From England to Switzerland: my affordable summer homestay experience

Walking through the streets of Barcelona at the end of May, I wondered to myself… Where would I go next? What would I do over the summer?

My Dilemma

  • No money – I needed all my cash to pay for the tuition deposit.
  • No Schengen long-term visa – I didn’t know whether I  should go to London or Madrid for the visa application.
  • No accommodation – I didn’t know how long I would have to stay in any city to get my visa approved.
  • And with the high cost of accommodation and flights over the summer months, my first problem remained: no money.
Betty enjoying her summer vacation with the cat Cookie
Betty enjoying her summer vacation with the cat Cookie.

My Solution

A friend suggested I sign up for HelpX, which invites volunteer helpers to stay with a local family short term and help with their daily life in exchange for food and accommodation (Workaway and Wooff offer similar opportunities as well). HelpX requires a registration fee of 20 euros to fill out your profile on the website, read the host’s introduction, and send an application to the host of your choice. The process of finding a host is like finding a job, with some hosts requiring a virtual meeting in advance. Once both parties are satisfied, you can move in!

My specific job depended on the different needs of my host family and probably averaged 15-20 hours per week. I learned many new gardening skills during my month in Cattcot, England: weeding, watering, pruning branches and leaves, turning the soil in the mini vegetable garden for planting and harvesting… In Bridgewater, England, I made coffee and tea, painted, learned how to fix a bike, and cleaned the attic of a bicycle workshop in Bridgewater, while in Germany, I learned fine cleaning methods. I also stayed with a happy and relaxed family in Switzerland, and the three of us helpers worked together to refurbish the yard pond and paint railings. We also went on train and driving excursions, attended village festivals, and enjoyed delicious cheese (putting on 3kg in just 2 weeks!)

My harvest day and learned some ways to enjoy potatoes
Enjoying potatoes on the harvest day.

My Summer Experience

For a city person like me, everything in the countryside is amazing. The sounds of the underground, motor vehicle engines, and pedestrians talking disappear and the world becomes quiet. Soon, those sounds were replaced with the sounds of dogs, cats, chickens, bugs, and birds. I could clearly hear the wind blowing through the leaves, the rain hitting stones, and the footsteps of different family members. I even became familiar with the different cries of the chickens before and after they laid their eggs.

Sunset in England
Enjoying daytime and sunset with her British family.

Country life is fresh, in every meaning of the word. For example, you can go to the garden just outside to pick the freshest lettuce — it takes less than three minutes to go from garden to table. In Barvaria, the milk came from a farm not far away — I even learned to make my own yogurt.

There are also many sustainability tips that are easy to overlook in city life, especially considering my developing country background. These include  separating waste, making compost, collecting grey water for flowers, among others.

Overall, I think the experience gave me 30 credits in the course called Life. This summer, I literally learned about a new way of life. 

Barbeque on her first day
Barbecuing on Betty's first day in England.

But I have to say, life courses were not the most important part for me — nor was the pub. For me, the most important aspect of my homestay summer was the people I met.

My British family included the host British couple who were in their 60s, a tenant Hong Kong couple who were my age, and me, from Mainland China. The week after my arrival, we spent at least four hours talking about politics, and it was an amazing experience to understand the same history from different perspectives. My family also hosted hikers and cyclists — one Belgian farmer asked me what it was like to live in a socialist country, while someone else asked me: What do you want to be when you grow up? It’s a question they had asked themselves quite often since they had retired. My family had a different “Made in China” view than me, and I had the opportunity to explain globalization and industrial mobility from a trader’s point of view. I was glad that my family recognized the value of my work.

Daytrip to Glastonbury, Betty's favorite town in England.
Daytrip to Glastonbury, Betty's favorite town in England.

In my Swiss family, three helpers were serendipitously put together thanks to my host’s beautiful mistake, and for the first time as an only child, I experienced a life with siblings — with less parental care but a lot of love! It was amazing! We talked about lifestyle choices in our 20s and 30s and 40s, among other fascinating and diverse subjects.

Almost every day we did something: hiking, taking sharp turns on the wildest mountain roads, walking across a small bridge to France for ice cream, enjoying horse performances, seeing snowy mountains on a boat cruise, visiting cheese factories, going to country festivals for the best chips and cheese… The list goes on.

Betty's international siblings in Neuchatel.
Betty's international siblings in Neuchatel.

Before I started my summer wanderings, my Spanish host mama had told me that I could always go back home to Barcelona for the whole summer and live in my host family’s living room with an air conditioner (a true luxury in Barcelona’s summertime!) But she also gave me two key pieces of advice:

  1. Live with uncertainty
  2. Accept help from others.

With this advice, I decided to save money and take ownership of my summer holiday itinerary, which ultimately opened my mind and gave me a truly colourful life experience.  In fact, my summer as a helper was life-changing: I am clear that I cannot be a city person anymore.

Sunset in Germany
Daytime and sunset in Germany.

To conclude, I would like to share some practical HelpX tips:

  1. Take your profile and application message seriously. Show a real and interesting picture of yourself, and have an open mind.
  2. Choose a host with good reviews.
  3. Always have a plan B, and if you meet a host you don’t like, try to communicate. If that doesn’t work, just leave.
Betty in Netherlands with flowers and her bike
Betty enjoying her Dutch life with flowers and a bicycle.