September 2009 – Monday – I’m flying to France for the first time ever, to stay for 4-5 weeks at a guesthouse, a volunteer helper via www.helpx.net. I leave London early morning to arrive in southern France, in the nearby town of Rodez. My host, Agnes and her grandkids Gaspard (6) and Amarande (8) meet me at the airport, and we drive to her little village named Valady. First Agnes shows me around the big main guest house, Agnes first shows me the first choice of a small upper level room (NOT) and then gives me a second option of a mid-level private room with a desk, extra bed, two windows, complete with a GORGEOUS hillside view. Well, which one do you think I asked for? Duh. WiFi in my room, a desk, a view, simple pleasures – life is good.
Dinner is nightly at 8, served outside on the patio. Tonight dinner is with the grandkids Amarande and Garance (10) and another helper Wayne, who is from New Zealand and has been here a week already. Two more HelpX helpers are due to arrive later tonight or tomorrow.
Tuesday – 9 am is the hour to start work – OH, I have had the life of leisure sleeping in this past week – but I GUESS I CAN GET UP EARLY!
I begrudgingly rise around 8 and delight in a long and wondrous shower with a lovely familiar Grohe showerhead. Yum. The sink is old and massive – it weighs as much as a car, I’m sure. It reminds me of the big sink that “Chief” picked up and tossed through the window to escape at the end of “Cuckoo’s Nest”. Take this, Nurse Ratchett! Breakfast is homemade yogurt with a wee touch of home canned blackberries and granola, and a nice cup of café a lait.
The menfolk are all outdoors working on the stone “ruins” – the two French masons are no doubt delighted to have some willing assistants to do the grunt work of stone lifting, cement mixing, etc. I will take a photo every few days to record their progress. It looks like a Lego project from here. They use concrete block for the structure, and face and line it with existing stones so it appears to be all done in stone. It’s a work of art to select the proper stones to create the façade to match the previous layers. It reminds me of my mom’s philosophy of “talking” to flagstones when laying a walk or building a wall – using intuition to determine which stones go where.
Wednesday – I work again in the stairwell and after 3 coats of paint, it looks pretty good. I enjoy working in the house, but there is a lot of alone time that gets my Monkey Mind on a roll. Focus, and use this time as a working meditation! Just like in the Karate Kid – Mr. Miyagi intones “Wax on, Wax off.”Lunch is fun, it is a help yourself buffet of healthy goodies to choose from, and it’s nicely set on a tablecloth outside, a picnic with the “crew”. Once again, Agnes’ grandkids join us, Amarande and Garance. They are still on summer break, but will return to school mid-week. I will miss having them around – the three of us played a card game last night while the girls sang songs from a variety of musicals LOUDLY! Mama Mia, A Chorus Line, Annie – even Bye, Bye Birdie! It seems that Garances’ parents take her to many Broadway musicals when they visit the U.S. Her dad is from Connecticut, so her English is quite good.
Today I write a letter to my “Spiritual Sistahs”, my good friends from all over the world who are following my voyage vicariously…
I am now in France, I arrived Monday afternoon, and I’ll be here for at least several weeks. I found this place through www.helpx.net – it’s an old stone chateau with several buildings – two habitable, two NOT. I have a private room in the guest house – a large rambling stone deal with meter- thick stone walls and amazing views. I just work 24 hrs/week in exchange for room & board. My hostess Agnes (she lives in the next house, a former stone barn) is happy to lend an old car, a Citreon formerly called “Violette”. However, now I have re-christened it “Le Bombe”. The first time out – a flat tire. Second time, the car wouldn’t shut off – I had to pop the clutch and stall it to kill the engine! The door doesn’t shut easily, either. It is still the perfect transportation for tooling around the little towns here in the region of Aveyron, southern France. When I got the flat, a young fellow pulled over right away and just changed the tire for me! Who says French people aren’t friendly? I’ve not met one yet that hasn’t been a total love. The townspeople delight in chatting, particularly about America. They jump at any chance to reminisce about their trips to America – San Francisco, New York, Las Vegas. I stumble along with my poor French, but I understand a lot, and a smile goes a long way – so it’s all good. I am becoming quite the mime, in order to make my point with my paltry French – Marcel Marceau would be proud.
Agnes has had me working in her house, while the menfolk are outside working on the masonry with the French stoneworkers. I’ve been walking on a precarious catwalk over a stairwell this week, painting the walls & ceiling. It’s sort of brainless work – but I do it slowly, safely and most carefully. I feel like Phillippe Petit from the movie “Man on Wire”, when traversing the span above the stairwell.Even though it is not “changing the world” – I am grateful that I am WILLING, that I am HEALTHY and AGILE, that I am ABLE to be here in this lovely spot on the planet to do this work. Who would have thought a year ago that I’d be here in France in an old chateau? Even now, there are occasional tearful moments when my “little brain self” kicks into “Poor Me” mode briefly – and I am awash with thoughts of being alone and feeling rejected and unloved. I am getting much quicker these days at experiencing and diffusing painful thoughts and energies, moving it from my Monkey Mind to the ultimate alchemist, the Heart Chakra, to be transformed from acceptance to non-judgment to LOVE. Release it and let it go. Be grateful you are alive.
– Brief Philosophical Interlude –
During this time of work, I try to use the time constructively and do my job mindfully. I realized that this is really one of the first times in my life that not only have I been traveling for a long time completely solo; but I realize that there really is NO ONE that is my “safety net.” Most of my life I have had someone – my parents, siblings, my husband – always someone that would catch me if I fell, would look out for me, warn or keep me from danger. But no longer – I am like Philippe Petit – living life without a net. It is an odd feeling, but maybe all these years of working “with a net” have prepared me for NOW – and have enabled me to function in the world without one. It may be an empowering realization, but it makes me aware of how much we can accomplish alone – but also I can appreciate more fully how much more we can do boldly as a team. I miss being part of a “team of two”, this I will confess. And sleeping alone still chafes me. I often tuck a heavy pillow behind my back for a feeling of a presence in bed with me.
My dear friends – I will be in touch. Please do the same – the internet is my lifeline these days, and any note is most appreciated! – Love, Donna
P.S. I saw this quote – quite appropriate for my life journey these days, I thought… “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” ~ Charles Darwin
Friday – There is only a half day of work today, so it is a relaxing pace for all. There are too many people inside the barn working today as it was raining at sunrise and the masons showed up and left. Hence, no work for the crew to help with – and they are all scrambling for jobs inside. I opt to go outside and wash and detail “Le Bombe”. It has a layer and a half of greasy dirt on it – even algae around the trim – it’s amazing that it isn’t a rust bucket by now. It takes nearly all morning – but it is presentable finally and Agnes is delighted – especially when I tidy up her own car’s interior a bit with a rag, a vacuum and a dust brush.
We have the afternoon off and Wayne & Tony want to go to Belcastel. Since I’m the only driver, they are like kids bugging me “Let’s go! Are you ready?” I sort of wanted to chill a bit, but naps will wait. We head off and it’s about a 45 minute drive to this lovely little spot of France – one of Les Beaux Villages de France. And it truly is a delight, reminiscent of the Cotswold Cottages of England in its level of charm.
We park and walk a bit – finally splitting up to explore this tiny town in our own time. It is all so lovely! There is a stone bridge leading to an old stone church, even a small RV campground along the water’s edge with families out on the picnic benches along the shoreline enjoying the sunshine.The cathedral is not memorable, but it has lovely long tapers for one Euro – and I donate and light one for my family & friends, and in memory of those who have passed on in my life. There is a cemetery to the side, and often they are interesting, so I take a walk through it. The family plots have all these plaques (called souvenirs) and figurines on them, commemorating family in a variety of ways. The granite plots are nearly all lovingly tended and tidy – sort of a showcase of remembrance, and I imagine a focus of family pride. I tidy up a few that have tipped flowers or a branch out of place. I particularly liked this one, with an edge shaved in the granite to resemble my favorite mountain range of all – the Grand Tetons.
On the way through town, I see a gorgeous home, and I stop to admire it. It is lovingly cared for, a picture perfect village home – and when walking away I hear the frenzied barking of dogs rushing down the driveway – so I know the owner is most likely not far behind. I head back to greet her and she and I engage in some pleasant French conversation about her lovely home (she’s lived there all her life), the garden & plants, etc. There is a loud whistling and singing from the porch – it is her pet parrot and she takes me up to show me. It is a LARGE gray parakeet the size of a small pigeon who cocks his head and looks me over before starting up with his chatter again. His name is Noyo! I’d say this is one of my favorite things to do when traveling abroad – wandering through town and engaging the locals in conversation. My spouse always seemed annoyed when I’d stop and cluck over someone’s garden or sniff their roses – but this is “the Juice” for me. Now that I’m on my own, I shall do as I please!
Saturday – today it is Deniz’s turn to ride with me somewhere – and so we choose to head north to the town recommended yesterday – Conques. It is just the two of us and the others are all off on their own adventures on foot or by bike. It is about an hour north of here, and the drive is really lovely – over hills and winding through vineyards and charming little villages – we finally arrive and park on the town’s outskirts. Driving is limited in town, so it is much more relaxing walking about than in other little towns, with cars buzzing through at fast speeds. The town itself is an absolute delight – cobblestone streets and walkways, colorful overflowing floral baskets, lovely quaint shuttered homes and stone cottages. It’s so cute you just want to pinch it.
The cathedral is impressive from the exterior, but not so much on the inside. There is a gold statue and other precious treasures in the adjacent building, but we forego paying 6 Euros to see them. Instead, we enjoy a yummy lunch in a central pub/café and people watch while awaiting our food. It was worth the wait – a nice slice of olive bread, a fresh salad and a savory bowl of a delightfully rich fish chowder. We later walk about town some more and on through the surrounding streets, stopping to admire the apple groves and grapes in full fruit.
We get to talking and find out that we have something in common (other than both having lived in the San Francisco bay area) – Deniz also had a serious car crash, and survived – but lost his sense of smell.
Tony also survived a serious crash a few years back in Belgium – a victim of a hit & run drunk driver – and he suffered a broken back. Having been broadsided and flipped over years ago with my kids in the car, I know how frustrating it is to wait for “damages” to rear their ugly head. It took more than a week for my head to freeze up and at least a year before the damaged vertebrae in my neck and back returned to normal. Anyway, what an odd alumni to be in. We all concur that having survived something like that gives you a new outlook on life. Seize the day – live in the moment – life is short!
Sunday – Lunch on the outdoor patio “big” table with Agnes, her grandkids & daughter, and all of us (now there are 7!) helpers. The table is at least 12’ long! Later in the day – Wayne, Tony and I head over to Belcastel thinking there was a festival – but it is a large flea market selling everything from antiques to toys. We decide to sit outside at the café and have a few drinks and people watch. We meet up with a group of other travelers – from all over including: Italy, the UK, New Zealand, Ireland, Belgium, U.S., Greece and on and on. It’s a regular United Nations gathering! One Kiwi fellow stops over to chat to Wayne and invites us to all stop by his HelpX project on our way home. He is a buffed and tattooed cutie – but my GayDar (radar for sensing if a man is GAY!) is going off – and I am right. His partner Nick meets us when we drive by their project. It’s a very tall stone fortress, with lots of stonework to be completed and at a daunting height. There is a long (20’) patio table outside, with remnants of a party or lunch. In typical French fashion, they grab a bottle of cider (alcoholic) and four glasses and we chat for awhile at his lovely garden table before returning back “home.”
Tuesday – Today, with the stairwell done, I get to paint the inside door outside – offering me a delightful view and fresh air as my bonus for this days work. It’s slow moving, with a coat of primer on each side, two coats of finish white, trim in a day or two. A new HelpX volunteer shows up (NZ), she’s 62, married (but not happily) and is enjoying a month or two away from her boring and impotent husband, which certainly is not an alluring combination!
Later, Deniz and Agnes arrive with the new entrants to the chicken yard – ten new young hens to tantalize and delight the lone cranky rooster. He struts around while they wait for the hens to emerge slowly from the cardboard boxes – sniffing each hen thoroughly and making quite a racket. Wow, his harem just increased from four to fourteen. He should be a happy boy!
We all eat another lovely dinner outside under the pelting hemlock tree (it keeps raining buckeyes) and under the gorgeous moonlight, the magical mood is enhanced by candles and music from the house. Tonight we have some lovely French ballads by Edith Piaf, courtesy of my i-pod.Wednesday – Another day to paint the door outside, the colorful trim this time – and I carefully apply it like it is my Magnum Opus. The little strip of trim in a door is called a baguette – like the bread. Now you know. Agnes has a gite inspection from the authorities to make her property ready to lease legally – and a few things need added or fixed – that’s what we’re here for! We get to eat dinner outside again, lovely weather! During dinner, Deniz fusses about with the new hens and their lack of acclimation to the chicken coop – the ten hens are clustered in a group under a tree and will not venture into the chicken house to sleep. So, he and I head down there in the dark with flashlights and locate the clutch of hens, carefully picking them up one by one and putting them in the hen house. There is some clucking when we put a new one in with the sleeping veterans – but they all finally work it out and we leave them to bond. The sky is clear and the group of us pause by the fence and look up at the vibrant sky full of stars, locating ones that we know; me pointing out the Big Dipper to my “down under” friends, who are wondering where on earth the Southern Cross went!
Thursday – We finish work early and lunch is just starting to be placed on the outdoor long table. It’s a loud meal – lots of silly stories and laughter. The rooster starts crowing in the midst of the meal – six or seven times in a row, much to Agnes’ delight. I postulate that he is crowing for each new sexual conquest, and everyone erupts in smiles with each successive crow throughout the meal. He has 14 hens to service now, after all. Big Love!
Agnes’ party guests begin to arrive for the 6 p.m. game of Petanque in the driveway. Anglos are on one team, non-English speakers on the other. A tray of Pastis and a liter of water sit alongside the court. Pastis with water tastes like a licorice jelly bean to me – I’m not much for anise, but it goes down easily. Amazingly, after six games, the ANGLOS win!!! How about that?
Later on, our outdoor dining tables are set in a large “H” formation, with colorful tablecloths, candelabras of funky candles, party lights in the trees. There are ample jugs of wine, litres of water and big pots of lovely soup, mussels and rice, baskets of fresh bread – YUM. After, the dessert is a chocolate treat with beet root used for the sweetener – which is just delightful. There is also an incredible tiramisu that Agnes just “whipped up” this afternoon. Wow. There are about 25 of us, and the grandkids Garance, Amarand and Gaspard are in attendance, as well.
Several gay neighbors, a few married couples and married men – all seem interested in what I am doing here – what is my story, they ask? In my limited French – and with my limited willingness to share – I convey the basics. They’re all surprised, amazed that I am here, that I am traveling Europe alone. “C’est la vie!”, I say. “Oui, D’accord”, they say!
The party is magical, faces laughing, shining; engaged in conversations intimate and outrageous – sort of like the birthday backyard dinner scene in the movie Chocolat.
“Remember this moment”, I say to Deniz who is sitting next to me. “Crystallize it in your memory and tuck it away in your memory like a special treasure – so one day when you are feeling sad or alone – you can take it out and roll it around in your hand like a special worry stone.”
The music ranges from French to Latin to Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra; even to a Turkish sort of ethnic dance deal – and couples and groups erupt dancing with great abandon in the yard by candlelight. Dancing continues through the night – culminating in wild swing dancing in the main lounge room downstairs. I finally escape to my room – after all, I am scheduled to be on the road at 8 a.m. tomorrow – the Medieval Festival in Estaing!
Libra (9/23-10/22) My Horoscope –
After breakfast, I walk up the hill and check out the landscape. There are some bountiful blackberries and plums yet to be picked – and I’ll return in the next day or so with some baskets to carry them in. The plums are on the ground around the trees, I pick up a few and bite into one and it is so warm and sweet and it just melts in my mouth. Wow, a sensual experience for so early in the morning. Such abundance! Yum.
“Every time you get rid of an old idea, assumption or unwanted item, you make room for a new influx of energy and growth. Today, you could use a big dose of freshness, so see what you can do to empty a few closets (emotional and bedroom alike). Whether you toss out a relationship, a grudge or an old sweater, you’ll immediately feel a sense of freedom and relief. You’ve been released from hanging on to what you thought you needed. Whatever you can’t let go of possesses you. The truth is you already have everything you need.”
Later in the afternoon, May and I opt to drive Le Bombe over to Belcastel, as she’s not seen it before. The castle itself is open, and we choose to pay the six euros and go through it. It was restored in 1973, and beautifully so with a drawbridge, a section of the moat restored also. There are several knights’ armor in it on display, as well as an unexpected collection of original illustrations from Charles Shultz (Peanuts) and Dr. Seuss. It seems the owner/architect who restored it was a collector of these originals. They are lovingly displayed, even though a bit out of place in an old castle, but anything goes! It is a beautiful restoration, truly.
“Everyone has two journeys to make
in their life.
There is the outer journey,
with its various incidents and milestones;
and there is the inner journey,
a spiritual Odyssey,
with a secret history of its own.”