People say there is nothing like the French countryside and it’s true. After extensive searching on the French WWOOFing site, we found an opportunity with an organic farmer in a tiny village called Saint-Menoux. For two weeks, we learned French and Patois slang, drank exorbitant amounts of wine to stay warm at night, ate good organic food made by our farmer (a former chef at Michelin-starred restaurants) with the vegetables from his garden, had discussions in French and English late into the night, drove around the neighboring farms and chateaus in a beat-up Kia minivan and rocked out to Michael Jackson and Bryan Adams. Oh, and we did some work.
N and I left gay Paris and carpooled in a spacious Renault to the nearest town of Moulins to meet the farmer we would be spending two weeks with. As I sat there looking out of the window, Sancerre blew by us, its perfect rows of vineyards stretching on and on. I realized why people wax poetic about the countryside of this vast country. Old stone barns and farmhouses dotted the landscape, the red tiled roofs complementing the rolling green hills. Sheep grazed while the white cattle lay on the grass, sunning themselves. This wasn’t Middle America. This was heaven.
Because the farmer spoke mostly French, our email communications had been brief. We had little idea of what to expect besides the fact that he was gay-friendly and had a spare room for us in his house, so we were more than a little relieved when we met our farmer, Hubert-Brice, who ended up being a perfect gentleman and a progressive at heart. We had read horror stories of WWOOFing experiences, where the farmers exploited the workers, worked them all day, verbally abused them… Fortunately for us, it was clear that Hubert joined WWOOFing more for the cultural exchange than anything else. He found it amusing and surreal that a couple of New Yorkers found themselves in the middle of France to learn about organic farming.
“Do you speak English?”, I asked him in French. “Yes, a little.”, he responded in French, with the shrug that all French people do to indicate, Eh, what can you do? Great. Ever since I graduated college, my French had gone to shit and I stood there trying to figure out how to say, “Well, you’re going to have to learn how to speak because I sure as hell can’t communicate with you in mostly French.” Instead, I said, “We can communicate using both French and English.” Or at least that’s what I think I said. Communication ended up being a little difficult at times, but Hubert was extremely patient with my broken French and so we managed over the course of two weeks.
Now for the farming bit. Or the little bit of farming that we did. Hubert was kind and let us lazy bums sleep in while he woke up every morning around 7:00 (and on Saturdays, he was out of the door by 5:00 to go to market). We were ready to work by 10:00, at which point we were given small tasks to do, like harvesting string beans (they grow very fast so we did this a lot), picking tomatoes, weeding (because Hubert’s farm is 100% pesticide free, weeding is a big part of keeping the plants healthy), pulling up old plants to get the plot ready for next spring, and transplanting leeks.
Throughout the day, Hubert would encourage us by complimenting our work, tell us his thought process for the organization of his farm and teach us seeding and planting techniques. Oh, and he taught N how to drive his old-school tractor, Marcel. Baaaallin’!
I grew up in big cities all of my life, but the countryside is familiar. My father came from a farming family in Japan, and grew up in a tiny village at the foot of Mount Fuji. As a little kid, I loved visiting my grandmother and my uncles’ families to breathe in the crisp air and harass the wildlife there. There is a side of me that has always gravitated towards nature, and the pull has become more intense over the years. Spending time in Hubert’s farm was therapeutic for me. Our bodies ached and we were covered in earth or mud at the end of every day, but we would take this over sitting at a desk job all day. And who needs the gym when you can get a full-body workout in nature?
Speaking of Japan, during the last few days of our stay at Hubert’s, two young Japanese women came to WWOOF on the farm. How random! They were independent female travelers from Nagoya and Osaka, who quit their jobs to travel around the world. The two happened to meet each other in Thailand and traveled together through Morocco. After Hubert’s, their plan was the go their separate ways through Europe. One of them carried some Japanese condiments with her, and she made us some much-needed Japanese comfort food.
In the afternoons, N and I would head back into the house to have lunch. Hubert would cook for us if our lunch times coincided, or we would have cheese, pate, fruit and bread with tea. We usually worked until around 5:00 or 6:00, after which we washed the day’s dirt and sweat off, hung out in our room and caught up on the news of the outside world using Hubert’s surprisingly super-fast wifi.
We had heard that Europeans eat late, but we weren’t prepared for eating at 9:30 or 10:00pm. But snacking on baguettes, vegetables and cheese held us over until dinner every night, as he whistled and sang his leisurely way through his dinner preparations. Once the food was finally ready, we would stuff our faces while Hubert talked about the dangers of nuclear power, genetically modified foods, evil landlords, and I would attempt to translate to N in between mouthfuls of food.
During the time we were at La Belette in Saint-Menoux, I learned how physically and mentally taxing it is to run a farm alone, and learned from visiting surrounding farms that even organic farms can go industrial. But I also got over my fear of spiders (except for the really big guys) and learned how fulfilling it is to produce good food with my own hands. There is really nothing like the French countryside.
For more photos of our time on the farm, check out our Flickr album.