The World Nomads Podcast: France

Walking the French Alps, when too much cheese is never enough, stepping into Spain, and volunteering at a refugee center.


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The World Nomads Podcast: France

Listen to this episode of the World Nomads podcast on France. Walking the French Alps, when too much cheese is never enough, stepping into Spain and volunteering for a refugee center.

What’s in the Episode

00:30 Welcome

02:00 Quiz Question

02:21 Kate and Mark - What is the best part about France?

05:39 Everyone is French

8:28 Exploring the GR5 with Richard

12:20 The people that you meet

16:27 Travel News

17:39 Grabbing a travel bargain

19:39 Vince in Avignon

24:15 Traveling when overweight

28:57 Sarah volunteers for the Refugee Women's Centre in Northern France

35:55 Answer to Quiz Question

37:12 Next week

Who is in the Episode

Sarah Bence is an American travel writer. Sarah volunteered for the Refugee Women’s Centre in northern France and documented her story for Unearth Women. You can read more from Sarah in her blog Endless Distances.

Richard Villar is a freelance travel writer, doctor (war surgeon) and International Mountain Leader. In this episode, Richard introduces us to the Alpine GR5. 38,000 meters of climbing, 435 miles, 32 days. Read more from Richard in his blog Never a Straight Line.

Never A Straight Line

Rob Goldstone is an American journalist. Rob wrote a candid article for the New York Times on traveling when you are overweight.

Mark and Kate, an Australian couple “with a bag each and no set itinerary”. They are traveling their way around the world by house sitting! Hence their blog Vagrants of the World.

HelloWorld is an Australia-based travel company. It recently launched a TV show hosted by Australian personalities including comedian Vince Sorrenti, who scored a trip to report on Avignon and the Rhone river in France.

Resources and Links

Scholarships Newsletter: Sign up for scholarships news and see what opportunities are live here.

Check out the Refugee Women’s Centre website. If you are interested in supporting the Centre take a look at their Go Fund Me page. Or to see what they are in urgent need of including tents, tarps and sleeping bags, click here.

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About World Nomads & the Podcast

Explore your boundaries and discover your next adventure with The World Nomads Podcast. Hosted by Podcast Producer Kim Napier and World Nomads' Phil Sylvester, each episode will take you around the world with insights into destinations from travelers and experts. They’ll share the latest in travel news, answer your travel questions and fill you in on what World Nomads is up to, including the latest scholarships and guides.

World Nomads is a fast-growing online travel company that provides inspiration, advice, safety tips and specialized travel insurance for independent, volunteer and student travelers traveling and studying most anywhere in the world. Our online global travel insurance covers travelers from more than 135 countries and allows you to buy and claim online, 24/7, even while already traveling.

The World Nomads Podcast is not your usual travel Podcast. It’s everything for the adventurous, independent traveler. Don’t miss out. Subscribe today.


Speaker 1: Welcome to the World Nomads podcast; delivered by World Nomads, the travel lifestyle and insurance brand. It's not your usual travel podcast. It's everything for the adventurous, independent traveler.

Mark: Do you want to know which is the very best part? The Spanish bit. No, I'm just kidding. Llívia, the little Spanish enclave in the middle of France. Who would have thought?

Speaker 3: It's true, and we'll hear more from Mark ... he's so funny ... and his partner, Kate, on the enclave, shortly, as we explore France.

Phil: France, bordered by Belgium and Luxembourg in the northeast, Germany, and Switzerland in the east, Italy and Monaco in the southeast, and Andorra ... where I've been; tiny place ... and Spain in the south and southwest. Most of France's land borders are delineated by the natural boundaries; the geographic features that are the Pyrenees and the Alps.

Speaker 3: All right, you're saying France, I'm saying France.

Phil: Well, shall we go there to dance or to dance?

Speaker 3: I'd go there to dance, what would you do? Go there to dance?

Phil: I don't know. How could we stumble over the pronunciation of France?

Speaker 3: Well, I just ... France sounds posh, that's all, but I'm happy to go with it.

Phil: A bit of Francais.

Speaker 3: A bit of Francais. So, we will explore both; the Pyrenees and the Alps. Also, on this episode, Sarah Bence, a writer, and blogger who has worked with multiple refugees and asylum seeker organizations, including Refugee Women's Center in northern France. There's Richard Villar, he's definitely a France guy, and he's not only a war surgeon, but a mountaineer, and he introduces us to the GR5, which is the trek across the French Alps. We look at French cuisine, and the Rhone, one of the major rivers of Europe, and traveling when you're overweight.

Phil: That's quite appropriate for traveling in France.

Speaker 3: Absolutely. What's your quiz question?

Phil: Obviously, French is the official language of France or France, but where else is it the official language? I will have the answer at the end of the show.

Speaker 3: Excellent. Kate O'Malley has written an article for us on the Midi-Pyrenees. She and her partner Mark have been there a couple of times for extended periods as they house sit their way around the world.

Kate O'Malley: The first time we went there we sort of had an idea of what to expect, and when we got there it was nothing like we had in our minds, wasn't it?

Mark: It was perfect one day, snowing the next. It's an incredible little part of France.

Speaker 3: Yeah, well, some of the places that you visited, waterfalls and caves, let's pick your experiences apart and tell us about those.

Mark: Waterfalls in France. Have you ever been to ... Well, the best thing about France is the cheese. The best cheese in France is Roquefort, and the best falls in France are, of course, the Roquefort Cascades.

Speaker 3: No, I haven't. I've been to France, but I haven't experienced anything outside of Paris, to be honest. Although, I have eaten that cheese and that is delicious.

Mark: It is pretty good, isn't it?

Kate O'Malley: I had to put Mark on a limit every time we go to the Midi-Pyrenees because Roquefort's not good for you in large doses.

Speaker 3: We'll be exploring that idea of putting weight on a little later in the podcast, but yeah, go ahead, Mark.

Mark: The Roquefort Cascades are lovely. They're sort of tucked away in the middle of nowhere in as far as nowhere you can go to France. There's just a little track, there are hardly any people, and you just go up, everything's moss-covered. Either the water's flowing, or we were lucky enough to be there when it was frozen. It's a photographer's dream. It's the perfect place for a picnic where, if you were allowed to have some Roquefort cheese, maybe some wine, it's just a great day out.

Speaker 3: What is it about the south-west of France for you?

Kate O'Malley: I think it's the area itself is quite undiscovered. Comparatively, to the rest of France, the tourism there is not really that developed, I suppose. The hiking is amazing. Well, Mark loves skiing, so that was always the initial appeal of it.

Mark: Well, because the skiing is lovely there. Of course, skiing is lovely; it's lovely everywhere in France. It's a little bit quieter there. It's actually a little bit cheaper there. You can get ... In some places, the day ski passes are way less than what you'll pay up in the Alps, but you also have the advantages, if you don't want to go skiing, there are so many other places you can go. There's so much good hiking, there's so much good food, and the weather is just lovely. You get a nice, fine day and you can just hike to the ... I'm going to pronounce this really badly again ... to the Château de Roquefixade, and it's ... Do you like that? Do you like my French?

Speaker 3: You guys are on the right podcast.

Kate O'Malley: They've got thousands of kilometers of hiking tracks, walking tracks, there. Really organized walking tracks as well, through just incredible landscapes. The whole area is just ... It's a little bit more authentic, isn't it? It's rustic-

Mark: Everyone is French. It's ...

Kate O'Malley: Have you got us?

Speaker 3: Yeah, I've got you there. I just heard, "Everyone is French," so, yeah, I think Kate ...

Mark: [crosstalk 00:05:43] saw it, you can go on a holiday, and you'll be in a foreign city, you could be at home because-

Kate O'Malley: You only hear people speaking English all the time, you know?

Mark: Yeah.

Kate O'Malley: I think the Midi-Pyrenees is still, for France, is quite an anomaly because it's a little bit undiscovered. It's the most, probably, undeveloped area of France as well, so as far as tourism goes, it is there, but it's not on the mass scale that you find in a lot more of the popular France destinations if you like; even the ones that have that natural appeal. That's sort of what we like about it, isn't it? There are these little villages; there's lots of hiking, you can walk from one village to the next if you're that way inclined. The food is amazing.

Phil: We're getting to that later in the episode.

Kate O'Malley: It's just a really delightful part of France, isn't it?

Mark: Do you want to know which is the very best part? The Spanish bit. No, I'm just kidding. Llívia, the little Spanish enclave in the middle of France. Who would have thought? You drive through this area, and you come across this little town called Llívia, which I'm probably pronouncing-

Kate O'Malley: Llívia.

Mark: Llívia, which I'm pronouncing badly, and it actually belongs to Spain. The streets, everything is written in Spanish. The people speak Spanish.

Kate O'Malley: The food.

Mark: The food is Spanish. It's maintained by the Spaniards, and yet it's in the middle of France.

Kate O'Malley: But it's literally like one street to the next. You go, you're in France, and the next block you're in Spain.

Mark: There's a little road between Llívia and Spain, it's less than two kilometers, but they share it. Six months of the year the Spaniards look after the road, and six months of the year the French look after the road. But it's the lifeline or the umbilical cord to Spain.

Speaker 3: They are such a fun couple, and we'll get them back when we do our episode in 2019 on the Baltics. We'll have a link to their blog, Vagrants of the World in show notes, plus Kate's story featuring that little piece of Spain in France.

Richard Villar, Phil, is a freelance travel writer. He's also a war surgeon and an international mountain leader. He's published books, blogs, periodicals, newspapers ... well, he's appeared in newspapers ... He's done everything, including he has crossed the French Alps on foot. "The walk to beat all others," he says. Podcast on France, let's talk to him.

Phil: I love talking to overachievers. Hello, Richard.

Richard Villar: Hello, to you both.

Mark: An overachiever. That's unfair, isn't it, Richard?

Richard Villar: I don't think I'm an overachiever at all, actually. I think life is a continuous ambition, isn't it, and this seemed like a challenge one could not turn away.

Speaker 3: Well, we'll get to your war surgeon days and what you feel comfortable answering a bit later, but 38,000 meters of climbing; who did you do this with?

Richard Villar: This was a lifelong ambition in many respects. I'd had, for many, many years, this book on the GR5 stuck on a bookshelf behind me, and I always wanted to do it. I knew it was a very, very long distance. Then, the opportunity arose because a colleague contacted me and said could I walk with him part of the route, but not all of it. I said, "Well, let's do the whole thing, rather than just part of it." So, it went from that small, week-long walk, to one that took really well over a month.

There were two key people, me and a chap called Milos, and then others came to join us at various points along the way.

Phil: Okay, on the Richard Villar scale of difficulty, where was it for you? Was that a seven or is it an eight?

Richard Villar: I suppose it was probably a six or a seven. The route itself is a very long one, but actually, it's been very well thought out. I mean, my original thoughts were that somebody had just looked at a map of Europe, they'd draw a straight line from Lac Léman, which is near to Geneva, down to the Mediterranean, and just said, "Walk, and sort of forget the mountains are in the way." But, in reality, they've thought it through very, very well indeed.

I think one thing stands out more than anything else, and that is that every day I walked, every morning we walked, you'd find something different. I don't quite know how it's possible to do a whole walk and yet every day is different, but it is.

Speaker 3: Now, your mate, is the British ex-Special Forces along with yourself? Or did you do it with two British ex-Special Forces?

Richard Villar: Yeah, we were both British ex-Special Forces.

Speaker 3: There you go, Phil.

Phil: This is why I said the Richard Villar scale of difficulty because to me, I'm going on Spinal Tap, I reckon that sounds like an 11.

Speaker 3: Yeah, exactly, so for someone like-

Richard Villar: No, I would have to disagree. I think it's a lovely walk, and many, many people do it. As we were walking it became very apparent, yes, it's a challenging walk, but actually, it's almost a pilgrimage. You're never thinking about reaching the end. In fact, the last thing I think you should do is think about reaching the end. What you do is just think about the next day.

That's all the walk allows you to do. Even though it was a huge long walk for us, and for me, and by any standards, I think a walk of that length is a long one, in actual fact, if you take the whole route ... I mean, this was a route called the GR5, the Grande Randonnée 5, it actually starts way up in the Netherlands somewhere. This portion, the bit that traverses the Alps, is actually only about a third of the total route itself, even though it's long.

Phil: Is this a modern thing or is it an ancient route?

Richard Villar: I think the answer is that it's relatively modern in terms of people walking it like we were walking it, but the actual route is a sequence of individual routes that have been connected together, that had been knitted together, and each of them, as it were, had a different function. They were trade routes or passes going from one village to another, and it's now knitted together to form this thing called the GR5.

Speaker 3: Great. What sort of people did you meet along the way?

Richard Villar: You name it, and we met them. There's a Swiss mountain guide who was recovering from heart surgery, and he was doing the entire route in flip-flops, and I looked at this ... There was what we called the superhuman Australian, I think. He was walking about twice the distance anybody else could walk in a day, or so he said. I mean, you were relying on, I think-

Speaker 3: Yeah, that's Australian.

Phil: Yeah, man, that's Australian.

Richard Villar: No, no, it's English too. But you would rely on getting information from people you often met in the evenings, and you'd discuss stories and exchange experiences. If people were walking in the opposite direction to you, it was always good because you could find out what was lying around the next corner the next morning. And there was this Australia who basically declared he could walk 47 kilometers daily: I guess you could do that; I think I've done that a few times in my life, but I would not do that daily. But he looked good; he looked fit. He'd been walking over many long-distance paths, and the GR5 just happened to be one of them.

Speaker 3: He should have been the one doing it in flip-flops. What about the Syrian illegal immigrants who spent six months avoiding capture?

Richard Villar: What's interesting with this particular route, it basically parallels ... In the northern part, it parallels the French-Swiss border, and in the southern part, it parallels the French-Italian border. The whole route is basically in France, with a few little incursions into Switzerland and into Italy as you go along, but basically, it's a French route. The mountain passes that were used in World War II for people to escape from France as it was have now become mountain passes where people enter France, and, I guess, illegally. As you get further south, as you get down near towards the sea, it is very, very clear that these are routes being used by immigrants illegally.

It's a difficult one when you're a mountain walker because clearly, one is not on the side of illegal immigration, but at the same time, one knows it's a problem that has to be solved. Yet, you meet these people in the hills; you meet them when they're short of water, you meet them when they're short of food. At that point, they are no longer illegal people; they are people who are in trouble or who need to be helped. So, yes, I did give water to people as they were walking the mountains. I did some of my food to people because, at that point, they were just simply fellow mountaineers. But there were some who traveled for a long, long way, a long, long way, to achieve what they were trying to achieve. Whether they achieved it, I simply do not know.

Speaker 3: We're going to touch on that actually a little later in the podcast, but I think it's a good time to segue into your war surgeon life. You've just come back from Gaza?

Richard Villar: As you know, I'm ex-military, and so I guess conflict is something with which I have dealt and disaster, over many, many years. I am a surgeon in the United Kingdom, but I've been fortunate in traveling around the world. I've worked with the UK disaster team on one occasion and, in fact, have actually worked alongside the Australians in the Philippines. You have a wonderful group in Australia called AUSMAT, and I had the good fortune to work alongside them in the Philippines.

But yes, I have returned recently from Gaza where I was working there with the Red Cross, and there's a lot of work for a surgeon to do. Far more than would make one normally comfortable.

Speaker 3: Yeah, very true, Richard. In fact, I can't imagine what it must be like to be in a war zone. By the way, love his accent. Love it.

Phil: Me too, and thanks for sharing the GR5 with us, which is, are you ready? Grande traversée des Alpes; one of the top hikes in the French Alps. You've done that deliberately to me, right?

Speaker 3: Yes. Absolutely. I always give you those things to say. Just on the refugees, as you heard Richard refer to those he encountered in the trek, but later in the episode, chatting to Sarah who volunteered with Dunkirk Refugee Women's Center. They've been helping female refugees specifically in Northern France.

But, Phil, travel news.

Phil: Okay. Now, there's a bit more evidence that it is possible to love a place to death. The village of Polignano a Mare in Italy's Puglia region is charging tourists five euros to enter the old town center. The village is a maze of cobbled streets, piazzas, whitewashed buildings, and terraces with panoramic views, and actually was settled by the Greeks back in the 4th Century, so it's absolutely teeming with history as well. But now you'll find some very modern turnstiles at the entrance to the old town, and you have to cough up the five euros to get through.

What do you think of that?

Speaker 3: I think that's fair enough.

Phil: Hey, but look, here's the news behind the news for that Italian town. The village has started a Christmas lights display, which would look spectacular in this place, of course. The entry fee also gets you some popcorn, a doughnut, and some fairy floss, as well as the lights. The mayor says, "The town booms in summer, obviously, because it's a Mare, it's on the beach, but it becomes a ghost town in winter, so they're trying to do this to encourage more tourists to come and to spread that wealth throughout the year."

Not a bad idea.

Speaker 3: I think it's great. I love Europe in the winter.

Phil: Yep, absolutely. Look, if you're looking to make your travel dollar go a little further, then my advice is you should study the foreign exchange markets. Look for currencies that are falling; currencies like the poor old Argentinian peso, which has tanked 50% against the US dollar recently. This, of course, is very bad news for the Argentinians because it makes everything very much more expensive, but for travelers, it's the opposite. You can tuck into some of that grass-fed beef that they have there at a bargain price. Their currency slump has led to a 12% surge in visits to Argentina in recent months. So start reading the business pages, look for where you can get a bargain.

Speaker 3: Great idea.

Phil: Speaking of Christmas lights, Christmas is just around the corner and if you're looking to make the most of the holidays by jetting off to somewhere, you've missed the boat, or the plane, I should say, when it comes to securing a cheap ticket. Prices start to skyrocket another ... Did you get that?

Speaker 3: Yeah, I got it.

Phil: Intended pun, right there.

Speaker 3: Actually, I didn't, now you point it out.

Phil: ... about a month before Christmas, but if you're really dead keen to travel then you should travel on Christmas Day or New Year's Day ... because that's the reason people travel, they want the holiday when they get somewhere ... so nobody's traveling, lots of empty seats which means the prices are pretty cheap as well. You don't get to spend the holiday with anybody, but you get to go where you want to go.

Now, we all enjoy a big breakfast; mushrooms, bacon, tomato, and egg, but a café in San Diego has taken the fry-up to the next level, and Instagram shots of the plates are going viral on social media. The Provisional Kitchen at 425 Fifth Avenue in San Diego serves up an ostrich egg as the centerpiece of the breakfast-

Speaker 3: They're huge.

Phil: ... and one ostrich egg is equivalent to 16 chicken eggs.

Speaker 3: That's a lot of protein.

Phil: Yes, it is, and that's a big breakfast. It's also going to set you back big bucks as well. $75 US.

Speaker 3: Would you do it?

Phil: Not for $75, I wouldn't. I also don't need 16 eggs. I'm pretty happy with just one chicken egg, thank you very much.

Speaker 3: Yeah, thank you, a couple of those on a bit of toast. Thanks for that, Phil.

Phil: No worries.

Speaker 3: Hello World: It's a travel agency in Australia, and they've just announced or launched a TV show focusing on destinations around the world. An Australia comedian named Vince Sorrenti is one of the presenters and is just back from filming an episode on France.

Vince Sorrenti: G'day, nice to be with you, guys.

Speaker 3: Well, we reached out to chat to you specifically because our episode on France and we've noticed for Hello World TV you have been to France for an episode.

Vince Sorrenti: I don't know how many people I had to pay off to get that, but I got it. Italy, France, is my area, and yes, France was fantastic.

Speaker 3: Your Italian background, though. That's probably why you got that gig.

Vince Sorrenti: I hope it finally came in handy one day, yes.

Speaker 3: What do you make of France?

Vince Sorrenti: It was fantastic. Look, I've been to France many times. I've been to Paris and the Riviera many, many times, but I'd never been up to the Rhone River like we did on this trip, and I hadn't been to some of these parts of Paris that I've been to on this trip. Also, peculiar with my stories is the food element, so I got to meet some wonderful food people over there and visit some food locations. We went to a truffle farm, an olive oil farm in Provence. We went to some amazing foodie stores in Paris on Rue Montorgueil which has incredible cheese shops, and pastry stores, and chocolatiers. I had to put on a few kilos for the team; [inaudible 00:21:25].

It was wonderful, mate. This cruise up the Rhone River through Provence was just gorgeous. I mean, I can't believe I'm giving it a wrap, and the real beauty of the river cruising is you go right into the middle of a town; pull into Avignon ... most towns are built on rivers, so when you pull up at a town in the river, you're in the middle of a town; it's fantastic.

Phil: How good's Avignon? I've been there; I think it's beautiful.

Vince Sorrenti: I've got to say ... Look, I'm an architect in a past life too, but I've always wanted to see some of the medieval buildings of Avignon, and the Palace of the Pope's is the most noteworthy of all, but it's a great town. The center of Avignon is this big walking street with just bustling outdoor cafes and brasseries and restaurants. I really loved it, and it's very pretty too. The river itself lends it just a real serenity, and some great places within short hops of Avignon too, like the Pont du Gard which is just an amazing Roman bridge. The Romans, man, they did some incredible stuff. This bridge carries an aqueduct on it to service this town of Gardon, right. It travels 50 kilometers and drops 13 meters over that time to let the water flow.

These Romans were off another planet. When you consider the fact that most of the medieval stuff in this area was being built in the 1300s, and this stuff was already 1,500 years old. It's just mind-blowing what these Romans were doing. Anyway, the south of France is beautiful. I cannot recommend it enough, and the food, of course, was incredible.

Speaker 3: I'm a big fan of French food. They're very proud of it, aren't they? Their cuisine?

Vince Sorrenti: I think that's the big difference between French and Italian food. The French really cook to show off; the Italians cook to eat. Italian food is kind of more down to earth; more user-friendly. Whereas, the French are very extravagant about their food. They cook to ... Cooking is a real expression to the French. They formalized cooking and made it an art. There you go.

Speaker 3: And super-rich, too. I love all those cheesy sauces. Yum.

Vince Sorrenti: It's astonishing that they eat so much cheese and cream and butter, and yet they've got one of the lowest rates of heart disease in all of Europe. I think it's all the red wine they drink too that counteracts it. I'd say it's one of the greatest places in the world; it is beautiful.

Speaker 3: Thank, Vince. Now, both he and Mark earlier mentioned the weight you can put on traveling. Well, Rob Goldstone is a journalist who wrote an article for the New York Times where, at 285 pounds and five feet 7 inches, he gets straight to the point.

Phil: Yep. The tricks and trials of traveling while fat.

Rob Goldstone: Yes, hello. It's good to be having this conversation, not least because I wrote this because so many I people I knew had almost [inaudible 00:24:34] secrets to me. It became almost like a secret society of people that I noticed while I was traveling that would come up to me and say things like: "Are you okay? Is it all right?" And I would look at them like: "Are they crazy? What are they talking about?"

The more it went on and on; I would be like: "A-ha." It's because I'm doing things like asking for a seatbelt extender; which is one of my first tricks when I get on a flight. Now, actually, living in America, there's so many people that are plus-sized or overweight or just simply fat, which is what I call [inaudible 00:25:11] fat, that there aren't enough seatbelt extenders sometimes on a plane and I worked out early on that, I suppose, if you can't fasten your seatbelt and if they've given out all these seatbelt extenders, I suppose the next logical thing is they throw you off the plane.

So, as I opened my article with, the first thing I do when I get on a plane is do this little routine; it's almost a secret society where I kind of nod at the flight attendant, point to my stomach, and then they know. They kind of secretively nod back, and a little bit later they wander over and very secretively hand you this thing which is a seatbelt extender. So, they pass it off as if it's ... it's almost like a Mexican drug deal. It's very weird. It's like they don't people to know, and you sort of don't want people to know, and it's just very bizarre.

But you know, what I do notice is that the airlines, all the time, write about extra legroom, and seats with extra legroom, and how much room there is, but the last time I checked people weren't getting taller; they were kind of getting a bit rounder. So, here's to the next airline that says, "We've decided to give you a couple of inches more room in the width because we've decided you're not more than six feet 10, chances are you don't need a bit more legroom."

Where possible, if I'm traveling in coach, in economy, I will buy an extra seat if I can, or I'll beg them to try and put me somewhere with an extra seat, but even that can backfire. I was in Brazil, and I was on a domestic flight; it was a very short flight from Sao Paulo to Rio. The flight wasn't particularly expensive, so I bought an extra seat. Well, everything was fine except there was an equipment change on the plane, and sometimes when that happens they reassign all the seat numbers. So, when I checked in, I had two completely separate seat numbers. I can't remember them exactly, but it was something like 23A and 26E. I was like, "Oh, no, no, no, no. It doesn't work like that." And they couldn't fathom it out.

Now, maybe because everyone's beautiful in Brazil that they would never, ever have even an extra ounce. In Australia, they're very well aware. In the UK, they're well aware. In Europe, they're well ... You go to some places, I say in my article, I went to Vietnam, I came through immigration, and they looked through my form, and the lady at immigration said to me: "Oh, how many kilos do you weigh?" And I thought, "Oh, wait, I missed it out." I said, "Oh, is that on the of form?" And she was: "No, just curious."

I smiled, but then, when I talked to her, she said to me: "Don't take a rickshaw, it will turn over." Some people will say, "Well, just lose weight." Well, that's a brilliant idea, but it probably isn't going to happen before you have to go on your next flight, so you have to come up with ideas to deal with it in other ways.

Speaker 3: Rob's tricks in show notes. Now, Sarah Bence has worked with multiple refugee and asylum seeker organizations including Refugee Women's Center in Northern France. Now, given the country, Phil, and it's no secret, it's often in the news with stories of riots and refugee crises, and Richard mentioned running into refugees in the French Alps, I wanted to hear more about her experience.

Sarah Bence: I volunteered with an organization called The Dunkirk Women's Refugee Center or RWC, as we often refer to it. It's basically an international coalition of women helping refugee women, and by helping refugee women, they also assist with children and unaccompanied minors and just family units in general. The charity is entirely run by women. It is primarily, I would say, French and English women who volunteer for the charity, but I'm American, and when I was working there, there were some women from Germany and Austria, and all over the world people come and volunteer for RWC.

Speaker 3: Well, earlier in the podcast we spoke to Richard Villar who had trekked across the French Alps, and he talked about a few of the characters that he'd met. Richard touched on meeting refugees. There is a big issue with refugees in France, isn't there, in general?

Sarah Bence: Yes, definitely. That's primarily in Northern France, at least, is where the big refugee camps are. Well. Unofficial refugee camps. That is mostly due to the Chunnel, which is an underground, underwater tunnel that connects France to England, and refugees, asylum seekers, kind of congregate in that area because they are trying to cross over into England.

Speaker 3: Why aren't the camps official?

Sarah Bence: That's a really good question, and it has a very complicated answer that I don't ... I couldn't even begin to tell you the answer to it because there are so many different threads of politics in that, but that is due to the French and English governments. Dunkirk refugee camp ... So, there's a big group in Calais, and then, a few miles away, there's another big group in Dunkirk.

The one in Dunkirk used to be official. I forget the exact date, it's in the article I wrote, but I think it was 2015 to 2016 it was official, and it was sanctioned by the French government and lots of big charities like Médecins Sans Frontières was there. But in, I believe it was April 2016, the camp burned down, and the French government after that kind of took away its official sanctioning of the camp. A bunch of the big charities like Médecins Sans Frontières left, but the problem was that the refugees all stayed.

Speaker 3: You specifically were working with the Kurdish Iraqi refugees, you say in your article-

Sarah Bence: [inaudible 00:31:34].

Speaker 3: Yeah, they were living in the forest, previously home to that first refugee camp. What was it like for those women?

Sarah Bence: It's hard to describe, especially coming from my perspective as an outsider, but the camp there ... I'll use the word camp, even though it's not official ... is majority male. It's extremely muddy. They have one meal a day. There's police regularly doing evictions, so coming and taking away their belongings, destroying them, sometimes tear gassing the tents so they can't use them again. It's extremely ... I don't know what the right word is, but it's an environment that's constantly changing and, for a woman, in particular, it makes them extremely vulnerable not only to issues like sexual assault but so much more. If you can imagine living in a forest with only the clothes on your back, no access to a toilet or shower, constantly having your things taken away from you, being intimidated by police; it's a horrible situation.

Speaker 3: In your article, you kick it off with mentioning that you'd been asked to pack diapers. Straightaway, I assumed they'd be for the children, but they were for the women.

Sarah Bence: Yeah. Mm-hmm (affirmative). We had to pack adult diapers, adult nappies, because, if you can imagine it being dark at night, there's the mafia, there are different gang groups, there's tons of men, just even men that you don't know, especially coming from a more conservative culture, the fear of leaving their tent was so extreme that the women would be asking for adult diapers to wear so they wouldn't have to leave their tent to go to the bathroom during the night.

Speaker 3: Wow. I would have thought men, women, children all in the same situation, there'd be this feeling of solidarity, but that's not the case?

Sarah Bence: I think in some aspects there is a feeling of solidarity. There are some really beautiful moments that happen, at least from the Refugee Women's perspective. When you're there, and the children are all playing together, and the women are talking in English together, having lessons, helping each other out, there's definitely moments of solidarity. Families, people who didn't know each other before, are helping each other out. Specifically, I think, families with young children; the children play together. So there are wonderful moments like that, but in the end, they're trying to reach the UK; the majority of people are trying to reach the UK, and a lot of people will just do what they have to do in that kind of situation. It's not like a normal social environment like we can even imagine or we've ever experienced in our lives.

Speaker 3: How would people help out with that organization financially, if you're not able to on the ground?

Sarah Bence: Yeah, there are so many ways to help out with Refugee Women's Center. If you go to their Facebook page or their website, there's a link to; I believe it's a GoFundMe, that is constantly running that you can donate to. They've also got a Google Doc that is updated every few weeks where they have specific donation items that they need. They have an Amazon wishlist too, so if you don't want to just donate money, you can donate specific items. You can, especially, if you're in France or England or somewhere in Europe, you can collect donations of items on that list and donate those.

A lot of people, what is actually really helpful in the summertime, there are people who would go around to music festivals and pick up the tents that were left, and they would send those over to Refugee Women's Center because tents and tarps are the number one item that they need.

There are lots of ways; if you can't physically go to France and volunteer, there are so many ways you can help.

Speaker 3: Well, look, great story. As I said, we will share it in show notes. Sarah, thanks for chatting.

Sarah Bence: Okay. Thank you so much.

Speaker 3: Thank you so much. That brings us to the end of our episode on France, France, but not before the answer to your quiz question.

Phil: Obviously, French is the official language of France, France, but where else is it the official language? The answer is, in order of size, Canada, Belgium, and Switzerland. But, Africa, as a continent, has more French speakers than anywhere else in the world; places like Senegal and Cote d'Ivoire and places like that. The Democratic Republic of the Congo has got 31 million French speakers in there.

Speaker 3: Wow. So, do you know, off the top of your head, if that is the international language?

Phil: It is second after English as far as languages go. And that's mostly because of the African nations that do it, but their French there is not like native-spoken French. It's kind of mixed up with the African languages as well, so it's a variation. A bit like Creole would be in the United States, as well. It's kind of based on French but has taken on a local flavor as well.

Speaker 3: All of that just off the top of your head.

Phil: Thanks, mate.

Speaker 3: You can get in touch with us by emailing You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, and download the Google podcast app or ask Alexa and Google home play to play the World Nomads podcast.

Phil: Next week, another amazing nomad who's traveled 23,500 kilometers overland from Adelaide in Australia to London.

Speaker 1: The World Nomads podcast. Explo

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