Twelve days in Ariège
October 7th, 2018
“Standing in this eerie medieval town, in the last light of this already dim day, waiting for this stranger to arrive and take me back to his farm. I’m terrified, and tired, but excited, and alive.”
Against the cold stone façade of that vacant pharmacy on the corner, in that desolate town, with no sign of anyone, let alone the guy from the volunteer farming website (WWOOF). A chill in the air. The looming threat of night. An unmarked white van approached and stopped abruptly at my side. The window rolled slowly.
With a tight buzz, and a wiry grey and yellow beard, Louis didn’t quite fit the mental image I’d built of him through our brief conversation on the phone. Although, his voice was friendly and welcoming. He opened the door for me, and I tossed in my pack. Immediately struck by the clutter. Mud, dirt, wood, and scratches. The interior was a mess. And so were his camo pants. All signs pointed to a hard life.
We stopped for “petrol”, then disappeared from the main road, off into the forest on the right. Winding tight, around the corners, and through that infinite canopy of dense acacias. About twenty minutes from town, Louis turned onto a tiny court. Bumpy and steep, the van shook, and my first view of the farm appeared beneath.
A cool air, dense with moisture and smells of vegetation greeted my nostrils as I let the angst drift away to the sounds of the creek.
Up uneven stone steps, Louis guided me to the 17th century building once used as a mill, now called The Main House. Inside, Alice, his wife, prepared dinner in their rustic kitchen. At the table, two boys, 6 and 9, sat playing with Pokémon cards, while waiting to eat. Neither spoke English, but they smiled and waved at me.
Across the lawn, Louis showed me to the guest cottage. Another old building, complete with an open living area, a kitchen, a bathroom, and two lofted bedrooms up a set of steep stairs. I dropped my bag, changed, and then returned to The Main House to eat.
The mattress, alone in the empty loft was pleasantly firm, I was exhausted, the air was cool, and it was dark. Following a delicious dinner of orange autumn soup, fresh leafy greens, and a local amber ale, all organic, at just past 21h, I returned to my new cottage to sleep. Aside from a brief interruption at 3:00 to pee, I awoke twelve hours later to my alarm. The best rest I’ve had in weeks.
October 8th, 2018
Through a light fog, I walked the path to The Main House, where Alice greeted me. “Coffee is there, and your plate is on the table. Here are some biscuits and jam. Help yourself to anything you see.” Three wafer biscuits with butter and apricot jam. I thanked her and set out to complete the tasks I’d discussed with Louis.
Across the lawn, and toward the steep, misty walls that naturally fence in the property. I pulled the stakes from the soggy ground with ease, and wrapped the caution tape which strung them together, into a pile. “These boots were a great purchase” I thought to myself, as they kept the rain-soaked vegetation from touching my feet.
I cleared the roof of the chicken coop. Then, ran my hands through the thick grass to wipe them clean. After finishing both tasks, I returned to the cottage and sat outside, listening to the creek and the birds, while inhaling a few breathes of le herbe.
This place seems to be a sort of paradise. It’s mystic. It’s unique.
Written from that table in the vacant cottage living room, around noon.
Today, my first day of work, I moved a few logs, and held them in place from the opposite side of the chainsaw that the burly stranger pushed toward me at arm's length. At times it was a bit scary, and I felt awkward, especially when I stood there, not sure what to do. But, Louis’ cool. He talks about interesting things. He's a dad for sure.
He says tomorrow will be harder, but maybe I'll have more to do. I think I should stay a while, try to grow it into something. I'm supposed to borrow the car tomorrow evening to go have a beer with the BlaBlacar driver who drove me out here. Could be interesting.
Who wants to read about a week of work? Tell them about that time you lived in the Pyrenees for three weeks. Or hell, maybe three months, three seasons...? Who knows, let it happen. Write the chapter. Live libraries.
The food is amazing. Although, I should probably watch what I eat. Na, fuck it. It's delicious.
October 9th, 2018
Up the muddy forest trail, I held on to the back of the quad in a yellow 9:30 light. "When I move my head, you do the same." Louis shouted over the accelerator, that he seemed only to increase.
We loaded the trailer full of logs for the fire and scouted the forest for a straight acacia tree. "We'll try this one" Louis settled, through the hand rolled cigarette in his mouth.
He "explained me" the process, and then directed me to safety. He seems to be responsible with these things. W
With steam from his back hitting the rays of light, he began his precision strike. Measuring, and angling, as a photographer would his subject, Louis was strategic with his cut, and it caused the tree to fall perfectly. "Punta!" I exclaimed at his success. "Punta!" He returned.
Over another fat cigarette, we discussed the next moves. Six two-meter sections of tree made 13 fence posts. Louis let me do some of the splitting, a task I was thankful for. He'll use these for the fence, but he says they could otherwise sell for €2 apiece.
At 11:57 with a deserved layer of sweat covering my face, we began our lunch break. Around 12:30 Alice and Louis left for a meeting at the school, and now it's 13:11, as I’ve just finished my raid.
Some almonds, some cashews, an apple, a piece of cake, even a couple of grapes. I brewed a cup of coffee just to take a break. And I noticed something interesting, in-between stuffing my face. For a family of four, they keep surprisingly little food, yet they eat quite a lot. Internally I processed. "How could this be?" "Ah, it's because they eat fresh local foods. I see!"
Sitting at my table now, waiting for them to return for more food, and trying not to fall asleep. In other news, I'm really torn about what to do next. A large part of which involves Gabi. She's never felt like some perfect match, or my "dream girl", yet I absolutely love the way I feel around her. She makes me lighter. Even now, I feel heavy, and sometimes I like it, it's me, but she has shown me that other way. I guess I don't have to decide just yet, but I kind of feel like it's looming over me.
October 10th, 2018
A generous serving of homemade soup, a massive chunk of quiche, three different kinds of cheese, two rips of fresh baguette, butter. "Oh Lord, please!" I begged inside, not to vomit as I stumbled back toward my bed. You see, I'd been impatient while they were gone, and another heavy lunch proved to be too much for me. In my misery, I laughed at how ridiculous I've been eating. "That's it, I'm done." I told myself. This morning I had a banana, one cracker, and one cup of buttered coffee.
Yesterday, after my stomach settled, we got back to work in the forest. We finished a few more posts, getting 17 as a final count from that one acacia tree. We measured the perimeter of a temporary pig pen, then placed the posts at a ten-meter spacing. We didn't get to it 'till 1430, and we were finished by 17h. "I'm feeling tired, let's take it cool." said Louis.
On that hill where the Vegetables grow, I sat in the sun, and watched the clouds roll over the thickly forested peaks. I roamed the property with my camera in hand. It truly is a special place, a majestic place, a place of unexplainable beauty.
It was 7pm before I messaged my friend. The one that drove me from Toulouse. We were supposed to get a beer, but he wasn’t feeling well, and it turns out, Louis’ car is a manual. He gave me a brief intro on how to drive it last night, and he says he’ll have me try today. He really is a great guy. Alice’s great too. I really like this family.
But, after two full days, and three nights, spent tucked away in this little piece of paradise, I’m itching, no exploding, to get out and explore. I want to meet people. I want to build a life. I’m unsure how long I’ll stay, but I want to know what it’s like to live in the Pyrenees. Perhaps today will bring opportunity.
“I don’t wanna love you anymore”
Twice this year, I’ve fallen for a girl, and neither one makes sense. For the past 8 weeks, Gabi has consumed me, but today I thought of Flora Marie.
What we had was fleeting and tiny, microscopic in dose, but monumental in impact. Often, I think about how we barely knew each other, and how we only saw each other four days in four weeks. But, let’s face it, she’s the reason I booked that flight to Paris.
On Saturday, I was in her home city, with no way of contacting her, and I was instead with another girl, named Marie.
This morning Louis moved slow, the kids are sick, he barely slept. It would have been understandable if he were grumpy, but instead, that was me. We began in the forest, roping off the perimeter of the fence, and then clearing a path for the posts. On a steep, muddy slope, he fell multiple times, and I fell once, awkwardly on my knee, as we pushed to uproot the grotesque roots of a rotted old tree. I’m fine, but the knee is a bit tweaked.
When the path was cleared, we got the bell. A 30lb piece of iron, with one long handle on each side. At first, I wasn’t sure how we’d use it, then Louis instructed me. “Inhale up, and exhale as you slam”. Like a piston, we hammered in three posts.
It feels good to work hard, but it’s exhausting. And after several days without social interaction, I’m beginning to feel drained.
Not to be lost in this venting, is the quality of Louis’s conversation. He talks about life, about self-sufficiency, and a shit load of conspiracy. Although, his views seem realistic, and he’s made me think.
Aside from an appreciation for individuality, we also share a passion for writing. He’s written at least two novels from what I’ve gathered, and I can tell when we talk that his desire still exists, but he’s chosen to suppress it, partially to build something more concrete. I get it. He’s a father, and a husband, and maybe I’ll be those things too, but right now, I’ve gotta get this book out, because it festers inside of me.
After three hours of work, we returned to the terrace, for a lunch in the sun. The boys joined us. Apparently, Wednesdays are half-days in French schools. The way it should be.
They’re both sick, and I’m afraid I may be contracting it. I feel a bit lethargic, and my throat isn’t quite right, but it hasn’t affected my desire to eat.
Links of sausage, the finest quality, and a broccoli cauliflower dish, with a thin layer of cheese. Louis offered me a Stella to drink. After lunch, I talked to Gab. She shows no emotion on the phone. It’s frustrating. For an hour and a half, I slept, and I likely could have gone longer. Louis left for town, and he told me I could relax, but I felt bad. So, I got to work on rebuilding those uneven steps.
I want to pull my weight around here. I know I’m not paid, but they give me food and a bed, and they’ve accepted me as part of their family. However, I do need more. I need friends. I need the unknown. I need possibility.
Tonight, I’m meeting Sebastian for a beer at 21:30. With this virus going around (which he says he’s just had), I should probably just sleep, but social interaction outside the confines of this farm has become my number one priority.
Holy shit, I left Texas eleven days ago. I’m nowhere near ready to leave. I have so much more to experience. I’m sick of leaving things unfinished.
October 11th 2018
Fed the chickens. Sawed wood. Chopped it. Gathered stones from the riverbed for the steps. Made a faggot, three. Break. Leftovers for lunch. We ate late. I was starving. And then, we went to the neighbors.
The sun of the morning had turned to clouds of blueish grey, and the temperature dropped while we ate. A slight chill in the wind, helped to mask the scent of Louis, as I sat on the back of the quad, with his hoodie in my face.
Around the corner, for the first time in four days. The view opened, and a sense of freedom escaped.
On a road to the right, a small cottage hid. Another rustic renovation, with a young couple, and a kid. They smiled and waved from their dining table on the terrace. We continued by.
Through a lush path of forest, with ivy and ferns. We passed an old DeLorean, and then reached roads end.
Another young mother sat at the table with her baby. I wasn’t even sure why we were there. Galloping down the hill, an odd-looking fellow appeared. “Hey, I’m Anthony.” He said to me, shirtless, with a smile of big white teeth. And then, we began moving the wood.
With the quad on the front patch of mountainside lawn, Louis dug into the land with a trailer full of wood behind. Eventually, the wheels caught, and we unloaded it into the barn up top.
A garden of fruits and vegetables served as our backdrop, but none of them seamed to explain that scent. No, it wasn’t the scent of tomatoes, or strawberries, it was most definitely something more distinct.
“Do you grow le herbe?” I attempted through Frenglish, to no avail. “weed?” I simplified to Anthony. The light turned green. “You know, if we work fast enough, maybe we’ll have time for a beer and a joint.” I became a wood moving machine.
Louis stayed for one beer, and then he had to leave. From that terrace, overlooking a wide vista of green mountains, Anthony and I shared a nice joint, indeed. “Come on, this way, I’ll show you my bees.” He led me up the steep hill behind the terrace, toward the place where he housed the honey making machines.
Around us, the air buzzed, as we crouched behind the line of four houses. We studied. “So… these can fly out?” I asked, nervously. Then Anthony explained their traffic to me.
“See how this one is flying toward that flower for pollen, and how that one is going toward the water near the tree. Okay, now these ones are receiving the supplies, and bringing it in to use for making the honey.” “A hornet it’s called. They capture the bees and shred them with their teeth.” “Look, this one here just got one of my bees! See him carrying it away to eat on that tree!?” In just three minutes, Anthony, the half Vietnamese Frenchman, who harvests honey, completely reshaped my understanding of biology.
On the way down the hill, he showed me his rice. And he spoke passionately about how he’d learn from his mistakes and produce much more next year, for his family. Back at the table, he spoke about his lifestyle. He commented on how even self-sufficiency requires some money. “We need it for gasoline, for taxes, etc…” I used to spend money on clothes and going out to eat” He talked about his former life in the city.
“Are you happier here than in the city?” I asked him. “1000 times happy!” he smiled at me.
I thanked him for his hospitality and got up to leave. As I walked down the path, with the house at my back, his wife shouted, “au revoir!” from a second-floor balcony.
“Bonsoir”, I exchanged with another neighbor on my walk back toward The Mill. Then, down the gravel entrance, I returned.
The car was gone. Only the creek broke the silence. It was a welcomed return, like coming home.
Inside, I shared a brief, but pleasant conversation with Alice, brewed some coffee, then returned to this table, to write.
Stop worrying about Gabrielle.
October 12th, 2018
I’m sick. Well. More like I’m going to be sick. I know it’ll get much worse. For three days of travel, I barely slept, and since then, I’ve lived with these sick kids. Oh, and I’ve worked my ass off.
In fact, it was more hard work on the stone steps, until 19h yesterday evening, that explains the mud stained to this page. I finished the job this morning. I took ownership of the project, and even used some creativity. If you look carefully, you should see that the bottom step looks like a finger, pointing toward the second. I thought it was cool.
Speaking of cool, Alice told me to be it this afternoon. I feel guilt not working, even though I’ve well exceeded my max volunteer hours of 25 for the week. My back is killing me from all the labor. And as this cold comes on, I feel achy and weak.
I’ve got several podcasts downloaded, and I’ll at least try to get some sleep. It seems doubtful right now, but I really hope to beat this cold quickly. This weekend represents more opportunity to get out and meet.
It’s Friday evening, and I’ve got nothing to do. I know, I’m not feeling well, or I wasn’t… I’m not sure. It really felt like I was getting sick. Maybe I was just exhausted.
These past eleven days in France have been a chapter. Maybe two. But I came here to avoid nights like these, where I’m just passing the time. I want to be out, interacting, meeting people, living true. When is the research done on a subject? When is the chapter full?
I ate cookies for breakfast. Had two cups of coffee. And then there was that disgusting spliff.
October 13th, 2018
It’s Gabi’s birthday. I’m feeling a bit gloomy on this beautiful bright Saturday. After five days of work on The Mill, today represents my first escape.
I thought surely, I was getting sick, but this morning I woke up feeling great. Perhaps it was this opportunity to explore that pushed me through. Or maybe it was that concoction of essential oils that Alice mixed up that did it. The rest likely helped too.
Away from that dirt driveway, Alice began to accelerate. Around that first corner, where the neighbor lives, and out toward the main road, for the first time since I’d come in. Past Rimont, a quaint little village, and down the road toward St. Girons.
As we approached town, the congestion began. Crowded streets, police, and no place to park. Suddenly, we’d gone from the country to Paris.
Alice stopped “I’ll let you out here, the market is that way.” I thought she’d come with.
Fresh produce, handmade crafts, cheese, beer, grapes.
I stopped at one of the first tents and bought a knife, handmade in the Pyrenees. Louis told me it’d be good to carry for work in the forest.
Through the rows of tents, with a few alleyways in-between. I roamed for an hour or so, unsure of where to go. Not hungry, with no desire to caffeinate. I thought the market was cool but felt little need to elaborate.
Around town, I searched for Wi-Fi. And finally, at the tourists’ center, I found it. Those photos from Gab, and a message from Sebastian. My only hope at a local friend.
He agreed to meet but “after lunch” he said. It was barely 12, and the brewery I’d suggested didn’t reopen ‘till three.
Back through the market, I wandered again. Past the hippies with dreadlocks, and incense. Past the couples, the families, the friends. I still wasn’t hungry, but an emptiness lurked, so I stopped at a falafel taco truck to fill up.
Under the clock tower of the old chapel, next to the lazy river, on the side of the canal, I enjoyed my meal, alone. Then, again, I roamed the streets. Now lunchtime, the crowds had disappeared. Past café’s and down alleyways. I saw no-one, all the same. Mid-day in Europe, it’s a solitary place.
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.
It's quiet now out on the terrace. The kids and Alice are away. Louis's inside, I think, which leaves me here alone, to think.
There were some close calls, like when I ripped a chunk of my pinky finger clean off, by thrusting it right into those metal teeth. The time I fell awkwardly on my knee, as we were attempting to uproot that tree. The endless lifting, of things often far too heavy. The time I hit my head on that tree. The countless splinters. And, the scariest of all, when that 50 pounds log fell and pinched my ankle between two chunks of tree. But, after eleven full days on The Mill (eight of working), I'm leaving here tomorrow, feeling healthy.
It's been an incredible experience, and it's one I'll always cherish. That time I spent two weeks in the French Pyrenees, chopping wood, and lifting things.
The things I've learned/been introduced to:
-chopping wood (axe)
-sawing trees (chainsaw)
-making fence posts
-driving a quad
-being self sufficient
-the French photography industry
-French cuisine (yum)
One last dinner tonight.
Tomorrow morning, I leave.
October 19th 2018
Leaning against my bedroom window, smoking one last spliff. An earbud in my left ear, and the creek in my right. Breakfast, with Louis's mother consisted of yogurt, a banana, and cheese she brought from the Alps. It's good!
I shaved the remains of that attempted goatee. A weak mustache, and douchey soul patch. I better not get IDed to buy a drink.
I didn't sleep great, I'm groggy, but it's fine. I never sleep the night before a new place.
Alice hasn't mentioned it this morning, but last night she said we'd leave at 9:30, but that'll probably be more like 9:43. The French have a nice pace. It works for me.
While I ate my breakfast, the boys left with Louis. I guess that'll make the goodbye a little easier.
Although I've done a few Google searches, up until now, Barcelona's been little more than an abstract place on a map, much like The Mill was before I got here. But I've experienced so much in two weeks.
It's time to go now. Time to ride another road. Another song begins. The creek's drowned out by a deep, mellow tone. Let's go find the high notes.
Oh shit, I have twenty minutes to pack!