I envisioned myself on a particular farm before leaving New York. I was making cheese, the sun was shining, and the backdrop was postcard perfect. And now I am here. I have found that farm minus a few romanticized comforts and plus an obscene amount of bug bites from Nice, one particularly itchy one on my eyelid. I received a response to my WWOOFing inquiry from Jean-Yves less than two days ago. He wrote that I was welcome to come and he’d pick me up from the train station closest to his home nestled between Lyon and Geneva in a village called Belmont. I’d had it in my head that I would WWOOF on Corsica after Nice but neither of the two farms there that were willing to take me sounded as promising as Jean-Yves place.
Now that I’m more of a seasoned farmer, I find myself seeking a more authentic experience. For what is probably my last WWOOFing experience on this journey, I was hoping to find a fully-functioning, family-owned, native speaking, organic farm on which I could spend a couple of weeks. I came across Jean-Yves’ WWOOFing description while using the solar powered computer at Rose and John’s place. It was written entirely in French, but the word “chevre” appeared like a golden nugget in a mucky river of French verbs and nouns, so I wrote back. In retrospect, I think I was feeling overly confident that I could farm anywhere. Hell, at the time I was living on a farm without a shower or electricity, so a little language barrier didn’t faze me. Here is Jean-Yves’ description of life on his farm (merci Babelfish, for the rough yet readable translation):
Bonjour, je suis Jean-Yves MARTINAL, j’habite un petit village dans l’Ain, sous le dernier contrefort du Jura (le Colombier) entre Lyon et Genève (Suisse). Je cultive 17 hectares environ de blé, d’avoine, un peu de seigle, de l’apôtre, de la luzerne, du foin pour mes 20 chèvres. Je fais du fromage à partir de février que je vends à la ferme, dans des coopératives bio où sur le marché de Belley. Mon travail est rythmé au fil des saisons, en automne je transforme les pommes pour faire du jus. En décembre après avoir tué le cochon je fais de la bière. La ferme possède une boulangerie où l’on fait notre farine, du pain et des pâtes. J’ai trois enfants (19, 17 et 15 ans). J’ai deux ânes, des poules, des moutons, des cochons et des chats. Chacun est le bienvenue pour participer à mes diverses activités suivant les saisons, à découvrir le Valromey, une région entre mi-montagnes, lacs et rivières. Français parlé et anglais baragouiné.
Hello, I am Jean-Yves MARTINAL, I live in a small village in l’ Ain, under the last buttress of the Jura (the Dovecote) between Lyon and Geneva (Swiss). I cultivate approximately 17 hectares corn, d’ oats, a little rye, l’ apostle, of the alfalfa, the hay for my 20 goats. I make cheese as from February that I sell with the farm, in co-operatives bio where on the market of Belley. My work is rate/rhythm in the course of the years, into autumn I transform apples to make juice. In December after having killed the pig I make beer. The farm has a bakery where l’ one makes our flour, of the bread and the pastes. J’ have three children (19, 17 and 15 years). I have two donkeys, of hens, the sheep, the pigs and the cats. Each one is it welcome to take part in my various activities according to the seasons, to discover Valromey, an area between semi-mountains, lakes and rivers. French and poor English spoken.
It sounded enchanting. Now that I’m actually here, the farm is real and alive and I feel lucky to be a part of it for just a little while. I had been unable to get in touch with Jean-Yves before leaving Nice. He’d written that I could come on Thursday the 21st, the day I originally thought I’d arrive. Yet on Monday, a whole three days earlier than planned, I was ready to bid aurevoir to the French Riviera and head to my next farm. Sarah headed off to the airport, Brooklyn bound, after our send-off lunch of crepes and café. I would miss her! Alone again, I wasted no time and bought a train ticket to Virieu Le Grand, the town with a train station closest to Belmont, that was leaving Nice in less than an hour. I figured that if I couldn’t get a hold of Jean-Yves by phone to warn him of my early arrival, then I would find a room for the night and sort everything out in the morning.
I arrived in Virieu Le Grand just as the sun was setting. I lugged my bag off of the train, stepped onto the platform and realized that the town was a bit more petite than I had anticipated. Could it be that there would be nowhere for me to stay? When I called Jean-Yves from Lyon I got no answer. He still wasn’t expecting me. I walked into what appeared to be the only restaurant in town. Just the fact that they were open gave me a glimmer of hope that I wouldn’t have to sleep on the sidewalk. The owner spoke enough English to understand that I needed to use her phone because I was potentially stranded in her tiny village. I called Jean-Yves again. No answer. The woman, who could not have been more understanding or kind, told me that there was a hotel a few villages over from Belley that might have room. She called them for me. I would have to take a taxi there and the room would cost about $90. Really? This was not happening to me. I could see the owner read the look of disbelief on my face as the reality of sleeping curled inside the village phone booth set in.
In desperation, I tried Jean-Yves one last time and…someone answered! They didn’t speak English, so I handed the phone to my new friend and savior who explained that I would like to come to the farm tonight. She might have added that I seemed very disoriented and slightly afraid, I’ll never know. Either way, when she hung up she said that it was going to be okay, her husband would cook me a little something to eat and then she would drive me to the farm. I could have cried with relief, but more so out of appreciation. This woman was the kindest of kind strangers. Without her help, I have no doubt I would have ended up sleeping inside the France Telecom booth down the street. Her husband made me a beautiful salad of fresh greens, salami and roasted vegetables that made me feel all the more fortunate to have landed in their little town. On the ride up to Jean-Yves place, “Merci” was my mantra. I kept repeating it out of sheer gratitude. When we pulled up to the farm in the dark, not more than a ten-minute drive from Belley, the woman gave me her card and told me to call her if I needed anything. Then the car tires crunched over the gravel and she was gone, headlights winding down the hillside in the distance. I had made it.
It turns out that Jean-Yves was away at a “reunion” when I arrived around 10pm. “Reunion?” Hmmm. A wedding? A family gathering? I later learned that a “reunion” is simply a meeting, but regardless I wouldn’t meet him until the next morning. At home were Jean-Yves XX year old son, Albon and a French WWOOFer named Michael. I must have appeared more than un peu perdue. Neither of them spoke English. When I tried to apologize for arriving early in my very best French (which is tres terrible), I don’t think they understood. It didn’t take too long until Michael and I realized that we both spoke Spanish, at least enough to communicate. So, instead of sounding like a two year old speaking French, I sounded like a ten year old speaking Spanish. It was a vast improvement. Tomorrow would be a new day and it would bring good things – chevre, fromage and sunshine.