12 September – 25 October, 2016
I was traveling through Ukraine when I got the good news- I’d been offered a teaching job in Japan! After the hustle and uncertainty of applying and interviewing for jobs while moving out of Turkey and on the road in Europe, this was a huge relief, and answered the question of where I would be making my life for the next year. However, the company offered me a start date of 1 December, meaning I would be out of work for a total of 3 1/2 months. I wanted to stay in Europe, but didn’t have the money to keep traveling for too much longer. What to do?
Then it hit me: I would do a work exchange, the classic broke traveler option. In exchange for a few hours of honest work, you get a free place to stay, meals, and free time in which to travel and soak up the local culture. What’s not to love?
You can find many work exchange websites and forums online. I considered WOOOF, one of the oldest, but decided that it wasn’t for me, as WOOOFing is farm work and I just couldn’t see myself doing that. I decided to sign up for workaway.info, another established site. With Workaway, you sign up and make a profile for yourself, and can browse various hosts all over the world with different work options. Helping on farms is one option, but there are folks looking for babysitters, help in hostels and inns, construction and renovation projects, and English teaching. Once you find a listing you like, you can email the host to get more information and establish contact. There is a fee required to use Workaway, but it’s only $29 for two years so I decided it was well worth it. Another thing I really liked about the site were the reviews that you could read on hosts and workawayers, which made me feel much more secure about this leap into the unknown.
Reading through the job listings and deciding which hosts to contact was daunting. There were just so many options on the website, in practically every European country. I knew I would be flying back to the US from Berlin at the end of October, so I chose a few different hosts in Germany and nearby France and nervously messaged them. One of them, a family in the Bavarian forest with triplets that needed help around the house and English practice, stuck out to me as a great fit. Luckily, I heard back from the mother in a couple of days: they wanted to host me! A few days later I flew to Munich and they kindly picked me up from the airport and took me to their house, on the edge of the gorgeous Bavarian forest, in a tiny village called Obernaglbach.
I’m sure that workaway experiences vary widely, but mine was perfect. My duties were simple. I helped around the house with laundry, dishes and food prep, and light cleaning and organizing tasks. It was a large house containing a family of 6, 7 with me, so there were always dishes to go in the dishwasher and small messes to tidy up. Every day, if the weather was good, I took a walk through the forest or nearby meadows with the family dog, an incredibly energetic young black lab. She was a lot to handle, but those walks were one of my favorite activities.
Mostly, I was there to practice English with the kids, and give them exposure to an English-speaking person from another part of the world. They were 12, and triplets, but couldn’t have been more independent and different from each other. I got along with them instantly, and enjoyed talking with them and answering their questions about America. I think with other ESL work exchange programs you actually have to work, but with the kids I played games, had conversations, watched films in English, or just hung out. Occasionally if they were struggling with a topic in school I would make a lesson for us to practice, but in the weeks I was there we only did that a handful of times. Mainly we just had fun together.
I had a lot of time to myself, and a huge room in which to enjoy it. After my busy life in Turkey and being on the road, and the huge changes which had rocked my world this year (moving abroad, experiencing a coup, and ending my relationship), the peacefulness of a quiet life in the forest was perfect. I had a lot of time in which to think and decompress, and start feeling who I was as an individual. I also had a lot of time to write, read, draw pictures (some for the kids, some for myself), and get absorbed in British costume dramas. I was also able to take some amazing side trips as well, including a day trip to Passau, a week in Munich for Oktoberfest, a jaunt to the castles in Schwangau, and a few days hitting up Vienna and Salzburg across the border in Austria.
The best part about my workaway experience was that I became part of the family and got to experience life in a small village in Bavaria. I loved spending time with the family, learning how to pour a proper Weissbier from the father and how to make traditional foods like strudel and schnitzel in the kitchen with the mother. I loved watching silly Youtube videos with the kids and learning about the complicated school system in Germany. I loved helping the mother around the house and learning to use all of her awesome German household gadgets like her Thermomix, a blender that not only chops and blends but cooks as well! I loved sharing with them my culture, telling them about life in the US and making them a pumpkin pie for us to share. I loved our daily mealtime conversations, and talking with the mother in the dining room after the kids had gone to bed about her life in Bavaria and the local customs of the area.
All too soon, six weeks had come and gone, and it was time to say a heartfelt farewell and journey on to Berlin. To any traveler who is looking to save money, gain a local experience, and who isn’t afraid of a little work, I would definitely recommend doing a workaway. I’m not sure that my experience was typical of most workaways, however: it was exceptional. It was the first leap into the unknown I’ve taken as an individual, and was one of the best decisions I’ve made.
Tomorrow I will take the next big leap: flying to Japan.