I’m a sucker for soaps, especially if they’re made with natural ingredients and the packaging is cool (the latter being a product of my Japanese upbringing), so I was thrilled when Hubert announced we were going on a field trip to his friend’s savonnerie for lunch and a tour.
Olivier quit his job at a pharmaceutical company, moved out of the city, bought himself a gorgeous old stone farmhouse, renovated it and runs a savonnerie out of the second building on his property. They have two adorable dogs and a billion cats that run around on their property. N and I watched him with admiration as he told us his story over lunch of Hubert’s vegetables, a toasted baguette, fresh local cheeses and organic eggs.
Some people might feel trapped if they found themselves in a small farmhouse in the middle of the country with no form of transportation to get out. We were actually totally fine, and used the isolation wisely. We spied on the sheep grazing next door, tried to catch the rooster unawares, bit into random fruits growing on bushes and trees to see if they were edible, played with bees, drew pictures and did all of the things normal people do.
So when Hubert asked us if we’d like to accompany him into town for customer deliveries, food shopping and anything else, we eagerly jumped into his van. We must’ve made quite a sight; Hubert with his flyaway hair tucked under a wide-brimmed hat and a hand-rolled cigarette sticking out of his mouth, and the two of us following him with our hats on and our jeans and boots covered in mud like two little Asian migrant workers. If we did, the French were polite enough not to stare as we stopped at a supermarket and picked up some necessities.
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.