miles of my current home.) Also living in the chalet were two young men from France; Alain and his Québecoise assistant, Nina; and an English-speaking Canadian who tolerated many long conversations in French before requesting a translation. A French woman, that worked in the spa’s kitchen was a regular visitor, so much so that I didn’t realize she actually lived in another building until my stay was nearly over.
The spa facilities, of which we had full use, were decidedly plush: jacuzzis, saunas, indoor and outdoor pools, a spring fed pond, hammocks, lawn chairs, outdoor woodburning stove, extensive hiking trails, gym, fitness room, hot and cold water baths, and more. The menu was lactose and gluten free which initially caused me some concern. My disappointment evaporated after my first meal. A French chef designed the menu, which was delicious and plentiful. I have to admit, however, to buying a cake, wine (French of course), cheese, and bread from the local grocery store. This was unnecessary but I wanted to surprise my amiable colocataires by supplementing the chalet’s provisions on a couple of festive occasions.
On one of our days off, my roommate and I hiked up Mont Orford for a spectacular view of the area. On another afternoon, we visited a local abbey and the picturesque town of Magog. I found the work in Alain’s garden to be equally rewarding. There were more than a hundred varieties of plants: berries, herbs, edible flowers, root vegetables, leafy salads, plants for tisanes, sprouts, tomatoes, legumes, and fruits. Each day, the garden received a list of the items to be harvested for use in the kitchen. As not everything is always ripe and available, it was evident that Alain and Nina worked closely with the kitchen staff.
Keeping track of what is ready to pick, what needs weeding, what should be trimmed, or watered, or fed, all the while factoring in the unpredictable weather of the region, is no small task. Happily, my jobs were simple and repetitive. Perhaps others would prefer attending a meditation class or sitting in the sauna, but I was much happier working outside, picking and pulling away. Having no other responsibility than filling the requisite containers with the specified plants, or expunging weeds from a row of strawberries, proved to be relaxing and restorative. Best of all, I was able to speak a lot of French and familiarize myself with some of the delightful peculiarities of the Quebecois accent and dialect.
Yes, I worked, but my first Workaway experience was hardly a working vacation. It was, purely and simply, a vacation. I highly recommend giving it a try.
In 2019, I returned to the spa. Several of the people that I’d met on my first trip also came back. It was a delightful reunion. I created a video documenting both of my trips.