travel

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.