• Mario Alberto Gonzalez Robert

Belgium: Mesnil Eglise and Haydn

I found once a helpx opportunity in the French speaking part of Belgium in a small village called Mesnil Eglise with a retired Welshman who wanted to renovate his house and I thought it would be a nice opportunity to improve my French as well as to practice my English.

As usual on my trips I arrived in the train station and he picked me up with his big van and his dog. We talked for some time and he seemed to be nice enough. He told me that he was interested in medieval battle recreations and he built tents for them.

When we arrived in the house he explained me that there was a small problem because there was no bathroom, he was on his way of renovating it or actually building one, so if I needed to go to the toilet I could piss anywhere in the garden or use a small “dry toilet” in a small half built, roofless cabin he had made which basically was a seat with a hole and a bucket where I had to put saw dust and dirt after doing my thing. For the shower, we would go ask some neighbors if they would let me take one at their place.

My room was quite big and empty with only a double bed and a side table. The view from it was to a cemetery behind the house.

The house was divided in the middle by the stairs and the other half of it was occupied by a woman in her thirties and her daughters who didn’t like to have much contact with my host unless, as he explained, they needed a favor from him. They were the ones who had the wi-fi which was cut every night because according to my host, the woman had some sensitivity problems with the waves it emits which causes her headaches.

Every conversation we had lead to his complaining about life and everything around him. He explained me that he was so poor he had to be in that house by an arrangement he had with the owner to which he would be allowed to live there in exchange of renovating it, so basically I was more or less the helper of a helper.

One of the tasks he put me into was to dig kind of a small trench from the outside wall of the house to some part of the garden so that he could later on put some pipes which would go to the new toilet he was going to build. While I did it for several hours, he took his dog for a walk and ran some other errands. I had the tools disarranged around me as I was still using them when he came back and the first thing he said was “you need to have the tools in order otherwise I can trip over them and I will be very angry”. Then he said the trench was fine and we called it a day. My next task was to make a hole on the wall, connected to the trench to be able to take the pipes out through it, the only problem was that it was an old stone wall several centimeters wide and it was really hard to penetrate. I spent some hours on that and in the end I managed to make a hole wide enough for the pipe to barely pass through. He didn’t seem so happy but in the end he said not much else could be done.

Once when we had some lunch he prepared, I offered to do the dishes, I stood up, took all the dirty dishes from the table and put them on the sink to begin. Right after doing this he reproached at me telling me “didn’t your mother teach you to push your chair back to the table when you stand up?” I just replied with a “sorry” and didn’t give it much importance.

Every afternoon what he would do until the evening was to sit down in front of the TV. I found it quite boring and difficult to find any conversation subjects so I preferred to use the time to explore the area or to use the few hours of wifi I had or just dedicate it to my other hobbies.

After the hole drilling tasks, he said he didn’t have any work for me but I could go to the workshop of the village to help some of the neighbors. They only spoke French so it was a very good and intensive language practice for me and they were quite friendly. I helped them cleaning their huge atelier and moving some stuff from one place to the other, then one of them invited me to have some lunch before continuing for a few more hours. When I came back to my hosts place it was already dinner time, he had already eaten and I asked if there was anything left, he said there was a pot with stew and went to the kitchen to heat it up for me. While doing so he told me “when you work with someone else, they should feed you as well, it shouldn’t have to be me” I replied that they did give me lunch. We didn’t talk for the rest of the day, the only thing he mentioned several times was how annoyed he was that he had a big project of a tent he had to make and he had been putting it off all the time so now he would have to work all night… complaining all the time, it was quite uncomfortable. The day when I told him I would like to take a shower he told me he would ask the neighbors, I took my towel and stuff and asked him if I should go as well but he said no, because it would be quite uncomfortable if they didn’t agree to let me shower and I was already there. I waited at home for a few minutes until he came back and said I could go. The neighbor was very friendly and showed me the way to the bathroom, gave me even a bigger towel than my travel one and told me I could use all the shampoo or stuff I needed if I wanted. Then she said I could come back every day if I wanted to take a shower, there was no problem, to which I thanked her a lot.

I felt the situation was very uncomfortable so I decided to leave much earlier than I had planned. I was there for five days until my host had to go very early one day to another village. One day before I asked him if he would be passing the train station to which he replied “you want to know if I can give you a lift, don’t you? Yes but you have to be ready very early or I will leave without you” I just said “Ok, thanks.”

On the way to the train station there was not a single word spoken until we arrived, I got off the van and thanked him for the lift and the “hospitality” in the nicest way I could and he just nodded and left.

Later on during my travels, when I went back to the Agrochatka family in Poland, I met an English guy about my age who told me he had been in a strange helpx place in Belgium in the Flemish region in a village called Diest. I remembered I had been surfing on the website and saw a volunteering offer in that town with a community living in an ancient monastery which seemed interesting, until I read the name of my host from Mesnil Eglise at the top and realized he had moved there so I immediately discarded it. I asked the English guy if he had met this man and he told me he did, we couldn’t believe it. He stayed there for two weeks interacting with several Belgian people who lived there and they all had some funny views of life but they were mainly quite nice, except for the Welshman who always complained about everything.

We were talking about him, I talked about what I knew from the few things we talked about, like that he was into medieval battle recreations and had several swords and bows, he had a collection of saxophones which he fixed and used to resell, about the whole in the wall, etc. The English guy laughing told me “yeah it’s unbelievable the amount of crap someone can carry on their van. He actually made me take a huge amount of swords, tools and other things from the van to the apartment he had just moved into. Amongst them there was a kid-sized sailor suit and a Bob the builder toolkit, which he used to carry there all the time” He said that he talked with him several times about his life. According to the story, he had to flee from Wales because he had slept with a 14 year old girl while he was already a mature adult and the father of the girl wanted to have him prosecuted. He then went to France and worked several times at ski hotels as a cook as well as an organizer of medieval festivals. He ended up in Diest when his van got broken and he joined the community at the monastery where he later on moved to a flat with a woman. In the end he left again and nobody know what happened to him, there were two hypothesis, one that he went back to France to work at another hotel and the other one that he is in jail.

We were laughing especially hard when I told him about the hole he made me do and then he said he made him drill a hole as well in the apartment for some renovation thing right before fleeing, so apparently he likes to move around making holes in people’s properties.

After a few months I met again in Agrochatka a couple from Spain, also around my age, who told me they had been in the same place in Diest and they had met all the strange people that lived there but they didn’t really get any truly bad experiences, they just said they got tired of it pretty soon and wanted to leave.

That has been so far my only not-so-good volunteering experience.

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