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Going Mod and Mad in France

By Edited Dec 29, 2013 0 0

There are ways to travel even when you've got holes in all your pockets. I didn't have much money saved up but I knew that I wanted to spend the summer in Europe, namely France where I could improve my spoken flow. I scoured Internet sites for viable solution to the negative, upside down bank balances reflecting off my retinas. I found a site that brought "employers" and "volunteers" together for a "work exchange". The idea is simple: Lodging and food for four hours of work per day for a set amount of time, say two weeks to one month on average. No money, no deals, no nonsense, right? Not exactly!

It was my second month in France and I had moved east to west across the country to go to my second work exchange about one hour east of Bordeaux. My brother and his girlfriend were due to work at the same establishment, a countryside gite (self contained cabin-esque hotel) run by two married Brits. One, who I'll call Mod (for Manic Depressive) and Mad (for Manly Drunk) were both two retired academics, Mod from her years as a high school principal and Mad from his university professorship. Rather than decamp on a comfortable retirement, however, they chose to stress out their remaining years by buying a debunked farm house, restoring it for five years by hand and then renting out rooms to other Brit families. They perhaps broke even when it was all said and done.

The first few days on the property went well, as newness drifted slowly by to reveal commonality. Mod woke up each and every morning, sporting a moo-moo hiding nothing and revealing all, looking as if lorries had zoomed by her skull through the night. Her eyes sunk and her lips smacked as she expected Mad (or whoever was closest to her) to serve her cereal, coffee and toasted baguette. Soon enough, however, she expected breakfast in bed. Mad would take it to her, as she lay there till eleven or noon most days.

We always started work by half-past eight to ensure that we had enough time to explore later. Mad got through it with whiskey on the hour, never gulping a drop of water in all our six weeks there, often complaining about his continuous episodes of gout.

Then the work began. It wasn't as hard as it was daunting, digging up rocks and logs sunken into the ground from years of rot, clearing out hillsides full of briars, trees and bushes, painting entire barns, planting gardens, weatherproofing an entire porch and mowing and landscaping. The job was something that had any end - this place needed years of work and they were determined to get it done is a summer. They never once said "nice job" or commented on how well we did something. We had years of experience landscaping, so we knew what we were doing.

After a couple weeks, we started to get fed less and less for lunch. Often the wine glass was full, but there would be one bowl of tuna-olive-oil-pasta-slop-surprise for all five of us to share. If I went to the kitchen to cut more bread with cheese afterwards, I was scowled for being rude. My brother's girlfriend often got the least amount of food, and worked an hour or more cleaning up the kitchen, feeding and watering their two mini-pooches. When we stopped after four hours of working, they often told tales of Brit workers who worked the whole day away, without "keeping track" of their hours, as I often had done just in case.

I frequently noticed that when I went indoors to take a break in our own separate gite, it smelled as if a sewer line had bust. It was often like this at noon, and we never knew why, until one day. Mod came gingerly out of our gite, buttoning up her work pants around her ample waist, looking proud. I told my brother, "I can't believe she has been marking her territory in our gite!" The smell wafted out daily for an hour afterwards because Mod had been depositing her bodily muck into our toilet. We both wanted to hurl. It was both freaky and disgusting.

She cried out once, "Ouch!" as she marched by the hillside I had been clearing for days. "Can you rake up these limbs 'cause I just hurt my pinky toe?!?" Can anyone say control freak? I had no idea that immaturity could run rampant in a 68 year-old. I know better now, but at the time it really threw me. She always looked at herself in the mirror, commenting on how fat she had become, how wobbly her arms were and how her eyes drooped. "You boys sure eat a lot," she would note as she scraped her third plate of duck and plum sauce with bread some evenings. Her rash, egomaniacal behavior was often embryonic the best of times, taking out her own frustrations on us.

Suddenly, one day rules began to change. Our days were not to end until she says, not merely four hours of work. As her obsequious husband drank more, he served her every whim. Our free time was not to be spent at the pool, unless guests said it was OK (but we weren't allowed to ask them). We were not allowed to sit on our porch to relax or read or use any of the facilities without first asking. Additionally, I hurt my back one day and needed a day off. Mod said she'd expect me to work double the next day in order to make up my hours. We were told we were too loud, ate too much and did too little. "We could have done all this easily without you three," they muttered, out of breath, their fleshy backs stained with sweat. We left not too much long after Mod's control episodes worsened. She would often cry when we stood against her, making Mad angrier over time. Sometimes you meet people in life and you realize, I don't ever want to be like them and you move on.



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