Finally, I found an open café. “A café sil-vous-plait” I said to the waitress. She’s cute. And, as I sit here at a table now, I’m thinking of ways to ask her out.
October 14th, 2018
This page is damp, my clothes are too. There’s condensation on the windows, but, it’s finally crisp outside, and despite a night of intoxicated sleep, I am too. Well, I am a bit drowsy. Those pancakes are setting in. The French do a lot of things well; breakfast isn’t one of them.
Yesterday, I was frustrated, but you already knew that. I’d spent a full work week on The Mill, and on my first excursion to town, I struck out.
After hyping myself up at the end of my last entry, in the St. Girons cafe, the waitress’s shift ended, and she left. Franticly, I fumbled with a handful of coins, dumped a pile on the counter to cover my coffee, and rushed out into the streets.
No sign of her out front. Only an old woman walking her dog down the street to the right. I peaked around the left corner in one last try. And there she was, only a few storefronts ahead of me.
“Excusez-moi” ‘I didn’t get your name” I shouted from down the street. “I’m sorry?” She was hesitant. “I’m new to town, and I don’t know anyone.” I replied in a normal tone, while matching her stride. “Oh, I’m new too. I’ve only lived here a few weeks.” She said. “What brought you here?” I asked. “
“I finished university, and I came for work.” her
“Oh, I see. Where’d you move from?” me
“Marseille. You know it? It’s a city by the sea.” her
Ah yes, that made sense. Her tan skin, her Mediterranean face.
She still seemed hesitant. Maybe I wasn’t her type. I gave her that piece of paper that I’d scribbled my email on from the back corner of my notebook before I rushed out the door of the café. “Here, in case you want to contact me. I’ll be here for a couple of weeks.” I told her, and then we went our separate ways.
Back at the visitor’s center, I waited for my Wi-Fi access to renew. I checked my messages, then walked toward the brew. In gym shorts and a t-shirt, slouched across his tall, wiry frame, I spotted Sebastian lurking toward me from down the street.
He was ten minutes late, but I’d been enjoying my music, and the brewery still appeared to be closed for the mid-day break. I’d been warned about this sort of Ariege defiance of punctuality by Louis.
“Well, I guess we’ll find another bar.” I suggested. The next one was closed too. Finally, where the bustling market had been held just an hour before, we found one open bar, on a now otherwise eerily vacant street. The Affligem biere was great, but the sticky floor and miniature billiards table didn’t quite satisfy my craving.
We checked the brewery again. It was still closed. Out of ideas, Sebastian offered to take me home. On the way back, we stopped in Rimont. None of the stores were open. We explored the only street. A lonely place. I’d struck out again.
The kids were playing near the creek in the afternoon sun. “Tylah!” they shouted as I came down the path. “Comment ca va garcons?” I asked. Adam, had Gabriel wrapped with a rope at the waste. I couldn’t hide the laughter from my face.
Louis greeted me from the porch, it felt like I was home. In the kitchen I chatted with Alice about her finds at the market and snacked on some grapes. “Our friends are running late. They should be here around eight.” Louis informed between swings of the axe as he chopped wood by the pond. I felt obligated, even though he told me not to worry, so I joined in. And after a few swings of le hache, I felt a lot better about the day.
I called my mom. I complained. Not too bad, I don’t think, but I hate when I call her to vent. She only hears about the bad moments, and this experience has been great.
Toward the end of our call, the friends arrived. “Oh, thank god, we can eat now.” I thought. I’d missed Alice’s cooking on my day away. And the sun had set. It was getting late.
I joined the group at the terrace table. A hip, middle aged man, with a white beard, white hair, round glasses, black heavily polished Chelsea boots, and skinny jeans, and his much younger wife. A thin woman, with high-top converse, and a friendly, yet slightly horseish face. And they began to drink…
I used that lighter trick to open my Heineken. Those sesame toast sticks helped suppress my hunger, as I felt the effects of my first biere after just a few sips. Around 9pm my bottle was empty, and we had yet to eat.
“Okay, the snacks are gone, and their beers are nearly finished. If I open another now, I’ll only delay the food. I’ll just sit here and wait.” I told myself. But, 20 minutes past, with still no mention of food.
Louis was too busy playing DJ to care. “Have you heard this? It’s Tom Waits. He is American guy. Very good.” He raved.
The cold, damp air seemed to seep through my polyester jacket, which trapped up against my wool shirt. I was growing irritated. Louis offered me a joint. My irritation sank.
Now fascinated by the scene, I pressed record, and let the conversation play. Louis’s eerie Tom Waits tunes played in the background, as a steady rally of noisy French conversation took place amongst le femmes.
“It’s problem of girl.” Interrupted the older man. “I never would have guessed.” I laughed. “That’s the difference you know, we like people, or we don’t. But, the girls. They want to know why they like people or they don’t.” Another thought-provoking, if not slightly sexist observation from Louis.
“Build characters.” The idea came to me. Suddenly, I felt the responsibility, and realized this conversation as another research opportunity.
I began my podcast with flattery. We’d warmed up with banter, and now, I could tell, Louis was ready to speak. “So, how did your English get so good?” I asked him. “Well, like I told you, I didn’t pay attention in school. It wasn’t until I started working in photography with English speakers that I began to learn it.”
“Ah, I see. And where were they from?” I followed.
We talked a bit about accents, and then I dug a littler deeper. “So, the photography you did, was it mainly studio work?” I sat back and let him speak.
About his path from Studio Assistant, to Photographer’s Assistant, to Photographer, then Videographer. “Wow. You know, you were living out a very common dream.” I said.
“Yes, but it wasn’t mine.” Louis explained to me how the underbidding that came from passionate young talent drove him to frustration at the end. We talked about how it’s cool that passion can prevail, and about how it worked out for him.
A fascinating conversation, after another twenty minutes, my stomach began to rumble, and I was consumed by the hunger again. I opened another biere.
I chugged it quick. “Maybe we have to finish the beer before we can eat.” I hypothesized, grabbed another, then quit. I was falling asleep, while approaching the outer reaches of the notorious black hole known as the spins. I couldn’t drink anymore. I didn’t want to relight that joint. “I forgot to turn the heater on in my place!” I shot up from my seat. I had to say something. Alice read me perfectly. “You want to eat!?” And finally, at 23:53, we began the feast.
“Tyler, your plate.” She piled it high. Sticky white rice, with an Asian broccoli carrot slaw, and mouthwateringly tender caramelized pork, in a sweet, savory sauce, piled on top. For the next ten minutes, I didn’t speak, no-one did, as our mouths only opened to chomp. I looked at Louis in a shared admiration, we both smiled through mouths filled with food.
As a finishing touch, he brought out the key lime pie. I nearly cried. And after the most delicious meal of my life, I went straight to bed.
A tender chunk of chicken, with a heap of creamy potatoes, drenched in homemade brown gravy, smoldered in the crisp autumn sun, daring me to burn my mouth again, as I sipped my merlot, savoring that taste. “Sunday chicken is a French tradition” Louis informed me. “Fuck it, I’m going back in.” I couldn’t control the craving. Once again, I barely stopped to breathe, as I inhaled every crumb on my plate.
With that hike, off the table (Sebastian decided it would be “too rushed”) a desire to lay in the sun instead, seemed completely okay. I filled my daypack with my notebook, my kindle, some coffee, an apple, a banana, and the hammock. Before heading into the forest, I served coffee to Louis, Alice, and their friends. “Ahhhh, okay. We’ll keep you!” He said as I approached with the pitcher. We’re cool, me and him.
Up that trail where we’d worked on the fence, I hung a left, instead, toward a foreign patch of forest. The quad tracks fizzled off, and the ground became thick. Thorny ivy and sticky ferns grabbed me, as I worked toward that patch of light, through the dim.
At a small clearing, the sun poured in. I shed my shirt, and soaked it in. As I set up the hammock, a solid blanket of white clouds rolled in.
A chapter of “Letters to a young poet”, and then two of “living with the monks”. I re-read days seven and eight, searching for a reminder to continue.
The writing is still shit, but I have to say, it allowed me to relate. “Two weeks in Ariege” I’ll stay to live and write the end.
The wind picked up, and the leaves rained down. In a storm of Autumn, I packed up the hammock, and returned to The Mill.
I’m so incredibly lucky to have this life. It’s all a dream. An absolute thrill.
October 15th 2018
All night I tossed and turned, to the heavy sideways rain that barraged the guest house. For the first time since arriving here, I slept like shit, and this morning I felt it. “Ca va?” Louis greeted me from his chair on the terrace. He said he slept poorly too.
At breakfast I avoided the junk. Opting for a plain Greek yogurt, with a bit of local honey, a few walnuts, a banana instead. Around ten, we finally boarded the quad. Louis dawned a new trench jacket, and from where I sat as we sped though the forest, with his hood and white beard, his resemblance to Obi-wan Kenobi was exact.
“Punta” was the word of the morning, as Monday seemed to taunt Louis even more than me. With the taste of an infected throat on my tongue, and a lack of strength, I tried to keep myself from sliding down the steep, muddy ground. I fell once, Louis fell twice. But, after three and a half hours of work, we finished the posts, and moved on to fencing the pen.
Another fresh soup for lunch, paired with bread and cheese. The cheese is at times overwhelming, but I enjoy trying local things. Louis asked if I needed to rest. “No, let’s knock this out.” I said.
We unrolled a second roll of sheet wire, completing the last 100 yards of the pen. All that’s left is to attach the posts, but that requires a tool that Louis plans to borrow from a friend. I’ll be gone by then.
The day was soggy, and my mind was foggy, but I made it to the end. I respect this family, and I want to earn my place, even if it is only for a few more days.
I looked at transport options of Barcelona. It looks like a Friday departure makes the most sense. No, it won’t quite be two weeks, but I feel like twelve days would make an adequate end.
It’s no longer awkward. I now consider Louis and Alice friends. Okay, I’m tired. Hell yes, I wrote again. 18h 55
Filet mignon, cooked medium, with pasta, and a creamy sauce. You guessed it, homemade. Damn, I’ll miss this food.
Adam, the nine-year-old boy kicked my ass at checkers. Apart from when they speak exclusively in French after I’ve scarfed down my food, often before anyone else, I feel very comfortable in their home. What a great family.
“New video from the 1975” flashed on my phone as Adam and I finished the game. I let the video buffer before leaving Wi-Fi to return to my place. At the cottage table, I pressed play, and it all came rushing back.
Her leaning up against the outside wall of my room, in the evening sun, nodding her head to the tune. I’d been looping “love it if we made it” all day, and I was stoked that she felt it too. But then, there was so much more to feel. I grabbed her mid chorus and kissed her to the beat. “That was smooth” She said. And now she returns to my head.
Physically, she’s half a world away. Mentally, I have no idea what to think.
October 16th, 2018
Louis’s grumpy, understandably so. He’s new to this farming thing, and apart from Alice’s help, he’s doing it all alone. As far as I can tell, he has no current source of income, and soon it will get cold. This place is beautiful, a paradise, but it’s a lot to take on. He has never, not even once, directed his frustration at me though. He’s a really good dude, and I know he’ll pull through.
My impacts have been small, but I’m happy to have helped a bit. With the fence nearly up, soon he’ll be able to get his pigs. Although, still 18 months from maturity, he’ll have to find other ways to make money to live.
Despite a frustration that was immediately clear, as I ate another breakfast of yogurt, with Alice’s homemade chestnut jam, the sun outside looked brighter. That sick taste in my throat has mostly subsided. As soon as I breached the Wi-Fi perimeter, my phone began to vibrate wildly.
Meredith “Did you see the 1975 are playing red rocks!?”
Gabi “How r u?”
Flora. “Hey! How is France treating you? When are you leaving?” Finally.
While moving floor boards from the basement to the guesthouse, I chatted with Gab. “Can I come stay?” She asked. “Yes” I said, not entirely sure what she meant. She talked about details. I was surprised. It sounds like she wants to come visit, and to be honest, I’m not sure how I feel.
It’s a beautifully blue, crisp autumn day. Soon, we’ll go fix the fence in the forest. Tomorrow morning, they’ll be away for the car repair.
Trying to enjoy every minute of my last days here. 11h02
October 17th, 2018
My legs feel rotten. Every inch of my body aches. When my alarm rang at 8:30, I felt as if I'd been beaten to a pulp in my sleep. But then again, it evaded me. I tossed and turned all night as my legs pulsed with pain. In the shower this morning, I struggled to stand, and the water at my feet failed to drain. When I flushed the toilet, used tissue shot through the shower drain. Adding a mental frustration to the pain.
While Louis and Alice were away this morning, all I managed to do was eat. Lemon cake for breakfast, endless handfuls of mixed nuts in-between three cups of coffee. And still I felt nothing but defeat. When I came here, I wasn't sure how long I'd stay "until you have a breakthrough, or until you break", it’s a quote from “living with the monks”.
Tuesday morning began with sun. After a tough day of work on Monday, I slept deep without bud or brew. For the first time in days, my legs had a spring of youth. And despite an evident frustration from the breakfast table, which radiated from Louis, I began my first task with gratitude.
Moving stacks of floor boards from the basement to the guesthouse was a chance to listen to music, and an opportunity to lift, but nothing excessive, just enough to build some strength. About twenty stacks, of about twenty pounds each. By the time I finished, my arms felt great, but it was barely 10:30.
Over at the car, I checked in with Louis. After over an hour, he was still struggling to set the spare tire free. "Punta!" "This system is shit!" He steamed. But, within five minutes of arrival, he finally got it loose. "Okayyy!" He exclaimed, his mood had significantly improved. "We'll go to the garbage dump and look for metal to make the thing for the pigs to drink." We unloaded several heavy loads of trash, and then lifted two hot water heaters into the back of the truck.
Back at The Mill, we unloaded the metal canisters, and Louis began working to make one of them into a trough. Unsure of what to do, I stood in the sun, soaking up the rare valley rays. It was 12:40, if I remember correctly, when he decided it was time to eat.
The fillet mignon was somehow even more tender leftover. Perhaps it was the setting of eating in the sun.
After lunch, we were all stuffed, and I laid down briefly on the living room sofa, a suggestion from Louis.
"Okay, we'll help Alice move some furniture" he said. I reported to the basement. It was around 2pm when we began moving things.
Four plush chairs, one antique mirror, a heavy bag, two dining tables, two sofas, a mattress, sixteen dining chairs, two decorative chairs, a billiards table, and other random boxes. By the time we'd decluttered the room an hour later, my body was beginning to feel weak.
"Okay, I guess now we'll go in the forest." He said. It was just after three.
Off the main road, and up the trail that climbs to the top of the trees, I held on tight with my tired arms, as Louis throttled the quad toward the outer reaches of the property. We'd come out here on my very first day, just to drop some posts and see, but since then, there'd been no mention of the area. For the past five days in the forest, we'd been working on that same patch of fence, and after yesterday, we were nearly complete. So, when we arrived at this virgin ground, I began to wonder just how much he expected of me.
The initial tasks were easy, well nothing's easy on the side of a muddy slope. But, walking through the trees wasn't so bad, and that's all I really had to do at first, when he sent me to retrieve the rope. "Okay, we'll retrace the posts" he said to me. Again, the task caused no need for worry. But then, the work began.
He got the chainsaw out, and I hauled the smaller fallen trees. Then, he chopped the larger ones up, and we took turns hauling chunks all in excess of 50 pounds up the hundred-meter stretch of steep mud, to the street. He said his neighbor would come to retrieve them. And when he arrived, we got to pick each stump up again, this time to load onto the trailer.
About two hours in, it was 5 pm, and I'd worked about five hours, the max amount of volunteer time. But Louis showed no signs of ending the day. We forgot a tool at the house, so we rushed back on the quad. And while the ride was fast and fun, I told myself that come 7 pm, I’d be done.
With the new fence perimeter traced, we began hauling the wooden posts we'd made, into place. At six meters apart, we didn't have to carry any too far, but the terrain was tricky, and I was feeling the end of the day. I brought the first one down from the trailer, and for the next hour, we hammered seven into place.
At the bottom of the slope, I leaned on the smashed top of the last post. Louis rolled another cigarette and began to contemplate. "What do you think, should we do four more?" "Well it's pretty dark." I said. Thank God, he agreed. "Okay, you're right." He said. "We'll leave those for tomorrow." A mix of dread and relief. "Oh, but wait, I won't go without some firewood." He dealt more grief.
The chainsaw blared once more as the sun melted into an orange and purple mix that splashed against the yellow leaves. While he cut logs, I hauled the equipment up toward the quad. The iron bell, used to hammer the posts, the drill, the extra posts. And then, we began carrying the wood.
He attempted to joke, but I'd had enough. "There are two more smaller ones down there" he pointed at two massive chunks. On the first one, I nearly fell. And with the second, every inch of my body burned like hell. "It's fine, it's the best work-out of your life" I told myself. But then, came the rope.
The logs were way too heavy to carry up the final slope that met the road, so Louis suggested we give them tow. He tossed the noose down to me, and I wrapped the first log with relative ease. Before it'd even gone a quarter of the way, it dug into the ground, and I had to scramble up the hill to free it, on my hands and knees. With the second one, he had a new suggestion. "Tie the knot higher, so it doesn't hit the ground" I argued that this would make it less secure. A problem that he didn't seem too worried about.
Sure enough, the log slipped out, and rolled right into my leg, pinching the bone above my ankle between its force, and that of its twin, next to me. "Fuck!" I yelled, slightly in pain, but mostly in frustration. "Is it broken?" He asked. "Shit, I hope not." I returned with anger.
I sat there, smoldering for a minute, and then it all came out. "Look Louis, I really respect what you're doing here, and I want to help you, but today has been very inconsistent with every other day. This is too much. You're overworking me." He apologized. He knew he'd fucked up. The ride back down was awkward, and dinner was too. In anticipation, I smoked a joint, and drank two brews.
Yesterday he broke me but today my respect was renewed. He wasn't disappointed that I didn't work this morning, and he was apologetic about the plumbing issue. This afternoon, instead of working, I accompanied the family to a nearby natural attraction. A massive cave that you can drive through. Out in front of it, we ate a picnic of goods from the nearby market, and on our way back to The Mill we took the scenic route through the colorful autumn hills.
"You need the rest, we won't work today." "You're awesome" I told him. And I really meant it.
All afternoon I've laid in bed. And while I haven't slept a wink, I'm grateful for this opportunity to recover. Tomorrow's my last day of work and I still haven't made it clear that I'm leaving a day early. I'll tell them at dinner in a few.
October 18th 2018
A moodiness filled the valley, blanketed by a heavy mist. Yogurt, coffee, four wafers, a few cashews, Nutella, and honey. I did slightly better at breakfast today. I met Louis in the workshop, and we lifted our first item. The empty hot water heater. It didn't cause me much pain.
We swept the floor clean of insulation, and then set out into the soggy forest. To trace out a power line for the planned electric fence, Louis stomped a path up the face of the hill. I followed in his footsteps with the meter, trying carefully not to slip.
350 meters later, at the original pen site, we paused. He rolled a cigarette. "We'll unroll this wire" he said, and then we began. My task was quite easy, as I guided the fence down. We unrolled another, and he discovered that his posts were too short.
Throughout my time here, I've watched the frustration mount. Louis's a great guy, and I feel for him, but I have to say, I'm glad to be leaving.
In his forest green trench, with rubber boots to his upper shins. With his shaved head, and whitish beard. The smoke from his cigarette floating into the wind.
He cut a dot of skin open on his head, as he unrolled the wire mess.
Through the fog, we raced, up to the top of the fence. We'd forgotten the bell, and we needed a few posts too. He said "you can chill here in the warmth if you'd rather not go" but, I wanted to help, and I'm glad I did. With no trailer in tow, the ride up was wild, as I held on from behind the Jedi master, Louis.
As we loaded the posts, fog filled the path, creating a white wall, framed in only by the canopy, now yellow. Back at The Mill, Louis parked the quad. My last morning of work on The Mill came to an end.
-an omelet with diced potatoes, and a thin crust.
-a hearty salad of leafy greens, nuts, pear and vinaigrette
-Camembert cheese (my favorite so far)
-one Stella Artois
I ate with them, I drank with them, I smoked with them, I worked with them, we talked. For twelve days, I lived with a French family, on The Mill.
"On the five" that song I discovered during those few days of listening to Alt Nation in Texas. The one I looped infinitely during my arrival to France. It sounds old now, like it's from a different chapter. And this, the close of another.
Oh yeah, that's right, I'm sore as fuck.
On the eighth strike against the third post, the bell rung with a high pitched "ting". "Well, we broke it" said Louis. "Want to see how to weld?" He asked. I said, "yes please."
Back in the workshop, he explained to me how "arc welding" works, and then he did his thing. "I haven't done this in a while." He prefaced. Through the mask, I watched the steel melt down and when he stopped the gun, it glowed bright red. He shaped the wound and left it to cool.
"Coffee?" I suggested. "Yeah, you know I normally don't take coffee in the afternoon, but that sounds good."
We took a fifteen-minute break to sip coffee and eat freshly baked cake. Now we're headed back out to finish putting these posts in the ground.
My back is killing me, and I'm almost entirely out of energy, but it's my last afternoon at this mystical mill, and there's no reason not to enjoy it, because I know I'll make it through.
"We finish this one, and just one more, then you'll never have to touch a post again." Louis said. "Wow, you must really be excited to finish these posts." I guess I gave my last bit of effort. He was impressed. I tossed the bell aside, for the last time.
Brown water filled the sink, as I shaved one last day of work from my face. We hammered out those two posts, and then called it a day. On the way back to The Mill, I walked, instead of riding behind. At the creek, I stopped, and walked straight in. My Bean Boots submerged to the ankle, without a drop of water getting in. I stared at them as the mud washed away.