Heart and Graft: Where the Freedom of Vanlife Meets Agricultural Work

Dickon Playfair on his whirlwind introduction to a world where the spirit of freedom meets tough agricultural work

Vanlife is a universal symbol of freedom. Adventure, escapism or getting your kicks on the famed Route 66 is in every roadtripper’s mind with the Eagles song, Hotel California, or, Born to be Wild, by Steppenwolf in everybody’s mental soundtrack, as they get ready to hit the road. The romance of travel, new meetings, new sights… What other experience offers these possibilities and more?

Travelling by motorhome or caravan also allows people to see many beautiful places at very low cost. Affordability, self-sufficiency and the ability to camp anywhere, are the oxygen and adrenalin that powers vanlifers. 

I was fortunate to see such beauty while motorcaravanning myself, and working with vanlifers in France this summer of 2020. 

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Dickon in the fields

I worked in the vineyards and vegetable fields, in the Dordogne region, in Corbara, Guienne, Leognan, all to the south, and east of Bordeaux, France. Later, I worked in the corn fields in the region of Landes, and in vineyards in Eastern France, near Montrachet/Puligny, Burgundy.

Previous to that summer of 2020, I had never done any caravanning. If I had ever remotely thought of caravanning at all, it was based on past conversations with friends, and with friends who had camped out. It also came from viewing silly road films like We’re the Millers with Jennifer Aniston, or Paul starring Nick Frost and Simon Pegg.

I never thought this lifestyle would apply to me in the slightest way. 

I came into this world in early May 2020, after two and a half months of stasis and confinement, with my wife, in my flat in the hills in Mombaroccio in Italy. I was feeling low from the seemingly never-ending repetition of confinement and worried about how we were going to pay the bills, as we didn’t have much money coming in from anywhere. My wife teaches English, but lockdown meant she had lost some pupils in the move to online lessons, so our income was limited to a few online students and our savings. 

BRIGHT IDEA

Finally the stagnation ended, when my brother-in-law Domenico, suggested that we did caravanning and agricultural work in France. He had done it in 2018, and he had enjoyed it immensely. In addition, he stated that living in tents and campervans allowed one to save lots of money, which is what we both needed. Domenico, in order to earn money to buy a motorhome himself, which he was able to do halfway through the season, and me to help pay my mortgage and my debts. 

Dickon (right) and his brother-in-law Domenico

Thus, we both feverishly scanned the Internet. The search initially seemed elusive, but finally Domenico and I received an offer to work in a vineyard in the Guienne region of Aquitaine, not far from Langon, France. The adventure was about to begin! Little did I suspect what I was letting myself in for…

We departed Mombaroccio and Pesaro, Italy, by train on the 31st of May 2020, all tense and frightened. The Italian and world media had led us to understand that if we didn’t have the correct travel documents and a work contract, we would be refused entry to foreign countries, even countries in the European Union. From Pesaro, we went to Turin, Italy, and then onwards to Bordeaux via Paris. At the Italo-French border our fears were dispelled by the cursory glance of our papers by the border gendarme. The check was finished in 30 seconds. Phew… we got through!

GETTING DOWN TO WORK

Finally, at Bordeaux train station we got picked up at midnight on the 1st of June, by the very friendly farmer’s wife. She took us to her farmhouse in Corbara, Gironde, Aquitaine where we pitched a tent in her family’s garden, and started work the next day. 

After three days of sleeping in tents there, my brother in law and I were moved a few kilometres away, to an open sided metal roofed barn structure. This L-shaped open barn faced onto a dirt courtyard, and a field of vines, with a road with many campervans and motorhomes parked up. We were to camp here with our fellow workmates, all motorcaravanners. We all received electricity, cold water for showers, barn lodgings and wages from the farmer, in exchange for our agricultural labour. The cold water shower – a basic garden hose, hooked to an outside tap – was much needed, and very refreshing after the many hot, sweaty, summer days clearing up rows of vines. 

A NEW WORLD

There, while staying in the barn, for the first time in my life, I saw my other workmates’ caravans and specially adapted cars, and I marvelled at their compact organisation. I asked each of them, whether they lived full-time in their vans/cars, and ‘yes’ was the universal response. Inside the vans, I saw compact beds, tiled or wooden floors, a cooker with a gas tank and a fridge. All perfect for a life on the move. I could see why my brother in law was attracted by vanlife.

Domenico’s motorhome

Another man, an Argentinean, whom I met later on in the summer, showed me his car-cum-campervan. He had a bed installed in his back car seat, and a cooker installed in the boot of his car. He would happily boil up coffee, in his Italian coffee pot, and tell me stories of life as a sound engineer in Spain and Argentina. Indeed, I met many sound engineers. The lack of concerts and gigs had spurred them on to become seasonal agricultural workers. 

I spoke my thoughts aloud to him over our shared coffee and asked whether he was truly comfortable with his small space, and if he had a dining area too. With a conspiratorial smile, he showed me a folding table attached to his car door, and that with his boot cooker, he could cook, plate and then eat his meals on it. 

Dickon’s no frills Roulotte accommodation

Other vanlifers had converted/small transport cube vans or lorries. One such chap, had two bunk beds, a sofa, a fridge, a portable cooker with a butane tank, and a fold up dining table. He also had a metal awning attached to his cube van, which allowed him to enjoy the shade while dining, drinking or smoking in the evenings. All this in an ex-freezer type of lorry. 

Yet another group of men, two Italian twenty-somethings from the Puglia region of Italy, had a camper exquisitely designed with an upper level bed above the front driving cab, and a lower level fold-up/fold-down bed that could be converted into a dining table. An interior cooker, fridge and an inside toilet at the back, added to the magic. This motorcaravan also had a large tank that could hold a substantial volume of water for showers, provided that it was kept regularly filled with water.

These twenty-something guys shared something in common with many young people today. They loved techno and to dance, get stoned and then sleep off the party fatigue the next day, all before getting back to work on Monday.

THE BIGGER PICTURE 

Many motorcaravanners eagerly craved fun in any form they could get it! A heady brew of liberty, equality, and fraternity, being offered to and for all people who could live and let live, roughly served up, no-holds-barred. 

“Just an inch off the top”. Dickon gets a trim from a colleague

In short, many people in reaction to increasing mortgages, increased living costs, and a need for minimalism and freedom, seek new ways of living and new frontiers. 

One thing is certain, new worries about our viability on this planet, will lead many people to rethink much of their lifestyle, jettison excess, and choose the camper or caravan as their new dwelling. 

If it was said previously, that an Englishman’s home was his or her castle, then nowadays, the new castle of many Brits, and indeed, Europeans is their campervan or caravan. Long may this spirit of freedom exist! 

Beyond this wish, may this freedom also carry us to a new awareness, a new tolerance, a new appreciation, and a new love and respect for all of the people, the animals, and the environment on our planet.

Domenico’s 1989 Ducato

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