During one particular visit to his brother’s house in Westport Co. Mayo in 2016, Cyril Meehan, Donegal North, says that an intriguing conversation with his nephew Sean about his upcoming dog minding trip to Greece was the catalyst that set Cyril himself on the road to many memorable and fascinating travels around the globe upon his retirement.
At the kitchen table was my nephew, Sean. It was obvious that he was very preoccupied on his laptop computer and had little time for small talk. Trying to make conversation, I enquired what he was doing. Without lifting his head from the screen, he replied, ‘I am making arrangements to go to Greece to look after a dog’. I was obviously intrigued and I asked him to elaborate further. It turned out that he was on an internet site where young people put up their personal profile and offered to go and work in other people’s homes, farms, businesses in just about every country on the globe. Sean explained to me that one simply lists jobs that they are competent at doing, such as painting, gardening, housekeeping, child minding, or in his case, looking after animals. The deal is that you are given free accommodation and meals in exchange for working on average four to five hours a day, five days a week with no cash payment. The rest of the time you are free to explore the area in which you are based and absorb yourself in the local culture in a way you would never achieve by staying in a hotel or having a city break. I was immediately sold on the idea and within minutes, I too joined up on this work away online site. Only hours later, I had a reply, an offer of work in North Italy. Three days later, 30 kilometres outside the city of Turin, I was on my knees fitting paving stones at a beautiful rustic country chateau, with the snow-capped Alpine mountains as my view in the distance.
DOWNTOWN FROM WORK In my downtime from work each afternoon, I cycled through forests and Italian villages and in the evening, drank wine outside on a terrace in front of a fire fuelled with timber. By pure chance, that following weekend when I had free time, there was a local annual festival taking place called the Battle of the Oranges. The English lady ‘Joy’ whom I worked for gave me the background on one of the oldest carnivals in the world, which dates back to medieval times. Legend has it that back in the day, a local tyrant ruler and landlord, William II of Montferrat, had a number of unusual advantages to the position of power he held. Apparently, before any of his peasant women workers were to be married, he was entitled, the night before the wedding, to have his wicked way with the bride, if you get my drift? Anyway, one particular peasant woman was not to be messed with as in the bedroom she cut off the tyrant’s head and threw it out onto the street, much to the delight of the town’s people who have celebrated the event in style to this very day. I decided that I must go to this carnival. When I arrived at the beautiful old roman town of Ivrea, I was drawn to the noise emanating from 9 massive marquee tents, each I discovered was filled with men drinking and eating, each group had different distinctive ceremonial military dress. They were in preparation for the battle to follow, as no army marches or fights on an empty stomach! The streets were filled with hundreds of crates of oranges, 500,000 kgs. to be exact, along a designated route, the results of a yearly excessive crop production in the locality, I understand.
FROM TOURIST TO PARTICIPANT I managed to get a spare uniform from one of the groups and now I was no longer a tourist, I was a participant. In summary, later that afternoon, all organised hell broke loose as nine large horse-drawn carriages raced through the streets, running the gauntlet, with men on top in the distinctive uniform and wearing a much-needed face covering helmet. The battle began as the various groups lined each side of the street belting the enemy carriages with as many oranges as they could possibly throw before the carriage escaped. The crew in the carriages furiously defended themselves and accurately threw oranges back at their aggressors. I cannot tell you, the animal instinct satisfaction you feel in nailing one of those guys on the chariots with an orange when it hits that target. It was serious fun, but very dangerous as millions of orange missiles came at you from all directions, some hitting you in the face, the orange juice burning your eyes. I spent two weeks working in Italy and returned home completely sold on the idea of further travel adventures. Two weeks later, I was in my car and took a ferry to France. During the following two months, I worked, travelled and had more crazy adventures all over France, Germany, Bavaria, Belgium, Holland, Sweden, and Norway. I did all sorts of work, plastering, decking, painting and gardening, but I must confess, I never got to take care of a Greek dog!
GSRMA Donegal North