Postcards: Fragmented Memories of a Summer in France

By Mark West

I’m sure there is a particular name for the very particular type of panic that ensues from getting your head or other valuable body part stuck in something like a railing or hole. I felt something akin to this two years ago, abandoned in a cherry tree in the middle of rural France, hardly knowing the language, as a middle-aged housewife asked me where the farmer had run off to.

I did think of ignoring her, but foolishly met her eyes through the branches. I think I managed to mumble something that gave the right impression because she nodded and headed back inside. I could hear the news on the TV.

From the top of the tree I could see along the valley somewhat, the small road that headed along the side of the mountains up to the house in the middle of the forest where we were staying. I couldn’t see a white van on it though, which is what I was hoping for. I had no idea where Ronna had gone with Lil, my girlfriend and effective translator, and Honore, who I was supposedly picking cherries with, had disappeared. I ran scenarios through my head, wild, ridiculous scenarios involving trekking the 12 miles to the nearest town, wondering how much I knew about the poisonous and non-poisonous varieties of mushroom, whether my time in the scouts would be rendered useful in any practical way, and whether I could remember how to build a bivouac.

There’s a moment when away from home for an extended amount of time that could be plotted on a graph. It would include the time away from home, on say the X axis, and the desire to return on the Y axis. I suppose at first you are excited to be away, then you realise how alien the environment is and you want to go home, and then, one day out of nothing, you feel comfortable where you are. You wake up and realise that you actually know people there, you have something of a routine, and you feel like you could remain there forever.

We had initially wanted to move to Paris for the summer, finding an apartment, maybe working, maybe not. I had a book entitled Living and Working In France, but after page one I realised it wasn’t going to be as simple as I had thought. There were working permits, housing permits, working permits needed to get housing permits, housing permits needed to get working permits, suspicious landlords, and astronomical prices. After looking impracticality square in the face for a while, we decided to go farming instead. Cheaper (you get put up and fed in exchange for work), potentially more interesting, and we could see more of the country. WWOOF is an organisation that places willing workers on organic farms around the world. For £15 a year you get access to a database of farms. You pick out the ones you like, write to the farmers, and if they aren’t already booked, you’re in. The minimum and maximum amount of time you can spend at one farm varies, but ranges from one week to a year. We picked two farms in the Ardeche and one in the Alps.

I wasn’t aware how different life can be so near to home. I wasn’t prepared. There was very little - at that time - that I recognised. I suppose I was still naive. I hadn’t expected to be so isolated, so separate from the "real" world, and so self-sufficient for it not to matter.

In the Ardeche, two weeks picking cherries and peaches twelve hours a day in scorching sunlight and breathtaking scenery. Clattering along precipitous mountain roads in an old white van, stopping to pass an hour or so with _les grand-meres_ and a pastis or few. Taking the dog for a walk, swimming in isolated natural pools, camping with the farmers’ daughters and their friends.

Followed by three weeks herding goats, getting trodden on by horses, gagging at goat’s cheese smells, administering medicine to recalcitrant bucks, not getting on with strange Belgian control-freaks.

Finishing with a month at a hostel in the Alps, working the garden, making drystone walls, cleaning the dormitories. Four-hour aperitifs, playing folk music with visiting musicians, sharing Bastille Day with singing Inuits and jovial chefs proffering oysters. Climbing mountains to isolated, dust-covered châteaux, drinking wine all night with Parisian film directors.

Whilst those last three, rather melodramatic, romanticised paragraphs make little mention of hard work, there was much of it, and for me it was not restricted to farming. It continued every evening until bedtime, until the last words of the day, "_bonne nuit_". Trying to understand bits of the conversation, trying to contribute to it myself and trying to adjust to the different lifestyle was as tiring as cherry picking, scything corn and everything else. I found myself relying on Lil to translate. I became this little pestering presence at her elbow, muttering things in English that were intended to be translated and shared with the group. I was too scared to attempt a long sentence out loud. On the first few nights, pumped up with enthusiasm and noble intentions, I would look through my dictionaries and phrase books and go through vocabulary lists, but this soon fell by the wayside.

After a while we established some sort of communication, based on bits of French, sign language, translation, smiles, single words. People don’t need that much language to get on with one another. There’s a statistic somewhere that says verbal communication makes up something like 10% of all communication. Spending weeks with people, working side by side every day, and eating together, you get to know one another intimately without saying a word.

One morning, during breakfast I caught something on the radio. Something about the Champions League final; about Liverpool winning. We trekked to the nearest village and found a pay-phone. What’s more, it worked. I rang home, heard distant voices, heard of Liverpool’s legendary comeback. Back home it would’ve been a big event, watching the game at the pub, coming into work the next day to celebrate with fellow Liverpool fans, bragging to the Evertonian. The concept of watching the game, at a pub, was hard to grasp. A couple of days later I got a package from home, full of English newspapers with front-pages and pull-out souvenir posters emblazoned with Liverpool’s heroes. Reading English newspapers, looking at the listings, thinking about English summers brought a tinge of homesickness, or rather, a realisation that I wasn’t there. Up until that point I think I had probably mentally still been there, everything going on around me physically merely some sort of illusion. Any minute I would come round and be somewhere familiar.

Prior to this, there were various attempts at connecting with home:

There was a Saturday morning at the market where we spent frantic hours trying to find a portable radio on which to get the World Service, a lifeline to the comfortable. There was such relief at finding a radio, and such horror at not picking up the World Service.

A conversation over crates of cherries about how we were definitely city people, fantasising about trips to New York, planning our afternoon off the next day so we could buy chocolate.

There are all these moments where you try to hang on to something familiar in the face of the unfamiliar. My writing from the time is all about young men like myself populating bookshops and cafés like those found at home. I found myself becoming more patriotic than I had ever been before, some sort of defense against losing my identity. I would talk about England with such fondness, forgetting to mention the more unsavoury characteristics. Any words heard in an English voice that was not Lil’s or mine became something like a beacon. Meeting a fellow WWOOF’er and instantly falling back into the modes of conversation that we were used to was enlightening.

There is always that point where the uneasiness lifts and something approaching comfort descends. It wasn’t until we were at our last farm and doing far more lounging around with aperitifs than actual work, but it did happen. It suddenly occurred to me - somewhere around the fifty-seventh lap of the British Grand Prix, as Virginie simultaneously poured more G&Ts and cut Sandy’s hair - that I would be quite happy where I was for a considerable amount of time. We had spent time in the mountains at Mandolin’s shack, watching the sunset over a barbecue, seen the aforementioned Inuit singer and experienced Bastille day, bruised our knees in French folk dances, got a lift from one of France’s primary punk bands, carried a kitten up a mountain, cleared a château of dust, discovered awful French pop songs, heard the first jazz record, all in the space of a week or so. And there were three more to come! I heard Joss talking about going up into the mountains to tend the paths and put up fences and I thought, I could stay here and do that…