Life as an Au Pair in Switzerland: Closing Curtain

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I returned to Switzerland in early January for the final two weeks of my au pair job before having to return home for another commitment. The first week shot by, then after a day in Bern on the weekend with a friend, I was on the home straight! On the Monday morning of my final week, I was feeling fresh. ‘The best is going to be saved until last,’ I told myself as I strode upstairs energetically. Unfortunately, the ‘best’ comprised of the boy throwing up after breakfast and having a terrible cough all week, the path of which I was inevitably caught in. On the final day, I couldn’t believe that the end was almost here, and that the next day I would be heading home. It seemed like only the day before that I had arrived, wondering how I would last until Christmas, never mind now. But now looking back on the period, regardless of the difficulties I experienced at times, I can safely say that I am glad to have been an au pair.

What have I gained from being an au pair?

Many notable things. For example, I’ve cooked food for people without getting a hair in it once; I’ve not broken the large stack of glass bowls after lifting them off and onto a shelf;  and I still have my hair and hands after going ice-skating! But being serious, I feel proud of myself for seeing it through despite there being times when I really felt like quitting. I’ve integrated into a family and adapted to their household regime, as much as I may have disagreed or been unfamiliar with certain aspects. I’ve thrown my all into the role despite moments of being unhappy or fed up, and put myself out of my comfort zone many times, gaining resilience and patience along the way.

The immersion in two foreign languages has been extremely useful and I’m determined to keep practising when I return to England. I’ve learned much about Swiss culture, having interesting conversations about the national identity of a country with four official languages. I was even informed about the state of the economy following the recent soar of the Swiss franc. (Understanding economics was hard enough before a foreign language came into it…) I’ve also put aside my pickiness and tried many different (mainly cheese-based) Swiss palettes, of which one genuinely tasted like feet.

Having taken most of my instructions from the father and been under pressure many times, I’ve become less sensitive and better at taking criticism. All the stressful scenarios and red-faced moments were made worthwhile when, cooking on Tuesday evening with the dad, he gave a big compliment. He basically said that I take cooking instructions really well considering that 1. I don’t have a written note of them to work from, and 2. they are in a different language. He said that he really believed I would have no problem working as a cook in a kitchen as a result. Whilst I’m sure he was just being nice, and I have no desire at all to become a chef, this put a huge smile on my face.

With no teaching experience, and with little experience in general of children at this age, I’ve improved someone’s English. Whilst it has been very frustrating at times, with me wanting to scream “How do you not understand that this says ‘pin?'” etc, it’s also been hugely rewarding. I’ve had to think about how I explain things to both younger children and younger children of a foreign tongue, and have become more coherent as time has gone on.

From my observations, I’ve gained a greater understanding of younger children and how raising them works, including the importance of compromise. I didn’t become an au pair to learn how to be a parent, but the experience has made me think a lot about the value of a good upbringing – something that I have clearly taken for granted. How did I understand from early on to always wash my hands after the toilet? How did I turn out as a polite, well-mannered child? How did it come to be that I chose to be diligent and work hard in school? It was all because of my parents and their hard work. I now have an even greater appreciation of this role, and of the word ‘thankyou’.

I’ve also gained even more appreciation of the importance of family, and childhood. Watching this girl and boy play together, it’s quite sad because I know that in several years as puberty commences, they will gradually feel less inclined to play with each other. Then there was the time I explained to the girl during a lesson that our next one would be the last. “Owhh,” she said, making a disappointed face. “Why you have to go? Because your mummy said so?” I smiled and explained that I had to start a new job. “With your mummy?” she asked. “No, on my own! Because when you’re a grown-up you do more things without your mummy,” I said. Then I pictured her as a grown up, and found it strange to believe that here I was at 22, when it seems like only yesterday I was the age of this girl. “When your English gets even better, you can write me letters!” I suggested encouragingly. She said:”I can come visit. I will drive!” It was sweet that she said this, especially following what I had said, because it showed her understanding that she will become more independent. And yet I’m aware that by the time this is possible, I may very well be a distant memory. On the same evening, I asked the boy what he’d like to be when he grows up. He wants to be ‘the police’, catching ‘naughty people’ and putting them in prison. I can’t imagine him being an adult, and I don’t really want to…but it will come round before he knows it.

Will I miss being an au pair?

Err…

By Wednesday evening, I was getting super excited to leave, especially after what felt like a particularly long day. I started packing my bag, imagining reaching the airport (and changing my Swiss francs for a higher amount of sterling!) I envisioned the privacy and lack of having to clear up snotty tissues and what not, and couldn’t wait. But then on the last two days, I started feeling really emotional at the thought of saying goodbye. ‘What’s wrong with you? Previously you couldn’t wait to finish!’ I would think. I decided that I was partly upset because of the issue of saying ‘goodbye’ in general, based on past occasions. I really suck at it. I struggle to watch the scene in ‘Love Actually’ when Colin Firth has to say goodbye to his Portuguese maid without blubbering, even though I know they eventually get married. I also felt upset because of a slight sense of guilt for leaving after seven weeks, which is fairly short for an pair. Many times I’ve criticised ‘gap year’ projects where people volunteer in an orphanage for six weeks before leaving, because of the effect this coming-and-going can have on a child. But am I not now a bit of a hypocrite? These children have finally made a strong connection to me, only for me to drop it. The main reason I felt upset however, was because of that connection. I’ve inevitably become part of a family and got so used to a routine, that I can’t help but feel slightly moved. I’ve felt every emotion being an au pair, but it’s because of this that leaving feels like a big deal.

In the past two weeks there have been moments that illustrated just how integrated into this family I have become. For example, once during my French-eavesdropping, I noticed that the dad was asking his son to name the family members, after the boy asked who a present had come from. I heard my name mentioned after the boy’s parents and sister. Cue melting-heart moment. Another evening as the girl and I were making banded-bracelets together (meaning that I was watching her whilst offering encouragement, because that’s far too girly for me!), I asked if she liked being the oldest. She said she wished she had a sister rather than a brother, then her eyes lit up and looking at me imploringly, she exclaimed: “I want you as a sister!” Cue lump-in-throat moment. The next day, she wrote her name on a little piece of paper before asking me to write mine. Then she folded it up and put it in her special box, “so that I will never forget.” Cue watery-eyes moment.

‘Miss’ is a word that’s often over-used, perhaps because it’s felt it should be said to show that an experience has been enjoyed. However, I know that I will move on perfectly fine after this experience. I will feel no dependence on its existence in my life, unlike how at times I might really crave the hug of a distant loved one. Nevertheless, there are habits from this experience that I’ve got so used to, that I know I will fondly recall them.

I will fondly recall those little voices calling my name when they wanted my attention. I’ll fondly recall the childish naivity and gullibility – how I could convince them to eat their carrots because it would make them grow loads taller, and how the girl still believes that there is a mouse in that tree…I’ll fondly recall making their cocoa in their special little breakfast mugs, and always giving the girl an orange straw. I’ll fondly recall laying their clothes out in the morning and putting on the boy’s socks for him so that he could be ‘faster’ than his sister. I’ll fondly recall doing the girl’s hair before school followed by the standard: “No I didn’t want it like that!” I’ll fondly recall folding their tiny tops and trousers and putting them away in their wardrobe, always amused by how many clothes they had, and tactically organising the piles so that those clothes at the bottom had a chance of being worn (Yes, I did do this.) I’ll fondly recall making their beds and hoping I put their cuddly toys back in the right place. I’ll fondly recall spooning food onto their plastic plates at lunchtime, giving them the same colour so they wouldn’t bicker, only for them to inevitably start telling on the other to me. I’ll fondly recall the repetitions of ‘tan/gap/pig/sip’ with the boy during his English lessons with me and the feeling of elation when he read a story all by himself. I’ll fondly recall the moments when I would let the girl play with my hair (having decided she could be trusted not to chop it off) and she would say: “Tell me if it’s hurting you.” I’ll fondly recall the cheery tune of ‘Peppa Pig’ playing on the TV (and the programme itself – genuinely witty stuff). I’ll fondly recall sitting between the two of them on a Friday night after bathtime, eating pizza and watching CBeebies. I’ll fondly recall reading ‘Rapunzel’ over and over again to the girl at bedtime, her eyes wide with tireless fascination.

I’ll fondly recall eating dinner with the parents whilst watching the evening news, hearing the dad mock the French and the mum tell him to shut up so she could hear. I’ll fondly recall the moments when the dad and I experienced a language barrier (the best example being when he asked about my ‘Indian boyfriend’???) I’ll fondly recall One Direction ‘Story of my Life’ playing on One FM radio in the car all the time. I’ll fondly recall things from the wider community too, like the weird looks I got for wearing sno boots when it was sunny. I’ll fondly recall the teenage girls at the school with their skinny jeans and handbags, looking like they were going to shop rather than study. I’ll fondly recall looking out from the living room window at the snow-capped French Alps behind Lake Geneva, watching a train go past now and then in the distance. I’ll fondly recall walks alongside the vineyards and how dog-walkers would say ‘bonjour’ every time they passed someone. I’ll fondly recall the nice man who drove the 725 bus on two of my journeys, with a cheery ‘au revoir’ after I thanked him. I’ll fondly recall walking back from that bus stop near the local hospital in the dark, feeling completely safe. I’ll fondly recall the sound of beeping cars on Saturday afternoons following a wedding (having initially been quite bewildered, I learned that this behaviour is a tradition, and not that it was because my purchase of tampons and chocolate had caused a frenzy…)

The Goodbye

On my last day, I was asked to go and spend lunchtime with the girl at school, because the family car was in service and walking back home to eat before returning would be too rushed. It seemed fitting that I was spending my last day outside of the house more, doing different things. We sat in the cafeteria with the ‘big’ pupils and I got out the pesto pasta and fruit I had prepared. The girl looked around timidly at the students on their Iphones, whispering in my ear when she wanted to ask something or make an observation. Then she held my hand affectionately as we walked around the town, before I took her to a café where she could do some drawing. I bought us a cream bun to share, glad that I could speak in French and the lady did not feel a need to resort to English because this was what I spoke with the girl. The girl was really well-behaved, accepting when I said no to buying her an ice-cream. When we walked home later, we were jumping in puddles together. Then during her last lesson, she was lazy and naughty, drawing silly pictures of me (with ’boutons’, hmmphh) rather than doing as I asked. I threw the paper away and whilst she finally worked, drew a nicer picture instead, with my name written underneath. But she was cross with me for throwing the other away and later ran off to her room in a huff, saying she didn’t want this picture I had put on her table. But when I went in the room later, my smiling face was next to her pillow.

The boy had a tantrum so I didn’t say goodbye to him before he went to bed, even though I would be leaving very early in the morning. I read the girl a bedtime story for the last time, and managed not to start crying when she gave me her toy piggy to kiss, and held out her hand for me to shake like an adult. I gave my thank-you gift to the parents and watched the final news bulletin with them, before saying goodbye to the mum. I told her that this had been a very valuable experience, and she said “For us too.” The dad would drive me to the station in the morning. When I lugged my luggage up ready to leave at 7.30, I saw that everyone was awake waiting to wave me off again, and felt really touched. The little boy turned shy and didn’t want to give me a hug, instead looking at me in bashful silence with his lip turned down. The girl demanded a photo with me and her piggy. Then it was time to leave. During the drive, I told the dad everything I wanted to say – how whilst there were probably times when I made no sense, speaking German with him was really useful, and how it had been frustrating because sometimes I wanted to say more about a subject, but couldn’t find the word. “Tschüss, Shan-non,” he said sadly, before the customary three kisses. Then I got on the train and waved as it set off, before collapsing on a seat. I had a little cry, and then slowly the relief and optimism began to sink in. But now I’m crying again as I write this…

I would definitely recommend being an au pair, because the benefits, even if it may not seem like it at the time, will definitely outweigh the costs. Thank you for following my experiences, and a big thank you to the family and friends who were very supportive during the difficult moments! I leave you with my official au pair playlist…

The Delfronics – ‘Didn’t I Blow your Mind this Time?’ (The first impressions)

MC Hammer – ‘Can’t Touch This’ (The pervy moments)

Culture Club – ‘Do you Really Want to Hurt Me?‘ (The vicious moments)

The Police – ‘Don’t Stand so Close to Me’ (The ill moments)

Katy Perry – ‘Hot and Cold’ (The bewildering behaviour)

Guns N’ Roses – ‘November Rain’ (The despair…during November)

Eric Clapton – ‘I Can’t Stand it’ (The onset of anger)

The Supremes and the Temptations – ‘I’m Gonna Make you Love Me’ (The determination)

The Foundations – ‘Build me up Buttercup’ (The moments of promise)

Whitesnake – ‘Is this Love?’ (The turning point)

James Taylor – ‘You’ve Got a Friend’ (The sweet moments)

Boyz II Men – ‘End of the Road’ (The goodbye)

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Ein Wochenende in Basel

Am letzten Wochenende traf ich eine Deutsche Freundin in Basel. Weil ich in der Nähe dem Genfersee wohne, war es gut, einen deutschsprachigen Teil der Schweiz zu besuchen. Basel ist eine kleine Stadt, aber sie hat eine charmante Charakter. Auf die Treppe neben dem Rhein ist ein toller Ort, Mittag zu essen. Die meisten Supermärkte sonntags geöffnet sind, deshalb sorge nicht über ob man genug Schweizer Schokolade hat, das ganze Wochenende zu dauern…

 Last weekend, I met a German friend in Basel. Since I’m living near Lake Geneva, it was good to visit a German-speaking part of Switzerland. Basel is a small town, but it has a charming character. A great place to eat lunch is on the steps near the Rhine. Most supermarkets are open on Sundays, so no need to worry about whether you have enough Swiss chocolate to last the whole weekend…

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Die glänzende Weihnachtsbeleuchtung wurden über der Brücke hängend. Wir hörten die Glocken von der Pferdekutschen kling und in der Ferne hupten die Straßenbahnen ihre Horner als der Himmel sich zu verdunkeln begann. 

Sparkling Christmas lights were hanging above the bridge. We heard bells clang from the horse-drawn carriages and in the distance the trams sounded their horns, as the sky began to darken.

Das Rathaus ist ein schönes Gebäude mit einer markanten roten Farbe. Wir hörten die Stimmen von innen und neugierig waren, also gingen wir zu sehen. Die männlichen Sternsinger wurden lässig gekleidet und sie sahen aus wie sie gerade zufällig innen von der Straße gekommen waren, aber sie sangen wie die Profis.

The townhall is a beautiful building with a striking red colour. We heard voices from inside and were curious, so went to look.  The male carol singers were casually dressed and looked like they had just come inside from the street, but they sang like professionals.

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Danach gingen wir in die Altstadt, wo die Märchenwald wie das Paradies eines Kindes war.  Ich sah raffinierten Aktivitäten wie die Glasbläserei und den Schmiedekunst. Familien geröstete Marshmallows am Feuer. Ein kleines Zug piepte, um die Leute aus dem Weg zu bewegen – und die jungen Passagiere winkten. Die Weihnachtsmärkte haben viele abwechslungsreiche Artikel verkauft. Man könnte das Fondue, das Raclette, den Glühwein und die Waffeln riechen. Einige Gerüche waren schöner als andere…der Käse im Fondue ist zu stark für mich.

Afterwards we went to the Old Town, where the Fairy Forest was like a child’s paradise. I saw refined activities like glass-blowing and blacksmithing. Families toasted marshmallows around a fire. A small train beeped in order to move people out of the way, and the young passengers waved. The Christmas markets sold many varied products. One could smell fondue, raclette, mulled wine and waffles. Some smells were nicer than others…the cheese in the fondue is too strong for me!

10864030_10155107071370495_1554012416127597403_o    Später gab es eine carol Service außerhalb der Münster. Gesangbücher und Kerzen wurden ausgegeben und dann begann der Chor. Wir hatten keine Ahnung gehabt, dass dieses schönes Ereignis geplant war, deshalb hatten wir das Gluck!

Later, there was a carol service outside of the Münster. Hymn books and candles were given out and then the choir began. We’d had no idea that this lovely event was planned, so we were lucky!

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Die glitzernden Straßen waren hübsch und einladend. Am Abend wurde ‘Otello’ im Theater gezeigt. Zu unserer Überraschung und Freude hatte der Rezeptionist für uns heimlich die Tickets organisiert, damit wir die besten Sitzen haben würden. Und außerdem war das Theaterstück eigentlich eine Oper – meine erste! Ich glaube sie großartig war.

The glittering streets were pretty and inviting. In the evening, ‘Othello’ was showing in the theatre.  To our surprise and delight, the receptionist had secretly organised the tickets for us so that we would have the best seats. And on top of that, the play was actually an opera- my first! It was terrific.  10383811_10155107071810495_568027071841661920_o

Andreasplatz befindet sich in eine gemütliche Ecke und hat ein schönes, ruhiges Café, das ‘Cafe zum Roten Engel’ heißt. Er ist der ideale Rastplatz nach einem Morgen voller Erkundungstouren durch weitere wunderbare (aber überfüllten) Weihnachtsmarktstände.

Andreasplatz is located in a cosy corner and has a nice, quiet café, which is called ‘Red Angel Café’. It’s the perfect resting place after a morning spent exploring more wonderful (but crowded) Christmas market stalls.

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Ich habe ein hervorragendes Wochenende mit einer fabelhaften Freundin verbracht 🙂

I spent a brilliant weekend with a fabulous friend 🙂

There are more great photos of Basel’s Christmas markets here.

Sharing Cars with Strangers in Germany

What was one of the first things your parents told you when you went outside to play? I can imagine it was either “Don’t talk to strangers” or “Don’t get into a car with a stranger”. Well, now you’re older, you can be a little more flexible with that advice. If you’re on a trip at home or abroad alone and make a spontaneous decision to travel somewhere else located a few hours away, chances are that you will pay a pricey fee for a last-minute train. Buses may not run regularly and will take a long time, whilst planes can be an expensive hassle. So why not share a lift with someone? A stranger, that is.

I first became introduced to carpooling when I was in Germany. Help-exchanging at the home of a teacher in Hamburg for a week, I then had to make my way to a village in the Rhineland-Palatinate. As I searched for trains on my host’s laptop one evening, she suggested I try ‘Mitfahrgelegenheit’. I looked at her blankly. Advertising lifts was something that I hadn’t even heard of in my own country – hitch-hiking yes, but not organised car share. My host proceeded to show me a website where drivers offered space in their car to travellers heading in the same direction, in return for a contribution towards fuel costs.  Drivers were asked to state details including whether or not they smoked, the make of their car, their mobile number and a copy of ID. I was open-minded about travelling with a man, however my host, perhaps feeling responsible for my welfare, was insistent that I travel with a female. We soon found a lady heading in the same direction as me.

At this time my German was pretty minimal. I began writing an email to this lady, in which essentially only the first and last couple of sentences were written in German. Her reply was written in good English. (It ended with the line: “I’m sorry, I know that my English is not good. I hope you can understand me.”) The lady asked for 27 Euros for this journey – about 50 Euros less than what a train would have cost. She gave me her vehicle registration number and asked to meet outside Hamburg’s Hauptbahnhof.

On a rainy Wednesday morning, I made my way to the parking lot outside the main station. I was quite excited for this new experience, but a little nervous too. What if the lady didn’t show up? What if she was a terrible driver? What if her car broke down and we were left stranded somewhere on the autobahn? What I didn’t worry about however was whether she would turn out to be different from her profile. The media will often feature horror stories of women being kidnapped by strangers posing as someone else, but I’ve had enough positive experiences to have faith in the kindness of strangers.

The street was bustling with chanting protesters. Police officers in smart blue uniforms formed barricades as they came closer to the station. I approached one officer to ask him what was going on and was told that it was a protest against a neo-Nazi demonstration.

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I wandered along the pavement, feeling very conspicuous with my big rucksack as I scanned the cars parked along the side of the road. Suddenly I spotted a navy blue Renault Clio with the registration number I was looking for. Beside it watching the protest stood a rather large woman with a pixie haircut and scruffy trainers. I introduced myself and she shook my hand with a shy smile. There was little room in the boot and so I sheepishly squeezed my backpack onto the backseat amongst her own things before sitting down in the back. A few minutes later, I heard a backpack being thrown in the boot behind me and then the passenger door in front of me opened. The smell of thick smoke, body odour (as well as a slight whiff of urine) swept through the vehicle as in jumped a male skinhead dressed in black, looking like he’d just run away from the police monitoring the protest. He turned to shake my hand and say hello with his stale breath. “Ich komme aus England,” I stated, trying not to wrinkle my nose. He nodded with an “Oh” and said no more.

As we set off, I had to bite my lip to stop myself laughing at the thought of what we must have looked like to other drivers – a bizarre combination of a rather butch-looking woman with short hair, an emo-type guy with no hair, and a standard girl with long bright blonde hair. A painfully awkward silence suffocated the car. Eventually the two Germans started to chat briefly whilst I stared out of the window, trying and failing to understand them. However, their conversation soon ran out of steam and as we joined the autobahn, the driver turned on the radio, flicking between radio stations sporadically as if realising that there was unlikely to be one which we would all enjoy. Smelly-skinhead-guy reclined his seat backwards so that his smell lingered closer and I became even more cramped. Desperate to avoid any awkward speech, I remained with my legs jammed tightly together to one side, wishing I could jam my nostrils shut too. Two hours later my driver turned off and I looked up disorientated. “We will stop here for 10 minutes,” she said to me slowly. While the guy lit a cigarette with jittery hands outside the car, I followed her into the service station to use the bathroom. One had to pay 90 cents to use the facilities. “You can use the ticket for food,” she explained again simply, pointing out a sign which showed a 50 cent discount on confectionary.

Smelly-skinhead-guy would leave us at Frankfurt airport, where he was evidently flying to South America. I didn’t probe on his motives, only pitied the passengers who would be sitting near him. I jumped into the front seat and wound the window down with relief to remove his musty smell. I hoped that the driver and I would be able to speak more now. However, as is common with languages, the lady was less confident at speaking English than writing it. Carefully-phrased questions by myself in English would receive stammered and uncertain responses from her, upon which I would attempt the question in German, with no further success as I struggled to make myself clear. It became a rather frustrating process, until eventually the conversation fizzled out helplessly. In defeat, I turned to look out of the window at the wind turbines on the side of the autobahn, before we entered rural land and the views were replaced with fields lined with vines and Church steeples poking up out of small villages. I felt bad, wishing my German was better so that I could make the experience more interesting for both of us. At the same time, my driver said apologetically, “Normally there would be more speaking.” She dropped me off on the street of my next location and I handed her the money, thanking her for the helpful lift. Then she wished me a pleasant stay and I in turn wished her a safe onward journey, before we said goodbye with an awkward wave.

The experience was a reminder of the social restrictions that a language barrier can bring, particularly in such an intimate environment as a car. Now my German is so much better that, had I the opportunity to do it again, I would have got so much more from the journey. Nevertheless, whilst conversation between the three of us was limited, it was rare that I would find myself in that context with such different characters very often. It’s a story that I can look back on and chuckle over. Carpooling in general is something I would highly recommend. It might not be the most comfortable form of travel, but it depends on your priorities; some people want luxury, others just want to get from A to B for as cheap as possible. By choosing the latter option, one has more money to spend on the more important things! One is essentially taking the same journey as one would on a train or bus, albeit for less money and with fewer people, in a more close-knit setting. Perhaps it’s because participants are more expected to talk with other unfamiliar people that they might be put off by this travel option…

Whilst I didn’t have much luck with this myself on this occasion, ride-sharing provides an opportunity to make interesting contacts, and the act of doing a favour for a stranger is a nice, refreshing prospect. As much as I like to joke about how suspicious the guy in the car seemed, carpooling is an experience which reinforces that strangers are not to be fundamentally suspected or feared. I also wanted to mention the neo-Nazi demonstrations to highlight the importance of not letting hate fuel hate, and not letting the actions of a few people influence your opinion about an entire nation collectively.

Bensheim – my final destination

I would definitely consider using carpooling on future travels around Europe, and I’d hope other travellers would too. Something that can be regarded in this technological age as the modern version of hitch-hiking, carpooling is cheap, convenient and certified. Maybe just bring an air freshener with you as an advance gesture of gratitude…

Would you ever consider car-pooling? Have you any weird and wonderful carpooling experiences to share?

Travel Connections: The Weird & Wonderful Westmann Islands

One of the things I soon learned after travelling on my own for the first time was how small the world is. One can make so many random or unlikely connections between home and the new country. As the number of coincidences increases, it becomes difficult to believe fate can’t exist. The place where these ideas hit home most was in Iceland, when I visited the Westmann Islands (Vestmannaeyjar).

The majority of these 15 little islands clustered just off the south coast of the main land were formed by volcanoes under the water around 11,000 years ago, with the biggest and only inhabited one, Heimaey, previously being the home of Keiko: the famous orca whale from the ‘Free Willy’ films. With many hours of my childhood spent wishing I was Jesse swimming with this orca whale (until I realised with immense disappointment years later that those scenes had actually used an animatronic one),  I knew not going wouldn’t be right. Heimaey is also famous for the immensely destructive eruption of 1973 that smothered a third of the town in lava. Eldfell, or ‘Mountain of Fire’, was the volcanic memento that resulted, and I wanted to hike it.

I was spending a second night in Skógar before heading to the islands. The American ladies from the night before were no longer around, and I felt relieved by the prospect of no more snoring. Instead I was joined by what looked like three generations of a Chinese family – the grandparents, parents and a young girl who watched me re-fill my backpack curiously, hiding behind her hair shyly when I smiled at her. She must have only been about eight, and the experience so new and strange. I’ve never been to China, yet I knew this country’s landscape was the complete opposite of what she would be used to, with the Northern European features of the people seeming so alien. I felt a little awkward as I brushed my hair before bed, feeling their eyes on me. Catching the grandmother’s eye in the mirror, she smiled at me fondly. Then she burped. I immediately stopped what I was doing in surprise,  wondering whether I should laugh light-heartedly to prevent any potential awkwardness. But the lady didn’t seem to have noticed, instead just looking around the room in a non-fussed manner. Then she did it again…and again a few minutes later. Suddenly snoring didn’t seem so bad…

The day ahead would involve a lot of connections. To get to Vestmannaeyjar, one needs to take a local bus from Hvolsvöllur to Landeyjahöfn, and then catch a ferry from the Herjólfur ferry terminal. By buying a ‘Beautiful South’ bus passport, you can easily jump on one of the early Reykjavik Excursions buses heading through Skógar to Hvolsvöllur. The Chinese family nodded and smiled at me as I called a ‘goodbye’ to them the next morning before leaving the hostel to catch one. The door of the bus opened and with a wobbly jump off the bottom step, who should appear but ‘Timmy’, the driver from two day’s before! I watched admirably as he proceeded to ask two good-looking girls where they were from, only to raise his eyebrows at them cheekily and remark with a goofy grin: “Italy..? Bonjourno!” We took a slight detour to go pick up some passengers from a bus that had picked up a fault, and began making our way over a narrow gravel road riddled with potholes that eventually takes one to Pórsmörk. At one point we had to turn around, and the coach was pretty big. Getting off the bus to assess how much space he had, poor Timmy looked nervous. His funny comments in the microphone to the passengers stopped as his attention was focussed completely on the task at hand. I willed him on silently. But he made it without causing any damage, turning round in his seat afterwards to flash the Italian girls a flirty nod.

Hvolsvöllur is a handy connection town as it has a bank and a supermarket where you can stock up on supplies. Other than that, there really isn’t anything to do. With the clouds leaking open again after managing to hold themselves in yesterday, I went to sit inside the petrol station for the remaining hour long wait. 10 minutes later the door opened and the room became a vacuum of jabbering Spanish. I looked up to see a flurry of white and blue infiltrate the room, and a group of about 12 young men moped along the aisles, looking for chocolate and magazines and calling across to each other loudly.  Their presence caused quite a stir, with old ladies gazing at them like children admiring gifts under a Christmas tree.  Once they’d stocked up on sufficient supplies the men came over to the seating area and pulled up chairs around me, to the extent that I was effectively surrounded. An elderly lady eventually came over to ask what they were up to. “We play football,” one replied simply, as he slouched in a chair leafing lazily through a magazine. She continued to look at him, nodding absent-mindedly with a dazed smile of admiration on her face. I kept my head down reading as they chatted boisterously around me. They didn’t seem to have noticed me, and I felt a bit like the plain, quiet kid in American films who never gets picked for the baseball team. Then my bus arrived and I stood up to put my backpack on. Suddenly the footballers stopped their incessant rambling and turned to look at me with perplexed intrigue, as if they’d just spotted me for the first time. Hoisting a heavy rucksack onto your back is never an attractive motion, and I felt my cheeks go bright red as they continued to stare at me and my backpack with baffled faces. ‘Thank God I’m never seeing them again!’ I thought as I hurried through the door feeling like a 12 year old girl.

Whilst the drivers of Reykjavik Excursions coaches speak excellent English, don’t expect the same on local buses. My incoherent mumbling of Icelandic received a bemused look in response and a ticket with lots of figures on it that I didn’t understand. The journey to Landeyjahöfn takes 30 minutes. Raindrops pattered against the window pane. I paid 2520ISK for a return ticket at the terminal and found a seat in the waiting area. Five minutes later, impatient Spanish chatter filled the air again as the flurry of blue and white reappeared. Ah crap. The footballers were obviously heading to Vestmannayejar too. But I couldn’t understand why – it seemed like the most unlikely place for a bunch of young men from the Mediterranean to visit. This time however they were joined by one or two blond-haired players who I assumed were Icelanders, and one of them was very good-looking, with some of the bluest eyes I’d ever seen. Not a great day to be wearing tracksuit bottoms and no mascara. A few minutes later Eye Candy got up to go to the bathroom, and I watched him go with dreamy eyes. As I lowered them I caught the eyes of a woman who was instantly recognisable – it was the mother from the Chinese family in my dorm. I involuntarily grinned and waved at her, as she patted the arm of her mother eagerly. Upon seeing me the grandmother’s eyes lit up and she greeted me with a delighted smile…followed by a burp.

But it was a touching moment all the same – I felt like I’d made some sort of connection with a bunch of strangers, without having even spoken more than a few words to them. We were simply united in that moment by the shared familiarity of the other. And it was a nice feeling; one that I’m not convinced could be acquired as strongly if it happened with a stranger of the same nationality in one’s home country.

The ferry crossing to Vestmannaeyjar takes 40 minutes. Wrap up warm if you decide to go outside! Rain whipped at my cheeks like ropes flailing wildly from a wicked sky, leaving a sting as I gazed over the side of the boat at the roaring waves below. The blue and white swarm of Spanish wasps transcended around me again, buzzing away in sulky tones as they shivered in their tracksuits, glaring at the sky above and wondering how they’d diverted so off-course to end up in this climate. Occasionally one or two of them would look at me with the same baffled facial expression, as if I had two heads. I finally broke the ice by offering to take a photo of them when someone got their camera out. “What are you doing on the Island?” I asked one, who nudged his friend and nodded at me, muttering “English”. His friend proceeded to tell me that they were playing football. Shocker! “But why here?” I asked him, wondering what point there was in flying to Iceland for a training camp. He shrugged and said simply, “There’s a game.” I looked at him, still not understanding. Then he asked if I supported a team, and following the male contingent in my family I replied with “Manchester United.” He smiled and said “Do you know David James?” I was pretty sure he had never played for this team, and rolled my eyes slightly as I said yes. Then he asked why I myself was going to the islands and I told him I was travelling. “But why here?” he asked with a frown. I shrugged and said simply, “Just to look around.” The man looked at me in slight disbelief. We both couldn’t comprehend why the other would want to come to such a small, random place for such activities. But I knew there was more I could have said about my intentions that would justify my coming to the island; it’s not everyday you see a volcano, but a football match could be played anywhere. I couldn’t see how the two could be of similar significance. When he said “Are you coming to watch the game tonight?” I made a face and replied “Probably not.” ‘Why would I bother watching a bunch of guys kick a ball around?’ I thought to myself sceptically.

On arrival at Heimaey, an untidy jumble of square white houses with red and blue roofs are littered out in front of you, like dirty socks left lying around a room carelessly. It’s not a sight that exudes much character. I left the footballers and wondered up an empty street to find my accommodation for the night – Guesthouse Heidrid. A few seconds after I told someone outside that I was looking for a lady called Ruth, a door opened and a lady with frizzy hair appeared, looking a little flustered as a large dog squeezed between her legs to get out. “Yes! I’m Ruth,” she said breathlessly, and before I’d had a chance to properly introduce myself she’d handed me a key to my room, saying over her shoulder, “You can pay me later tonight, I’ve just got to go to the other house,” before shooting up the road. I’d got the impression from a few website features on Vestmannaeyjar that Ruth was quite a big name on the island, being responsible for the running of the town’s Volcanic Film Show. She also seemed to be a big fan of puffins – photos of them covered the walls of my cosy room. But I liked how laid-back she was – it made me feel welcome.

A must-see on the island is the House Graveyard – the resting place of 400 buildings buried under lava in the 1973 eruption. Amongst large piles of rock, wooden signposts indicate the name and position of each deceased establishment. Reading from a sign that a swimming pool was situated under your feet 30 years ago is an inconceivable concept – I can’t imagine how terrifying it must have been, and there’s something quite haunting about the area, as if the spirits of the building are still lurking around you.

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The base of Eldfell is about 10 minutes away, and teasing drops of rain fell every now and then as I began the ascent. Just as I was beginning to feel grateful for my sturdy hiking boots, I spotted a group of three teenagers ahead, walking over the crumbly reddish terrain in normal trainers and carrying nothing but what looked like a newspaper between them. Their casual dress seemed to undermine my perceived significance of the activity I was undertaking. The final 100m of the hike is quite a thigh-burner, made worse by the wind and rain slapping your cheeks mockingly. But when you get to the top and gaze at the volcanic cone of Helgafell in front of you before the ocean to the south, it’s a great feeling. There were a few others up on the summit, but the moody skies around seemed to put them off staying too long. I wanted to give the weather a chance though, and sure enough, a window began to open slowly, letting sunlight gradually stream through. Tuffets of cotton-wool clouds formed in the sky and the ocean began to shimmer as the sun finally broke through determinedly. I’d made the right choice.

I wondered over the narrow ridge at the top of the volcano, only to see the three teenagers sat in a crevice, reading the newspaper. They seemed to represent the standard teenager: bored and frustrated. As someone who’d just experienced something completely new, I found it difficult to understand their emotions. Afterall, it’s not everyday anyone can casually go and read the news on a volcano. One of them then got out a lighter and set the paper on fire, watching it burn with a disinterested expression on his face. I wondered how the three of them felt about tourists from all over coming and invading their tiny homeland. Suddenly I was reminded of my own thoughts growing up in my tiny hometown, when I’d see a collection of cars parked up on grass verges, or walkers trampling over the heather. Sometimes I’d resented it, as if I felt they were rudely intruding on my private property.  As I’d got older I’d craved a change of scene, struggling to grasp why people wanted to visit the area much, simply because I’d lived there my whole life and it was all I was used to. And that was maybe how these kids felt too; they’d forgotten the significance of this place, from taking its constant presence in their life for granted.

A few minutes later the teenagers lumbered back down the mountain, and I was left to myself. I felt like a lone wolf at the top of a mountain, surveying the land and sea below for approaching enemies.  Thinking about home after seeing the teenagers prompted me to turn my phone on, and I sent a text to my parents with the line ‘Greetings from the top of a volcano’. Reading those words was so bizarre, and I kept wondering to myself, ‘How dangerous is it that I’m up in this volcano alone..?’ I stayed up there a while longer, until I heard a hissing noise from a hole in the ground and started to get a little nervous…

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When you reach the bottom of Eldfell, head further south to the coast, making sure you say hello to the Icelandic ponies on the way (just beware of the electric fence). On the coast near the gold course, you’re bound to see puffins sitting nobly in the cliff crevices. These animals are a national symbol of Iceland, and a popular dish too! The rain began to fall again, and I made a mad dash for cover in what seemed to be an empty workshop just off the golf course, wondering whether this counted as trespassing. Cheering sounded from the distance, and I suddenly remembered what the Spanish footballer had said about a game. ‘Sounds pretty rowdy for a kickabout,’ I thought to myself, and I decided to have a quick look once the shower ended.

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English-style chants in an Icelandic tongue grew louder on approach, and I looked around in bewilderment as I saw small groups of people clustered on the banks outside a tiny stadium. A boy with a yellow-coated dog stood in front of me, occasionally making excited comments to a guy with a ponytail smoking nearby who, with his fluorescent jacket, I assumed was on security. Feeling liked I’d just turned up to a small house gathering only to find that it had been gate-crashed, I scrutinised the players on the pitch. One team was in white, the other blue. Suddenly I recognised the Spanish player from the boat who’d referred me to the English speaker. ‘But what is this for?’ I asked myself in confusion. The boy with the yellow dog seemed too focussed on the game to ask, since his dog was busy getting its lead caught around its legs without him noticing, so I approached an old man instead. “Afsakið, talar pú ensku?” I asked uncertainly. He nodded with a warm smile, and I continued “What is this match for?” He gave the names of two teams, and seeing my blank expression said, “It’s like the Icelandic Premier League.” Ohhhh. I looked on the field again. The Spanish guys had just scored, and the boy with the dog swore furiously. I watched the goalkeeper get to his feet. He looked familiar, even from the far distance. I turned to the man again, as it slowly dawned on me. “The goalkeeper for the Vestmannaeyjar team…is that..?” The man smiled, “David James, yes!”

Suddenly everything clicked into place, after I’d previously missed the connection. A few seconds of feeling sheepish for being so cynical about the Spanish guy’s comments were followed by a burst of self-deprecating laughter. As the match finished and hoards of people filtered out of the stands,  I walked amongst them back to the guesthouse, almost in a daze as I ran through the bizarre events of the day. This experience had been so surreal and unexpected. Of all the things I thought I might come across in Iceland, this link back to England wasn’t one of them, especially as a follow-up to me chilling on top of a volcano by myself for two hours. I’d gone from an experience that felt so weird – because of it being completely unusual in my normal life and surroundings – to something that seemed even weirder because of its stark familiarity with home in contrast. Never before would I have put volcanoes and footballers in the same sentence. For some reason, the idea that Iceland would have a similar sports institution to England had gone over my head. Just like the teenagers on Eldfell struggled to appreciate the remarkable value of their hometown’s natural monument to tourists, I’d assumed there couldn’t be any significance in a game of football, because it was such a familiar element in my life.

It’s moments like this that make travelling such a fantastic thing – the weird coincidences that you experience on the way supplement the wonderful sights that you see. And most of the time, these links occur during the process of locomotion. Getting around on different forms of transport can be tiring and tedious, but events like this add entertainment and make what one assumes to be the most boring aspects of travelling become an open ticket to another special memory. Even though I would have still finished that day able to tick ‘Hike a volcano’ off my life to-do list, the state of having an awesome experience on the Westmann Islands wouldn’t have been reached without the various travel connections made during the day. 

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10 Reasons to do a Help-Exchange

When planning a trip, I tend to split it into two sections – part of it involves true hostel-loving backpacking, the other a help-exchange. We’re living in a day and age where students and ‘gap yah’ kids will spend huge amounts of money to volunteer in an orphanage in a developing country for two weeks, in an attempt to boost their CV with extra credentials. Personally, I’m not a fan of this organised travel; partly for the reason that I believe it does little to encourage independence and travelling skills; partly because I’m not convinced that continuously passing young children onto different groups to be ‘cooed’ over and have photos taken with is beneficial for their mental well-being and social development. (This article sums it up brilliantly). Students may also be lured into paying extortionate amounts of money for holiday package tours, where they only mingle with fellow tourists and essentially see the country for five minutes.

If you do a help-exchange in contrast, you’ll spend so much less money, yet probably get so much more out of the experience. The system is simple – you register with a website, pay an £18-£20 membership fee that’s valid for two years, and create a profile for yourself. You can then scout the website’s host listing, or hosts can contact you. The idea is that you do four-six hours of work a day for your host in return for free meals and accommodation, so that you’re both doing each other a favour. In your free time you’re free to go off exploring on your own. A help-exchange can be done in any country on any continent, with an incredible range of options on offer – from helping an Eco camp in Africa build a school for six weeks, to looking after huskies in Norway for one week. Below are ten extensive reasons why you should consider doing one yourself!

1. Develop social skills & independence
The process of organising a help-exchange requires the sole effort of the applicant: you yourself have to find an appropriate host decisively but considerately, noting their requirements whilst taking into account your relevant skills and other travel plans. Instead of filling out an application form, you have to contact the host directly either by phone or email, ensuring you come across as friendly, coherent and suitable in a few sentences without referring to your ‘exceptional’ A level results. You have to organise how you get to your host – sometimes you might be asked to turn up at the door – in which case you need to plan travel arrangements. And finally, you have to introduce yourself to your host using communication skills that convey your genuine personality rather than the one you might use to impress someone in a job interview, and conduct yourself aptly for a guest. The process is like a less formal version of applying for a job – there are fewer competitors, no strict deadlines and no daunting interviews. Help-exchanges are also a great way to boost one’s confidence at meeting new people.

 2.  Save money & recuperate
A help-exchange is budget travel at its best. Even staying in hostels that only cost £17 per night starts to add up if you’re on a long trip. The particularly great thing about a help-exchange is how spontaneous it can be – you can contact somebody even when you’re in the country having commenced your travels – ideal if you’ve suddenly found yourself short of funds or there’s been a problem with your current accommodation. Staying in one place for a while also allows the weary traveller to rest their body and mind – it’s nice to have some time off lugging a backpack around everyday, or constantly thinking about public transport timetables and hostel bookings for the day ahead. Saving money on the practicalities of food and accommodation also means your pennies can be put towards more exciting activities in your free time. Plus, being given free meals in return for your help makes a nice change from a cheap ‘on-the-road’ diet of cheese-sandwiches, bananas and biscuits…

3. Develop new practical skills
The wide range of jobs that hosts advertise for help with means that you can guarantee learning a new skill, ranging from knitting to carpentry. Sometimes I’ve not contacted a host whose description sounded perfect in so many ways, just because I had no experience of the specific work they needed help with. But one occasion where I didn’t let this feeling of inadequacy put me off was with a family on Vancouver Island. They owned a vineyard, and as much my mum might have tried to encourage me over the years, I had no experience of pruning. As I was shown what to do on my first day thoughts of: ‘Oh crap, I’m totally going to ruin this guy’s vines, he’s going to be annoyed with me!’ filled my head. Then I remembered that it wasn’t a test, and I wouldn’t be judged for asking questions, but was actually more likely to be respected for trying to ensure I did a decent job.

Even when you’re not working, you can still learn new skills in your free time from family members. The first time I went fishing was during a help-exchange in southern BC (I wasn’t very successful). On another exchangeI learned the basics of lacrosse and after a few attempts (and one fall) had (almost) mastered the art of longboarding. It’s unlikely I would have accessed such activities so easily when travelling around alone.

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4. Inspire youth
Being the youngest of five children, I’ve never had much of an opportunity to be a ‘big sister’ to anyone, but taking part in help-exchanges has changed that, as I’ve been able to become a confidante to those a few years younger than me. Being trusted by an adult you’ve never met to take a position of responsibility over their children is a humbling gesture, and as a result makes you determined to live up to the duty and set an example. In my case this has mainly involved listening to problems, sometimes of an everyday form and sometimes more serious, and using my experience to give advice for the short or long term. With young teenage girls I think, being female myself, that it’s a particularly rewarding process. They’re going through a stage when older authority can be resented, and being a good role model without alienating them can be quite challenging. But if you get the balance right, you’re likely to see reserved body language become more confident and bored facial expressions develop into expressions of curiosity and familiarity, as they realise that the new girl in their house is actually not that bad, even though she travels by herself/is single/wearing scruffy clothes and no make-up/into running/a bit of a geek. I hope that as a result of this, most of the girls I’ve stayed with have decided that they too would like to embark on their own independent travel adventure one day. Help-exchanges demonstrate that you don’t have to be in a less-developed country (or pay lots of money) to have a strong impact on someone’s life.

5. Expand human knowledge
Taking part in help-exchanges has made me become a better reader of both individual people and families, reminding me in the process that despite any cultural differences, certain human emotional dilemmas occur universally. As a result I feel like I’ve gained greater maturity and sensitivity, which can be applied to everyday life. It’s something that can’t be taught, only obtained through observational experience. An example is from Canada, where I lived with a 15 year old girl whose life, at the insistence of her mother, revolved around horse-riding and ice hockey. Most of the time she was reserved around the household. Then at the end of the week the two of us went to the cinema and I saw an excitement in her that I hadn’t seen before, realising that it was simply because she wasn’t used to going out for social events. Away from her normal routine and slightly domineering mother, she felt freer and more open. Meanwhile on an exchange in Germany, the 18 year old daughter started tearing up as she said goodbye to her parents before they left for their holiday. She wouldn’t see them when they got back as she would be on holiday herself. “I just feel bad because by going away and doing my own things I see them less, and they’re only getting older,” she explained to me after they’d gone. I could completely empathise with her, having experienced similar feelings of guilt in relation to my own parents. It was an irrational feeling that I hadn’t considered might be felt by others. Doing a help exchange can make a ‘foreigner’ seem more familiar, while also giving you something to take back to your own family; be that a greater appreciation of or the inspiration to change its dynamic!

6. Practise a language
The best way to learn a language is through immersion – visit the relevant country and spend time with native-speakers, listening to their conversations and attempting to initiate ones yourself. Even if you’re not planning to learn the language (mastering Icelandic in two weeks would have been asking a bit too much), it’s nice to simply listen to the different sounds and watch people interact through it, sometimes being able to guess what they’re talking about from their actions. While staying with a small family in Germany, I would carry a notepad around with me, at times randomly asking the daughter, “How would I say this?” or “What does that word you keep saying mean?” She would also ask for clarification that her English was okay too, so that both of us were benefitting. I was then able to use what I’d learned after I moved on from the family. It makes a nice change from hostels and charity volunteering camps where, on the whole, English is the international language. And even better: the tuition is free.

7. Learn about other cultures
Living in a family’s home creates an intimate environment where you can witness the everyday native lifestyle – it’s the best way to learn about the values and norms of the country, either through conversations or general observation. Whilst on my Icelandic help-exchange I was told about Christmas traditions (including a detailed description, involving a picture book, of the 13 different Santas), as well as the less obvious and random traits of the country’s culture. For example: when trying to establish ages, an Icelander will always ask for year of birth over the actual number; a wife doesn’t take her husband’s surname – instead it is always the father’s name, ending with the prefix ‘dottir’ for girls and ‘son’ for boys; names of all residents are written underneath the house number next to the door; dried haddock is a popular snack, and so forth… Staying with locals gives one a greater awareness of and access to the signature brands and dishes of that country, such as ‘Tim Hortons’ in Canada and Skyr yoghurt in Iceland.

Doing a few help-exchanges in different areas is even better, as you get to witness the variety of the country for yourself, just like someone travelling to England would notice changes between London and Yorkshire. For example, I could sense varying attitudes towards immigration, marriage and careers in different areas of BC which, as a History student, I found really interesting. What’s more, if there are other foreign helpers staying at the house, you can learn more about their culture too. The first time I had a proper conversation with someone from China was during a help-exchange in Canada, while meeting a few Germans there partly inspired my decision to travel there the next summer.

8. Integrate into a family and community
In previous posts I’ve written about the overwhelming effect of being welcomed into a host’s life so warmly. Sometimes the ‘click’ won’t happen, either inevitably from significant differences in outlook, or as a result of events during the exchange. But when it does, especially in such a short period, it’s a very touching experience. This, combined with getting to know the local area well, can make you really feel ‘at home’. Doing errands for a host in Germany such as going to the post office and doing the shopping required me to familiarise myself with the area, making me feel like part of the community by the end of the exchange. By the end of my week with a family in Reykjavík, I was on greeting terms with an old man who walked his pug at the same time as I walked my host’s border collie. At family dinners or parties, I’ve been involved in the conversation almost, at times, like a member of the family. Such moments can lead to a bond with a family – a long-term bond that hasn’t been formed through the influence of alcohol and consolidated by the desire for a companion to provide temporary convenience and security, as is quite often the case with volunteer-travel friendships.

For me having no younger siblings, forming a bond with a child or young teenager is particularly special. At first introduction they are often quite shy and making conversation isn’t so easy. My Icelandic help-exchange also involved babysitting an eight year old. His English was exceptional, but there still seemed to be a barrier as we sat eating breakfast on my first morning. After getting a shrug in response to “What’s your favourite subject at school?” I asked if he wanted to walk the dog with me: “Nahhh”; or go swimming: “No thanks.” Hmmm. ‘It’s going to be a long week,’ I though despairingly. “Maybe you’d like to play a game?” I asked hopefully. The boy said nothing. Then suddenly his eyes lit up: “Do you like Star Wars?” Ermm… “Yeahhhhh!” I replied enthusiastically. I know nothing about Star Wars. The next two hours was spent playing a game with no idea what I was doing. But it was worth it, because by the end of it the boy was interacting with me more. Within the next few days I was making him laugh as we played toy soldiers or football, and chatting animatedly with him. Then came the day when he asked “Will you be here this time next week?” followed by a sad “N’owhh” when I said no, and upon hearing that I welled up.

One might say that the same emotion can be experienced after looking after an orphan as part of a charity project, but I would disagree. A charity scheme essentially requires a bond to be formed, by expecting volunteers to devote complete attention to a child who is not already emotionally attached to a regularly-present biological relative. In contrast, children from a host family are less likely to require or crave a new bond, simply because they already have a strong and satisfying connection with their family.  The process of forming a bond is therefore more contingent on both characters involved, which subsequently makes it feel more treasurable.

9. See incredible places & do amazing activities for free
They say that guide books shouldn’t be relied on as source for travel ideas, and help-exchanges prove it. A key reason I’m such a big fan of them is because of their potential to help one discover a phenomenal area of the world, or be given a rare opportunity to do something wonderful. For example, one of my help-exchanges in BC involved working on an Andalusian horse farm, where I helped care for and exercise the horses. Being allowed to ride such beautiful animals as ‘work’ made me feel so lucky, as I thought about what some people would give to be in my position. Another family took me tubing down the Similkameen River, and on my final night with them we drank beers and ate ‘smors’ around a campfire in the Okanogan forest, giving me a true rural Canadian experience. This was an area that I would probably not have considered visiting had I been touring the area independently, because of both the lack of tourist accommodation and lack of attention given to it in my guide book. On Vancouver Island, my hosts lived five minutes from the beach, from where I could admire some of the most enchanting sunsets I’ve ever seen. I was given a tour of Victoria and taken out on the family’s boat for an evening cruise. Meanwhile in Germany I was taken on an afternoon sight-seeing tour of Frankfurt with all the benefits of local knowledge, and in Iceland I got to experience the brilliant Culture Night celebrations with native company. For just a few hours work a day, you can receive something back in return that no salary, no matter how big, could buy.

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10. Form special memories & valuable contacts
The sense of accomplishment after discovering or arriving at a stunning place completely on my own is what makes me love travelling alone…but I’d be lying if I said that some of my favourite and strongest memories from trips haven’t come from help-exchange experiences. Some of them are from the examples stated in #9, while some weren’t necessarily so treasured at the time but in hindsight have provided extraordinary tales of great humour that, without a help-exchange, I probably wouldn’t have experienced. Take the time I went to a house party in Canada, only to find myself constructing a sling out of a tea towel for a guy who broke his collarbone after falling off his quad-bike whilst riding under a very very large influence; or the time a host asked me to give her daughter a lift to a bonfire party in her car (as if having to quickly adjust to driving in an opposite way to what I was used to without damaging her car wasn’t enough, I then had to reverse half a mile along a dyke in the dark after we took a wrong turn); and last but not least was the time one family’s 12 year old daughter jokingly drove a lawnmower towards where I was sunbathing on a downhill slope before parking up, only for someone to start screaming at me to move (she’d forgotten to put the handbrake on…)

Then of course, there are the friends that can be made from a help-exchange, either host’s children or fellow helpers, who themselves account for many of the memories formed. I’m still in regular contact with many of those people I’ve been fortunate to stay with, one of whom I visited in Germany after meeting her in Canada, and one of whom I travelled around the USA with three years after first meeting. These people provide a travel contact either for at the time of the exchange or in future, and meeting them has inspired me to become a host one day myself, in the hope of meeting even more special people and creating even more special memories.

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Being involved in a help-exchange is beneficial for a range of reasons: the potential to help a person develop for the better whilst allowing them to have an impact on someone else; the potential for new knowledge, exciting opportunities and significant experiences; the potential to form strong friendships; and simply for the potential to produce a fulfilling sense of knowing you’ve done someone a favour, whilst also feeling extremely grateful for what they’ve done for you. And the best thing about it is that these elements can be attained without having to spend thousands of pounds.

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Been convinced? Check out some of the websites below and get your own help-exchange adventure started!

http://www.workaway.info/
http://www.helpx.net/
http://www.wwoof.net/