17 Apr A Brief History Of Me. Chapter 11. France again.
We arrived in Tarbes, Haute-Pyrénées on the 8th of March 2011. Jon had left behind the video production company he ran with his ex, and I had left behind my ambitions to carry on acting, a job teaching drama to kids, a job in a wine shop and a job doing admin for a theatre company.
We were searching adventure, a way of living closer to nature, and for Jon the chance to live somewhere other than the UK for the first time. We had no plan, simply an idea that if we were open to wherever the trip took us, we would find a way.
Our first WWOOF host were a couple in their 50’s, Richard was British and Domenique was French, they had sold up their Oxford home and bought an old barn with some land. They were 100% off grid: solar panels, a generator for when it ran out, spring water and satellite internet. We were there to help them build a fence around their property and help establish a forest garden following the permaculture ethos.
We learned so much from them: the danger of monocrops, GM seeds, the cruelty in animal farming… we were absorbing so much information and working so hard on the land that I have probably never slept better in my life. It was where Jon carved his first knife and where I learned to use a drill (embarrassingly late in life).
R & D were an incredible place to start. They were working towards being completely self sufficient and were considering planting tobacco and eventually keeping bees for honey so they would have desirable pieces to trade with if society were to collapse.
We stayed for two weeks and left with a hugely enhanced view on world farming. We were dropped at the train station and started our journey to a small holding with a new family where we would be staying in a yurt with a dog called Gaia.
Our second hosts were a young couple, Agnès & Xavi, with their three year old daughter (I forget her name, she was a bit of a nightmare). He was a projectionist at Cannes film festival and she grew herbs for medicinal teas and tinctures to sell at market. They had converted an old barn high up on a hill (my favourite feature of the barn being the wooden floor with a trap door to a healthy supply of Sancerre wine made by his uncle). They had an incubator with eggs and subsequently chicks often pattering around the kitchen. On the land were geese, ducks and chickens (seeing ducks mate: eye opener 👀 ).
We were staying in a yurt with a solar powered shack adjacent to where we showered and made brews in the morning. The toilet was a little hut with a door you could look out over into the clouds.
We chopped wood, cleared woodland, tasted sap from a birch tree, helped them steal tyres from the skip to build a wall, laid fleece on the earth (as a protective mulch), went on bucolic walks with their dog Gaia as a guide and enjoyed waking up every morning amidst the clouds.
I also killed a chicken, plucked it and prepared it for freezing. I had been veggie my entire life but had started eating small amounts of meat and I felt that I needed to take full responsibility for this. I no longer eat meat but still feel that if you do, it’s not a bad idea to understand the entire process.
While we were there we learned that my childhood friend had given birth to her first son. She lived in the hills near Barcelona and I desperately wanted to see her but we couldn’t afford the train fair, so after two weeks with Agnès and Xavi we packed our things, (including a pot of herbal nappy cream made by Agnès) and started our hitchhike down to Spain through the Pyrenees. Agnès & Xavi dropped us off in a Lidl car park, where we could buy ourselves some food for the journey and hopefully find someone to drive us across the Pyrenees into Spain.
I went inside to buy supplies while Jon waited outside with our rucksacks. A man dropped a euro coin into the metal tea pot we had tied to one of them. We were slightly offended but far more delighted.
Our first ride was a skinny dark haired woman with matching diamantée trainers and phone, who chain smoked as she explained that she was driving to Andorra to buy cigarettes. Our second ride was a white haired woman in her fifties who turned her car around to come back and get us. Our third and final ride was a young North African man who took pity on us and told us that the reason he picked us up was because no one else would. He dropped us in Lleida where we caught the train.
We arrived at Nuria and Xavi’s house in the mountains at night. Nuria and I had been best friends in our teens, sharing a love of Portishead and forming a band with a few others where I wrote the lyrics and she composed the music and sang the songs. She was the first of my school friends to have a baby and this journey felt like a pilgrimage towards the new shift in our lives. While we were there we cooked, we cleaned and we got to know baby Saïd and our old friends as new parents. We also made a plasticine stop-motion animation about Saïd and all the animals that lived there. I will dig this out and share it with you one day.
After two weeks, Nuria complained that we were making her fat and we had plans to stop off in Barcelona to see a friend and eat deep fried sardines at La Plata, so we packed our bags and hugged until the next time. I miss these magical two weeks with every fibre in my body.