Sunday, September 23, 2012

Le Vendange

As I lie lounging in bed just enjoying the kitties and pooches surrounding me on a lazy Sunday morning - Hank is still in Maine and Caleigh at a friends - I couldn't help but think how absolutely perfect this moment would be if only one of these little critters could bring me a large, creamy and sugar laden, Café American in bed. Fairly certain that my groggy wish was an impossibility, I stretched out my legs toward the side of the bed and as I began to stand up, they buckled and I probably would have fallen on my face if I had not lost my balance and teetered backwards, falling safely back on the bed, barely missing Ziggy the cat. "What the hell?" I wondered as the pain in my thighs returned. "Oh geez, right," as I remembered what I had done the day before and so embarrassed by how out of shape I was.

Yesterday was Sylvan's harvest (le vendange) of his few remaining acres of Sauvignon Blanc grapes that had not been destroyed in last Spring's frost. Rather than utilize the modern machinery that many large winemakers use to cultivate the grapes in minutes, many of the smaller and more organic vintners pick their grapes by hand, taking hours/days/weeks depending on the acreage. Since Sylvan has been invaluable in assisting Hank with the maintenance of our vines we eagerly offered to help when he invited us to join he and his family for the harvest that would be held some time in September. Unfortunately, it happened to hit on a weekend when Hank would be out of the country, but I decided what the hell, I would still help out because he's such a nice guy and plus, he once said that I looked like Lynette (Felicity Huffman) from 'Desperate Housewives.' Flattery will get you everywhere, including a free day laborer during harvest season.

So, the big day arrives and I'm up early and hoof it over to where I presume his Sauvignon Blanc vines are located. But, because it is me,  I actually go to the wrong Merlot field and cannot find anyone which elicits a fleeting hopeful thought that maybe the harvest has been cancelled and I will not have to go through the awkwardness of not knowing anyone and speaking french like a small child.

But, no, I decide not to quit quite yet and continue walking up the hill through more rows of vines when I see the cars and vans parked along the road and a few people hauling crates of grapes. "Great, I'm late," I cringe and imagine that they are all thinking I'm nothing but a lazy, city slacker, but when he sees me, Sylvan quickly greets and introduces to me to everyone, gives me a mini lesson on what to do and I jump right in: kneeling, picking, cutting, standing, picking out bad grapes and heaping the now perfect bunch into the nearby crates situated throughout the rows.  I immediately take to the rhythmic motion and slowly but surely, start working up my confidence until I'm actually keeping up with the 'pros' who have probably done this all their lives.
Temporary warning road sign commonly seen in September

Over and over, you just repeat the same actions, but there's usually someone on the other side of 'your' plant and you get into this kind of a groove of he cuts there, I cut here and hopefully no one cuts the other's fingers! I did hear "Attention de les doigts!" (careful of the fingers) quite a few times. At first, no one said much to me and I didn't really mind as it was nice not to have to think, but as the hours rolled on and the ice began to break, his wife or his mother would ask me a question in English, I would try answering in French and we continued chatting until another row was finished. Then we'd move over to the next one and I would find myself across from someone new and could thankfully use my same 'material' most likely covering the weather, where they lived, how many children we all had, who makes the best baguette, Karl Beyrand of course!). After about 5 hours, we broke for lunch and I decided to head back to the house so I could rest my weary body after a quick bite to eat. The problem with that decision was that I didn't awaken until many hours later and when I finally did, I could barely move my legs, let alone walk comfortably back to the fields. Since Sylvan had told me to feel free to stop working at anytime because he knew my father and Ginny were arriving later that day, my first time grape harvesting experience was now technically over. But, I will definitely do it again, especially next year when we will most likely harvest our very own grapes rather than hire an outside company as we had to do this year. And even though I know that we'll be lucky if we just come out even when you consider all of the manhours spent with the vines pruning (taille), tying (attaché), weaving (crochet), trimming (coupé), Hank would tell you otherwise, absolutely loving every moment spent with his grapes (even though they are not even his beloved red varietal)

Sunday, September 16, 2012

La Rentrée (or Back to School)

Back to school time and I could tell that Caleigh was really excited and looking forward to going to her first choice Lycée (high school) located in the ancient bustling river down of Bergerac of Cyrano fame even though he was only a fictional character. We had already shopped for school supplies as Caleigh has a very strong nerdy side to her when it comes to getting organized. She also had beaucoup new clothes thanks to her uber generous family who took her shopping when she was back in California.

Unfortunately, things did not go quite as smoothly as was hoped when 1) the school informed us the week the term began that she would not be admitted to the American section which would have been helpful in that some of her classes would be offered in English and 2) that she and her car pool buddy were not put in the same class as we had requested the previous June which pretty much made the carpool an impossibility because of the girls' completely different schedules on the drop off and pick up days each week. But, Caleigh was still so excited begin school and to live on campus, a pensionnaire during the week. We went all the way to IKEA in Bordeaux to buy her new twin bedding and cute little dormitory-like things and wondered if it might sort of be like the bright and cheery Pacific Coast Academy from the TV show 'Zoey 101' that she used to love watching as a pre-teen.

Well, not quite the same as she found out her first week when she was settling in. First of all, her dorm monitor did not seem to like her job very much and treated the girls on Caleigh's floor more like prison inmates, shouting orders, limiting shower and bathroom privileges and shutting out the lights a half hour  before everyone else in the building even though the times were clearly printed on a handout. When Caleigh had the nerve to ask her about the discrepancy, Madame used her marker to scratch out the :30 in 10:30pm and told Caleigh to NEVER address her as "tu" (the old tu vs. vous conundrum. Since all the dorm monitors were fairly young, most told the girls to use tutoyer, but apparently Caleigh's floor warden had not read the memo).

So, things did not start out so well and unfortunately, continued to get more difficult as Caleigh found herself overwhelmed by the large classes (35 - 40 students), some impersonal and very old-school french teachers (often feels like there is a sink or swim attitude and that many do not seem to care which way you go; very unlike most of the caring and wonderful teachers she had at her previous school), and again she felt alienated as she hardly knew a soul and it felt like everyone had already grouped up together, leaving her alone and miserable. Some of this easily could be blamed on the first week jitters and insecurity of being 15 years old, but as time went on, she began experiencing panic attacks and when depression set in, I knew that I could not force her to continue without looking into all of our options.

Since changing your mind of which school you would like to attend is not an simple matter in France (hell, changing your mind about anything academically is almost nonexistent so I cannot fathom what one would do should they want to change careers later in life), we tried two tacks. I first contacted a small private British school located about a half-hour away. Nice people, extremely small classes (6 students), prep for passing of A-levels for entry in a British University, and way, way to expensive for us. Next...

I then contacted one of my favorite people in France (as well as habitual life-saver) and asked if she thought there would be any chance of Caleigh switching schools over to the Lycée in nearby St. Foy where two of her children attended. This was actually my personal favorite after we visited it last year and met with some of the teachers. Plus it was much closer and I was no longer keen for Caleigh to live away from home this year. Anyway, Yvonne is an active parent and if anyone could help us, it would be her. And help us, she did. She phoned me back almost immediately. Said she had spoken to the vice principal about Caleigh and he said that they would be thrilled to have her and that there was plenty of room. All we had to do was make an appointment with the headmaster and get the paperwork started which was no small task. I think it took me 2 days to read, translate, fill out, and replace the printer cartridges for all the copies I had to make!

So, I phoned the school, but am unable to successfully make an appointment due to what I am now calling my strong Parisienne accent...the accent in Southwest France is quite different from the accent in your typical formal french course so I've decided to use this as my latest excuse of why I am not always being understood!  Anyway, I have to resort to asking Caleigh to make the appointment over her lunch break, which she does. But, rather than the receptionist making the appointment for us, she transferred Caleigh directly to the headmaster who proceeded to question her whimsical judgement in changing schools and compared her desire to do so like changing a style of clothing. He then told her that he thought she should just stay where she was and then hung up on her. Caleigh calls me sobbing, probably on the verge of another panic attack and I am pissed. Oh, how pissed, I can barely contain myself and want to drive immediately to this school, pull the headmaster outside by his collar, slap him a few times and kick him where he'll never forget messing with Caleigh and yes, chew him out in perfect french. Oh, hell, who am I kidding? Maybe not perfect french per se, but definitely some perfect f-bombed-laced English that I am certain he would still understand. But after my brief fantasy, right now I had a inconsolable child on the other line and I have got to be smart. I tell her this has to be some kind of a mistake and I contact Yvonne again. She is absolutely shocked and phones the school in disbelief until the apologetic receptionist says she accidentally transferred the call to the unprepared headmaster who had no idea who Caleigh was and he thought that she was probably just some spoiled child trying to go behind her parents back in order to change schools.

So, we start again. We meet with the assistant principal the following morning and sign her up. Then go to the old school and fill out her exit paperwork, grab all her personal belongings, including dragging her brand new IKEA bedding towards the smokers hanging out in front of campus where Hank is waving animatedly to us to show us where he has parked the car much to Caleigh's complete mortification. But it's over. We've changed schools in France and from the first day at the new school, she loves it. It's difficult as Lycée is much more challenging than College. She's still a foreigner (l'étranger), but she says that the students quickly welcomed her and the teachers and atmosphere are all so much nicer and of course, we love it because she back home with us for a few more years at least.

Speaking of school, Hank and I signed up for french classes this fall at La Passerelle in Monsegur and found ourselves in this quirky little group of about 8 and a super nice and patient teacher named, of course, Pierre. We had one little mishap during one of the early sessions when the different class levels were still being sorted out and we found ourselves being asked to translate and interpret classic french philosophers in french rather than recite what we did last week in past tense (passeé compose) which had been our homework assignment. I just about moaned aloud, "You have got to be kidding me," when my turn came. Between the complexity of the meaning of life quotes and fact that my most recent 'literary' endeavor thanks to a new dear friend's recommendation for a light read has been dubbed "mommy porn," you could say I was ill-prepared for this latest assignment. But since that time, we have been placed with a nice group of people and although the process is still slow, I do feel that we are improving a little day by day.