Cynthia and Bob working away at host homes in France and Spain.

Older Volunteers Welcome in European Homes

When I was a student in London for a semester, I told an older, wiser woman that I dreamed of a life with enough money to travel. I didn’t mean 10-day tours of Rome, Paris and Madrid. I meant staying long enough and far enough from the tourist route to immerse myself in the culture.

“If you want to travel, you’ll find a way,” she said. “You don’t need a lot of money.”

I’ve proven her right time and time again, including last summer, when husband Bob and I tried our first Workaways. I stumbled upon the term Workaway months earlier, in an article that barely hinted at its meaning. I was intrigued. One look at the web site and I knew I’d struck gold. The web-based service connects travelers willing to volunteer at people’s homes with hosts willing to accommodate them. For a $35 annual membership fee, volunteers have access to a list of opportunities in more than 180 countries.

I was thrilled to see so many for babysitting and teaching English in France, Spain, Italy, just about anywhere on the planet. Bob had different ideas. He envisioned plucking weeds and hammering nails. For better or worse, we were a team. Home repairs and gardening it would be. Heck, I’d clean outhouses for the chance to spend time overseas with the locals. In fact, I nearly did.

Now came the hard part. We had to choose our gig. Did we want to pick fruits and vegetables in Switzerland? Tend a garden in a Scottish village? Pick olives in Italy? We agreed on Switzerland and sent out our cover letter.

I was crushed days later when the Swiss growers turned us down. Then the Scottish villagers said no. I started to wonder if it was our age. At 64, Bob still surfs like a teenager. I’m a couple years younger and can outrun most men and women half my age. I knew we could work as hard as the millennials we saw pictured on the Workaway site. But would potential hosts realize that?

A couple weeks after starting our search, we got an offer from a British couple who wanted help at their Normandy farm. Our second offer came that same week, from a couple renovating their farmhouse in southern Spain.


Digging Work at the Farm


Normandy hosts Ken and Clare picked us up at the Argentan train station, about a 40-minute drive from their home in Champsecret. (Workawayers pay for their own transportation to and from hosts’ homes.) The aging British couple wanted to sell their farm so they could move back to England. Until then, they needed help caring for their small menagerie and sprucing up the yard.

The property was pretty as a postcard, with a two-story, stone house, attached barn and adjacent cottage, all overlooking a sprawling lawn trimmed with flower gardens and a goldfish pond. The stone cottage Bob and I had to ourselves had a bedroom, den, bath and small kitchen. Clare had stocked the cupboard and fridge with all the food and drinks we could want for breakfast and snacks. We ate lunch and supper with her and Ken in the big house.

We’d barely put our bags down when our hosts called us outside to meet the two sheep, five goats, three chickens, two cats and five guinea pigs they call pets. I didn’t let on that the only experience I’d had with farm animals was visiting petting zoos. I trod carefully around the goats, picturing a cloven hoof crushing my toes. I should have worried instead about my bare calves, which were starting to sting and itch. That was my unexpected introduction to stinging nettles.

To my surprise, I fell in love with the friendly goats. I didn’t even mind mucking out their stalls. After tending to the animals every morning, Bob and I would pull weeds, water the gardens, sometimes pick strawberries. We worked well together. When I got nowhere plucking deep-rooted weeds, Bob took over, and I hauled the discards to the compost pit. When he sawed firewood, I stacked it in the barn.

In no time, I forgot why I’d ever worried about being too old for Workaways.


Adopting the Spanish Way of Life


I didn’t feel old at our next Workaway so much as klutzy. At Darren and Cherry’s Spanish farm house, I couldn’t do anything right. Ceiling insulation panels I cut were too narrow or too wide. When we covered the outside wall with stucco, I pressed the gooey cement against the wall just like Cherry did. Her stucco stuck. Mine plopped on the ground, every time. I finally found something approaching my niche in the kitchen. I cooked passable soups and side dishes then cleaned up afterward with minimal breakage. Bob, meanwhile, savored all the painting, sanding and stucco-sticking.

What made for a spectacular stay was that cultural immersion we’d been dreaming of. Yorkshire accents aside, our expat hosts lived like locals. Our first morning there, Cherry whipped up a traditional Spanish breakfast of grilled bread topped with seasoned tomato puree. Over the weekend, she took us to a tapas bar, where she turned me on to tinto de verano, a sweet, bubbly sangria that became my go-to drink for the rest of our stay. The following weekend, we feasted on paella the owner of a nearby restaurant slaved over all day just for our group. Our most memorable excursion with our hosts was a cliff-side hike overlooking the Castril River tumbling through a narrow gorge.

I never brought up our age, but one day, Cherry mentioned that she preferred older Workawayers. She felt that younger ones worked just to save money. Older volunteers, she said, embraced the experience. I’m sure she was thinking of the 30-year-old volunteer whose stay overlapped ours. He was bored by the home’s isolation and left for a lively beach town.

Ironically, the quiet of the surrounding hillsides covered in olive groves is what Bob and I loved most about Darren and Cherry’s place. I savored the hour I’d run every morning without passing more than a tractor or two. If I woke up in the middle of the night, I’d step outside just to stare at the multitude of stars.

I guess we are different from young volunteers. Thank heavens for that.