Oct 5, 2010

Should picking grapes be considered extreme sport?

We are all insane here!

... and then we all jump into the back of a small truck and have a ride onto the fields, bundled up on the wooden floor like gypsies, legs hanging out of the open side door. Safety? What's that? Hanging out the door is the only way to get a dubious whiff of clean air where the thick mix I'm constantly forced to breathe in contains all the known smokable fauna at once. Several times I am asked why I don't smoke. What can I say? We come from such different universes - where I come from, I would never even imagine the possibility of this question.

There's this one war veteran that holds infinite heated conversations with his imaginary friends and another one, equally crazy but more so from the old age, who keeps laughing at him, and sometimes they talk, laugh and call each other insane - it's hilarious even though I don't understand a word;

there are these smug old countrymen who keep calling me a petite gazelle until they realize that it's a genuine 4x4 off-road vehicle they're making dirty jokes to, and adopt more respectful manners;

there are these girls mixing milk, rum and coffee in a plastic bottle early every morning to have a wake-up cocktail on the fields; there's this boy cutting brown smokable matter into 20-Euro cubes in the bedroom where I'm stealing my usual 8-minute siesta after lunch;

there are those two dudes playing drums - and doing it very well - with a huge cooking pot, singing their one-word-song called Merde while someone lights a gigantic joint, someone juggles, someone plays guitar and sings, someone repeats stupid teenagers' jokes, someone plays chess, someone chats and laughs together with yet another invisible friend and someone chuckles at the surreality of all of it, refuses all drinks offered, reads quantum physics, goes to sleep and wakes up much too early believing she must have quantum leaped into one of those alternative realities.

The eighth day. Another steep hill, another rainy afternoon. As our grumpy team picks and carries its way up, we see something mysterious: another team of vendangeurs drives in, hops off the truck and runs downhill, singing. On the neighbouring field, they are obviously singing and dancing much more than working. We look at them, stunned: they can't be real workers! They are too happy! Then these mystical creatures rush onto our field, pouring their thick dark red wine into our mouths straight from the barrel, shouting that we are too cute to be left here like this.

When their boss arrives, I am convinced it's a theatrical set-up: he looks like a real-life leprechaun, exactly the kind that I met a few times when I was hitching in Brittany last year. He comes from Brittany, too. I conclude that my leap into fairy world really happened.

But it was not all fun and games: the emotions peaked both very high and very low, changing their polarisation fast.

There was always sweat

It's the dawn of the fourth day and I'm about to head onto the fields. The work is very hard but we are fed no worse than kings. The muscles of my back are tense and sore but at this precise moment, at least not painful, which is already a huge improvement. Also, I can feel them growing. Literally.

I drop off straight after dinner with the sun at 8 o'clock and sleep like a good baby straight through until breakfast between 6 and 7 in the morning. During the day - work and eat, with the emphasis on working, of course. I work until I fall off my feet and then some more. This too, I mean literally.

From the very beginning I decide to approach the experience like it was a sports camp: I stretch, eat, sleep and stay away from the wine they start serving at 9am with the second breakfast. As a result, the mighty vastus lateralis that grew on me this summer got a matching pair of erector spinæ.

The work is physically very hard, especially so for the porters who walk up and down steep hillsides and climb ladders with about 60-80kg of grapes on their backs. I gaze at these superheroes in awe until on the seventh day I wake up feeling particularly brave and become one of the few porteuses ever known. Surprisingly enough, this job tires me much less than crouching over to cut the grapes, and I continue stomping those 30° slopes for 4 days.

Le bonbon is unveiled only after we have proved our worth as workers: in the very last evening we are directed onto a slope so steep that all exhaustion that I might have felt is blown right away by the adrenaline that kicks in. I am not the one to carry a heavy load down a 70° slope that triggers endless jokes about missing ropes, harnesses and parachutes. There, even cutters keep falling over and sliding down and I have to apply all my wall climbing experience to balance. Needless to say that all the remaining porters instantly restore their unshakable status as superheroes.

It's day 13 and I just had my last shower. However, it doesn't mean that I have any clean clothes to wear: I swear that my socks are not only standing on their own but also walk by their own means!

There was often blood

Be that drunk cutters slicing their fingers and sneaking their sauces into the wine or be that tired cutters stumbling over everything at the end of the working days. There was definitely blood on that one fateful occasion out of hundreds when I decided to trust the ladder and skipped the usual triple double check before climbing it with a very heavy load on my back.

But of course, wine out-flowed all blood by long measure. Most days I took my half a glass of wine after dinner but as for others - our ~30-headed team had 600 litres of wine prescribed for the duration of "10 days or whenever the work is done" and many went into the village to buy extra. No wonder about the blood then.

There were sometimes tears

The end? Day 11, afternoon, about half a day before the initially predicted end of vendanges: I quit and walked away at zero minutes' notice, having promptly decided that our boss is too nuts to be tolerated any longer. It's about time someone shows some attitude. But really, I was choking in tears and leaving was more in line with my principles than lighting a(nother) joint as seems to be the prevalent strategy around here. Nor am I proficient enough in the 'swearing like a sailor' vocabulary in French to sound as convincing as the others do; my actions will serve as body language.

Day 12. Nope, that was not the end. I let the other inmates of this lunatic asylum convince me to stay. To be honest, another day's salary is very appealing and the curiosity to see the end of this comedy show too big to leave yet. From now on I keep my distance from the heart of the forever ongoing nuclear attacks and stay well hidden behind grape bushes while picking my way uphill. Thus I occasionally get to laugh at various incredulous scenes that would turn me mad were I their subject.

The incident of a flying ladder, followed shortly by a separate incident of flying humans which was in turn followed by an incident of flying buckets... and soon followed by the incident of flying grapes as a direct result of an effort to prevent another bloody incident of a flying ladder. Result: tears, lots and lots of tears. The next tears - lots and lots of tears - poured out of the eyes of a grown man whose self esteem had received a good beating on behalf of an evil rake; and the next after these flowed when another girl was badly insulted and the next after those when... Double X chromosome comes with a licence to cry whenever need be (and no other combination is denied this privilege either).

I would totally do it again, by the way. If not for anything else then for the most amazing sunrises over the distant Mont Blanc. That sun - it never rose quietly. When it came out, it came accompanied by a symphonic orchestra starting with a loud bang and as a porter I had the full privilege to stand upright and enjoy it. At all other times, it was the main theme of Kusturica's "Black Cat, White Cat" that didn't stop playing in my head.


väga väga naine said...


100% ootamist väärt, põnevaim post ÜLDSE.


Triin said...

ma tänan:)

beth said...

Wow, looks like you got several books worth of stories along with your pocket money and 20litres of wine rations! Brave girl. x