A Norwegian man and his dog

This summer a friend and myself, on a quest to improve our French, found ourselves living for two weeks in the community of Emmaüs in Lescar-Pau, a homeless-charity-meets-mini-socialist-commune in the midst of the Pyrenees. Although the organisation has twenty-one communities around the UK, including both my hometown of Cambridge and in fact Warwickshire, shamefully neither of us had ever heard of it. Our only expectation before our journey was that we would be working in exchange for free food and accommodation. So, after a series of planes, taxis and trains, we were to eventually arrive at what I can only describe as the half-way point between Maoist China and the Parent Trap.

We woke up for breakfast every morning at seven, a groggy affair consisting of black coffee drunk out of bowls and baguettes spread thickly with Nutella to fuel the ten hour working day ahead of us. There was huge variety in the jobs on offer, from the intensive and injury prone feraille; ripping apart metal structures for parts that could be recycled, and also the more enjoyable and self-explanatory farm work, cooking and gardening. However, there was then the soul crushing task known as vêtements, where we would sort through a mountain of clothes to remove those that were too badly stained to be sold on. Truly grim.
Whatever the work, it was crucially for the benefit of the whole communauté meaning Emmaüs is almost entirely self-sufficient in terms of food and energy. Its only real links with the outside world are the collection of recycleable or sellable donations, and sale of the items themselves. The ethos of Emmaüs means very little is thrown away or wasted, they really can find a use for anything! For example, at the point I left, new structures were being ‘eco-built’ all over the site, using stacks of empty wine bottles as insulation, rather than bringing in any new or synthetic materials.

The communities promise to never turn a willing volunteer away, meant we were surrounded by an eclectic mixture of people. Mostly these were students from Europe and North America but also working professionals, dreadlocked hippies and the odd creepy older man, who on a couple of memorable occasions would let himself into my caravan before I’d even gotten out of bed. As all the permanent residents are ex-homeless and many are recovering alcoholics or addicts, consumption of any intoxicating substance is banned at the camp, meaning all the volunteers went to a nearby lake to drink.

This led to one of the more surreal incidences of my time at Emmaüs, finding a travelling Norweigan man, his dog and a Parisian woman he’d picked up earlier that night camping in the surrounding forests, and who by the end of the night had moved into the spare room of my caravan. Sadly their romance was short-lived, and they were kicked out two days later when the man tried to liberate the birds from the farm’s enclosure in the middle of the night, furious that they weren’t allowed to fly freely. The vast majority of the other volunteers were more conventionally normal though, and we left to a chorus of “If you’re ever in Verona/Heidelberg/Baltimore/Krakow…” from our international friends.

The Emmaüs experience is obviously not for everyone, and my interning-in-the-city housemate has already told me that it’s his ‘idea of hell’. It is true that at times the manual labour against the backdrop of portraits of the organisation’s founder seemed faintly cult, that writing essays is less taxing than ploughing fields, and that there is almost never a good enough reason to wake up before ten o’clock. But, I ask you for a more unique way to learn French.

Are you the adventurous, travelling, writer type? The Boar would love to hear from you! Email travel@theboar.org or check us online to get involved! We’ll also be at the Societies Fair on Wednesday and Thursday of Week 1.


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