There’s More to ‘Murica than Froot Loops (Fortunately)

A little while ago, I had the misfortune of having to get out of bed at 5am on a Sunday morning. But thirteen hours later, I found myself at the other side of the world, in Newark, New Jersey.

As I stepped off the plane, the first thing that hit me was the heat. Why I hadn’t bothered to check the weather before I came, I have no idea. But it was certain the four pairs of trousers in my suitcase would be staying there.

I wandered into the airport and suddenly realised that having drank a litre of water on the plane, I really had to pee. So there I was, through border control and past baggage claim. I turned the corner and… shock horror! Toilet stalls… with gaps in the doors! I half considered waiting but after a six hour flight, I was desperate. (Turns out, this was the case everywhere, and not just the airport scrimping on funds.)

My plan was that I would be staying in America for the month of July, and interning with a youth circus called Trenton Circus Squad in New Jersey. I had absolutely no idea what to expect, who I’d meet, or even exactly what I’d be up to. I was nervous, but also quietly excited knowing this was to be my biggest adventure yet.

That night, I met the five girls and our chaperone that I would be living and working with for the next two weeks. As the very long day drew to an end, we sat on the porch outside watching the sun go down and the fireflies come out like a reflection of the stars in the sky.

For breakfast, finally I got to try one of the icons of great American cuisine – ‘Froot Loops’. Conclusion: blech. “Shall I compare thee to licking a battery?” And so, we left at 7.30am for a 9am start in Camden, NJ where we would introduce Trenton Circus Squad’s new pilot project. The day was spent taking part in workshops, practicing five ball juggling, meeting the rest of the group, and sweating like crazy in the un-air conditioned hall. Yippee. That night we went to the boss’s house for dinner and we made guacamole. I say ‘we’. I supervised. And tried a burrito for the first time – Froot Loops: 0, Burrito: 10.

The next day was the Fourth of July, so we did as what most of America seemed to do that day, and drove down to Washington DC! We spent the day in the sun at the National Mall, (which I expected to be a rather large shopping centre. It’s not.) for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival and watched shows and performances from circuses up and down the country. Somehow I ended up talking on the social circus panel for the National Endowment for the Arts which was, as I believe the kids say, “kinda cool” (or rather one of the highlights of the trip!)

 

 

 

On the drive home, it rained. But it was brightened up when we passed a proper, motorbike riding, bandana wearing, denim jacketed, biker gang. Not your average view when cruising down the A90 Southbound. It grew dark as we were passing through Philadelphia and we oohed and aahed at the fireworks lighting up the tower block littered skyline. We drove through five states that day.

The rest of the week was spent improving on our skills, putting a show together with the whole group, and sweating like a cheese sandwich in a warm rucksack. On Saturday we headed into Philly for the Puerto Rico Festival where we spent the day performing, teaching kids how to spin plates, salsa dancing, and trying not to get heat stroke.

The next day we ventured to New Hope – a wonderful little town where trees line the streets, bookshops and art stores are more common than grocery stores, and the Delaware River roars through the middle. The plan for the rest of the day was to hike up Mount Tammney. But we got lost. And instead drove through the mountain roads, listening to music and holding maps the wrong way up. We managed about 45 minutes of the Appalachian Trail but decided it was much too hot and went swimming instead.

 

Week two was incredibly full on. Every day consisted of workshops for young summer camp kids, and shows. Lots of shows. Oh, and attempting to survive a poisonous spider bite that mysteriously appeared on my leg. That was exciting. But nothing was amputated so all was well.

We finished that week with a trip to an American diner. It was incredible. The portions were bigger than the plates. The building, like an oversized jukebox, had a neon red front and the inside felt friendly and welcoming with red booth seats and high pitched chatty waitresses. That weekend, we all went our separate ways – Maimi Florida, Boston, New Orleans, New York, and Trenton. The Camden pilot project was over, and I had to survive two weeks without the group.

That Sunday, the second leg began. I changed lodgings and went to stay in Hillsborough with two rather wonderful families. These two weeks would be spent at the Squad’s headquarters in Trenton. The building was amazing – an old abandoned factory donated by the council. The ceilings were high enough to throw diabolos and feel like they’d never come down, and enough floor space ride unicycles without ever banging in to anyone (anything however, is a slightly different story…)

“Not at home. Definitely alone. Lost in New York.”

I spent two days in New York City. I inevitably began by getting lost and confused and unable to find the right train ticket or platform – something even my 75 year old grandmother is capable of. But in the end I rode the PATH train to NY Penn Station and of course, got lost again. In my attempt to find Time’s Square which was in theory just up the road, I spent an hour wandering around the same three streets. Time’s Square was incredibly busy. I had been warned that New York would be at least ten times busier than I could possibly imagine it to be. That was about right. But it was amazing and bright and shining. There were billboards everywhere and the lights advertising all the theatres and shops lit up even in the midday sun. I wandered through the various chocolate shops and made my way towards Rockafeller Centre, stopping off in the public library and St Patrick’s Cathedral on the way. Rockafeller Centre was much smaller than I thought but still worth the visit, even if it was just to go into the Lego store like the adult that I am…

Afterwards, I headed to Central Park with the intention of finding the zoo. But, I got lost, again (are you noticing a bit of a theme here?) and took the long way around. By the time I had found it, it was due to close in an hour, so I quickly bought my ticket and hurried around the plethora of reptile, bird, and penguin enclosures, giggled at the turtles, and managed to catch a glimpse of the back end of a grizzly bear.

After the zoo, I went to the Museum of Modern Art where I was let in for free because they didn’t recognise my Scottish student ID. Oh dear, what a shame… Over five floors I saw the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollock, and Van Gogh’s Starry Night. It was definitely worth the free entry.

The next day I took a new friend with me into the city. Our first stop was the 9/11 memorial. We walked down through Battery Park and got the free (yes, FREE!) Staten Island Ferry across the water and right past the Statue of Liberty. Afterwards we had a long trek up to Brooklyn Bridge where we avoided getting hit by cyclists. The bridge made for a great viewpoint of the city; rather than paying $40 to go up the Empire State Building, you get a great, and possibly more authentic feeling view, by crossing the bridge for free. Afterwards we spent a long time looking for a working subway station and headed up to Time’s Square where we visited the Ripley’s Believe it or Not museum. It was fantastic. From the marvellous to the downright weird, there was everything in that museum. Statue of the tallest man in the world? Got it. Train crafted entirely from match sticks? Got it. Hallway made of Cheetos? Got it. The museum was great, and highly recommended.

 

 

The last week finished with a fantastic final show (despite several injuries…) and some incredibly hard to say goodbyes. It’s a little known fact in the circus world that circus is like family. And up until spending a month with some of the most wonderful people I’ve ever met, I don’t think I realised just how true that is. In the hours leading up to leaving for the airport, I was desperately trying to think of any excuse for me to stay. Maybe the dog ate my passport? But the next adventure was waiting just around the corner and the flights were already booked, so I reluctantly got on the plane.

I have to admit, before I left home I was probably the most nervous I’ve ever been in my life. “The other side of the world. By myself. For a whole month!” The entire prospect was terrifying enough that once or twice I considered not going at all. I’m so glad I did. I’ve met people and done things that I won’t ever forget and I’m determined to earn enough money over this year so that I can spend another month next summer with Trenton Circus Squad.

Handsome space rogue: now seeking employment.

 

(I now have a video of the footage I got while I was there too…)

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365 Seconds – A Second a Day for a Year | 2016

A year and three months later, this post is finally here! Yay!

It would have been up at the beginning of 2017 but my video software broke in the Christmas holidays just as soon as I’d psyched myself up for the big edit. But now it’s done, uploaded, and waiting for views.

On the first of January 2016, after seeing a similar idea on Facebook, I decided to film one second of video footage every single day for a whole year. So I did. And boy was it harder than I thought it would be. Only filming a second worth of footage sounds like a relatively easy task, and it was. What was difficult was actually remembering to do it and finding something vaguely interesting to film. There were a few times when I would get to the end of the day, about to go to bed, and I suddenly remembered I had completely failed to film anything at all, let along anything interesting (as you will be able to see).

The other thing that was quite tricky was trying not to film things twice. I tried to make sure every shot was unique, but by the time November came around, I had mostly forgotten what I’d filmed in March, a whole 2.102e+7 seconds ago…

One of the things I enjoyed most about making this video was reviewing everything that had happened in 2016 when going through the footage. For many people, 2016 was the year of catastrophes. Meow. But going back through it, it was funny seeing all the great new things that did happen last year…

  • It snowed!
  • I went to Glasgow to see my very good friendly friend
  • I attended the British Juggling Convention
  • I finished school
  • I ate cake
  • I started learning to drive
  • I read a lot of books
  • I went to Italy!
  • I caught up with the family in England
  • I tried sushi
  • I started two new jobs
  • I attended a premiere of a film I worked on in a proper cinema
  • And I got to work with professional filmmakers
  • I went to the Circus Works festival in Edinburgh and met some awesome people
  • One of my best friends started university
  • I was involved with another massive Halloween spectacular
  • I won a bowling game
  • I travelled abroad alone for the first time
  • And I went grape picking in France and got to see some old friends
  • I swung a lot of fire about
  • I had a great Christmas with the family!

And yes, 2016 had its moments: we said goodbye to our dog and Grandad, Trump was elected, and Britain voted to leave the EU. But hey, we live and learn and ultimately came out the other side having been able to eat a lot more comfort cake than we would have done had these things not happened.

Finally, thanking you muchly to all those who appear in the video. Oscars all round. However, if anyone objects to being on screen for a second, do feel free to contact me at: littlemishaps@if-I-remove-you-it-will-spoil-it.com No cake for you…

Anyway, I’m already three months late, and all this waffling isn’t getting anyone to the video any quicker. So here we go. A year of my life in six and a half minutes. I’m not saying it’s going to be interesting, but there’s the occasional giggle worthy clip…

Hoping you enjoyed, dear chums. À bientôt!

Review: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

[Contains no spoilers]

Ready Player One can be summed up quite simply as ‘the ultimate geek book’. I’ve heard other people describe it as a ‘nerd utopia’, and they’re certainly not wrong there.

The story begins in 2044 in an almost dystopic world. Climate change and global warming has taken its toll, civilisation is in decline, and most of the world is over populated and penniless. In these dark days everyone looks for a distraction – something that can make them forget about the real universe they live in, and provide some sense of hope and happiness.

Enter, the OASIS. The OASIS is an online massively multiplayer simulation game that allows the players to create an account and login for free to control a virtual avatar of themselves with their headset and haptic gloves. Through the OASIS, players can do any number of things whether it’s attend school, go to work, watch films, read books, or explore the huge world and complete various quests, challenges, and games.

The story focuses on the main character, Wade Watts, in his attempt to complete the biggest quest of all while battling enemies, living in poverty, and trying to impress the girl he loves. When the creator of the OASIS, James Halliday, dies, he leaves his entire fortune to whoever manages to find a hidden ‘egg’ within the simulation. To do this, players must use clues and riddles left by Halliday to find three keys and unlock three gates in order to reach the end of the game and find the prize.

Now jumping straight into it. One of the biggest parts of the plot to Ready Player One is all of the references to 80’s pop culture. James Halliday was a teen of the eighties and so uses films, games, TV, and music references to create the ‘Easter egg’ hunt and leave behind clues. Initially I wondered if this would just make it a very boring read to anyone who didn’t understand the references – but how wrong was I?! I was born in the 90’s so completely missed the decade that the book so frequently references, and somehow, through Cline’s brilliant research and explanation, I was still able to laugh along at the inside jokes and find the book incredibly exciting!

I think the whole idea of Ready Player One is very clever. If you want to write a book where the story involves wizards and aliens and dungeons and robots all in one chapter, then set it within a game where anything can happen. This allows it to be believable and take place in the real world. There’s no need to create alternative universes that often appeal only to the geekiest of geeks.

Ready Player One also addresses some interesting subjects, the biggest being how we have come to rely upon technology. The main character describes how, with the energy crisis, people have come to rely solely on the simulation to find any kind of happiness. The book is set in the future so is by no means a description of how we use technology now, but perhaps could be used as an allegory to describe how it could become.

The great thing about Wade Watts, the main character, is that for a lot of teenagers, he is very relatable. He prefers to spend his time playing games and watching films instead of being outside. Wade struggles at school and has found it hard to make friends, especially in the real world. However, what really makes me like this character is his determination to stand up for what he believes in. This is what sets him apart from being the antisocial school dropout and instead turns him into someone who is relatable, but equally someone we can learn something from.

I have seen a lot of people say the endless references in this book to 80’s pop culture can be a little unnecessary at times. I say nah! Okay, some of them do not hugely add to the story, but 9 times out of 10, they’re really funny.

This brings me onto my final and possibly only semi negative point. Who is this book for? The style and plot of the book makes me think it fits into the young adult category. But the references, humour, and jokes are clearly aimed at folk who remember the 80’s. Yes, it’s all understandable and funny to anyone not from that decade, but I still wouldn’t be sure what section to display the book in at Waterstones.

In conclusion: I loved this book. It held my interest the whole way through and I thought it was brilliantly witty, exciting, and full of action. It’s incredibly well researched and the descriptions are written in a way that makes you feel like you’re in the simulation yourself. So nerds, geeks, gamers, teenagers of the 80’s, and anyone who just fancies reading something a little different, I would highly recommend Ready Player One by Ernest Cline – and you can buy it off Amazon here.

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It feels like my reviews are getting longer. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Does anyone have any suggestions? Is it just getting boring halfway through? Or is it okay finding out a little bit more about a book? Help!

I Ran Away with the Circus. Sort of.

It was a dark and stormy night. The lions rattled their cages, the acrobats slept a broken sleep in their rickety caravans, and the clowns drank merrily under the cover of the big top, their still painted faces flashing bright, smeared colours with each flash of lightening…

Probably. At some point. But that had nothing to do with me.

Nope, instead, my story starts six years ago with a shy, reluctant little kid grumbling about having to miss their English class to go to some weird ‘thing’ in the drama department. Rumours had been going around the first-years about these clowns teaching them to dance. Or was it acrobats teaching them to act? Or was it actors teaching them to juggle? Nobody really knew what it was, but we did know it was one of those inclusion and team building exercises that the head honchos of the school would always get the younger pupils to do. Looked good on reports I suppose: “The children enjoyed a wonderful afternoon making friends and learning to juggle, plate spin, and worked together to make human pyramids.” See, good on report. Truth is, last thing on a Friday afternoon before the summer holidays, everyone thought it was actually all pretty boring…

Well, everyone but me. I took to juggling like my dog takes to carrots (very well), and launched myself head over highwire into the crazy world of circus.

This company, ‘Modo’, that taught us at school teaches what’s known as ‘social circus’. Social circus is this fantastic idea of taking young folk who are hard to reach, disengaged, painfully shy, or just desperately looking for something fun to do, and throwing them up on stilts and having them perform to hundreds, sometimes thousands of people, in an attempt to turn their life around.

(That is a very short definition, for a slightly better explanation, check out this page here!)

And that’s exactly what it did for me. Gradually, my skills and confidence grew and I became a volunteer for Modo. I now had a purpose, and something I could finally say I was good at and could call my own. I stood a bit taller, spoke a bit louder, and smiled a whole lot more. I was now teaching folk who were just like me – shy, mainly – and I was helping them to build their skills and do what I had done.

Obviously I got a bit of stick for it at school and for a long time was known as ‘that creepy kid that juggles’. Hey, well at least I can juggle! With the confidence I’d gained from volunteering and interacting with new people on a daily basis, I was able to ignore it and not let it bother me – not something I’d have manged to do a few years before.

Since that afternoon at school, I haven’t looked back which has been one of the best things I’ve ever done. As a result I can now juggle nearly 5 balls, walk on stilts, ride a unicycle, spin plates, breathe fire, and clown around. I’ve worked with hundreds of people, from professional directors to members of the public, all of different ages, backgrounds, and abilities. I’ve been in two professional touring shows and have travelled to France, Belgium, Italy, London, and Edinburgh to take part in festivals and exchanges. I have made friends from all around the world. I’ve been on a flying trapeze, a German wheel, and a Chinese pole. I’ve watched incredible shows from all around Europe. I’ve been part of a team that puts on a huge Halloween spectacular every year to thousands of people in a small local park. I’ve performed in parades and cabarets. I’ve become more confident, learned how to interact with people no matter what language they speak, and I’ve learned to work as a team. To name a few.

All of which isn’t generally seen as the norm when you live in a little corner of Scotland. I may be ‘the creepy kid that juggles’, but if that means having done the things I’ve done and seen the things I’ve seen, I’ll take it. In many ways, I did run away with the circus. Or rather the old me did. And the me that came back is a bouncier, more experienced version.

However, after reading this, please don’t get the wrong idea: we are not all clowns, we don’t wear big red shoes, we don’t sleep in a tent, we don’t tame lions, and we can’t all do triple backflips through a ring of fire. We’re normal people, with a passion for being silly and helping anyone that needs it.

Now, I am employed by Modo and hope to continue with the circusy adventures for many years to come. Have a look at Modo’s website here to find out more about what we do, who we are, and why we do it.

 

Hoopla! And there we have it. It felt a bit odd not having anything written on here about one of the biggest parts of my life, so that’s the main reason for this post. I apologise for it all being quite ‘me’. It’s tricky for that not to happen when you’re writing about yourself. But hopefully back to neutrality next week! À bientôt!

Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

[Contains no spoilers]

I promised to review this book sometime in November last year. Clearly I got distracted by giant man eating space worms – or some other equally credible excuse.

Set in 2035, The Martian tells the story of the Ares 3 space crew and their mission to determine whether Mars can become habitable to the human race. Or at least that’s what it would have been about, if it hadn’t been for a freak storm that forced the crew to abort their mission only six days in, resulting in their crew mate, Mark Watney, being left behind. On Mars. By himself. Oops.

From there, the book is made up of log entries made by Watney where he documents his life as the only human being on the entire planet…

To start with, I was a little surprised that the book was written almost in the form of a diary. It wasn’t quite the first thing my mind went to when I thought ‘thrilling science fiction’. However, a short way in, I realised how well it worked. With Watney being the only person on the planet, his log entries enabled us to share his feelings of loneliness and isolation because he was describing it as was, there and then.  It also allowed us to connect with the character. Mark Watney is, for lack of a better word, a smartass, and this comes across very well through the way the book is written. The character is able to tell jokes to us, share worries and concerns, and generally tell us what went on in his day. We’d lose all of this if it were written in third person, since there’s no one else on the planet for Watney to tell his jokes to…

One of the biggest things I loved about this book was how realistic it seemed. Realism adds to excitement because we believe it could happen to us. Sure, Godzilla is exciting. I mean whose ears don’t prick up when they hear about a giant prehistoric monster rampaging through a city? Do we believe it could happen tomorrow? Even in ten years? Not so much. But a space mission to Mars going wrong? Now that could happen, and possibly makes us just a little bit more interested in finding out how.

The two biggest reasons The Martian seems so realistic is how genuine the main character comes across, and how well researched the book is. I mean I don’t know about you, but if people start throwing around big scientific words that I haven’t heard before, I tend to think they know what they’re talking about. Because I certainly don’t! This book is full to the brim with scientific references, equations, calculations, and jokes. And I think it’s this excellent research by Weir that backs up the whole plotline and makes us believe it’s possible.

But have no fear, nerds of the arts world! If you’re like me and dropped maths and science as soon as you could at school so you could take extra art and English, this book is still for you! The thing that surprised me most was how much I actually understood what was going on. Or I did at least most of the time. Watney does indeed talk a lot about how E=MC2 and how speed=distance over time and all that jazz but nine times out of ten, he then goes on to explain what this means or why he did this or what the result of this experiment was. And then it’s as easy as pi(e) for us laymen to put two and two together and make 3.14.

(My only reservation here is that I couldn’t quite work out how to read some of the words and how they should be pronounced in my head when I read them. Not a problem though – I generally just made up my own way. Which turns out to be quite funny when you watch the film and find out you were totally wrong!)

Finally, I really liked how the book didn’t let you relax for a single moment. Whether it was in Watney’s logs or between the scientists in a panic back on earth, there was always something happening. And usually, that something was going wrong. But it made it exciting, and you could almost feel the tension that everyone in mission control feels when they’re staring at that giant countdown clock and hoping nothing will explode. As cheesy as it sounds, I couldn’t put this book down until I thought everyone was safe and nothing was going to go wrong immediately at the beginning of the next chapter.

To conclude: Just like a great science fiction book, The Martian is packed with humour, suspense, bad puns, and relatable characters. Every single page is a new adventure as we root for this character tackling all the challenges he has to face. And in the good old edge-of-your-seat style, there seems to be a new, terrifying problem on every page, right up to the very end.

I really enjoyed this book and would recommend it to anyone whether they’re a syfy fan, aspiring astronaut, poet, hater of maths, or giant man eating space worm.

You can buy The Martian by Andy Weir here! That rhymes…

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Terrible, Terrible, Terrible…

That is what I am. Terrible. I haven’t posted anything for months! Terrible!

So everything has been a little busy. Or that’s my excuse anyway. November to Christmas was spent trying to keep my eyes open at my desk, over Christmas we had the whole city of Bethlehem come to stay, and in the New Year I was desperately trying to get a tedious application in for university!

I had been planning that my next post would be all about the video project I have been working on. However. I haven’t finished it yet. While I had time over Christmas and was all raring to go, my editing software broke. Terrible.

So then I planned to put up a post about applying to university when I had got my application in. Then I realised, hidden in plain sight – that’s my excellent attention to detail – that I had less than two weeks to submit an accompanying folio. Terrible.

After that, I thought I would put up a post about becoming a trainee adult since I had suddenly out of nowhere turned 18. But as usual, time ran away and I got completely distracted hunting for film and youth circus jobs around the world. Terrible. (But if anyone knows of anything…)

And now here we are. With a post after three months that only tells you lovely readers that I’m incapable of making good excuses.

So excuses aside. From now on, I will try my hardest to have more adventures, write more regularly, and share snippets of what I get up to on this funny little blue rock we live on.

In the meantime, here’s a chilly picture of a lighthouse…

Les Vendanges…

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.

“No!”

“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!

Totals:

  • 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!

A bientôt!