I had heard about Wwoofing when I was in France. Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms is an international programme linking volunteers to organic farms. Basically, you volunteer to work on an organic farm and in return you receive free board and lodging on the farm. My mission for December of 2008 was to find a French speaking country where I could Wwoof and practice my beginner’s French. I came across this description and invitation on the Wwoofing website:
In Corsica, a French island in the Mediterranean Sea, Jean-Mathieu, Barbara and their friends Felipe and Paul, welcome you in the renovation of about twenty hectares of sweet chestnut trees. The farm aims at the renovation and protection of the traditional heritage of the various local variety of sweet chestnut, for the production of flour. We want to keep the values of the former modes of manufacturing, and especially the quality of completely natural products. We are committed to respect and to protect the environment. In addition we take care of a small breeding of pigs. Animals are carefully selected to protect the local race. They are intended for the production of traditional cooked pork meat. Situated at four hours walking to the summit of the mountain San Pedrone, the highlight of Castagniccia, and half an hour from the sea, the farm is surrounded with paths which connect the small characteristic villages. It is also near the long distance footpath “Mare a mare”. We clean the fields of sweet chestnut trees, collect fruits, dry them in the traditional way, peel them and finally sort them out before ending in flour. We have a typical and comfortable house. We would be happy to receive you from the beginning of September to the end of December. We speak English, Spanish, French, German and Corsican. For any information, contact us. We can receive from September to December, maybe later.
I sent them an email and booked my flights. I was going to stay there for the whole of December (I wanted to avoid Christmas and New Year in London).
I flew to Bastia where I was met by Felipe, a Columbian with a ponytail, who worked on the farm and hosted the Wwoofers. He had his two dogs in the car. We listened to loud Samba music all the way to Lutina – a tiny, ancient village on a hill. It only has about seven houses. I spent four weeks there – some of the happiest days of my life. The other volunteers were a little younger than I was, but were warm and interesting – they were from all over the world. Days were spent “bouger de bois” (moving the wood) which meant that we packed wood into trucks and sometimes went collecting wood in the forest nearby. We sorted chestnuts, too. We also watched the pigs being castrated- the Wwoofers huddled together in horror- and when we sat down to eat that night, we were shocked to realise that the pigs’ testicles had been prepared for the meal (we all ate them anyway). The other volunteers departed before Christmas, to return to their families and homes. I stayed on, with Felipe. One morning I woke up to find Lutina covered in snow. We moved wood that day, in the snow. I worked on my own singing “Climb Every Mountain” from the Sound of Music loudly to myself.
I remember a phone call from my older sister at that time. She suggested that I take the year off and travel more. I discussed this with Felipe and he was encouraging of the plan. He scoffed at me when I suggested I was too old to travel the world. He showed me a map of the world, showing me all the places I could go and he said, “Follow the signs”. I have never forgotten that.
I’m not sure how many of you have seen the movie, Signs. It is a 2002 movie, starring Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix. In it, Mel Gibson’s character explains that there are two kinds of people in this world- the kind that believes in signs or miracles and the kind that doesn’t. The former believe that they are not alone and that there is a guiding power out there. The latter believe that they are alone in this world and that there is no-one or nothing looking out for them. I fall into the former category, although the signs aren’t always that easy to read and I have been a pretty crap sign-reader, at certain times in my life. Nevertheless, I don’t believe in coincidences and I do believe that there is something else out there. I have given up trying to define what exactly that is. There are too many things that have happened in my life which can only be explained by a guiding force or power being present in this world. Signs can be people or events and sometimes you only realise that they were signs after they happen.
When I left Corsica, I embarked on a journey of following the signs. It took me to some strange places. But, looking back, there is a beautiful symmetry in the events that have transpired in my life.
The past, itself, can be a sign.