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Travail Agents

From foraging for food to mucking out stables, vacations are becoming hard work

Author Boyd Farrow Illustration Michael Byers


Not long ago, in a country inn high in the Tuscan hills, I enjoyed the best night’s sleep of my life. The mattress was wide, the pillows plump. It was warm enough to sleep with the window open, cool enough that I could appreciate the high-thread-count sheets.

The next morning, I was surprised to learn that I was the only guest who had notched more than five hours of shut-eye. My fellow patrons, it seemed, had roused themselves at dawn and headed out into the surrounding forest to participate in a ritual involving billowing smocks and arcane equipment. I found myself wondering if I had accidentally joined a cult. And in a way I had. It turned out my fellow guests were all mushroom hunters on some expensive foodie tour of the region. 

This is not just a Tuscan thing. Foraging is one of those innovations that hotels everywhere are foisting on unsuspecting guests, like yoga on the sundeck and art installations in the lobby. But this one seems a step too far, involving, as it does, traipsing around in the middle of nowhere, sticking your fingers into squelchy earth and rotting vegetation. And the toil doesn’t stop when you’ve accumulated your produce, given that the average mushroom tends to be tougher to clean than a hard drive.   

All this raises an interesting question: Unless you’re stuck on a desert island, why would you want to go foraging for your dinner? For some inexplicable reason, my fellow guests at that extremely pleasant, not to mention well-stocked, inn were perfectly willing to leave their warm beds to scavenge for food in the woods like escaped convicts. Basically, they paid their hosts handsomely so they could do what our forefathers trained dogs and pigs to do.   

I’m convinced there is a conspiracy among hoteliers, who are getting us to do their dirty work by selling it as an “experience.” It is rare to find a resort these days where guests are not encouraged to catch their own fish or shoot their own game for the evening menu. You request honey in your tea now and someone sticks a mesh box on your head and bundles you off to the apiary. It is rumored that some hotels have dispensed with gardening staff entirely. “Mr. Jones in room 315? He’s busy cleaning the swimming pool—sorry, I mean gathering algae for his power smoothie.”

What’s worse, many hotels are slyly turning their kitchens into cookery schools, where guests are coaxed into preparing their bounty under the watchful eyes of professional chefs. It’s only a matter of time before they have us doing the dishes, or picking up the general manager’s dry cleaning on the way back from the farmers market.

Meanwhile, you have to wonder what the real fishermen are doing while Sheldon and Denise from White Plains are bringing in the morning catch. Sitting on the veranda writing postcards? Getting a massage? And what happened to the guys who used to gather the mushrooms at dawn? Are they the pair on the manicured lawn sipping pastis while moving life-size pawns around a giant chess board? 

It’s easy to dismiss all this as a fad—a result of our newfound fetish for the “authentic”—but there may be something deeper going on. I mean, are we really so unhappy with our life choices that we’ll trade our days out of the office for an internship somewhere else? 

Or it may just be that hotels are reacting to the proliferation of apartment-renting sites, where homeowners think nothing of asking paying guests to separate the trash from the recyclables. Take a look at a few Airbnb listings—they’re basically help wanted ads. I saw one the other day where a guy who was going away for three months was hoping guests would look after his pet rabbit. The way things are going, we shouldn’t be too surprised to touch down at the airport and get a ping on our smartphones—a reminder from our hosts of an upcoming PTA meeting.

Yet the working holiday trend shows no sign of abating. Clearly, there are plenty of people who feel fulfilled running somebody else’s errands, but it seems to me there is a serious problem brewing. Fact is, we don’t know how to switch off any more. We have lost the art of doing absolutely nothing. And, as a result, we are going nuts. 

You can see this collective insanity in the rise of farming holidays, which are essentially forced labor camps with a hefty bill at the end. As one vacation company’s brochure puts it: “Expect to get your hands dirty and help with chores—milking cows, bottle-feeding lambs, collecting eggs, mucking out stables and more.”

Never mind the complete absence of flip-flops in this scenario; it’s the word “more” that worries me. What could that possibly mean? Darning the farmer’s socks? Balancing the books? Helping out at the slaughterhouse? Just thinking about it makes me want to lie down.

Berlin-based writer Boyd Farrow would like to announce the launch of his own experiential vacation company, which he is calling “Get Me a Beer, Would You?”

2 Responses to “Travail Agents”

  1. Ian Davis Says:
    July 22nd, 2015 at 11:43 am

    I read this twice, on two different plane trips. I felt compelled to come here because while the majority of the Hemispheres issue content was decent, if a bit pretentious, this article was just silly.

    Is this satire? Or does this author really not know why anyone could possibly want to do a cooking school? Wild mushroom hunting in a swamp is something for which I and many others would ravage our sleep schedules. These activities do not mimic work–they mimic a fantasy life that many people crave even if living it constantly would be less fun.

    When I travel, I have occasionally chosen travel partners who wake up at noon. I don’t choose to travel with them again once I know this habit. You are only a tourist, and your experience will only be as good as what you plan. I know I’m not the only one with this philosophy.

  2. clark Says:
    February 8th, 2016 at 11:49 pm

    Nice work here

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