I wake up in the mornings wondering what the day’s work will have in store for us. We never know what time we work or what kind of work we’ll be doing. It always changes, and Rupert, our boss, has poor communication skills, which are only hindered more because of a language barrier. Rupert usually comes in around 10 am and tells us to be ready “soon”. The interpretation of that word is based on each of the volunteer’s cultural perspective. For the three Italian girls working with me, “soon” means “in an hour”, but to me and the other American it means “in ten minutes”. I get out of bed, walk across the hall past the other rooms in the communal apartment and into the kitchen. I wonder if there will be bread… Jam? It is an absolute tragedy when there is no bread. In fact, the other night, I heard a scream from the kitchen. I ran into the room, “What’s wrong!?” I asked Bianca who was standing there dumbstruck. “There’s… No bread…” She uttered, looking physically in pain. But there’s always oatmeal. If Michael, the other American I work with, has already made some, he always offers and I always accept and clean dishes as a thank you.
Le Relais Montagnard, where I work, is located in Bonac. “Le Relais”, as it is more often called, is the restaurant and lodging for those taking a break from hiking in the Pyrenees Mountains. The mountain range engulfs the little valley town of Bonac, a picture-perfect setting for a live-action Disney film. I live in Irazein, however, the village just a mile and a half up the mountain. If I get lucky, I can hitch a ride to Bonac. If I’m super lucky, I can hitch a ride back up to Irazein. Usually, my luck rides on a one-way ticket though. Sometimes I enjoy the walk down (and even up) the mountain if I’m not too lazy or hungover. I like picking the wildflowers on the side of the road and putting them into my hair, especially if I’ve braided it (the flowers stay better that way). Often times, I check for bugs first, but if the flower is pretty enough, I’ll tuck it behind a braided lock without a second thought.
After arriving to Le Relais, I kiss everyone hello, always both cheeks. We should do this here in the United States; it’s much more sanitary. Although, sometimes it gets tricky when you both go for the same cheek and end up smacking lips. We, as volunteers, are allowed coffee, tea, and water with syrups in the morning before getting to work. I have coffee every morning now, but I still hate tea. I sit down with my espresso, plop a sugar cube in my mouth, and receive some kind of comment about being a “typical American” for this action, but I receive the same comments for any action that seems odd to the locals.
Rupert will decide who will work where. Often, I work in the garden and the kitchen. When I work in the garden, I pull weeds or plant vegetables like leeks or potatoes. Maybe I will harvest parsley or basil. I usually sneak bites of whatever I’m working with, like a rabbit. If I work in the kitchen, I prepare the food or do the dishes. The cooks, Florine and Pâteman, work barefoot, which seems dangerous to me. I like working with Pâteman. He cooks a lot of pasta which is why he is called “Pâte”man; pâte in French is pasta.
One time, Florine wanted me to help her prepare a “carcass”. I thought she was kidding or that she had misinterpreted a French word into English. I said sure and followed her into the kitchen to find a large, dead pig’s body on top of the counter. As a devoted vegetarian, I calmly explained that I am unqualified for this position and turned it over to another volunteer.
After work, which lasts four to six hours, we are fed lunch and given free reign to do what we want in the evenings. Most days, we make the 20 minute walk back up the mountain to Irazein. Although, if there is to be a concert in the evening, I stay at Le Relais and read or practice my French. During my time in the Pyrenees, I saw an Italian acapella group, an accordionist who played along to Charlie Chaplin films, a Balkan band, traditional Catalan music, and flamenco. The concerts at Le Relais attract a number of people despite its infamous reputation among some of the members of the community. I have heard that some people think Le Relais is an obstruction to the quiet village life most people are there for, among other politics that seemed to complicated for me to completely understand.
During concerts, there is dancing and singing, but more importantly, there is pastis. Pastis is an anise-flavored liquor with which the French are obsessed. And, pardon my French, but “c’est naze.” It’s a horrible drink from the south of France -more specifically, Marseille- that imitates the flavor of licorice, so I suppose if you’re into that, pastis is the drink for you.
After concerts, which have to be over by 23:00 due to the angst of those certain community members I mentioned earlier, we go back to the apartment and make that horrible uphill walk in the dark, hoping not to run into a wild boar or bear. I heard both during my time in the Pyrenees Mountains, but fortunately, I never saw either, I was running way too fast for that. When I get to the collective apartment, I eat a little bread before going to sleep, breaking my teeth in the process. The bread here is basically a rock, but I guess the French need strong jaw muscles in order to pronounce all those fun sounds in their alphabet. The next day, I wake up and do it all over again, only with different conversations with different people. The lyrics might change, but the beat stays the same. It’s the perfect balance of routine and diversity to keep things safe, yet interesting. The perfect life really does exist in Bonac, but maybe that’s not what you’re looking for.