When I was young and adventurous (in the minimal responsibilities way, not the drug experimentation way) and backpacking Europe was cool, yes i did it. In that gap summer between high school and when I was supposed to go to college -when most people do it, I launched off the French group visit of 10 days in Paris and proceeded to do 30 more on my own. Backpacking may still be cool, i don’t know. I’m too far removed from carrying 30+lbs of my life on my back and calling it ‘fun’. Besides, over the last 10 years the latest way to go about it has been Couchsurfing. Bypass the cheap hostel with one toilet/shower per guest floor, and just crash on a strangers couch, where you may only share the bathroom with 3 people. The cost of this close encounter is maybe the price of groceries for the meal the host is bound to fix you anyway. Like all things involving entering stranger’s homes, the practice has become tainted and seedy. Whodathunk? But wait! We now have AirBnB, the latest in our ‘sharing economy’, where we can rent out our own excess to those traveling ‘on the cheap’. It definitely surpasses the hostel, it’s not nearly as pricey as your first-pick hotel, and it offers the cozy home away from home atmosphere, seeing as you are in someone’s home. But like the new taxi services, Uber and Lyft, it’s suffering some growing pains while trying to become more regulated, i.e. ‘safe’. Just last week, an Uber driver molested an intoxicated female. What could go wrong with AirBnB? AirBnB Thinks Your Apartment Would Be a Great Illegal Bistro
In one of my sole-traveling youthful Europe trips, I wanted something more focused, more lingering, less hopscotch (2 days here, 2 days there) and less rushed. I briefly considered the au pair thing, but i’m not into children, especially other people’s. I was sticking to the budget concept, but requiring substance. (sole-traveling aka soul-searching) Enter, WWOOF Willing Workers on Organic Farms. There are sponsors everywhere in the world. You pay a yearly fee for the job listings in the particular country(ies) you choose (western Europe vs eastern, Asia, Africa, etc…) and then post a bio about yourself. The listings ask anything from serious manual labor (construction) to babysitting or language-learning exchange. Most often you are bartering the skill you offer for the service they need and you get free room/food. I remember specifically wanting to stay with a French family. After narrowing it down to 20 possibilities, then 12, then 3, i had an email exchange with the 3 to decide where I would best fit. I ended up working for a Dutch woman named Zena at her B&B in the Burgundy region of France. Most people require you stay a minimum amount of time, 2 weeks-1 month or no longer than a 3 month maximum; most work Visas run out then anyhow. There are thousands of people who live their lives hopping from one exchange to another, often taking under the table non-visa contract work for some extra cash (like bar-tending, waitressing, or whoknowswhat) I met a girl who’d been on a Saudi family’s yacht for 5 weeks, and she said it was the most degrading (the rudeness) & disgusting thing (toilet cleaning) she’d ever done; but they paid her really really well. :/ She pretty much went between paid work to bartering work and had planned for a solid 3 year experience. What’s 3 years in the grand scheme of our lives! And aside from the occasional shit experiences, such as life, the inevitable whole-roundedness and educational opportunity, eye-opening living this can offer is priceless. Literally, if you so choose. The B&B, front and backside
Back to the point of the post: proceeding my arrival to Zena’s, I decided to pick a city in Italy to meander awhile. Florence. This is another story in itself. But the mere attempt at arriving here was a comedy of errors. Not only did a young Italian boy (maybe 20) try and drag me to his home and meet his family and stay with him and supposedly get along wonderfully with his sister (all of this translated by an unassociated old Italian man, sharing our passenger car) And by drag, i mean drag. Because in this lovey-dovey-kissy face-time, no lost in translation here, the pining for and understood begging of ‘please come home with me at this next stop’, Yes, i did miss my own. Something about these trains. They do not go in direct routes, more like crossing over and veering off; and you need to know when to get off and get on another one going where you are meant to be headed. So out. On a vacant platform I discover this is not where I need to be. Shit. Merde! It is mid afternoon. Hostels fill by morning. The expense of this mistake is setting into my periphery. I ask a train conductor. I figure out the way. I find another obviously American guy in my similar distress, headed to Florence, missed the getting off and jumping on of another train fiasco as myself. (obviously at this point of the story you realize i passed on going home with touchy-feely Italian boy; he was watery eyed and begging pathetic, i’m not joking) So here we are, 2 Americans, close in age, close in catastrophe. We both had inclinations of arriving by 9am and landing in a vacant room of one of the cheap hostels. (at this time $12-15, currently maybe $25)
It’s 5 pm by the time we arrive in Florence, and it is raining. Like, I’m glad i had the foresight to pack a trash bag, because I’m covering my luggage with it so it doesn’t get heavier with water soaking into it as I walk the cobblestone and become steadily rejected by occupancy-filled places. And seeing as that both the American guy and myself are in the same boat (pun), we decide to bite the expensive bullet and split the cost of a real hotel room. Mind you, at this point, I’ve been more intimate with Italian boy better than this guy. Since the train, he has made it repetitively clear he has a girlfriend. I’m sorry, but i haven’t even been flirting with you this entire stressful time, let’s be clear. All I know is he is an architectural student interested in Gaudi, on his way to Spain, but pit-stopping in Florence for some of its building design. To this day, I don’t remember his name. Both of us are too tired of dragging luggage, we just settle on the nearest spot. It was under $50 after the split, but the square footage of our room is more like 5 feet by 5 feet. Seriously. There is a full size bed. At the end of the bed is a desk with a chair you can pull away from the desk, maybe 3 feet; and then there is a toilet. Yes, the toilet. Just.right.there. No curtain. No door. Just right fucking there, literal indoor plumbing. But wait, at least there is a shower, at the very end of the room, in the corner, with that CLEAR piece of 90 degree cut glass. I think both of us took in a breath and held it. Our second point of alignment was in that mutual thought ‘Fuck.’ The only saving grace about this room is the double-doors which open to a shared balcony courtyard: tables, chairs, foliage. And being a gentleman, he sits his stuff down and heads outside, first telling me he’ll stay out there till I’ve privately used the.toilet. and the shower. Goodness. I politely did the same for him. We superficially chit-chat our way through a dinner. I remember thinking it would’ve been much easier had we actually been attracted to one another.
When we get back to the room, the plan is to vacate super early to get one of those hostel rooms as originally planned. He gives me half of the night’s room cost so I can check out when I leave. How we go about this one night? I sleep against the wall, under the covers. He sleeps on top of the covers underneath an extra blanket. He’s acting like I’m going to be the one to rape him! He was gone when I woke.
Pictures in the kitchen and the dining room at the BnB. So a-typical
As part of my bartering, I prepped the rose bed for winter: loosening the soil, covering it in mulch, then covering the mulch in paper sacks so they wouldn’t get frostbitten. There was an organic garden, horses with their requisite stalls to shovel, hiking trails, dusk-light guitar music, great wine, food, and conversation. We were 1 mile away from a foie gras manufacturing plant. The only thing the garden didn’t grow were potatoes and tomatoes and some fruit. After the morning boulangerie stop, a few other fresh essentials were purchased and the day/evening were set. La Bonne Vie!
I have many, many adventures in travel. They tell the best stories.