After enduring the theft of my iPhone in Lyon I decided that it may be a good time to take a break from hostel living. As mentioned before I was able to contact a family living in southwest France through the HelpX program. They agreed to house and feed me so long as I return the favor with work on their farm. Seems like a very fair agreement to me. After spending my three days exploring Toulouse my hosts were ready for me to come to their hobby farm east of Gondrin.
As I board the high-speed train in Toulouse I am filled with anxious excitement. I’m not sure exactly how the next couple weeks will go, but I am sure that they will be eventful. The train arrives in the city of Agen after an hour passes. I need to find a bus to Condom, so I walk to the ticket counter and ask when the next one arrives. The slightly rude man behind the counter informs me that the next one comes 9:15. Good, 10 minutes to find an ATM for enough cash. Walking down the street I ask a local where the nearest machine is and then head in that direction. There is a line at the ATM when I get there, so by the time I have some cash I only have a few minutes before the bus arrives. Running back to the station I get there right as the bus arrives. I walk up the steps and show the driver a piece of paper where I have written ‘Condom?’ to which he nods his head and I pay for my ticket. The bus is almost empty as I take my seat and it leaves the station.
The scenery on the way just keeps getting more beautiful. We pass rolling hills with vineyards that look like tiny, desolate forests covering the ground. I can not wait to see where this farmhouse is located. I arrive in Condom around 10:00. In the emails previously exchanged with Deborah we agreed on a 3:00pm pickup, so I have five hours to kill. I leave the station and walk up the small hill towards the city center. I pass a cathedral on my right that seems to have a statue of conquistadors out front which I find odd. Finding a small sports café I walk in and order a café latte. I have five hours to spend here, so I find a booth, read my book, and sip coffee. After three coffees and one book finished it is time to walk back to the station to meet one of my hosts, Debs.
Debs arrives and tells me that because her car is broken from overheating she walked from where she works in town to meet me. I can fix that for her and I already feel useful. She says that she is glad to have a mechanic coming to stay at their house with them.
We walk back to her place of work together. As we walk we pass more small shops underneath housing flats. The shops are nice, and I stop in one to buy a gingerbread and raspberry sweet. The mixture of gingerbread and raspberry filling is absolutely delicious.
When we arrive at her work we meet up with one of her colleagues who will give us a ride to the house. He is a nice guy, and we all pile into his old Land Rover Discovery for the trip. It takes nearly 30 minutes to get out to the farmhouse from Condom. Travelling on single lane, dirt roads covered in ice and snow, it reminds me of driving out to my family’s cabin up north. I get a pang of homesickness, and then it is gone, replaced instead with excitement.
As the Land Rover pulls up to the house I am greeted by a quartet of barks and howls from the four excited dogs, eager to find out just who has arrived at their home. Being sure to pet all of them, they return the love and I’m sure they will welcome the addition to the household. The household itself is absolutely beautiful. A few hundred years old, it is built from sandstone blocks and wooden beams. It is situated next to a natural outcrop of sandstone in the hill and is high enough to have a lovely view of the surrounding area of French countryside. Absolutely breath-taking.
I walk inside the château and greet the other three help exchange participants. Justin and Katie are both from Canada, and Ben is from England but has spent a great amount of time in Catalonia, Spain. They are all very interesting people and I look forward to getting to know them during my stay here.
After getting to know each other for a while it is now time for dinner. Keith turns out to be a fantastic cook. Dinner is beef cooked with parsnips, carrots cooked in basil, delicious steamed cauliflower, and red wine. Derek, the fifth volunteer, arrives some time after the meal is finished and is able to retell his story about driving back from Toulouse and getting lost. Soon after that Debs and Keith go to sleep and the rest of us stay awake much longer sharing our interests and backgrounds.
The next morning I find myself waking up at 8 am with out an alarm to the morning sun, which is unusual for me. My first job is fixing their little Hyundai 4X4. I gather some tools and take a look. I see the signs of a mistake that I made returning to Minnesota from Arizona when I neglected to make sure my coolant was good for very cold weather. Debs told me that her truck overheated. The weather has been unusually cold here. The coolant mix was too weak and the lower half of the radiator is almost frozen solid. Luckily, it is a gel still so it had not broken the radiator or anything else. I thaw the coolant, flush it out, and replace it. Her little truck just barely escaped disaster. I feel like a part of the group now that I have added something to the maintenance of the farm.
Work for the day ends around 4:00 in the afternoon. We all wander into the house and clean up for a bit, then head back outside to play some Frisbee in the nearby field. The dogs come with and are extremely excited to maybe, just maybe, get ahold of that Frisbee. When we get out there I find out that Katie actually plays Frisbee for a team back home and she spends some time teaching us all of these different throws we can do. I never knew that Frisbee could be taken that seriously. When we are all tired out, including the dogs, we walk towards one of the taller hills nearby to get some beautiful photographs of the surrounding area. Then we make our way back to the house because it is nearly time for supper.
Dinner is delicious. We have mashed potatoes, swiss chard with onions, and oven cooked fish. It is one of the best I have ever had. I drink some red wine with the meal and eat as much as I can until my stomach tells me it will burst if I eat just one more bite. We spend the next couple of hours telling and listening to stories from each other. Derek is working as a forest firefighter back home in Canada, and he tells about a time when one of his colleagues got food poisoning from their terrible cook and how angry his friend was that he had to rest instead of cutting down trees. Ben is very much a philosophical man and is also a fantastic cook. He prefers to sit back and listen to the conversation from the side and every so often interject something either fascinating or absolutely hilarious. Katie and Justin share some interesting stories as well, and I spend some time telling all of them about small town Minnesota and how it is to live in America.
Soon after I am near dozing off, so it is definitely time for bed. I fold out my sleeping quarters from the couch in the living room and cozy up inside the comforter. As I drift off into dream land I realize that my previous expectations will prove correct. The time I spend here will surely be amazing and will make memories for me forever.