It’s now just over a year since I found myself hurtling through France on a bullet train headed to my homestay in Avignon. I had visited Europe once before. It was a frantic month of sightseeing with friends which often felt like we were ticking off landmarks from a Buzzfeed article. With barely time for anything else, I’d wanted to return ever since, but at a slower pace, and to experience the lifestyle of the local people.
As my time at university was ending, I didn’t particularly feel like immediately hunting down work and settling in until retirement! But like a lot of young university students, my budget wasn’t exactly bottomless either. If only there was a way to spend a good chunk of time in Europe without spending a massive amount of money.
That’s when I stumbled across a Greenheart Travel program on Google. To be honest, my first thought was there must be a catch. It seemed too good to be true. When I realized I really could spend two months in France, for a very reasonable price, and finally get to experience life as a local, I wasted no time and applied without hesitation!
I found the organising process to be very easy and straightforward, and within a few weeks I learnt I’d be spending time in Avignon, Provence. France is a treasure trove of culture and history, so I would have been delighted with a placement anywhere. It just so happened that this little corner of France was where I had really wanted to see. I finished my thesis, packed my bags, and set off on my big adventure.
It was on the train from London, through France, and down to Avignon when my anxiety finally caught up with my excitement. I was worried that my limited grasp of the French language, gained mostly through high school textbooks and a few months of Duolingo, might not be sufficient to communicate with my homestay family. I was worried, too, about spending so long with them, and if we’d all still be getting along 60 days later!
But as soon as I arrived, they were so warm and welcoming, and any language barrier was overcome with laughter. Their son, who I was to be teaching, spoke relatively good English, the mother a little bit less, and the father, none. But I’ll never forget being in their beautiful 300-year-old house on the first night, exchanging gifts from my New Zealand culture, and enjoying the massive dinner they had prepared.
I knew that, despite my early anxiety, this experience would be so worthwhile. The food really was incredible, and I learnt so much about regional foods. I’ve never had quite such educational mealtimes before! The regional variations of cheeses, breads, and wines amazed me.
I fell in love with Avignon on my very first visit to the city centre, and left a bit of my heart there. Ancient honey-coloured buildings, standing in rows along winding narrow streets of cobblestone. Drooping trees, palaces and churches, and the mighty Rhone River, half a mile wide, flowing swiftly to the sea.
My homestay family lived across the river, in a pretty little town called Villeneuve. I spent many free days wandering around these places, stumbling over interesting gems of history, and experiencing fresh food at markets. Some days, my homestay family took me to other places in the region, and I’ll never forget the beauty and culture I experienced. I seemed to be taking photos constantly, never wanting to forget each town we passed.
I was also able to travel alone by train to places slightly further away, including Nice, Marseilles, Menton, Nimes, Orange, Arles, and Montpellier. Each city and town blew me away. By the end of the trip, I felt I had seen that corner of France in such detail, but still didn’t want to leave.
And now, as I sit in my office chair, or in a traffic jam, I think back to that wonderful time I had in Southern France.
If you’re feeling unsure about taking the plunge, I urge you to go for it! There’s no better way to experience the lifestyle and places of France, and the cheese! Don’t forget that! The cheese alone is enough reason to go!