My arrival in the heart of Provence was accompanied by ravenous hunger. Though the memory of my earlier socca lingered, vegan goodies proved to be scarce during the long journey to the farm. As luck would have it, there was a railroad strike in progress – of which I was thankfully informed by the front desk staff at the hostel in Nice – and with each leg of my journey, I found myself scrambling to find the information assistants, show them my tickets while explaining (tout en français, I might add), where I was going.
After two trains and a bus, I arrived in the small Provençal town of Tarascon, where the farmer waited for me with his truck. We drove through a picturesque countryside that was straight out of a Disney movie, before turning off of the fast-moving main road directly into the driveway of the farm. The house was a stone cottage, renovated on the inside, with an exceptionally large garage.
At the time of my arrival, the volunteers – including myself– numbered four, two Korean girls who spoke no French (and farmers who spoke no English), and Jannette, another American girl. As they finished preparing dinner, I set my large amount of luggage in the garage, which was the only place we had extra space, before washing up and readying myself for the meal.
The first course was a delightfully refreshing salad sourced from other local farms throughout Provence, accompanied by fresh melon–the perfect start to a summer supper. Our second course could only be described as a bit of a letdown, given that the main component was a whole boiled eggplant. We were each provided with our own eggplant and given a mixture of fresh chopped parsley and minced garlic with which to top it. The final component was a drizzle of local, organic extra-virgin olive oil. I was too hungry to refuse and wanted to make a good first impression besides, so I mashed the eggplant as best I could, and heaped it with garlic.
The farmers warned us (and the Korean girls, who also heaped on the garlic) that it was very strong, but I’ll take raw garlic over plain eggplant any day. We finished the meal with a bit of soy-based pudding and settled in for the evening.
Getting Down to Business
The next morning, the Korean girls departed, leaving just Jannette and I to fall into the morning routine. We would be up and dressed by about 7:30/8 a.m., and take a small breakfast of tea, bread, and jam. Some mornings we were also given fresh fruit, but never did we have more protein than what was already in the whole grain bread. Oh, the things we would have done for even a bit of peanut butter (yes, yes, how American of us).
Each morning, we started our work by picking figs off the sprawling tree in the front yard. We would search through the large leaves to find the ones that were ripe enough to be “torn” from the tree. We pulled on the supple branches to bring higher hanging fruit within our grasp. Often, we would climb the regal limbs of the tree, balancing with a finger or a knee, while we pulled another branch further in, to grasp another perfectly ripe fig. All the while, we had plastic baskets strapped onto our bodies, which, when full, we would gently empty into the crates sitting on the low stone ledge by the patio. Every day, we managed to fill at least a crate and a half of beautifully plump figs, sometimes more. It was truly a marvel of nature’s bounty.
After about an hour and a half of fig picking, we would move on to field work. Two of the days we spent pulling weeds on the edges of some of the greenhouses, some days we picked potatoes, and others, we picked green beans. For the potatoes, the farmer would plow the field with the tractor, uprooting the plants, leaving the potatoes mostly exposed. We would then move up and down the rows with buckets, sifting through the dirt to get all of the potatoes that were big enough. As the buckets filled, we would bring them over to a pile of crates, and dump them there, filling as many crates as possible until there was nothing left in the row.
Spending time bent beneath the searing Mediterranean sun, and lugging heavy buckets of potatoes was not easy, but surprisingly, it was equal to, if not better than picking green beans. The chore of gathering green beans, while not particularly strenuous, was not exactly comfortable either. One would think sitting would be preferred over kneeling, but sitting on a wooden plank that was softened only by a thin, foam gardening mat, while squeezed between two narrow rows of vegetation is hardly a lesson in luxury. Once seated, with a basket at our feet, we would comb through each plant, ensuring that we collected only the fully grown string beans. Each plant took several minutes to pick through before we could continue our crawl towards the end of the row.
While the farmers were well versed in green bean picking and could manage a full row in perhaps two afternoons, us volunteers would move at half speed, completing only about a row and a half in a week. The wooden board and inherent twisting of the spine required to collect the beans wore on the body significantly more than would be expected, and so it came to be that green beans were perhaps our least favorite of the tasks we were set to do. At the end of each session of either green bean or potato collection, we would evenly distribute the crops among wooden crate, before they were taken out to be sold at various markets throughout the region.
A Chateau in the Clouds
During our rare time off, we were taken to various nearby tourist sites, in order to better acquaint ourselves with the history and culture of Provence. Our first free afternoon, we were dropped off at Les Baux de Provence, a medieval village situated amid a rock formation referred to as l’enfern (the inferno, because they look like flames).
Underneath the peak on which the ruins of the chateau is perched, is an old quarry that has been repurposed into a multi-media art exhibit. Called the carrière des lumières–the quarry of lights–we were utterly baffled as to what exactly it was until we entered the exhibit space later in the day. We decided to head into the old town first, and make our way up its winding stone roads to the chateau set high above us.
As we walked, we ducked into the many shops littered throughout the streets–my favorite being those selling specialty foods of the region–as well as shops that sold traditional souvenirs and quirky kitchenwares. We stopped by the mayors seat, which also held an exhibit of photos in a downstairs room, showing residents of Morocco during the French occupation. As we continued to ascend the slopes of the mountain, I was reminded of being in Tzfat’s old city, from the steep cobblestone streets to the stone buildings, which were also dated to the 15th and 16th centuries.
The ruins of the castle crowned the top of a cliff, offering stunning views of the surrounding countryside. The scene was truly the best ode to Provence there could be. We bought our tickets and began to explore, passing models of trebuchets and battering rams, old churches, and dozens of heady lavender plants while drinking in the breathtaking scenery. The highest points of the chateau were the two watchtowers, which remained stable enough for visitors to climb, though not without a warning for windy days.
The steps leading to the tower were ancient blocks of stone, some of which were so worn out from centuries of footsteps, that there were depressions so deep, it made climbing nearly impossible. I couldn’t help but think that such conditions would never fly in the United States, given our proclivity for frivolous lawsuits, thus requiring either that the site was closed to the public or that authenticity was lost in favor of reconstruction.
The last of the most magnificent viewpoints were on the ledge that formerly constituted part of the great hall. It towered over the stone village and the rest of the ruins, crowned by a large open archway, where I imagine a window once stood. While we once again took in the landscape of Provence doted before us, with fields, towns, and even the tiniest shimmer of the Mediterranean at the farthest reaches of our sight, I remarked on what it must have been like to sit down to dinner to that view regularly.
From there, we worked our way back down the slope, and over to the quarry. Inside, the bare, stone walls were alive with light, as the colors of paintings done by artists from the Austrian secession movement danced around us. The paintings shifted, immersing us first in a field of flowers, then surrounding us by grotesque figures, all while set to a somber classical score. We were utterly transfixed.
The immersive nature of the project and the juxtaposition of light and dark, compounded with the soaring and eerie music, was more evocative than any of the pieces alone could have done. My only mode of expression in such a setting could be movement. Alas, I was truly the only one dancing. As the last of our outing passed, consumed by the continuously swirling colors, we sadly wrenched ourselves away, if only to be on time for our ride back to the farm.
Arles: The Ancient Pearl of Provence
After several more grueling days under the sun, we were finally given a full day off, though rest was not in our cards. Early Saturday morning, the farmers shuttled us through Provence to the nearby town of Fontvielle to catch a bus to the ancient town of Arles. Situated along the Rhône river, Arles houses the remains of several Roman structures and holds the distinction as one of the cities in which Vincent Van Gogh lived for some time.
Our visit coincided with a day-long music festival in honor of the summer solstice that took place in various spots throughout the city. There was also a considerable amount of space given to an outdoor market, part of which housed home goods, clothing, and decorative jewelry, and a larger part of which was given over to produce and prepared foods. We made our way through the first part of the market, before heading over to the banks of the river for an early morning walk. We took in the ruins of the Roman columns that had once supported a moving bridge.
From the river, we worked our way back through town, this time seeking out the ancient colosseum. Given my tight budget, I decided to view the ruins from the outside only, while Jannette toured the inside. Our early start coupled with all the walking worked up our appetites, so we went back over to the market, where we carefully inspected every stall. In the end, I decided on a baguette, some olives, and a truly decadent artichoke and garlic spread as my lunch, while Jannette bought some magnificent looking strawberries. We spread our picnic on a patch of grass in the shade, and took a much-needed rest.
We soon returned to wandering about the town, stopping at the ruins of the amphitheater (the entirety of which I could see from outside), as well as the Van Gogh museum. The endless cobblestone squares passed under our feet, each one recalling the last we saw until another break was in order. We stopped at one of the hole-in-the-wall cafes, where there was barely room to stand, let alone sit indoors, but which provided several tables outdoors, sheltered from the sun by large umbrellas.
As we took stock of our travels, we decided that no further exploration was necessary, and though we still had several hours before we could return to the farm, our walking would remain at a minimum. To help pass the time, we went back to the colosseum, where earlier we had met a young American ex-pat, who made his way by cutting coins into jewelry. He had a large stock of precut pieces that included coins from all over the world, including the old francs, American money, and even a few Israeli agurot (like pennies, except 10 agurot is the smallest denomination available). I was quite taken with the agurot until he showed me a piece not on display, an old Israeli shekel, adorned with the magnificent lion, and an embossed ישראל (Israel).
To my misfortune, I had neither the money nor anything interesting to trade for it, though it was not for lack of trying. We sat on the curb of the street, chatting with him while he wrapped up his sales for the day (though I think we also proved to be a considerable distraction to business), before setting off to engage in the age-old French pastime of wine drinking.
The three of us found a small wine shop not far from the riverbank, where we purchased a bottle of local rosé, and then split while sitting on the steps to the river walk. There was a band performing at a nearby cafe that served as our live soundtrack, enhanced by the golden sunset dancing across the water.
When we once again met up with the farmers, after dusk had fallen, we took a brief detour to participate in some French folk dances that had sprung up around one of the bands. The last dance saw us mixed with a crowd of locals, in a large circle, alternating men and women. The men and women then split into an outer and inner circle by gender, where we followed along with the movements, twirling together with a partner, only to be spun away to the next. It was the kind of spirited, cultural affair one imagines could only happen in a movie, but it was magical just the same.