Well, it is our second day in Coutras at a farm nestled in the countryside near Bordeaux. To be honest, I have really no idea where we are on a map. Nor do we have any means to leave the farm without help (yesterday we went for a walk and ended up in someone’s corn field). But here’s the view from our window:
Please note the goats. As newcomers to the farm, we have been assigned to their care. Also note that while there are two of us, there are 27 of them, plus several “chevrettes” (little goats) and a male goat named Titus (or, alternatively, Leonardo Da Vinci). Every August he’s tasked with impregnating all the females — but right now he’s just hanging out next to the barn, eating hay and bleating loudly.
Anyway, one of my favorite parts of traveling is seeing and doing new things — like swimming in warm rivers, for example, or even sampling putrefied shark. But spending time on the farm is a different sort of experience — it’s giving us the chance to learn how to actually do stuff. And there is a lot of stuff to do on this farm, seeing as how there are some 50 cows, 27 goats, 6 pigs, countless chickens and pigeons, and two enormous work horses (and that’s not counting the four cats, four dogs, and the tropical fish tank in the kitchen). It doesn’t take long for situations like this to make me feel extremely incompetent, or at least lacking in my ability to survive in the wild. Granted, I am an excellent touch typist — if the apocalypse came and the human race depended on secretarial skills, my stock would be high. But not on a farm — within several hours of being here, we’d observed the father milk the cows, the mother make cheese and yogurt, and the two daughters sharpen the knives, care for the goats, and just to top things off, service their car. As I type, one daughter is simultaneously making tiramisu and madelines, the son (who also fire juggles) is preparing oysters, and the mom suffocated some pigeons for lunch. (Peter just yelled “Catherine, do you want to pluck a pigeon?” up the stairs, and I have confirmed that he meant it literally.)
Luckily, they’re patient. Having correctly judged that goats were a good starter animal, Laurent (the father) showed us how to set up their milking stands and then distract them with breakfast so that we could get at their udders. (I have also learned the verb for “milking” — “traire” — and quite a bit about the details of goat reproduction.) Back when they only had two goats, they milked them by hand, but these days they have a small contraption that sits on top of the milk container and pumps it for them — our job is to grab their udders (les mamelles) and position the teats so they get sucked inside. I may be a city girl, but it’s strangely satisfying to hear the “whoosh, pop” sound of a teat attaching to the pump — and even more so to see the milk flowing from the tube into the container. Also, I can now say that I know not just what it feels like to touch a warm goat udder, but to be sprayed by one — yesterday while demonstrating how far you can squirt the milk (the answer: far), Laurent water-gunned my pants. I think it might have been a hazing ritual.
Anyway, between setting up the milk contraptions, actually getting out the goats (in two batches), milking them, and then washing out the containers, the whole process takes about an hour — and is repeated twice a day, in the morning and around 6pm. I would have thought that it would start to get tedious after, say, the third round — but instead I’m finding myself looking forward to the next milking session. I may not know how to make yogurt or cheese or suffocate a pigeon, but goddamn it, I’m getting good with goat teats.
It reminds me of a conversation we had over dinner our first night here: the mother, Isabelle, was asking whether it were really true that in English, “flower” and “flour” were pronounced exactly the same. “Yes! Exactly the same!” I said, wondering why I felt so satisfied with myself — and then realized it was because while I was/am completely useless as a farm hand, I am very good at pronouncing English words.
What else . . . yesterday, one of the daughters — astonished that I had never tasted milk straight from a cow — brought a plastic cup into the milking room and squeezed out a sample for us to try. (I was surprised to find that it tasted ,well, like cow’s milk — albeit a little warmer and with more froth.) She had us both try milking a second cow so that we could taste the difference, then filled the cup with cold goat milk and gave us that as well. We also had the chance not just to milk the goats in the morning and evening, but to eat one for lunch. This morning included the disconcerting scene of watching Laurent milk the cows as Lady Gaga played on the radio. And lastly, in addition to learning how to make cheese and yogurt, I’ve also discovered a new goal: learn to play a French accordion. Last night we had an 11pm music session with Laurent playing guitar and accordion and me on a tiny synthesizer — and now I’m hooked.