The Sharing Economy
“2015 is the year,” Philippe tells me. He’s just read up on the progress of Solar 1, the zero-emission solar aircraft making its way around the world. 2015, for Philippe, is the year when everything starts to change. Conventional money will disappear. Wars will grind to a halt. Governments will be replaced by concerned citizens working to better their own communities. He believes that these things will happen because he has lived them first-hand.
Philippe is a HelpXer, a modern-day nomad who moves from job to job via HelpX, a website designed to connect people wanting to travel with homeowners in need of specific skills. The majority of these are farming or rural renovation projects but some are as varied as music tutoring for children or dressing in period costumes to accommodate guests at a chateau. HelpXers agree to work a certain number of hours per day, usually three to five, in exchange for food or housing, or both. Philippe is an electrician by trade and for the past two weeks, he has been rewiring our apartment and installing lights in our dingy attic in Nice, France.
“If I didn’t smoke, I wouldn’t spend any money,” he tells me. And I believe him. His clothes, he explains, are mostly castoffs from people he’s helped over the years. His food and lodging are taken care of. Even his phone and laptop are gifts from previous hosts, the most essential possessions he owns for plotting his peripatetic course around the world.
So far, it seems to be working.
Over the weeks, we learn more about Philippe’s story. Our children are young—Zari age 8, Dio age 6, Inga age 4, and Ivy age 2—and they have no inhibitions about asking about his past. Philippe used to run a successful kitchen installation business in Ireland. Before the 2008 market crash, he could barely keep up with demand, his coffers full of over-inflated Euros. But when the crash came, his business dried up in a matter of months. New clients canceled their orders. Some of his contracts are still with collection agencies. The few jobs that he did get changed as well. Gone were the monstrous kitchens with ten-burner Viking stoves and acres of polished granite. “The bigger and fancier the kitchen, the less people use it to actually cook,” he said. He used to coordinate every detail of the kitchen, down to the trim work or consultations about appliances. But soon he found himself back in France, unemployed, and squeezed broke from the recession. He was able to find some work again as a certified electrician, but the years of having his own business made it difficult for him to be someone else’s employee. Then, one day, he stumbled on HelpX. “HelpX saved my life,” Philippe told us. “It’s been the perfect thing: meet people, travel. I don’t need much, and I just work my way into households’ daily routine.”
The effect of having to live with so many different people have had some tangible effects on Philippe. A man of conviction and strong opinions, Philippe has had to keep more to himself, not to make waves. His last hosts were vegetarian, so he became vegetarian. With us, he calmly sits through mealtime prayers and endures our sometimes un-French culinary habits. After a couple days, he enjoys the smaller meals at lunch and is ready to eat a big meal by 5:30 p.m. Kids in bed by 7:30 p.m.? No problem! Not once does he question our choices or insinuate that we are abnormal. He has seen so many different ways of living in the world, from Ireland to Spain, Greece, and Italy, that he’s sure that whatever we’re doing is valid too. Each living situation is an opportunity to grow. An only child, now Philippe can learn what it’s like to be in a family of six. There is a lot of noise! You have no privacy! Wonderful!
It is not our first time with a HelpXer. I first heard about the program after picking up a hitchhiker on the way to Switzerland. He was an American from Kentucky and he’d been traveling around Europe for the past year using HelpX to save money. It sounded fantastic: a month in a Vineyard in the Vaucluse, meals with local ingredients and a chance to see a more authentic version of France in exchange for a couple hours of work per day? Sign me up! What was most appealing about the service was the self-regulated space. A bad host or a disrespectful HelpXer would get bad feedback that would limit their ability to continue with the program. But would anyone want to come to our tiny apartment with four kids? “You’d be surprised,” the hitchhiker said. “If you live in Nice, you’d have no problem getting helpers.”
Turns out he was right.
The first time we advertised with HelpX, we put all the projects we wanted to complete: two bathroom renovations (tiling, plumbing, painting), some electrical work, scraping and painting the attic, and installing flooring. We were up front about our living situation. We could give HelpXers their own bedroom with their own shower/sink. But the apartment was small, and we had four young children. If you were allergic to toddler tears, you need not apply.
The first two weeks, we received on average one HelpX request per day. Turns out we were the only HelpX opportunity available in Nice. Most HelpX hosts lived in remote locations, with barns to erect or grapes to pick. Ours was one of the only urban opportunities and one of the few where HelpXers would be living in close quarters with their hosts.
But our first HelpX experience almost proved to be our last.
Jacques and Hafida were recently-retired northerners with family in Antibes. Their profiles were amazing: Hafida was an accomplished cook and seamstress and Jacques was a “Jacques” of all trades, a French handyman who had done everything from fine carpentry to kitchen installations. The quality of his workmanship was high, and hosts raved about his efficiency. A blank patch of land became an A-frame garage in two weeks. He liked to get up early and work through lunch, working five hours or more a day. Previous projects showed him mixing mortar in a bucket shirtless. Leveling beams with precision. Sheetrocking a new wall. Raising a glass with contented hosts in the summer gloaming.
Jacques and Hafida came to help us with our bathroom installation for two weeks in January 2015. Our correspondence had been amical and positive, albeit somewhat overly detailed. When we asked about any dietary concerns or preferences, Jacques gave us a long list, including what kind of table wine he preferred and when he liked to eat (late). We would accommodate his requests as best we could. But our children went to bed early and so our dinners would have to follow suit. Not a problem, they said.
It’s hard to know exactly what turned this experience so sour, but by the end of the two weeks I think both parties hoped we never saw each other again. Jacques was as competent as his profile indicated but he was also used to working alone. All his projects to date were in the bucolic French countryside and not in an urban environment. Now he was in a tiny bathroom, a box of crumbling grey concrete without any windows and poor ventilation. But worst of all, he was having to share the space with me.
The first couple days passed in strained cooperation, everybody putting on their best show. The living arrangements weren’t what they expected. Hafida had never slept in a mezzanine before. Why hadn’t we mentioned it in the advertisement? (We had). She was worried about having to get up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom. So, we pulled the mattress down and laid it on the floor. But it was fine, no problem. Jacques liked to be working by 7 a.m. and didn’t realize that the kids didn’t get up till then and they would need the back bathroom and access to their clothes to get ready for school by 8:30 a.m. Which meant he couldn’t realistically get working till then. No matter. He would take a late breakfast and wait till they were gone.
I still remember the first day Jacques and Hafida showed up. We were excited, a little anxious. The kids had decorated a sign saying “Bienvenue Jacques et Hafida!” in multi-colored crayons. When they crossed the threshold, our kids threw their arms around them like they were long-lost relatives. “Such beautiful children,” Hafida said. “I have two grandkids myself.”
Therein lay the heart of our problem, a factor that I don’t think either party had entirely considered. Both of us assumed that the interactions would be similar to our own family experiences. We came from large families with Grandparents who were used to double-digit numbers of grandkids and a built-in tolerance from years of overexposure. Jacques and Hafida both had a couple grandkids each from previous marriages, children who they saw over holidays with a high adult-to-child ratio. Near the end of the two weeks, Jacques said, “when you first sent us your schedule, I thought, now here is a family that is put together and organized,” the implication being that the opposite proved to be true. “We’re just not used to all this.” While Hafida still tried to interact with our family the best she could, Jacques took more and more to staying in his room, watching episodes of French comedy shows on Netflix rather than endure the noise and craziness of our kids. His solutions about how to live with us often relied on the exclusion of our children. And like nagging grandparents, they injected our family with an overdose of French criticism.
Here were some of their complaints:
Your oldest daughter is vain. She doesn’t care about anyone but herself. I can’t believe you let her treat Ivy like that.
Inga never eats her supper. She’s never going to eat on time unless you force her.
Your kids come and go from the table like they’re at a playground.
Tensions reached a head when our children were playing hide and seek. Since I was working with Jacques most of the time, slathering walls with mortar and cutting tile in the hallway, I couldn’t be with the children the way I used to. And Rixa was busy sewing cushion covers and throw pillows. Hide and seek seemed like a good diversion from the usual video watching or coloring books. But halfway through the game, we heard a scream. “Get out!”
“Your daughter is mal élévé,” Hafida yelled. “Badly raised.” Zari ran into the room and buried her head in my side, sobbing and shaking. “She can’t just go walking in on people like that. I was a poil. Naked. She didn’t knock, didn’t even act like she’d done anything wrong.”
“Oh, Zari,” I said. “Is this true? You know that’s not our room anymore. It’s Jacques and Hafida’s.”
“I was looking for Dio.”
“Your girl needs discipline.”
Initially we reinforced Hafida’s response. Zari had no right to go into their room and we needed to ensure that our guests had at least a modicum of privacy. But then we began to see how Hafida’s reaction to Zari was more complex and nuanced than we had originally thought. Hafida came from a family of three girls. Her older sister was the most beautiful and she was self-centered and abusive to the younger two. Hafida brought these experiences up repeatedly in a way that meant they mattered to our own household of three girls and one boy. Zari was the oldest in our family and attractive, with thick blonde hair and a lithe figure, a beautiful smile, straight teeth. I couldn’t help feeling that Hafida attributed her sister’s negative traits to Zari, along with her disdain and jealousy borne of her own insecurity. Hafida tried somewhat to make amends for the screaming reprimand that had by now so obviously traumatized Zari, but each compliment rang hollow. Such beautiful hair, Hafida would say, but what we heard and felt was: yeah, she’s pretty but your child is rotten to the core.
By the end of their stay, we had adjusted our behavior to fit theirs and not the other way around. We made dinner early for the children and then ate later for Jacques and Hafida. We bought them whatever they wanted to drink or eat and took them out to restaurants when the kids were in school. When we worked, I would try to leave Jacques alone and find another project I could work on simultaneously. At every turn, for every decision, we felt their disapproval. Jacques reprimanded us for the quality of our tools, for not having a strong enough drill or an accurate enough level. “I should’ve given you a list,” he told us near the end of the project. “If you didn’t have everything on the list, I wouldn’t come.” For him, the south was largely to blame. He’d lived in the south before and observed how sloppily things were done here. His frustration was compounded by our own, for unlike his other projects where he muscled a garage or barn to completion on his own, now he was falling behind, taking twice as long to finish projects that we would’ve completed more quickly ourselves. When we finally got to tiling the bathroom, he insisted that the tiles needed to be back-buttered with mortar to help them adhere to the wall. Placing each tile became a huge production with minute adjustments to the spacing made ever more difficult by the over-abundance of mortar causing the tiles to slip around. Our pace slowed to just a few tiles per day. Whenever I suggested a cleaner or more efficient route to finishing, Jacques would snap. “If you only knew the amount of tile I’ve laid,” he said.
One afternoon I decided to finish the tiling myself. I had also laid tile, completely redoing bathrooms, entryways, and kitchens in six different homes in the last ten years. I had worked with granite, marble, and ceramic. I knew how to set mosaic and cut horseshoes freehand with a wet saw so that they fit around baseboard or pipes. I had probably laid more tile than Jacques had and in a shorter span of time. That afternoon when Jacques and Hafida changed and left for one of their daily walks, I stopped the plumbing project I’d been working on and took over. I laid the rest of the tiles in a couple hours, double the work we’d be doing in about half the time. But when he came back and saw what I’d done, rather than be pleased with it, he was convinced I’d done something wrong, that he’d have to rip it out and do it all over again himself. “It’s your apartment,” he said. If the tiles magically fell off the wall, I’d have to live with it. No way was he coming back.
But Philippe was different. Where with Jacques and Hafida we were met with intransigence and inflexibility, Philippe seemed ready to do anything, to meld into our family as it was and learn from us as we learned from him. He was always complimentary, never critical. Messed up the hole for the electrical box? No problem! Only have an old cable connection for a cover? I’ll make it work. Challenges of budget or material seemed to interest him as much as the project itself. Everything was part of the story of our renovation. At one point we bought some sheetrock mud from a discount store. It was the kind of thing that Jacques would have scoffed at. Jacques was entirely won over by name-recognition and price. The sheetrock mud behaved differently than any other that Philippe had worked with and he had to apply it in super-thin coats so it wouldn’t run. He apologized for the extra time it would take to get the wall smooth. “But when you’re finished?” He mimed running his hand across the surface. “Like glass.”
It’s hard to know why we had such contrasting experiences. I would like to generalize, to say that it was because of attitudes or ways of living that were more or less compatible with our own. Philippe had the sensibility of a vagabond or a chameleon. His home was wherever he happened to be living and he couldn’t live if those circumstances were intolerable. Jacques and Hafida were traveling temporarily, a retirement adventure. They often compared their home with ours. They lived in the north where it was more affordable, where they could have a house in the country, two cars, a big fridge for the price of a tiny apartment in the south. We were escaping those same amenities in Indiana, opting instead to buy a tiny apartment that needed renovation in a town overrun with tourists. To be thrust into our daily lives was too much of a shock, too different from back home. But at least it was only temporary. They could tolerate living with us for a few days more.
The last people who stayed with us was a young couple from Oklahoma who had been backpacking through Europe the past several months. They fit more closely the profile of a lot of the HelpXers: young, wanting to travel cheaply, and with more basic skills to offer like painting or childcare. Something about them reminded us of ourselves ten or fifteen years ago. Michele was a brunette with curly hair and a broad smile with the perfect white American teeth that were the envy of the French. Connor also had darker hair and had been growing a scraggly beard the last couple months. He was a soccer aficionado who liked playing board games and telling stories. Our kids loved them immediately.
What had their experiences with hosts been like so far? They had done painting, worked in vineyards, and twice were receptionists for youth hostels. The only negative experience they had was in Ireland. The host hadn’t done his taxes for the past three years and the Irish tax man had come knocking during their stay. Michele had worked as an accountant and when it quickly became obvious that the host was either unwilling, incapable, or both, she stepped in to straighten out his finances. But even the mounting pressure of an impending deadline and the added work and stress for them was worth it. It was a learning experience, something that they could sock away for later to help them with their own life decisions.
Which seemed to be exactly why they were here.
When I first met the hitchhiker, who told me about HelpX, I was struck by how this program could enable a traveler to experience life in different environments in ways that were often unavailable to tourists. It also provided enough essentials and security that a HelpXer could extend that experience past the week to a couple months and then do it again. People could actively suspend their lives, hold off on decisions that they had been needing to make for some time, and travel with little money set aside for contingencies. Before traveling to Europe, the hitchhiker had been a professional diver who contracted with oil companies to fix or repair underwater rigs. It sounded glamorous to me—a professional diver!—but he quickly disabused me of any idealization. He had done it through the army where he got his certification, but it was long, relentless, and boring work, something he felt like he’d ended up doing almost accidentally. It paid well and he didn’t have an education beyond his certification. It was a stop-gap job. But then that stop-gap looked to expand and fill maybe even his whole life. When he heard about HelpX, he set up a few jobs and then bought his first ticket to Europe and hadn’t left since.
Michele and Connor were in a similar situation, though their planning was more deliberate. Connor had started law school a couple years ago and then dropped out. He liked school, especially liked to argue, but the jobs that he saw lining themselves up in his future were not what he wanted. He liked people, liked making things, liked business. Michele was fascinated by food and for her the trip to Europe was a culinary pilgrimage, complemented by an actual pilgrimage they made through Basque country in Spain and southwestern France. Their Catholic devotion provided a framework for their aimlessness. What were they going to do when they got home? They didn’t really know. But they had a commitment to a mutual destiny. They’d figure it out together.
HelpX also exposed Michele and Connor to different ways of living that they hadn’t considered before. Our own model of buying a property abroad and using it to generate income especially appealed to them. Perhaps they could take advantage of the collapse of the Euro and the flagging Greek economy to start a bed and breakfast or a restaurant/hotel? They were essentially newlyweds and didn’t have kids and so everything seemed pregnant with possibility. That traditional occupations or careers hadn’t yet revealed themselves to them weren’t a problem. Their families were supportive, and they could live at home till they found out what they wanted to do. Maybe they would try to bring something of what they had learned this past year to enhance the culture of Norman, Oklahoma in some way. It was a town they loved, with good schools and a university. They could open a Greek restaurant. Start a student-exchange program. Become landlords like us.
For now, they would live in our tiny home, eat meals with our four children, play pick-up soccer with my local group. During the day, our apartment was abuzz with work. Connor would be mixing leveling compound or sanding away sheetrock mud. I holed myself up in the back bedroom, facing the wall, to write. Above me, I could hear scraping and whistling: Michele in the attic. Sometimes she would sing along with her iPod while she painted, and I would try to keep tempo with the tapping of my fingers on the keys of my computer. In the evenings after the kids’ teeth were brushed and everyone’s pajamas were on, we’d get out board games like Carcassonne and Quirkle, “Jeux de société” the French call them: games of society. Our children laughed at Connor's exaggerated attempts to speak French and coached him on what to do with his tiles. For a couple weeks, we had been thrown together, both parties providing something that the other party needed. At the end, the attic was painted, the floor leveled, the wall sanded and smoothed. Each a permanent reminder of the ways we had all changed.