It was so easy to say at parties, get togethers, to friends and family: "We're going to farm in Europe". It felt exotic, adventurous, refined, and earthy all at the same time. For two months we'd be working on two different farms in exchange for room and board. The HelpX website had connected us with an olive farm in Spain and an island villa in Italy. And that was all we knew.
My boyfriend and I took the time to simplify our lives: we ended gym memberships, realigned our finances, ended our lease, renewed our passports, bought travel insurance and--finally--booked our flights.
On the red-eye to Barcelona we had so many questions we kept asking each other, unable to sleep as we imagined the next two months of our lives. What will we be doing day to day? When will we eat? How many meals do we get? We had found it difficult to get a feel of the places online. Chris tried to set up Skype interviews, but the hosts were used to rotating volunteers, and didn't want to bother. In the age of online reviews and verifications the world of Uber and Airbnb has actually become a safer place. And considering I met Chris--my own boyfriend--online, it couldn't be all that bad could it?
Like all life experiences, we learned a lot. It was an incredible trip full of the new, adventurous, earthy, refined aspects we had hoped for. But still, the flight back to the United States was spent figuring out what questions we asked correctly ahead of time, and which ones we just got lucky on. Of course a lot of great experiences happen by chance, but here's what we'll ask before our next HelpX adventure:
1. The housing
Even though you're getting it "for free", your committing to working and living there so it's a fair and important question. Both times, Chris and I paired up with hosts that wanted couples, so they had a space ready for us. In both Spain and Italy, we got a cottage all to ourselves with a kitchen and bathroom. Both had heating, (which was crucial), hot water, and kitchen supplies. Make sure you know exactly how you'll be living so you can prepare!
2. When and where you stay
In both cases, Chris and I were shocked to find how extreme off-season could be. In the small town of Marca, Spain, it was a 45 minute walk each way to the only real grocery store, and the hours were so limited we had to plan our entire day around getting meals. Museums had to be called ahead of time to see if they opened that day, and mini-tours of wine country had to be arranged to when they could justify opening shop. In Italy, there was only a small grocery store, and a bakery another 30 minute, hilly walk away. It got us in shape, and forced us to slow down and plan a few days ahead of time--but it's something you should be aware of. Quiet, small nights at home let us relax and savor more sunsets, but you might want to download some movies if traveling cheap during off-season is also your thing.
3. The work
We really didn't know what we were getting into, but the work ended up being lighter and easier in both cases than we thought. Still, other hosts can be super demanding. It may seem pushy, but it's better to ask what kind of work their expecting and how many hours you're working each day before you go. What we realized is that although the work was light, it took all day. Chickens need to be fed at sunrise and sunset. Dogs need to be walked around lunchtime, etc. etc. Hosts know that your not usually professional farmers, and want you to highlight your skills, whether it be caring for the animals, woodworking, gardening, painting, or whatever. HelpX is not a part-time job where you can go on vacation every afternoon. It's a lifestyle you're committing to to learn new skills and grow as a person.
4. The meals
Every host will have a different preference. In Spain we were given one giant, late lunch every day plus bread and eggs for breakfast. In Italy, every single meal plus wine was shared. Both have their pros and cons. If they're not offering every meal, ask about local grocery stores and prices before committing. If there's one kitchen to share, be realistic about meat and veggie consumption and tastes. In Italy, our host was mostly meat, bread and dairy free. I enjoyed eating healthier, but my boyfriend would have liked to at least known beforehand what he was getting into.
At the end of the day, it's easy to get caught up in a phrase. "We're farming on an adventure in Europe". But once you get there and your stomach is growling, or your sleeping in a tent, or your spending more money than you thought you'd have to, you'll wish you had taken the time to be a little more practical. Save the romantic notions for the incredible sunsets.