Published by THE METRO
Are you willing to toil for a few hours a day in fantastic surroundings for board and fine food? Then meet the Help Exchange.
For better or for worse, this is a sight you’d find trouble hearing of in any guide book of Italy: deep in its northern region of Emilia-Romagna, a narrow road splits an idyllic valley, lined with corn fields, grapevines and fruit trees. Where the road disappears into the distance, the Apennines stretch across the skyline. On the hilltop sits the sleepy medieval village of Dozza. There are no herds of tourist groups, no sticky airport shuttle buses and no squeaky suitcases-on-wheels. After all, the nearest bus stop stands outside a small café at the end of the road, a 15 minute bike ride away from the village.
But, like anywhere in the world, there is work to be done. Carrying a bundle of hay on a rusty rake towards the cow shed on a small farm, I understand that I must earn the privileges of staying here in sweat – which I produce my fair share of in a consistent 37-degree climate. Though in exchange for working five hours per day, I am rewarded with food, shelter, and the pleasure of living as a local for next to nothing – thanks to the innovative ‘Help Exchange’ scheme which connects travellers and locals, or ‘helpers’ and ‘hosts’, around the world.
There are a few of us ‘helpers’ here on the farm; behind me is Gus, who’s carting a wheelbarrow full of vine leaves en route to the goat pen. Elsewhere, Vanessa is preparing dinner, and Margo is washing the vegetables she picked earlier from the garden. Steven is cutting the grass further up the hill, while Kyle weeds around the tomato plants.
We all consume the meat of the animals we feed on the farm with the fresh vegetables and herbs we pick from the garden, and it is all washed down with wine made from our hosts’ own vineyard. When we retire, we are provided with books and a computer in our comfortable en-suite ‘helper rooms’.
And with our time off, we get to explore. We sometimes take walks around the area (and occasionally get invited into local couples’ homes for prosciutto, cheese and grappa), take revitalising dips in an outdoor swimming pool just over the hill, or hop on bikes to Imola, the nearest town. Sometimes, we just stay on the farm and chat with our hosts, play with their kids, take photos, or read in the long grass.
A working holiday may sound like an oxymoronic way to spend your two weeks off during summer. Yet aside from the good company, cosy lodgings and fine cuisine, an excursion of this kind brings more significant benefits. I realise that while I will return to Britain only to continue working at my summer job, it feels like I’m experiencing something quite unique. I’ve not simply arrived in a foreign country to check in somewhere with all the customs and comforts of my own home. I feel more part of its civilisation; labouring in its fields, eating its food, interacting with its people.
Regarding safety, I was particularly confident that I would land this leap of faith on my feet, as my hosts had many reviews and references from former helpers on their online Help Exchange listing. Victoria and Davide told me that they’d accommodated helpers like me from all over the world in the four years they’ve been registered as hosts, although very few from the UK.
On the morning I am to depart, Victoria takes my photo to accompany my own page in a binded collection of helper profiles, which is bursting at its seams. They’ve kept the book since 2005, when their first helper arrived. Although I am the 110th addition to their collection, Victoria she says she never forgets a single helper. As I say my farewells to my work buddies and my host family at the end of my fortnight away, I am sad to be leaving the farm.
Most travellers would argue that there are richer ways to see and live a country than by tourist map and four-star hotel. Yet even the most ardent rambler would admit that touring a nation’s backpacker hostels – although exchanging travel tips and rounds of drinks with other like-minded nomads on the circuit can be rewarding – leaves a similar aftertaste of dissatisfaction and frustration, and the lingering awareness that you’ve only really scratched the surface of a culture and its native customs. Across all continents, the ‘Help Exchange’ scheme offers an inspiring antidote to this all-too-familiar feeling.
The Help Exchange, or ‘HelpX’, scheme has been providing the traveller with this innovative way of seeing the world since 2001, although it is only just beginning to grow in popularity here in the UK. You simply sign up as a ‘helper’, decide which country you’d like to experience a piece of or what sort of work you’d like to do, arrange a stay with a ‘host’ from the given country’s listings, and find your own way there. Types of work vary from host to host, and are described in full, but there are many such opportunities in farms, hostels, restaurants, hotels, teaching and au-pairing. In addition to the 88 hosts in Italy alone, there are hundreds more across Europe, North America and Australasia. Hosts also exist in fewer numbers in a number of countries within Asia, South America and Africa. Many farms require a minimum stay of 1-4 weeks; hostels are usually happy to accommodate helpers for a whole season, but almost everything is negotiable.
Steve arranged the stay with www.helpx.net - £18 or 20EUR for two years membership as a Premier Helper (which allows you to see the contact details for host listings in every country)
Daily flights to Bologna G Marconi (nearest airport) from London, Edinburgh and Birmingham often on offer for £5 one way, though average prices are about £30-£40 one way. Train travel from Bologna to Imola (nearest train station) was 3EUR.
Steve’s hosts also rent private rooms for paying guests, with dinner, bed, breakfast and WiFi available – contact details and further information on their website www.farmstayitaly.org