Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Barney Smith's Project in France

Monsoon in France

This article is dedicated to my parents whose lives were cut short by cancer – my mother in 2008 and my father last year - but who inspire me every day.

I must admit, it took me a while to find Giat on the map. I was sitting in my classroom in Kuwait one sweltering June afternoon long after the students had gone home, and I’d just had email confirmation of my acceptance on a project in the Auvergne region in central France. One of the benefits of international volunteer projects is the opportunity to visit places far off the beaten track and meet people from a wide variety of cultures, nationalities and backgrounds.

Volunteers and Leaders from Giat with Volunteers and Leaders from Chantelle

The leaders and other volunteers came from the north to the south, from the east to the west: Eda and Gizem from Turkey, Amaya and Miren from Spain,
Kristýna from the Czech Republic and Fabien and Patrick from France. Our leaders were François, a teacher, and Fred, a stonecutter, who together made a fantastic team. The three weeks were a very special and happy experience thanks to everybody, both leaders and volunteers.

This was my sixteenth international volunteer project (my earlier projects were in Russia, Germany, Turkey, Macedonia, Greece, Serbia and Romania) but my first in France and my first camping project. The work focused on three places near the campsite along the shore of la Ramade, the nearby lake: rebuilding a footbridge across a marshy area, rebuilding a footbridge to the lake’s bird observatory, and clearing the lakeside path. Volunteers also worked to clean the observatory and signpost the area with information on local wildlife.

Volunteers and Leaders meeting the Mayor of Giat

The local community in Giat, a village of some 900 people, were very welcoming; there were regular visits from the mayor and his deputies, often bringing a very welcome snack, to see how we were getting on and to raise our spirits. If ever we needed our spirits raised it was because of the weather: it rained... and it rained... and it rained. This wasn’t just drizzle of the kind you get used to if you grow up in Britain, as I did: it was downpour... after downpour... after downpour. It rained almost every day, often most of the day. I think Kristýna timed the longest downpour as lasting eighteen hours! The weather inevitably had an effect on our schedule. The first working day it rained we were given the day off. It soon became clear however that if this continued we would get no work done! So we either braved the elements with waterproof clothes or did work which could easily be done inside, such as painting and varnishing signs for the footpath.

Conversations ranged widely, from the way of life in each other’s countries to politics, from music to sport, from past international volunteer projects to family and friends. In many cases we did our best to learn each other’s languages, did the occasional crossword or Sudoku together, and read newspapers and books. There were many games and sports too, from card games to guessing games, from football to Frisbee. And inevitably – we were in France after all – there was pétanque, which I played for the first time (with mixed results I should add!). The rural lakeside setting was ideal for outdoor activities like jogging and swimming (until, even for the most hardened swimmers, the lake became too cold!).

Volunteers and Leaders in Giat

There were also many excursions: to the region’s largest city, Clermont-Ferrand, to the Museum of Radio in Saint-Avit, to the beautiful village of Crocq, to the medieval festival and to the market in Giat, watching the Tour de France as helicopters buzzed overhead, hiking in the mountains, buying cheese at Châteaubrun, enjoying a lavish Bastille Day breakfast and guided tour (and even trying out the hose!) at the local fire station, riding on an aerial runway and watching two spectacular firework displays. We also spent a few days at a nearby project in the village of Chantelle where work was progressing on renovations to the abbey, and from where we attended the Festival of World Cultures in Gannat and visited the picturesque village of Charroux.

As I return to Kuwait for the new school year I know that I will miss this summer’s international volunteer project in Giat – the place, the surroundings, but most of all the people on my project. My new surroundings are a world away from rural France, but the memories of this summer are still here and will be with me forever.

Barney Smith, volunteer in France, 2011

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