Friday, May 25, 2012

Farm #2!

When I last left you all off, I was still in the Dordogne region of France.
I caught the train from Sarlat to Brive-la-Gaillard, a small city in the Dordogne area, to catch a ride share to Montpellier. Montpellier is slightly more south and east from the Dordogne area, taking about 6 hours or so to get there. On the road, we stopped at Millau for lunch and to see the tallest bridge in the world (according to Wikipedia, it has "one mast's summit at 343.0 metres (1,125 ft) above the base of the structure"). Millau also has a strong air current and high cliff above the small city that sits in the valley, making it a popular spot for para-sailing and para-gliding. The driver wanted to take the cheaper (and slightly longer) route to Montpellier, putting us through beautiful national parks and towns.

When I arrived at Montpellier, I couchsurfed with someone who is studying to get his masters in viticulture (wine making), which was quite cool. I arrived late in the afternoon and was leaving the next morning, so I went out for a few hours to see as much of Montpellier as possible. I really like the city, it is quite cute and charming and not extremely large. There are nice wide boulevards and parks and the buildings are all very neat and pretty. Plus, the weather was nice, which helps! There is a beach nearby (you can simply take the tram) but I didn't have enough time, unfortunately. I returned to my couchsurfers home to make sushi for dinner (my first time making sushi myself!). I had to run to the supermarket to buy some food for it, and you know what I did? I bought zucchini instead of cucumber! I obviously don't buy many vegetables! What's even funnier, he told me I'm not the first couchsurfer to do this! Woops...

The next day I had to catch an early train to a nearby smaller city called Nimes and then a 1 hours and 30 minute bus to a small town called St Jean du Gard where the husband of the next farm would be. From there, we headed the one hour to his home in the mountains, in the village Le Pompidu. The village is in the Lozere region and is amidst the Massif Central mountains. Honestly, I thought things couldn't get more beautiful after being in the Dordogne region, but here it is just a fabulous, but in a slightly different way. As the road twists and turns up, down, and around the mountains, you catch glimpses of beautiful vistas over the valley, waterfalls, and endless green trees.

When I arrive at the "farm" I'm floored. It is absolutely massive. It is so massive, in fact, they don't even use half of it. The family is a husband and wife from Belgium who moved here with their 3 sons about 12 years ago. The 3 sons are now in school studying engineering, medicine, and law (they were all home schooled by the mother- she must have done something right!). The history of the home is quite interesting: it used to be a summer camp that was then abandoned and subsequently taken over by squatters, who destroyed most of the interior (you can still see some graffiti in the old parts of the home). The first floor of the house is split in two, with one side being a massive room for cooking and giving lectures, and the other side being the laboratory where they mix essential oils (more on this in just a minute). The second floor is their floor (which I haven't seen). The third floor is for guests and WWOOFers and includes many bedrooms, showers, bathrooms, a kitchen, a living room, a communal computer, and a deck that over looks the valley and has the most unbelievable view. When I arrived there were two other WWOOFers and 3 guests to come. The guests were coming for an aromatic/essential oils beginners training for 3 days...

So the family I am staying with mixes essential oils. Essential oils are essentially oils that come from plants and can be used topically or internally for medical purposes. They have a garden for the food they need as well as some aromatic plants that they themselves distill (using the same process you use to make alcohol) to extract the essential oils. They also order essential oils from around the world in bulk and then sell them for small orders or mix them with other oils to make their own "synergies." They have been doing this for 30 years and have written books on it.
As I mentioned, there was to be a 3 day training. When I arrived, I was basically told there was going to be a training, and if I wanted to participate I could, but I would have to make up the 15 hours I would be missing by working extra time the next week. I sort of tried to get out of it, not because I didn't want to do the training, but because I was worried about making up the hours (they expected you to work 5 hours per day; 3 hours in the mornings in the garden and 2 hours in the lab in the afternoons). However, they sort of pointed out to me that if I did that I would be all by myself all day and it would be boring for me. So I took the training.

The training was really interesting and amazing (and all in French!). I never even really know that you could take a drop or two of an essential oil in, say, a yogurt as a treatment for a certain ailment or problem. There are essential oils for everything: headaches, depression, severe menstrual cramps, anxiety, sunburn, infection, and much more. Most people know that medicines come from plants, but are usually chemically manipulated to simply bring out certain aspects, so that when you ingest a pill there is nothing natural about it. We're aware of the effects: Prozac found in NYC drinking water and evidence of fish being lacking the ability to reproduce from birth control in water ways (here's a NY Times blog article I just found quickly on the subject, Our bodies aren't built to process the chemically produced medicines we're putting into our bodies, so eventually it comes out in our urine. The same effect isn't seen with essentials oils, since they break down naturally.

Anyway, the point is, I learned a lot from this training. I learned about different types of lavender, helped to pick lavender in the garden, then watched as it was distilled before my eyes into an essential oil. I got to see a large-scale distillery where a local association allows members to distill their products. I also got to mix my own synergies, or mixes of essential oils, in this case to make massage oils. The crowd was quite interesting and different (there were about 20 people in total), with many different interests in the area of essential oils and organic products. Overall, I'm glad I took it- it has given me a lot to think about!

That Friday, I caught a ride with one of the attendees to Marseille. Here I was supposed to meet my friend Jessica. I arrived at the hotel where I was supposed to meet her, only to be told she had canceled the reservation and that her flight was canceled! Panicking, I called her. Apparently, she had been trying to reach me all day but must have had the wrong number! Anyway, I called one of the girls I met at the training and asked if she happened to have a friend in Marseille whom I could crash with. What luck, she did! I was able to crash with her 2 friends in their apartment that night, but I was so exhausted from the travel and stress, I fell asleep pretty early.

The next day, I left the apartment and headed to the beach. I went to the furthest beach on the strip of beaches in hopes that it would be less touristy, and consequently less dangerous. Luckily, I was right and the beach was a family beach, so I could leave my stuff on on the beach and go for a swim! Soon I needed to meet Jessica (she caught a new flight to come meet me). We wandered all around Marseille that afternoon and evening, having a picnic in a park, walking to the church on a hill overlooking the city (so awesome), and seeing the Old Port and Panier districts. Panier was very cute, with adorable tea shops and art galleries and the church on the hill was amazing. We had an amazing dinner in an Italian restaurant and then decided to tuck in early and head to Aix-en-Provence the next day after heading to a museum.

The next morning we headed to a museum called La Vieille Charité, meaning "Old charity" because of its former use as an almshouse in the 17th century. The museum is actually two museums, Museum of Mediterranean Archaeology and Museum of Art of Africa, Oceania and Amerindia, as well as a temporary exhibit on the main floor. Jessica and I decided to skip the two museums to catch the temporary exhibit, which was supposed to be quite good. It featured the Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser (1928-2000). The work was incredible. Hundertwasser's works are powerful, modern, and full of life and color. He rejected societal values and felt that man needed to get back to his roots in the earth (which I find ironic, as I'm out here to work on an organic farm). I really enjoyed the exhibit, as it gave great examples and explanations of how his work changed over time and also gave really thoughtful quotes. Definitely worth the visit!

Afterwards, it began to rain. We walked to the train station and headed to Aix-en-Provence, a beautiful nearby town. Unfortunately, it really began to pour. By the time we got there, we had to borrow umbrellas from the hotel that Jessica was staying at, and we ventured into town. We did a little bit of restaurant and bar hopping as we tried to stay out of the rain, and I found I really loved Aix. It is smaller and a lot cleaner than Marseille and, despite it being a Sunday, there were a good number of people out and about. This brought the color back into our cheeks, just before I had to leave to catch a ride back to Le Pompidu.

My friend Caroline has been on a bike tour with two friends for the last two weeks and was to finish in Le Pompidu and WWOOF with me for my last week. She was pretty close to Pompidu when I was getting my ride share back from Marseille. As I mentioned, it was torrential raining. Luckily for her, my rideshare was able to pick her up and she came back with me to the farm!

Now I should go, I've been holding up the internet for too long writing this! That as on Monday and now it is Friday. I will update again this weekend and tell you about the work I've done this week and well as the fun I'll hopefully have this weekend! :) I can't post pictures here unfortunately! They'll have to wait until I'm back in Le Havre on Thursday or so.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Dordogne, Part II

Hello again from the lovely Dordogne region! I can't believe my stay here is almost finished, but at the same time, I've really taken advantage of all the cool stuff to see. Even though it's only been three days since I've update, I fear this may be a long one and I won't get to finish it in one sitting!

So, on Thursday, in the morning Fabienne and I tackled some weeding. This isn't your usual stoop down and pick out a few little leaves weeding. This was grab a big hoe and pull up giant bushes of weeds, while trying to avoid the good plants. Luckily it was the morning and until 11am the sun hadn't fully crept over the trees and cast herself full force on us. Once 11am came, however, I was a goner. It was some real tough work! However, I kind of like weeding in a way. There's this great crunching sound when you've split the roots of a big one and are ripping it from the ground. Makes you fell all manly and powerful.

That afternoon I went sightseeing. First, I went to the beautiful town of Beynac. Beynac is built into the cliffs along the Dordogne river. It is extraordinarily picturesque and is the cite of many a medieval film. We stopped first at the bottom, near the river, and I put my feet in. I figured, I've swum in the Atlantic as early as May and as late as October, it can't be that bad. Oh, it was. And because it's pretty much rained all of the month of April up until just this week, the river is swollen and moving fast. So I couldn't go all the way in, had to settle with just my feet.

After we headed up the town. Like I said, the town is built into the side of a cliff, so walking up was obviously a big mistake. It was steep and the weather was hot. Despite this, the town is gorgeous. The homes are made of the creamy colored stones that you find throughout the region and you can also see roofs made of hard stone. Apparently this is very rare, very old, and very costly. When we got to the top, we decided not to go into the 12th century castle but to go to see another. I later learned this was a mistake. Apparently it's gorgeous inside the castle- bummer.

After walking through the whole town, we headed to see another castle called Castelnaud. This one to me seemed a bit more traditional, something we Americans imagine a castle to be. This castle is from a bit later, the 13th century. It is built up on a big hill, so the views from the town and castle are amazing.

We then headed over to Sarlat. Sarlat is a gorgeous town that is quite popular among tourists. It has narrow, winding medieval streets, interesting squares with cute restaurants, and lots of old buildings. The town is great for just wandering around and seeing all the different streets and alleys. While walking back to the car, I listened in on an English tour group. We were standing behind the main church, and there were these stone sarcophagus looking things in the ground. Apparently they are the burial site from the 8th, 9th, and 10th centuries. That's pretty darn old.

On the ride back to Paunat (where I'm staying) we passed amazing homes that are literally built into the side of the cliffs and are made of stone so that they the people in there are literally living in the rock. The region is also where many cave people live (it's where you can find the worlds oldest cave paintins, at Lascaux). You can see these great holes high up in the cliffs. Apparently today they know that the cavemen had built wooden stairwells to access and live in these caves and they had used the echo from the caves and the cliffs to communicate long distances. Very cool.

The next day, Friday, I worked all day. It was the longest day I'd worked so far, and by the end I could feel it. At one point, however, Fabienne and I took a break to go swimming in the brook that runs along the side of the plot of land she has. The water is fresh and clean- Fabienne drinks from it regularly while working. I had a very romantic image of farming before I cam here, and this lives up to it!

That night, we saw a very hilarious French film called Radio Stars. The film was show in a near by town called le Buisson in a one room theater. I don't think I've ever been in a theater that small- amazing! the film was about morning radio hosts who need to travel around France to bring up the ratings. I was worried that I wouldn't understand it all- comedy can be quick talking and difficult. But it was great! Definitely would recommend it if you can catch it with English subtitles on Netflix or something!

Apparently I don't work on the weekends, which is great. Yesterday, Saturday, in the afternoon I took the bike and went to whats called the "Gouffre de Proumeyssac." It was basically a giant underground hole that has a ton of beautiful stalagmites and stalactites made of calcium. I didn't really think it would be that cool, but in fact it was awesome! After walking down towards the giant cavern, you stand on a platform and look out into the darkness. Then, the guide puts on music and they have a really cool light show that illuminates all the different aspects of the cavern. You get to see this show a second time when you're down on the cavern floor on the opposite side, giving you a second look. The guide then walks you through the cavern and explains the history of the cavern (such as how the formations are made over time, how the cavern came to be, how it was found, etc.) and shows you how the water that still falls from the cavern ceiling is allowed to fall on objects and subsequently petrifies them, making them into porcelain. You also get to walk into a narrow bit of the tour and see some rare triangular crystal formations. Overall, a really beautiful and unexpected success!

I then biked over to the medieval village of Limeuil. At the tourist office, they have a self-guided tour that you can take. Limeuil sits at the meeting point of the Dordogne River and the Vézère River. On the tour, I walked past the old gates of the city, the old jail house, the former whore house (always a winner), the church, and the former ramparts of the city (the castle that had stood there once has since been destroyed).

Today I waited around quite a while because in the morning Fabienne asked me if I wanted to see a castle and some really old houses. I thought we'd go right after lunch, but in fact we didn't go until around 4:30pm. Nevertheless, first we went to the chateau de Puymartin. It is a castle originally from around 1270, though it was destroyed during the 100 Years War and then rebuilt around 1450. The castle is privately owned by a descendant from the owners of 1450. Because it is still owned by the original owners, you only get to see a portion of the castle.

The visit is quite nice, despite being short, and you get a guide included with it. The rooms are furnished with many beautiful pieces from different centuries, and the guide was super knowledgeable about when and where all the pieces were from. There is one special room that normally visitors do not get to see, but since we were a small group we got to see it. It was a room meant for meditation and has rare and very old black and white paintings of Greek mythology. We also went to the top of the tower where supposedly the ghost of the white lady is. Apparently, Thérèse de Saint-Clair was locked up in the tower because her husband was extremely jealous. He left her there until she died and then buried her body in the walls. Supposedly people have been claiming to see her ghost for centuries.

Afterwards, nearby we went to "Les Cabanes du Breuil." These are old stone huts from before the mid-15th century, though they don't know exactly when they were built. The stone homes are similar to the stone rooms I was telling you about, except they are completely made of stone. They placed the stones just right so that they didn't need any kind of cement, which I thought was pretty cool...

Anyway, headed to Montpellier really early tomorrow, so I don't have time to post pictures. Will try and do soon!

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

WWOOFing Part I: Dordogne

I am currently writing you from the lovely Paunat, France in the lovely Dordogne region. The Dordogne is known as the "Region of 1001 Castles" because there are just soooo many. It is also the sight of "The valley of man3 because Lascaux (the oldest cave paintings in the world) are found here. Apparently it is the second most visited area next to Paris. Nearing the end of my journey to get here, I was lucky enough to pass the Chateau Beynac, which sits on a cliff sitting over a medieval town and apparently is the sight of many a medieval movie. When I arrived at Paunat, I was floored. In Paunat there is an impressive church from the 12th century and, as most towns and villages are in the Dordogne, all the homes are made of cream colored stone. I couldn't believe it when I arrived that this was what I was going to call home for a week. WWOOF stands for World Wide Organization of Organic Farmers and is a network that connects people to organic farmers around the world. The intention is to help spread awareness of organic farms and local produce. Travelers have the opportunity to stay with an organic farming family for free (includes your room and food)in exchange for work they do on the farm. It is a great way to experience a totally different way of life, learn a new language, or see a portion of the country you wouldn't normally get the opportunity to. I know you're all thinking, There is NO way Kristen is going to work on a farm. I was a little worried to, so I held onto my apartment in Le Havre just in case things went sour. WWOOFing here at this particular farm is a lot different than I thought it would be... For starters, I thought I would be living on a farm, very isolated and remote. However, the people I am staying with have a home in a village. The home is modern and filled with all the paintings that the woman here had done before hand. Her name is Fabienne and she is quite an interesting woman. Until 2008, Fabienne lived in Bordeaux as a painter, and from the works she has in her home, she was a great one. She has a son from a previous marriage, but since the village is pretty remote, he boards at his high school and only comes home for holidays and weekends. I am staying in his room, and when he is home he will stay on a fold out couch, which I feel bad about, but he doesn't seem to mind. Anyway, in 2008 Fabienne started growing organic herbal plants. A lot of the plants are used for tea, but there are also spices for food. The plot of land she farms on is about a mile and a half away from the home. It has been raining in all of Europe for the last month, so it's been a rough going for farmers. I was sort of preparing myself to be taken advantage of, but in fact I feel like it's the opposite. I feel like they haven't given me nearly enough work to justify eating their food and staying in their home! I arrived on Monday around 5pm and Fabinne had taken the day off, so we just sat in front of the house, admiring the beautiful church before us. They decided at the end of the night to play Scrabble, which obviously just isn't even remotely fair, since it was in French. The next day, I woke up early and went walking. I hiked all around and found some nice trails and got up on a hill to overlook a river and beautiful white cliffs. I returned for lunch, and then Fabienne and I headed to her farm. We planted some sage and another plant that I forgot the name of. I got to use a hoe for the first time, and we had a good laugh about it because I was pretty bad at it. But there wasn't really a lot to do, so we finished just after two hours of work. She showed me the town where she was born, which is also where she keeps her supplies and dries out her produce for teas and such. It's another adorable town! At the end of the day, we needed to pick up her partner, Julien. He's a strapping young guy who works on vegetables, though he just started working with her this year, so there aren't any really yet. Julien was at a plant fair in Cadouin, a near by town. The town is another beautiful one, and there is also a nice church. We hung out with other farmers, and I tuned out and day dreamed as they talked about the weather and markets and customers. We headed back, and I was exhausted. Today I was supposed to work in the morning, but it had rained all night, so Fabienne said we couldn't work that morning. I borrowed a bike from them and biked to a near by town called St. Alvère that has ruins of an old castle. The town was very quiet and sleepy- even the tourist information office was closed! I should also mention, biking here is terrifying. There is just so much uphill biking it's crazy, then suddenly your speeding downhill, which terrifies me after my little biking accident on Block Island. Their bike is also really old fashioned and has the gear shifters down by your knees on the body of the bike and no kickstand. After lunch, I figured I'd work, but they had someone come to renew their organic product certification. Apparently they had changed the lands they were using, which required a lot of paperwork to be filled out and visiting the areas. So after resting and reading for a bit, I set out on food to find some walking trails in the forest. The trails were unbelievably beautiful with little waterfalls and everything. Fabienne happened to pass me on the side of the road. She was ready for me to work. We planted some cammomile, then met up with Julien and helped him to plant squash. I really like planting, believe it or not. I get to sit in the dirt and put these cute little plants in the holes that Fabienne made and I use my hands to push the dirt back. Because of the rain, the dirt is soft and cool. And since I'm only working about 2 hours per day, it's not really a strain at all. This is obviously not the "real" farmers life I imagined. It's better! For pictures check out: