When I was a young man I did not want to run with the bulls at Pamplona (I have weak ankles) but I did want to experience the rest of Europe. Holding me back was money, a cranky draft board, and my Great Dane, Yossarian (see HLP. Mar ‘07). I eventually made the trip but I was well past the backpack and youth hostel age. I never visited the Parisian fountain where Zelda Fitzgerald danced naked, or found Ernest Hemingway’s favorite haunts. My middle aged sensibilities had a good enough time marveling at the architecture and soaking in the history, but I often caught myself thinking that I had missed the window.
My sister Nanci and her husband Tracy operate a bed and breakfast on Quadra Island in British Columbia (shameless plug at the end). Paying customers are their lifeblood, but the upkeep of the place can be daunting. A few years ago they came up with a unique solution: bring in travelers from all over the world who stay for a week or a month and help out in return for food and lodging. Cynic that I am, I asked how they keep from attracting ax murderers or Amway representatives. Nanci told me about HelpX, which sounds like a new age cult or a powerful stain remover, but is actually short for Help Exchange.
She explained that it was an organization that matches host families and travelers wanting to gain skills, practice a language, take a break from their routine, and most important, share the lives of people from another culture. Potential hosts and visitors are screened extensively. Before any direct contact is made both parties are urged to have extensive discussions about their mutual expectations. Nanci assured me that if I registered as a host, a Bulgarian goat herder would not just show up at my door. HelpX is an on-line aid to breaking down the artificial relationship of awkward tourist and put-upon local. Working, eating, and living under one roof even for a limited time helps to forge close relationships.
The fully vetted traveler expects to work with the host approximately four hours a day in exchange for food and shelter. No money changes hands. I was intrigued by the nobility and simplicity of the organization and the potential for international good works. Nanci and Tracy have had folks from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and many European countries. Tracy told me about a psychiatrist from Germany who had recently spent three weeks with them. Arriving fairly burned out from his demanding practice, he became quite enamored with their electric pressure washer, and spent almost every waking hour outdoors cleaning.
They were currently hosting a young man from rural France who was spending nine months crossing Canada and the United States by train and bus, working on farms and with urban agencies that fed the hungry. He wanted to see Los Angeles, and was I interested in hosting? I told her that as long as he did not try to convert me or sell me aluminum siding it would be great. If there was no risk, wouldn’t we all be friendlier and open to strangers? My only remaining hesitation was that I do not do anything, and that it might be like the Seinfeld episode (Kramerica) in which Kramer takes on a college intern. But if the French guy was game for loitering and wandering around he was welcome to come.
Guillaume Leblanc arrived the third week of March after working at a food distribution center for the poor in a sketchy part of Fresno, CA. His life in France is business school and a corporate internship. At 22, he wanted to travel before finishing his MBA in marketing. He, JoAnne, and our French-speaking friend Catherine bonded immediately. Guillaume loved the dogs (together we have four) and was entranced by JoAnne’s weaving equipment. He learned to spin in record time and was able to fix one of JoAnne’s broken spinning wheels. He fit right in bicycling at the beach by day, and watching our favorite show, Damages, with us at night. Fortunately we did not fully corrupt him. After five days he left to work at a shelter outside of Las Vegas.
Rather than resent someone living the dream of my youth, I am delighted that there are altruistic and committed souls determined to work around the obstacles governments place in their path. If you have a spare bedroom and could use a little help around the house or yard, and are interested in sharing your city and your life with someone from another country, contact helpx.net
Tom H. Cook remains a Minnesotan in everything but taxes, and windchill. His sister is an artist and innkeeper. Nanci welcomes all to her Island B&B in the civilized wilds of beautiful British Columbia. Check it out at: firesignartanddesign.com