In 1974, I thought it would be a good experience to take part in the wine harvest in France.
Without overthinking it, I signed up.
Ferry to France from Ireland.
Train down to the Corbières region of southern France.
I didn't realize it was SO far. Or that the work would be SO hard.
To the small town of St.Laurent de la Cabrerisse. Southwest of Narbonne.
Our 'patron' was a lively fellow a good 6 inches shorter than I was.
His wife was even shorter. His daughter, who picked with us, was also small.
I felt enormous in comparison.
Suddenly, their son Jean-Luc appeared.
He towered in the doorway to the kitchen! Huge!
I later discovered Jean-Luc and I were roughly the same size.
No wonder they called me Monsieur Muscles.
I shared a shack outside the patron's house with another student, Danielle from Toulouse.
It had no running water. The pump was in the street.
The toilet facilities, basically a hole in the ground, were across the street.
I was young and strong, but holy cow, the work was exhausting.
Hot. Sticky. Hard. Long. My muscles ached.
All we could do at the end of the day was fall off the truck and onto our cots.
Danielle and I really struggled with the work.
Other pickers in our group were members of the same family.
I was amazed at how the older women kept going, talking, telling jokes.
They helped us finish our rows when we were slower than they were.
We clipped the bunches of grapes with sharp secateurs, and filled our buckets.
They were heavy.
We hoisted the heavy buckets of grapes into the pannier.
The pannier was then carried to the wagon, usually by Jean-Luc.
I figured we hoisted over a ton of grapes EACH, every day.
While we picked, we gathered the vineyard snails.
The little granddaughter ran about, crying excitedly, "Scargo! Scargo!" while
"Mme Escargot", cooked them up in the evenings, using various recipes.
We started very early, and took a break a couple hours later for breakfast.
Breakfast was bread and wine with water.
We stayed in the fields for lunch, trying to find a bit of shade.
Also with wine.
For dinner, we ate with the patron's family in their kitchen. Maman cooked.
Once or twice, we all dined with Mme Escargot, who lived nearby.
All the farmers brought their grapes to the co-op at the end of the day.
They were paid according to the weight and the sugar content of the grapes.
Everything was done by hand.
I tried to explain where I lived, but Ireland meant nothing to them.
"Where they have the wooden shoes?" No, that's Holland.
"Where they have the glaciers?" No, that's Iceland.
"Oh, where the men wear skirts!" No, that's Scotland.
Finally, I just told them I came from north of Paris.
They were terribly impressed.
|(I didn't actually drive the tractor.)|
We worked about 3 weeks, and got paid in cash and in wine, which of course, was impossible to take back. It was the most physically demanding job I ever had. (And that includes working one summer in Bavaria as a lumberjack helper.)
I kept in touch with Therese, the patron's daughter, for years, until her marriage.
Who'd have thought we'd wind up living - 50 years later - less than 50 km from where I picked grapes when I was a teenager?
Visiting the town in 2014, I found it hadn't changed all that much.
Better roads. Probably more plumbing.
Nowadays, they have machines that pick the grapes.
They're huge, a true specialty vehicle.
They sail down the narrow rows of vines with incredible precision.
The wine is better these days, too.
Dozens of new winemakers and wineries, with all sorts of variety.
I'm glad I got to experience it back then.
I certainly wouldn't do it a second time.