Thursday, 16 May 2013

16th August 2010 – Change

It hadn’t been long enough. Just short of eight weeks to be taught the art of aperitif wines, to fight a cockerel, to make jams and chutneys, to learn the wisdom of clouds and love, to judge and to accept and to weed and to grow. How could I possibly have been there already, bag checked in – yes, I packed it myself; who in their right mind would admit to having lent it to a friendly looking terrorist for five minutes?  – clasping my overpriced waxed paper cup of hot chocolate that tasted like weakly sugared lukewarm water and had never known a cocoa bean. In right hand pocket of my trousers I played with the carved apricot kernel: the eye that had seen everything that I had while I was WWOOFing. 

Ah, the prophetic old crone at Valence station had said to me, Ça vous changera: that will change you. And so I thought, yes, it had changed me. I had shared in so many lives and learned so much that change was inevitable, and it was an experience that would stay with me for many years to come. Perhaps it would even prove to shape my future in ways I couldn’t imagine at that point, being propelled forwards as I was on the moving walkway towards my departure gate.
But it hadn’t been long enough.

15th August 2010 - Gay Paris, Grey Paris

The high-speed train – TGV – that I caught to Paris was plush. In a moment of luck I had managed to book a first class ticket for a lower price than a journey in second class would have cost me, so after my mercifully dry morning walk I sank back into my red velvet seat and watched the countryside race by, raindrops accumulating on the window and forming transparently diagonal tracks across the glass. I didn’t know the names of the towns and cities that we passed, but it didn’t matter to me. I was on the way home. I was so close, and I was ready. I panicked as the ticket collector walked towards me, startling me out of my reverie and causing me to draw a blank as to the whereabouts of the required ticket, which, as usual, was exactly where I’d put it in my bag. 

A change of train later and I was heading into the centre of Paris on the metro. The carriage was empty when I boarded, and I chose to sit alone, watching a toddler in bright blue wellies clambering over the red and yellow seats: a sampler of primary colours. There was a man, too, dressed in a black
suit. One large foot rested incongruously on the tiny pink scooter he was carrying with his briefcase. I presumed it was for an unseen child. But soon I had company. Looking up, my dark brown eyes met with an even darker pair. He was a young, black African, and very good looking. We started chatting. He complimented me on my command of his language, and flirtatiously asked me to teach him a word or two of English. He had been taught English at school, he said, but was keen to try again. We chatted for a while about the differences between life in England and life in France. So far so safe. But then he asked me to meet up with him later that afternoon. Whether my knee-jerk reaction was justified or not I would never know. I said no. On the spot I invented a fictional friend I was going to meet. I knew that he knew that I was lying.

Are you a racist? he asked me. Is your friend a racist? Are there lots of racists in England? I was taken-aback by the audacity of his questions, but I also began to question myself. Was I a racist? I didn’t know. Until that point, I had always believed that I wasn’t. But had I been brainwashed by a culture of fear, despite my wish to be open, accepting and non-judgemental? Or was I just scared by a man who chose to talk to me on the tube? Would my reaction have been different had he been white? I would certainly still have been wary, but to this day I doubt that I would have been so defensive. The North African population of the Parisian suburbs – or banlieues – were hardly exalted in the French press for their gentleness and pacifism. Prejudice prevailed.
Despite my latent racist inclinations, he went on to offer me accommodation for the evening, which I was relieved to be able to decline. Thanks, but no thanks. I wasn’t that kind of a girl. Having failed on that venture, he offered to help me find my way to my hotel from the station. He might have been being genuinely helpful, but I was scared. He insisted on walking me to the information desk so that I could get directions, where I finally managed to shake him off. He gave me the customary kiss on either cheek – although perhaps not so customary for complete strangers – and I watched him walk down to the metro stop from where we had come. I couldn’t help but feel a little sorry for him: either he was a predator and very good at it, or else he was lonely with issues and too much time on his hands. I preferred to think the best of people. I chose the latter. 

It was a miserable Monday in Paris. All the rain that hadn’t fallen during my time as a WWOOFer fell on the capital as I arrived. I was soaked to my skin from head to toe. My worn-out trainers betrayed their holes and my feet were wet and cold; the rain came down and down and it seemed that it would never stop. Everything was colourless; rain having that ability to wash away a place’s character. Leaving my bag at my hostel, I struck out regardless towards the photography museum that I wanted to visit. 45 minutes later, standing like a waif outside the door, I read that the museum closed on public holidays. Apparently it was a public holiday in France that day. 

Hunger drove me to a small supermarket, and couscous salad fuelled me to that Parisian giant, Le Centre Pompidou. Thank goodness that there, at least, I could spend some time in the dry: the art gallery was open. A bride stood shivering outside under an umbrella, beautiful in her crystal-embellished white gown and looking like a scene from an unlikely romantic comedy. At least she was laughing. 

It turned out that entry was free for the European youth, so I wandered around, examining the galleries’ exhibitions half-heartedly, and enjoying the novelty of the escalators ascending the outside of the building. But I couldn’t be bothered, not really. This wasn’t what my time WWOOFing had been about. Paris wasn’t a farm, and its only produce was litter, fumes and university students. Now that I was no longer surrounded by greenery, I just wanted to go home.
I got on the metro once again and headed back to the hostel, intending to find a – no doubt overpriced – croque monsieur at a café nearby and to spend my evening reading.  As I stared blankly out of the train windows into the gloaming evening, I took another look. We were passing a street that was full of people, full of colour. My interest was piqued for the first time that day. I got off the tube at the next stop and wound my way back. It was the Arabic quarter. I quickly became aware of being the only woman so I put up my hood, as if that would mask my femininity.

The shops were full of spices and tagines and tapestries and teapots. There were bakeries selling nut-crammed honeyed pastries, rosewater and orange-blossom infused delights. Döner kebab shops by their hundreds spilled out their savoury scents as customers overflowed onto the street. Flatbreads were being sold by children sitting on the damp floor at low tables, and fruit and vegetables were stacked high at every turn. The gourmand’s warren was teeming with people, but they were manifestly locals, not tourists, and overwhelmingly male. And yet, despite the claustrophobia of the busy narrow streets, that half hour gave Paris a reason for existing. 

I thought maybe I would take a soggy trip up to Montmartre, which was near to my hostel, but rain and tiredness won out. I crashed onto the lower bunk of a sterile hostel bed with my book, chatted to two girls from Chicago and a South Korean called Moon, and couldn’t keep myself awake any longer. I slept well and peacefully.

14th August 2010 – Au Revoir

St Étienne market was small given the size of the city, but at least it wasn´t completely dingy and slate-coloured like the area surrounding the train station. We set up, tucked away in a corner near the other fresh produce stalls. I eyed up our neighbour’s greengages greedily, wondering why their French name translated to Queen Claude. I mused over who Claude might have been and why she – and not some other – had been chosen as the stonefruit queen. Abelard talked to some of his stall-holding friends while Sophie and I set out the carrots and the onions. It was strange to see him looking relaxed. I began to wonder whether, coming as I had in peak harvest season and a heat-wave, I had simply caught him at a bad time. Perhaps he wasn´t always as brusque as he had appeared to me. The two of us began to sell the goods. I was beginning to be able to give a passable sales patter about the characteristics and merits of different types of lettuce, and I started enjoying talking to the customers. Some of them had no time for me and my English accent, but others were intrigued. I even ended up chatting to a woman from Lyon who had lived in Doncaster for several years. It was a small world.

Before leaving, Hannah, Nel and I went for one last hot chocolate in a nearby café. They were deliberating over what to make for their final meal that week and whether it was beyond them to attempt multiple portions of fish and chips; Hannah´s car was finally fixed and ready to hit the road again, but the girls had decided to stay for the méchoui before continuing their travels. We were all aware of two men watching us, and we had a giggle about it. After a while they came over to us. They had been taking bets on where we were from. One thought that we were French, the other thought we might be German. We told them they were both wrong. They were Turkish, and they stayed and talked for a while, but we needed to be getting back to the market; I had to leave myself enough time to get to the station. 

I was truly sad to say goodbye to Sophie. Of everybody at La Range, she was the one with whom I thought I might stay in touch. Abelard told me to take anything I liked from the stall for my lunch and dinner that day, so I packed together a paper bag of lettuce, baby courgettes and slices of Edouart´s bread. He wished me good luck in my life, and off I went. The buildings became increasingly and recognisably grey as I headed across the city and down the hill towards the station, old architecture giving way to concrete blocks. I boarded the train without regrets.

Tiredness hit me once I got to Lyon. I couldn’t face walking through the city for an hour to get to my hostel as I had done at the beginning of my travels. From the station I found a bus to Vieux Lyon, and from the bus stop I took the funicular up to the hostel. I was dead-beat; I could hardly keep my eyes open. In my room this time were two Israeli girls. They were fascinating and we talked together about culture and religion, but I wasn’t really compos mentis. They told me about the difficulties they had experienced finding food that they could eat in countries where it was not customary to keep kosher. They said they were relieved to be in France, where it was comparatively easy to find vegetarian food which they knew was safe. I smiled, remembering the problems that Catherine had come across as a travelling vegetarian while we were backpacking together. We had eaten an awful lot of pizza that month, but when we found good vegetarian restaurants, they had been amazing. 

I flopped on my bed for an hour before I decided that, exhausted or not, I really ought to make the most of being in Lyon. I wandered sleepily up the hill and sat on the steps of an old Roman amphitheatre to eat a cereal bar and to watch the sun setting over the city. There was a refreshing breeze blowing which revived me a little but it couldn’t mask the weight of the air: a storm was coming, of that I was sure. I just hoped that it didn’t hit before I caught the train the following morning. I was going to have to walk to the station, and I had no desire to do so in the rain. I was asleep long before the setting of the sun.

13th August 2010 – The Last Supper

It was my turn to prepare my Last Supper for the masses. There were going to be 20 of us around the table that night. I had never cooked for 20 before. I didn´t really have a clue what quantities I was dealing with. I was supposed to cook a meal from my country of origin. I didn´t fancy cooking shepherd’s pie and wasn’t sure what other options I had, so I played up my Indian heritage and opted for a curry. Besides, wasn’t chicken tikka masala the UK’s favourite dish? A curry would let me use lots of fresh, good-quality products. And so I set to work, finely chopping onions and aubergines and tomatoes and cooking them long and slow with spices and oil until they all merged, before adding courgettes and lentils. I knew that there were vegetarians around the table that evening, and in any case, I was in my comfort-zone with these ingredients. 

For dessert I decided that a fruit crumble would be easy, tasty and very British. But I didn´t want to make the conventional apple crumble. I thought long and hard. Coming from Wakefield and the rhubarb triangle, I suppose I should have made them one with stewed rhubarb; Instead, I went in a gourmet direction. Soon I had 3 huge tureens of half-cooked nectarine, apricot and amaretto on the table, and set to creating the topping with flour, butter, golden caster sugar and ground almonds. They turned out to be easily the best crumbles I had ever made. 

There was no rice left; I had blithely assumed that there would be enough since there had never seemed to be a shortage of it, but we had finally exhausted Hannah´s inexhaustible supplies. Suddenly Sophie came into her own. She had been hovering intermittently throughout the day, offering to help, but I had been quite happy to be left to my own devices. Faced with a lack of appropriate carbohydrate though, was to prove invaluable to me: she knew how to make chapattis. While the diners sat outside, snacking on saucisson sec and olives, she showed me how to mix the flour, water and oil to make the dough, and we rolled out what seemed like hundreds of small flat circles. We part-cooked them in a piping hot dry frying pan, ready to be finished off at the last moment on the open flame of the hob. That was exciting! The little breads puffed up like balloons, and the hot air inside cooked the dough from the centre whilst the outsides took on a mottled, charred appearance. We put a little knob of butter on top of each whilst they were still hot, and took them out to the waiting farmers, along with two vast vats of curry. I was complimented on my cooking that evening, and I took real pleasure from playing hostess.

Saying goodbye to my satisfied companions, I knew that it was highly unlikely that I would see any of them again. Hannah, Nell, Sophie and Abelard would be going to market with me in St Étienne tomorrow, from where I would catch the train. I felt no sorrow at leaving anybody from Edouart´s farm, for no reason other than that I hardly knew them. Of those whom I was leaving from La Range, Raphael and Evelyn had been good company, but I wouldn´t miss them. Theotim and Francis were too young for me to have formed a close attachment, and though I was grateful to Joao having agreed to adopt me for my birthday, it was Nathalie and Marta whom I thought I might miss at a push. I was glad to have spent time there with them, despite my initial difficulties; but equally I was happy to move on.

12th August 2010 - Dreadlocks

We all went down to the fields to prepare for market that morning. Hannah had returned after a chaotic chain of hitchhikes from St Tropez, and with her was the elusive Nel, the friend who had begun the roadtrip with her but who had gone home injured. 

Harvesting the courgettes for the last time, I enjoyed the feeling of the plants brushing against my ankles. The French were farming barefoot – Xavier had done so too in both the Jammery and the garden, claiming that we WWOOFers were missing out by wearing shoes – because they liked the sensation of being so closely connected to nature. I couldn´t quite bring myself to go completely barefoot, and stuck with my sandals. As a young child, if my parents stood me without my shoes in the middle of a lawn, I would cry and refuse to move. I still wasn´t sure that I liked the feeling.
I was working near Else – Abelard´s sister – and marveling at the fact that she was only eighteen; her self-confidence made her seem so much older. I was also admiring her dreadlocks. They were long and thick, the colour of sand, and were tied up in an enormous messy bun at the nape of her tanned neck. I had wanted dreadlocks for as long as I could remember, and my phase of wearing multicoloured homemade felt dreads the year before hadn´t really satisfied my cravings. They had looked quite convincing, but I had still been able to take them out at night. I might have been more likely to adopt dreadlocks if I had had a long-term job as a farmhand; my main reason for never getting them was that I thought that prospective employers might hold it against me. Too many people had too many preconceptions about the dreadlocked population. I didn´t want to be judged prematurely. Perhaps I would get dreadlocks when I retired. Or else when I was my own manager of my own café. But for now I would have to continue suffering hair envy.

Everybody in that family had at least one dreadlock. Even the dog. Abelard´s hair generally looked unkempt, but it had a couple of defined black ropes running through its matted length. Edouart had one thin dreadlock in his long grey beard; his hair was too sparse to carry one. Kneeling on the ground dressed in loose cotton clothes and running the dry soil through his fingers meditatively, I understood why he had come to be called Le Prophète: he could have walked straight out of an illustrated Bible. He was a man of great calmness and – unlike his son – gentleness. Those fingers were deft and skilled, used to knead the fine rustic bread he made each day and to tease milk softly from the teats of his goats. It was a simple life that the family led, but they were far from being simple people. The more time I spent with them, the more they intrigued me.