The Olympic park: 2 years on

So I’ll admit it: I was a 2012 denier. And no, I’m not talking about the Mayan predictions that lead to almost $800,000,000 in box office takings for Sony pictures. 2 years ago today, while (what felt like) the rest of the country languished in post-Olympic blues, vowing half-heartedly to take up volleyball/fencing/{insert marginal sport here}, I sat grinning to myself, rejoicing in the return of a half-decent TV schedule and prospect of conversations at least marginally more stimulating than the shock at one person’s ability to complete a contrived and physically demanding task in a shade of a second less than some other. (more…)


Why we should all be WWOOFing


The over-commercialisation of volunteer tourism is hugely disillusioning. While some people volunteer abroad to ease their conscience, or because they consider it some sort of rite of passage, there remain many who genuinely seek mutual reciprocity in travel; a desire to gain knowledge, understanding and experience of a different culture and lifestyle, in return for providing real help (or, as the cliché goes ‘making a difference’).

So, if you resent being charged hundreds of pounds to cuddle a baby panda, or recognise that orphanages are generally better off being built by local people, but still want a travel experience that seeks to combine the beneficial interchange of cultures, labour and ideas with a pinch of adventure, then maybe you should consider WWOOFing.


What is WWOOFing?

WWOOF stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms and encourages the exchange of 4-6 hours of volunteer help, in return for food and accommodation.


History of WWOOF

WWOOF began in 1971 when Sue Coppard, a secretary living and working in London, became aware of the need for people who had neither the means nor opportunity to support the organic movement and access the countryside. With help from the Soil Association she set up a trial weekend with four volunteers working at a bio-dynamic farm at Emerson College, the success of which propelled the movement forward, with a proliferation of organic farmers and smallholders willing to host people keen to work on their farms in return for food and accommodation.

The first International WWOOF conference was held in 2000, with representatives from 15 countries, with aims to develop guidelines as to what is meant by being a WWOOFer and WWOOF host, as well as to encourage and support emerging WWOOF organisations in developing countries. By 2012 over 50 WWOOF groups existed worldwide e.g. in Nepal, Uganda, Israel, Thailand and the USA. A Federation of WWOOF Organisations (FOWO) was established in 2013.

WWOOF has changed its name on numerous occasions; it began in 1971 as Working Weekends on Organic Farms, to Willing Workers on Organic Farms. Yet, the use of ‘work’ in the title caused problems, becoming inappropriately connected with migrant workers, and became viewed as a clandestine migrant worker organisation. In 2000 it was therefore changed to World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms.


How does it work?

Each nation which is part of the WWOOF Federation has its own website, where hosts sign up, writing a brief summary of who they are and their set-up, what help they need and their expectations of how a prospective WWOOFer should behave. They also provide images, details of accommodation, food, working hours/days, how many WWOOFers they accept at any one given time, and the location.

WWOOFers also sign up to a specific national website, paying a fee of around £18 to access the host lists. Once you find a host which suits, then you can contact them and hopefully an agreement can be reached!


What do WWOOFers do?

Your experience of being a WWOOFer depends hugely on the farm and host you choose, but there are some general similarities. Volunteers usually live with the host, and are expected to get involved in, and cooperate with, everyday jobs. These vary, but are usually related either to farming e.g. sowing seed, looking after animals, harvesting or cutting wood; or domestic tasks e.g. childcare, cooking, or cleaning. Yet, there are some more diverse farms advertised e.g. working at a yoga retreat, or building an eco-friendly house.


How much does it cost?

The ethos of WWOOF is that no money should be exchanged. It works through the exchange of 4-6 hours help per day, in return for accommodation and food. The host, especially if they live in rural areas, will normally also collect/drop you at the nearest bus/train station.


What are the benefits of being a WWOOFer?

There are many benefits!

As a WWOOFer it is a chance to gain an insight into the everyday workings of the country you are visiting. It is not a tourist venture, but a real immersion into the day-to-day realities of life, in a rural setting which you would not normally have the chance to visit.

It is also free, and all accommodation and food is provided. So, once you have done your work for that day, and on your days off, you are able to explore the local area. If you choose well, you might also have a host who can show you round e.g. taking you to a local fiesta, hiking, or just helping you practice speaking that particular language.

It is also a great opportunity to meet a diverse range of interesting, engaged and pro-active people as many farms accept several WWOOFers from all over the globe. Similarly, talking to your host, or host family, can be a hugely rewarding and enriching experience, opening yours eyes to new approaches to life, foreign cultures, and the environment.


Wider benefits

As it continues to expand, WWOOF is now recognised as having an important contribution to the organic movement, influencing policy and consumer demand not only through putting WWOOFers in contact with hosts on organic farms, but through newsletters, training and jobs.

The time and experience that WWOOFers provide to their hosts can also make a vital difference: helping sustainability take root across the globe, and opening the door to a way of living that continues to fundamentally change people’s lives.


So I hope that perhaps next vacation you might all be WWOOFing too!


PHOTO/ Peretz Partensky

Day 252 - Sibling Rivals

Grow a(n Au) pair


“Are you nervous?” asked my mum as we drove to Birmingham airport. I didn’t really have an answer because, truthfully, I hadn’t given a great deal of thought to the fact that just four days after returning from Oxford, I was to work as an au pair in the South of France for a month.

 How hard could it be?

Suddenly, the nerves came crashing in. What on Earth was I doing? An hour a week at an after school club for bronze D of E was hardly going to prepare me for this. Plus, if my “catastrophique” French results were anything to go by, a few temper tantrums might be the least of my problems. Soon enough I calmed down: how hard could it be? (Were my life a film, there would be some bad-auguring music to accompany this thought).

Arriving in Toulouse, I was pretty chilled and met the father at the airport. We chatted and listened to the France vs. Germany match on the radio. I understood what he said, and for the most part he understood me. So far, so good. We arrived and the children gave me a tour of the house, the 10 year-old boy excitedly pointing out his Union Jack rug, and the 6 year-old girl proudly showing me the loom-band bracelet she had made that afternoon.

A game of catch with a water balloon quickly escalated

The next morning we had a typical French breakfast in the garden, and a game of catch with a water balloon quickly escalated into all us, fully dressed, in the swimming pool. That evening, the family had friends over and we enjoyed good food, wine and conversation (I think – I had no idea what they were saying)

Both parents worked long hours, out by 8am and not returning until 7, maybe 8 in the evening. This left a lot of time to fill with the children, and a lot of time for things to go wrong. Being brother and sister, they fought. A lot. Yet it was clear that they both loved each other dearly, so the day would swing between World War III and utter tranquillity. I quickly learnt to pick my battles, as it simply was not possible (or worth it) to intervene every time.

I learnt to pick my battles

As expected, I encountered many tests of my French. For example, their wonderfully caring grandma spoke three variants of French: a) French with a strong Spanish accent, b) French mixed with a lot of Spanish, and c) Spanish. Another test that particularly stands out is when, to the children’s horror, a lizard darted up the wall, across the window, and hung precariously on the curtain rail. I may well write to Nicky Morgan, the New Education Secretary and tell her, one Hugh’s girl to another, that part of the GCSE French Oral Examination should include a role play with scenarios such as: reassure two screaming French children that the lizard will not wee on the new sofa, hurt them, or eat their pet goldfish.

A further insect related incident taught the son more about ‘le garçon qui criait au loup’ (the boy who cried wolf) than it taught me about French. Having already tried twice that evening to spook us by pointing, wide-eyed, at a spot behind his sister’s head and screaming ‘a-a-a-arignée!!!’ (s-s-s-spider!!!), I did not believe him when he raced in the living room to tell me about a huge spider in his room. Yet, lo and behold, there on his pillow crouched the biggest spider I have ever seen. On the bright side, removing it gave me considerable bargaining power for the next few days. “Nope, you’ve got to tidy up. I moved that spider, remember…”

 I couldn’t help but wonder what they would be like as teenagers and adults

At home and college alike, I spend 99% of my time with people my own age and older. Though challenging, and exhausting, it was refreshing to see their energy, and untainted innocence (which bordered on insanity when the son told me I was “trop fort” (really good) at football). It was odd (frustrating) to watch their difficulty in grasping certain things like sharing and thinking of others. I couldn’t help but wonder what they would be like as teenagers and adults.

Going into another family’s home for a whole month is eye-opening and a privilege; particularly when that family is French. It is such an interesting cultural exchange and against this, I learnt a lot about myself, as well as how to handle certain situations, and compromise with people who have no intention of compromising. I think I’m set for a career in International Relations.

PHOTO/Ken Wilcox


The six rules of ‘twerping

Despite not being the most famous of cities, compared with the likes of Paris, Budapest or Berlin, this stunning Belgian city is full of surprises, and with flights to Brussels taking little more than 45 minutes, Antwerp is a tempting alternative to some of the more mainstream city break locations. Follow these simple guidelines to ensure you get the most out of your trip and you can’t go far wrong.

  1. DO: Ditch the map

The relatively small area Antwerp covers means walking between its various areas is incredibly easy, making it hard to go far wrong if you leave your travel guide at home and simply follow your senses- this is how we discovered some of our favourite spots full of locals and away from the busier more tourist-oriented central area.

  1. DON’T: Try and be a wise guy

Speaking French in Flanders, the Flemish speaking area of the country, will not lead to a better cultural understanding or locals appreciating you more- painful as it is, unless you are blessed enough to have perfected the art of chatting away in Flemish, embrace how touristy it’ll make you feel and just speak English.

  1. DO: Pause

Antwerp is full of gorgeous independent coffee shops, especially in the beautiful ‘t Zuid area to the south, where it’s well worth your time spending a good while people watching and marvelling at the talent of the local baristas.

  1. DON’T: Hold back

Meeting locals in any city is the best way to find out what‘s really worth doing, and discover some of the place’s best kept secrets, but this can initially seem tougher in places like Antwerp with less obviously forward and chatty locals, especially for travellers used to more boisterous inhabitants of southern Europe. However, making the effort really pays off, and once you’ve made the first move many young people are more than happy to get to know you. Failing that, guides like this written by students are incredibly useful and the closest thing you’ll get to having a local folded up in your back pocket.

  1. DO: Mind the red lights

Despite extensive reading of travel guides, blogs and other supposedly helpful resources, it somehow managed to escape our notice that the most highly recommended club in the city was also right in the middle of the city’s red light district. While locals claim it is in fact a remarkably safe area, suddenly finding yourself on a street glowing bright red and full of cat-calling men leering at girls in shop windows at midnight is quite a shock if you’re not expecting it (as we weren’t).

  1. DON’T: Look at your watch

Many of the city’s most popular bars and especially clubs boast 7.30am closing times that put our night-time favourites to shame, and while surviving all that time may seem a big ask, it’s the best way to guarantee value for money at some of the pricier clubs if you’re not there on a Thursday student night when entry is free.



Breathing space

So, no one’s saying Oxford is claustrophobic except your Tutor who insists on prescribing regular walks through Port Meadow. But whatever the diagnosis, it is intense and we have to remember, as we go about our ‘elitist’ Oxford lives, that it’s not all about the living, it’s about finding the space to breathe and appreciating the greatness of simply being alive.

It’s about finding the space to breathe

When Trinity closed her golden gates on us, there was a prolonged ‘lump in throat’ period in which I, amongst others, led a precarious existence in a kind of post-prelims purgatory that consisted of morning and afternoon trashings, celebratory lunches and river dips galore. But it was never going to last. Judgement day reared its ugly head and I reluctantly stuffed clothes, bedding and an assortment of unidentifiables into my suitcases, breaking zips and straps in a literal manifestation of the emotional wrench felt as I tore myself from Trinity term, taken aback by what to me felt like a sudden and merciless eviction.

I made it home. Home. (I hear you breathe a sigh of relief as the titular statement seems imminent and the drag-of-an-article seems close to its climax and end.) “Ahhh, where there is space to breathe!” you cry victoriously. But I don’t agree. Surrounded by pedantic parents (a militarian father or maybe a vegetarian mother); a few underactive older, or hyperactive younger, siblings; perhaps a frantic football fanatic or an annoyingly exemplary eat-clean freak (pick ‘n’ mix as you so wish, or, as the case may be, not): Yes, there’s more, but still not quite enough, breathing space.

Here, however, there is.

[caption id="attachment_56607" align="aligncenter" width="454"]PHOTO/Jenny Rowe PHOTO/Jenny Rowe[/caption]

At the top of The Old Man of Coniston in Cumbria I felt alive.

Enduring a dangerously high rate per minute, heart pumping, calves and quads throbbing: your breath cuts raggedly and embarrassingly rapidly through the silent hills. You reach the summit, though, you were always going to.  Chin tilting toward the skies, away from the rocks and mosses and their ankle-twisting abilities that you’ve been ardently dodging…

[There are moments in which living becomes insignificant and just being trumps all. Financial, educational, professional- all materiality ceases to exist.]

…you pause.

[caption id="attachment_56610" align="aligncenter" width="297"]PHOTO/Jenny Rowe PHOTO/Jenny Rowe[/caption]

You experience that intake-of-breath-that-instantly-soothes-your-screaming-lungs moment, or that looking-around-you-with-the astonished-expression-of-a-newborn-baby-at-the-(excuse the paradox)’breath-taking’- view moment. As transient as these are they contribute to what James Joyce would have named an ‘epiphany’, or Edgar Allan Poe the ‘dénouement': the feeling produced by a story that is framed by ‘peripheral narrative details’. (In other words, the biographical specifics of your Oxford education, careering life ambitions or overdraft statements of your savings account are thoughts that dominate the majority of your waking, and probably sleeping, day- simply what our very own Catcher in the Rye would reject as ‘all that David Copperfield kind of crap.’)

But the clouds part, the sun beams hit your face. And you remember, not that always-talked-about-but-never-arranged coffee date with an old friend; your summer resolution to run every day (in what world!?); impending summer retakes: but what really matters.

The clouds part, the sun beams hit your face

Like the fact that, in the same way that the Underground in London, or the Metro in Paris, works incognito to supply their respective cities with means to operate: day in, day out, your heart has been an unceasing and unappreciated force pumping energy and endless possibility into your life. Don’t take anything for granted.

I’m not saying that Oxford, or your home, like a parched leech sucks your appreciative faculty dry. Just that this hustle and bustle distracts from the ‘bigger picture’.

Sometimes all we need is a bit of ‘breathing space’. Enough to alter our perspective in order to see what lies at the top of that Utopian hierarchy of well-being. It is only by coincidence that to reach this metaphorical pinnacle I literally had to climb to another.

‘Utopia’ is everywhere

Derived from the Greek ‘ou’, meaning ‘no’, and ‘topos,’ meaning ‘place’ Utopia (idealised still further than Thomas More’s) is the ultimate, unreachable destination of man. But as Wallace Stevens once said ‘the imperfect is our paradise’. ‘Utopia’ is everywhere, not nowhere, but you have to remember to recognise it. Or rather to remember how fortunate you are to be alive and well, to be anywhere at all.

Breathing space can just help you on your way.

[caption id="attachment_56609" align="aligncenter" width="300"]PHOTO/Jenny Rowe PHOTO/Jenny Rowe[/caption]

NB Although you were warned about the ‘deep’ nature of my aimless musings, it’s less about submersing yourselves, and more about surfacing and taking that breath. That breaking-the-surface-and-drawing-in-the-clean-pure-air moment.


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Swede dreams are made of this

Having spent most of my childhood despising my parents for what I saw as the forgivable double-sin of a) not being Swedish and b) not having, on realising a) immediately emigrated to a utopic Swedish city to safeguard the future happiness and bilingualism of their offspring I decided something needed to change.

Would my three words of Swedish suffice to get me a permanent source of employment that would justify me cancelling my flight home?

My love of Sweden- started by an unhealthy appetite for Scandinavian crime novels and  nourished with regular doses of various Nordic dramas over the years means I had always craved living there without ever having visited. So it was that a recent interrailing trip around some of the top cities of Europe naturally included two Scandinavian stop-offs as the pinnacle of the trip. As we wound our way across France, Italy, Germany, and all that found itself in-between, thoughts of what was to come titillated me beyond belief. What would it be like? How long would it take for a Swedish prince to propose to me? Would my three words of Swedish suffice to get me a permanent source of employment that would justify me cancelling my flight home? (Unlikely given that they essentially amounted to hello, photographer and dentist- don’t ask).

Eventually, we found ourselves in Copenhagen from where we would pop over to the Swedish city of Malmö and spend a day living the dream that had been festering in my head for so many years now.

Crossing the Öresund (or Øresand, depending which side you hail from) bridge was nothing short of euphoric. Breaking just about every rule any parent could give to a child setting off to travel solo, we shun the train and accept the offer of a lift from some French guys we’ve known for all of 2 days and hop in the car. Despite the stress-inducing combination of the driving of a hugely excited Parisian teen and a driving rain that means we can only just see the gleaming cords of the bridge as we approach, we make it to Malmo alive.

 I ignore the concrete blocks that line the streets

Our French buddies drop us in an unprepossessing car park with a half-broken umbrella as our only protection against the downpour and whizz off on the rest of their journey northwards. I ignore the concrete blocks that line the streets as my seemingly undefeatable optimism draws me to the station from where we pick up a map, circle the key sights, and head off into the centre.

First stop: an important-looking church that detains us for the best part of 13 minutes before sending us shivering back into the rain to avoid being roped into choir practice with a friendly yet somewhat desperate-looking group of locals.

We quickly discover that Malmo’s main sights: an old windmill, a not quite so old square full of tourists, and a new bright white tower, the turning torso, which spins, don’t take a whole morning -let alone day to explore, and we are left awkwardly shuffling the Swedish kroner we took out specially and hoping for that long-overdue prince to show up.

Resourceful as ever, we pop into a bookshop and thumb through as many guidebooks as we can, before deciding that a coffee is by far the best idea, finding somewhere that looks promising, and thankfully takes a good half an hour to walk to.

I finally get my teeth into cinnamon bun and a strong black coffee

We find ourselves in a gorgeous café in an infinitely cooler area of town, where I finally get my teeth into cinnamon bun and a strong black coffee. Here we spend the best part of an hour, Millie determinedly asking me what I think of my first ever Swedish jaunt, me tactically replying that this cafe is super cool.

We keep walking, past more concrete and my spirits drop lower, desperately trying to find a way to fill the next couple of hours in what was meant to be the highlight of our trip. Stumped, we look across the road and find the sign for another cafe, cuter, cooler, and more desperately alluring than the one we have just left. It won’t hurt to look in the window- surely?

Before long, we are drinking our second coffee in two hours, making friends with the gorgeous Ana, who then offers us a free rhubarb meringue pie before recommending a café opened by a friend of hers a few doors down . . .

PHOTO/Elizabeth Freeman

The Oxford Student

One Step Ahead Since 1991