April: What Working Outside Means to Me

Today I came home smelling like sheep fat and grass. My skin was red from sunshine and canvas straps on bare shoulders. All I wanted after an afternoon on my feet was a glass of wine and a shower, both chilled. In a sudden change from the misty mornings that smelled like buttercups and honeydew in the vines, this afternoon had gotten hot- a sign of a lazy spring making its way towards summer. Noëlla and I walked the vines, wearing large plastic backpacks filled with liters of water mixed with concentrated sheep fat, which we sprayed in thin sheets on her vines, hoping this would ward off hungry deer.

I hadn't intended on spending the day taking precautions against unwelcome grapevine grazers. I had a to-do list waiting for me at home that included scheduling social media posts, updating online calendars, following up on interviews, and dealing with the current French railway strike and its effect on an upcoming trip to Paris. But here I was, under the sun with Noëlla, both of us stripped down to t-shirts for the first time of the season, spending the afternoon working outside.

I looked outside my window from my desk, a front row seat to the internet, and wondered why I wasn’t outside.

A few months past, while at a wine tasting in a musty wine cellar, I had sent Noëlla a drunken text message telling her how much I missed the smell of the cave and asking her if she would let me know when I could work with her in the wine cellar again. Then one day, as spring started setting in, I looked outside my window from my desk, a front row seat to the internet, and wondered why I wasn't outside.

There are a few reasons this question isn't easy for me to answer.

The rhythm of life here is very different than the lifestyle I had in Paris. I'm not used to waking up with the sun or, more specifically, getting out of bed with the sun. As a freelance writer, I hardly ever work with other people, and often my most productive period will be after the sun has set- which in the countryside usually signals the end of the work day, not the beginning.

My city life of waking up around 9 am and then lounging/writing until I feel like eating around 2pm didn't fit in with country life and I was starting to feel out of sync. I still appreciate this schedule- I love when I go to Paris and suggest a morning meeting over a coffee and I get proposed 10 am as a meet-up time, I never thought that would feel late to me. But the reality is no one wants to meet up with you for a 10am coffee or a late lunch in the countryside. 

Me during the 2014 harvest

Me during the 2014 harvest

However, being on everyone else's schedule didn't seem a good enough reason to work outside. At first, I didn't feel like a change in geography should necessarily result in a change in my work or my work schedule- both of which I had chosen and cherished for the very fact that they flexible and allowed me to wear pajamas all day if I wanted to.  

But looking outside at the first signs of sunshine I remembered another reason why I was in Pouillé and not Paris. Ever since I started visiting the region my favorite thing to do, besides spending time with friends, was to work in the vines. Every season brought a new task and our winemaker friends walked us through each new job responsibility that a winemaker undertakes.

Ben and I looked forward to being able to work year round in the vines- seeing them transform from nubby pruned stumps in winter to fruit bearing vines in the summer. So the question came back to me- why wasn't I outside working in the vines? 

Pruning with Ben

Pruning with Ben

When we moved to Pouillé I started having some reservations. I didn't want to give up the things I loved doing- the blog, my podcast, writing articles- just to fit in. It was also important for me to maintain my independence and autonomy. Ben, who is friends with many winemakers and also really great at talking about wine, and passionate about tasting it, was obviously going to become deeply involved with winemaking. He even planned on enrolling in an organic winemaking course. I've always been supportive and excited about the prospect, and thought of taking on winemaking as a life choice we made together, but I never wanted to be known as Ben's girlfriend or a femme de vigneron (a winemaker's wife), which is a designation I hate and wish would disappear along with “housewife”.

Reading stories of women confronted with similar circumstances was helpful. I related to Molly Wizenberg in Delancey when she wrote about her hesitations to become involved with, and then later the challenges of working within, her husband's restaurant. It was a relief to feel like I wasn't alone in wanting to both share dreams, but also create distance, from my partner. But these reservations also inhibited me, leaving me inside looking out, instead of in the vines. And I love being in the vines. 

A pruning lesson in the vines

A pruning lesson in the vines

It seemed a good time to get back out there. I sober texted Noëlla and asked if she needed any help. She's a winemaker, so of course the answer was “yes”. Their job never ends and it was time to fold the canes, or long branches of the vines, taming them with staples by attaching them to shin level wires. 

Everything is better outside. A cup of coffee. The latest issue of the New Yorker. Anything done barefoot. And so much more is possible outside. A bike ride. A longer walk than you expected taking. Running into a neighbor or a friend. I knew all of these things before, in Paris I got outside often (never barefoot, but...). I biked everywhere, took the long way home when I walked, lingered in coffee shops as friends wandered in and out. But a cup of coffee can only last so long and a walk or a bike ride eventually brings you home.

Deerbustin' with Noëlla

Deerbustin' with Noëlla

Working outside here in the vines, it means really being outside. Hopefully under the sun, sometimes in the rain, often with cold or wet hands. But wet hands aside, while I was spraying Noëlla's vines with sheep fat, basically a stroll with a cool Ghostbuster's accessory, I was working- but also wondering “what else would I even be doing right now?”

In Paris I'd be running around, stressed but smiling once I saw the Tati sign on the horizon and knew I was closing in on Boulevard Barbès. Or chatting with the guy who had been selling random things in his chaotic bazaar of a boutique across the street from me for 30 years, or maybe running into a friend if life made our paths collide. Living in a city teaches you how to live with others, really live together in a place where space is limited. But outside- the big, green, buttercup, mint, and clover outside- helps you learn to live with yourself. I think that's a lesson worth making compromises for.