1000 times happy

The smell of petrol mixed with the musty stench of Aymeric. On the back of the quad, I tightened my grip as we snarled around the bend into a crisp mountain breeze. The view opened up. Infinite lush green Pyrenees. I could finally breathe.  

“This afternoon we go to the neighbors” Aymeric had mentioned while we wrangled another bundle of sticks on the muddy shores of the glistening creek. It’d been five days since I’d arrived at the farm, my second volunteer location. Sawing trees and hammering posts was taxing physically, but far more than my lats and traps, I ached for social interaction.

Less than a mile from the front gate, we turned off the main road onto a thin path. Under a thick canopy of forest, past a fern-covered floor we rode. At a rustic two-story home, the dirt came to an end.

“Bonjour!” out of an open kitchen door, a mother and child emerged. “David will be here soon” she said in French. Down the steep hillside behind us, a tan shirtless man galloped toward. Gasping for air through his big white teeth, he squeezed out “Hey! Nice to meet you!”.

At the center of the table, a block of creamy camembert cheese, “from the neighbor’s”, a vine of juicy purple grapes, “from the garden”, and a jar of golden honey, glowed in the afternoon sun. David poured me a local amber ale, to celebrate the success of hauling wood, another backbreaking task. “This is from the brewery in St. Girons” Aymeric noted, as we sipped from the terrace, enjoying the rolling peaks.

Sweet, yet subtle. “This honey is amazing!” I said. “It’s from my bees, I’ll show you!” David exclaimed excitedly.

The air vibrated in all directions. Just inches from the row of four wooden hives, we crouched, entirely unprotected. “So, these bees can escape?” I posed the obvious question nervously. “Yes, see.” David removed a piece of wooden siding revealing a glass panel with a small slit at the bottom, and thousands of black and yellow creatures with wings.

“What made you want to keep bees?” I asked. “They’re very important to nature, and many are dying.” David said thoughtfully. “And, they’re so interesting.” He proceeded to explain 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. These ones are receiving the supplies and bringing it in to make 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, David completely reshaped my perspective of biology.

Without a single sting, we walked back toward the house. At a patch of rice, we paused briefly. “I try two different kinds” “One short” He held out a small green pod in his left hand “And one long”, another in his right. “Very interesting.” I said to him. “Yes, but I did not produce enough for my family.” he said in his first somber tone. “I will do better next year!” He perked back up immediately.

Back at the terrace, we continued chatting. “I used to be a city guy. I’d spend my money on clothes and parties.” “My mother is from Vietnam, and a few years back, I visited.” “I learned about self-sufficiency.” He spoke with passion. “Are you happier now than you were in the city?” I asked. “1000 times happy!” He flashed that smile of big white teeth.

From the kitchen, a child began to cry. “I must go my friend but come back any time!” David hugged me and said goodbye. “Au revoir!”, his wife shouted from a second-floor balcony.

The sound of child’s laughter, and the flow of the creek. The scent of wet grass, and lemony pine needles. “Tylah!” the boys yelled out while chasing each other around the lawn. On the terrace, Krystal welcomed me with cake and coffee. With a need to socialize now satisfied, I too felt an immense sense of happiness from the simplicity and beauty of life in the Pyrenees.

WWOOFing at le Chateau: Days 2 & 3

October 2nd Day 2

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“Over a now steady drizzle the occasional bird sings. All day, it’s been chilly and grey, and just after we finished our afternoon tasks, the rain began. Aside from the chirps and drops, it’s silent, and soothing. There’s a nostalgia to it.” I wrote in my notes.

“Where are the pockets?” I asked. “This is a different game” Hermine explained the rules of “3 ball billiards” to me and Minha. I’d seen a table like it only once, in my Korean dorm during EPIK orientation. Funny the things that bring you back.

We’d just finished a rather bland dinner of an egg and potato omlet with bread. The day was much the same. Cloudy, grey, and uneventful. In the morning, I trimmed the ivy around the Chateau. Shortly after, it began to rain.

Confined inside, for the rest of the day, Hermine did her best to keep us occupied. In the kitchen, we cracked walnuts and pealed pears. With the smell of burning wood from the stove and the chill outside, it felt sort of like a holiday.

The Merlot was deliciously dry. Hermine poured our glasses tall and offered seconds as she explained the game. The mood loosened. She wasn’t nearly as uptight.

Minha went first. I contemplated my angle. As the Merlot soaked, from across the table, I searched for a sparkle in her eye. Then, I realized, I can’t lie. We finished a best of five. The whole day was a reminder to get out and socialize.

October 3rd, Day 3

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“Would you like some coffee?” I asked. In the kitchen, Minha and I rummaged for breakfast. Hermine had mentioned the night before that she would be in Paris for the day. She left a short list of tasks to complete on the table, in French.

Pleasantly breezy, with sun, I sawed branches and wrapped them into bundles with chord out in front of the barn. Minha worked in the garden. After half an hour, we were done. We saddled our bikes around eleven, and rode toward le ville.

Behind a crumbled old façade, a small market hid. “Carrots, onions, potatoes” we gathered the items from our list. The last task for the day.

We spotted the bar on our way back. A wall of tobacco products on one side, and a few handles of drafts on the counter. The Affligem biere was refreshing in the afternoon warmth. The place was empty. We only stayed for one.

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With the place to ourselves, I took the opportunity to explore the Chateau. Through a foreign corridor, I entered a door at the right. It creaked as I pushed. Dust fluttered through the daylight. A bed, a bit messy, a shelf of books, even messier, and a harp, were inside. No televisision, or computer, like a room from a museum, trapped in time.

In that rustic French kitchen, Minha and I sat sipping noodle with kimchi for dinner. She’d brought them with her from home.

Around ten, when I went to bed, Hermine still hadn’t returned.

 

 

 

WWOOFing at le Chateau: Day 1

October 1st ’18

Day 1

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Victorian couples dancing. A man playing some ancient instrument underneath a tree. A horse drawn carriage. These gaping shutters, which interrupt the 18th century wallpaper and give way to a bright blue sky. A crisp autumn breeze. It’s 4:57 pm on my first full day here. And it’s still very difficult to believe.

The morning bike ride into the village to fetch vegetables for lunch. The pleasant interactions with locals when I lost my way. No service. The bells that ring ever hour. There they are now. The foraging through the garden. The history of the streets. The freshness of the cuisine. The delight of tea time, with a sweet gingerbread treat. The simplicity. Sitting at this desk, watching the clouds drift, while listening to classical music. Is this a dream?

The chapel bells rang out across the fields, signaling the first glimpse of sunrise over the hills. I peeked outside, then drifted back asleep to the melody.

“oooh hooo oooo hooo” “Tyler, it’s almost ten o’clock’ Hermine called from outside my door to wake me. For the first time in 48 hours, I’d finally slept. “okay, I’ll be right down” I said. The kitchen door was open. The table set for one. A mug for coffee, a glass jar of muesli. A bowl of homemade yogurt. Apricot jam sourced from the garden. Bread.

“You’ve got time, but when you’re finished eating, you should go to the farm for the produce.” “I have to run an errand, but take a bike, and the bag when you go.” She handed me three coins to use as payment.

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The rusted old barn door opened to a dark room filled with cobwebs and worn out old bike. I sorted through for fifteen minutes, before finding one that I could ride. I took a glance at the map, then set out on the country road. A field of yellow flowers on my right. Tall tan stalks of corn on my left. Above, a pale blue sky, the same color as my cranky old bike. At a cluster of houses, I rechecked the map. No cell service. I was lost.

I friendly looking man walked past picking up trash. He didn’t speak a word of English. But tried his best to help. A few blocks over, on the other edge of the village, I asked another man for help. Again, no English. He pointed in the opposite direction. “Excuse em moi monsieur” I approached a third. “I’ll be right back, let me get my glasses.” He said. Then, finally, I found the farm.

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I rehearsed what to say from the translator on my phone, before ringing the buzzer. “Bonjour, I’m here to pick up the vegetables” I said. They didn’t understand. It took three tries to complete the buy.

On the ride back, the chain popped off the bike. I put it back on, then it happened again. I shed my jacket and hat as I walked on the side of the road back toward the chateau.

“Oh good, you’re back” “It’s time for lunch. Sit.” Hermine met me at the door and shuffled me to the table inside. Bread, Cheese, a cranberry ginger pear mixture, and an extra place setting. Hermine prepared the salad with the vegetables I’d just delivered. “Minha will be right down.” She said.

“I wonder what she does with all of these?” I made small talk with Minha, the new WWOOFer, as we gathered chestnuts that had fallen from the trees. “In Korea, we call these Gunban. Have you tried?” We talked about my time in Korea while completing our afternoon tasks.

We broke for tea time. In the upstairs flat, Hermine showed me to the desk. “You requested a desk right?” I was pleased. For the next hour I wrote.

The sun was beginning to sink, and the temperature dropped. Hermine gave us instructions and sent us off. Our assignment was to pick up milk from the dairy farm.

Le Laitier

The cars buzzed past on that narrow road. Again, the chain popped off the bike. Barely five minutes in, Minha and I were left stranded in the waning light. And we were lost.

The map Hermine gave us was more of a satellite image, with nameless streets and roads. We wondered through an intersection, with a light, around the block, one of five, and then found the empty green hillside, and the barn on top.

An old pickup truck, faded sky blue, occupied the dirt drive. The place was silent. Someone shouted inside.

Behind a stack of hay, and shadows, a man appeared. Wearing a striped work shirt, and messy hair. He waved at us. I held up the empty jug. “WWOOFERs”. We said “Oui”. “Par ici” he signaled us toward a door on the side.

The heavy scent of unpasteurized dairy clogged my nostrils, as Minha and I approached. The man handed me a carton of eggs. “Vos oeufs” He said. “Le carton” He asked for the jug in my other hand.

At another door, he again signaled further.

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No windows, and an elevated conveyor belt on both sides. Webs of hosing hung from the ceiling. The milk man hit a button, and the first cows stumbled in.

He took a wipe and cleaned the utter. Then attached the hose underneath. He waved at us, Minha went first. He put me to work on the other side.

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The smell of mud and manure mixed with milk. From the source, he filled our jug. I handed him the coins. “Merci! Au revoir!” He said and sent us on our way. We made it back in the very last rays of light.

WWOOFing at le Chateau: Arrival

She added two logs from the tall stack, into the wood burning stove. My eyes danced around the room in an exhausted excitement. Two flights and a layover through the night. I unloaded my bag from the cab around nine.

I was too enthralled on the plane to dare of sleeping. That moment, Atlantic blue became patches of green and brown, behind a sea of puffy white clouds. Farms, and hills. scattered clusters of rustic roofs. Few roads. A river carved through the land, the Seine. A divide overhead. Half sun, half clouds. A band of rain on the horizon.  

I spotted the Eifel tower as we began to descend. No customs, no border check. An airport. A bus terminal. A ride through the outskirts. A village. A church. A train. A cab. Narrow roads. Dark. A beanie, a scarf, and pajama pants, Hermine.

The iron gate slammed shut. Down a white gravel path, we walked toward the shutters’ yellow glow. To the staircase through the foyer. An ancient mirror on the second-floor landing, the attic loft on the third. I ducked my head as she flicked on the light, revealing four small beds and a slanted room.

“Tyler, would you like some wine?” She asked persistently, as if it wasn’t the first time.” “Uhhh yes, I mean oui” “Please” I looked down at the table. An earthy orange soup, a loaf of hearty bread, a pungent cheese. I sipped the Merlot.

I’d found the place online. Through a suggestion from a friend. I made a quick profile (Name, bio, photo) and paid a small annual fee. We exchanged a few messages, in English. I booked a flight. A month later, I arrived. And now, Hermine sat across the table from me.

Madeleine, the other WWOOFer, sat to my left. Orange hair, freckles, from the states, 19. “So, you must wake early to catch the shuttle.” Hermine said to Madeleine. Then, she explained to me that it was her last night. Much of the dinner was quiet. “Bonne nuit” Hermine said, “I’m off to get some rest.”

In the attic, Madeleine and I chatted. “There are some good books up here, to help pass the time.” “It can be boring when it’s just you and Hermine.”. She gave me tips on how she’d survived her week at The Chateau. We talked about her gap year, and her plans to study horticulture once she returned to the states for university. Her sense of adventure and curiosity intrigued me. We exchanged emails. We said goodnight. Finally, I went to sleep.

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