On the 18th of September 2016 I set off for France to try my hand at grape picking, with absolutely no idea what I was letting myself in for – and boy, do I wish I’d done my research!
Leaving home for two weeks already seemed like a bit of a challenge – not having my own bed, there potentially being no wifi – the usual things us folk who like being comfy worry about. But this was also the first time I would travel by myself. I was launching back into the abyss, but this time, alone.
I was nervous, but I don’t think I realised just how nervous until a few days later. I had somehow managed to cover up the internal ‘aaaaaaaah!’ with ‘ooh, there will be croissants!’ I couldn’t turn around and wave to my mum when she dropped me off at the airport for fear of realising I really was by myself.
So, through the airport with my trusty rucksack and new sleeping bag, (setting off any security alarm you could set off) and onto the plane. Done. Arrive in Birmingham. Done. Stay the night at Grandma’s. Done. Could I just stop here? No? Oh fine then…
So day 2, and onto another plane. This time I landed in Lyon, France. I’ve been here before, but back then I wandered through the airport with reckless abandon, knowing I was being looked out for, and mostly knowing that whoever I was with knew what they were doing. This time I had to find the right bus to Grenoble and inevitably got lost almost straight away.
However, 18euros, a sandwich, and about an hour’s ride later, I arrived in Grenoble – ready to get lost again. And that’s exactly what I did!
Luckily I was rescued and the next day, I ventured out to explore the city. This was my third time in Grenoble and it was still as mesmerising as I remember it to be. The mountains tower over the city on all sides, keeping watch as people go about their daily lives – which seemed to mainly involve drinking coffee and looking cool. I saw the theatre that we have visited each time we’ve been to Grenoble, and wandered all the way up a long road to Fontaine, a sort of small town on the edge of the city. I bought post cards and watched, strangely, fully grown adults commute to work on push scooters.
Later that day I caused confusion at the post office (mainly by standing in the line to open an account instead of the line to buy stamps), jumped on a tram, and went across the city to see an old friend.
The great thing was that there wasn’t much of a language barrier between me and the people I met. We always seemed to find a way to communicate what we were trying to say. For example, ‘fries’ became ‘long potatoes’. And my French gradually improved over the time I was there. There was always a way to explain something with what we knew. This was not only incredibly useful and quite a relief, but I thought also sort of amazing. Two languages, two rather different worlds, but the ability to come together as one with nothing in the way. Pretty neat, eh?
Before leaving to go to the harvest, I got the chance to visit a food market. Full of fresh fruit, veg, bread, and cheese; it wasn’t a typical sight to see in Scotland. Here, some kids think that carrots come from super markets and have no idea that they’re actually grown in the ground first. Well I say take ‘em to a French market. I’ve never seen so much food fresh out a field in one place before.
We drove to Légny through a landscape that was so typically French farm, I wondered if I was on a film set. Fields full of grape vines, houses with terracotta tiles, rolling hills as far as the eye could see. Finally, we arrived. I got out the car and stood in a courtyard, surrounded by old farm buildings, again with the typical red roofs and yellow brickwork. Lizards scurried along the wall and the fellow grape pickers all sat outside on a bench, chatting and smoking. That night I saw a spider the size of an orange, made friends with a huge dog, and went to bed early for an even earlier start…
Up the next day at 6.30am. At breakfast everyone drank their coffee out of a bowl. You know you hear those things about the culture of some places, and you don’t really believe it because it’s so different to home – well guess what, they’re mostly true! And it’s quite odd finding out. After breakfast we all climbed into the back of a van and sat on the floor in the dark. This is when I started to realise it wasn’t all going to be fun and games. We were driven to a field where we jumped out and everything was explained – in French, and I hadn’t got a clue. The next four hours was spent crawling up the field going snippety snip, and putting bunches of grapes into a bucket.
We stopped at 9am for a 5 minute break and the first bottle of wine was opened. Wine at 9am! That was also around the time that it started to get incredibly hot. Back in Scotland, we were just moving into the beginning of a very chilly autumn, and the south east of France was storing up all the heat we were losing in one place. That one place seemed to be whatever field we were in. It was like an oven! To make it worse, it was not a good idea to wear shorts out on the fields. Most of the ground was hard dry mud, and without long thick trousers, knees would quickly become, well, not knees. So there I was; 30 degrees in long trousers, a t shirt, a sun hat, and another layer underneath so the brambly branches didn’t scratch my bum.
Not only did it get very hot very quickly, but you got very sore very quickly. The constant crawling would make your knees black and blue and the joints ache like nothing else with all the standing up and going back down. To fix that, you could pick the grapes stood up but bent over to the floor. This was temporary pain relief because after about 10 minutes of that, you would quickly return to being on your knees but now your back was also on fire. Finally, there was the secateurs we were using. I didn’t think they were that sharp to begin with, but they certainly made quick easy work of cutting through my thumb.
One of the most ‘fun’ parts of the grape picking was the bugs. Apparently the spiders are great pesticides and stop the need for chemicals. I guess I must be a bit of a pest too then, because the spiders were very good at keeping me away! I gradually came to realise the fact that if there was a spider in my bucket, it was because I had put it there when I dropped the grapes in. That made me shiver, even in the heat…
Spiders weren’t the only things living in the vines. I also saw dragon flies, stick insects, crickets and grasshoppers, and these funny shiny beetle things.
On the Sunday, we got a day off and a few of us went to Lac des Sapins – which translates to the lake of fir trees. It was a cool place, one of those that has ‘something for everyone’ whether it was swimming or archery or paintball or if you just wanted a walk around the forest path. I did the latter mainly because it was still too cold to swim despite the air feeling like a million degrees.
“This is like Scotland! Brrr,” I said, dipping my toes into the water.
“Are you going in?” said my new French friend.
“But you said it was like Scotland..?”
“Yeah, and we don’t do it there either!”
We got back to the house that afternoon just in time for a thunder storm to hit. There’s something quite spectacular about thunderstorms in the rest of Europe. The thunder is twice as loud and the lightening twice as big and a hundred times more colourful. The entire sky changes and you can feel it in the air.
We then spent the next four days finishing off the fields. Time passes very strangely out there. It doesn’t seem to move for hours and hours and then suddenly a huge chunk of it will disappear when you’re least expecting it. Being finished was the best feeling. Knowing I didn’t have to get up at 6.30am the next day, and no longer having to fill up on pain killers just to make it to lunchtime. The next day I wandered off to the nearest town and took plenty of photos. I tried taking a photo of a little street, but when I looked through the camera on my phone, there was a man walking towards me. I apologised and he replied with “Je ne pas un Pokémon!” That still makes me laugh. The town was a little bigger but still so very French. I bought one of the best pain au chocolats I’ve ever had which helped in making it feel all worthwhile.
The next day I was back off to Grenoble and the day after that, back off to Lyon, then Birmingham, then Scotland. To tell the truth, I almost didn’t make it to Lyon. Have you ever tried navigating your way through a surprise street market that has just popped up on the street to the bus station that you really need to be at, with a huge bag on your back, and already being really late? Well I have!
But I made it, and even got back home. The feeling when I stepped off the plane into the freezing Scottish night air wasn’t one I thought I would welcome so gladly. Yes, it was an incredibly tough two weeks, physically and mentally. Am I still glad I did it? Absolutely. I’ve now been away from home by myself, I can say I’ve been grape picking in the south of France, and it’s made me so much more confident in so many ways. Would I do it again? Not right now, but maybe one day. For now, I’m enjoying having my feet firmly on the soggy Scottish soil, and really enjoying a new job. Yay!
Just to finish, I compiled some geeky little lists…
What I learned:
- Picking grapes is so much harder than it sounds
- People are often friendlier than you might think
- France has some BIG spiders
- And it’s roasting hot, even at the end of September
- If there’s a spider in your bucket, you put it there
- My French is better than I thought
- How to grow potatoes on Mars (I was reading The Martian, review is on its way!)
- I can do it!
- Total days spent away: 14
- Total flights taken: 4
- Total hours spent in fields: 45
- Total scary bugs seen: A billion and a half
- Total new foods tried: 29!
- Total miles travelled: 2678.6
Finally, thank you to all the folk that I met and stayed with. You’re all such wonderful, kind people and the experience wouldn’t have been even nearly as amazing without you!