When Della first suggested we look after a farm for a week in the south of France I choked a little on my Chardonnay. “What do WE know about looking after a farm?” I asked. But the more I let the idea percolate (and the more wine I drank), the more the idea grew on me. The girls love animals, we enjoy a new challenge and we’re pretty good at following instructions. Why couldn’t we do this? After all, it was easy imagining myself in wellies and a flat cap, minding sheep and collecting eggs :). So one hour (and a finished bottle of wine) later, we decided to apply. Shockingly, after a few emails and an introductory Skype call, the farm family decided we were responsible enough to look after their property and animals while they vacationed.
Soon after arriving at the farm we realized the week ahead would be very different from the two months we’d already spent on the road traveling. It was quiet, not bustling like the cities we’d been navigating. The air was fresh and clean, not dusty and grimy. And with the nearest store a 20 minute drive away it was more isolated than any other location we had stayed at.
It turns out life without schedules can be a little disorienting (I know, duh!), especially given we left pretty over-scheduled lives back in Seattle. While we knew travel would be REALLY different, we’ve struggled to find a good balance of scheduled versus non-scheduled living over these initial months, and this has often led to feelings of frustration and homesickness. Every city we visit is different, every place we stay new, every day a blank slate with a million new opportunities that can be overwhelming day after day after day.
We were in need of a little structure, and the farm – with its feeding and maintenance schedule – provided the stability and respite we all needed.
We enjoyed everything about our farm stay experience but I may have developed an extra special fondness for the pond (Della may have a different perspective!). After arriving on our first day it took just under 3 minutes to spot this little muddy puddle of a pond. Rain has been rare in the south of France this summer and this pond had obviously done its fair share of veggie patch irrigation during the dry spell. It was well below its normal levels and looking quite thirsty itself. The ducks or geese didn’t seem to mind its seemingly poor state so I wondered out loud if it actually had any fish in it. Alistair, the farm owner, answered quickly…”yes” he said, “there are some pretty nice carp in there actually.” He followed up his answer with “let me show you the fishing equipment”. Boom! 🙂
I grew up fishing on lakes and rivers and my love for sitting for hours beside bodies of muddy water never really left me. I gave up trying to understand what it was about fishing that kept me sitting, waiting, hoping for hours for just a single nudge of a float or bite of my bait. It’s nonsensical, illogical, silly. It really is quite pointless. BUT the intense sense of excitement I get and the meditative solitude I enjoy while fishing is unquestionable.
The girls and I have fished together before but not much and never for long periods of time. At the farm I got to fish with the girls for quite a few hours and it was bliss. I got to teach them the basics of fishing and watch them navigate the often frustrating cycle of bait, cast, strike, miss, bait, cast, strike, miss etc. Indeed only one thing really justifies the patience necessary to catch a fish and that is actually catching a fish. Thankfully the pond didn’t disappoint. Mostly carp, small but beautiful in only the way a boy who grew up catching carp could understand (American anglers don’t really appreciate these ‘bottom feeders’). No matter… a fish is a fish is a fish and the girls got a kick out of catching these 2-3 pounders and watching them swim away after being released.
One week on a farm… what’s the worst that could happen? For us, something dying on our watch was pretty much it. Stick to the schedule, don’t mix up the food, watch for new sores on the donkey’s legs, watch for give-away signs of colic, close up the chicken coop at dusk. We did everything we were told to do to ensure a complete hand off at week end. But even after all our efforts, we somehow managed to convince an old-aged ewe to expire the week we were there. I won’t bore you with the clean-up details but lets just say with Alistair and Bea’s long distance advice we dealt with the situation as best we could. Alistair and Bea were super understanding. The other animals however, not so much. We hauled the corpse from the field unceremoniously in a wheelbarrow under the watchful eyes of the remaining animals. We were being judged and we knew it. It was an uncomfortable and uncommon feeling. We may have given the horse and donkey a few more carrot treats that night – an attempt maybe to garner support among the leaders of the animal clan to help us rebuild trust among the remaining sheep. Yes, we attempted to bribe animals. No, I’m pretty sure it didn’t work.
We shared the farmhouse for a week with two others. Two amazing dogs with contrasting personalities – Yago, the jumpy rule-follower and Isa, the chillaxed dissenter – who provided joy to anyone willing to rub their bellies or scratch their ears. We walked the pair of them morning, noon and night and grew to look forward to the familiar loop down past the old well and vegetable patch, along the maize field (dodging the irrigation sprinklers) past the dam up toward the sluicegates, past the blackberry bushes, and past the pond back into the yard. The two dogs’ darting in and out of hedgerows and zigzagging through tall stalks of maize ensured that they were both covered in Velcro-like pods, stuck to their fur like bubble gum in a child’s hair. But that was okay…it meant we’d need to spend more time laying in the yard grooming them in the sun, a luxury I’m sure they enjoyed as much as we did.
We left the farm refreshed and reinvigorated with greater confidence after challenging ourselves in ways we didn’t expect. We were super sad to leave, as we knew we would miss the menagerie and the solitude, the vegetables and the fishing. Saying goodbye was hard but as we drove away down the gravel track toward the main road we giggled to ourselves thinking how happy the animals probably felt having their real family back and the foreign backpackers gone. “My goodness,” they probably all thought, “those guys didn’t have a clue!”
We’re still very much in the first trimester of our trip but we suspect the farmstay will remain a highlight. We’re very grateful to Alistair, Bea and the kids for trusting us with their little slice of heaven in the south of France (now minus one sheep).