By: Margaret Hedderman
Imagine the idyllic French farm. See: wisteria stone walls, fresh lavender, red chickens clucking in the morning, the old farmhouse set high over rolling fields of grain. Now imagine schlepping ten miles, sorry 16 kilometres, from the closest bus stop, moderately lost and completely unable to understand directions. Here comes the special work crew! Best keep them away from sharp objects.
After several hours following a small country lane past hamlets and small farms, my mother, Leigh, and I found Les Combelles at the end of the road. “Discovered” is a better word. A Leif Ericson kind of discovery. A discovery that such places do exist in real life, not just in fairy tales or glossy Hollywood films. My mother and I had run away to France for the summer, fueled by a lifetime of pastoral images and dreams of lavender fields (I recommend watching Lasse Hallström’s ”Chocolat,” by the way). Our collective imagination placed us at the center of a Warner Bros. rom-com. A good one, though… like the kind with Cary Grant. Or James Stewart. Or Spencer Tracy. Anyway…
Consider this Act One – Arrival at Les Combelles. The farm/theatre is hidden deep in southern France near Toulouse. Founded in 1996 by Australian ex-pat Heather Robb and native Frenchman Jean-Pierre Agazar, Les Combelles/Le Théâtre de l’Improviste is an improv workshop and summer theatre with a large organic garden, plum trees, and hen house. Though none of their produce is sold commercially, Heather and Jean-Pierre feed not only themselves, but also the frequent WWOOFers and actors with vegetables and fruit from their land. Heather opened the heavy blue front door and welcomed us in.
As she showed us into the kitchen, Heather asked why we hadn’t called for her to pick us up. I wondered this as well – ten miles too late. I had not envisioned myself smelling or looking like a sweaty arm-pit in any of my French fantasies. And yet, here I was, dripping onto Heather’s terra-cotta floor. Thank God Cary Grant wasn’t around. Never mind that now. It was lunchtime. This was to be the first of many wonderful meals taken underneath the ivy covered terrace. Heather explained to us the work we’d be doing for the week.
The entire premise of WWOOFing is based on an exchange of willing labor for food, housing, and a farm education. Had I known then, as I shoveled falafal and plum chutney into my face, the type of labor I was committing myself to, I might not have been so hungry. As it were, an hour later I was on my hands and knees scrubbing scum from flagstone steps. Cinderella, anyone? Someone clearly forgot to write in Prince Charming into the script. I’m totally firing that hack writer.
To be continued…