My EVS was at the Tour du Valat, a centre for the conservation of Mediterranean wetlands, lost 30km away from the nearest major town, Arles, in a land of cowboys (gardians), flamingos and rice farmers. The Camargue is effectively an island or delta of marshlands formed by the splitting of the River Rhone into two branches, where histories of Roman towns and gypsy pilgrimages meet, vastly different from the surrounding scenery of Provence and the Central Massif. Mix these things together and you have a rather unique part of France, bearing more resemblance to the plains of Mexico or Spain than southern France.
The organisation / My role
The Tour du Valat is unique in that it is a primarily scientific institution that still manages to uphold the traditions of the region. The taureaux camarguais (black bulls) from the estate run in the local course camarguais, a kind of show of agility (the bulls aren’t harmed ) that is a less brutal version of the Spanish-influenced corridas, traditions still upheld in the arenas of Arles and Nimes. During the winter, the estate is open for la chasse au sanglier (wild boar hunting), meat of which is usually donated to the long-term residents (namely, the volunteers and interns). Incidentally, wild boar makes a great winter stew!
My main roles at the Tour du Valat were to monitor the water level of the temporary ponds on the reserve, and to collect data on rare plant species, as well as translations and corrections of scientific articles in English. After the quiet winter months, I was able to get involved in a lot more fieldwork, and ended up working on most projects at some point, from vine cutting and tree planting to assisting at spoonbill ringing and trapping pond turtles.
Arriving in October in an entirely French speaking environment, consisting of scientists, doctoral students, interns and grounds managers, was certainly a very daunting experience and it took probably at least two months before I was really confident in understanding and speaking French. After that, I essentially stopped speaking English completely – which really does wonders for the language skills. The winter months were cold and quiet, interspersed with a strong (up to 100km/h at times) Mistral, the cold north-westerly wind that often brings down power lines and causes flooding along the Med. One particular week was subject to an internet cut (which lasted two weeks), no electricity, a flood in the residential building and no kitchen in the building (which was being replaced). The 6 or 7 of us there at the time spent many long winter evenings playing board games and eating raclettes!
Between February and July, many more interns began to arrive reaching up to around 25. From the end of May, the temperature starts to rapidly rise into the thirties, and fieldwork becomes too much work to take on in the afternoons, with early 5am starts becoming the norm, in order to finish outdoor work by midday. After-work trips to the beach and BBQs become common. The Camargue mosquitoes would merit a paragraph of their own but they are akin to being followed by a group of B52s the minute you step outside...
My 10 month experience was an exceedingly positive one and 600 words isn’t enough to do justice to the variety of nationalities and people from all walks of life that I met, not to mention getting opportunities such as working in the middle of Europe’s largest flamingo colony. I left the South of France with valuable work experience, a second language, and friends from all over the world, which I hope to remain in contact with.
Published October 2015.
The placement has been a highly positive, sometimes challenging experience. The work has been varied and highly satisfying with the chance to partake in several once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Working in a predominantly francophone scientific environment has a steep learning curve, but has been highly beneficial for my language abilities. The variety of people that I have met is too many to count, and I hope to maintain this network of friends.Imogen Rutter, EVS volunteer