First Days in France

This summer, I am WWOOFing (volunteering at an organic farm) in France.

I flew into Marseille a few days ago to meet Claire and Sallie.  I was too dazed to decide if I liked the city or not.  My body thought breakfast was dinner and daytime was nightime, so I spent the day sleepwalking through the streets.  I laughed everytime I saw a striped shirt and a baguette.  Red geraniums overwhelmed windowsills.  Sallie and I observed the wildlife – pigeons.  Claire pointed out that the city smells like some mix of saltwater and beer and urine.  She loved the city and maybe the smell, too.  But now we are here at the farm in L’Isle sur  LaSorgue, where the air smells like dirt and things growing.  Clovers or mint or chives – whatever you happen to walk through.

At first I’m like an infant, pointing and speaking only in nouns.  I learn to say the sun and the sky and the ground, and I mutter them out loud as I free celery plants of their roots.  Here at the farm they speak a little English, but Valerie, the owner, speaks to me in French like I understand.  Luckily cleaning celery plants is not so complicated, and Claire and Sallie help to translate.

We wake up with the sun to go work and then have afternoons free.  When the evening light softens we eat together – us three, Valerie, Valerie’s son, and two middle aged men whose names I mix up.  These men, nameless now, have tight muscles and deep tans and faraway voices – rural people.  I tune out the foreign conversation the way you tune out wind.  When I catch a word I know I am as surprised as everyone else.  I don’t let it go.  I make lists of the words I learn.  They are markers of how little I know.  I wade into my confusion like a dog the first time it sees the water – clumsy and sloshing, wild for the newness of feeling. Fifty words now? Seventy?  Not scraping the surface.

A man named Quentin tries to teach me about gender articles.  Who decided tea was masculine?  I ignore grammar rules shamelessly.  If I don’t know how to pronounce a word I say it in the back of my throat and through my nose.  I ask Quentin what the French think of Americans.  “Consumption,” he says.  “The Americans consummate everything.”

Valerie is always laughing and offering us wine.  On this information alone I decide she’s a good person.  We barely notice when Claire turns twenty-one but she agrees that harvesting lettuce and reading is a more memorable way to spend her birthday.  She points out that here, golden hour lasts five hours.  Something about being close to the equator.  From my bedroom window I am level with curling vines and the tips of pine trees.  Laundry lines hang between the pines, and when the wind picks up, the drying clothes wave and the grass shivers.  I smell the trees to see if they are like the ones from home – the ones that smell like vanilla, or butterscotch.  No one agrees which.  They smell like neither, and I go back inside, embarrassed for smelling trees.

Last light lingers and dies slowly.  The planet presses on and it is cool enough for sweaters.  Unseen, birds sleep.  Crickets and frogs and Sallie take over singing.  Sebastian, another WWOOFer, joins us with a guitar and plays into the dusk.  Night creeps in.

It’s bedtime even before the stars come out.  I am too sleepy to know what I’m thinking.  My thoughts putter along in a haze and I don’t need to go in for a closer look.  Claire and I keep trying to read Goethe – a name we were amused to discover is pronounced “ger-tuh”. I keep nodding off.