Monday, September 25, 2017

Diary of a Vendangeuse

6:30: My alarm goes off for my first day harvesting wine grapes in the Beaujolais region in France. I didn’t sleep very well last night, due to the new surroundings and my mind racing with what the morning will bring. I am staying in a dormitory with 5 other women (the men’s dorm is next door) on the estate of the vineyard. I’m excited for my first day of a 10-day vendange to discover the culture of this very French event, learn some wine-related vocabulary and eat some local food.

7:00: Breakfast. Bread and jam and a bowl of coffee. Normally the French drink coffee by the thimbleful. Apparently the first coffee of the day is an exception. It is drunk from a cereal bowl. I drink two.
I met most of my fellow vendangeurs yesterday evening at the apèritif. There are two groups: the old-timers and les jeunes- the younger group of first-time vendangeurs. I’m considered part of this group even though age-wise I’m somewhere in the middle of the two groups. I am the only foreigner.

7:30: The beginning of the vendange and the first vocabulary word of the day-- Serpete: the hook-like tool that I use to cut the stem of the grape clusters and the skin from the knuckles of my left hand.

7:33: My back hurts. The old timers say the backache will go away after the third day. I don’t know why they lie. The conspiracy seems to go deep, as I have heard this from multiple sources, always citing the same figure. My back never stopped hurting until I stopped harvesting.

9:00 and time for the second vocabulary word of the day: Casse-croûte- snack break, literally breaking of bread. And not a moment too soon! I’m starving (bread and jam does not a breakfast make, in my book) and I desperately need some coffee. Hang on! That’s not coffee! It’s wine! Oh well, when in Rome…
From the snack food it is clear that they expect some hard work—ham, cheese, bread, cake, chocolate…

9:15-12:00 We all have a row (rang) to harvest and we bend, squat or scoot along on our butt…whatever it takes to find all of the ripe grapes to fill our buckets. The porteur makes his rounds, and when he comes around (“Allez les seaus!” Let’s go with the buckets!) we empty our buckets in turn into the container he wears on his back. He collects up to 100 pounds of grapes before he empties the container into the trailer.

12:00 Lunch. More wine. More cheese. More pork products. And a little rest for my aching back.

1:30-back to work. New vocabulary word. Gonflement- swelling. My left forearm is swollen and sore from the twisting and tossing the grapes.

2:30: Piqûre de guêpe: Wasp sting. The little bastards hide in the cluster of grapes and sting you when you grab the cluster.

4:00: Tendinite: Tendonitis. Seriously, my arm is huge! And I can’t move my thumb!

5:30: Quitting time at last! We head to the truck, tired and wet from the rain.

7:00 Dinner. Soup as a starter, then quenelles, a sausage-shaped mixture of fish and breadcrumbs (delicious!). And of course there is always wine! Afterward the cheese plate is passed around (along with the doliprane (Tylenol). Can I take this with alcohol?). Flan for dessert.

9:00 Tasting of riquiqui in the wine cellar. Riquiqui: a mixture of grape juice and strong alcohol that is fermented for one year and induces raucous drinking songs.

9:30 Quiet time, as requested by the cooks. Everyone is exhausted from a long day of bending, squatting, lifting, twisting and drinking.  The first and only night the quiet time is respected.

10:00. I fall into bed, exhausted. I won’t have any trouble falling asleep tonight.

10:05 I’m woken up by a notification from my phone: You have not met your goal of 10,000 steps for the day. Consider getting more exercise for an active lifestyle.

Friday, December 11, 2015


‘I don’t even know why we’re here,’ he said as we meandered through the tourist office filled with brochures of the city’s cafés and little else.

My friend Thomas and I are in Brno, the second city of the Czech Republic. We’re just not sure why. I’m a ringer on this trip. A last-minute substitute for a friend of Thomas’ who couldn’t make it. A sort of unemployed have-suitcase-will-travel friend.

The problem is, the friend I’m replacing is the one who planned the trip, deciding that a day or two in Brno was just the thing after two days in Prague. We feel there must have been a good reason that she chose Brno as a stopping point rather than some of the historic villages that could break up the five hour bus ride between Prague and Vienna. Or was our fate determined by nothing more than a convenient bus schedule and the limits of the human bladder?

We already enjoyed our two days in Prague—Charles Bridge, the architecture, the beer, the Christmas markets, the goulash, the beer. We were eager to see what life outside the capital city was like. But perhaps we should have come in the summer…

Brno is nice enough. It’s a charming little city with a castle, a monastery and, of course, a Christmas market. It’s just not apparent what it has-- apart from beer that is cheaper than water (and I’m not suggesting that’s not important)—that Prague doesn’t. It felt like a scavenger hunt—what did she want to see here? One thing is for certain, she didn’t decide on Brno based on the Lonely Planet entry--‘Brno’s attractions are not easily apparent after Prague.’ And we can be sure it wasn’t because of the natural history museum. The Trip Advisor entry might read something like, ‘Do you hate crowds but love dusty fossils? Are you annoyed by museum exhibits that might try to engage you or explain things in English? Then the Brno Natural History Museum is for you!’
Br-why bother?

We had most of the day to visit Brno before our bus left at 5PM. We had lunch with our Couchsurfer host, a young Czech guy eager to meet travelers and share stories. Afterward we meandered along the castle walls, poked around in the Christmas market, warmed up in the Cathedral, and had a drink in the museum café. Overall it was a nice, relaxing day.

Br-why not?

Thursday, October 22, 2015

My Thesis is Making me Ugly

My thesis is making me ugly. I’m particularly concerned about this because I was no great shakes to begin with. But now my eyes are red with bags under them. My skin has a pale color that is not so common at the end of summer in the South of France.

No, sorry, I wasn’t flirting with you. I just seem to have developed an uncontrollable twitch in my left eye. I’m sure it’s nothing.

All this would be fine, since I learned long ago that if you’re not beautiful you better be interesting. But my conversation skills seem to have taken a turn for the worse as well. Unless you’d like to hear about how tired I am. No, I didn’t think you did.

I’ve never given birth, but I’m beginning to think there are some similarities to writing a thesis and being pregnant. First, the closer you get to the due date, the more uncomfortable you become and the harder it is to sleep. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to induce the labor of your coauthors, so the discomfort could go on for months. Second, I think I’ve been eating for two lately. This baby craves chocolate! Third, while some people believe in the more natural method, believe me, if I had some pain killers I would take them.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to work. It’s time to puuuush!

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Smiles, Horizontal and Otherwise

I’ve been in a lot of different French classes lately. Part of the goal of these classes is to learn about French culture, but since they are about as culturally diverse as a United Colors of Benetton ad, I find them very useful for developing stereotypes about foreign cultures. Now, before you accuse me of being closed-minded, let me remind you of my thoughts on stereotypesthey show we know at least something about a culture. And they’re lots of fun.

These classes are filled with quirky foreigners, me included. In one class we had to debate human cloning. I was assigned the ‘con’ side, along with a Colombian woman who had got all of her information about human cloning from a Will Smith movie. Which apparently she thought was a documentary. On the ‘pro’ side was a guy from Kazakhstan who thought human cloning was a great idea. In fact we should create a human clone army. Also they could go to work for us and do our laundry.

Another telling exercise was an activity about giving complements. It turns out this is very cultural. If our office’s peer-review system is any indication, the French are not so good at giving compliments. In fact everything in France is a bit understated. When my sister and I were on a group tour in China, we stepped out of the van to a breathtaking view of the sun setting on rice terraces as far as the eye could see. ‘Pas mal,’ proclaimed the French woman.

Maybe that’s why the women-women relationships are so different here. In the US we give little compliments all the time, especially among women. ‘Cute shoes.’ ‘I like your hair like that.’ ‘Your boobs look great in that dress.’ Nothing big. Nothing direct. This (and appletinis) is the social lubrication for female friendships in the US.

The assignment was to get to know your partner and then pay him or her a compliment in front of the class. The Vietnamese guy paid is partner a lovely, but utterly incomprehensible compliment. ‘Your face is like a Rodin sculpture…’

The British woman got off to a good start, but got tripped up by vocabulary. ‘Your smile is virulent…’ she told her partner. She was trying to say contagious, but well, French is harder than it seems sometimes.

My partner was an exuberant Italian guy. ‘I will say that your brain is the sexiest part of your body,’ he told me. ‘Um, that’s a bit familiar. Perhaps you could tone it down a little.’ I said that mostly because my French vocabulary doesn’t include the phrase ‘Dude, that’s sort of creepy.’ Not to mention bold, considering the biggest stereotype of Americans is that we’re all packing heat. His second attempt, which he said in front of the whole class, was worse. ‘You have a vertical smile that would make Lazarus rise from the dead.’ The teacher was confused. ‘But smiles are horizontal.’

‘Yeah, the smile on your face is horizontal…’ It took a second, but he got the reaction he was looking for. Ten minutes later the North African guy giggled. ‘Vertical smile! I get it!’ 

Friday, April 17, 2015

One egg isn’t un oeuf

Listen, France, we’ve got to talk. You know I’m a big fan. The wine, the sun, the architecture, the way you’re nestled just so between Spain and Germany like a cheesy little buffer between lusty bullfighters and exacting engineers—you’ve really got a good thing going here. But frankly, I’m worried about you. It’s your breakfast. Didn’t your mother tell you it’s the most important meal of the day? A croissant and a thimblefull of coffee does not a breakfast make. More like a 10:00 snack, if you ask me. How about a bowl of oatmeal? Some eggs, maybe? A little protein to tide you over until your late lunch? I’m not saying French breakfasts aren’t good. I’m just saying there’s not enough of it.

And while we’re on the subject, what have you got against plates? You use plates for every other meal, why not breakfast? You know, the crumbs really do get everywhere.

Thanks, France. I’m glad we had this little talk, I feel much better. While we’re clearing the air, can we talk about the light switches on the outside of the bathrooms? I mean, what the hell?

Saturday, April 11, 2015

I'm Workin' Here

Back in the US when I wanted to go out dancing I would hop in my car and drive there. It’s a little more complicated here in France, as I found out last night. After trying to beg a ride off a few people from my salsa class I finally devised a complicated plan with someone wherein I would take the tram to the outskirts of town, walk down the beltline at 10:00 at night and wait for her at the bus stop in front of the grocery store. Ignoring all of the signals that said maybe I should just stay home, I agreed. A girl’s gotta dance, right?

I arrived at the bus stop about 10 minutes before the scheduled pick-up. There was another woman there, which was a little strange since I was pretty sure the buses didn’t run that late. But maybe this was a common place to catch a ride. At least I didn’t have to wait alone. The night was a little chilly and she was patently underdressed. I could imagine that her miniscule shorts weren’t giving her much protection against the metal bus stop bench.

I gave her a friendly nod and settled in to wait for my ride. She looked perplexed. After a few minutes she asked me what I was doing there. “Just waiting for someone.”

“Look, I’m workin’ here.” She said it in French and again in English when she heard my accent. She didn’t say it in the typical delicate, questioning French accent. This girl sounded like she was from the Bronx. “I’m wuurkin.” She asked me if I would kindly wait 50 meters down the road. Apparently I was scaring away business. Or perhaps she thought I was moving in on her territory. I know there was in insult in there somewhere, I’m just not sure what it was.

So I moved down the road, which gave me a chance to observe the situation. If I was ever nostalgic for my neighborhood in Yonkers I could come here to feel at home. Once you get out of the historic downtown with the turn-of-the-century architecture, Montpellier could be anywhere in the world. The six lane beltline, the 24 hour McDonalds, the mega-supermarket, the hookers with the Bronx accents.
I looked back at my friend. I’ll give her one thing, she had excellent posture. She sat perched on that bench and smiled at all of the delivery men that honked as they drove by. Another hooker came over and joined her. I couldn’t help but notice she didn’t ask her to stand 50 meters away.

At that point my phone rang. The person that was supposed to pick me up had sent someone else. He was waiting at the other side of the parking lot. I found him and hopped in the car. I fumbled in French for the words. “I was waiting at the bus stop but a hooker chased me away!” “Ah ouais, there are a lot along this highway.”

And so I was left pondering one of the imponderables of France. A land where the scientists refuse to speak English but the prostitutes get their point across quite clearly. 

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Everything is Sexier in France

I don't know what they're selling here, but I want some. Doggy
dating service?
If one more person tells me I need to get a French boyfriend so that I learn the language faster, I think I’ll scream. Someone told me a while ago that I should get a French boyfriend because he could teach me stuff like “ooh là là, je t’aime.” I’m all in favor of ooh là là, je t’aime, but if the goal is facilitating collaborations at work, ooh là là, je t’aime isn’t going to cut it. Then again, it’s France, maybe it would. No, if I get a French boyfriend it will be for completely impractical reasons.

Just like French cars, French men come in a svelte, more compact package than their American counterparts. I am intrigued by that, and apparently a guy that can comfortably fit into my jeans is not a deal breaker for me. But it’s more than the package; there seems to be something fundamentally different about French men that I’m still trying to work out. Take the following example-- I was in a dance class when a woman in her early 60s suddenly began to cry. Take a second to imagine how this scene would play out in the US: the women would be the ones to comfort her and the men would fidget uncomfortably, right? Well, I don’t even know what the women did because the men were just about falling over each other trying to be the one who got to comfort her. In the end the teacher, the alpha-male in the group, was the one that pushed the other guys out of the way, put his arm around her, whisked her away, and brought her back five minutes later, smiling.
Even the citrus wear fancy stockings.

So what’s a corn-fed Wisconsin girl like me to do when confronted with this curious new species? Like any good sociologist, I’ve been observing the subjects in their native habitat-- the bendy ones in my yoga class, the tense ones at the salsa club, my neighbor who goes jogging sans chemise, if you know what I mean. So far the results are inconclusive, but I’m not one to give up easily. I love how they line to wash their hands after a dance class like a herd of OCD raccoons, the way they order a “’otdog", the way they sign off texts with “kisses!!” and non-ironically wear orange pants. I can’t say why, but I think it’s adorable.

But to understand French men is to understand flirting, and for that further investigation is needed. Of course you hear stories about how the French flirt shamelessly at work, unlike the American un-sexy, flirt-with-me-and-I’ll-sue-you work environment. Still, the first time a French man flirted with me in a meeting I was taken by surprise. I felt like an anthropologist, observing a foreign tribe. I wanted to write in my notebook, “The natives are displaying the ritualistic behavior described in the literature!!”

But honestly, I don’t know if I’m up to it. I feel like Meg Ryan in French Kiss. “Happy, smile! Sad, frown! Use the corresponding facial expression for the corresponding emotion!” This is going to take some work. I wonder if Fulbright would sponsor a post-doc in the flirting habits of the French?