Workaway is a website I discovered before arriving in France. It allows you to search for hosts to stay with; in exchange for room and board you help out with various jobs – from cooking, to construction, to childcare. I thought of it as an opportunity to practice (or force myself to learn) French and try living somewhere completely different from what I am used to! My first Workaway is in Neuilly-en-Donjon, a small town of approximately 234 people, in the Auvergne region (next to the Loire Valley and Roanne) in Central France. My host, Raphaëlle, owns a family style restaurant where I help with food prep, serving and cleanup. I live in her home above the restaurant in the “town center.” There is a church with a clock tower that chimes every hour on the hour directly in front of the restaurant and a few other houses, but beyond the houses there are miles and miles of rolling green hills.
I’ve always loved living in big cities – I love the fast paced rhythm and the wide array of things to see and do, but there is something to be said about living in a small town, too. The pace of life is more relaxed. Everyone knows everyone, people say hello wherever you go, and people help each other out.
Raphaëlle is a very welcoming host and has introduced me to nearly everyone in town, or so it seems, and her horse Bimbo! Over the weekend she closed the restaurant for a few hours and we had lunch with friends in the neighboring village and I was able to taste a traditional dish from the Savoy region – hot cheese (very similar to cheese fondue) with potatoes, cold cuts and a tasty bottle of wine. Her friend, who is also the butcher for the restaurant, had us over for an apéritif – a before dinner drink (or a few) – one night, too. I was also able to get out for a few hours and take a quick tour of the town and the surrounding villages and take a quick walk along the Loire River.
After spending two weeks in Neuilly-en-Donjon I am finally starting to get people’s names straight – at least the regulars that come into the restaurant. I’m speaking enough French to have very short conversations, but I still find myself lost in conversation often enough. Attending language school gave me the French base I needed to survive in France, however French people talk A LOT faster than language professors do; they also use loads of slang (as expected). Sometimes it seems like there are least three or four different expressions used to say the same thing. I try to pay close attention to conversations to grasp at least the gist of what is being said, but some days my brain feels like it has been smashed by a panini maker and won’t work anymore. However, I knew the language learning process was difficult and I’m confident my brain won’t hurt so much in a few months! Until then, it looks like I’ll be playing Duolingo (language learning game) on my phone and reading children’s books at night!