I was very excited to participate in my first HelpX, in France. After having learnt French for 9 years at school, I was keen to test out my skills.
Of course, when I first met Kristelle and she started babbling to me in French; I had no idea what she was saying. There were of course, words and phrases I understood, but after a few "sorry's?" and "repeat, please?" she eventually reverted to English. Luckily I had a month to improve.
Kristelle's HelpX was on a small animal sanctuary in a petite town called 'Vandenesse' in the region of Burgendy. Needless to say, the beauty of the countryside in France superseded anything I had imagined.
Kristelle was a unique and wonderful French lady - she liked to eat chocolate criossants, sing songs, watch romantic movies, and play on the harp. Her house was full of different kinds of animals - rabbits, cats, birds... and outside on the fields there were donkeys, goats, rabbits, ducks, dogs and guinea pigs.
Each room in the house had a different theme - one was 'New York' with pictures of broadway posters all over the room, another was 'mad tea party'. My favourite was her bathroom which was 'Snow White' themed - once seated on the toilet you would find yourself face to face with a magic mirror on the wall and a basket of fake fruit including the glorious red apple perched above. Her bathroom had glowing green lights so that at night you felt as if you were in an alternate disco universe.
After a tour of the house, Kristelle showed me around the animal quarters, explaining how much I would feed them, who belonged where, etc. Some of the animals seemed content and excited to meet a new helper. The were all so distinctive in their personalities - the dogs friendly and excitable, the goose grumpy and pecky, the donkey clingy and affectionate.
Other tasks I would complete during the week would include gardening - mowing the grass, de-thorning the gardens, shovelling poop and clearing out the horse stables. I was also to be Kristelle's personal assistant when she had school groups come to visit the sanctuary.
I loved this kind of work - being in the outdoors with the animals, I felt like I was in heaven. I didn't even mind shovelling the poop - it worked my body and it felt wonderful to be able to contribute to Kristelle's project.
When the children came, Kritelle put on a grand show. I, as assistant and photographer, did my best to converse with the children. Sadly a couple of them were petrified of the animals there so it was lucky that their teachers were around to calm them down. (I don't think my comments in broken French - 'nice donkey ! Not hungry!' sufficed).
Otherwise, the excursion was a success - Kristelle did a great job and loved the photos, so we finished with a photoshoot, phantom of the opera-esque style.
Another day Kristelle and I visited a old-age home, where we took the animals with us. The residents were delighted, and it made me sad to think about how when we get old and decrepit we might not be able to go out for ourselves anymore to do the things we love, and to interact with beautiful creatures such as these.
Other volunteers arrived later that week. One came in a caravan with his dog. His name was Viennay (the volunteer - his dog was called Dudley). Viennay remains to be one of the gentlest souls I have met. He was always willing to lend a hand, and would do anything he could to help out. Later came Frazi and Thomas, a couple from Germany. Thomas was dramatic, Franzi was artistic. They injected even more life into the project and our week, initiating karaoke nights and trips to the dam on the weekend.
Kristelle was a fan of festivals. So one one weekend, we travelled to a local jaunt in town. Now this was a night that I won't forget.
The streets were lined with musicians playing instruments of all sorts, and in amongst were families and friends dancing, and spinning around in apparent glee.
Vendors sold waffles and chocolate delicacies, children emerging with chocolate covered chins and lips.
Later into the night the concert began. In a large marquee, everyone gathered as enchanting folk music started up at the front. People held hands and span around in circles, performing wild traditional dances. At first I stood and watched, having no idea what to do. Then eventually I joined in, making my best attempt to copy the moves of everyone around me. I obviously looked a bit out of place, and old men kept on coming up and asking me to dance. I didn't mind but after a while it got a bit frustrating, so I retreated to talk to Viennay. "Dance with my Viennay!" I pleaded. "I've had it with these old men". Viennay just chuckled, refusing point blank. "I have two left feet!" He said. So back I went, twirling and bopping, admiring Kristelle and Chris as they jumped along with the crowd.
A French boy pulled me to the side, saying he wanted to 'show me some music'. I recognised him as the boy who had been playing with his sister on the street earlier. He took me outside, beckoning me to sit; and started to play the most beautiful music, I was getting a private concert ! He went on for a long time, and I started to worry that Kristelle and the others would wonder where I was. Eventually they found us, saying it was time to go.
I went home with a big smile that night.
The week progressed as usual after that - all of us volunteers worked to care for the animals, and maintain the grounds, whilst Kristelle worked on bigger plans.
All of these people - they are self starters, driven by their own dreams and ambitions. They didn't necessarily need to climb up a corporate ladder to do what they have accomplished. They took risks, but poured their heart and soul into their projects... which were driven by compassion. I'll never forget my time in this beautiful sanctuary and will always be so grateful to Kristelle, Chris, Viennay, Franzi, Thomas; and of course the animals.