It was September in southern France and still warm and light enough for me to sit outside comfortably at 8 p.m. I was at the train station in Serres, a small village an hour south of Grenoble. I had started my journey the previous night in Corsica, traveling by boat, train, and bus to end up at this bright and dusty outpost.
The station was deserted aside from me and my most recent prized possession: a large purple and green backpack. I had picked it out at a sports store in Marseille, where I’d had a few hours between trains. My bright red suitcase was slowly deteriorating, and besides, it wasn’t quite as cool as the new bag, which I felt solidified me as a bona fide backpacker.
I was in Serres for my first ever WWOOFing experience. The acronym — often met with quizzical looks and raised eyebrows by those who aren’t familiar — stands for Willing Workers on Organic Farms or World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. I had first heard about it from a friend two years prior and had spent that summer sending requests to hosts around France. Though I wasn’t fully sure what to expect, the parts I did understand — exchanging labor for room and board, living with complete strangers, and experiencing something brand new — sounded like the perfect combination of exciting and terrifying: the ultimate adventure.
Having received a positive response from a small chambre d’hôte, or guesthouse, I was finally about to see what I was getting myself into. Just as I started to think that maybe no one was picking me up after all, a typically compact European sedan pulled up alongside where I was sitting. Geraldine, one of my hosts and the person I had been in contact with via email, was behind the wheel.
During our 20-minute drive up the hilly roads leading to the guesthouse, I learned a bit more about my host. Originally from Australia, Geraldine had met and married her French husband, Emmanuel, and they had opened their four-bedroom guesthouse together several years prior. Emmanuel worked as a certified Alpine mountain guide, and many of the guests they welcomed into their home were visiting the area to take advantage of the nearby hiking opportunities. Geraldine also told me what I could expect from my three-week stay.
She explained that they would need my help making breakfast and dinner for guests, readying the rooms, cleaning the house, and gardening. All of this sounded ideal to me, and I felt especially excited about the first responsibility. Throughout my stay, I spent the majority of my time in the kitchen, where the family prepared meals led by their cook, Régine.
Régine was the exact opposite of the intense, moody character that often comes to mind when picturing the quintessential French chef. She welcomed me into the kitchen with open arms, accepted my general incompetency with a much-appreciated nonchalance, and always had a smile on her face.
One day, when I walked into the room, she was standing at the ready in front of a skinned guinea fowl, holding a cleaver. I barely had time to say hello before she brought the knife down over the bird’s neck with a quick and confident flick of the wrist, all the while laughing at my surprise. This was farm-to-table cuisine in its most natural and unpretentious form. I began to look forward to each lesson in the kitchen with palpable glee: What would I see, learn, smell, and taste today?
I also had the chance to get to know each of Geraldine and Emmanuel’s four children during the course of my stay. I spent most of my time with their daughter Mimi, who I was grateful to bond with over drives to regional markets while we sang along to Zaz and Temper Trap.
It quickly became apparent that my hosts believed that, in addition to the room and board I was receiving for my assistance, I should get to explore and experience the region I was staying in. In my free time, I was lucky enough to visit nearby villages, join Emmanuel and their guests on hikes, and tag along with Mimi on various local outings.
The opportunity to practice my bumbling French, learn new recipes — namely a dense chocolate cake that became my specialty — and visit remote places I would never have seen otherwise was like a dream come true. It’s still a little hard for me to believe how truly welcoming and kind my hosts were.
Thinking back on my days there, I remember the comfortable routine I happily settled into. Rising early and setting the table for breakfast. Bowls of coffee and tea, warm bread and jam made by Geraldine, and sporadic surprises, like fresh, crumbly scones. Spending the morning in the garden, making guest beds, or tackling a new project, like painting the pantry door with colorful lizards.
Gathering again as a family for lunch: often outside, always delicious. Visiting a local market to pick up ingredients for dinner and then preparing elaborate, multi-course meals for the guests, who returned tired and sun-kissed from their day in the mountains. Eating dinner and enjoying plain yogurt with local honey for dessert. Watching French movies with Mimi and Geraldine, who paused relentlessly to explain various idioms and vocabulary as I hastily scribbled them in my pocket notebook.
Though it was several years ago now, I still vividly remember the time I spent waiting outside the train station in Serres. Sitting on a brick wall in the sun, the next three weeks full of possibility and unknowns. Unsure of who was supposed to be picking me up, or if anyone would show up at all. Unsure of how I would spend my days and where I would sleep at night. Unsure of whether or not I would get along with my hosts or be able to offer any worthwhile assistance to their operation.
And yet, despite the immense amount of question marks, it was one of the happiest moments of my life. It’s a moment I think of often whenever I’m trying to articulate why I’ve prioritized travel above most things in my adult life — including a steady career path, owning a nice home, or buying a car.
They say your first love never leaves you, and with France, I’ve found that to be true. I fell quickly and fully in love with the country and began a devoted long-distance relationship with it, returning as often as I could and staring longingly at pictures from past trips during the challenging months I was away.
Like any good partner, France pushed me to be a better version of myself. It taught me new things and broadened my horizons. It instilled in me a newfound appreciation for the little things in life — the most menial tasks, like buying cheese or going to the post office, became opportunities for triumph and growth. France made me smile and kept me guessing. It reminded me to not take life too seriously, whether I was watching a casual bird beheading in a stranger’s kitchen or facing a challenging job market when I got back home.
In the years since, my travels have taken me to other countries and continents and, though I haven’t returned recently, France stays with me. The wanderlust instilled in me while I was there still exists, and likely always will. No matter how many places I visit, it will always hold a special place in my heart.
It’s not always possible to stay on good terms with your first love. With France, I’m grateful to say that that’s not the case. I know the next time I return, it will welcome me back with open arms, as though we saw each other just days before. I will have the same pocket notebook with me, and Zaz will be playing through my headphones.
It will feel like I never left.