A Very Long Intro
“Sorry, I missed my train. I’ll be catching the next one at 20:00 and will arrive at 20:50,” I texted the stranger who would be picking me up from the station.
“No worries! C u then.” A polite and short response from Julien, the vineyard owner whose profile I found online using HelpX a week before.
I was relieved that he did not seem annoyed with my lateness. I did not want to reveal too soon that this was not completely uncharacteristic of myself, I still had high hopes of making a good impression. Although I knew the cards were stacked against me; For the past 1.5 months no European had yet been able to resist chiding Trump and America within the first 5 minutes of meeting. I’ve even received an “I’m sorry” response when I said I am from the U.S. What interesting times we live in. (Sigh).
“Oh and my phone will not work off wifi so I thought I’d let you know I’ll be in a black coat with a black backpack,” I said. Trying to avoid the scenario I pictured in my head of two strangers wandering around a busy station looking for someone they have never met.
No response… hmm oh well.
Several hours later I arrive at the Castillon train station. I was among 3 other people who got off the train. We left the single platform and stood in front of the closed station office. The other two quickly scuttled to a car that drove up and off they went.
I see now why he did not respond to my last message. I was the only person now at the station. What a quiet, dark, starry night. Looking around I saw what maybe was some small shops that were, of course, closed in the distance. I realized I was in a very small town…at night…by myself…with a phone that did not work…in a place that did not speak English…waiting for a stranger to pick me up. Was I crazy?
“Oh no… did I get off at the wrong station?” I thought to myself.
I told myself not to start worrying unless it had been 15 minutes after I told Julien I would arrive.
Tick… Tock.. Tick.. Tock…
Then I see a big white van pull up. Oh god…
A bit of panic runs through me…
But then I hear, “Belle? Bonsoir!”
I let out a sigh of relief and played it cool when Julien went in for the both cheek kiss greeting. (Is it left then right or right then left? I can never remember.)
As you know I survived the two weeks I spent on the vineyard named Chateau Brandeau in Les Salles de Castillon (because how else would I be writing this). And not only did I survive, I had one of the best experiences of my life so far. And I think I’ve done some pretty cool merde! (Excuse my French 😉 )
Let me take a minute to describe the vineyard to you…
“Wine makes daily living easier, less hurried with fewer tensions and more tolerance.”
– Benjamin Franklin
Until two years ago the vineyard was owned by a British couple who ran the vineyard for 30 years. It became certifiably organic in the mid-90’s. Which means they were cool before people knew what cool was.
Now the owners are Julien, a Belgian who traveled the world for many years and developed a passion for organic agriculture, and his wife Sophie, originally from Normandy and who is training to be a chef and works part-time at a restaurant with a Michelin star. (Wow, I know!)
It contains 9 hectares or about 22 acres of 2 different types of grapes: merlot & cabernet franc. All organic, all natural, all beautiful! You can find their website here.
I spent my time during the days with two other helpers (a german & a parisian) and Julien, pulling down the pruned vines. This included getting whacked in the face and legs by an unassumingly springy branch, interacting with various types of spiders, getting to ask Julien any and all questions about the wine making process, enjoying miles of beautiful, open scenery & 60 degree weather, and having time to slow down and reflect. I also volunteered to take care of their chickens while I was there and collected their eggs everyday, which I thought was so fun.
In the evenings we had free time which was spent mostly just dreaming about what Sophie would cook next. (No actually I was reading a book called, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which I highly recommend).
I cannot pinpoint what it was exactly but I felt so incandescently happy. (Notice the Pride and Prejudice reference). Happy to be in nature, happy to have good weather, happy to be learning about something new (WINE!), happy to share food, wine, and life with a wonderful french family. Close friends will know that I have been a francophile for years, before I even step foot in France, so this was truly a dream.
There was also something so beautiful about witnessing the way the family was able to live in tandem with nature and not against it. It all seemed so “natural” for a lack of a better term(?).The family showed a true appreciation for their locally grown food (& wine!) which Sophie prepared (LIKE A BOSS), the food that was not eaten was given to the chickens who made eggs or poop, the chicken poop went into the veggie garden, the veggies were eaten by humans, ect. We were also able to witness the effects of non-organic and organic agriculture side by side since Julien’s neighbor was from the “dark side.” Take a look!
Sight Seeing Nearby
On the weekends we were able to do some nearby sight seeing. Julien drove us to see St. Emilion which I guess during the summer is a very busy tourist destination and I can see why.
It has been a prime wine growing area since the Romans came in the 2nd century and later a traveling monk named Emilion arrived in the 8th century and carved a hermitage for himself in the rocks which is now in the center of the city. Except now there’s a huge church on top of it.
Anyways, now-a-days it is full of various wine shops and tourists and is a bit like disneyland for wine lovers. But it still has retained its charm.
The other helpers and I were able to walk to Montaigne’s Tower which is atop a glorious looking castle.
Montaigne was one of the most important philosophers of the French renaissance. He was also the mayor of Bordeaux for two terms in a time when there was a bitter conflict between protestants and catholics. Later he traveled Europe looking for a cure to his kidney stones and at 38 retired from public life and became a hermit. It was then that wrote a series of essays that formed a new literary genre. He is cited to have said the purpose of his works was, “to describe man, and especially himself, with utter frankness and honesty.”
His works inspired writers such as Francis Bacon, Rene Descartes, Blaise Pascal, Rousseau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and more.
Although every French child learns about him in school, I can’t remember hearing about him before our visit. Have you?
Conclusions from my time in South West France
- Rural living > Urban living
- I/most Americans lack a true appreciation for quality food
- I must live somewhere where you can see the stars at night
- “Wine is life” says Julien
- There’s no going back once you know what good wine tastes like
- I’ll be back someday (soon). I’m sure of it.
In the future I’ll surely be using HelpX to find more authentic and low-cost travel experiences.
Now I’m back in England on another road trip to the Lake District with Dan the man.
Until next time!
More pictures from the region…