Jul 18 2010

Talking the Talk

When we were on the dairy farm in France and went out with the farmer, Laurent, on one of his weekly delivery runs, we had a conversation about what we’d like our secret super power to be. Laurent, being Laurent, smiled and said, “How can I tell you? It’s a secret.” (An hour or so later, he admitted that he would like to be able to take the most arid, inhospitable land and make it fertile — an appropriate goal, given his line of work.) Peter and I failed to reach consensus on what our one superpower would be, but decided that it would be pretty cool if we were able to speak every language in the world fluently.

It would definitely be a nice skill to have in Lithuania. Want to hear the extent of my Lithuanian so far? “Achoo.” No, it’s not a sneeze (nor is it spelled right). It means “Thanks.”

I’m achoo-ing left and right, hoping that by being effusive in my gratitude, I might distract people from the fact that I don’t know how to say “hello.” (Smile and nod, this is my strategy.) I know, I know — I should put some effort into this. But here are my two justifications for why I am not going to (except, perhaps, to memorize the words that mean “pig trotters” and “blood sausage,” so as to avoid them on restaurant menus):

1. We are here for about four days, and then will be in Latvia. Want to know another language I will never be fluent in?

(You’d think that the two languages would be mutually understandable, sort of like Czech and Slovak, but they’re not. And don’t even get me started on Estonian.)

2. According to my Lonely Planet, Lithuanian — another surviving language of the Baltic branch of the Indo-European language family that is very important to linguists — is “said to be as archaic as Sanskrit in its grammatical forms.” Now, granted, I know nothing about the grammatical forms of Sanskrit. But I’ve heard some of it in yoga classes, and it sounds hard. So does Lithuanian pronunciation. Here, for example, is how I am supposed to say “Call a doctor!” in the case of emergency: “Issaukite gydytoja!” (with accents that this keyboard is not capable of typing). I hope we don’t need medical help.

It’s also an interesting area of the world to consider the politics of language. A lot of people speak Russian, for example. But given the Baltics’ er, sensitive history with their eastern neighbor, you need to be careful where you speak it, lest you be greeted with an even frostier reception than if all you know how to say is a word that sounds like a sneeze. (That’s not entirely true — I have been amazed by how friendly people are here, despite the fact that I am helpless in their language.) We are incredibly lucky that most people under 30 seem to have some knowledge of English — and a willingness to try it. But woe upon the Lithuanian who comes to the United States only knowing how to say “Thank you.”

(Important side note: Peter has just found a television show called “Lithuania’s Got Talent.” The first competitor was singing opera while dressed as Dracula, followed by a man doing a sword dance in an attempt to woo a blanket-wrapped Barbie Doll. Thank god Simon Cowell is not here.)

It’s difficult enough to figure out what foods to order — but I’m struggling with a bigger challenge. Here’s what the Lonely Planet has to say about bathrooms:

We hope you’re not busting for a pee, as working out which toilet door to enter may require some thinking time. The letter “M” makrs a men’s toilet in Estonian, “V” in Latvian or Lithuanian. “N” indicates a women’s toilet in Estonian, “S” in Latvian and “M” in Lithuanian. Some toilets sport the triangle system: a skirt-like triangle for women and a broad-shouldered, upside-down triangle for men. To add even more confusion, in Lithuania (as in neighboring Poland), male toilets may be indicated by a triangle and female toilets by a circle.”

I may never pee again.

Upon our arrival in Birstonas, the "Big Balls" boules team was waiting.

Jul 11 2010


After spending yesterday exploring the countryside around Turin in a rental car — giving proof to my mother’s assertion that Italian drivers are “goddamn crazy” — I’ll admit, I was looking forward to today. Okay, not actively looking forward to it — it was our transfer day from Turin to Vilnius — but at least it didn’t involve us having to navigate Italy.  But that’s about all that was good about it. Here’s our rough breakdown:

1:30 am: Go to sleep

6:30 am: Pull selves out of bed, walk to train station.

7:37 am: Take express train from Turin to Milan

8:45 am: Arrive in Milan. Wander around aimlessly and irritably looking for the supposed “Malpensa Express” to the airport. Eventually learn that we are in the wrong train station.

9 am: Take Milan subway to correct station. Find airport bus.

10:30 am: Arrive Milan airport to find a sea of people in an immense check-in area, the sort of chaotic scene that actually makes JFK seem like a nice place to spend the afternoon. Discover that our check-in counter does not open for two hours.

10:30 am – 12:30 pm: Distract selves by, at least in my case, reading Michael Lewis’s The Blind Side, drinking multiple cappuccinos, waiting in line for the bathroom, and impulse buying travel items at an airport boutique (a portable clothesline AND the world’s smallest fan? Amazing!).

12:15 pm: Get stuck in bag drop-off line behind a pair of Americans who seem unwilling to believe that this is not the line for Swiss Air, despite the fact that the counter says Baltic Air, and the destination is Riga. We point out that the Swiss Air counter appears to be — nay, IS — several desks down, and that it is too early for them to check in. “So this is not the Swiss Air line?” asks the man, gesturing toward the sign that says Baltic Air. “Where are these people going? Can we wait here? Where is Swiss Air?”

12:30 pm: Deposit bags at drop-off counter. Peter makes sarcastic comment about how the woman at the counter does not securely affix the “transfer” tag on his bag. He reaches down to fix it. I notice the same problem on my bag and realize I should fix it, too,  but it is too late; she has sent it down the chute. I think for a moment what would happen if my bag were lost. “At least I have the computer adapter,” I say in my head. “But it sure would suck not to have any underwear.”

12:34-37 pm: Fun activity #1: Make Peter pose in front of underwear ads starring the Italian soccer team.

Hey ladies.

Activity #2: Observe a phenomenon I first noticed in China: people paying to have their bags wrapped in saran wrap. Nine euros. To have your bag wrapped in saran wrap.

What are you trying to do? Keep it fresh?

2:20 – 5:45: Fly to Riga. Notice that the guy making the welcome announcement sounds exactly like Borat. Upon landing in Riga, try to figure out the exchange rate and then realize that we have no idea what country we’re in. Not kidding. We knew it was either Lithuania, Latvia or Estonia, but couldn’t figure out which one. This is, I might note, not the sort of question you can really ask people without feeling enormously stupid.

5:55 pm: Discover we are in Latvia. Order airport food. Learn the answer to the age-old question: how do you make a tomato unhealthy? (Answer: stuff it with goat cheese and serve it with a plate of ham.)

8:10-9:20 pm: Fly from Riga to Vilnius with a captain who enjoys banking to the right, then banking to the left, then speeding up, then slowing down. I begin to wonder if perhaps I should not have spent so much time focusing on the chapter in Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, that focuses on plane crashes.

9:45 pm: Customs hall. Except, there is no customs hall. We have not had our passports stamped — or indeed, looked at — since landing in Iceland. Presumably this should not be a problem, but I don’t think we’re technically supposed to be in the EU for more than three months straight. Oh well. We’ll see how it goes when we try to enter Russia.

9:50: Wait at luggage carousel four. I am so engrossed in finishing the book (and having a conversation with a Lithuanian woman about e-readers — her dream is to find one that can translate between Russian and English on the same screen) — that I do not notice that the luggage carousel has stopped. “Well, at least we got one bag!” Peter says, jokingly, pulling his over to where I am sitting.

9:55 pm: We realize that the rest of our plane-mates have all left, and what appeared to have been a pause in luggage delivery was, in fact, the end of it. My bag = nowhere to be seen.

9:56 pm: Find a friendly airport employee named, wait for it, Zilvinas Pilypas (“I’m probably going to call you later, and I’m probably going to pronounce your name wrong,” I warn him), and tell him about the bag. I also tell him, as politely as I can, that I really need the bag, you see, because in two days I am supposed to get on a bicycle and ride to Talinn (which happens to be in Estonia, two countries away). Zilvinas, who remains polite, but unmoved, types much information into the computer, then hands me a dot-matrix-printed piece of paper containing a reference number and a phone number that I can call. Zilvinas also calls a taxi for us, a kind gesture that I will be even more grateful for if and when I ever get my bag back.

10:10 pm: Get in taxi, show map and address to driver, realize that map and address do not represent the same physical location. Driver puts on glasses, squints, looks again, shrugs shoulders, hands map back, and begins to drive.

10:15 pm: We drive past the Vilnius train tracks. “I don’t think it was supposed to be across from the train tracks,” I keep saying to Peter, as the driver pulls up in front of the correct address, which is across the street from the train tracks.

10:16 pm: Get out of cab in front of a dilapidated building with only a small “Hosteling International” sign to indicate that it might, in fact, be where we are supposed to stay for the night. Adding to the confusion, the front door — which is unlocked — leads to a dark, unfinished room — lights dangling from ceiling, unfinished plasterwork, a missing front stair, and no people. Cab driver peeks inside, looks back at us, and giggles.

10:20 pm: After some exploration, we discover that the hostel is indeed there — upstairs, in fact, and empty except for a woman named Margaret who presents us with sheets and pillow cases and returns to watching the world cup finals.

10:25 pm: I try to make the bed, and then notice something that, at first, I attribute to my fatigue: the sheets, designed for a single bed, appear to be square. I try to turn them the other direction. Still square, and about a foot and a half too short for the bed. Consider asking Margaret for other ones, but, decide that since she has just let me raid the toiletries of former guests (including a half-finished bottle of “Hangover Cure” Axe body wash), that might be asking too much. Make the bed with the square sheets, leaving the exposed part down by my feet. At least I have socks?

11:15 pm: So here I am, wearing the same pants I wore on a very sweaty hike yesterday and the same shirt I slept in last night (and which was subjected to a good deal of airport sweat as well). I’m wondering where my bag could be. Surely, it made it out of Italy. But then again, our second flight was on the same plane as the first. What kind of transfer tag fuck-up does it require to lose a bag that didn’t need to go anywhere? (This, and many other questions, will be answered in the coming days.) Luckily, I was wise enough not to check the bag that contains my diabetes supplies, and so I am happy to say that my artificial pancreas is not MIA. If only the same were true for my underwear.

Note the sheets.

Jul 6 2010

Live Blogging ESOF

9:07 am: Peter and I have decided to attend a session called “The Science of Humor.” Moderator announces that he is stunned that anyone has made it to the talk; he attended the media party last night, and is surprised that he himself is here. “I’m stimulating myself right now,” he claims, “So if I’m at all myself, it will be an accomplishment.”

9:11 am: Four minutes into the talk and moderator has already used words “snot” and “crap.” He is now talking about people who laugh so hard they pee (in a context that makes it seem like he is referring to one of his guest speakers). I have finally found a science talk at my level.

9:13 am: The first humor conference was apparently in 1976 and evolved into an organization called the World Humor and Irony Membership, nicknamed “WHIM.” The yearbook was called Whimsy. Oh, what fun they must have had.

9:18 am: American journalists are, it turns out, very different moderators than molecular biologists (though I think this guy may have a Ph.D. in that as well). He keeps interrupting his guest speakers to ask them questions like, “No, wait, but when did you think to yourself, humor: YES.”

9:21 am: Third guest speaker explains an unpublicized aspect of narcolepsy — occasional attacks of what sounds like “cataplexy,” which are moments where you lose control of all muscles in your body (I’m guessing this might have to do with the urination). Apparently these attacks come on when a person experiences a very strong emotion — most importantly, humor. That must suck for narcoleptic stand-ups.

9:24 am: This is a science that uses Gary Larson’s “Far Side” comics as study controls.

9:27 am: Question from moderator: “Are there jokes in Egyptian hieroglyphics?”

“Yes,” responds one researcher. “Surprisingly they’re very much like Dilbert cartoons. A bunch of people arrive at a storage area and they can’t get in because the guard is asleep because he drank too much beer and has passed out. So they complain and bitch because they want to go home, but can’t because the guard is asleep.”

“So, in other words, it’s about as funny as a Dilbert cartoon,” says the moderator.

9:29 am: Question: Are there older jokes than the Egyptian ones?
“Yes, it’s Syrian. It’s a fart joke.”
Really? We haven’t advanced beyond Syrian humor?
“Whenever we have historical records, we have humor, and it’s exactly the same as contemporary humor.”
Maybe I shouldn’t feel so bad about having the same level of humor as my seventh graders.

9:32 am: We have (perhaps regrettably) moved on to humor in other species.

9:33 am: Wait, not regrettably. Apparently some bonobos have been known to point at their lab assistants, point at a pile of shit, and then laugh.

9:35 am: We are now speaking of “spindle neurons,” apparently related to humor and found in whales and dolphins and . . . pachyderms. (Like elephants, which apparently can recognize themselves in the mirror — and enjoy finding pools of fermented fruit that they can get drunk off of.)

9:39 am: How do you measure humor? There are measurement forms, questionnaires, humor quizzes. At least fifteen quantitative assessments, none of which sound particularly funny.

9:41 am: Humor is not the same as comedy, asserts one panelist. Humor is an element of daily life; comedy is more professional. Humor is to comedy as sex is to pornography, he says. But what is it? A deliberate incongruity? A violation of expectations?

9:44 am: An actual question from the moderator: Do funnier people get laid more?

9:45 am: No specific studies on that one, but apparently humor is a key characteristic in most personal ads (in addition to being athletic and slender).

9:48 am: What are the panelists working on now?
Speaker #1. Is there necessarily a pause between a set-up and a punchline? No, he says. He thinks it may have come from a single joke: “Take my wife . . . please.” But apparently most people do not pause before their punchlines.

Speaker #2: The “encryption theory” of humor. In order to understand humor you have to have the same background understanding (shared knowledge) as the other person. He is listening to hundreds of hours of conversation and transcribing humorous exchanges. How can such a fun science be so boring to execute?

Speaker #3: Women’s brains respond more, in terms of reward centers, than men’s when presented with something they found funny. Men, on the other hand, were neutral during funny things, and responded with disappointment when presented with something unfunny, even when warned it might not be. Speaker #1: “So does that mean that men don’t follow instructions?”

10:10: Okay, wrapping things up. Questions from the audience: “Tell us the Syrian fart joke.”
Answer: “It’s just that. Somebody farts. Somebody farts in a story.”


Jul 4 2010

Benvenuti in Italia

Adieu, France — Peter and I have arrived in Turin, Italy, where I’ve been lucky enough to get a fellowship to attend the Euroscience Open Forum — basically an all-you-can-eat (and then some) week of science-related talks and events. I’m hoping I can do a liveblogging event, a la New York Times, of one of the lectures — but for the moment I’m writing quickly from the Press Center before meeting up with Peter for a talk about nanofood. Don’t know what that is? Me neither.

Our departure from Paris was none too soon — while most of our time there was great (especially our adventures with Hannah — details to follow) during the last few days it got hot, really hot. Thanks to the unairconditioned state of the apartment we were staying in, I earned a new, unwanted appreciation for my ability to sweat out of pretty much every piece of skin on my body. Who knew one could perspire through the knee?

I kept practicing this skill right up to the moment we got on the train to Turin, a process that involved a lot of running and carrying heavy bags up and down metro stairs. Devoted readers (or at least those who have read the preceding entry) know the process it took to get tickets for the Artesia #9299 to Turin. But once I had them, it never occurred to me that the train ride itself would be anything but pleasant. Imagine my dismay, then, when we found car 8, seats 65 and 66 and discovered that a. they were in the least airconditioned car on the train, b. they were smack in the middle, which meant that we were facing the people across from us, separated by a folding table — giving the impression that we were on a 5.5-hour long forced picnic with strangers — and c. said strangers had such strong body and foot odor that I could actually taste it in my mouth. (Sound gross? It was.)

Luckily our bodies eventually adjusted to the temperature — which, while hot, was nothing on Paris. The same could not be said for the various odors, which lasted — one might even say became stronger — on our way to Turin. But the scenery itself was beautiful, we arrived safe and sound, and we are now ensconced in the world of European science. More to follow.

ps: I am writing this via a browser called “Ice Weasel.” Is this the Italian Fire Fox?

Jun 20 2010

Old Friends and New Flus

As mentioned in yesterday’s post, while my heart is still in the goat shed, my body is in Paris. Ah, Paris, where the scooters don’t stop (especially for pedestrians) and where Peter and I just spent a great weekend with my dear friend Kristy, who came over for the weekend from London. Behold: a photo of the windswept third grade friends in view of the Eiffel Tower:

Kristy made the brilliant decision to bring with her a book called Hungry For Paris, a guide to 102 of Paris’s best restaurants, which she has bequeathed to me and Peter for the remainder of our time here. All I can say is that I had also better make it to the gym across the street (I want to go to a class called “Body Attack”) — considering all the cheese I’ve been eating, it’s not just the weight of my luggage I’m going to be worried about.

We spent most of the day wandering our way toward the Eiffel Tower, making a memorable, if brief, stop in the bathroom of the Printemps department store.

A quick side note — when I was little, I kept journals of all our vacations that tended to focus on two things: airplane food and toilets. (“We are at the Sistene Chapel,” I would write. “I will now draw a picture of the bathroom.”) I thought — and suppose still do think — that my obsession was odd. But now that I’m back in Europe, I find my attention drawn once more toward the WC — and I’m starting to wonder if it’s really my fault.

For example: how am I not supposed to comment on this bathroom of a Parisian cafe, where the room pulsed with disco lights and a song called “Let’s Make Tonight A Night to Remember”?

Likewise, in the Printemps bathroom, I found many things which begged for comment. Why did it cost a Euro ($1.22, give or take) to use the toilet? And if I am going to spend that much money to pee, why did the room smell like body odor? More importantly, who was buying the luxury rolls of toilet paper printed with dollar bills? And who was the mastermind behind the campaign to sell tricolor rolls in honor of the World Cup (mix and match to make your flag)? So many questions.

After climbing up the first two levels of the Eiffel Tower, we headed to dinner at Chez Rene, a lovely bistro on the Left Bank where Kristy had been with her sister Loren (hello!). Boeuf Bourgignon was had, along with Coq au Vin, and my dish, a boiled sausage studded with pistachios. Delicious, except for one slight problem: halfway through our appetizers (warm chevre on arugula salad? thank you very much) I started to feel like I had the flu.

I commented earlier this week that it’s not good to be a diabetic in Paris (so many pains au chocolat!). But it’s especially not good to have a vague flu-like illness in the City of Love. I spent the night wrapped up in a blanket, shivering with chills, while also radiating heat from a fever. I was convinced I was coming down with full-on flu, which I haven’t had for eight years and which is definitely not on my “can’t miss” list of Parisian experiences.

Luckily, when I got up this morning, the fever had broken and I feel nearly back to normal. Not enough back to normal to want to do much other than eat cheese and take naps on the couch. But given the circumstances, that’s not entirely unusual.

And it’s also given me a chance to figure out the whole YouTube situation, so that I can share some videos from the farm. Here is a shot from early one morning, when Peter really did not want to milk the goats:

Lastly, I was talking with Kristy about how certain French words and expressions have gotten stuck in our heads since 7th grade, despite the fact that we have never had a chance to use them in casual conversation. For her, it is “aveugle” — blind person — whereas I prefer “la pelouse” (lawn) and “naufrage” (shipwrecked person, a gem given to me by my friend Andy). I’ve been in France for nearly three weeks now, and so far have not had an opportunity to talk about blind shipwrecked people on the lawn.

But one word I do find useful, much to my surprise, is “la greve.” It means “strike” and I remember that my textbook, cheerily titled “Viens Voir!” (“Come See!”) made a really big deal about it. Why was I wasting brain space on this word, I asked myself? (Especially when there were so many shipwrecked people clamoring for my bilingual attention.) When would I possibly be chatting about the labor situation in France?

Oh, 7th grade Catherine, how naive you were. Along with “le carnet” (French-speak for a 10-pack of metro tickets), “la greve” is one of the most useful words to have in your French arsenal. It is a major form of entertainment, la greve — and it pops up in the oddest of situations. When we were taking off from Bordeaux, for example, our captain informed us that we would be delayed by 10 minutes because the air traffic controllers were on strike. To me, this seemed like more than a 10-minute issue — what were we going to do if the air traffic controllers didn’t come back? Wing it? And besides, aren’t most strikes longer than a coffee break? But we took off fifteen minutes later, making me wonder whether French strikes are governed by the same work ethic that brought about country-wide 5-week mandatory vacations.

And then just now Peter read me a news story about how the French World Cup soccer team is refusing to practice because they don’t like their coach. I’m sorry, but what? You have the opportunity to play in the game of your life — the moment you have fantasized about since you were a wee, thick-thighed young boy dreaming of soccer balls — and you decide to go on strike against your own team?

J’adore Paris, but there are some things I just don’t understand.

Jun 19 2010

Navigating life without AMAP

Okay, so first, a confession: we have left the farm and are officially in Paris, where we are staying in a lovely apartment of a couple who are currently staying in NYC (thanks, Mom & Dad) in a house swap. It is a way of traveling that I highly recommend — an apartment with a roof deck in Paris, with three separate boulangeries within a block’s distance, for free? Amazing.

But there are still more tales from the farm to tell. Like, for example, AMAP deliveries. An AMAP is French for “association pour le maintien d’une agriculture paysanne.” (Which I suppose is still French — in English, it’s an association for the preservation of family farming.) AMAPs are kind of like CSAs in the States (community supported agriculture programs) where you sign up for a season’s worth of boxes of vegetables and fruit from a local farm.

But just as a baguette in America is an inferior version of a baguette in France, CSAs have nothing on their AMAP counterparts. An AMAP, you see, is far more than vegetables. Depending on the farmers in your area, you can place orders for everything from cheese, yogurt and milk to bread, honey, meat, and even beer. Each week you then show up at your friendly AMAP delivery spot and pick up your week’s produce directly from the person who made it.

It’s funny, first, to see the French version of a Berkeley farmer’s market (bizarrely, hippies in France don’t bother me nearly as much as those in California — white people with dreadlocks are somehow not as annoying when they’re speaking French). But second, it was truly lovely to see Laurent’s interactions with his customers — chatting with his AMAP customers was clearly one of the highlights of his week.

I think he’d invited us to tag along with him because his radio was broken, and so we did our best to keep him entertained, Peter singing nonsense songs in English about what he’d be like if he were a dinosaur, and me asking about the details of the AMAP contract system. Things went relatively smoothly until our last delivery, after which point Laurent offered to buy us a beer, so we pulled his green delivery truck up to a bar advertising pool and drank Desperados — some kind of sweet beer that has definitely not made its way to the US — as we watched a Madonna video. (It mostly involved her straddling the camera and saying something about Hollywood — Laurent was both confused and intrigued.)

Problems began when we hit our first roundabout. Peter and I had been responsible for restacking the boxes of empty jam jars and milk bottles in the back of the truck and, on our way out, Laurent had seemed to take a rather nonchalant attitude toward how secure they needed to be. I’m still not sure what the precise answer to that question is, but I do know that we did not arrange them securely enough, because as Laurent steered around the circle, we heard a large crashing sound in the back followed by the tinkle of broken glass.

We were silent, nervously waiting from a response from Laurent, who paused for about three seconds and then started laughing. (This is why we love him.) Up came another roundabout. CRASH. Tinkle tinkle tinkle.

By this point, we were all giggling uncontrollably, goaded on every time we heard the clinking of glass shard against glass. The previous night at dinner, we’d been taking bets on whether the goat with the lung infection would make it through the night (gallows humor on the farm) — so we followed that with a round of bets on how many bottles had shattered into pieces in the back.

The answer? Quite a few, which became obvious when we reached the farm and opened the sliding door to yet another tinkle of glass falling onto the cement patio. But no big deal. We swept it up, restacked the unbroken bottles and their coolers, and went in to deliver a special pasteque — watermelon — to Isabelle, who was delighted at the face Peter had drawn on it in permanent marker with a speech bubble saying “Bonjour, Isabelle!” A fantastic evening all around.

Jun 15 2010

Panic In The Goat Shed

When we first got to the farm, I felt no particular affinity for the goats. As far as I was concerned, they were a row of udders to milk — albeit, with some udders considerably more jumpy than the others (I’m looking at you, angora goat!). But that’s started to change. I’ve been spending more time in the goat shed between milkings, and have begun developing a sense of affection toward them. They’re cute, with their oddly shaped heads and conveniently backwards-angled horns. They seem to enjoy it when I pet them on the heads. And sometimes, if I’m lucky, they come up and lean against my legs, like affectionate dogs. I take pleasure in this, my time in the goat shed. And I’ve also realized something potentially embarrassing: I really, really, want the goats to like me.

I fear that, after this morning’s fiasco, they may not. Peter and I were in charge of the morning’s milking and, since it was approximately our 26th time doing so, we were getting a little cocky. Instead of letting the goats into the milking stalls in groups of two or three, we let in an entire group of 10.

“What’s the big deal?” I hear you asking. “They do this every morning of their lives.”

Here’s what: As Peter described in his legendary “How To Milk A Goat in 35 Steps” post (which we mentioned to Laurent, prompting many jokes about what the 36th step would be), there is a complicated head-locking mechanism that keeps the goats in place and eating while we milk them. It only works if the goats stick their heads into the trough one after the other — and it’s a narrow enough row that if one goat misses her chance to stick her head in a feeding slot, she’s stuck: there’s no way to sneak around the next goat to an open space.

That is, of course, exactly what happened. After displaying their customary confusion at the sight of the milking stalls (“What the hell are these?”) the goats caught sight of the food and began to stick their heads into the troughs, each successive goat accompanied by the satisfying clank of her head locking into place. But not our little brown goat. No, she took her time. Unfortunately, things move fast in the milking pen, and by the time she’d figured out that yes, this was exactly the same situation she’d been in every other morning and evening of her life, it was too late: her neighbors had blocked her out.

If the goat was agitated, it was nothing compared to me and Peter, now facing the backsides of a row of  livestock munching away as the stranded goat attempted to make a break for it by diving forward, backwards, and beneath her neighbors’ legs. Peter, thinking quickly, grabbed the soup pot that we use to measure out food and handed it to me so that I could provide her with her own personal feeding trough. He then got to milking, a slow task given that the goats who are the quickest to come in also happen to be those with the most milk. As it turned out, the stranded goat had a great morning: since I had to keep her occupied till the other goats were finished, she ended up with three servings of food. Oh well. Sometimes, you just need to keep the ladies happy.

We emptied out that round and got ready to bring in the rest — which I wouldn’t have thought would be a problem either.

Wrong again. The first three goats we brought in, unused to being the leaders of the pack, took one look at the milking stalls and panicked. What were these crazy things? And where did we want them to put their heads? They began walking in tight circles, glancing at the food, and walking in circles again. I tried talking to them, I tried pointing at the food, I tried gently swatting their bottoms with a folded paper bag. No go. (Or, rather, no goat.)

By now, I was feeling panicked — I’d just grossly overfed one of our top producers, and now we had three animals with bloated udders walking in circles while their colleagues bleated in the background, poking their heads around the edge of the gate as they waited to be let in. Please, God, I thought to myself, don’t let Laurent or Isabelle show up now.

Luckily, they didn’t. Instead, we made the bold move of letting in one additional goat. She turned out to be a leader of the herd, walking right to the end of the row and sticking her head in to feed, ignoring the panic around her. The other goats immediately followed. And about 15 minutes later, my heart rate had returned to normal.

Jun 13 2010

Naughty Kids

Well, there’s been high drama in the goat shed. One of the chevres, brown and cute, hadn’t been eating that much for a few days. I was hoping she was just a selective eater (some of them pick out the sunflower seeds with their tongues) – but when Laure came with us for the evening milking and saw her condition, she immediately went to get a thermometer. A few seconds later, we had learned a. how to take the temperature of a goat (I’ll give you a hint: it doesn’t go under their tongues) and b. that our little goat was quite sick. How sick? Laurent, firm believer in homeopathic remedies, gave her a shot of antibiotics in the neck. When we asked whether he’d know if it were working, he responded matter-of-factly:  “If not, tomorrow she’ll be dead.”

Good news, though: it’s now several days later, and the little lady – who has been spending her evenings in a special straw padded stall and has two red bands around her ankles – is, as they say, getting her goat back. She now wants to eat with the others, and has been bleating in protest when we sequester her at night – which would be sort of funny, except that thanks to her lung infection, she has a cough. “Meh-eh-eh-eh, me-eh-eh, [cough, cough], meh-eh-eh.” It’s one of the saddest sounds I’ve ever heard.

I'm the queen of the bucket!

Meanwhile the baby goats, otherwise known as the chevrettes (sort of like the Rockettes, except smaller, and with a closer resemblance to the creatures in Avatar), have been up to trouble. For the past few mornings, I’ve noticed that the bucket that holds their food has been empty. Nightime, full. Morning, totally empty. Since I’m the one who’s been filling it, I know that something funny’s going on.

Take us to the tree of souls!

I’d assumed that it must be some sort of animal that’d been sneaking in at night and eating all the grain — there’s a mole-like hole in the dirt next to the entrance to their pen, and having seen Fantastic Mr. Fox, I thought that someone was carrying out a secret attack on the farm (first goat feed, next, chickens!). But then Isabelle went to feed the goats, and announced that there was a small black one whose stomach was bloated – suggesting that the mysterious attacker was actually just a rogue chevrette.

Let me explain how odd this would be: the goat feed is, logically, outside the goat pen. The goats are kept in by a wooden wall and a chickenwire fence. Yes, I had noticed a few days ago that the same black goat had managed to stick her entire head under the wooden fence and was using her tongue, frog-like, to nab bits of food that had fallen on the ground. But I never saw her outside the fence – and each morning, she was safely inside, ready to stick her head under the other side of the chevrette enclosure, the one that looks into the milking station, and complain loudly to her mother every time we brought the adults in.

It reminds me of a story Peter told me about an octopus who somehow figured how to get out of its tank at night, slither across the floor, eat all the crabs out of a different tank, and then get back home before the scientists came back in the morning. I think they used a hidden camera to figure it out (the scientists, not the octopus.) We don’t have such technology available in the chevrette pen – but trust me: something naughty is going on.

Goat cam

Couples that milk together, stick together.

Jun 13 2010

Hijinks on the Farm

Here is something I learned this morning: chickens do not like it when you take their eggs. I don’t know why I ever thought otherwise – we’re essentially snatching their unborn babies and using them for a frittata. But reality had never hit home until this morning when, after we finished milking, Peter and I noticed a chicken who had made a nest in the goat shed.

I’d heard mention of this chicken before – Isabelle had spoken of how there were certain poules who had separated themselves from the flock near the pigpen and had made homes for themselves around the farm. Still, it was an odd choice for a location, directly beneath the goats’ water basin. Whatever bird it was, I decided, must be one tough chicken.

And indeed she was, a fact that should have been obvious by the look she gave us when we leaned down to see if she were sitting on anything. I believe it was chicken-eye for “Watch your fucking step.” But I’ve been brainwashed by the illustrations on cartons of organic  eggs, and figured that she’d be all too happy to share.  After all, aren’t we all just one big happy farm?

No, the chicken said, no we are not. I reached toward her to nudge her aside, but before my hand had made it halfway to her nest, she lunged toward me and snatched the skin on the back of my hand in her beak. It was an impressive attack, made more so when she refused to let go. “Peter!” I said, as she glared at me, the look in her eyes saying that she had no intention of releasing me.

I dare you.

But luckily she did, distracted by the end of a broom that Peter used to gently push her off the nest, holding her away until I could take the four (four!) eggs she’d been sitting on. I felt a little bad when we hard-boiled them for breakfast, but later on, the joke was on us: when we went to gather eggs from the main chicken coop, we picked up two fake ones, put there by Isabelle to encourage the chickens to tend their nests (and, apparently, to fool ignorant WWOOFers).

Speaking of jokes, this afternoon, Peter and I were standing by the buque (sp?) – the male goat whose job it is to impregnate the entire flock, including his daughters, each August.

“Why don’t you rub him on the head?” Peter said as we stood there. I noticed a naughty look in his eye, but I couldn’t figure out why. The buque , whose name is Titus, seemed friendly enough, and he’d come up to us as if inviting us to pet him. I squinted my eyes at Peter.

“Why?” I asked. “Does he get mad?”

“Just rub his head between his horns.”

I scanned my memory once more for any counterindication, but came up with a blank – so I reached out and rubbed Titus on the head. The goat seemed to enjoy it; Peter, on the other hand, was doubled over in laughter.


“You don’t remember what Laure told us?” he asked. “About the gland?”

A memory came rushing back: when she’d given us the tour of the farm, Laure had warned that male goats have a gland on the top of their heads, right between their horns, that produces a very strong goat odor – goat essence, if you will. If you get it on your hands, she said, it could last for days.

I couldn’t believe I’d forgotten this, especially since Laure had told it to me in French and I had personally translated it for Peter. But it was too late: my first two fingers on my left hand were covered in eau de buque.

C'mon. Rub my head.

But Peter got his comeuppance: not only is he still recovering from a 12-inch-diameter bruise he got the first night we were here when he fell off a log he was using to get a better look at the pigs, but the other night he got the rope we use to move the goats inside caught between his toe and his sandals. The problem? It was raining, and the rope – which contains metal – is connected to the electric fence. By the time he got his foot free, he said he could feel the electricity in his armpits.

Jun 5 2010

Magical Manure

Happy as a pig in organic, biodynamic shit.

It is six thirty on Saturday, and Peter and I are recovering from having cooked lunch for 11 people. (More on that to come.) I have goat milk on my pants, bread dough on my shirt, sweat everywhere, and I cannot tell you how much I do not want to go out for the second round of milking — which is set to begin in approximately 32 minutes. I’d love to skip it for tonight and just take a nap, but it’s difficult to shirk responsibility when it’s bleating at you from outside the window. (A side note: I realized this morning that I have become a goat racist. I know, I know, I’m not supposed to say this out loud — but I just don’t like white goats. They’re ornery and mean and try to kick you when you put a suction cup on their udder [though then again, can I blame them?] I like brown goats. Brown, short-haired, even-tempered goats.)

Anyway. There’s no point in going to the cheese lab to take a shower right now, given the fact that in a half hour I’ll have my hands covered in goat udder — so instead I thought I’d write an update on the past couple days.

First, my adventures in the cheese lab. By the end of the week, I’d gotten a bit better at some of my tasks — ladeling curdled milk into little cups to make chevre, for example, or making sure that the cream did not boil. (Woe upon the cheese maker who lets the cream boil.) I have not, however, gotten better at filling small plastic cups with jam. As mentioned previously, the goal is to use a pastry bag — filled with sticky jelly and open at both ends — to put exactly 12 grams of “confiture” into each yogurt cup. The two women who work in the lab do this by eye, squirting precisely the right amount over and over again, 48 cups per tray. I, however, am a nervous jam squirter, and like to weigh my yogurt cups, even if it means that the same task that the other women complete in three minutes takes me about 45. I’m sorry, but the difference between 12 and 16 grams of jelly amounts to approximately one apricot chunk, and I don’t want customers complaining.

But in addition to the ridiculous amount of time my method requires, there’s another problem — it tends to make the bag come open at the bottom. The first time this happened, I noticed what was going on before I spilled jam on myself, and got help. But the second time I was not so lucky. I was focusing so hard on my apricot measurement that I didn’t notice it when about two cups’ worth of jelly oozed out of the bag and onto my apron, the counter, and the floor. I uttered a hearty obscenity, looked around to see if anyone was watching, and managed to get most of the jam into a bucket before someone walked into the room — at which point I boldly announced, “Il y a un catastrophe d’abricot!” (There is an apricot catastrophe!)

After that, I requested a chaperone.

But that was less stressful than our recent experience with biodynamic agriculture. One morning — maybe Tuesday — Laurent announced that he needed six people to join him in the field to “preparer la composte.” I wasn’t sure exactly what he was talking about, but the night before people had been talking about biodynamic agriculture (a system developed by Rudolph Steiner that involves cosmology, psychology and letting things rot in deer stomachs — long story). There’d been jokes about how you needed to think good thoughts while planting corn, and it seemed like people were making fun of the idea.

But in retrospect, I think I was mistaken. Because when we got to the field, Laurent pulled out a medicine bottle full of mysterious brown liquid, put several drops in a bucket of water and began to swirl it carefully in a stick, first in one direction, then the other, for ten minutes. When I asked why he was doing it, he mentioned something about the idea that water was able to accept the energy from the universe, and that this was how you got the water crystals to open. (This was particularly odd because Laurent is a dry-humored, occasionally sarcastic guy whom I wouldn’t expect to have books that are sold at Cafe Gratitude.)

Then he revealed five small bottles of brown, humus-like material. I’d seen on the box that their ingredients were things like camomile and other herbs, so I was a bit surprised when they smelled like poop. But it turned out that part of biodynamism is to bury the ingredients in various animal organs (deer stomach, goat horn) and let them rot for six months before digging them up.

Laurent instructed Elder, the Portuguese apprentice, to make fifty holes in the compost, one and a half meters apart, and then handed each of us a bottle and arranged us in a line. Our job was to work our way down the field, each of us putting a tiny bit of our magical potion into one hole at a time, then covering them up as if planting a precious seed. It was very important that we a. work quickly and b. stay in order. Laurent followed us, putting a drop of water in every sixth hole.

I don’t entirely understand biodynamic agriculture in English — let alone French. But there are many things on this farm that I’m not sure about (why there are corks on the end of the milking suction cups, for example, or why I feed the baby goats by dropping corn on their heads). So I just took my place in line.

My first issue with this project was that while the other farm hands had wisely put on knee-high boots — a good choice when one is ascending piles of moist poop — Peter and I were wearing sneakers and long pants. “How am I not going to get cow shit in my socks?” I asked myself. It didn’t occur to me until I was actually on top of a pile, in the midst of getting cow shit in my socks, that the real problem was not my feet — it was the fact that we were supposed to fill in the hole with our hands. Oh yes. Take a small piece of rotting deer stomach, drop it in the hole, and then fill it up with moist cow turds, sticky and covered with flies. It wasn’t long before I had poop up to my elbow.

The chakras of this compost are very well aligned.

When we’d finished, Laurent walked up and down the pile using a bundle of grass to sprinkle the remaining water on top as Elder looked dramatically toward the heavens and made the sign of the cross.

Biodynamic poop aside, though, Peter and I both feel really lucky to have ended up on this farm with this family. They are generous, kind, and tend to have senses of humor about, well, us — which is something I’m very grateful for.

Peter, Elder, and the cutest dog at the farm.