vegetable garden

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.  

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