In the summer of 1995, I participated in an international volunteer project in Hérisson, France through CIEE: Council on International Educational Exchange.
As soon as I got home, I wrote an article about my experience and it was published in the Spring 1997 issue of CIEE’s Student Travels magazine.
My article had to be edited for length for the magazine, but here is my original article:
I spent last summer on a group volunteer project in Hérisson, a tiny medieval village in central France. Our goal was to spruce up the town’s 10th-century castle.
Three weeks is a perfect length of time for a workcamp, the commonly used term for international volunteer projects like the one I participated in. There was no time to be bored. We all made the effort not to waste a single moment we had together.
Our projects included cutting acacia trees lined up along the road that were blocking the view of the castle, cleaning up a stagnant pond and ridding it of weeds, repainting an old rusted gate, erecting a bench, clearing dead branches from the castle’s rose garden, and clearing ivy from the garden walls. We worked Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. with a half-hour break in the middle.
There were ten volunteers (ranging in age from 18 to 31) working on the project from France, Poland, Czech Republic, Germany, Japan, Spain, and the United States. There were two group leaders (animateurs): one leader was from Québec, Canada, and the other leader was from France. She brought along her dog, Mireille, who became our mascot!
Accommodations were simple, but adequate. We slept in sleeping bags on cots or mats on the floor in a school cafeteria, where we also cooked and prepared meals. We did grocery shopping in nearby Cosne-d’Allier. Each day, two of us took turns cooking, washing dishes, and cleaning the shared living areas.
In our spare time, my new friends and I played cards and sports, like soccer, and a bowling game called pétanque. We taught each other curse words, tongue twisters, and jokes in our respective languages, sang acapella, and frequented pubs.
While we usually spoke English (since we were all at different levels of French), I did try speaking French as much as possible with the two group leaders. My French vocabulary improved significantly.
Weekends were especially great. We visited two other workcamps in Vieure and Néris-les-Bains, went swimming and kayaking in a lake, and attended the annual Bourbonnais gospel concert.
At a festival in nearby Venas, we saw people folk dancing in traditional Bourbonnais costumes! We saw rope-making demonstrations and how to bake brioche in a brick oven. There were also animals wandering freely among us in the plaza. At another festival, we danced in the streets to live music.
We spent the night inside the Chapelle Saint-Mayeul in Le Brethon after our hike through the Tronçais Forest, which is the largest oak tree forest in Europe! When we got back to Hérisson, we helped out with a flea market (antiquités brocante) and I helped direct traffic! It was so much fun helping out with the community event.
The local community in Hérisson was warm and welcoming. Residents would greet us and ask how we were and how our work was progressing. After work each day, some of the residents would give us tours of Hérisson. We visited the town museum, an old mill, and the Eglise Saint-Pierre de Chateloy. We also visited the home of an older woman who made hats and she let us try them on!
Several community members gave us lots of bottles of wine, homemade baked goods, and jam. Their friendliness made me feel more like a neighbor than a tourist.
I used to think that many of the world’s conflicts resulted from differences among peoples. From my workcamp experience with new friends from different parts of the world, I know now that the only differences that exist are geography and language.
It’s a bit of a cliché, but everyone at my workcamp shared the same hopes, dreams, and fears. We all wanted to have a better understanding of different people and cultures. It was the common goal that brought us all together.
(c) 1995 by Darlene 🦔 << Hérisson means hedgehog!
Note: It appears that CIEE does not offer the international volunteer project program at this time.
To learn more about other educational exchange programs that they offer, visit their website here. (This is not an affiliate link; this post is not sponsored.)