Mathilde lives in St. Etienne (center-south-east of France), known to be one of the ugliest cities in the country because it is an old industrial town (but nice to live in). Mathilde has never been able to have a stable job. She was officially a certified teacher of French as a foreign language. Lately, she wants to switch to agriculture. She is passionate about learning new languages, drawing, writing, reading, and anything connected to nature. Mathilde speaks French (obviously), English, German (so-so), Italian (so-so), Russian (so-so), and she is trying to learn some Ukrainian too. Her biggest quality would be being more flexible than organized. She likes spending her evenings knitting or reading with a cat and a cup of tea. Moreover, she loves the smell of the forest and mushrooms after the rain, and she thinks it is perfectly sensitive to hug a tree.
I met Mathilde in my hometown in Sibiu, Romania when I hosted her for two nights in my apartment and she told me her latest travel stories. Let’s hear what Mathilde has to say about life, travel, and authentic travels.
What’s your concept of life? Do you have a life motto? How do you integrate it into your present life?
I do not really have a life motto. I tend to find mottos too frustratingly short and I prefer to use a lot of words to express an idea. However, I do have some strong principles and values which I try to live by – most of them are about de-growth and downshifting. For example, the idea that consuming is taking way too much place in the current western lifestyle. The more I go back to a more simple life, the more I realize that you do not need to spend hours trying to figure out a concept or a philosophy of life. You just live and do what has to be done to go on living, take care of your shelter, make sure that you have a warm enough and safe enough place to sleep, take care of always having enough food, and do your best for other people to have what they need too.
When did you begin traveling or start traveling seriously? Is traveling a constant part of your life?
My first solo travel was when I was 18 years old. I had just finished (in a bad way) my first year of studying, wanted to take a break from my everyday life and enjoy the beginning of the holidays before starting my summer job. So I found out about woofing (volunteering in an organic farm in exchange for accommodation and meals) and decided to go to Italy that way. There, I spent three weeks taking care of goats, meeting new people, cooking a lot and eating a lot of cheese; and lazing in the sun in my free time. Next year, I searched for another such kind of volunteering, this time in Scotland. Then, two years after that, I went to study for one year in Germany and had some internships abroad.
So traveling has been something like both random and constant. I’ve never really planned to make it constant. It has just kept happening. When I’ll turn back to France, I am going to settle down to a more sedentary lifestyle and start my own farm. So I have no idea if traveling will keep happening or not. I would like to, of course. But I feel like, after the end of my current trip, I could be able to give up on it without regrets. It has already brought me what I have been looking for – the ability to question what is considered “normal” in one country; and knowing myself and my limits better. I could still enjoy traveling after settling down, but not feel the need for it anymore.
Why are you traveling? What does traveling bring to your life?
Now, this is a big question. It is always hard to define what something brings you, or changes in you. There are always several events at the same time that have an influence on your life. And who knows how my life would have changed if I had lived the exact same things, but without this or that specific travel? I honestly have no idea, but for sure, finding peace of mind would have been a much longer, slower process without traveling. Traveling has been part of the things that have helped me feel more comfortable with my life and accept what I have.
I am not sure why I wanted to travel in the first place. Maybe I just had a feeling that I was looking for something. I didn’t know what, but I would certainly find it if I kept looking for new experiences. So I tried going further every time, to more and more challenging places: bigger cultural gaps, mostly unknown languages, unstable political situations (e.g. Ukraine, Kazakhstan). At some point, I found my limits – especially that one time in Kazakhstan when I ended up on the street by -15C degrees, with flu and feeling too sick and tired after many relational problems to ask anyone for help. I just collapsed and decided to go home in France. Then, I left on a new adventure again to trip Eastern Europe for one year. Every time I realize that I am actually able to deal with a challenging situation, it improves my self-confidence.
Once I wrote in my journal that I’d had this temptation, to build a shell to protect myself. But while I was traveling, I learned to grow some ‘bones’ instead. Not a protection from the world, but an inner strength to deal with it. Seeing how people live in other countries also allowed me to have some new perspectives on life in my own country. And by this, I do not mean this horrible cliché that “we are so spoiled and selfish to complain all the time when people in other countries are so much poorer than we are!”. But a better understanding of why we are complaining so much, and how progress and technology and wealth still fail to make everyone happy, although we have been taught they should make everyone happy.
Did you travel when you were a child with your parents? Did you like it? Has this affected you somehow?
When I was a child, we mostly traveled within France, not abroad. During my early childhood, I did not enjoy it that much. I better liked the comfort of my home, or just going to my grandmother’s house was enough for a holiday. Then I grew to like it more and more. Most of my travels abroad as a teenager were not with my parents, but on summer camps, and a couple of times on school trips. I still did it with my parents a few times (Spain and Italy for a few days), but this is not what made me fall in love with traveling. I think the time when I fell in love with traveling was during a summer camp in Italy. Then I realized that there were places in this world where I could feel like I belong more than I do at home. However, I didn’t like traveling in a big group that much. After I turned 18, I mostly kept to solo travels in Germany, Italy, U.K., Russia, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan.
How do you feel when you’re traveling? What’s different when you are traveling than when you’re staying at home?
Traveling usually keeps my brain busy, and it is a big deal for me because I tend to think too much. If I have nothing interesting to think about, it is not good. When I am home, life is too easy and un-challenging, and it makes me so bored sometimes. I just end up making up problems that do not exist or overthinking some old ones that should be over for a long time.
When traveling, you cannot avoid interacting with the locals many times a day. You don’t have such things as a written timetable and map on the bus stop to tell you where to go and when. So I have no choice but to speak to people, although I do not speak their language perfectly. And, since I love learning new languages, it is one of the key interests of my journey. The best, when I find someone with whom I have a common language that we both speak well enough, I usually have a long list of more complex questions about the country that I’ve waited an opportunity to ask.
But I am also rather shy, so after some time, I can get tired of having too many interactions, especially if some of them are not successful, and require a lot of efforts. Then I need to be alone and not speak to anyone from time to time. On the opposite, when I am home, I do not even remember the last time I had to ask something to someone on the street. Knowing the place too well makes life easier, but is also terribly boring sometimes.
Where have you been traveling in the world so far?
Usually, when I am asked this question, I only answer with the longer, more meaningful travels that I’ve made. With an European citizenship, it is just so easy to travel to neighboring countries that I do not bother mentioning. Every French person has spent a weekend in Spain once. Also, since I do not use airplanes, I’ve gone across a lot of countries on my way to some other final destinations, but I haven’t got to know all of them that well. For example, I have a Belarusian visa in my passport, but I have never set foot in Belarus. I just went through it by a direct train on my way to Russia.
My first solo travel was in Italy, the next one in Scotland, then came one year of Erasmus scholarship in Germany. After that it came a life-changing experience I had been waiting for so long. I spent 3 months in Ukraine for an internship as a language teacher. When I first got the idea to go to Ukraine, it was September 2013 and it looked like a safe enough country. I arrived 4 months later, after one week of slowly crossing Europe by train and paying a visit to some Erasmus friends on the way. I arrived in Ukraine in the crazy time of the Maidan revolution, Russian invasion in Crimea, and the beginning of the war in the east of the country. Despite all of this, there was no way I would have wanted to leave the country earlier than at the end of my allowed 3 months. This was the longest time I could stay without a visa, and it was safe enough for me in the south of the country, in Nikolaev (where I was staying). I was still crying when I had to pack my things and go home. I just didn’t want to leave Ukraine.
One and a half year later, I took another, longer internship in Kazakhstan. Unfortunately, I just ended up in the worst workplace I have ever known. My many problems at work didn’t leave me a lot of energy and motivation to enjoy discovering this huge country. And then, one year and a half after that (last September), I left for a nine-month trip through Europe with my boyfriend. We are still on this trip. We are most of the time volunteering in organic farms (wwoofing), and taking some time in between two farms to visit new places. Until now, we have been through Italy to Slovenia (our first volunteering stay), then through Hungary to Ukraine. Then we have crossed the Black Sea by boat to Georgia, had a few days in Armenia, come back by boat to Bulgaria again, then headed north to Romania. The next big volunteering stop should be in Latvia, with some time to visit Lithuania and Estonia on the way.
What’s your traveling style or your traveling pace? How often do you travel and for how long?
My traveling style has a lot to do with the values I’ve exposed at the beginning: not being a mere consumer, going slowly, keeping my carbon footprint low. This means during my travels I don’t use planes. There was only one single exception, though, when I came back from Kazakhstan. I was close to a burn-out and had flu, so when my boss said he could buy the ticket and arrange everything for me to go back to France, I just said yes.
After ‘no planes’ comes ‘no booking’ through a travel agency and ‘very little money’ spent on leisure activities. Most of the time, I just gone to another country to do something I could have done in France: to study, to work, to volunteer. This way, I get to actually live in a country and not just visit it. This also means that sometimes, after 1 to 12 months in one place, I leave without having visited its main touristic sights, because I was just caught in a nice daily routine. Like local people who live several years, even all their lives, in one place and very often haven’t visited some of the famous sights tourists come for. For me, experiencing the local life is the most important. When I am not working, I also use Couchsurfing and Bewelcome a lot. I do not stay much in hostels unless I have no other choice, or if I really need more personal space for a couple of days (not very often).
Which places do you choose to go? How do you select the destinations?
I just follow my heart to choose a country, or a region of the world, and decide if to go according to the opportunities I have there. If I can find a job or a volunteering place, then I will have days off to visit the touristic places (but these are not the main interest for me). For example, when I went to Germany, one of the main reasons to go there was that studying on Erasmus was easy, and my university had a partnership with a good one in Mainz. Or when I taught French as a foreign language, I just looked at job offers.
What’s the difference between ‘authentic travels’ and ‘simple travels’ in your opinion?
Simple travels are like a holiday. You just take a break and go have a nice, relaxing time somewhere else. Once, a woman told me that she had booked a trip through a travel agency to an unknown destination. It was only on her last day there that she actually looked up where she was on the map. She was in the Canary Islands, close to the Western coast of Morocco. I wouldn’t travel that way, but I certainly understand why this sounds appealing for a holiday. She just didn’t want to take any responsibilities or think about anything else, so that a travel agency was a good option for her.
Travels become authentic when you are organizing them yourself. You take care of everything, even if you don’t know the country, don’t speak the language, and sometimes feel very lost. They can be exhausting and are nothing like a holiday. It is to discover new cultures, but you also have to experience what a true, big cultural gap is. If you weren’t far enough or didn’t really immerse in the local life, it wouldn’t be real culture. Everything looks so nice and interesting when you stick to a superficial overview. But if you really live in a country, at some point there will be misunderstandings and conflicts because the values, the understanding of the world that you were taught are not the same as the ones being taught in another country. Authentic travels are not always a pleasant experience. But they certainly are an intense one, from which you learn a lot.
Do you travel in your own authentic way or not at this moment?
Definitely, yes, I do travel as I want. First, because my boyfriend and I are not really sticking to a plan on this travel through Europe. Things have never happened once as we had planned them. And then, we are staying in rural areas a lot, in places where people usually do not see any tourists, and share the life of local families. I cannot find a better way to travel.
Do you give up your dreams of traveling in a certain way for the sake of something or somebody else?
I do not think I have done this so far. Now that I am traveling with my boyfriend, there are a few compromises that I’ve had to do. Like choosing if we take the bus or the ferry when I am car-sick and my boyfriend is sea-sick. But these are just about some trivial matters, not about the bigger picture: we both share the same ideas about the meaning of traveling.
Are you planning to travel the same way from now on or you want to change something? You wish you’d travel in a different way?
Since September, I have been traveling with my boyfriend, and after many years of solo travels, it is a huge change. After leaving Georgia, where we slept in a room without heating in December and shared the toilets with a big rat and some mice, he declared that he would now have a new respect for people who have traveled with their partner for a year. You do not realize how crazy it is until you actually do it yourself. When you travel solo it’s easier. Usually, when couples have a fight, get bored with each other, or whatever, they have 8 hours a day during which they do not see each other because they go to work. And then, if you are still pissed at your boyfriend, you can go have a beer with your best friend to complain that men are all the same until you feel better.
If you travel together, you don’t have any kind of personal space where your partner is not allowed. And your best friend is thousands of kilometers away. You have to face together all these traveling problems. When you arrive at night in a new city and have nowhere to stay because your planned host let you down at the last minute. Or when you get lost in a foreign place. When you get acquainted with some new bacteria thanks to the local water or food. The good thing is that if you manage not to break up until your journey is over, it’s very likely that you are together forever. On the downside, romance and mystery are dead.
Now we are taking a few weeks apart because we are interested in different things at the present time. It feels quite nice to be on my own again and to know that we will meet again with so many things to tell each other because we’ve had different experiences. Benoit is getting a more specific training in bee-keeping at a farm. I will be staying in a more traditional family farm in Romania. Apart from that, I don’t intend to make more changes in my way of traveling, not for now. But then, after I go back to France next summer, I will probably no longer be able to take such long vacation and go abroad for nine months. If I want to keep traveling, I will probably have to figure out another way to do it.
What plans do you have in the future?
In summer, I am going back to France. Then my boyfriend and I will start actively working on our big project. We want to settle on a farm together with some friends and make both an agricultural and a social place, organizing events, hosting people. My boyfriend – Benoit, is now training as a bee-keeper. And I have already gathered a good knowledge of permaculture, and want to get some training in herbology, too.
This is what Mathilde has to say for us about her traveling style. Let’s wish her all the best on their trip and their new farm in France.