Jun 30 2010


Ever since getting to Paris three weeks ago, I’ve had one logistical task in mind: how to get out. Not because I dislike this city of croissants and fine cheese, but rather because we need to be in Turin on July 2nd, and we didn’t have any means to get there.

I usually like to plan things ahead of time, so when we arrived on June 14th, I looked online to see if I could buy train tickets, thus taking advantage of advance-purchase rates. I checked out the cheerful Artesia train website, which proudly proclaimed that there were two trains a day to Turin and, what’s more, they were only 60 euros a piece. What a deal! The website, however, did not offer any means to book these tickets.

After an hour or so of investigation, I determined that I needed to buy them through France’s train network, known as SNCF. But, despite recommending that you purchase tickets more than 45 days in advance, their website did not list the Artesia trains; the itineraries they offered were much longer, and almost 250 euros a piece. This was odd. Convinced that it was my understanding of French railway websites that was at fault, I set off on a cross-city quest to go to an SNCF “boutique,” as they’re called, to buy the tickets in person.

A 30-minute Metro ride and a 35-minute line later, I finally spoke to a ticket agent, who politely informed me that there were only tickets available through June 30th because the Italians had not sent the ones for July yet. “Oh, the Italians,” I said. “Toujours les Italiens!” attempting to make a joke, while at the same time wondering why it was necessary, in this day of online ticket sales, for Italy to “send” the tickets. Couldn’t they set up a system where the tickets automatically loaded into the database 45 days or so before departure? You know, like how they do with airlines or, for that matter, most trains?

No. This was not possible. I went back to the apartment, tired and dejected, but figured that if tickets were available till June 30th, it would be a mere two days or so before those for July 2nd were as well. So I dutifully went back to checking the SNCF website.

A week passed. No tickets. Worrying again that this might be my fault, I sent a message to the SNCF support staff asking if there were another way to buy them. What if there were a cabal of train-hopping, Italian-bound Parisians snatching up all the seats? Was I missing something? No, they wrote back. There are no tickets yet. But they should be listed soon. Keep checking.

And so I did. At some point, my quest for the tickets went beyond a mere desire for logistical resolution and became a personal compulsion — a ticket tic, if you will — to check for them at any possible point during the day. Every morning and evening, I tried online. Every time we passed a SNCF automatic ticket machine,  I tried it as well — despite the fact that I already know that my Visa card does not work in French ticket machines.  I asked in person at the SNCF booth beneath the Musee D’Orsay. I asked again outside the Eiffel Tower, during a day in which a country-wide SNCF strike pre-guaranteed failure. No tickets.

By this point it was Saturday, less than a week before our train was scheduled to depart. I went on a walk that afternoon through a park near our apartment, and was in the midst of admiring some beautiful hydrageas when I saw it: an SNCF sign beckoning me from across the street. My mind told me I should ignore it in favor of taking a leisurely stroll through the park’s manicured grounds. I had just checked the train schedule that morning online — I knew there were no tickets. But I couldn’t help myself — lured by SNCF’s siren song, I crossed the street, walked past the train tracks, and took a number in the small office, where a single ticket seller was working his way through a line of people.

Having already waited in line in three SNCF offices, I knew how slowly things progress: from what I can tell, the ticket sellers act as personal internet tour guides, working with customers to do exactly the same searches that one could do at home, patiently researching endless combinations of dates and times before the customer finally settles on an itinerary and buys a ticket. It’s painful to watch, actually, each transaction taking a minimum of 10 to 15 minutes.

As I sat there, I recognized that I was in essence putting myself through a foregone conclusion, waiting in line to have an agent tell me in person information that I already knew. Staying there was, then, objectively absurd. And yet, I couldn’t get up. The office was air conditioned, and besides, I was beginning to almost enjoy the ridiculousness of the situation — both the lack of tickets, and my own compulsion to track them down. It was as if I’d become obsessed with hunting a unicorn.

Sure enough, when my time finally came, Jean — a very patient, very sweet man who turned out to be the manager of the office — told me that the tickets were not yet available but that, in true SNCF style, he would search for them anyway (thereby guaranteeing that our interaction would be at least 3 minutes longer, much to the delight of the people behind me in line). He typed something into his computer, squinted at it, and gasped.

“Attendez!” he said with excitement — my heart fluttered — could it be? Then his face fell.

“Ma coeur, ma couer m’a parle,” he said, gesturing toward his heart. “My heart, it spoke to me!” But alas, his heart had been mistaken.

Jean showed me how I could put in a request to be emailed when the tickets became available — a nice gesture, except that when you’re checking four times a day on your own, an email alert becomes a bit superfluous. I then went back into the streets and drowned my sorrow in a goat cheese salad.

But the story did not end there: after three more days of checking, the tickets — again, for the train that leaves in three days (I might be crazy, but so is this system) — suddenly appeared online yesterday afternoon, the second time I’d checked that day. My heart did indeed speak to me, and I attempted to book them — before realizing that they were 40 euros more than I’d anticipated.

Since I knew I’d have to pick them up in person anyway (not so big on etickets, the Europeans), I went back to my friend Jean, and waited in another half-hour line. While there, I listened to another woman who was trying to get from Paris to Turin — on July 12th — speak to Jean, and learned that while the tickets had been available just that morning, they had since been taken back for all trips starting after July 8th. That was fine for me, seeing as how we leave July 2nd — but not so much for the woman, who departed from the office 40 minutes poorer and with no tickets to show for it. I began to think of the Italian train office as some sort of coquettish tease, flashing her tickets at her suitors before tucking them back underneath her clothes.

But luckily, my tickets were available. Albeit, not at the price advertised (according to Jean, there had been none offered to begin with) — but still, after 16 days of effort, I have two seats on the train to Turin, safely stowed in my bag.

Here’s hoping I don’t lose them.

Jun 27 2010

Body Attack

As noted previously in this blog, my body decided it would be fun to celebrate my arrival in Paris by contracting a flu-like illness over the appetizer course last Saturday night. Since then, I’ve worked my way through several stages — fever, sore throat, general fatigue, lingering cough — before waking up Thursday morning feeling like I was finally back to normal.

My mother, a nurse and overall wise and practical woman, probably would have suggested that I continue to take it easy. But instead, I decided it would be an excellent day to use my free pass at the gym across the street (a 25 euro value!) and try out a class called “Body Attack.”

According to its description on the gym schedule, Body Attack is “encore plus fort, encore plus loin pour une forme explosive.” Even stronger, even further, for an explosive form! (Hannah read the French text aloud to me on the subway, much to the amusement of the man standing next to her.)

I’ve been feeling recently that, given the abundance of camembert, my forme is not going in a particularly explosive direction. So despite my lingering fatigue, I headed across the street to the Vit’halles gym, where I walked past two floors of French weightlifters, found the aerobics studio, and noticed several things: first, much like the Metro, the room was not air conditioned. Second, there were only about five people in it, none of whom looked explosive. Whatever. I pulled out a foam mat and took my place toward the back, looking up at a small stage backed by Nike posters.

I should note that attending aerobics classes in foreign countries is one of my favorite things to do when traveling — past favorites include hip hop in Beijing, Croatian pilates, and a South Korean class called “dance dance.” I love seeing how different cultures have reacted to fitness trends — say, step class — and what traditions they bring to the gym themselves. In China, for example, people worked out with nalgene bottles of green tea and, despite the 90+-degree heat, I saw multiple women who had saran-wrapped their thighs.

The French class was a little different. There were only about five people, and instead of my charismatic Chinese aerobics instructor, Lightning, the teacher did not introduce himself with any sort of fun fitness nickname. But he was still perky, dressed in shorts with a Madonna-esque earpiece in one ear. He started by asking if anyone were new to the class. I raised my hand. “Zero experience?” he said.


“D’accord,” he replied, and proceeded to explain the class format: cardiovascular work followed by sports training followed by muscles.

For first half of the class, I didn’t have any problem. We worked our way through jogging in place, punching the air above our heads, and doing a shortened version of jumping jacks as the Black Eyed Peas played at high speed on the stereo. I was feeling pretty good about myself, noticing that, even if I cannot properly form the conditional or future tenses, I am good at following exercise classes. Grapevines? Jogging in place? High knees? Who needs French? I speak aerobics.

But then came the sports training segment. The teacher divided us into two “teams” and instructed us to sprint back and forth down the gym, five times in a row, before taking a break jogging in place.

I started off strong and cocky — despite being led by the instructor, the other team was lame. One of the woman hadn’t even been able to keep up with the jumping jacks. “Sprint,” I decided, was clearly a relative term.

But then, halfway through the first sprint, I saw her: a woman in a red tank top who seemed — no, was definitely — trying to beat me.

“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” I thought to myself, momentarily falling behind. Did this cigarette puffing Frenchie think she was going to win Body Attack?

Uh, no. Putting aside the fact that 24 hours earlier,  I’d been feverish and on the couch, I stepped on the gas and coasted past her to the end of the room. I felt a little winded, but then again, so did she.  So I was surprised when she did the same thing on the second sprint, leaving me with no choice but to push past her again.  Sprint numbers three, four and five? Same deal.

By that point, I felt a little like I was suffocating. I don’t sprint much in my daily life, my blood sugar was high, my head was starting to hurt, I had no water, and I was seriously resenting the gym’s decision not to install an air-conditioning system. Whereas before I’d been jauntily jogging in place during the rest periods, now I was feigning reasons to bend over so I could catch my breath. (I think my shoelaces “untied” about six times during the course of the sprints.)

Unfortunately for my heart rate, the ancient Greeks’ obsession with the rule of threes has influenced modern-day cardiovascular training: we had two more sets of five sprints ahead of us. I struggled through them, still managing to beat my nemesis most of the time before needing to tie my shoe laces again.

The rest of the class was relatively simple, except for a long lunge sequence that I knew ahead of time was going to make it difficult for me to sit down in a chair for the next three or four days. But the damage had already been done. Today I’m feeling a little sick again and, what’s worse, the body attack has literally attacked my body — my legs are killing me, and my triceps burn every time I straighten my arms.

Whatever. I still won.

Jun 26 2010

Les Egouts de Paris

Let’s say you were in Paris and had just spent 32 euros on a two-day museum card, a special pass that allows you to skip the lines and walk right in to some of the major museums in the city. Let’s say that you’d already visited the Louvre and L’Orangerie. And let’s say that you were debating between the Rodin Museum — i.e., the famous sculptor of The Thinker, among other emotive masterpieces — or a four-euro display entitled “The Sewers of Paris.”

For me, the choice was obvious. Peter and I had spent the morning working our way through an audio tour of the Musee d’Orsay and, while I enjoyed our virtual guide’s description of Rodin’s “Gates of Hell,” I decided it might be time for something off the beaten path.

Mission accomplished. The Egouts of Paris are right next to a bridge close to the Eiffel Tower. Unlike the Orangerie or, god help us, the Louvre, there was no line. We waved our museum passes and went right downstairs, where several groups of uniformed school children were being led around by guides.

I had just gotten caught up in a display about rainwater when Peter, who had wandered ahead (I’m assuming out of excitement, not boredom?) came back to me.

“I need you to come with me,” he said. “This is too smelly to do twice.”

I needed no further invitation. As friends may know, I spent much of 2008 and early 2009 wrapped up in a series of pieces about the state of American sewage. Hell, I even made a music video. A sewer tour is, as they say, totally my bag.

My expectations were high, but the Paris Sewer Tour did not disappoint. Sure enough, we turned a corner and were hit in the face with a smell I knew all too well from my research phase.

This is the authentic Paris underground.

Unlike the hygiene-obsessed US of A, this was not some synthetic scent being used to create an authentic sewer atmosphere, like how they spray popcorn perfume all over the 68th street Loews theater. Rather, it came from the river of untreated wastewater running through a trough in the middle of the room.

When I say “untreated” and “river,” I’m not exaggerating. Check out the photo. That’s, if you may excuse the expression, the real shit.

I found this disgusting, yet fascinating, but I wanted more background information. How did this system come to be? How did a dredge boat work? What were those enormous wooden balls?  Thank goodness, then, for the hallway full of informational placards, helpfully printed in English and French, explaining the evolution of Parisian wastewater treatment. (For a long time, it was quite simple: dump it into the Seine.)

I wanted to soak up all four sides of each information station (no pun intended), but there was one slight problem: in what must have been a sewer worker’s joke, the boards were set up directly above a different rushing stream of wastewater that had been covered by the same sort of see-through wire grate that covers the air vents in the NYC subway system (think Marilyn Monroe, but smellier). Even I, a truly devoted sewer follower, had difficulty trusting that the wire grates were not going to collapse while I read about Napoleon’s clean water initiatives, dropping me into what could easily have qualified as a beginner kayak run. Making me more nervous: some of the placards, made of sturdy laminated plastic, had actually begun to disintegrate from the fumes.

Peter eventually braved the grate.

Luckily, the grates held and we made it through to the gift shop, where I learned that giant wooden balls were — and are — used to help build up enough water pressure to flush the sand (or “hybrid mixture,” as they called it euphemistically) out of the pipes. I also verified that a large crocodile was once found living in the sewers (it now has its own sewer-themed enclosure at a zoo), got some free sewer tour postcards from a curator at the gift shop, and was invited to a new exhibit — presumably above ground — celebrating Parisian water.

A good time all around.

Jun 23 2010

Hannah in the House

This just in: Hannah Leckman has arrived in Paris, has already eaten her first baguette and is off on a walk with her son as I stay home to “work” (which I wish could translate to “nap”). She has just finished her last year of teaching, and is threatening to start her own blog, titled “realretirement.net”

I look forward to it — not to mention our adventures over the next week. More soon. Welcome, Hannah!

Mother. Son. Croissants.

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.