pouillé

August: The Learning Year

A view from our village

A view from our village

It's the end of August and the end of our first full year in Pouillé. It feels like we officially live here now, though I realize that I still feel like I'm settling into this life. Probably because so much felt exceptional and up in the air this year, it was hard to get used to anything before it dramatically changed into something else, or before I started reminiscing about what came before. 

I've thought of this year in a lot of different ways throughout the past 12 months. It was my tenth year in France, my last in Paris and my first in the countryside. It was the end of being a single urban apartment dweller and the beginning of living with my loved one. 

It was a year of surprises, some exciting and fun- especially when we learned new things about ourselves, our hidden talents, and our ability to adapt.

It was a hopeful year, with all the ideas we brought with us for the future, packed in our minds like our possessions in moving boxes. It was a year of surprises, some exciting and fun- especially when we learned new things about ourselves, our hidden talents, and our ability to adapt. At times the surprises were heartbreaking or disappointing-  and we were let down by our expectations of ourselves and others.

Good wine, BBQs, and matching overalls- all keys to lasting friendships!

Good wine, BBQs, and matching overalls- all keys to lasting friendships!

It was a participative year- with friends and family from different cities and countries coming to stay in their adopted country house. We pulled out sofa beds and made up guest beds, I've never washed as many sheets in my life and never so consistently felt the joy of a full house.

It was a year of eating- abundant in inspiring seasonal, often foraged ingredients, and equally full of days where I would've just ordered in pizza but couldn't- because there wasn't anywhere to order from. So I sucked it up and cooked- and I'm better off because I did.

From the rising flood waters in our backyard to the present day drought that is currently turning grapes into raisins on the vines, we’ve had no shortage of extremes.

It was a hard year. From the rising flood waters in our backyard to the present day drought that is currently turning grapes into raisins on the vines, we've had no shortage of extremes. In just one year we've gone from the threat of frostbite in the vines to a violent heatwave. It seemed like this year only existed to challenge us. My potager died, came back to life, and now it is overgrown with unripe tomatoes- due to my lack of gardening experience and the weather that was just never right this year.

Early, innocent days of my first potager

Early, innocent days of my first potager

It was a hard year. That's what I keep saying when I talk about what it feels like to be someone who moved from a city to the countryside in a wine growing region in 2016. But I can't settle on simply saying that 2016 was a hard year. 12 months later, I realize that my frustrations with any and all obstacles encountered could've been alleviated if instead of thinking of this as a hard year I thought of it as a Learning Year.

Here are some things I learned, things that make this year very dear to me, because they are lessons I won't have to learn in my next year in Pouillé, and they are lessons I will build on for the next 365 days:

“On ne compare pas l'incomparable” (you can't compare what's incomparable): Every place has its own inherent, incomparable beauty.

Prune tomato plants: Before your garden becomes a jungle of leaves!

Make friends with your neighbors right away: They know more about where you live then you do, and they are there to help you.

Cucumber plants like shade: Fact.

The smaller the community, the bigger your role: Small actions make a big difference. Help organize a party with your neighbors and share something that's you made from scratch. Lend and borrow things. Make plans. Introduce the thing you miss into your new world, and people will share things you never knew about with you. 

Cats are more resilient than you think: And they're also really good at being cats. No need to worry, or take them to the vet, as much as you may think. It took me about 250 euro to learn the vet thing....

Cooking every day makes you a better cook: So slowly that you won't even notice it, perhaps. But that's also because cooking every day also makes you more confident in the kitchen (and maybe life?) Moments when baby steps in progress or change are clear to you make every meal along the way even more worth it.

Make sure your house has a reliable source of electricity before renting it: Learn it, live it.

Don't ever let yourself become blasé about the thrill of tasting something you made: This is the most amazing thing we can do in our lives- in the city, countryside, in a foreign country or at home, in your own language or a borrowed one, in times of happiness or times of homesickness- the best thing we can do is create. Don't ever get over that, because there's nothing more worth getting excited about.

 

And with that, another year in the countryside begins.....

July: Fête des Voisins

Small groups chatted while sipping artisanal beer and natural wine while enjoying the warmth of sunshine on their shoulders. I overheard bits of conversations that covered topics such as raising backyard chickens, canning, and the secret to homemade jam. Talk of the arrival of warm weather inspired the exchange of recipes that we were looking forward to making once our vegetable gardens gave us the ingredients. The scene sounds like it's from a backyard BBQ in Brooklyn or Portland, but this was actually happening at the Fête des Voisins in my tiny village of Pouillé, France.

Since moving to Pouillé almost a year ago, my days involve constant adaptations to country life. As I transition into the rhythm of rural living, I am surprised by the many ways my lifestyle has actually remained the same. Looking around at the group of gathered neighbors, I reflected that in many ways this community was strikingly different from my Paris peer group- I had gone from happy hours with friends in their 30s to garden parties with retirement age neighbors- but I was still talking about the subjects that my Paris friends are passionate about: food, cooking, living sustainably, and eating locally and in season.

Homemade jams

Homemade jams

I have no delusions about how some of the conversation topics listed above have become co-opted buzz words that have been repackaged as hipster scout badges, but what I was delusional about was in thinking that this knowledge was currently only being preserved by old books and blogs.

Living in the countryside has led me to be less reliant on the internet for advice, and to learn things in the field, often literally.

Living in Pouillé has taught me that the opposite is true- this knowledge is as accessible in the countryside as it is in urban foodie subcultures. But you won't encounter it in the library or online, you have to be more active in your research. Living in the countryside has led me to be less reliant on the internet for advice, and to learn things in the field, often literally. I get my hands dirty and experiment with new ingredients- wild mushrooms, ail des ours, foraged flowers, and stinging nettles- without asking the internet what to do with them first. Instead, I ask my neighbors.

Which brings us back to our party in Pouillé, where hostess Maire-Claude was showing off her Cabernet grapevines to a small group of neighbors. Marie-Claude and her husband Pierre-Philippe don't use any chemical treatment on the vines because they use every part of the plant and want it, and themselves, to be as healthy as possible. Marie-Claude explained to us that she waits for the leaves to become almost the size of her hand and then harvests them to make batches of stuffed grape leaves that she freezes and enjoys throughout the year. Marie-Claude also makes our favorite confiture in the village.

Marie-Claude and Pierre-Philippe's Cabernet vines

Marie-Claude and Pierre-Philippe's Cabernet vines

In addition to the culinary advice, I also have Marie-Claude to thank for introducing me to other neighbors, including Régine. Another Paris transplant (like Pierre-Philippe and Marie-Claude, Régine and her husband worked for years in Paris before settling in the countryside), Régine now lives in a charming dollhouse of a home which is rendered model size by the overgrowth in the surrounding garden. She invited me to comes see her when I told her I was on the lookout for raspberries to use in a new beer I wanted to brew. “I have raspberry bushes!” she happily announced and we agreed I would stop by to pick some raspberries the next day.

Each plant had a story and it quickly became clear that Régine’s garden was almost exclusively sourced through begging, borrowing, or stealing.

Not wanting to come empty handed to our rendez-vous, I brought two small tomato plants with me that morning. They sprouts had finally broken ground after I had planted them as seeds and this felt very successful to me. I was embarrassed by how proud I was of my green thumb when I discovered Régine's beautiful garden and her exhaustive knowledge of all things that bear fruits and flowers.

She took me on a tour of her garden, with its fig trees and tea roses and plots of land bursting with the colors of carefully chosen flowers. Each plant had a story and it quickly became clear that Régine's garden was almost exclusively sourced through begging, borrowing, or stealing. Régine asked friends and family to bring her plants, but most often she gleaned sprouts or seeds from existing plants and wasn't shy about pulling her car over while out for a drive, stopping just long enough to snip of a branch or bit that she would plant once she got home.

Garden + Doll house

Garden + Doll house

We arrived at the raspberry bushes to discover there were few berries to be found. “The birds are eating all the fruits this year!” Régine announced the bad news with a smile. We shrugged our shoulders and decided I'd stop by another time, before the birds could beat me to it. In the meantime, Régine assured me, I could take the raspberries she had already picked and saved in her freezer.

You never know what a year may bring- the river may flood and birds might eat your berries. Knowing how to handle whatever nature brings is key to living in the countryside, but also crucial to living in general. Régine and my neighbors taught me that summer fruits are just as valuable as the knowledge of how to preserve them- and that both are made even more precious when they're shared.  

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. 

November: New Homes and What We Fill Them With

Welcome to Château Dilling

Welcome to Château Dilling

After much moving and back and forth, Ben and I had all our possessions in the same place. We added a member of the family with the addition of a kitten, who had escaped the autumn cull- when farmers “get rid of” litters of kittens to avoid overpopulation. The 2 month old Dale, or as we more often called him mini chat, was our first official house guest, but we would soon find out that many others would follow.

But before getting to house guests, a little bit about finding a house in the French countryside. There are currently 27 houses for sale in Pouillé. In a village with a population of a little over 700 people this represents a huge amount- about one out of ten houses, roughly, is for sale. The numbers are similar in neighboring villages as well. Houses stay on the market for a long time as owners cross their fingers that one day their decisions to renovate old winemakers' homes and windmills will pay off.

Renting a house, however, is a different story. As a musician and a freelance writer, respectively, Ben and I make little money and even less sense as candidates for a loan. Buying a house was not a possibility for us so finding a house to rent was our only option. We started browsing the French equivalent of Craig's List – leboncoin.fr – for rentals in the area and found exactly two. We visited the first one together, an uninspiring track house that we would've taken if the owner hadn't decided halfway through our visit, possibly after meeting us -the tattooed musician and the American writer- that she would rather sell the house then rent it.

Ben's first concert in Pouillé!

Ben's first concert in Pouillé!

A few weeks later Ben made the trip to visit the house we live in now. It was big, had a yard, a large bedroom, and a guest room. I learned all of this through texts and calls from Ben and our friend Juliette, who toured the house with Ben and updated me on their visit while I was back in Paris, doing one of my awful summer jobs. I saw the house- an old winemaker's home that had been entirely renovated by the owner- through photos when Ben got back. We said yes to it right away because we were ready to have a place to live.

We took everything with a sigh, a shoulder shrug, and a smile because we were happy to be living together and happy to be living in Pouillé.

Living in a house in the French countryside is very different from living in an apartment in Paris. I knew I would miss the charms of Parisian apartments, but I hadn't realized that the standard practice in the French countryside was to gut old houses of their inherent beauty and replace everything with cheaply manufactured modern conveniences. The elderly population in the countryside almost universally prefer electric heat and intense insolation, shunning the days of their youth when they huddled around a fireplace for heat and shivered themselves to sleep in drafty bedrooms. Bathtubs, fireplaces, stone walls and wood beams- everything must go- seems to be the overwhelming philosophy of renovation projects in the region.

Our home was no exception to this rule. The landlord, who fancied himself a homme à tout faire, a sort of freelance handyman, had done all the work himself and cut every corner along the way. Upon first glance the house is fine, and we have made it a very happy home, but every day, at least in the early days of living here,  a new architectural shortcoming seemed to come to light. The styrofoam paneling on the ceiling to retain heat, the plastic showers that have leaked since day one, the obviously impractical white tiles that immediately show each speck of dirt in a country house which people track mud into every day. The neon lighting overhead, the mirrors in the bathroom hung so low that you have to be on your knees to catch your reflection, the list goes on. We took everything with a sigh, a shoulder shrug, and a smile because we were happy to be living together and happy to be living in Pouillé.

Baby Dale watches his BIG brother play on impractical white tile

Baby Dale watches his BIG brother play on impractical white tile

I know these are first world problems. I know we are lucky to have a house to call a home. And I want to say that aesthetic issues with the house wouldn't even merit airing in public if that's all there was to the house...

But then the electricity went out. Over and over again. Despite the fact that our house had been on the market for so long that the landlord decided to finally rent it out, somehow he had failed to equip the house with a steady source of electricity. Apparently he didn't see a problem with that.

We tried to take it in stride- the fact that we were essentially illegally sharing electricity with our neighbor/landlord through a cord connected to his house, until November rolled around and it started to get cold. Equipped with the option of an antique wood stove that had been left behind by the owner and a noisy electric heating system, we tried to rely on our stock of wood to heat the house instead of straining our electricity reserves. But heating wasn't our only challenge.

Dale "hiding" in the wood stack

Dale "hiding" in the wood stack

While living on limited electricity we learned that: we couldn't have the oven and the stove on at the same time, we couldn't wash clothes (something I need to do practically every other day with all the muddy jeans, soiled socks, and sweaty shirts that working in the vines generates) and cook at the same time, and that- for reasons unknown to us- sometimes we couldn't simply boil a pot of water to make coffee without shorting out all the electricity in the house.

We tried everything, Ben turned off the water heater after our morning showers and then got up in the middle of the night to turn it back on so we would have hot water in the morning. We unplugged everything when I wanted to make a cake around the same time I was thinking of using the stovetop to make dinner. We tried our best, but it seemed like every simple gesture became complicated by the never ending cycle of the lights going out, sending us to the landlord's house to flip the switch on the circuit breaker to get the electricity back, then repeating as necessary.

Later that week, at a lunch with the winemakers I brought hard boiled eggs which oozed out of their shells when cracked open... I was mortified.

“I think I'm going to go crazy” I texted my friend Kristen one morning, when Ben was away on tour and I was alone, left to bundle up against the early winter chill and go next door four times in the span of 30 minutes, in the vain hope that I would be able to make a cup of coffee.

Winemaker lunch. Not shown: my disastrous hard "boiled" eggs

Winemaker lunch. Not shown: my disastrous hard "boiled" eggs

Later that week, at a lunch with the winemakers I brought hard boiled eggs which oozed out of their shells when cracked open- the electricity had gone out just as I was starting to boil the eggs earlier that day and, not able to rally to go back to the landlord's house for the nth time that day, I had hoped letting them soak in the still hot water would do the trick. It didn't. I was mortified.

By the time Thanksgiving was nearing I was happy I had bought a ticket to spend the holiday with my family in California. Mostly because I knew I could cook and read by lamplight uninterrupted thanks to a reliable source of electricity. Also because I love my family.

Santa Cruz, no need for heaters here

Santa Cruz, no need for heaters here

While in California, I made plans to have a sleepover with Brigitte, my childhood friend and also my cousin. We had plans to meet at her house in Santa Cruz, which I had never been to. She gave me directions in a text message: “The main house is a white house...the lock box is by the front door, please let yourself in. Sit on the hammock, lounge on the couch, take a nap in my bed, walk to the park at the end of the street...There are a couple of beers in the fridge and crackers and cheese and anything else you can find to eat is yours...We can do anything you want, I just am so excited to see you.”

This is one of my favorite texts of all time. Brigitte lives in her equivalent of My Paris Apartment and I knew it the minute I walked in the door. A main house hidden behind two large Victorian houses is where Brigitte has her first floor studio apartment that made me feel immediately warm and welcomed.

I hadn’t felt this isolated since when I first moved to Paris, and had to make myself at home abroad for the first time.

Living in Pouillé had started to feel increasingly challenging- the electricity was a big thing, but also the transition from having a  group of friends made up of people who were like me- lady food writers and goofy expats- to a new peer group of French winemakers, was harder than I thought it would be. I felt left out of conversations a lot, not used to being 100% French 100% of the time and felt discouraged about ever truly being friends with the people that now made up my social circle. I hadn't felt this isolated since when I first moved to Paris, and had to make myself at home abroad for the first time. 

Not being able to make a successful hardboiled egg contribution to communal lunches- or even a cup of coffee in the morning for that matter- didn't help things. I was happy to be in my cousin's apartment- in a new place that felt familiar, sitting on a porch looking out onto the Cyprus trees that reach towards the California coastline, waiting to have wine and crackers with someone I've known my whole life, with whom I could do anything I wanted, we were just excited to see each other. That moment, and a fun night out with my cousin, was exactly what I needed to get me back to bubbling, like a kettle with unlimited access to electricity, with happiness.

Cousins!

Cousins!

Eventually the electricity in our house in Pouillé got sorted out. It's a period of our life that we've almost forgotten about now- thanks to a healthy human instinct to suppress memories that no longer serve us.

The lights are still slightly blinding and the styrofoam panels aren't going anywhere, but we've added our own touches to the house. We have our records- Ben's Tom Waits, Captain Beefheart, and Bonnie “Prince” Billy and my Whitney Houston, Marvin Gaye, and Fleetwood Mac. There's Ben's guitars, my books, houseplants, our cats, and a calendar that is filled with the names of friends who have booked their weekends at their adopted country house in advance.

There are the things that were waiting for us when we moved into our house- some unwelcome discoveries and challenging realities- and then there's what we filled our house with: not just our things, but also our friends. And I'm happy to say that our friends won't let leaky showers or fluorescent lights get in the way of our good times. 

A home isn't electricity or tiles or questionable taste in interior design. A home is a place where the people you love feel at home, too. 

Impromp-tutu party under the neon lights of Château Dilling's main hall

Impromp-tutu party under the neon lights of Château Dilling's main hall

September: It Starts with a Cat Carrier and Country Clothes

Jack's first encounter with countryside footwear

Jack's first encounter with countryside footwear

It's hard to tell where the idea came from. When the plan was hatched and how it happened so quickly. Surely it's thanks to the end of a disappointing marriage to a disappointing person. It likely had something to do with my first sip of natural wine. Perhaps the seed was planted as long ago as the day I started my blog, Paris Paysanne. Without a doubt, the idea became bigger than me beginning with a harvest season first kiss and every day that followed. But the actual move- from Paris to the town of Pouillé (population 754)- where did that idea come from? 

Probably my cat, who was currently cowering in a small carrier asBen and I tried to cajole him into drinking water while we waited for our train at Gare Montparnasse. The cat in question, Jack Meower, had had a rough summer. After over a year of being the sole prince of his Parisian kingdom, he had been forced to make room for an interloper: my wonderful boyfriend Ben. Thankfully the two, begrudgingly, had managed to find a way to co-habitate after Ben came to live with me for the summer.

Waiting for the train

Waiting for the train

If it had been just that- the arrival of a new love in my life- Jack may have been able to adapt, but that summer was one of subtle upheaval and not-so-delicate disturbances. The savings I had been living on after being laid off the year before ran out and I was forced to scramble to do four different odd jobs that I pulled together to pay the rent. In order to help out financially and meet people in a city that was new to him, Ben got a job that kept him working late and feeling exhausted. 

We were grumpy when not together, but deliriously happy when let loose in the Paris streets ensemble. After six years spent with someone whose weekend plans unfailingly involved going to the same bar he had been frequenting since high school, I was thrilled to be with someone who wanted to do things and do them with me. And I wanted to do things with him because, I was slowly figuring out after living in the absence of true love for so long, that's what being in love means. 

We were discovering each other, Ben was discovering the city, I was discovering how great it feels to share happiness with someone. We were full of energy and we were thirsty.

We were discovering each other, Ben was discovering the city, I was discovering how great it feels to share happiness with someone. We were full of energy and we were thirsty. Inspired by wine lists and restaurant openings, we zigzagged across the city, visiting bars, restaurants, and wine shops- spending more money than we had and drinking more glasses than we needed. Every adventure, wine soaked and shiny new, felt like a perfect way to celebrate the fact that we had found each other. 

Obligatory cheesy Eiffel Tower picture

Obligatory cheesy Eiffel Tower picture

We had places to go and bikes to ride and we didn't care if crappy jobs were the price of entry to the adult amusement park that is Paris. 

As workers gutted the entire apartment, drilling directly into what seemed to be a subterranean extension of my bed frame, we tried to sleep and ignore the fact that we had front row seats to the most ubiquitous soundtrack of Paris: pure, consistent noise.

Then the construction started. As everyone took off for their August holidays while their strategically timed home renovations began in Paris, we stayed in the city and worked our crazy hours. From what seemed to be 7 am, but was maybe later (time is relative when you've both worked the closing shift at a bar) until it-didn't-matter-anymore o'clock, the construction downstairs seemed never ending. Workers gutted the entire apartment, drilling directly into what seemed to be a subterranean extension of my bed frame. 

We tried to sleep and ignore the fact that we had front row seats to the most ubiquitous soundtrack of Paris: pure, consistent noise. It took a toll on all of us, but it was Jack that suffered the most. He became listless, a word whose meaning I fully understand now, because it is exactly what he became- totally lacking in “list”. 

While we decided to fight in defiance of the wall of sound, Jack had chosen flight, bolting out the front door one morning after I left it open while pleading with the workers downstairs, begging them  to give us just 30 more minutes of sleep. Ben found Jack in the building manager's apartment, clutching to her curtains and clearly on the edge. He was limp in our arms and hadn't eaten in almost two days. I decided our attempts at soothing him weren't cutting it. We grabbed a cab, leaving behind Mme. Dasilva, our concierge, who tsk-tsked us from her front door saying ,“Cats need to live in gardens!” 

At home in Paris

At home in Paris

We went straight to the vet who sat us down and asked us how we were doing. “A little stressed?” he guessed and we nodded our heads in agreement. We told the kind animal doctor about our summer- our jobs, the rushing around, and the construction downstairs. It felt good to say it aloud. Jack wasn't the only one who needed a visit to the vet, it turned out.

A prescription for cat Xanax and a few other anti-anxiety pills later (for the cat, not us) and we were on our way back to an apartment that suddenly seemed less hospitable. 

Throughout the summer Ben and I had joked about needing a vacation house in the country- maybe we should just find a permanent house in the country?

Maybe Mme. Dasilva, who was an avid urban bird watcher and knew about the importance of being able to fly free, was right- maybe cats should be in gardens. Throughout the summer Ben and I had joked about needing a vacation house in the country- maybe we should just find a house house in the country? We immediately thought of the Loir-et-Cher region and the little village of Pouillé, where we met and fell in love during the 2014 grape harvest with winemaker Noëlla Morantin. Our imaginary country home started to seem real and the joke transformed into a plan of action. 

That brings us to September, waiting for a train to take us to our new home. Ben was carrying Jack and I had a backpack with enough clothes for two weeks of harvest and a brand new Moleskine notebook to record memories. Having already moved from his apartment in Nantes earlier that month, Ben's bed and things were waiting for us and made for a half furnished home (I was keeping my apartment until October). The purpose of the trip was to acclimate the transplanted Parisians (me and Jack) to our new surroundings and to participate in what was left of that year's early grape harvest. 

I was always incredulous of the fact that I, through some magical, mysterious chain of events got to live in Paris.

The best things that have happened in my life are the things I didn't even think were possible. Much like the move to the countryside, I can't remember the details of how I got the idea to move to Paris. To this day, I am still incredulous of the fact that I, through some magical, mysterious chain of events got to live in Paris.  In the days before moving to France from California, I remember that the only thing that seemed real was my plane ticket to Paris, proof that it was really happening. 

Paris started with a plane and the move to the country started with this train and a person brought to me through a different magical, mysterious, wine-fueled chain of events. A person so perfect I couldn't believe he was all for me. Standing there with him, my cat, and my backpack filled with grubby jeans and all the country clothes I'd need, I was ready to use this new ticket. 

Ben and I both harbored semi-secret ambitions of making our own wine, but we never expected that we would be doing so within weeks of moving to our new home.
Late harvest days

Late harvest days

This train ride, the beginning of a new life, would lead to many unexpected opportunities. It would take us far from the city, but also bring us closer to dreams we thought were not yet within reach. Ben and I both harbored semi-secret ambitions of making our own wine, but we never expected that we would be doing so within weeks of moving to our new home. 

When we arrived, the harvest season had concluded for the winemakers- but the vines hadn't finished bearing fruit. In the period following the vendanges while the winemakers were tasting their juice and dreaming of the wine it would become, the grape bunches that were green weeks earlier began to ripen and glow under the late summer sun. 

Ben and I, along with our friend Juliette, asked if we could harvest these late bloomers- a request our winemaker friends were happy to accommodate. Gleaning grapes was a win-win situation for everyone- the vines would be relieved of nourishing the grape bunches that would otherwise be unused and a drain on their resources, we would get to try our hand at making a garage wine, and everyone would benefit from a little more wine to drink around the table together. 

Bottling our Gamay

Bottling our Gamay

About a month later, we were putting our ruby red Gamay, pressed under our feet and made in a small shed in front of our house, into bottles. Jack rubbed up against our legs as we used a pitcher and funnel to bottle the fermented grape juice by hand.

It was late October by then and the waning autumn sun created enough warm spots for Jack to lay down and take one of his last outdoor naps of the season, in his very own garden. Ben and I soaked up the sunset while sitting outside- content in the knowledge that we didn't have to go farther than our own front yard to find good wine. 

Château Dilling's first cuvée!

Château Dilling's first cuvée!