I had met my English and Irish friends in Antwerp, let them stay at my home and spent two days in Brussels. But now we were a few weeks further, and I was on the train to France. I told my boss that I wouldn’t come to work for a while and I had dropped my cat at a friends house. My backpack was packed for a month and contained a tent, some camping gear, train tickets, 100 euros and a pile of clothes. I had taken my bike and was ready for an adventure. I was going to do Woofing in France with a few mates that I had only recently met.
Woofing, according to Urban Dictionary, is “When a young person throws caution to the wind, rejects their material possessions and travels the world working on organic farms for the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms organization. They pay for the plane ticket, but then have free room and board in exchange for back breaking labour on an organic farm.” In my case, I had bought a train ticket, and I was on my way to a cow farm in France. My British mates had already been working there for two weeks. When I met them in Antwerp they were travelling around Europe by bike, but now that it was winter they wanted to settle down until the temperatures rose.
The train had just crossed the border. I stared at the gipsy camps in the railway embankment: I was almost in Lille. There I would have to change to Paris and from there take a train to Normandy, a more precarious undertaking than I had thought beforehand.
“What do you mean, I cannot take my bike on the TGV? According to the website I can?”
I was confused. The woman behind the counter in Lille-Flandres looked at me with no interest:
“No, sir, you have to disassemble your bike and put it in a bag.”
I fell off disillusioned. All I could think was: “What a fantastic world traveller are you Famo, you just crossed the border and you’re already stuck.”
I decided to take a look at the Go-Sport around the corner of the station; I wanted to know how much a bike cover would cost me, but soon went back to the station with empty hands when I heard the price. Would I be stranded in Lille? I already started making plans to just cycle the rest of the way, after all I had a tent and camping gear. But first I decided to address the train manager of the TGV that I wanted to take.
“Of course we take bikes with us on this TGV, that’s written on our website! What kind of ticket do you have?”
I explained why I had not received a ticket at the counter. He was not really helpful in his answer:
“Sorry, sir, you can’t travel without a ticket. Plus, this train will leave in a minute and a half.”
I felt like Asterix trying to get hold of the permit A38, I was a bit desperate. I turned my bike around and went back to the ticket offices. I looked for another counter and tried again. This time I was successful, and I got a ticket for the TGV two hours later without any problem. My good mood had gotten a dip for a while, but I decided not to worry about it any further. A few hours later I cycled through Paris on my way to the next station where I could easily take the Intercity train to Normandy.
A few hours later I arrived in beautiful Normandy. I was met by my friends who I had left behind a few weeks earlier. They had been living in the farm for two weeks now, and they liked their new life. I was assigned a pair of rubber boots and got a tour of the organic farm: there were the beautiful brown cows that lived in a gigantic meadow and a large stable, there was the house where the farmer lived with his family. There was the dilapidated barn with an attic full of books and of course there was the caravan where my mates lived. The caravan was where I would stay the next month. The caravan was not luxurious, on the contrary. But we had electric heating, a table with benches that also served as a bed, a small kitchen that we never used and above all a tight but wonderfully hot shower. You should know that we were by now at the end of October, and everything that gave a little warmth was welcome. I immediately felt at home in this caravan.
I was introduced to Rowland, the farmer. He was an Englishman who had moved to France and lived here with his eldest son and daughter who spent the week at a boarding school. He was a real Briton, a man who only speaks where necessary and never uses a word too much. It was hard to read what he thought, but I got to know him better and respected him after a while (the moment we talked about ghosts at the table will always stay with me, as well as the moment we went to the nearest town to taste Belgian beers).
That evening we had dinner with many people because his ex-wife and youngest son were also visiting from the United Kingdom. With nine of us at a table that might not have been designed for it, I felt a bit overwhelmed. What journey had I started? Did that farmer want me to come to his farm? After all, he had asked three young people and had to take me in too, just because it had already been agreed that I would be joining my friends. What could I add to this? I had never seen a cow up close before. And what did I actually do here with this family, people I didn’t know at all who were having family discussions?
“So, so you come from Belgium, we often say that is not a real country. After all, you do eat horse meat!”
Hilarity everywhere, the ice was broken. This would be fine.
Bike tour to Mont-Saint-Michel
Matt, William, Mark and myself left the next day for three days on holiday. We cycled to Mont Saint Michel, a rocky tidal island with a medieval abbey. This UNESCO World Heritage site has unfortunately lost a lot of authenticity due to its disneyfication, but it remains beautiful to look at. We slept in our tents on the way there, we ate baguette with French cheese, we drank wine and we were happy.
The third day Mark and I rode at the back when I got a flat tire. The rest had already out of sight and we decided to stay behind to repair this tire. If you know me a little, you know that I have two left hands, but luckily a helpful local resident came to help me stick my tire. We continued our journey, but somewhere we must’ve taken a wrong turn. We stranded in a small village and rang the doorbell of a random house for help. A French family was enjoying the extended weekend and immediately invited us to their dinner table. I assume that after three days of wild camping, we were spreading a slightly unpleasant body odour but apparently it was not offensive enough to refuse us. They showed us on the map where we were and let us use their landline. Oh how I sometimes miss the pre-smartphone era when you could still get lost and strangers would give you all the help they could give. The meal was epic but we had to say goodbye when William came to pick us up in Rowland’s Renault Express. The hospitality of that evening will always stay with us, as will the police patrol who put us aside a little later.
“Vos papiers s’il-vous-plait?”
William started sweating, he hadn’t brought his driver’s license to France and neither Mark nor myself had ever been behind the wheel of a car. I was the only one of the group who could speak Voltaire’s language, and so I started to interpret:
“His driving license is waiting for him in the post office, it was recently sent because he had forgotten it.”
I lied like the best, Pinocchio would be jealous. The gendarmes began to ask questions:
“Whose car is this, who are you, where are you staying?”
This time I answered truthfully. That the car belonged to a farmer, that we stayed there, what the address was, and so on. The policemen didn’t know what to do with us.
“We follow you to the farm, so that we can check whether your story is correct.”
For ten kilometres we drove through the dark Normandy landscape until we arrived at our farm. We did not want to wake Rowland because farmers have to get up early. The gendarmes were satisfied with this explanation and drove off. We have never heard of it again, apparently even for a French officer paperwork is absolutely avoidable, and it is better not to bother too much with three pathetic youngsters.
A day on the farm
There wasn’t much work for me, I didn’t have any experience in farming and I was mostly occupied with cooking, cleaning the house or cleaning the tractor. But I also gained a lot of experience with other things: we once had a lot of fun with a combination of chainsaws and trees, we picked apples in the orchard to later process them into apple crumble, I spent a whole day looking for the hole in the electric fence around the enormous domain and we spent two days removing a monstrous bramble bush that had gained too much ground.
In our spare time we drank the home-made apple cider which was secretly so sour that we mixed in some lemonade, we played music together or played card games with the son of the house, we ate the delicious home-made bread with the best French cheeses, we read books that we found in the attic and we lived like a god in France, but a god who has to work for his food.
Obviously not everything went perfectly, we had our little conflicts and disagreements, but I felt great with this group of friends.Since William had experience on farms he was usually the one who was asked to work, but I also tried to do things occasionally. The language barrier was sometimes a problem, my English was not that good at the time and I did not always understand all the instructions. But these folds were eventually smoothed out.
A day on the farm started at 6 in the morning when the cows had to get food and drinks. I was not a morning person and in retrospect I regret that I did not take more responsibility occasionally because usually it was the others who got up.
During the day we did a variety of tasks, and in the evening we usually cooked. Matt’s curry still remains the most spicy I’ve ever eaten, and as true Frenchmen we ate a selection of cheeses after dinner.
After the evening activities I usually fell asleep on the caravan’s bench, where a photo of the Antwerp cathedral above my head reminded me of home.
One day we were given the assignment to herd cows. Cow herding turns out to be dangerous if you are not careful, the question was asked whether we all had health insurance. I hadn’t thought about it, but according to Google, an adult cow weighs between 600 and 1000 kg, and if you accidentally end up underneath one, the consequences may be quite ugly.
The cattle that walked around this farm were from an brand unknown to me, but they were beautiful brown animals, not the tasteless Bleu Blanc Belge variant that we see everywhere in Belgium. They were bred for meat production, and in addition to more than a hundred cows and calves there were also two bulls in a separate stable.
The instructions were clear: cattle are stupid herd animals that scare easily. I did not want to end up like Mufasa who was trampled by a herd of wildebeest and listened attentively. We got a long stick, if we kept it horizontal we looked bigger than the cow, and it should go backwards. Bella does not like unexpected movements and we were advised to turn around and walk around cautiously.
The idea was that we would herd the cows from the meadow to the stable so that we could select calves that would be sold. With a long rope and good teamwork we made the field smaller and smaller until we got the animals through a kind of cow lock using our horizontal sticks. It sounds simpler than it was, because the walking steaks often had their own will.One cow thought she could jump over a fence, but unfortunately got stuck with her legs. It was a sad sight to see how the animal was almost crushed under its own weight with its hind legs up. With good teamwork and the use of a fork lift we got the fence loose, and while the freed milk factory ran away I thought I could see a mixture of fear and gratitude in her eyes.
After a hard day’s work we had selected the calves to be sold and put them in a separate stable, our work was done.
During this period my dad came to visit me, and when he returned home two days later he took us to Caen in the car. From there we took the train to Paris, where we lived like clochards for a week in a tent in the park, had a fight with a bunch of banlieue racaille and finally met a gang of rastafari. We listened to reggae music all night between the weed fumes, but that is a story for another time.
The return home was difficult. I said goodbye to everyone, and put my bike on the train. After the usual difficulties of train guards who bothered me about my bike despite the correct ticket, I came home as a different person. Living for a while without luxury or TV had changed me, and I got to know the value of outdoor life. For more than a month I lived on the rhythm of the sun, and despite the fact that I only had a bike, tent, some camping gear and 100 euros, I felt richer than ever.
This trip planted a seed with me. The ten years that followed, I often thought back to the moment when I was happiest: when I made friends for life without money or stuff. Ten years later I made the decision to live like this again, soon I will leave for a year on a world trip.
Thank you Matthew, William and Mark for teaching me this wise lesson in life.