Workaway in Brittany

From the beginning part of my travel planning has always been to travel slowly…to get to know an area instead of seeing few sites everywhere I stop and breeze through on a whirlwind tour. Another part of the planning was to find ways to cut travel expenses. In my research I found many work-in-trade programs where a host and traveler work out an agreement which is normally a set amount of work hours over the course of a week in exchange for room and board. Stumbling across these programs was an awe-inspiring moment and I immediately knew it was something I wanted to do. It would allow me to stay in locations for longer periods AND cut costs. Win, win!

There are several different programs out there; one of the most well-known being Worldwide Opportunities On Organic Farms. While I have nothing against organic farming I wanted other opportunities also and decided to join a site called Workaway (workaway.info). This site has a variety of work types literally all across the globe. From help with childcare and household chores in Paris to helping learn English in Brazil to helping at a center for abused women and children in Tibet to helping with renovation projects in Canada to …well, you get the idea. Below is one of my Workaway adventures. Enjoy!

I’d been wanting to visit Brittany since seeing some travel show host visit there a few years ago (probably Anthony Bourdain), but it’s been so long I don’t remember what about the show drew me to the area.  Nevertheless, when Philippa contacted me about coming to work and stay with them in Brittany I jumped at the chance for two reasons.

  1. I knew I wanted to see Brittany
  2. I needed something to refresh my memory as to why

I thought being there was the best way to figure that out.  About 48 hours after arriving I’d fallen in love with the small towns, like nearby Josselin, and smaller villages like the one I was staying in, and the countryside.  I assume that’s because I’ve traveled for over 3 months now and in a way the area reminded me of where I grew up.  After realizing why I loved the area I also realized that it WAS NOT my initial reason for wanting to travel to Brittany.  The travel show host was on the coast, not in the countryside.  So the next time I’m in Brittany maybe I’ll go to Brest.  Being the largest city in the region, and on the coast, it should be a totally different experience.  Maybe there I’ll find what drew me to Brittany in the first place.

Enough of all that…

I woke up early on the day I was to travel from Paris to Brittany, talked a few minutes with my new friend, and one night hostel roommate, Glennise, and left for a walk in the rain. After a 5 minute walk, about 30 minutes on the subway, over an hour waiting for the second train going west that morning (though I was there on time I missed the first train…it took me 3 ticket windows, all for the same train company, to buy my ticket!), 2+ hours on the train, an hour waiting for a bus, almost 90 minutes on the bus, and 15 minutes in a car…I was in a small village in the center of Brittany, France.

It’s a quaint French village, smaller than the small Kansas town I grew up in, but big enough to have a tall church (Europe does tall churches like Kansas does wheat fields; they’re everywhere!), small general store, pâtisserie and even a bar/restaurant. I was there to stay and work with Philippa and Allan, an expat couple from Yorkshire, England, just north of where Stilton cheese comes from. They normally live alone but along with me, there was another Workaway visitor, Dave, Philippa’s oldest son James visiting from Germany, her teenage twins and one of the twins’ friends, all from England. So instead of their normal two they had eight people in the house. Luckily they have a big house. Actually it’s not a house, it’s an old barn. A very old barn; over 300 years old.

Initially, while still living in England, they bought only part of the property, which is almost a third of the building, as their holiday home. Soon enough they bought the rest of the property and turned the other end of the barn into a holiday rental gite, where Dave and I were staying, and a few years ago they moved to France full-time. Us Workawayers were there to help with the renovation work on the main part of the barn, which will be Philippa and Allan’s house when it’s completed.

Decorative Stone Wall
Decorative Stone Wall

I filled most of my sixteen or so days with helping James build a decorative stone wall in what will be a sitting room.  I use ‘helping’ very loosely here because I was basically the apprentice to James who is a trained stone mason  (and the week Dave was there James had two apprentices).  I would bring stones (mainly sandstone or granite but also a few chunks of marble) inside for him to choose from, mount anchors into the existing wall, mix mortar, and clean up the scrap…basically a gopher.  But by the time the wall was nearly finished I could help James pick out stones and even set a few myself.  Watching James work was very impressive; he’s truly an artisan.  And actually an artist as well; he’s an accomplished painter and sculptor.

I also spent several hours punching a hole for a new doorway, which will connect the gite and main barn, in the 300 year old wall.  It was over three feet thick and, for something mainly made of dirt and grass, amazingly hard to break with the jack hammer.  There were also various small jobs I helped Allan and Sean the contractor with.  Basically I was a laborer for five to six hours a day.

A Foggy Morning in Josselin - Josselin Chateau
A Foggy Morning in Josselin – Josselin Chateau

In my downtime I did a lot of writing and visited several nearby, and not so nearby, towns.  One of those, Josselin, is a beautiful medieval town with an old chateau and every Saturday an outdoor market.  I love markets and was glad we went both Saturdays I was around.  All told I think I spent about seven hours walking around Josselin (which included a terribly embarrassing walk into a church for Dave and I) over three different visits.  It is a little touristy but awfully cool nonetheless.  We also went to a vide grenier (flea market) one day.  Amazingly the same junk that’s sold at US flea markets gets sold at French vide greniers. And some of it was the EXACT same junk; I saw the same old American movies and records, and half-broken Stanley tools you would expect to see in the US.  There were also a lot of interesting ‘French’ things, but for the most part it wasn’t too different.  More nights than not we spent with a glass (or bottle) of wine enjoyed over a hard-fought card game.We had a couple different BBQ’s, went to a trivia night contest at the local bar, went to a classic small town French restaurant with a 4 course meal, and I spent a couple of hours one afternoon walking around the countryside.

View Toward Josselin Chateau From Atop the Josselin Lock on Canal de Nantes à Brest
View Toward Josselin Chateau From Atop the Josselin Lock on Canal de Nantes à Brest

All of that is what I was expecting.  I knew I’d love Brittany (even though I wasn’t sure why). I knew I’d be helping with a renovation project and I like to do that kind of stuff.  I knew they lived in a rural area so I was anticipating small towns and fields and open spaces.  What I wasn’t expecting was meeting so many British people.  Based solely on my small sample size, 90% of people living in Brittany are British!  Even while writing this more than two weeks after leaving Brittany, off the top of my head I can think of over 35 Brits.  And those were just Brits we ‘ran into’ and close friends of Philippa and Allan.  My second day there I had already met about 15 people, all British, and made a comment that I felt like the only foreigner in France.

Philippa and Allan’s good friends Sean, Donna, Sally, Julian – British.  The electrician – British.  The plasterers that got the job (and the one that didn’t) – all British.  The six or eight people I met at Trivia night (plus the 10 I didn’t meet) – all British.  A guy named Gator that gave me some great advice about meeting women in England, more friends, etc. etc. – ALL British.

I really had a great time in Brittany, mainly because Philippa and Allan, their family, and all the Brit expat community I got to know for two weeks were fun and entertaining and crazy and made me feel at home.

I look forward to, if when I go back to Brittany, figuring out why I wanted to go there in the first place.  But mainly I look forward to stopping to say hi to my new friends Philippa and Allan, playing cards, and making sure that wall is still standing!

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