A few weeks back I met a young American and indulged myself by puncturing her worldview (not a euph’). Specifically I broke the news to her that us Brits get 28 days off per year, and feel kind of hard done by. “The French get 35”, I told her, without bothering to check my facts but drunkenly confident enough that it’s there or thereabouts. She was astonished! Spare a thought for the poor and needy in the oppressive work camp known as the US of A next time you’re swigging pints on the beach in some tourist-saturated sunspot…
Holidays are great. Trust me, I’ve been on one for a few months now and it’s showing no signs of getting old. However, when planning this trip I thought that after few months of almost daily cycling I’d appreciate a break and so I planned a Workaway stop-off at a micro-brewery in the Pyrenees. They say a change is as good as a break, so surely both of them together must be fantastic, right?
My hosts provide a well-appointed two-bedroom Gite and my food and drink are all covered. In return I have to do around 20-hours of work (bottling beer, cleaning equipment, labelling or lugging bottles) per week. It’s about 1000m up in the mountains, not far from the Spanish border and so ideal for walking and riding when I can be bothered. Apparently there are no benefits to be gained from living at altitude until you’re at 1400m, but I choose to ignore that wisdom and tell myself that even hauling my ass up the stairs at night is doing me immense good.
After a few months drifting about and never staying put for more than two nights, it’s been lovely to have a place to myself. Usually you have to wait until the end of your trip to appreciate how much you’ve missed luxuries like a functioning kitchen, double bed and real towel but this is like a little reminder of all those home comforts, minus the ‘home’. And the reassurance of routine has done me wonders. I’ve slipped back into my morning lark schedule and used the hours between 6 and 9am to practice Watson*, watch films on Netflix and read books. For the first time in years I’ve been sleeping 7-8 hours a night and my perennial panda eyes have been replaced by a smooth and even tan on account of the fact I can spend my afternoons sunbathing if I so choose. When I arrived I thought I’d take the opportunity to even out my fitness with some shorter, high-intensity rides, and I did to some degree but in the last few days I’ve just gone out riding for enjoyment’s sake. The roads are amazing – twisty, not too steep, quiet and overlooking stunning views. French drivers aren’t all they’ve cracked up to be. Maybe it’s a Catalan thing, but close passes on mountain passes have been a frequent occurrence. And today I got chased by dogs for the first time. Hopefully things will improve as I head further north.
On the brewing front, it’s been interesting, rewarding and illustrative. The place I’m at is the most micro of breweries so everything is done by hand. It’s kind of like stepping back in time to a pre-mechanised era. I have a reasonable tolerance for menial work (as long as I can listen to my podcasts or music, which fortunately I have been allowed) but it’s been a long time since I’ve done factory graft and to be honest I can’t see myself wanting to return to it! True, it’s at least as satisfying as my previous desk job, but also tiring and repetitive. On the plus side I’ve been drinking half of the output, which you can’t do with invoices and spreadsheets.
The most valuable aspect has been the time spent with my host and brewer. She’s a great communicator, open and honest and a lovely person to0. Anytime I have a query or thought that needs airing, whether about beer, living and working abroad, cultural differences, language, marketing etc etc she has responded thoughtfully and effusively. It’s like having the opportunity to do work experience in an industry you’re genuinely interested in and at a time in your life when you can focus on the experience, and do it on a free holiday too.
Tomorrow is my last day though, and I’m a little nervous to be getting back on the (loaded) bike. I reckon I’ll be camping for the next few nights at least, and my experience of France so far is that everything is much more expensive than Spain (and even more so post-Brexit Sterling devaluation) so I’m expecting some relative hardship. Still, it’s only a couple of weeks until I meet up with friends and make my way towards the Tour de France. Keep your eyes peeled on July 14th – I’m hoping to be one of those ‘idiots’ who run alongside the breakaway star, clapping and gurning and spilling their beer and yelling “allezvengamachtschnellcomeonya’bastard” so maybe I’ll be on the highlights.
*Those who know will know, those who don’t can wait for the book/DVD/daytime TV show.