Volunteer in a seaside garden | Menton, France

I dreamt a thousand dreams last night and none of them involved me in an exotic locale. Funny, we’re on Day 42 of our six-month trip, and you’d think at this point I’d be dreaming that I’m fighting the sand in the Sahara desert or playing that I’m Kate Winslet Titanic-style on the edge of a mountain in Andalusia, but that’s just not the case. In my dreams I’m doing strange shit, sure, but I’m in my normal habitat—taking the subway to the West Village, poking the tomatoes at Compare Foods in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, talking books at a librarian convention. I’m beginning to wonder when traveling place to place will become my “normal”.

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This is what I’m thinking about as I wait slumped on top of my backpack at the Gare de Menton train station for Alexandra, our host, to pick us up and bring us “home” to her garden in the French Riviera. After all this time dreaming about France, I’m finding it hard to believe I’m actually here.

We found Alexandra and her garden on Helpx, a website similar to WWOOF or Workaway. It’s an online company meant to connect you to organic farms, homestays, B&Bs, hostels, etc. who invite volunteers to stay short-term in exchange for food and a comfy place to sleep. We did it only once before in Álora, Spain and it was a beautiful experience (a future blog post will come about that). This time, like last time, I really had no clue what to expect.

I read Alexandra’s profile on Helpx, and I read reviews from several of her past volunteers. I viewed her photo gallery. And from all that, I deduced that Alexandra’s home was more or less what I imagined paradise would be: somewhat secluded, a 10-minute walk from the quaint city centre—cobblestone streets home to gelaterias, vino bars, and cute little boutiques—all overlooking the bleu Mediterranean Sea. I wrote to Alexandra at once, but I didn’t hear back for days. Then at some point during our road trip in the South of France, we got an email.

“I’ve had a cancellation. When can you get here?” To which we replied: “Demain!”

We ditched our rental car, the one we still had reserved for two more days, C’est la vie, and headed to Menton.

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I have some butterflies, per usual, prior to meeting Alexandra. I write it off as fear of the unknown. What do I get nervous about? I don’t know, potential awkward situations, an uncertainty of how to behave in a foreign place, the possibility of our personalities not meshing. There was no picture of Alexandra on her Helpx profile, so at this point I’m looking for a “mushroom” color van as she described in her What’s App text. I think, what a gardener to describe a color in that way.

As it turns out, Alexandra is much different than I imagined. She’s older, possibly in her late 60s, early 70s, I suspect, based on the many lives she’s lived. She was once an assistant to a Diplomat, a well-known architect’s wife, and a book publisher prior to purchasing this land in France after her husband’s death 15 years ago. She’s from New Zealand but lived in London for 45 years, so her English accent is a strong one and her humor is dry as ever. I’m enjoying her. It’s our first night and we open two bottles of wine after the younger volunteers go to bed. We talk politics, described recent books we’ve read, and romantic notions of the meaning of life.

Most nights play out this way, but our mornings are much different.

Paul and I wake up at 5:30 AM because we need at least one cup of espresso in our body before we face the rest of civilization. At 6:00 AM on the dot, I tie up my hiking boots, grab my harvesting “snips” and take the elevator down to the first floor where we meet the gardeners and view our order for the day—small sorrel leaves which I’m told will be used to make sorbet, bright blue, violet, and yellow edible flowers, orange, purple, and atomic red carrots tied with string, cactus, any anything else requested by Alexandra’s clients, three Michelin star restaurants in Monte Carlo. We pluck and then we package. To do this, we line small plastic containers with soaked napkins that we fold into neat squares. Once we place the greens inside, we spray them lightly with water, seal, and voila!

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Alexandra drives to deliver the orders to the restaurants, and we have breakfast. We’re given 25 minutes but we take 30 and call it “Spanish time,” a phrase we picked up in Álora since our group of Spaniard friends were notoriously late to every occasion.

Cooking and eating at Alexandra’s is an experience all in its own. Everything is free to the volunteers and top quality – fresh bread, cheeses and meats, foie gras, quail, homemade orange and lemon marmalades, fresh honey from the bee hives. And we share the responsibilities—setting the table, lighting the candles, cooking, and cleaning up afterwards. It’s lovely.

From 9:30 AM to Noon, we work in the garden. No prior skills necessary, I assure you. I knew zip about gardening before coming to Alexandra’s and my duties include watering, weeding, tying up vegetable vines. Basic tidying. The gardeners we work with speak a combination of French, Italian, and Spanish, so our instructions come with mostly hand gestures. But they get their point across pretty well, laughing at me while I wield a hose. One of the gardeners called Christian calls me over, points to a small insect on a leaf and says: “Killer bug.” Then he points at me: “Killer woman.” Turns out my watering skills are like my French. No good.

At noon, we’re on our own and able to discover Menton and all its beauty. I soak my head and hair with the garden hose, switch my gardening garb with a bikini, and the day is mine. Since Ventimiglia, Italy and its beaches are only a 5-minute walk away, we trade off—half the day tanning on the rocks in France and the other half diving off the cliffs into the cool, turquoise Mediterranean Sea in Italy. When it’s dark and the fireflies light the sky, we know it’s time to lay our heads down and prepare for the next early morning rise.

A girl could get use to this, but sadly I’m only given a week. And then onto the next place we go.


Venessa

Venessa Carson is traveling for 6 months around Europe, Africa, and Asia with her husband Paul. Find her at Breakingbklyn.com or on Instagram @venessacarson. You can email her at venessawcarson@gmail.com.

1 Reactie

  • Jacqueline schreef:

    hi Vanessa,

    Kelly Gregorio is a very old and dear friend of mine. She shared your blog with me after a conversation I had with her a week ago where I shared my desire to travel. I live in Los Angeles, and would love to do something very similar to what you and your husband are doing, only solo. Alexandra’s farm sounds lovely, and the line about the fresh honey inspired me – im a beekeeper by trade. I’d love to volunteer with Alexandra. Could you put me in contact with her directly?
    Thanks for your time and wishing you safe and happy travels.
    Best,
    Jackie
    561.414.7981
    Jacqueline.windus@gmail.com

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