In typical last minute style, I sent a bunch of emails to WWOOF farms in the French Pyrenees a week prior to my impending arrival. My hope was that I’d find a spot to work the week between San Sebastian and Nice, where I am meeting my friends Beth and Sarah for our “Brooklyn Does Baguettes” tour of the Riviera. I received a response from a man named John Gunning who said that he and his wife had room for me and he’d pick me up in St. Girons when I arrived. John’s WWOOF posting was brief, but mentioned work in their organic vegetable garden and fresh strawberry tea. I replied that I’d take the bus to St. Girons on Tuesday evening and thanked him for picking me up. Any other information about the farm I figured I’d discover upon arrival.
When I got off the bus in St. Girons, no one was there. It occurred to me that I might have ended up in the wrong St. Girons. John had mentioned something in his last email to me about making sure I was traveling in the right direction. I speak no French and I have no guidebook or map, so I was at the mercy of the woman who sold me my train ticket back in Pau. I told her what I knew, that the town was about 100 kilometers south of Toulouse. She seemed to understand. So, I waited a bit longer and then pulled my pocket-sized French phrasebook from my bag. How do I ask, “Is this is the main bus stop in town?” Or should I just cut to the point and admit to the next passerby, “Je suis perdue!” Crap. Just as a sliver of worry started to creep into my mind, a tiny old car pulled up to the side of the road and out popped a small man with a white beard. John! I hoist my bag in the trunk and off we go.
John and Rose Gunning live about ten kilometers outside of St. Girons, which is a small town in the French Pyrenees less than twenty kilometers from Spain. On the ride to their home, John told me about Annie Oakley. Apparently, she had a traveling act that toured throughout Europe in which she’d extinguish the lit cigarette from a volunteer’s mouth with her incredible sharp-shooting skills. John said, “Annie Get Your Gun! And we’re the Gunnings. So, it’s Annie Get Your Gunning!” A one-of-a-kind welcome.
John and Rose Gunning are from England but they’ve been living in France for the past twenty years. John spends his days in the garden and moonlights as an herbalist. He picks pots full of herbs for his daily dose of tea, treated the massive, swollen spider bite smack in the middle of my forehead that I got my last night in San Sebastian with clove oil, and can recommend an herbal cure for almost any ailment. Rose runs the large produce stand every weekend at the market, buys and transports the produce they don’t grow from Perpignan (five hours east) to St. Girons, and as John says, “Rose gives a piece of her heart to each customer and keeps them coming back for more.” They have five children (four boys and one girl), between the ages of 21 and 29. From oldest to youngest: Sky, Sundance, Rain, Orion, and Etoile. They also have three Mastiffs: Kali, Citi, and Nazca. None of their kids live at home anymore. Sky, their eldest son, built the cabin that John and Rose live in now. They own a large, blue van that now transports all of their organic produce to the market, but has sometimes been their home when they haven’t had a roof of their own. When the kids were younger they drove to Morocco. All seven of them and two dogs lived in the van for more than two months while they explored the country.
Rustic! I stopped in to meet Rose and have a cup of tea when I first arrived, then John drove me down the dirt road another quarter mile or so to the “barn.” There was a mattress on the muddy floor, an old futon frame for sitting, and a cabinet with shelves in the square cinderblock room. There was a tap outside for water, but no electricity, no toilet and no shower. I asked John where I could bathe and he pointed to the little stream than ran underneath the road. “It’s fresh water. Really nice.” And he left me to settle in. Thoughts fired at rapid speed: “Candlelight I can deal with, but no shower? John never mentioned this in his emails. Okay, not what I was expecting. Why didn’t I wash my hair the last time I showered? Shit. That stream is coming straight from the mountains. It has got to be freezing. I am going to freeze or be a dirty grease ball. Probably both. Whatever Annie, embrace it. I can leave whenever I want. Remember that. Ask Rose for a clean towel and sheet and blankets. I will be fine. This is good for me, a complete 180 from San Sebastian. A heads up would have been nice, though. Whatever, then I wouldn’t have come. Okay, embrace it. I am one with nature. It is ridiculously beautiful here. I hope there aren’t a lot of spiders…”
A few days after I’d settled in, I felt good. I braved the frigid alpine water and took an invigorating “bath” in the stream. Rose hadn’t had a clean towel to give me, so I air dried in the sun on a big wool blanket. My naked sunbath was interupted when a man walked right past me with his fishing rod on his shoulder, heading towards the river below. He didn’t seem to pay much attention, so I responded by remaining exactly where I was. Ahhh France!
I also got “Feeling Groovy” by Simon and Garfunkel stuck in my head. “Slow down, you move too fast. You’ve got to make the morning last…” Those lyrics were my gospel. I slowed down. I absorbed the clean air like a little city sponge ought to. I thought back to my arrival at the barn and felt all the more certain that life is about timing. San Sebastian gluttony followed by this! I hadn’t planned on the transition being so dramatic but the timing was perfect.
The Pyrenees Mountains create a natural border between France and Spain. The tallest of the peaks are snowcapped and will remain that way for at least another month or so. The mountains sit on a mixed-temperate forest of poplar, aspen, and chestnut trees among others. I want to drink the scenery, it looks so refreshingly delicious.
St. Girons and the surrounding villages have a freethinking, alternative feel. Old French hippies with berets and beards mingle with the younger, increasingly international, eclectic crowd. From what I can gather, many people build their homes themselves and live off of their land. The Saturday Market is a weekly ritual for many residents, when they all filter down from their little corners of the wilderness to buy their cheese, bread, mountain honey and wine, and catch up on the week’s events. (More on the market later.) When the McDonald’s opened in St. Girons a few years ago it was promptly burned down. It was rebuilt to the dismay of many locals and still stands…for now.
John and Rose’s land is nestled on a steep hillside. All of their vegetable beds are on a slope and the views range from lovely to spectacular. They grow potatoes, leeks, squash, artichokes, cauliflower, broccoli, lettuce, spinach, beans, carrots, herbs, peaches, apples strawberries, and flowers. Their little cabin is sans toilet or shower just like the barn, but does have running water in the sink and a solar panel on the roof that lights up their nights and powers their laptop.
All organic, mostly veggies and fruit, usually unseasoned (which means I get to doctor my plate with an assortment of different spices), always simple and good. Rose buys big, glass bottles of fresh apricot and blood orange juice that are worthy of the title, “Nectar of the Gods.” The food tastes good and it feels good. Their policy is to “eat when you’re hungry.” There is no proper mealtime. And I like this in theory, but it means that each one of us almost always eats alone. I discovered a few days into my stay that John doesn’t like eating with other people as a general rule. For John, eating a meal with someone else “is quite like taking a piss with someone. I find it quite a private thing.” But we shared the table often – John would sip wine and chat with me while I ate, enjoying my meal but holding on to the belief that food tastes better when it’s shared in good company.
Right now is what people once called “the hungry gap” because their vegetables stored from winter (potatoes and squash, mostly) are all gone and new crops have yet to come up. So, I am a little early for the harvest – no strawberry tea for another couple of weeks. Rose and John need help hoeing and weeding the garden, preparing beds for new seeds and keeping the planted beds happy. I would also help Rose at the Saturday Market, setting up, packing up and everything in between.
John broke his back five years ago. He still manages remarkably well, but can’t do anything that will set it off. The hoeing and heaving lifting were up to me. My first morning and most mornings after were spent hoeing the big vegetable beds, which is not easy work but it is almost instantly gratifying. Hoeing is kin to those cleaning commercials when the dirty floor is wiped clean and sparkling with just one stroke of the solution. The hoe is sharpened before use and when applied with pressure to the weed infested soil, it wipes the weeds away and leaves only the rich dirt. After a couple of hours my back is sore, the blade dull and the novelty has worn off. By then it’s lunchtime, afternoon break and then back to work in the evening until dusk.