in the vines

June: Flood Season

Last month's view from our temporary lakefront property

Last month's view from our temporary lakefront property

It's late afternoon and I'm writing under our walnut tree. It's leaves are blocking the sun and providing shade against a 34 degree (93°F) day.

It's the second day of summer, but the first day that feels like it, with the sunshine showing up both unexpectedly and almost on time. All the signs of the season are here: mosquitos either buzzing in your ears or flying into your glass of wine, socks an annoyance instead of a necessity, and the tame sprouts of climbing cucumbers, tomatoes and snap peas making grabs for everything they can as they claim garden space and become taller by the day.

I'm claiming my own garden space, under this tree that only weeks ago was knee deep under water. Pouillé's floods were just as unexpected as today's sunshine. I am inclined to welcome one unexpected surprise over the other.

Water levels creeping up to our walnut tree

Water levels creeping up to our walnut tree

I start ramping up for warm weather with an admittedly unwarranted and premature level of expectation. My annual feeling that the survival of February, the longest short month as far as I'm concerned, should be compensated with immediate warm weather, is a source of regular disappointment that I for some reason cling to. I adopt an “are we there yet?” approach to the first sunny months of the year, and ask my loved ones when spring will show up over and over again until the response is “right now”.

But this year spring didn't show up. Post-February felt like every day began the same: with a sky so blank it looked as if someone had cut and pasted it somewhere else, where lucky people sat on blankets in the grass under a blue sky.

The grey and cold weather wasn’t just bad for my tendency to be S.A.D, it was also potentially devastating to our winemaker friends.

I know the weather happens to all of us, and has nothing to do with any of us (man made effects on global warming aside), but I take gloomy weather personally. Having said that, while I moped and looked up California weather reports I was also aware of the larger implications the cold weather announced. The grey and cold weather wasn't just bad for my tendency to be S.A.D, it was also potentially devastating to our winemaker friends.

Including Noëlla, who has a plot of Sauvignon vines across the street from our house.

Our first 4 am rendezvous in these vines was late April. We would be back a second time in early May to do the same thing: lighting paint can sized candles to ward off the devastating effects of violent pre-dawn temperature drops on the vines. We were engaged in the fight against frostbite, resistants in a swiftly shrinking army, as we saw more and more neighboring winemakers share photos of heartbreaking scenes in their vines- mornings that brought frost burnt vines and the end of their vintage.

Anti-frost candles ward of threats from dropping temperatures in the vines

Anti-frost candles ward of threats from dropping temperatures in the vines

It felt like a second February- the summoning of all your forces to get through whatever nature would throw at you. We were cold, we were seasonally depressed, but we were there for the vines and both us and them survived. We made it to the other side, so we were there yet, right? Surely spring was also on this other side. That same unfounded optimism came back. Soon we would be eating lunch outside, I told myself, letting my hopes rise high.

Roads turned into rivers and I sludged through the current on my way to work in the vines, wearing waterproof gear but giving up on gloves that would be soaked within five minutes of debudding the vines that made commendable attempts at sprouting with little encouragement from a timid spring.

But then it started raining. It started raining and never stopped. Roads turned into rivers and I sludged through the current on my way to work in the vines, wearing waterproof gear but giving up on gloves that would be soaked within five minutes of debudding the vines that made commendable attempts at sprouting with little encouragement from a timid spring.

There was something reassuring about this rainfall being the worst the region had seen in 100 years. I wasn't making it up, this was shitty weather. It was the worst.

In Paris the banks of the Seine were under water and in Pouillé our river, the Cher, was drowning.

I say drowning because that's how it felt- not overflowing and abundant but imprisoning and inundated. It's strange how flooding happens, water doesn't come in waves but rather it sneaks in from under your feet.

It mostly happened overnight, but then it was just a matter of hours. We woke up to see that our house suddenly had a lake view, and by the end of the day it was a lakefront property.

I checked our backyard regularly, as water crept closer and closer to the henhouse and then, just a few paces away, our own house. Eventually the water seemed to stagnate within a safe distance of the chickens, but one loss was already apparent. I waded out to the corner of the yard that was home to my vegetable garden, which I had been preparing since we moved into our house in the autumn. My garden was still there, but it was very, very under water.

Post flood  potager

Post flood potager

“Maybe it will be okay?” I mustered up some optimism, trying to believe that tomorrow we might wake up and discover that all the water had magically gone away.

“Forget about it”, Ben replied, unable to understand that the survival of this patch of land was the only thing between me and a nervous breakdown.

I crumbled. I was out of perspective and full of feelings. It wasn't just the vegetable garden. It was everything. The mean lady who owned the nearby coop and yelled at me when I touched the avocados. The local farmer who couldn't deliver our weekly vegetable baskets because he barely had enough produce for his market stand and CSA. The fact that I had left my apartment, my Paris, my friends, my habits to move to the countryside where even the most basic things, like buying vegetables, seemed impossibly hard procure.

I needed to go for a walk, but everything was flooded and it was, of course, raining. I could at least say goodbye to my garden, I thought, as I put on my boots and waded into the backyard, which would be shin deep in water by the next day. I went to my little garden, which we had inaugurated just two months earlier, after Ben had built a fence around the patch of healthy soil in order to keep the chickens out.

Pre flood  potager  dressed up for the inauguration party

Pre flood potager dressed up for the inauguration party

I could see the tips of my baby kale plants, poking out just over the pop-up lake level. I decided I would pick them and have a first and last salad from my garden. Then I remembered that our landlord and neighbor had chosen this corner of his garden, just over the fence from my potager, to be his dumping ground for illegally hunted animal carcasses.

My sweet, innocent baby kale plants- born from seeds brought to me by my sister and planted with love by me and my mom, were now essentially steeping in a deer cadaver cold brew.

I discovered this unpleasant fact one day as I was weeding in my garden and a strange smell led me to investigate further. The odor turned out to be the remains of a deer that was rotting before my eyes.

My sweet, innocent baby kale plants- born from seeds brought to me by my sister and planted with love by me and my mom, were now essentially steeping in a deer cadaver cold brew.

I decided not to make the salad. And to keep feeling sorry for myself.

Things never seem like they'll get better until they do. Ben and his best friend built me a raised bed garden and it's now full of healthy plants. With time, my old vegetable garden dried out and is currently home to a half dozen heirloom tomato plants. And baby kale.

At the time of writing, the sun is out and the sky is blue. I'm watching it all from the comfort of a walnut tree canopy, equipped with a glass of Sauvignon and my 5 euro Barbès bought flip flops and I'm feeling pretty close to heaven. I know that this could change tomorrow and I know that the weather has nothing to do with me, but sometimes you really truly understand how much you need the sky to be on your side in order to thrive.

This, I've learned, is another thing we have in common with gardens and grapevines. Both of which are as fragile and sensitive as we are, and both of which mean more to me than I could understand before thinking of my life here without them. 

Plan B  potager,  filled with happy plants

Plan B potager, filled with happy plants

May: Portes Ouvertes

The Cher river

The Cher river

As we settled into our daily habits and life in the Loir-et-Cher, Ben and I became curious about uncharted territory. We took detours and the long way home, driving around neighboring villages and the backcountry, trying both the get lost and to find places that felt like they could be home. From the heights of the left bank of the Cher river, we admired the hillsides and valley of the right bank and the opposing village Thésée, where patchwork plots of organic grapevines were cultivated by veteran winemaker Bruno Allion.

We were trying to travel in time- into a future where we would have our own abandoned winemaker’s house to fix up, or find a family farmhouse to call our own.

“You like this view, don't you” I'd ask Ben, leaving off the question mark because I already knew the response. Luckily I didn't need an answer, because Ben's reaction would simply be a big smile- it was a rare occasion for Ben to be a man of few words.

We were trying to travel in time- into a future where we would have our own abandoned winemaker's house to fix up, or find a family farmhouse to call our own. 

May is a month of portes ouvertes, or open houses. Local winemakers, farmers, cheese makers, and other artisans open up their work spaces and invite the community to spend a day or two learning more about what they do. Events often include tastings, a shared meal, music, and sometimes late nights.

Picnicking with friends in the vines

Picnicking with friends in the vines

We were no stranger to the idea. Our portes had been very ouvertes ever since moving to the countryside- a happy and reassuring fact for me, since I wondered if leaving Paris might equate to disappearing as far as my friends who were still in the city were concerned. Luckily, we have faithful and wonderful friends willing to follow us to the countryside- bringing fun and lively discussion to our table, and sometimes late nights.

On these winding road trips in the hills of Pouillé I thought about all the things the future could bring, but I also fantasized about the perfect kitchen, about more rooms to hold even more friends, about dinners outside and vegetable gardens big enough to feed us through the summer months, with leftovers for the winter ones. And a bathtub. 

We were beginning to learn that even if we weren’t living in our dream home, we were beginning to be a part of a community that made us feel like we had a place in Pouillé.

It was fun to daydream but eventually the road led us to our real home, which was just fine for now. We were beginning to learn that even if we weren't living in our dream home, we were beginning to be a part of a community that made us feel like we had a place in Pouillé. 

Portes Ouvertes work both ways- while we had opened our home to visitors and already had memories of dinners and late nights spent with friends both new and old, we were also grateful to the welcome that we had received from our neighbors.

Ben in our plot of Gamay vines

Ben in our plot of Gamay vines

This is one way I've experienced the kindness of neighbors since moving to Pouillé: Juliette and I knew that my across the street neighbors, a retired couple who had moved to Pouillé from Paris a little over 20 years ago, were looking for someone to prune the small plot of Cabernet vines in their backyard. Interested in meeting the neighbors, and with some free time on our hands, we arranged to meet with the couple and offer our services.

Pierre-Philippe and Marie-Claude invited us to have a café after a quick tour of their vines. Marie-Claude spoke with me in English about her time as a stagiare in kitchens in Cape Code, over 40 years ago, and Pierre-Philippe was earnest about negotiating a salary with Juliette and I, assuring us that he wanted to pay a fair rate for the work we would do.

“We're not really interested in the money,” we told him adding, “but we heard you may have a fermentation tank to sell?” There was our ulterior motive- 30 hectoliter fermentation tanks are hard to find used and expensive to buy new- word on the street was Pierre-Philippe had one he might be interested in getting rid of. “You're too late!”, he told us “I sold it awhile ago- you should've told me earlier!”

View of the Cher Valley from the left bank

View of the Cher Valley from the left bank

Juliette and I were slightly disappointed, but the conversation continued with pleasantries and plans for dinner parties together as we prepared to leave.

At the door, as we prepared to say goodbye Pierre seemed to have an idea that pleased him, “I'll tell you what,” he said leaning his head out the door and pointing into the distance, “you see those vines there? The Sauvignons?” We nodded, making out five rows of scraggly but growing Sauvignon vines. “Well if you're interested in those they're yours! But I don't want to hear anything about them- you do what you want, they're not my problem anymore!” Juliette and I looked at each other in disbelief. We had come for a chat and a coffee and a few hours of work, and were leaving with a plot of Sauvignon.

This is the magic of life in a small town in the French countryside, you never know where a porte ouverte will lead you.  

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.