FIN

We finished harvest on a Thursday morning with a team of 14. Five weeks of work came to a close a day early, much to our surprise and delight. 

By the time we sat down for breakfast on the final day, in the final field, all the grapes had been trucked back to the cellar. We overturned the empty crates, making the usual circle for breakfast. Aline yelled, "À table!" to the last of us rounding up buckets and clippers. We all found our seats. Aline applauded us; we all cheered. I could see the stress melt off of her. Her shoulders loosened, her back straightened, the smile on her face was genuine instead of strained. All the organization, the early mornings, the late nights, it had all been conducted by this one woman who cares so much for the vines she cultivates. 

We shared the usual breakfast, and then went back to the cellar to do the usual chores--organizing the grapes, cleaning the cases, pressure spraying the cellar floors. The final lunch was just as large and overly filling as they had been all month, but the sense of completion layered on top of that was palpable. 

The days opened up right in front of me. I had another two and a half weeks left in France before my scheduled flight home. What would I be doing? 

The answer came quickly, and it started with 11am wine tastings at the neighbors cellar the next day. Aline took other WWOOFers to tour the local potters, of which there were two. It was an oddly gendered outing, only the women went (sans moi due to a need for some solitude) and they returned laden with bowls, mugs, and serving dishes. One Flemish woman must have dropped over 200 euros judging by the number and size of the bowls she brought back to the house. 

On one such Friday of being free from the fields, my fellow WWOOFers and I crammed in two wine tastings into one afternoon, and followed it up with a grand End-of-Harvest house party. Aline invited all the neighbors. It was the usual 70s and 80s playlist, as Aline had thrown a few parties throughout the season by then. A young couple made and prepared homemade pizzas throughout the night. The second one came out of the oven, it was walked around the living room and patio in a single circuit, getting completely picked over before the cutting board returned to the kitchen. The German WWOOFer turned 34 at midnight. Another friend and I watched the clock closely, timing it so that we could bring out two homemade cakes featured with obnoxious singing at the stroke of the new day. 

We had all worked hard this last month and change, and we partied just as hard. 


My last week on the farm was a slow one, filled with the goodbyes of people leaving before me, and late mornings of being kept away from work by the rain. Summer was giving way to fall. My time here was starting to drag on, just at the edges, fraying the fringe. My mission was complete. But it would still be another two weeks before I returned to the States. 

I worked a few odd hours in the cellar, labeling and packaging orders for Aline. I was given a fair amount of time in the final week to work on her website, refurbishing everything from the fonts to the menu order. I was given plenty of creative freedom and encouraged to use all of the photography that I have collected thus far from the season. Only a few things remained unfinished, and that is the organization and the description of the wines--something I wouldn't dare to do. But her site can be found here: domainedesmathouans.fr 


Our final good-bye was mundane and without ceremony. Aline drove me to Perpignan on a rainy Monday morning, where I now stay in an AirBnb until my early flight home in a few more days. The apartment is down a narrow alley. She double parked the giant black Renault van that doubles in size whenever we leave the wide open spaces of the farm. Cars were backing up in the street. No one had patience for an emotional, prolonged good-bye. Aline hugged me quickly and raced back to the van, its hazard lights flashing like emergency beacons. 

And that was it. 

A Game of Blind Tasting

The first time I felt truly immersed in wine came a few nights ago, casually around the cutting board-like table in the kitchen, after half of the WWOOFers had gone to bed. (There are five of us now.) Bottles collected from recent tastings at Gauby and others were finished off, creating a meta mock tasting that informally manifested after dinner. 

Wine might have a pretentious image, stereotyped by pedantic words and insider knowledge, kept in a kind of feudal hierarchy. It's not, though. Wine is deeply personal, and emotional. The people who are teaching me everything I know about wine describe it in feelings and memories. A bold Cabernet Sauvignon can be a woman chasing after you, her arm outstretched to grab hold of you. A Macabeu that takes time to wake up might remind someone of the horse they kept as a child. Wine tasting has this transformative power to bring lost memories back to an almost tangible state. 

Ultimately, you either like it or you don't. This simple fact should only be determined by the emotional experience you just had with the wine--not it's label, its region of origin, nor the year of its vintage. Because of this methodology, the blind tasting is especially exciting, if not all-consuming.

"Jump in the river," as Renaud says. "I want to hear what you think." He is usually the one to emerge from the cellar reserves with bottles wrapped in tin foil, prepared for us to play with. He conducts this grand game of guessing, always the only one to know the right answer. On this particular night, there were three bottles wrapped in foil. One was immediately put in a carafe, as Lim, the most developed palette among us WWOOFers, explained that even the shape of the bottle is a clue to what the wine could be. 

Bottles that already cluttered the table were pushed aside to make room for a few rounds of blind tasting--the most authentic way to experience wine. Renaud serves us each, and the game begins. Everyone takes the first nose, then swirls the wine for the aroma of the second nose. I like to watch Lim go through this process in desperate hopes that some of her wisdom might rub off on me. A part of me still sees wine as grown-up juice; I feel like I'm playing dress-up with my tea cup full of imaginary wonders. But Lim, she "gets it." She'll sit on the second nose, smelling, swirling, smelling again. I could be half way through my glass of wine before she even takes the first sip. The minutes stretch out. It is between the second nose and the first taste that everyone falls to silence, deep in thought. I'm just along for the ride, and am prone to interrupting my own tasting process by snacking on the olives and bread on the table. 

People taste and comment on their initial findings. They debate characteristics for a while, sometimes raising their voices over each other to have their dissenting ideas heard. Each assertion requires another sip to affirm their claims. Is it a Grenache? A Carignan? A Syrah? By now I have decided whether I like the wine or not. I keep drinking regardless. The French starts to take off, and my comprehension nose-dives in a perfect inverse relationship. More than anything, though, these heated debates bring about laughter. Laughter from someone's off-handed opinion; laughter from an apt comparison; laughter from someone's complete dumbfoundedness as to what the wine is. The game momentarily devolves into this beautiful chorus of hollering, but French always carries a beautiful melody, even as you swear over your mother's grave. 

Eventually someone will call for order. "Silence!" Renaud held up an open palm like a judge, and then offer it out to someone at the table. "Lim, your guess?" The game is to guess the region and the year. Going around the circle, people submit their answers to the Commissioner. Sometimes they call on me: "Sheridan, your thoughts?" 

"Probably not a blanc," I submit with a rouge-stained smile. Simplicity is always good for a few laughs. They let is slide and move on with the process. I was just along for the ride.

Everyone nods and mumbles at the guesses; no two are completely alike. 

Renaud lets silence fall over the table before he tentatively reaches for the bottle, and begins to unwrap the foil. Each time he manages to open it so the label is facing him, creating one final moment of suspense before he turns it around in the big reveal. 

Nearly everyone is wrong, either by a few hundred kilometers or half a decade. Some are close: getting the year right, but not the region, or vice versa. Except Lim. Of the three rounds of blind tasting, she got it completely right, twice. We were impressed to say the least, which meant the jokes of her fame became relentless. We mock bowed at her opinions the rest of the night, causing her so much embarrassment she hid her face in her hands. But when it came down to offering an opinion or guessing at the bottle, she had our undivided attention. 

Perhaps the most interesting event that night though, was the bottle that everyone got wrong. I didn't like it. I was in the majority this time, as the table seemed largely unimpressed with what they were tasting. It was agreed upon that the distinct characteristics of the Bordeaux region were present (and since the region is so famous and large, answers required more specificity: north, south, across some river or another), but insight was universally lacking. Something about it fell flat. No one liked it enough to refill their glass. Lim submitted that it was a 2012 bottle, east Bordeaux. 

This time the reveal caused jaws to drop, eyebrows to skyrocket. A 2002 Saint-Estèphe from Château Cos d'Estournel. The story behind it was that Renaud and Aline originally bought the bottle for Mathys' communion, but that never happened, so it aged away in the cellar for 15 years until tonight. The consensus on the immaturity of the wine was right; Laurie, Aline, and Lim all guessed that bottle was from 2011-2015. Being a decade off in their answer proved that the wine was lacking overall. Everyone was wrong and unimpressed. I didn't understand the shock until Lim leaned over to me, explaining as if it were a secret, that that bottle of Cos d'Estournel was worth at least 500 euros, probably more. It comes from a very old, highly regarded domaine in north Bordeaux. What we just had was a rare experience for the likes of us--or it was supposed to be, had any of us actually enjoyed the wine.

Had it not been a blind tasting, we could have all been tricked into liking it, just from the label and the year, Renaud explained to me. It just goes to show you that good wine is good wine, and when it's not, it's not. 


Experiences like these strip away the pretentious culture of wine, and invite in visceral opinions and emotion. Tasting a wine and not being affected at all by it is just as valid of an response as understanding the nuance and complexity of another. Understanding wine comes from the heart, not the brain. Being surrounded by farmers who have dedicated their lives to making good wine has begun to cultivate this new kind of understanding within myself. Names, years, and vintages mean nothing if the wine doesn't awaken something within the soul, evoke an emotion or memory. The absence of these speak for the wine just as much. 

We set our time by the sun and the weather, good or bad.
— Author Uknown; International Festival of Photojournalism 2017, Perpignan

Natural Wine // Le vin naturel

A Disclaimer for Patience: The following deviates from the technical description of wine. Coming to France, my wine knowledge was limited, if you could call it knowledge at all. Learning about wine is like learning a second language. In my case, it's a third language because French fluency is a prerequisite to being able to question wine and the processes played out before me. With this in mind, this article is more of a feeling than a fact. 


Natural wine, biodynamic wine, the kind of wine Aline makes here at Domain des Mathouans, is wine in its most essential form. It is a fist full of squeezed grapes, and the inevitable passage of time. It is a tradition carried on from our most early of ancestors. 

But to hear Aline and Renaud talk about their wine is to add a layer of complexity to this startling simplicity. They believe they get back everything they put into the vines--and they aren't speaking about the elements of water, air, sun, and earth. Aline sings to her grapes. In the winter, where a tractor could easily be used, Renaud opts for a horse-pulled plow. He believes it brings a different vibration, in his words, to the land. They both hold a firm believe of being happy while working. Bitterness, resentment, general grumpiness, negative attitudes of any kind aren't welcome in the fields. They don't want those feelings anywhere near the grapes; they don't want those feelings to sour the wine. There's a certain glow of enlightenment to these farmers believing so spiritually in the work they do. But I, ever the contrary person, struggle to grapple with this concept. 

They prove me wrong though, every time we discuss natural wine over the dinner table. There is natural wine: wine made without chemical, and minimal technological, intervention in the process. Furthering the concepts of natural wine is biodynamic wine: wine made with the incorporation of biodynamic viticulture--farming with a spiritual mindedness. Soil health, vine fertility, animal welfare--they're all interconnected, and they all contribute to a good bottle of Mine de Rien Moscato. I can most closely relate it to my academic studies of ecofeminism. 

After tasting their wine, you can't look them in the face and tell them they're wrong. 

Natural wine is living wine. It changes throughout its lifespan; matures, degrades. It tastes different from the barrel to the bottle to the reserves as the sugar ages and reacts with different oxygen levels. At first it has all the room it wants to roam and breath and grow in the barrel. The sugar ferments, and wine in its infancy is created. It finds its legs, the body it will grow into, in the barrel. But then it's bottled. All of a sudden its vast, comfortable space is taken away. Oxygen deprivation kicks in; circulation halts. The wine is squished into a 75 cl bottle. It sits quietly in the glass. It can hibernate like this for ages, prolonging the typical lifespan of something living. Stalled in this state, it waits. Uncork it; release the wine from confinement, and it changes one final time. Do this in the right moment, and you will experience wine in its true form, tasting all the subtitles of maturity aged by time.

A perfect representation of the land from which it came. 

Bonnes Vendanges!

The first week and a half of harvest has blown by in a blur of sunrises, sweat, and sleep. 

The schedule is intense, and repeated every day. I fought it for the first six days: dragging myself out of bed tired and grumpy, for that to only give way to the discomforts of working under the late morning sun with my back at the perfect bend for long-term pain. Wasp stings. Broken glass in my hand. Slicing the tips of my fingers with the clippers. New bug bites, bruises, scratches, every day. There's a lot up against a first time farmer.

It's only been in these last four days that I've slowly given myself over to the pace of harvest. TV, reading, working on this neglected blog, and other freelance work have been erased from my mind. They've been replaced with new priorities like my internal timer for reapplying sunscreen, perfecting the work pace for passing crates full of grapes through a human chain into the truck (and then back out, into the cellar), and staying awake just long enough after my post-lunch shower to braid my hair for the next day before I collapse into a well-deserved siesta. 

Waking up before the sun is getting easier. It's been in the mornings when my heart hurts the most--sleep deprived, resentful, missing Mika and Kuiper. But I've adjusted now. I wake up 15 minutes before my alarm. I take coffee at the table with the rest of the team. I don't drag my feet getting out of the car to unload when we first arrive to the field of the day. I am ready for work. I'd even dare to say that I'm happy to do it. 

Today, the field we worked was on the steepest slope yet. We picked uphill all morning. The wind was low, and even though there was cloud cover, the air was thick and stagnant. But with this was the most fantastic view; a 360 panorama of the Pyrénées-Orientales. Visibility extended for miles...or kilometers. Scattered across the vines, our team of ten disappeared and reappeared as we ducked under the vines, making sure every last bunch was picked--looking like the gofers in Whack-A-Mole. We each take a "rank," in Aline's translation, and move steadily along with our buckets and clippers. Every 15 paces is a large grey and red crate (their split colors actually serve a purpose) which we empty our full buckets into as we go. When a set of ranks are finished, we all pick up the cases and stack them at the base of the field, setting them so the colors checkerboard, which keeps the crates from sinking into the grapes in the case below it. The grapes shouldn't be bruised, crushed, or left in the sun. 

We fill the work van with cases two or three times a morning. A smaller team brings them back to the cellar either to be stored for later that day, or, in the case of the Macabeo, it is stomped immediately, strained, and pumped into a giant barrel. The Syrah from yesterday was put directly into a massive wood barrel, with minimal stomping--only enough to make room for all of the grapes (the yields from that field were good this year). 

We stop for breakfast in the fields between 9:30 and 10am. Empty crates are flipped over for chairs and a make-shift table. Baguettes from the bakery bundled in white paper take up most of the room. Jars of jam and tupperwares of cheese are shoved in the nooks and crannies left free from plastic cups full of wine, water, or coffee. I am made an example of every time I put Nutella and cheese in my baguette sandwich. The jokes of sending me back to America, ruining the food, eating behind a tree out of sight, never seem to get old. But I also haven't tired of eating Nutella with roquefort or chèvre. Perfect balance of sweet and savory, à mon avis. 

The work isn't over when we return from the fields at high noon. Everything must be unloaded, stomped, stored, and washed. But as we power through the last interval of labor, Aline passes around cheap beer, and we work with only one hand. It's cool and arid in the cellar, and outside in the driveway rainbows form in the mist from the pressured hose as we wash everything down. 

The cook arrived yesterday. Someone just to make lunch for us--feeding 12 people every day is no easy feat, and something Aline has no time for to do herself. The food probably deserves its own post: lunch today was incredible, and spread over three courses. 

We've come full circle, back to siesta time. The revolution will start again tomorrow. 

The Calm Before the Storm

The days leading up to harvest have slowed dramatically. There is always work to be done, but it's tasks like cleaning out 50 buckets, then scrubbing 50 crates. Tedious things done in the driveway of the family home under the sun. I don't go very far, and three days of that feels like two weeks. But it's all in preparation. 

The afternoons here are the slowest. Renaud is a light sleeper; the house must be absolutely still for his siesta, which sometimes goes as late at 5:30 pm. It's understandable--he wakes up at 3 am for work, and harvest at his patron's vineyard has already started. I've finished my book, and have somehow exhausted entertainment from the internet in efforts to avoid the worsening afternoon heat. 

It's in this lull that sharing a collection of small moments seems most appropriate. Written snapshots of my experiences here to pass the time with. 

I. There is a sommelier in town. Of the three times I have seen him, he has been dressed in all black: collared shirt, pants, sunglasses, bracelet. His grey and white hair is slicked back with gel, and curls at the back of his neck. He is wrinkled and tan, just like everyone in this town. The first time I saw him, Aline pointed him out to me as the sommelier. I watched him swirl and smell the wine at the festival tasting with timed excellence. He laughed and nodded with his companions, but it didn't erase the seriousness the lines of time gave his face. The last time I saw him, Aline told me he can't drink anymore. He has cancer. If he drinks any more wine, he will die. 

II. The children were off at their grandparents for the week. It was just Aline, Renaud, and I. One particular night after dinner we ended up in the living room, watching a movie: Ghost Writer, in French of course. In Aline's version of the story, she'll tell you about how the movie mentions Napa wine--she knows I was born in that area. But in my version, it's an aimless conversation we were having about my parents. Aline asked me a question. Either I wasn't listening or didn't hear her addressing me. She asked me the question twice in English. The third time in French, which I responded to immediately. She and Renaud laughed together, and it was the best I have ever felt while being laughed at. 

III. There is a small costal town called Collioure; it's equal parts beautiful and tourist trap. I was set loose there one evening to explore while Aline and Renaud had a business dinner. It was largely an exercise in eating alone, an experience that made me feel small and homesick. But as sun set behind the town (instead of over the bay, where I was reminded even more that I wasn't on the West coast of the States anymore) I walked along the promenade, looking for ice cream. Standing in line, a familiar sound perked up my ears--English. Three older couples were, rather desperately, trying to order ice cream. "No English," snapped the woman behind the glass case, when they tried to order in their own language first. The group pushed their "French speaker" to the front of the pack to order on their behalf. It was a chaotic combination of pointing, demanding in English, asking in French, for four ice cream orders. These people weren't English; they were Americans. The process was painful to watch, but it concluded with one of the women from the pack saying "Mare-si Boocoup," enunciating every letter in the phrase. It was finally my turn. I quietly requested the ice cream I wanted, handed over my money, and that was that. A small, ego-boosting moment where, for the first time, I didn't feel like the worst offender to the French language. 

IV. Aline likes the way I braid my hair. I learned to French braid just before I left because the weight and length of this mess demanded it to cope with the summer heat. I braid it fresh out of the shower so it will hold for two days of work in the fields. But Aline first asked me to do her hair like mine before going out to a neighbor's dinner. She was freshly showered too, hair still wet, but in a beautifully embroidered bloused and white jeans, compared to my T-shirt and sweats. 

"Really? Okay, yeah, I can do that," I said. "In the States, we call them French braids. And if you do it under instead of over, it's a Dutch braid." 

"Here, we call them Indian braids." 

After that first time, I have braided Aline's hair before every social event: weekend away with Renaud, house warming party in Perpignan, birthday party down at the river, the instances multiply. 


Amendment: Harvest actually started on Friday for Aline and I, but it was just two small fields. We collected grapes for juice, which meant we just cut and hacked all the fruit off the plant. Apparently, you can be less discerning with which grapes go into the juice, and not a lot of skill or time is required. It was a short day. We were done by 10:30 am. A long afternoon indoors followed. 

Blackberry Thickets

A bear paw

Caught in a trap, pull

And the thorns dig in more.

The tendrils

Tickle my ankles

Scratching their wake

Into me.

My fingertips stained

Dark

What is blood and

What is berry juice?

Can you taste me,

On that slice of bread

With your morning coffee?

The Belgian Embassy

In light of yesterday's national holiday on July 21st, I feel that some clarity is called for. 

While the surrounding mountains confirm that I am indeed deeply imbedded in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of South France, I am even more so immersed in Belgians. At one point this week, two couples and a family of five crowded around the pastel painted wine barrel that serves as a coffee table out on the rainbow tiled patio. There was barely enough room to house the four bottles of wine in circulation, but everyone seemed at home in the company. Amidst the layers of conversation, some chatter rose up out of one of the guests, pointing a finger at me.

"You came all this way, but have you even met a French person yet?" he exclaimed. Everyone laughed in a pitchy chorus. Of the twelve people crammed onto that patio, not one of them was French. Eleven Belgians and one American. 

"What a scam!" I said. "I'm putting that in my WWOOF review: no actual French here." 

"How is it, you say? The Embassy. You live at the Belgian Embassy," said Renaud, the father of the household, returning the joke. 

There is evidence all over the house that I can see now after a closer look. The license plates on the family cars are marked with B's instead of F's.

The fridge is stocked with Orval beer, and there are matching glasses in the pantry. Those chalices are particularly precious to Renaud. Somewhere in our half French, half English conversations was a story about how the glass is made at a monastery, or was, and may be a lost art now. There is a standing joke that if I, as clumsy as I am, break one, I'm on the next flight out of here.  "Je bois avec duex mains, vois-tu?" 

There is a wicked sense of humor about them that is supposedly special to the Belgians. Two weeks ago, Renaud ran over his favorite, 18 year-old cat. It died later that same afternoon. There were tears yes, but later that same day he had resigned himself to saying, "shit happens" with a light hearted shrug. They also frequently renew the joke of my drinking problem--that the black, steel water bottle I compulsively keep with me is actually full of beer to keep away the shakes.

But Renaud's joke echoed with truth. July 14th came and went without much ruckus, but last night everyone turned up to celebrate Belgian's Independence Day. How do Belgians celebrate? With beer, mussels, and fries--all in overflowing amounts. They flocked to a restaurant on the edge of Latour, the only place big enough to seat everyone in town with this huge gravel patio, string lights, a walk-up bar, and a small stage. The tables were covered in paper for the occasion. My host parents and I arrived late. The table mat was already soaked in cooked sea water. Two empty carafes of wine stood among empty shells scattered everywhere. 

Another round of everything was ordered, and then the celebrating really began. A single musician on stage with his guitar took his pick out of the drunk audience for volunteers. It wasn't long before a conga line of at least thirty people was winding its way around our table, trying to take Renaud and Aline with them in their wake. People cheered. People sang. People danced in their seats. The kitchen had closed almost an hour ago, but the last glass of wine had not yet been emptied. There was still more to celebrate. 

The stars were clear by in the sky by the time we walked back to the car for the short drive up the road to the house. The neighbors had fallen quiet, satiated by sea food and merriment. Yes, I was indeed living at the Belgian Embassy. 

 

French Cooking: Straight out of The Brave Little Toaster

Aline has a magic machine. Its name is Vorwerk, and there are very few things it can't do. 

It looks like the kind of thing what would have been a prized possession in the 1950's modern home: it has all the bells and whistles. It's bulky, the white plastic frame has aged into a burnt eggshell color. It has enough buttons to be a calculator, and sounds like shoes in a dryer when it's turned on. 

At first I thought it was a blender with an excessive base it's hooked into. And I'm not wrong, but it's so much more than that. I've seen Aline make steaming heaps of pasta sauce in it. I've also seen fresh peach sorbet come straight out of the very same machine. 

Today I used it myself for the first time to make even more sorbet--the heat got to the nectarines, too. The first thing to do is turn on the behemoth. The very next thing is to tare it. Yes! It comes with a scale! Prop open a recipe book on the counter, and add ingredients one at a time, taring the scale in between, and there I have a mixing bowl exactly full of everything I need. Then blend it up. And not just with one lever either. There are six ways to Sunday to set that thing up.

I only used maybe 1/3 of the settings available. Somewhere in there are knobs to /cook/ your concoctions with. After a few lunches of watching Aline dump tomatoes, garlic, and herbs into it, only to be served steaming tomato sauce straight over fresh pasta, I can't imagine ever going back to sauce in a jar. 

For sorbet, first thing to do is pulse it to break up all of the frozen chunks of fruit. Once there is a nice chunky mess of fruit and sugar, there's one final ingredient to add: egg white. Just one. This recipe couldn't be easier, especially for someone who isn't well-versed on the metric system. After, I make a different setting on the Vorwerk, with the help of Titouan. It blends itself for a minute and thirty seconds. 

Pop the lid open, and in just ten minutes, I have a blender full of perfectly made sorbet. I hesitate to even say that I made it myself. The Vorwerk did everything from the measuring, to the mixing, to the timing.

It's no wonder how everything can be made fresh on a daily basis with a magic machine like the Vorwerk. 

 

Homestead

I'm finding my Zen in this tiny town with more vines than people. The rhythm of life here is slower than I expected. Farm work is especially removed from the demanding pace of capitalist markets. An hour of my time is worthy in its own right, whether it's applied to work in the vineyard, the cellar, in making a meal, or taking a siesta. There are fewer boundaries. Idle time has its own element of productivity, just as work has a peacefulness about it. The summer heat melts existence into this one hazy day dream, where the value of a dollar is lost to me (even more so when I try to do the euro/dollar conversion rate mentally). 

Sure, waking up before dawn is almost painful (my job before this was working in a bar), but that feeling evaporates the second I hop in the Renault work van and it shuffles us down the gravel roads to the vineyards. Two dogs, Donne et Picasso, and three geese come with us. Donne is the veteran: she stands in the car at its side opening--no van door--and sticks her head in the wind as we drive. Last week she hopped out while we passed through a roundabout; we stopped in the middle of it until she jumped back in. Back home in the states, geese are like devil chickens. All they do is poop and steal. Aline's three geese are different. They're domesticated like cats: still independent, but they prefer to follow her around at the heels. By some feat, Aline has trained them not to eat the grapes while we work. Instead they milll around her in a loose line, eating weeds. 

I've seen six sunrises so far; a true rarity for a freshly minted college graduate. The sight is the stuff of fairytales. We go to work in the fading dark, the sky still a sapphire hue. Lately, the moon has been up just as early. Then over the far mountain peaks the blue gradient gives way to purples, pinks, oranges. A sorbet of color washes down over the valley, bringing Wednesday to the small villages nestled in its crooks. The vines are on hill slopes, creating dramatic shadows until the sun climbs high enough to cook everything evenly. All shades of green are added to the mix. The dogs sleep in the shade. The vista before me is in full focus by 8 am, with wild and tamed land patchworked all throughout the valley until they are met with the vertical walls of the surrounding stone mountains.

Aline and I work in silence, only occasionally calling to each other to check in. I usually get a single song verse stuck in my head for the day. It repeats in my head over and over like a mantra echoing my actions: turning the vines over and over. Wrapping and rewrapping branches and Kendrick choruses. 

The counter-intuitive principle to working outside is: the bigger the insect, the more gentle its nature.
— Aline, paraphrased

In the heat, the bugs wake up. The counter-intuitive principle to working outside is: the bigger the insect, the more gentle its nature. There is a large grasshopper-like creature that made me scream the first time I saw one. It's called a patagane, which is a Catalan word. It moseys around the vines without making much noise. Its bloated belly is striped black and white, and it doesn't jump very far. It's about the size of my palm, and is content to rest there if you pick it up. This is the most gentle creature in the vineyard. Well, those, and the cicadas, which you can hold and pet--if you're so inclined. I'm not. Once the cicadas wake up, silence in the valley is gone for the day. Colonies of large, black ants will bite my ankles if they find themselves walking across my shoes. The wasp sting from last week was the fourth different bug that has feasted on me here. Flies and mosquitoes go about their usual deviousness.

Thanks to my aversion to blind pain, my paranoia has listened carefully to every sound each of these creepy crawlies make. The hum of the fly is higher pitched than the buzz of the carpenter bee. The carpenter bee has a laziness about its flight path, making its hum slow and consistent; while wasps have a quicker buzz about them that almost pulses. Cicadas are too loud to mistake for anything else. Beetles have a similarly heavy beat to their wings, but they only fly in short bursts from place to place. 

Today the cicadas stayed back in the trees. A single carpenter bee kept me company, milling up and down whatever row of vines I was working on. I only I bit once, and I killed the ant that did it. 

A breeze kept the heat from piling up on the back of my neck and shoulders. It was 80 degrees Fahrenheit by 10 am. We don't leave until the work is done. On our way back up the footpaths to the van, I always turn around and look back and the field just completed: neat and orderly, glowing emerald in the high noon sun. A sense of accomplishment at the "real work" done beads up around my hairline and mixes with the sweat dripping down my face. I've earned another day here in this peaceful homestead. 

A Day of Firsts

We dove right into work in the fields. An average work day starts at 5am so we can get to the fields by 6. We work as the sun rises, until it is too hot to continue. Lunch is the main meal of the day, and it is always followed by a siesta. 

Two dogs and three geese pile into a work van with no side door, and we take off down the gravel roads the lead out of the village. Aline has somewhere around 6 vineyards. They are not all together on one plot of land, but are scattered around the mountainous valley, patchworked with half a dozen other winemakers' land. I've been to four so far. One has vines over 100 years old (1905). Another is so new, it hasn't had its first harvest yet (but it will by the end of this season). 

Anyone who has driven on the 101 in Northern California is familiar with the entrancing rows of vines. All neat and orderly. Well they don't just grow that way, duh. Of course there are posts and wiring to guide the vines, but ultimately, towards the sun is the only direction they care about. Which brings me to the actual work done in the fields: vine wrestling. Literally taking the vines growing out in odd directions and weaving them back into the rest of bush or along the wires that stabilize them. It's not conceptually difficult work, but when it comes down to it, I spend my mornings fighting with plants. Elbow-deep. Both arms. Teeth clenched. 

Stinging nettles and other sticky weeds grow in between the rows. I was no longer bothered by the pokes and scratches from them by the time the sun rose above the valley. Five rows down, two more to go. Aline and Flora worked on either side of me, making sure I didn't miss anything (it being my first day and all). Flora is French through and through. We try to talk a bit, but Aline is usually needed for proper clarification. Last row. I step towards it only to be stung again. 

"Fuck, that one hurt," I said in my own tongue. It must have punctured all the way through my pants. Aline calls quickly to Flora as I roll up my pant leg to scratch it. I didn't realize their attention was on me until Flora was kneeling by my side. The butt of her cigarette had left its usual home of lazily hanging on her lips and the ember was slowly moving towards me. "What the hell? That's going to burn more!" 

"No, it's a wasp sting," said Aline, nodding at Flora to continue. "The heat will help with the poison." 

I held still as Flora circled the sting with the burning ember of her hand-rolled cigarette. The heat and the poison burned the same, and I couldn't tell the difference until Flora stood up, cigarette back in its proper place, and walked away. C'est tout. 

Still confused by what just happened, Aline pointed to a crook in the post I was working on: wasp's nest. One step too close. 

The pain honestly dissipated quickly. Had Aline not told me it was a wasp sting, I would have just assumed it was another stinging nettle--only a bit worse from the rest.

7/10: not bad; will probably be the first of many this season. 

Olfactory Overload

It took me three days to make it to Perpignan, France, and as I arrived just past 10pm local time, my journey still wasn't over. Grabbing my green Teton backpack off of the convertor belt at the terminal, I was quickly the last one in the lobby as families reunited and left. Standing there, the lost duck that I was, Aline and her eldest son, Matisse, emerged from around the corner to greet me. I probably smelled like a lovely bouquet of stale, sweaty traveler, with a tinge of vomit from the half a dozen times I keeled over in motion sickness on take-off and landing. (Just talking about it now makes my stomach flip; I can hear the jet engines ringing in my ears. I am permanently scared by airplanes.) 

Aline looked lovely and tan in turquoise; her son: just as tall as her, and with a haircut that would have made him one of the cool kids in my old middle school. Que awkward exchange of hellos--I stick out my hand to shake "hello," while Aline simultaneously leans in to kiss my cheek, putting a hand on my shoulder in an almost-hug. My brain couldn't handle the translation. I defaulted to a nervous laugh. "Désolé." 

My bags were tossed into an old European work van, and we were off into the night. Latour-de-France is about 20 minutes away from Perpignan by highway. Aline asked me a few questions, but we rode mostly in silence. The darkness expanded as we drove further away from the city. All I could sense were the smells. 

The air outside was thick, the sea breeze cooked off by the humidity. Inside, the car smelled familiar: straw, dirt, grass, dog breath, poop, animal dander. Farm smells. I had arrived. 

All of Latour is situated on the rolling hills of the Pyrénées-Occidentales region. There is a steep driveway up to the house. Salvia, lavender, basil, and mint line the driveway in various repurposed containers. I could smell them clearly as night cooled the earth. Despite the late hour of my arrival, the French doors in the kitchen were opened out onto a rainbow tiled patio. Aline's husband and her younger son were at the table. True to French hospitality, I was fed fresh bread, local goat cheese, and their homemade, sparkling wine. The first real food I had had in days. Heaven. 

The First Goodbye

Of course saying goodbye to your long-term partner is supposed to be hard. When you co-habit, and co-decide on things for so long, change isn't supposed to be easy. I knew all of these things as Mika took a long lunch from work to drive me out to the Eugene Airport. 

Knowing this, that final goodbye still rocked my world. I can almost grasp how a broken heart can be cause-of-death. 

To slow this down for a minute, I'd like to point out that there is a white, upright piano in the lobby of the EUG Airport, right at the security gate, off to the side. Moving quickly past the fact that it was functioning and in-tune, a fellow traveler had dropped his black and red backpack at its feet, and had taken a seat. I had just checked my bag. Mika and I stood in the middle of a mostly empty lobby. We were still able to smile at each other. We tried to make each hug last just a little bit longer--had to get it all out of our system now. But our time was running out, and that reality was grabbing at us. And it's this dude, this unshaven, bed-headed traveler at the piano. He's not just thumbing through Chopsticks or trying out random keys. He's really playing. Those notes welled and rose like high tide. 

We were crying and hugging now. I was on the brink of sobbing, but the piano player never stopped. His music took up the whole, empty room. Who was this guy? Why was he playing his heart out right now, and breaking mine, too? I never wanted to let go of Mika in that moment. I wanted to run right back home, and eat dinner on the couch in front of cartoons. But the song kept building out of the piano, forcing us to confront this raw grief. 

"I have to go now," I sobbed. I made no attempt to clean up my tears, as they just kept coming. Mika hugged me, and I held onto his hand until I walked too far away to grasp it any longer. Like every heart-break romance ever written, I looked over my shoulder at Mika. He stood alone, surrounded by this beautiful, painful song. 

The traveler played me out all the way to the security line. I handed the officer my ID and boarding pass. He pushed a box of tissues towards me with the back of his hand. "For moments just like yours," he said. The piano faded out. 

Entry Fees

Packing for this trip is expensive. Full stop. I felt so clever back in January when I purchased my series of international and domestic flights for just $9.00 over my thousand-dollar goal. But the 10-day countdown to my trip started ticking two days ago, and those lists of preparation need to turn into action. What needs to by done? What do I need?

The answer is a fair amount of backpacking gear. My bank account is draining just talking about it. Backpack: $80. Sleeping pad: $90. Backpacking sleeping bag: $50. Power adapter & voltage converter: $40. Packable daypack: $7. That last one was a lucky Amazon add-on.

Boots (because all of mine are lined with fur for the winter): unfound. 

There are guest house accommodations for me at the farm, but when it's reserved for tourist use I get bumped out to the "tent down by the river." It's not as bad as it sounds. I'm told there's a lovely meadow that the tent is situated on, at the curve of the river on the edge of the property. Regardless of where I end up spending the majority of my nights, leaving for this trip requires planning for the worst: tentville. 

The trick of all this, I'm learning, is cost-benefit analysis: spending enough money to ensure a base-line quality of durability without ballin' out on all the designer brands. Research. Research. Research. On one hand, I feel productive while still in sweats. On the other, 45 minutes of research is typically a $17 difference between products, while the product itself is still expensive to begin with. 

Ultimately, this preparation just makes me hungry for a snack. As the dial of my credit card shifts from "paid off" over towards "maxed out," I tell myself that these are initial costs--an investment on potential future travels.

X destinations = $500 in travel gear

I'll update as I get closer to solving for X.