I first met Ian and Judy when my WorkAway host Bob from up the road in Campes and I walked the dog and visited them for coffee. We met again at a curry and quiz night organized by another expat neighbor in the village. Their eldest son, Andy, and I were paired up and we promptly won. We met again and again.
Eventually Bob and Kathy had to go to Britain which meant that my stint with them ended. Ian and Judy invited me to WorkAway at their place and spend Christmas with them and most of their six kids.
They both used to be teachers, have been married for 34 years and raised five boys and one girl. When we chatted they seemed like good fun, laid back. In fact, when I first stepped into their kitchen I thought they were hippies.
Yet, I was hesitant to intrude into their family Christmas. On the other hand I grew up with two sisters. Wonderful sisters. But finding out what it might be like to have a handful of brothers intrigued me. And when I was told that Ian and Judy routinely invited friends around as well I was in.
I moved to Les Moulines, their old French farmhouse, at the end of November.
The first day Judy led me into the laundry room and pointed to a pile of sheets and pillow cases. ‘They need to be ironed. Just get started. I don’t blame you if you get bored after a while,’ she smiled. That was one of only a handful of occasions that I worked with Judy. The ‘girly’ stuff. I was a lot more interested in all the big and little jobs that needed doing to upkeep the house itself: make wood and light the fire in the morning, place and check rodent traps, prune trees, paint, fix up rooms,… There was always something.
I was curiously eying Ian and his second youngest son Joe as they were laying a new floor in the dining room. It wasn’t until it was time to paint it that I was allowed to help.
Early December Judy left for England. So Ian and I were on our own, with Joe living nearby and dropping in for meals. Ian would start the conversation after dinner with ‘I want to understand what brought you here.’ And he seemed sincerely interested. He shared his own story and gave me advice that was just that – an opinion or suggestion, not judgment. When we were at dinner parties he jokingly introduced me as his new daughter.
A week later Ian followed Judy to England. It took Joe less than an hour to get into a fight with me. Our relationship would never rebound from that.
My hosts returned two weeks before Christmas and we started to prepare the big days.
One by one five of their kids and their families arrived. Suzy, the only daughter, liked to sit with her parents and talk. She is cool, smart, funny like her parents. Her brothers spent some time golfing and the evenings playing a lot of beer pong. A band of brothers. I was thrilled when they invited me to play along. I was thrilled when I got gifts not only from Ian and Judy but also some of the boys. Ed, the thoughtful and funny one, had gotten NSFW Christmas jumpers for everyone. Even me.
But I never actually got to talk to the boys. They seemed too consumed in testosterone filled competitions. I could not relate to that. My sisters would fight but at the end we’d be happy for the other to win or to call it a draw.
Still I was feeling strangely comfortable in the house. I had initially said that some time in January I would move on to another WorkAway further in the South. But as days and weeks went by I set the bar for my new hosts higher and higher. Until I finally settled on staying at Les Moulines until early March when I had long-planned to go back to Berlin.
Ian could certainly need the extra pair of hands. Joe had gone back to England. While jobs were popping up left and right. In addition, thanks to my hosts word had spread of me being available for hire. So I had been able to earn a few Euros here and there.
But it wasn’t to be. Ian and Judy were hinting more and more directly at whether I wouldn’t like to move on. They convinced friends a few kilometers on that they would love to have a WorkAway like me.
I am sure they did it with best intentions. Because I said I was a traveller. Because their friends a few kilometers on are former Uni professors who speak perfect French.
But I was hurt. I had gone from ‘the new daughter’ and ‘Stay as long as you like!’ to ‘What, you’re still here?’
And then it hit me: I am more than happy having grown up with ‘only’ two sisters. Sisters are awesome! But hanging out with Ian made me see to possibilities of having a father. You know, the kind, that wants to see you grow into your own personality, who shows you how to use a garden tractor or how to draw that perfect line between the wall and the ceiling. The guy that doesn’t really understand what is happening ‘with the young people today’ but is curious to find out.
I liked getting up in the morning, preparing the house together and then tackling whatever task made to the top of Ian’s priority list that day. I liked to learn how to drive a tractor, how to get a good line between differently colored wall and ceiling.
I liked having Ian ask me about where I came from and what I was planning to do with my life. He asked how I intended to finance my travel lifestyle, about getting married and having children. And it seemed like sincere interest. Any advice I received was to help me figure it out. Not the kind that has a ‘I knew it! I told you so!’ lurking in the background.
I was looking up to that man. I still am.
I can’t help but wonder who I would have become if I did in fact have a father like that in my life.