Workaway: A Concept
Working holidays are a concept both well known and practiced in Europe, The UK, New Zealand, and Australia, to name just a few places, but based on the pool of Americans I have spoken to on the matter, the working holiday is something of a mystery in our homeland. Indeed, a cursory glance at the listings in our country shows that while there are just 1,700 hosts in all of the United States, there are approximately (I say approximate because a number of these profiles could no longer be active) 3,700 hosts in France alone. Needless to say, the supply of hosts stateside pales in comparison to the numerous opportunities overseas. While I am not entirely sure why this might be, I am certain of this: working holidays are a super fun way to travel while cutting costs and meeting cool people with different ways of life.
Though the internet is replete with work exchange opportunities in many countries, I have only ever needed or used the one: Workaway. When I first started this type of travel, WWOOFing was the best known website, and they specialized in organic farming. Workaway was the lesser known cousin, and remains unique in that the work types vary greatly--anything from building and agricultural work to childcare, cleaning, or even runs to the grocery store. While the type of labor is pretty much anything you can think of, most hosts ask for 20 to 25 hours of work a week. Hosts can be filtered by everything from location and availability to types of work and amount of feedback (reviews) or languages spoken. Most hosts have a basic profile: availability, a list of work types, information about their area and housing, and expectations regarding labor and time. As workers, Jill and I have a shared profile which includes our abilities, our backstory, our interests, links to our blog and Instagram, and tons of pictures of our faces. Additionally, people who use this site must pay a yearly fee (which helps keep down inactive subscriptions) and undergo a verification process.
Workaway has gotten pretty good over the years, with a large number of jobs available--it is now quite easy to find a host in an interesting area with work that fits your skillsets. Just set your filters, find a host with a good profile and plenty of pictures, and then introduce yourself via the email system on the site. Rejection happens, but I have had good success with finding hosts.
For the uninitiated, this kind of thing can seem very risky, and I am sure there are stories of things going wrong. While that hasn't happened to me personally, I do think there is always a small risk when you go out into the world with an open mind. In this way, travel in general is all about risk-reward analysis. Technically, you could see the best or the worst that humans have to offer. Repeatedly, though, I have found that the working holiday/travel community represents a self selecting group comprised of some of the best of humanity. (Your milage may vary.)
I made traditional American buttermilk biscuits for our host family several times. They were a hit.
First and foremost, Workaway is all about cultural exchange. Yes, there is a labor component, but for most hosts, the labor provided just barely covers the cost of food and board because most people aren't very effective at their jobs for the first two weeks. During those first two weeks, hosts must work hard to train their guests, delegate tasks, cook for an extra few people, and all while being gracious and a person. As a worker, you have to be prepared to perform strange and unfamiliar tasks which were probably explained through a language barrier, live with people you don't know, and possibly change all of your eating and sleeping habits. Sound kind of like a raw deal? Well it could be. But it's the best way to get cultural exchange, and thats what most hosts and workers are after.
Most of the time, what you get as a worker is a chance to experience a completely different lifestyle with new food, new surroundings, new philosophy, and new purpose. This can be both confusing and constructive, but it is almost always worthwhile (even if it wasn't super fun). Watching how other people conduct their lives can teach you a lot of lessons, many of which can be applied to you own life. Additionally, meeting different people from many walks of life always improves your understanding of the world and broadens your compassion for humanity. So while not guaranteed to be super comfortable or easy, there is a lot to be gained.
One of my jobs was to walk around with children on my feet
I also had to fix some RC cars. Mostly they just needed new batteries
As a host, I think there must be a lot to be gained as well. Certainly the labor is important. Many hosts are in more rural settings, have children, and are either renovating a home or undergoing many projects. Their lives are often quite full of activity, and it helps to have an extra set of hands even if they are unskilled and don't speak the language. Mostly, I think hosts are just curious individuals who may not have the time or be in the right position to go traveling, but who still want the experience of meeting travelers and exchanging food, philosophy, and just about anything regarding another place. My hosts have always had a ton of questions about the United States, and I always have a lot of questions about wherever I am. I think most people can relate; there is a lot to learn in this life, and it's fun to know how other people are making it work in their corner of the world.
Work is what people often have the most questions about. They can't imagine how it would go, what one would do, or how this doesn't turn into a "forced labor" situation. Well, I had all those concerns when I first started, and still do--everything is on a case by case when dealing with individuals. Most of the time though, work is manual in nature and does not require tons of technical know-how unless you have a relevant skillset. Depending on the situation, you may be unsupervised, but generally this is only for really easy things or tasks that you have already done a few times during your stay. Most of the time, work is slow at the beginning, and responsibility is gradually piled on until the end. There is a very rewarding sort of integration that happens, as you gain enough experience to truly engage in the environment. Really, it is like any new workplace, except you get to leave after you've enjoyed the steep learning curve.
Don't let the smile fool you...this broke us both
Our Switzerland Workaway
Jill and I just finished the first Workaway of our year-long adventure, and the experience has been enormously positive. We found our host about three weeks before we arrived, having recently been ghosted by a different host with whom we had made arrangements several months in advance. Such is the risk of dealing with strangers. Rosa responded quickly and professionally, so we decided to commit. I think this was divine intervention, because our family in Zwieselberg, Switzerland could not have been a more perfect cultural exchange for us.
Having set the dates for our stay, just one day short of Rosa's three week minimum, we bought tickets from Zürich to Thun. Rosa offered to pick us up at the station, and everything was set. We arrived, and Rosa promptly took us to the grocery store, where she asked us if we could make dinner the following day and if we needed any specific foods during our stay. We almost asked for a package of McVities Digestives, for which we had developed quite an appetite during our time in Paris, but decided to go full native and only eat what the family was eating.
Typical breakfast at the farm. Complete with an egg from their chickens, and some of Rosa's bread!
After purchasing a surprising amount of cheese, we were off to our new home. Every minute that we weren't being murdered, I was slightly more confident that things weren't gonna go that way. Twisting through scenic roads, Rosa asked us about our trip and our lives. Thusly, our relationship began to take form. We pulled into a long gravel drive, were shown to our room in the 100-year-old farmhouse where the grandparents live, and we settled in.
There were some really good cats here...
Without going into too much detail, this was the best Workaway that I have had. Lucky Jill, this was her first. Not that my past Workaways weren't great in their own right--I got a lot out of them--but this one was special. The way we were integrated into the family was very sweet, and our correspondent, Rosa, made sure that we had a good time in what felt like a very personal way. We went on an overnight excursion, multiple day trips, and got to tag along for a few family outings. More importantly, we were with our hosts for most of the time and the cultural exchange was phenomenal. We tried different foods, consumed pounds of cheese, talked about our politics, and shared a lot of information about each others' countries.
Just moving some horse poop, which is half of owning horses.
Spending time with someone that knows their way around, and wants to show you, can be a big reason to do Workaway. Rosa took us to Burgdorf while she ran errands with the kids. She took us to see her friend make cheese in a very old and very traditional cheese house which was right next to a much newer and also cool cheese factory in Emmental. She took us to meet her very cool friends near Langnau, who had a really nice dog and fed us vermicelles for the first time. She even took us to the Kambly biscuit factory in Trubschachen (I didn't even get sick from too many biscuits) and to see the Haflinger Center in Trachselwald (Jill and the 6-year-old daughter Ciara were quite pleased with this pit-stop). These are all things that we just would't have thought to do on our own.
Sorting dried herbs for Susi, the grandmother
Our work for this family was as varied as the cheese we ate. Everything from feeding the chickens and moving actual tons of firewood, to rearranging the office and looking after the kids. This is typical. Our family lives on a 150-plus-year-old farm and we came in the winter, so there were lots of little things going on that needed doing.
Stripping away insulation and chipping away concrete for a fresh tile floor.
On an average day at the farm, Jill and I would roll into the kitchen at about a quarter after 9 (because that is when we could manage to get our lazy asses out of bed), eat some of Rosa's homemade bread with jam or honey for breakfast, and make a a few cups of coffee. Around 10:00, Rosa would give us some tasks or let us know who else to report to. We would work until around noon when we come back to help Rosa set up for lunch. We would sit down at 12:30 to eat with the kids, Markus, and Rosa, then would all clean up and either break for a nap or get back to work. Usually Jill and I started working again around 2:00 and stayed at it until 5:00 when we would change clothes and have some down time before heading to the kitchen to help have dinner ready by 6:30 (which on several occasions was something traditional like raclette, rösti, or fondue). After dinner, everybody was winding down. Most days went like this with small variations. Occasionally Markus ate with us for breakfast, or maybe Rosa hung out with us after dinner, but for the most part, this was the formula.
Delicious raclette! Rosa pulled out all the stops
During our stay, I think the varied nature of our work was one of the hardest parts. We clearly had a start time, but our end time could be vague in the beginning, simply because Jill and I wanted to make sure we were doing enough. By week two, we had both come to the conclusion that we would be asked for more help when it was needed, and that we didn't have to sit around and stay at the ready. This is normal when there isn't one big project happening, like a harvest or putting walls on a house, you just have to wait until the rhythm of the family becomes clear. For this reason, many hosts consider 3 weeks to be a minimum stay. Any shorter, and your workers just don't get the hang of things.
One of my jobs was to build fires in the boiler. I was very attentive
My Past Workaways
Previously, I had been to three Workaways, two were in a town called Bagnères-de-Bigorre, in the Pyrénées in France. While in the Pyrénées, both my hosts were quite similar. Though I did go out with the family once or twice, I spent most of my time alone, wandering around the town and riding the mountain bike they gave me through the local parks. I enjoyed this, but it was pretty solitary. I took one meal at home instead of two, and the work was much more specific. In part, I think this was because both hosts in Bagnères were not really from there. They were British expats. So though I did get an eye opening glimpse into the lives and communities of expats in France, I did not get a whole lot of tailored advice from French citizens who had been there for a long time. Also, the second host was actually just another British couple who needed help. Essentially, I completed the work that was expected with the first family and they didn't have enough to keep me busy, so they sent me off to their friends so that I could help them out. Maybe they were sick of me, but it all worked out quite well and I probably only spent $70 the whole time I was there.
The kitchen of my very first workaway. It was 2011 so phone cameras, and my composition skills, have improved
My first job was to landscape this planter. Before I got to it, it was an actual puddle of mud
I had a mother-in-law apartment at my first gig. This was a typical breakfast: two crepes with Nutella, Wheatabix, and a small pot of coffee
The sweet bike they gave me! I would pack lunch and ride into the mountains.
The other family needed this taken care of
My final Workaway on that trip was one month near Cubjac in central France. This was completely opposite to my time in the mountains. I was at a yoga retreat center working alongside about 8 other people. All meals were shared, all meals were vegetarian, no meat or alcohol were allowed on the premises (I did sneak in some Bushmills which I had been carrying around unopened since Bagnères--the gardener was quite pleased to share it), and everything was on a pretty tight schedule. There was nothing of real interest nearby, save for a few parks and bar, and the hours were longer than the typical Workaway. I wasn't super jazzed about it at the time, but in hindsight, I really value that experience. I learned how to be happy by myself and how to make friends fast. I also learned how to put away my frustration when it isn't constructive (this is still hard to do, but it it was harder as an 18 year old on his first trip away from home). I also got to do some really cool work, and witness someone building their dreams. By the end, I was truly inspired, and felt stronger than ever.
My accommodations at the retreat center were spartan, but very private.
I was very proud of this purchase, and told John Forbes immediately.
I can now say that I have done 9 weeks of Workaway over the course of my life, and I am about to add another three. From all those hours of work I can say two things: each time is different, and each time, no matter how great it was, only becomes more revelatory as time goes on. Rosa was completely different from my other Workaways, and I have no idea how many ways I will want to thank her for this even just a year from now.
Update - Check out our "Workaway" category for more posts about our experiences!
Three weeks in South Italy with olive trees, horses, and more
One month in North Wales, housesitting for 21 pets
Three weeks in South France, building a structure for a summer kitchen
Three weeks in Catalonia, Spain, maintaining a lush 3-dwelling property