My Peculiar French World (Part 1)

My wife and I have been living in rural France for a few months now and things have finally settled down a bit. Most of the major details have been dealt with, and the list of things to do has been reduced to the mildly stressful, rather than feeling insurmountable. We have a car, the insurance is in place, the ‘French Card’ is in hand, the house rented, and the boxes unpacked. We know how to find the things that we need, and a bit of a routine is in place; not too much, but enough to make us feel comfortable.

It is the house that most amazes me. We somehow managed to find, and rent, an incredible old farm house in the village of Thoiry. It was actually a stable back when it was built; converted into a house, as far as we can tell, back in the 1950s. Our home is part of a larger farm complex that includes the original house, where our landlady lives, and a gigantic old wine storage barn. It all forms a sort of compound with a central courtyard flanked by a series of walled gardens and backed by acres of vineyard and pasture.

We park our car under a section of the barn, likely the old hay loft, just in front of an ancient derelict wine press that I have spent a considerable amount of time just sitting and staring at recently. It is easily ten feet across with two foot high wooden slats set on top of a massive stone base and banded with old rusted iron. The stone is etched with a shallow gutter that leads to a carved spout that has probably filled thousands of barrels of wine. The press itself is a massive device of stone and iron, set on a gigantic screw. Sitting in the corner of the barn is an eighteen foot long pole that fits into a hole on the top of the screw, sticking out horizontally beyond the edge of the press.

Back when the farm was young a horse would have been tethered to the pole and used to turn the screw to actuate the press, but nearby can be seen the rusting remains of a more modern system of cobwebbed gears and frayed cables that must have brought about the early retirement of the horse to either the pasture, the glue factory, or the dinner table. The entire press has probably sat disused for forty years, and sits as a reminder or a different time and way of farming; one where people did for themselves what is now subcontracted to the handful of wineries that dot the small villages on the Swiss side of the border.

From both the kitchen and bedroom windows we have a view of the vineyard; a few acres that produces three or four different varieties of grapes. One of the aforementioned wineries in Switzerland buys the crop each year, sending out a crew of weathered old French men and women to pick the grapes by hand each fall. Behind the vineyard is a large pasture full of cows that are brought in from the communal grazing land in the mountain valleys of the Jura in the early fall, where they stay until being moved back each spring. I have grown to love the constant, faint ringing of cow bells that floats through our windows each day. In the distance, far behind the pastures, the massive stone face of the Saleve stands between us and a view of Switzerland beyond.

Glass doors, with their large wooden storm shutters, open from our living room to the garden area behind the house and the farm orchard beyond. There are half a dozen apple and plum trees spread out across the orchard, as well as a quarter acre garden tended by our wizened landlady whose family has owned the farm since it was built. It is a large space, surrounded by eight or nine foot stone walls, with a gate that opens to the church grounds to the west. The walls are lined with a mix of herbs and rose bushes and the entire yard fills with the mix of their heavy scents on warm summer days. Our personal garden area, just over a quarter acre itself, is dominated by a large mulberry tree in the center. The back edge is lined with lavender and raspberry bushes.

The house itself is large, perhaps too large for us, but it is incredible to be able to live there. When we first came to the Geneva area, searching for a place to live before the final move, we quickly realized that we simply could not afford to live in Geneva proper. We did what many of the people working at CERN and the UN do, searching through the surrounding towns on the French side. What we found were mostly tiny, overpriced apartments and we were becoming resigned to the idea that we would likely have to live in one of the apartment blocks that dominate cities like St. Genis and Gex.

My wife came across an ad for an apartment online and, in our desperation, we decided to take a look even though the pictures made the place look as bad as everything else we were seeing. Pulling into the courtyard of what turned out to be our farmhouse, we hadn’t even gotten out of the car before we decided that we simply had to live there, no matter what.

With its gigantic, cavernous kitchen, large arched windows and heavy wooden storm shutters, worn stone entryways to each room, and idyllic surroundings, it was like someone had made real our most absurd visions of what it would be like to live in a small agrarian French village. Sure, it’s a drafty stone building that never seems warm enough in the winter, but I literally cannot imagine a more perfect home for our time in France.

As I mentioned, we live in Thoiry. It is a town of a few thousand people, with a small downtown and a handful of shops. We have a grocer, two bakeries, a butcher, and a café within a few minutes walk of our house. On the far edge of the town, maybe two kilometers out, there is a large grocery store called Migros. Think of it was a Super Target with more character, higher quality food, and a surly staff. There’s also a Leroy Merlin (the Home Depot of France) next to the Migros, so we have nearly everything we could want within a long walk or short drive of our house.

The village is adorable. The man who runs the grocery enjoys, good naturedly, making fun of the hard vowels of my Midwestern American accent. My favorite of the two bakeries makes the best bread and pastries that I have ever eaten in my life. The café appears to be open whenever the owner feels like it, and that usually includes a few hours each morning and a few more in the very late afternoon or evening. Every Sunday the main street of the village is taken over by a surprisingly large farmers market where we manage to buy about eighty percent of our food for the week. Outside of the second bakery is a small playground and I often sit out front in the late morning, enjoying the burnt French coffee and watching the children run and play.

A few steps outside of town in any direction and you are surrounded by farms. The land is mostly pasture; covered in cows, horses, and the occasional sheep. They also grow a lot of sunflowers in this part of the world and in the late summer our region is transformed into a sea of almost preternaturally brilliant yellow. It is the kind of sight that almost forces you to pull over on the side of the road and just soak in the ridiculous beauty. It is difficult not to take pictures of the endless rolling hills covered in a blanket of sunflowers, and I have hundreds of nearly identical photos to prove it.

My life is…breathtaking, at the moment. Everyday is something new in a place quite different from where I am used to living, and I hope this feeling lasts a long time. Sure, it has its frustrating moments, but even those are incredible if I just stop and think about them for a few moments. For example, there is nothing quite like being on the receiving end of someone who, upon realizing that you do not understand the French that is oozing from their mouth, decides that speaking three times as loud and half as fast, while repeating the same sentences over and over, will probably do the trick. That happens to me almost every day. I try to revel in the absurdity of the moment, and to stay aware that I am the interloper, and it is my job to make the effort to bridge that gap. At the same time, it fills me with sympathy for every recent immigrant that I have met in the US, doing their best to get by in their new, foreign world.

I wouldn’t trade this opportunity for anything in the world, and I am doing my best to make the most of where I am. Every fumbled attempt to speak French, every isolating moment surrounded by people who I cannot understand and who cannot understand me, every frustrating encounter with the peculiar French bureaucracy, and every awkward misstep simply adds to the incredible experience of living in this strange place.

I have a long way to go before this is home, but it feels more like it every day.

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My ever evolving farming plans

I have wanted to find a way to make a living farming for a long time now. For years it has been a growing and evolving plan, with the hope of eventually cobbling together a set of skills that will add up to a fulfilling and at least moderately lucrative way of life. I have read dozens of books on permaculture, raising chickens, beekeeping, aquaponics, and the modern methods of producing high quality food on small pieces of land.

In Texas I began raising chickens to learn the ropes, and in Chicago I put together a modest apiary of nine hives. I learned from the likes of Joel Salatin and other modern farmers about the art of holistic animal husbandry, and spent (not enough) time learning a bit from small farmers in the Austin and Chicago areas. I gleaned enough from them to cobble together a plan.

The problem I face now is that my plan,and most of what I learned about the marketing of farm products applies only to the growing US market for quality food from local sources. France is,a whole different ball game, and I am starting over from square one.

The low quality, industrial food economy that drove people like Joel Salatin to look for a different way simply never took hold where I am now living. The grocery stores are full of local foods, pasture raised chickens and eggs, honey from small producers, and grass fed beef. While specialty markets do exist, high quality foods are the norm rather than exception. This is a good thing, but it doesn’t allow for the higher prices that have made the new wave of local farming so successful in the US. To be blunt, they never destroyed their small farm economy here, so there is no need for the pioneering experimentation that defines the local food movement back home. Combine that with my horrible understanding of French and you begin to see the difficulties that I am facing starting a new enterprise.

I came here hoping to start with bees, expand to egg chickens, and eventually add meat chickens to my business. In two to three years, I was hoping for thirty hives, a hundred laying hens and a yearly output of fifteen hundred chickens sold for meat. Well, bees and hives are expensive here, putting and possible profit at last five years away. Egg prices are low, and local eggs plentiful, so it would be difficult to break into the market. Raising chickens for meat, while certainly something that can turn a profit relatively quickly, is my weakest skill of the three and I am reticent to begin the business with that as the main pillar.

I am adapting my plan to include aquaponics. Fish are a high profit item, and the high quality greens that I would be able to grow are desirably enough, and expensive enough, that I can pay off the initial investment within one to one and a half years. The set up can be quite cheap, with the majority of the equipment needed coming from salvaged items.

Next spring I will have a small scale set up to learn the ropes and test whether I am on the right track. If everything goes well, I should have a half acre of hydroponically grown vegetables and farmed fish by the end of 2013. I plan to document the build and the entire development of the business, so if you are interested in learning how to do this, I might be able to help.

I am going to set up a few beehives as well, but more for fun than as a business. I really developed a love of beekeeping and I can;t imagine stopping. Who knows, maybe I will find a secret cabal of French beekeepers who can help bring the costs down low enough to make it something that I can expand.

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NaNoWriMo is done and my life is mine again

I spent the month of November as I have for the last three years, desperately scrambling to complete the rough draft of a novel. The first year I didn’t manage to finish, thanks to the realization that I absolutely hated the story that I was writing. I tried to pick it up but, being down twenty thousand words, I never managed to get things going again.

Last year I finished, and I have been working on draft after draft to polish it up and make it something that someone other than myself might enjoy. I don’t know if it will ever be that, but I am proud of the work I put in and it led to the realization that I really do enjoy writing. I hope to have that novel done within the next six months, and maybe I will post some excerpts here when I finish the next draft.

So this year I managed to finish the fifty-thousand words once again, and I am reasonably happy with the draft so I guess it can be called a success. It was a grueling month of writing, not nearly as smooth as last year, but I stuck with it and finished on the last day. I don’t know when I will get around to editing it, but at least I have a finished draft!

NaNo is one of the most worthwhile things I have ever done, and I hope to take part every year. The structure provided by the set amount of time, and the support provided by everyone involved, really do make what seems like the impossible much easier to do. That said, the pace can be daunting and it still takes a tremendous amount of focus to pull it off…and focus is not something I have ever been accused of having, at least not for things that require more concentration than is possessed by your average ferret.

Now that it is done I can get back to building a life here in France. Being the plus one to someone’s structured plan (My wife works at CERN, and it was her massive brain and impressive ability to make particles go fast that made the move possible) can be difficult at times. I don;t have a work permit for France or Switzerland, so a traditional job is out of the question, and I am forced to build a new life from scratch. This means developing the ability to stick with unclear and self-defined plans with only my own desire to get things done as the benchmark for my success or failure,Much like with the novel, I have to draw up the plans, decide what I can and cannot do, and execute them for better or worse. It has been awhile since I have had to face this much freedom, and I must admit that it is a bit scary.

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A Ne’er-Do-Well With Incredible Luck

It has been two months since I moved, with my wife, from Elgin Illinios to Thoiry France. The hectic set-up phase in coming to a close, so I thought it would be a good time to start documenting my experiences in the wilds of Eastern France. First, some background.

I was born in Detroit Michigan but I spent most of my adult life living in Austin Texas, which is the city that I really think of as home. My wife, who is from Austin, is just about done with her PhD in Physics where she specializes in making very small things go really, really fast; or accelerator physics.  Her work took us to Elgin Illinois, where she worked at FermiLab. After two boring years in the suburbs of Illinois she was offered the opportunity to work on a project at CERN, in Geneva Switzerland.

It didn’t take much thinking to realize that this was an amazing opportunity for both of us, so we got to work making the arrangements and taking care of the million things that a person has to do to move abroad. We will be here for at least three years, possibly six, and we do not plan on returning to the US if we can manage to stay in Europe. Luckily, the Europeans haven’t gutted their science programs like they have in the US, so there are opportunities galore. We see Spain, Germany, or even Sweden in our future and the thought of it is incredibly exciting.

Geneva is one of the most expensive cities in the world, so we decided it would be a better idea to live on the French side, which is significantly cheaper and all around beautiful. So we found an old farmhouse in Thoiry France, on a small vineyard, and we are slowly settling into our new life as expats in a small French village. My wife speaks some French, but I am starting at square one, so the biggest obstacle is the language barrier. Luckily, I find the challenge fun, so I am working to integrate myself as much as possible into my new world.

I am an aspiring farmer with hopes of setting up an apiary, raising egg hens, and establishing a hydroponic fish farm. I am also working on a novel, and considering a half dozen other projects that will, hopefully, allow me to avoid working in an office somewhere in Geneva. This has been something I have been working toward for many years, and I am extremely grateful to my wife for helping provide me with the opportunity to try my hand at working for myself and developing an agricultural enterprise and permaculture experiment.

Hopefully I will be able to share some of my insights on life in France, farming, and just a dash of my experience observing the world of accelerator physics.

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