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.  It is the first day of an anthropological and gustatory adventure: a  10-day vendange to discover the culture of this very French event, learn some wine-related vocabulary and eat some local food. I didn’t sleep very well last night, due to the new surroundings and my mind racing with what the morning will bring and I'm groggy but excited to get started. I am sharing a dormitory with 5 other women (the men’s dorm is next door) on the estate of the vineyard.

7:00: Petit déjeuner: Breakfast of bread and jam and a bowl of coffee. Until now I've only seen 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 and I have a hard time keeping up with the rapid French spoken in a half dozen different accents.

7:30: The beginning of the vendange and the first vocabulary word of the day-- Serpete: the sharp, hook-like tool that I use to slice the stem of the grape clusters and scrape 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 goes deep, as I have heard this from multiple sources, always citing the same figure: three days. Mine lasts 10 days.

9:00 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! Bah! Pourquois pas? asks the anthropologist in me.
From the snack food it is clear that they expect some hard work—charcuterie, 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 row is not long, but it takes several hours to finish it, bending, lifting, crawling. The porteur makes his rounds,  calling "Allez les seaus!” (Let’s go with the buckets!). We empty our buckets in turn into the panier he wears on his back. He collects up to 100 pounds of grapes before he empties the container into the trailer. Somehow sore shoulders seem to me preferable to a sore back and I envy him.

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.

3:00: Pluie torrentielle: Rainstorm. We take shelter in the van for the worst of it, then don rubber pants and raincoats and get back to it.

4:00: Tendinite: Tendonitis. It is an amateur diagnosis, but it sounds about right. My left forearm is half again the size of the right and I can’t move my thumb. The only solution is to hold the serpete in my left hand and leave the twisting to my right hand.

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! Unlabeled bottles of the house wine from last year's harvest. When it gets low my fellow vendangeurs bang the empty bottles on the table until someone brings more. 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 and dancing on tables.

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

10:00. I fall into bed, exhausted from an active day in the sun (and rain). 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.