la première semaine

Warning: this post will contain probably a gratuitous number of animal photos. Deal with it!

Today marks the end of my first week at my month-long farm stay/helpX stint, and a post is way overdue at this point, but my days have been scheduled to death (taking care of 14 horses, around 20 chickens, four sheep and seven lambs, four cats and a dog and a pig is quite a bit of work) and I just could not find the time to write (since on top of that I have collections to revise for ): ). There have, happily but also embarrassingly, been what one might call a surfeit of sleep, except over the week I was genuinely tired enough to warrant the 8-10 hours I’ve gotten every day.

Here comes an unexpectedly long-winded recount of my journey to France. Skip forward to the photos if you only want to read about the farm stay or just coo at the animals.

I. The journey

Because the journey is the destination, right? In any case, as much as I love traveling, the initial moments of actually leaving a place and going somewhere else is bizarrely anxiety-inducing. Probably because the student budget dictates weird flight times and navigating transportation in the dead of the night. I relish the stillness of the streets at four am with no company but the distinctive glow of streetlight, but at the back of my paranoid mind always runs the multitude of ways a horrible fate can befall me. 

Nothing happened (this time). In my youthful exuberance, I made a stupid decision to stay up all night for my 8.55 am flight, despite only having to be at the airport at 7 am, which technically meant that I’d only had to leave my friend’s house at 6 am, which meant that I could have gone to bed at 11 or even midnight and gotten a decent 6-7 hours of sleep. Instead, I decided that I had to be at the airport at 6 am (god knows why) and then proceeded to leave the house at 4 am, even though the travel time was less than an hour. It’s one of those decisions you make because you’re young and stupid and think that since you’re young, one sleepless night will not faze you at all, and then four hours later you are bleary-eyed and desperate to just close your eyes and lean your head against something solid. Plus, I had a whole day of traveling to do ahead, because to minimize travel, I had booked back-to-back flights between Edinburgh, London and La Rochelle, which sounds smart in theory, but meant I spent around four hours in lag time at London Stansted. Do you know how comfortable the chairs there are? The answer is, not at all. Not even a little comfortable.

Also, at Stansted, while I contorted my body into a position that was the least uncomfortable to sleep in, I met an Indonesian couple, who proceeded to chat to me, primarily because I was Singaporean. I felt briefly guilty about not being able to speak Bahasa Indonesian/Malay. In any case, meeting them was a mixed blessing, I suppose. They were very friendly, and bade me to have breakfast with them (free large cup of sorely needed mocha! I felt too guilty to spend any more of their money.)

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Spent too long in the bathroom of the tiny box that was La Rochelle airport and ended up being the only passenger left at immigration. There were four officers and one asked if I spoke French. Chagrined, I said, un peu. They then proceeded to chat with me in halting English for a bit. I think they were trying to catch me out by asking leading questions like how long are you working for and what do you study in France and do you travel a lot. But I was calm as a calm clam. (Not happy – I’m appropriating that simile.)

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Took a bus to the town centre and then decided to walk to the train station, which Google Maps had told me was a mere 1.6 km away. Promptly make a wrong turning (right instead of left) and walks the biggest roundabout possible to the train station. Also, I must have walked through the least attractive part of La Rochelle, where all the suburbs are. There also aren’t proper pavements. People must not walk very much in this part of France. Did not get lost only by virtue of the many signs labelled À la gare, but must have walked around 4 km.

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This rainbow made me very happy (: I was walking into the seams of the sky between rain and sun, and I just knew it was perfect rainbow weather, and then I took a few steps forward and there it was.

Luckily, the weather was beaming and great and reminded me (the first of what is turning out to be many, many times) how glad I was to have left the UK.

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By far the prettiest building I saw in La Rochelle.

Of course, 600m away from the train station, it started pouring. Fortunately, it lasted only for about two minutes, I think. 

II. La Roche-sur-Yon

Was met at the train station by the host parents’ son, who spoke a decent amount of English. He’d spent eight months in the UK. Now he’s building ships and sailing on them! Loves animals. It was a very gentle introduction to my month-long French immersion experience (seeing as it was done in English). But I think it made me a lot more comfortable than I would have otherwise have been; my French would simply not have been up to holding a decent conversation for half an hour.

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The runt of the litter in the box. It still can’t stand ): But it hasn’t died yet, which is good!

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Inquisitive things who have a surprisingly strong headbutt. Seriously. Did you know they headbutt the ewe’s teats when they want more milk? Poor ewe.

The family is open and lovely, but not as intentionally welcoming as I had, perhaps naïvely expected. It’s not a commercial farm stay, after all – I’m not paying to be treated like a guest in a farm setting. It’s a workstay/volunteer arrangement. The fact that I wasn’t really given a welcome tour or a rudimentary orientation of sorts meant that I was a bit reticent for the first few days (also my absolute lack of conversational French and inability to comprehend French words when linked together) because I didn’t want to overstep my bounds and inadvertently do something I’m not supposed to do.

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This is the most adorable cat ever.

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Seriously, look at it. It curls up everywhere and just falls asleep into an adorable ball of fluff.

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Sexy and she knows it.

But it’s been a week and I have graduated to being able to understand most of their instructions when directed at me, and bits of their own conversations. The daughter is the most incomprehensible, because she speaks very fast and does not articulate, like me in English; we haven’t really made friends because of that huge language barrier, and also somehow it’s harder for ‘children’ to befriend each other with parents around. Or for me, at any rate. But she seems very sweet, and well-behaved. The family’s very – functional (to mean the opposite of ‘dysfunctional’). The word ‘functional’ doesn’t quite seem right. Well-adjusted? They all get along lovelily, and help out with chores, and don’t yell at each other.

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This dog is a giant girl. Actually. A painting fell off a wall and she whimpered and ran around chasing its own tail and leapt into my arms (literally) for five minutes.

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But adorable, very (: And very intelligent. Unfortunately, only understands French.

My job is generally just Helping Out, which is double-edged because it means quite a bit of work on some days and then little work on others. I also have to do household chores, which seemed like a mild annoyance until I contemplated the alternative, which was essentially to be waited on by my host family, because they’re already cooking for me and all that. In any case, I suppose the household chores only feel like work because I never had to do any in Singapore.

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That net of haystack is a bitch to fill, twice a day.

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Electric fencing all around. Every time I touch it, I brace myself for a zap, even when I’ve switched the mains off myself.

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This is one of the piles I uh maintain every morning with my shoveling efforts. It smells surprisingly neutral. Wearing boots, it’s become a non-issue to squelch around in the stables. And yes, the liquid is exactly what you think it is.

There is an easy routine to the work. I wake up at a comfortable hour of 8.30, have breakfast until around 9-9.15 am, and then muck out the stables and feed the animals. This takes me to around 11-11.30 am, after which I help prepare lunch and then study for a few hours until late afternoon, around 5 pm, when a second round of feeding occurs. Then dinner preparation starts and we finish around 8-9 pm. I then work or chill for a bit, take a shower and go to bed. Have gone to bed before midnight for most of last week, but I suspect (hope) that was just because the dual challenges of shoveling horse shit manure for two hours and general carouseling about, and straining to understand and parse all the French were quite draining. Will aim for a healthy 1-2 am bedtime for the rest of the month, which should free up a lot more time for work/keeping in touch with people (read: FB. Seriously, though, I haven’t really had time to keep up with my correspondence, and that is sad).

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