Learning Obvious Lessons

I’m in Paris now, and have been for a week or so.

Last week, I said goodbye to the goats and goat cheese, packed my bag, and headed to the capital to learn French a bit more officially than the off-the-cuff exchanges in the middles of vineyards in the Loire Valley and the Aveyron region. While I still have three weeks here before heading back to LA to start up the new TV season, in many ways the very active, hands-on, busy part of this French summer is over, making way for a more languid finish with language, dates, and regular cooking.

With that, I thought this might be a nice time to share some very obvious lessons that I’ve learned from working and traveling across the French countryside for two months. 

Animals don’t take days off – You can leave plants alone for a weekend, or, depending on the season, a month, and be totally fine. Such is the case with the vines planted for wineries. Such is not the case for goats, who would like food and water and to be milked each day (and sometimes twice a day!). What this means over the course of two weeks is I didn’t take a weekend off to explore the countryside, which felt odd after being a real bon vivant poking around the insides of four of the famous Loire Valley castles. What this means for a job, or a life, is prioritizing a lifestyle of work over a separation of life and work. And, being frank, goats are pretty delightful and a goat-centric life does not seem altogether bad. But it means pretty definitively putting to rest the whims and caprices that someone like me has in spades to travel or start and stop or to try and try again, and given that I woke up at 11a today after a very late dinner, I’m not sure I could do it.  

Physical labor is physical – A non-exhaustive list of eight weeks’ worth of problems from working outside: sore back, mosquito and fly bites, bruised shin, strained wrist, blood blister from a rusted iron gate, calloused thumbs, splinters, cuts from thorns, sunburnt neck, being sleepy, not getting RiPpEd MuScLeS, just sore ones. But, and this is perhaps less obvious, the physical labor almost always had an element of problem-solving. How can we dismantle this giant metal tunnel with just three people and a shovel? Sure, we had to apply force at some point, but cleverness is equally rewarded. 

Just show up – I had the option to sleep in or take a break, and the hosts seemed pleasantly surprised each time that I wanted to keep working. For one, I thought, that’s why I was there in the first place – to understand what it’s like to work on farms and vineyards. But more than that, I just wanted to keep showing up. In showing up, I got marginally better at wrangling vines. In showing up, I saw a goat born. In showing up, I reminded myself that I was committed to something, and I was honoring that commitment (even when honoring that commitment merely meant spreading hay over goat poops so the goats wouldn’t step in their own feces). 

Getting better takes time – In my first week, I forgot the French word for fish, and stared blankly at our host’s mom as she asked if I ate fish or not. Last week, I improvised the ending to the Titanic in French, pleading my case for sharing the floating door until we could be rescued. Getting better takes time. In moments of frustration lie hidden chances to improve. 

A country is not its city – The real treat of this trip has been getting to know France. Including last year, I’ll have spent chunks of time in Montpellier, Rodez, the Loire Valley, Normandie, Mecquignies in the north, and Paris. Given the amount of cheese I’ve been offered, it’s hard to paint French people as anything but warm and generous. But Paris is trickier. If you’re here for a weekend and have a bad experience in a restaurant, maybe the tendency is to believe our preconceptions about a rude culture were confirmed. In speaking with a Spanish girl who believed French people were indeed cold and rude, I asked where she’d been. “Just Paris.” Maybe it’s annoying to add qualifiers like “in my experience” but it’s better than arguing that a country of people is all the same. 

Meals are for sharing – In the span of two weeks I made one of the worst meals I’ve ever made, and one of the best. While we could laugh off the undercooked chicken one night and savor the meatballs in a pineapple sauce reduction on another, what ended up mattering more for those nights, and all of them, were the meals shared. Yes, it’s mortifying to cook poorly, and vindicating to have a redemption dinner, but it’s less about the ego of how I cooked. It’s about cooking for others.  

Languages are for speaking – It’s easy for me to hide behind books, apps, sites and flashcards and feel like I’m progressing with a language. Apps reinforce with delightful graphics, various sites give regular updates on my alleged level, and books… well, when you reread Harry Potter, it’s easy to feel like you know what’s going on without maybe really knowing what’s going on. What’s been inescapable this summer is having to speak. It’s the scariest part. It’s the hardest part. But it’s what language is for. While we could have a semantic debate over communication, it comes down to speaking first and foremost, and it’s taken me a long time to realize how we only truly progress if we take on the scary part first. 

Pronunciation matters – At times I’ve found myself indignant because I felt like pronounced something “close enough” to the real word. But that was my perspective about a language that is decidedly not mine, and the frustration was more at my own inability to pronounce a word than anything else. It’s the difference between feeling like I know something, and actually knowing something. 

I’ll get used to it – When I first walked into the find house infested with flies, a toilet that didn’t flush piled full of … waste, and a bedroom door that didn’t close, I thought about leaving. Lack of privacy, lack of cleanliness, lack of… just general care, I thought. As the days went by, I began to understand some of the reasons (it’s hard not to have flies when you live on an active farm, where life, death and pork byproducts are omnipresent) for the seeming disorder were reasonable. Beyond that, I (and I think you, too) have an ability to get used to things, be they situations at work, travel discomforts, new budgets, or too-short haircuts. While it’s fair to ask the line between comfort and complacency, I think the short-term nature of this summer made potentially tough situations more tolerable. 

I think about the greetings but not the goodbyes – Getting to know someone means investing yourself into them, their life story, their origins, their quirks but often when I think about travel and language, I can focus on the literal greetings, the hi and bye of it all, without perhaps getting to the heart of what saying goodbye after brief, intense, shared experiences means. What it means to say goodbye to hosts, wwoofers from Brazil and America and France, winemakers, cheesemakers, classmates from Norway and China and Russia, dinnermates, newfound cousins, and so, so many goats.

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