A mostly peaceful (and sometimes painful) ride delivered us at long last to Saint-Bonnet-sur-Gironde, a small town just north of the orchard we were scheduled to make as our second WWOOFing stop in France. We sent a text message to our host Annie when had a sense of how long it was going to take us. When she texted us asking for updates a few hours before we were scheduled to arrive, we knew that we’d be dealing with a fastidious person. Because then she texted us again to check where we were. And again to see if we wanted to stash our bikes with a friend of hers so we would arrive on schedule. Like I said: fastidious.
We were keen to check out Annie’s place – the description posted on her WWOOFing host profile included orchard tending, market gardening and permaculture principles. It sounded like a perfect spot to pass a week and polish our ever-improving French ability. We were in for a shock: Annie’s English was either virtually non-existent or she had more personally invested in the improvement of our ability than she let on, because for the week we were there, she barely used more than a handful of English words. Even when she did speak English, it was briefly and only to clarify a point she was making.
Here’s something I loved: Annie was the first to point out if we didn’t understand something. It was a sink-or-swim situation sometimes. Usually she’d unload a whole paragraph of information on us and wait for us to piece together whatever it was she had said. But there wasn’t much of a safety net. Generally she’d say what she had to say, pause, smile, and then tell us that we didn’t understand. I know how it looks. Who is this hyper-aggressive French woman, refusing to meet us halfway? But we didn’t see it that way at all. I want to believe that Annie recognized an ability in us that we didn’t even realize that we had for language acquisition, and in refusing to simply reiterate her point in English she would slow down and state it again in a different way in French. It was a real education.
There were times during the week that it got really tough. But since her insistence on using French exclusively gave us no indication that she was going to break, it behooved us to speak (or struggle through) French in all of our communication with her, whether we were asking for something specific or clarifying an instruction out in her garden. Annie even gave us an awesome two-hour tour of her property one day, explaining the camping site she was setting up, the wild boar that were ravaging her forests at night, the mushrooms she frequently collected on her property and the relationships between the different trees she was setting up in her orchard. And yeah, all in French.
There were moments of language fatigue, but I think that going through that exhaustion is probably just a sign that your brain is working; if the mind is a muscle, it needs the exercise. I don’t know much about the neuroscience of language acquisition but I want to believe that we’re stronger for the time we spent at Annie’s Orchard.
We’re also probably heavier. When we weren’t weeding and preparing the strawberry beds, we were eating them.
Hundreds of them. Fraises for days. We had strawberries in a tart, strawberries with ice cream, and even had a strawberry sugared wine.
Any gourmand worth their salt knows about the French reputation for cooking, but you might not be aware that meals are certifiably sacrosanct in this country. And lunch is generally a bigger deal than dinner. So we’d often mosey upstairs after a few hours out in the garden and Annie would have a three-course meal with wine or cognac waiting for us and some insane dessert to go along with it. And we’d nibble and chat for an hour or two before having a quick break (read: nap) in the afternoon before finishing up at the end of the day before dinner.
On many occasions our final task for the day was gathering more strawberries from one of her amazing strawberry beds to create an epic dessert. And while I won’t say that I’m now done with strawberries, we definitely had our fill – a delicious, delicious fill – of strawberries for the time being. Can one develop diabetes from eating too many strawberries? My pancreas just called to find out.
I wish we had more photos for the time we spent at Annie’s place. She was a bit to bashful to appear in any of the pictures that we took so most of the photos we took involve strawberries. But Annie treated us to all sorts of things – food for both thought and stomach – and we really value the time we had with her. We’re especially interested in learning more about her orchard as she develops it into an organic food organization over the next few years. And we’re hoping to return to see it all in action someday – hopefully with strawberries to boot.
Next: Making an epic journey toward the Dordogne region, almost camping in a nudist resort, sanctuary from thunderstorms and an amazing week building homes with earthen plaster in a pristine setting.
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Middle school teacher on hiatus/budding permaculturalist currently cycling the world. Sometimes he acts in plays and film. Mostly he travels and blogs about it. Christian is one of the founders of onlyamazingdays.com