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france, letters from near and far

While the body works, the mind wanders

June 29, 2019 • By

It is 6am and we are in the vineyards, the sun a pastel orange smudge on the horizon and the reason we have been coming hours earlier than the previous week. The forecast for the afternoon says 37, and 40 for the day after (100-ish in Fahrenheit), and those are unpleasant temperatures for tending vines. To squeeze in the work, we start at dawn and plow forward. The day’s task has three stages, all with the goal of pulling the plants high-and-tight so there is room in each row for the tractors to come through, uproot the weeds, and leave the grape vines in relative peace so they can go on their merry grape-bearing ways.

While the body works, the mind wanders. The hot earth, the breeze through the fields, the water breaks, it’s all too reminiscent of teenaged summers in Sacramento. Breezes that broke the triple-digit temperatures during weeklong soccer camps and the nighttime practices, of never being quite clean during a cross-country camp because we had just run or or were going to barbecue or go run again or we had finished the day’s second run and it was time to sabotage the girls’ tent so really why get clean, of walking to my car after a practice at my junior high to find she’d left me a note and an orange ribbon and though things were still early they were exciting, of not letting the temperature or time of day decide when I could or would run (I suppose I haven’t changed much in 15 years, because I went for a run here one afternoon at 38 degrees before doing the maths and realizing that’s 100…).

It is 8am, and we have moved on to another grouping of vines, now Malbec. Today’s task has three parts. First, we lower the iron guide wires on either side of the plant, each in various stages of rusting or nearing completely rusted or so rusted that they break and need to be swapped out after thirty years of service, to the ground which then allows us to do the second step and adjust the wires to remove some slack and get on to the very satisfying third step which involves pulling the wires back up, clipping them together, and insuring the plants and all the various tendrils are gathered together for that cozy family photo and then we get to the end of the row and look back and it is clear and it feels good.

From chaos to order. Take that, messy bedrooms of my youth. Take that, entropy. Take that, universe.

Then we do it again. And again. They have 10 hectares, so there will be a couple of weeks of agains.

Occasionally, we chat in French. From my offering of stumps as gifts to Madame Dusite, to conferring on strategies to take on the gnats, it breaks up the morning. Then I study in the afternoon, take a mid-afternoon break to scheme for the summer’s end in Spanish, and slip back into butchering French for dinner with Yohann and Anne-Cecile. In between pouring them their own rosé and trying (and, perhaps, failing) to describe how television ratings work in America, it occurs to me I have, with varying levels of intentionality, disconnected from home.

As far as English goes, I have this letter… and regular visits to The Ringer because NBA free agency is upon us and of the two hats I brought to France, one is from a Northern California winery and the other is my Pride-themed Sacramento Kings hat, and not that I expect a big play in free agency for the team with the longest playoff drought in the league but one never knows (plus there are several insufferable Lakers fans in my life and I need the summer to effectively plan my retorts to their offseason lunacy).

And as far as home goes, I expected a certain amount of letting go, as I put my 916 number on hold. But then after a week here, I did the same for social media. More than anything else, it’s my own problem (What am I using it for? Why am I sharing? Who even cares? Why does it matter who cares?), as I am not unlike a horse who needs blinders to focus on the race. Unstructured Free Time, Languid Afternoons and Social Media combine for a tasty cocktail, but I think this summer is just for wine.

(And cheese.)

It is 10am, and all of the battles we are fighting here in the Loire Valley, the lovely, castle-infested, sweltering garden of France, could be solved with pesticides (and that we aren’t using them is more or less The Point of an organic farm, and I am learning that more through bug bites and blisters than didactic rants about the essence of the earth — mostly, they talk about the weather for the afternoon, with occasional jokes about Monsanto). That is to say, instead of holding my breath while walking through a cloud of gnats to keep them out of my nose, instead of blinking furiously to keep them out of my sensitive, city-slicker eyes, they could just be… gone.

Instead of our shared observing that around this time of day there seems to be an insect changing of the guards, as the aimless little ones subside and the big ones who bite (and bite hard!) take over the human-pestering shift, and instead of counting how many bites I get the second I take off my shirt, they could just be… gone.

Instead of all the work that goes into making it easier for the tractor to remove the weeds, those weeds, too, could just be… gone.

This is just to say that many of the things we categorically reject (be it Democrats, Republicans, the Twilight movies, or pesticides) have benefits and positives, and it is worth understanding why farmers might, after decades of bending over to pull weeds while fending off bitey, noisy, nasty bugs, consider something else. I don’t have an answer other than I’ve worked at two organic vineyards, am heading to an organic goat farm, and potentially another farm after that, so I hope to better understand at least this perspective.

It is noon, and we have put in enough work for the day, both in the sense of exaggerating our farmer’s tans and in tending to the vines. We have handled well over one and half hectares of the ten or so that they use to produce 45,000 bottles of wine a year, and it is with those numbers in mind I decide I have earned a third slice of bread at lunch.

We are in the van riding back together. I am in the back, with the spool of fresh iron wire, with the rusted connecting pieces, with the tools. We push up on the back vent, allowing in a breeze and a view of the hot air balloons surveying the vineyards. There’s talk about the weather (hot, still hot, perhaps less hot).

With a bump, we leave the gravel path and the vines for the day.

france, letters from near and far

A good morning in Rignac

June 20, 2019 • By

I didn’t get to run before breakfast.

When we agreed to a Sunday morning meal with Claude, the father of the host we’re staying with for a few weeks here in Rignac, we were warned about just how heavy this dejeuner would be, especially at 8 in the morning. So, the day before, I started planning a route I could run before breakfast to clear up precious stomach space. But as the sun sets late here, and the people go to bed even later, it’s ever harder to protect that time in the morning, and that proved true once again on Sunday. An extra half-hour of lazing about led to a knock on the door. We crammed into Claude’s car, and we went to the next town over.

The meal was as heavy as advertised: a tripe stew, sausages, cheese, cake, and several wines. It was, it turns out, part of a weekly rotating Sunday meal put on by various organizations in neighboring villages, all with populations of around 200 or 300 people, to raise money for the local schools. They’re attended primarily by, as is the custom, older men, who each check in on their friends of 50+ years with handshakes, laughs and nods, hair thin and hands calloused. There aren’t many women, except a few new moms, and a few matriarchs who spend the morning making the rounds. As the steam from the tripe stew opens my pores and too-much-wine too early helps me ask follow-up questions about Claude’s butcher shop, I notice the rain.

There’s nothing like running in the rain.

Tending the vines in Balsac

For the past week, I’ve been working on an organic vineyard in Balsac, while staying in Rignac in the Occitanie region of France. As I spend the morning plucking new growths to encourage each plant to focus its energy toward the grape-bearing vines, and as I perform an endless series of squats up the steep incline of the red clay-covered vineyards, a run begins to seem like a good idea to stretch out the legs. After sausage, wine and cheese at each of our meals, that same run begins to seem like a great idea.

But time is different here. The people sit longer, and stay longer. They were born here, and live here. They love the traditions older than they are, of sports and food and farming, and they honor them. Always, there is a cheese to taste, a dessert to try, and yesterday’s to finish. Plus, the keg from the party to inaugurate the wine cave still isn’t empty, so could you drink one more beer, please? With the work and the meals melting into a fondue of oozing time, no one rushes around during these late spring days.

After breakfast and enough wine to knock out Tyrion Lannister, I expected a midday nap and a run through the now-soggy fields and by the mopey cows.

But I didn’t run then, either.

Instead, we drove. Past the house we’re staying in, past the parent’s home and the 1-year-old Border Collie, and onward to vineyards and small towns and local claims-to-fame like the largest hand-carved wooden shoe… in the world? With occasional comments about the landscape, the towns, our host’s beginnings as a winemaker, we push through breezy curtains of constant drizzle in the opposite direction of our home and my running shoes, as that run begins to seem ever less likely.

Finally we get to a park, and we see our host in a very sporty uniform. It turns out they are in the middle of a tournament for quille, a sport which to my untrained American eyes seems a lot like dusty bowling. We had arrived during their lunch break. As another team was in the midst of talking to Claude, they invited me to eat cheese.

A light snack before sports

Still full of the cheese from that morning, I agreed. Soon, I found myself behind a van with a full-on picnic setup, a plastic plate full of Aveyron’s finest snacks in one hand, and a plastic cup filled with Aveyron’s finest wine in the other. Every attempt to be demure and to pass on food was forcefully ignored. No meant yes, a taste meant a slice, and a bit meant a plateful. Paté, cheese, flan, bread, and other desserts — all of this before they were set to continue playing. Spoiler: somehow they would go on to win.

As that team kept winning, along with my host’s team, I figured that meant a quiet night as everyone recovered.

A night, perhaps, for a run.

A brief break for sports before more snack.

So after the award ceremony and a late-dusk drive back with the sun streaking through the clouds, I figured the scene was set for my own victory run.

But still, I didn’t run.

The teams came over for beer and wine and pastis, a liqueur made from anise, and cheese. We all laughed and I somewhat mostly kind of understood what was going on in, to the extent I completed several French requests with aplomb (un coteau? Pour le pain ou le fromage?).

And I didn’t run.

But for a day that I felt had been defined by what I wasn’t able to do, a continuous thwarting of one seemingly simple desire to make a dent in the thousands of cheese calories I had piled on in just one week, it became so much more.

With the traditional Sunday meal surrounded by the elder dudes of the village, a road trip led by a father proud of his place in the world, witnessing his son’s triumph in a very traditional sport, being whisked away and welcomed by strangers eager to share their snacks, having the French president of quille teach us how to play, watching triumphant teammates swig from their trophy while eating the leftovers from parties past, the day was full of moments. It’s just that staying in the moment can be a struggle, especially as waves of the new crash over, leaving me craving the islands of comfort that I know. But as it always has been, running will be there, English will be there, and free time will be there.

Until then, there are new cheeses to be had.

letters from near and far, rwanda

Cannonballing into Another Life

August 16, 2018 • By

I’ve been back for two days, and I haven’t had any epiphanies about the significance of How I Spent My Summer Vacation. I had hoped to think more about the trip on the 37-hour return journey home, but I watched Isle of Dogs, Early Man, and slept. I had hoped to think about how to condense the trip into a pithy sentence, so when people ask, “How was it?” I would have refined insight into 60 days abroad, but before I knew it, I was at a wedding surrounded by friends asking, “How was it?” and I stammered out a not-so-thoughtful response.

It feels like I cannonballed into another life. Rather than dipping my toes one at a time into the waters of a different industry, city, culture, or family, I flopped bellyfirst into helping develop a tour company in East Africa during the day, while falling into the routines of two families in the evenings.

I look through the photos. Here we all are together. Last-minute photos from the car full of guys escorting me to the airport. Matching kitenge-accented blazers in the lounge. Peeling bananas to make banana beer. A smiling happy family photo from the back seat of a Land Cruiser.

I wake up to video calls at 5 in the morning. They forget about the time difference; they just want to talk, to show me the office or the outfit they’re wearing.

“When are you coming back?

I set out for Rwanda with openness and without a checklist. Sometimes when I travel I give myself a list of books to read, or things to see, or places to run. Before this trip, I imagined a daily schedule that would include baking in the morning and marketing in the afternoon, but that went by the wayside when I realized how I might actually be helpful for the hotel and their new project, versus my own self-centered ideals of what I wanted to get out of my summer. With all that, it is difficult to quantify the time I spent there because there is no real baseline, but is it really that important to? Do I need to know the distance for every run I’ve been on, or is it okay to leave the running watch at home once in a while?

What I set out for — to live in another city, to play around with languages, to work with interesting and interested people — I got to do, and even though the specifics are different than I imagined, that I was able to be in those environments at all is something I am grateful for, appreciative of, and I’m realizing that hanging onto the feelings of gratitude and appreciation, rather than forcing some personal excavation in search of some vague deeper truth might just be the best approach.

“When are you coming


Since I’ve been back, I’ve run and run errands, hiked and hung out. The rhythms I escaped by living in a different city waited for me to come back; it is easy to fall back into the slipstream of regular life. Dinners are arranged for the weeks and weekends to come. I walked to get my car from the parking garage at work, and grabbed an ice cream cone on the way, paying more for it than I paid for most dinners over the last two months. People smiled at me as I walked with my ice cream cone. My car’s battery died, and I called AAA and within 20 minutes a technician had arrived and everything was back to normal.

Everything is back to normal. Ice cream and car batteries and dinners and parking garages and abundant data plans and paved roads and neighborhood horses.

“U told him u coming next year in june?”

I spent the summer launching a tour company instead of a television show. In Rwanda, it’s a six-day workweek. When you live at the hotel you work at, there isn’t much to keep it from becoming a seven-day workweek. Still, the work was enjoyable, and the people even more so. But as much as I try to keep professional distances between the people I work with and the people I spend time with (a philosophy I’ve been challenging more of late…) outside of work, the closeness bred fondness.

To get to know people in their homes creates an intimacy. Over the course of dinner parties, road trips, and weekends away, I became a babysitter and a sous chef and a friend and a confidant. So when she wrote her letter of resignation on my last day, it was personal. Why should I be included in this process? What right do I have to be brought along the highs and lows of an expat working abroad, living and raising a family abroad, with the painful isolation and lack of understanding this life entails? And yet, whether for lack of better company or some actual redeeming quality, she entrusted me with the weight of it all.

I’m not much of an advice-giver, because I believe people already know what they want to do. I’ve made a mistake or ten over the past year, and I’m happy enough to describe them, but I’m reluctant to make any claims to wisdom from what I’ve gone through. But I will listen, and I did.

Fast friendships are common while traveling. We bond together over a long walk home from the market. We talk about our relationships over Ethiopian food. We gather together and run away for the weekend and see gorillas, and then don’t see each other again. We send emojis on WhatsApp over days and weeks to check-in. But to reach something deeper than that is rare, and it is not a bond I will soon forget.

“I hope so..U will get busy in ur life n will forget us”

I compartmentalize a lot in my life, from projects and relationships to friends old and new. Slowly, I’m beginning to see the beauty of continuity and throughlines, of friendships far, wide, shallow and deep, but it is a process, and with work, and family, and a person, and interests here, I will get busy, but so will she, and so will they. We’ll do what we can, through video calls and WhatsApp emojis, to stay in touch, but I recognize I have a hard enough time with friendships here in the city I live in to make lofty promises about keeping up friendships a world apart.

I don’t yet know if I will go back, whether in March or June or at all. The country is compelling and tricky and growing, but the world is big. The people I met are altogether decent. For now, I know that I am grateful and appreciative of this summer, I am hopeful for where it could lead, and I won’t forget.