Monday, February 25, 2013

Week One on the Normandy Farm

"Come on! Help me get this down!" I urged Kyle to get our luggage from the overhead compartment to depart from the train.

"We still have at least 15 minutes before we even slow down.  Relax, would you?" he replied impatiently.

I was so excited to meet Alex, the French portion of the English-French couple we agreed to help out for the next three weeks, that I'd already been to the bathroom three times, once for its proper use, and the other two to smooth down my hair and moisturize my skin from a damaging day of travel.  When we finally unloaded, I started on slowly, not wanting to barge through the station searching the greeters' faces.  I had only seen a few pictures of Alex, but we spotted her rather quickly, smiling warmly and grasping a black leash attached to a giant black-colored collie.  We exchanged hellos, and she explained that Gin is their guard dog, understandably wary of strangers.  She thought she'd give us a chance to meet him outside his territory and give him a head start on becoming accustomed to us.  He glared at us through his chocolate brown eyes, then we headed for the car, a large black Land Rover.  I walked around the car a few times, trying to sort out which seat to take; the steering wheel was on the right side of the car.
After all the gray and cold, we were finally greeted by blue skies

 We chatted the 20 or so minutes back to the house, a huge stone building, once serving the village's manor family.  There are two huge stone barns, and several large fields.  As we pulled in, two other dogs barked and ran along the tires, anxious to see their owner's face behind the wheel.  Gin burst out of the trunk and continued eying us suspiciously.  The other two dogs leapt at our feet, tails wagging furiously.  Brigit, the fluffy mutt, took any rubs and pets she could extract.  Shadow, the husky-German shepherd mix, pranced around sniffing us down all the way to the door.

The sun was shining brightly, and we were happy to leave our heavy winter coats inside.  Ed came to greet us in the kitchen, just as warmly as Alex had.  His soft eyes and traditional English accent (and sense of sarcasm) won us both over immediately.  The couple showed us around the house first, then the grounds with the dogs sprinting to catch up to each new location.  The bottom floor is split into two main parts, the front half for daily living, the back half unfinished with paint cans, packed boxes, and other things necessary for finishing the house.  It was a shock at first to see the dogs covered in pond water and dirt traipsing through the house, but the house really doesn't feel dirty, so to speak.  The upstairs is finished, more or less, so no dogs allowed.  There's a kitchen Alex is constantly cursing about, as she doesn't yet have cabinet space and just recently got a stove.  She was using hot plates before.  The place is furnished with the neighbors’ hand-me-downs since they don't want to buy anything nice (or as they say, posh) until the big projects (floors, walls, etc) are completed.  The bottom floor is heated solely by a wood burning stove, which makes coming in from a cool day of work very inviting.  Especially when Ed has made, in his eyes, the only respectable brand of English Breakfast tea with a splash of milk.

The main house in Le Mesnil Veneron
 There are four horses in the large barn, all 12 years or older.  In the first stall resides Trilly, a large black female who is very well-trained and mild.  Next is Jack, who is 26-years-old and a pure New Forest breed.  During the day when the horses are in the field, Jack is kept in his own roped off area because he's known to be "a naughty monkey" with the other horses, in Ed's words.  Next is the patchy-haired giant Madison, who Alex says will follow just about anyone's instructions.  Finally, the youngest chestnut female Poppy has the largest stall and the largest personality.  She's very spry and active, always trying to escape or walk around to shove her bum in your face for a nice rub down.  Over the past week (has it really been an entire week?!), I've learned how to fill and hang the hay nets for their evening snacks, shovel out manure, sweep out the stalls, fill them with new straw and other materials for bedding, lead them out to the field or back into the stalls, clean mud out of their shoes, prepare their respective dinners, and brush them.  It's a lot of work, but having them around is pretty rewarding in many ways

Madison, Trilly, and Poppy

Jack in his separate pen, along with some gorgeous oaks
 After a few hours of touring the grounds and moving into our new room, we sat down for a late dinner prepared by Alex.  It was their light meal for the day, so we had a couple slices of a delicious leek and onion quiche with a large basket of sliced baguette.  Over the meal we discussed our plan for the workaway.  You're probably wondering what that is.  Upon researching ways to travel cheaply or even free, we found Workaway, a program throughout the world where farmers agree to host travelers in exchange for their work.  You pay a small fee for a membership (to keep the less committed and crazies out, I suppose), then have freedom to roam the site for places to visit.  Different families offer different things, but typically you get room and board for about 25 hours of work a week.  We contacted a few families in France, and Alex and Ed responded first.  They said they needed help with wood during this time of the year.  At the backside of one field, there's a giant hedge needing trimmed.  Not a hedge in the American front lawn sense, but a large line of trees, bushes, brambles, and overgrowth separating Alex and Ed's land from the neighboring dairy farmer.  Every seven years or so, hedges should be stripped down, which somehow encourages the hedge to grow more orderly down the center again.  What's large enough is saved for firewood, and the rest is burned.  The hedge we were to confront hadn't been cut in over twenty years.

Alex and Ed needed to drive their daughter Roxanne to the airport on Monday, which happened to be near a very interesting city they thought we might like to see.  We agreed to take advantage of the opportunity and exchanged Saturday for having Monday off.  We planned to meet for breakfast at 8:00, then headed to bed.

Four hens who have been providing fresh eggs for the quiches
 The next morning was quite surprising because we learned that in French tradition, and particularly in this village, families still sit down together for every meal.  People aren't grabbing a bagel on their way out the door or having a bowl of cereal over the morning newspaper.  We helped set the table, then all sat down to eat. Breakfast has been the same every morning: a basket of baguette slices with a collection of spreads and a pot of coffee.  We tested Alex’s homemade apricot and rhubarb jams and their individual slabs of cream cheese.  Then the four of us headed to the barn to collect the necessary tools for cutting the hedge, a chainsaw, handsaw, loppers, and fuel.  Gin, Brigit, and Shadow tagged along, weaving between our legs and splashing happily through the mud.  Brigit is 15-years-old, so she usually just barks at the other two wrestling and chasing each other all day through the fresh air. 

As close to a photo of Brigit I could get with a camera; she's bashful in her old age
We spent the morning working our muscles, dragging sawed trees to be trimmed down, sawing smaller trunks by hand, and sorting the wood for keeping and burning.  What would have been a hard job turned into quite a trying one because the entire field is under water.  The horses have stomped through it enough to make it one big mud puddle.  Thankfully there were plenty of Wellies to spare; I can’t imagine any pair of shoes in that mess.  In some spots we sank, others suctioned to our boots so we’d pause and tug for a while, but most just clung to us like giant globs of glue.  After a few hours we headed back to the house for a lunch break.  The daughter Roxanne was in from England for the weekend staying with her boyfriend, the farmer next door.  They were coming for lunch, so Alex hurriedly prepared the fixings.  Because the boyfriend Eric is French, Alex felt it necessary to have a proper French lunch, the biggest meal of the day in most households. 

Still working on capturing Gin, but Shadow is more than happy to pose

Very happy to pose
We started with an aperitif, a drink to get the hunger juices flowing, along with some pretzels.  Next came the starter with another aperitif.  The starter consisted of dried duck breast, bread, and marinated, grated carrots.  We ate this slowly and sipped our tiny glasses of strong and sweet red wine.  After everyone had finished, we moved on to the main meal, beef bourguignon cooked in local cider overknepfle (or spaetzle).  We ate this with our small glasses filled with the same cider.  After the main dish, we ate the salad, traditionally after the main meal in France.  A platter of delicious cheeses was shared following the salad course, along with more bread.  Last came crepes with apple filling and a rum sauce.  After this large meal, the French head back out for a few more hours of work.  I sat there with my head buzzing a bit from the alcohol and my stomach bulging.  I dragged my feet to the garage and slowly pulled my once green, now brown boots over my feet.  We stumbled through the field with two extra helpers, Roxanne and Eric.  Like I said, Eric is a real farmer, so he handled the chainsaw like a professional while most of us just dragged the wood around.  After a couple more hours, it was time to call it a day.

Most days have followed this same routine.  We meet for a breakfast of baguettes and spreads at 8:00 then head out around 9 or 9:30 depending on the frost covering the ground.  We work on the hedge for two hours then come in to do work in the stables for another hour.  We relax for a bit until our massive lunch, then head back out to the hedge for two more solid hours.  We come in and change out of our mud-covered clothing, hang it to dry for the next day, then relax.  Ed usually makes a cup of tea with cookies, excuse me biscuits, and we all enjoy the evening with a book or laptop.  Later at around 8:00 we eat a lighter meal, again at the table, then make our way to bed.    

After one day on the hedge - can you see the line where his Wellies stop?
It feels incredible to be physically exhausted when we finally collapse into bed at night, and it’s really enjoyable sitting down properly for each meal.  We are forced to converse, no matter the situation, which has made us all get to know one another quite quickly.  Every meal Alex has prepared has been remarkable.  We’ve had pumpkin apple ginger soup, bacon and onion quiche, veal casserole, sausage and sauerkraut, roasted cheesy potatoes, veal polpette (delicious!), and many other creations.  The cheese platter has quickly become our favorite part of the meal, with blue cheese, the region’s famous Camembert, goat cheese, munster, and on and on it goes.  Some mornings when Alex stops at the bakery, we have a treat of croissants with chocolate or raisins.  She’s made apple cake, rice pudding, and flamed bananas as dessert.  It’s really amazing how she works part-time as a Marketing instructor, works almost as many hours as we do on the land (about 25), and does all the cooking and cleaning in a week.  Not only that - every day she turns out two fabulous meals.  She’s very focused and motivated, speaking quickly through a think French accent despite having lived in England for 20+ years.  She readily gives orders and tells you bluntly what she expects.  She’s very pleased to have found someone to indulge in dessert with (me) and two people who ravenously enjoy her food.  Ed, in a completely different manner, is a complete pleasure to be around.   His witty sense of humor always catches you off guard.  He has an encyclopedia of knowledge running through his mind at any given moment.  He’s informed us all about the region of Normandy and jumps into just about any conversation with a sage view.  He takes plenty of time and effort in explaining any new job to us, often getting off-topic and onto some tangent for quite some time.  He’s patient, easy to laugh, and always congratulating us after our work, always saying, “Well done!”  He’s retired, but happily involved in the village by playing table tennis twice a week and golf another day.  I think he very easily could be the funniest person I’ve ever met, half the time without meaning to be. I really can’t believe how lucky we are, having contacted a few farms on a website, then committing to the first couple that responded, and getting on so well with these complete strangers with whom we’d only exchanged a few e-mails. 

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