We landed in Normandy as a family in our campervan between Christmas and New Year, determined to travel south slow, save money and learn new skills.
Winter is the perfect time for a campervan family to learn new skills. Even in the most southern parts of Europe living on the beaches or in the forest can still mean you have a fair amount of days facing the crisp and rainy side of nature’s finest elements.
Hence winter has become a time for retreat. Shrinking back into ourselves, reflecting, feeling. We take the opportunity to ponder and learn. We read books, cosy up with blankets, watch documentaries and start conversations with interesting folk around the fire.
Winter has become a time for connecting with all things warm and comforting, eating stews, drinking hot cocoa and seeking shelter. All of this downtime and warmth seeking has lead to a natural need to be hunkered down somewhere beautiful whilst still exploring new ways of doing.
Our favourite way to do this as a family is exchanging a few hours of work each day for food and accommodation through a workaway placement.
We get to meet really awesome people and get to have a go at doing jobs that we’d never normally get a chance to do. Not to mention all the amazing home cooked meals from around the world we get to sample and opportunities to form lasting friendships along the way.
Right now we have found our way to a beautiful family in Normandy, who are setting up an equine therapy centre. The work is flexible and interesting. We have been working outdoors, clearing barns, preparing garden beds, painting old French furniture different shades of grey, culling brambles by hand with a scythe, having huge bonfires, building stables and cuddling ex-race horses.
The other half has also been busy crafting beautiful storage creations using his green woodwork skills and building saddle racks for the tack room whilst I tend to the children and get them fed, washed, rested and warm in our stunning 2-bed Air BnB gite that we have been so generously gifted for the duration of our stay here.
In return for our time on the land we have have been served oysters and wine, sampled all the local cheeses and met friends and family of our kind host Jenny. She is a fantastic cook and we have been spoiled by the amazing rustic Normandy fayre she effortlessly throws together at the end of a days graft.
We have enjoyed family trips to the local village market to buy fruit and veg and cosied up as a team for film nights at her house. It feels like we are welcomed guests here and Jenny often treats us and the small ones to suprise raids on the boulangerie and happily sitting down night after night sharing her vast knowledge of equine therapy with us.
Another local legend who we have had the pleasure of sharing time with goes by the name of Carl. He introduced us to the wonderful world of banjo and let us have a go at learning to play. After Lily showed such an interest he gifted her her very own guitar to start learning.
The other day he even turned up to check the horses feet and ended up providing us with some great life advice that turned into a local tour of the Falais gap, second world war tanks, Camembert cheese factory and a Buddhist monastery just up the road.
Moments like these just feel like they can’t be bought, there is no tour guide directory that offers such connections with real people or experiences in the world.
Although moving day to day is a big part of travel, this other side of travel is having the time to really immerse yourself in the workings of a place.
Yeah, sure we have to pitch up somewhere in our campervan and stay put for a while. Which might fill some nomads with dread! We may need to work getting jobs done or get our head round projects that are new or slightly out of our comfort zone… but we also have the opportunity to learn and grow so much whilst doing it.
The main attraction for us to volunteer on placements like this is that it gives us a chance to save a tiny bit of money by saving on fuel and food, whilst getting the opportunity to try new things as family. The children have had the chance to learn about things that are tricky to find opportunities for in the everyday transient style of van life such as building, furniture restoration, home maintenance, animal care, baking cakes (we have no oven!) playing the piano, riding ponies, gardening and permaculture.
For the adults we get the opportunity to learn skills by doing. Learn the way that skills used to be transferred from generation to generation, through apprenticing, spoken word, advice and stories.
Not everything needs to be taught in a classroom, you don’t always need hundreds of pounds for training courses or even an accreditation. We have found that lots of beautiful things can be learned about the world by surrounding yourself with wise folk who are happy to share their knowledge.
Last year we were learning tree surgery in Portugal from a true wild man, this Winter we are learning equine therapy, music and (hopefully!) a fair bit of French. The dream next year is to learn the skills needed to eventually build a straw bale, cob home ready for when we eventually feel the time is right to settle.
The added beauty for us as a family is that on a work placement we are able to earn our keep whilst having flexibility over our working day. The family is not seperated for long periods whilst one parent is far away at work. We are not governed by the same strict rules of the employee/employer relationship or the strict regulations of the workplace.
Children are welcome to get involved and work alongside their parents, creating wonderous opportunities for being curious, asking questions and experiential learning. It is much more a communal, almost tribal affair.
I can understand how for anyone new to the idea sharing space and working alongside unknown people can seem daunting at first, especially as a family! Yet it can also feel really nice to put down roots for a while, feel the flow of a place, learn to assimilate with other people’s rythmns, learn about life from their perspective. It gives us a chance to learn much about ourselves.
Whilst ultimately knowing that we are free to travel again as soon as we get that need. We are not roped into employment contracts or have a need to purchase or accumulate any furniture or extra equipment. It also makes setting off on the road each new time feel even more special. I guess even the hunter gatherer nomads set up camps for a while when they find a place worth stopping.
If you don’t have time to volunteer but would still like to support this wonderous project and fancy a short break (or any van families that are looking for a beautiful stop over on the way through France for a hot shower, and free unlimited use of a washing machine and dryer!)
The fee for your stay will help fund this project and the bringing together of rehabilitated ex-race horses and people in need.