Should a 30-something small mostly-vegan female even attempt WWOOF-ing in France?
February 25, 2009 5:54 AM   Subscribe

Should a 30-something small mostly-vegan female even attempt WWOOF-ing in France? Maybe near a major city? Other ideas for volunteering to meet new people and practice my newly-learned French? Anybody with insight into physical demands of WWOOFing? [rather long, sorry]

I'm about to complete a beginning/intermediate French course and am eager to put my new language skills to use. I live near Raleigh airport, have some airline vouchers I have to use by May, and will complete my course around May 2. I don't have a lot of cash, but I think I can scrape together enough to get around.

My nascent plan is to volunteer at an organic farm or other establishment as a way to meet new people, have a fairly laid-back time, and maybe learm something useful about canning or organic vegetable cultivation.

Unfortunately, I'm not a strapping, hardy young college student. I'm a 5'3", mid-30s very white, very American female who really doesn't like being around smoking. Crazy, no? I'm pretty sure that working outside for six hours a day in blazing sun and heat like we have in Georgia (US), where I grew up, would give me beaucoup mal à la tête. But, hey, I'm thinking, it can't possibly be that hot or bright in France, right? Also, maybe I wouldn't have to work 6 hours a day. And time outside could be good for me. My back is basically OK, although I know from experience that lugging heavy luggage around for several days will just about kill my feet.

I've seen listings that mention canning, but that's probably not happening in May, right?

I just don't want to commit to something, get over there, and end up being useless or having a miserable time. Or to invest myself too much in this idea (and I do tend to go all out) if no one's through this program is going to have a use for my particular talents.

I found a couple of listings on the French WWOOF site that sound non-row-hoe-specific ("We love shopping for antiques & going to trunk sales! You would help us set up events for our non-profit organization dedicated to X esoteric thing!"), but I'm wondering if they're envisioning some cute young thing - I know, I have to ask them. Cool, but does anyone here have any insight to offer on my likely chances of finding a gig like this that's actually _open_ still at this time? Could something like this actually be for real? This particular listing sounds a little fantastic.

Things that would make me less attractive (other than the general "not a strapping college student" stuff covered above):

- I have pretty picky dietary requirements - I'm thinking that being near a major city will allow me to buy my own food (tofu / soy products, can't eat a lot of eggs, am mostly vegan) - I generally have to take care of my own food when I travel. Which will be a pain, I know.
- hate smoking. I'll be looking for a non-smoking situation. I hear that's difficult in France.

What I have to offer:

- probably more dependable than the average college student
- good problem solver, intelligent, resourceful in my own environment
- actually know some French
- native English speaker with computer science background
- can do some web development or scripting if necessary (but I'd love to avoid computers for a while)
- not particularly timid when it comes to action (although sometimes socially quiet).
- can read music (probably useless, but there it is anyway)
- some experience with basic woodworking, willing/interested to learn & do more.

*** main question: is the work necessarily very physically hard? If it varies a lot, then are there ways to screen, or to ask about it without making myself sound like a wannabe freeloader? I do like to work, and I love the idea of contributing rather than being a tourist.

Are there other forums where I should ask these questions?

Also, the idea of just showing up somewhere in a distant country advertised by an Internet listing seems kind of crazy. Do I need to make sure I have a solid backup plan? What do you do if you show up and your room is a packing crate with no heat and lots of fleas?

Finally, although I'll probably join the French WWOOF organization, I believe people have mentioned Craigslist as a way to find volunteer situations like this. I tried looking at, but no category jumped out at me as the correct one to look under. Does anyone know how to search this?
posted by amtho to Travel & Transportation around France (14 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I can't speak much to the WWOF bit, but you may be surprised at the level of contempt your beginner/intermediate French speaking skills earn you. I was.

And it can get ridiculously hot in France, depending on where you are. Provence, for instance, can be scorching.

As to this:
- probably more dependable than the average college student
- good problem solver, intelligent, resourceful in my own environment
- actually know some French
- native English speaker with computer science background
- can do some web development or scripting if necessary (but I'd love to avoid computers for a while)
- not particularly timid when it comes to action (although sometimes socially quiet).
- can read music (probably useless, but there it is anyway)
- some experience with basic woodworking, willing/interested to learn & do more.

kinda boils down to "computer savvy adult American with a good attitude." Which is fine, if you're there to do farm work. Whether or not it's "very physically hard"--I don't know anything about WWOF or French farming practices (as different from anywhere else) but if you haven't ever done farm work before you should probably expect it to be "very physically hard" on you, at least for the purposes of deciding whether or not this is a good idea.

On the other hand, WWOF is pretty clear that you don't have to do any particular kind of work you can't handle. From

Il n'y a cependant aucune obligation pour le WWOOFer d'effectuer tel ou tel tâche, si par exemple vous avez une faiblesse d'un membre, une allergie... ou autre il faut en parler avec votre hôte qui souhaite évidemment que votre séjour se déroule au mieux. L'idéal étant de discuter préalablement au téléphone des conditions de votre séjour (date, durée…) et de votre participation (animaux, cultures…) à la ferme avec votre hôte.

Are you sure you don't want to be a tourist? Being a tourist is OK. In fact, I'd argue that even working on a farm you are more or less going to be a tourist. Given that, maybe you'd prefer to stay in a hostel or even a (gasp!) hotel. At least some of the time. Have all the different experiences you can! Who knows when you'll be back next?
posted by snuffleupagus at 6:14 AM on February 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

France can be intensely, intensely hot.
posted by fire&wings at 6:18 AM on February 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Thanks, snuffleupagus. To answer your question about being a tourist - not being a tourist has two significant advantages:

1) guaranteed to interact with others, working on some common task or goal;

2) not as expensive, I hope (my funds are limited and finances are a little precarious)

And, yeah, I know I'm basically "computer savvy adult American with good attitude", and the attitude bit isn't that solid :) But I'm working on it.
posted by amtho at 6:19 AM on February 25, 2009

From my (limited) experience, many French people are hostile to vegetarianism. I imangine that goes double for vegaism. Maybe WOOFing types would be better about it. I know you came up with the idea of buying your own food, but that's assuming a lot about the level of transporation/space to prepare food that will be avaliable to you.

Also, if lugging around luggage hurts your feet, farm work sounds like a bad idea.

I understand the wish to travel cheaply. Why not couchsurf? I've heard many success stories.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 6:35 AM on February 25, 2009 [2 favorites]

Argh. I think I sound like a total wimp here. I don't *want* to be a wimp, and I want to work hard, get stronger, contribute.

And couch surfing had occurred to me, and sounds kind of good; but I really like the idea of contributing somehow and of working with other people on something. I also have always liked gardening, growing vegetables, and although I don't have a yard right now, I hope to be able to remedy that in the not-too-distant future and actually raise some beans, okra, and so forth.

So it's not just about the cheapness. I'm interested. I just have this fear, which I hope is exaggerated, of being far away from home and in intense pain. Maybe I should just get over it.
posted by amtho at 6:54 AM on February 25, 2009

I've never heard of WOOF, but honestly, I can't imagine a better way for a mostly-vegan who doesn't like smoking and wants to learn a foreign language but it sounds like hasn't had a chance to travel very much to spend time overseas and is tight on cash than volunteering on an organic farm. Much much better than being a normal tourist on your own. My only suggestions based on volunteering in other contexts (as general principals obviously there are limits that should not be crossed) are:

(1) decide from the beginning that you are not going to complain or criticize how things are done or even offer (or at least insist on) many helpful suggestions on how you do things back home or how they could be done better, in fact, go out of your way to praise everything you come across and,

(2) just like that bad Jim Carrey movie, say yes to anything anyone asks you to do, even if it seems boring or stupid, and in fact, go out of your way to do as many different things as possible and volunteer for every time someone says, can someone help me with ....

You'll have a great time.
posted by RandlePatrickMcMurphy at 7:00 AM on February 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Hi, I've WOOF'ed before, but I am a man and was in my mid-20s (my girlfriend came too). I can tell you that it's really important to contact the farms that seem interesting to you from the list. They will be able to explain to you everything you have questions about. The point of WOOFing is to find a good situation, for your particular needs. Any farmer will want to know a lot about you too. At the farm I was at in Hawaii, there was a multitude of jobs to be done, so it was not like we did the same back-breaking work every day. Some days were physically killer, such as moving 40-50 wheelbarrows full of mulch and spreading it amongst trees (that's fill, trudge, empty, spread x 40). Hacking brush is also pretty sweaty and intense work. Some days were spent weeding, which, if you have a stool, is not very stressful. Some days were even spent doing more delicate work, such as painting garden signs for vegetables.

But it's all going to depend on the farm, the farmer, and the season. Perhaps you'll find a place to work that will meet your needs. Just be upfront about your skills and needs and start contacting farms. It can't hurt to look. But no online forums will have this kind of detailed information -- you just have to email or call the farms on the list and start some conversations.

Lots of organic farms are pretty friendly toward vegans and vegetarians. So that's probably not a big deal. Just ask about how many (and which) meals are included in your work / trade. And ask about the other meals and how you can get into town, or otherwise get provisions. For us on our farm, we got one big farm lunch per day. Breakfast and dinner were on our own (no meal was provided on Sunday). The farmer (or another WOOFer) took us into town, which was about 20 minutes away, once a week or so and we bought food. We could store our stuff in the fridge; each of us had a door shelf of our own. I think that since there were many of us, we'd all go in together on soy milk, beans, grains, and other staples. So I think the food is a non issue. I'd also put on my generalizations hat and say that french organic farmers are less likely to be smokers than the average french folks in Paris. So I'd ask about these, but I don't see either one being a dealbreaker for your travels!

Best of luck, bon chance, bon voyage.
posted by zpousman at 7:03 AM on February 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Instead of France, what about Quebec? There is this non-smoking vegan farm but it sounds like hard work. I am sure there are others you can research or if you contact them they may have ideas. The whole idea sounds like a great opportunity for you!
posted by saucysault at 7:09 AM on February 25, 2009

I just have this fear, which I hope is exaggerated, of being far away from home and in intense pain. Maybe I should just get over it.

If that's simply your biggest worry, and since you seem very excited about WOOFing (rightfully so) you could just keep in mind that no one can make you do something you don't want to. You're not signing some crazy contract. As long as you're flexible and not totally against the idea of going to a hostel if a placement falls through, it sounds like a super opportunity.

Anyway, more importantly, I forgot to mention that couchsurfing is an excellent resource for meeting up with people for a drink or a tour around the city. So even if you're not staying with someone, take advantage of it to meet new people or get advice about an area.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 8:10 AM on February 25, 2009

Have you considered other French-speaking countries? YOu could volunteer in one of many African states, as well as French Guiana in South America and a number of Caribbean islands. You'd probably be a lot more welcome there, too.
posted by halogen at 9:13 AM on February 25, 2009

I'm willing to consider an African state, for sure, but I worry about a) travel costs, and b) that it would be hotter than France -- not so much an issue if I'm not doing farm labor, probably.

I live in the American South, and grew up in Georgia and liked hot days, but I'm definitely not the same now as I was then.
posted by amtho at 9:17 AM on February 25, 2009

zpousman gives excellent advice, to which I don't have much to add. But I do want to address your desire to "contribut[e] and work with other people on something" -- this is just one more reason why it will be very important for you to communicate with the WWOOF hosts beforehand. You'll want to make sure there are others there for you to work with. When I WWOOFed (summer in the Pyrenees got surprisingly hot, btw!), it was just me and the host family: one woman, her 5- and 2-year-old children, and occasionally her husband, who would sometimes appear for dinner. There was a lot of alone time. If a primary interest (this is what I gather from your questions, although I could be wrong) is building community with a larger group of people, just make sure that either there will be other WWOOFers around, or that the farm itself hosts a community of workers*, or, consider WWOOFing with a buddy.

*I also learned that "farm" is an extremely loose term in the WWOOFing world. The "farm" where I WWOOFed was actually more like a farm house with a garden and a couple donkeys. I ended up doing more childcare than anything else.

Bon courage, et amusez-vous bien !
posted by delayed-reaction android at 1:27 PM on February 25, 2009

I have been interested in WWOOF myself, and can't imagine that a vegan working on a produce farm would have any problems with acceptance of her food habits. As far as your size, I find it hard to believe that there are no hard working French women your size or smaller on farms.

As far as whether you would like farm work, why don't you try WWOOFing domestically before going overseas? This way you can ensure that you like the experience first. In addition, your experience here will likely make your transition in France a little easier, since you'll be familiar with farm work by then and easier to train.
posted by Piscean at 5:56 PM on February 25, 2009

Hi there amtho,

OK, I am an early-20s white college student, mostly vegan, who speaks French, originally from Georgia, who does not like excessive heat, who is currently in France. So I definitely have some characteristics in common with you!

I'll address each topic separately:

1. Heat
Can't really help you with this one, since I am neatly avoiding the summer by studying abroad during the school year. As others have said, France can get hot apparently...if you're in the southern part, then be prepared for it.

2. Veganism/Vegetarianism
This may be your biggest issue, both in your perception and the actual issue of procuring food. You would be working on a farm, which certainly helps. If you're near a big town, you may have good luck finding a health food sort of store with good vegetarian meat substitutes and the like. Of course, nuts and beans, and other whole food sources of protein, can be found in your average grocery.
As for people's reactions, something that I try to remember is the fact that most people are just ignorant of what a healthy veg*n diet looks like. They aren't usually trying to be deliberately hostile, but they are just operating from a mindset/culinary tradition that is not veg-friendly. I still get ribbed by friends of my host family, in a good-natured way, so just be ready for some misunderstanding and teasing. Be prepared with good explanations in French when people ask you why you eat the way you do -- I usually go for the triptych effect with "better for my health, better for the animals, better for the planet."

3. French speaking
Along with the stereotype of the snobby French comes the stereotype of "the French deride all attempts to speak French." While no one is going to lavish praise over decent/good French, most people are not going to laugh in your face at small errors or hesitation. If you make a good effort, they will appreciate it. In big cities (lookin' at you, Paris), many shopkeepers and restaurant people will switch to English if they detect any accent or unsureness. Do not let this discourage you. They want to practice their English just as you want to practice your French. This problem is much less common in smaller towns.

I hope this helps to answer some of your questions. Please feel free to send me a message if you'd like to discuss any of the above.

Bon courage!
posted by fantine at 6:48 AM on March 3, 2009

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