Some pictures from our 2009 trip to France.

Claude shivers in a surprise snowstorm. We had to rush to get all the nets up because if the olives freeze then their oil is ruinedish.

Philippe examines a rifle, one of the pillars of his spiritual life on Corsica. For a goatherd and cheese maker, he and his family live very comfortably.

The neighbor watches the belts that roll the immense stone that crushes olives in the ancient stone mill. The gears used to be turned by water from a diverted stream, but they are now run by motor.

I was editing photos last night in preparation for a project and noticed the similarities among these three.

An Olive’s Pace

Harvesting olives in the sun

by Azure

It was January, the end of the olive season and we had decided to work an olive cycle – from tree to oil – on a family farm in the hills above Nice. Marguerite, the matriarch, lived in the same room in which she was born 89 years before and worked the same trees that her father and his father had planted. Only she and her daughter still lived on the farm, so they asked for help each year when the olive trees needed tending.

The work was slow and peaceful on the terraced hillside overlooking the valley. We’d climb each tree, harvesting branch by branch with long poles, then trim those branches and remove any remaining olives on the ground. We loaded them from the nets into crates, which we carried by hand then sorted at night in the main room of the family home, talking while we sorted in front of the fire. The best of the olives would be cured for salads, the medium quality would be made into tapenade and the imperfect ones, crushed into oil by the ancient stone that Marguerite’s father had hauled up the valley and installed in what is now the regions only remaining stone mill.

Each day, it was the same routine, tree after tree needed to be tended, but we couldn’t have been happier. We were experiencing what happens every year on family on farms all over the region – we were being shown the pace of the olives.

This post has been entered into the Grantourismo HomeAway Holiday-Rentals travel blogging competition.

Maturing morning

Click to expand in place: Music: “Gravity” by Lusine

by Mike

From the plane, it looks like a web of lights is clinging to the French coast and spreading inland in constellations. And the lines and webs extend to the horizon where they climb onto the black sky and become stars.

And ahead, morning light gathers into an arc and builds its Mediterranean blue, then it spills into the sea. It conjures orange and pink, and finally, gaining confidence, the morning matures and pushes away the night. We fly into its colors.

Below, in France, places I love are waking up. People I love are waking up. Places I have loved in the past are waking up. People I have loved in the past are waking up. Places I will love in the future are waking up. People I will love in the future are waking up.

Before there were markets

More dog

The girls hopped from rock to rock with their skirts brushing the bushes. They sang high-pitched hymns that reached us in the wind, voices fragile like glass, clear and pure as the hill’s high air. From here we could see the Mediterranean to our right and the Pyrenees to the left.

Gabriel knelt.

“This is rocayrol.” The frizzy little lettuce grows in the cracks in high places. He slid his knifeblade into the rock and sliced the rocayrol at its root, tossed it in his basket then searched for another. Gabriel wears a leather necklace with a stamp-sized image of the Virgin Mary on one side and Jesus on the other, and it dangled outside his shirt.

“That’s asparagus,” he said, pointing to a fern leaning into the path. I’d never seen wild asparagus. “That’s fennel. And over there, that’s lemon balm. A tea of lemon balm, rosemary and mint gives men strength in the morning.”

We were collecting dinner salad for 13 people – the parents, nine kids and us two guests. Though they live on a farm in the valley, they collect much of their food from the surrounding hills. “God is generous,” the father said. And while neither of us is religious, as travelers our job is to listen to understand. And we understood.

“Rocayrol has the most wonderful taste,” he said. “It loves high rocks in the sun.” So we climbed high to find it, and as we collected it we listened to the girls’ crystalline hymns.

This post has been entered into the Grantourismo HomeAway Holiday-Rentals travel blogging competition.

Love has a recipe

Stirring, Corsica, France

by Mike

Azure fell in love with a Corsican cheese, a cheese that doesn’t travel well. We were leaving in a couple days and she might never again see or taste the enchanting, goaty brocciu. Azure was sad, so I had to do something.

We asked a young man at the market if he knew a brocciu maker who might teach us to make the cheese. He told us to ask the widows who sit on the steps of the mayor’s office.

We rode our scooter to the mayor’s office and asked the old ladies where to find a brocciu maker. In the next village over, they said, lived a woman who made it for years.

We rode our scooter over the ridge and asked a man where Mme Albertini lived. She was his aunt, in fact, and she lived at the edge of town.

We found the woman, but she no longer made cheese – the process is too intense. Her cousin in the next village over, though, still made it.

We found the village and found his barn and Philippe was inside, milking the goats.

“Please,” we said, “Azure loves brocciu and needs to learn to make it herself.”

He looked at her and smiled: if we returned the next afternoon he would happily teach us everything. The next day, alongside his wife and daughter, he patiently taught us the generations-old recipe.

All we had to do was ask.

This post has been entered into the Grantourismo HomeAway Holiday-Rentals travel blogging competition.

Presence in Your Mouth

Wild salad

by Mike

Have you heard of the word, “terroir?” It’s French. Terroir is why champagne can only come from the Champagne region of France. It’s why you can’t call your crappy, molded chicken milk, “Roquefort.”

Terroir is the sum of the environmental conditions in a place. It’s the soil composition, the acidity of rain, the angle of the sun, the height of the hills, local farming techniques and surrounding plant species and all the minute variables that even local farmers might not know. The terroir of the Champagne region can’t be reproduced anywhere else on earth. You want to make champagne? Move to Champagne. But if you’re satisfied making some shitty sparkling wine then you can stay in Fife or wherever you live. Expand!

A Jungle of Force

Corsican market women, Corsica, France
The poor old rich days…

by Mike

There is a mysterious person in traditional Corsican towns, a man or woman kept at the periphery of society because they play a supernatural role in death. At night, this Mazzeri is compelled to sneak into the maquis, the low shrubbery that blankets wild parts of the island, and to hunt down whatever animal comes across their path. The boar or dog meets a violent death – the Mazzeri bludgeons it with a club or a rock, it might strangle the animal or tear its flesh with their teeth. (Read More)

Essential Education

The next generation looks on
Learning machines.

by Mike

(This post refers to the time we spent with the Catholic back-to-the-land family in southwest France).

I killed my first fowl on this trip, it was a guinea fowl, practically a chicken. I didn’t actually kill it, rather I held its legs and wings while Gabriel put a knife through its jugular, but I was a pretty-involved accomplice, so it counts in my book. As the blood drained I expected it to squawk or kick or something, to freak out, you know?, but it didn’t react, even as the knife went in. The bird only convulsed after it was already dead, and it was so strong I thought I’d hurt my hand. The bright red blood, which drained into the slop bucket, was fed to the pigs. (read more)

Lunch Prayer

The back-to-the-land family sings a prayer before eating cassoulet on a Sunday afternoon. The guy with the shaved head is Johann, the son who had just fallen from the rafters. This is near Carcassonne, France.

by Mike

Before every meal they would sing these prayers – two in French with a Latin prayer in between. One of the prayers is the Lord’s prayer and I believe another is for Mary. They prayed after the meal as well. When we left the farm and started eating without prayer the moment felt a little emptier, a little more mindless. The same was true after we left the meditation retreat in Chiang Mai – we had chanted a prayer before eating there as well. It’s just another instance in which the practices overlap.

The family prayed before and after eating, when waking up and before going to sleep at night. In addition to these five routine prayers, there were also moments throughout the day when they would, essentially, check in with God. They saw it as giving thanks to God; I recognized it as an act of staying present. Similarly, Didier described how at the beginning of each day he would dedicate his physical pain to God – he knew there would be pain. God (as Jesus) went through so much pain for him that it was the least he could do to give some back. In this I recognized Buddhism’s distinction between pain and suffering.

Potato Beds!

Big sky
Carrying the cases of potato starts out to the tractor.

by Mike

Their potato-planting window of opportunity was closing – the family was running late already, and because the moon was about to change phases we had to get it done in the next couple days. Otherwise, they’d have to wait for the next suitable period in the lunar cycle. (more words & photos)

I almost saw this guy get killed


by Mike

The family has discovered that there are, in fact, some medical complications for which God hasn’t provided them medicinal herbs: Mom’s five cesarean sections count among them; one of the kids has a hyperthyroid problem that’s vexing the family. Major head trauma makes the list as well, as we learned.

On the farm is parked a grandmotherly white horse, a wise and battered thing that passes its days in a softly lit barn, shitting on chickens and eating organic hay. Nice life, right? The horse is old and quiet, I think it has knowing eyes. Johann, a 28-year-old son from a previous marriage who lives out of his car, came to shoot the old lady and slit her throat, but first he had to figure out how to attach a pulley system to a 30-foot-high beam so he could later hang her up and bleed her out. (read more)

Catchup Post – Back to the Land

Alice in a field with scythe

by Mike

Well. We’ve spent the last week working on a farm with a traditionalist Catholic family of 11 back-to-the-landers. They live in a gorgeous, shallow valley that’s tucked away in the hills between the Pyrenees and the Mediterranean, a valley where they have their beds of veggies, fields of grains, pigs, donkeys, horses, chickens, geese, ducks, guinea fowl, dogs and trout pond. The kids go away to a Catholic school in another part of France from the age of about 8 (coming home for long vacations), then at 15 they have the choice to either continue with school or come back home to work on the farm. There are three children over 15 – the oldest decided to finish school, the next two have decided to come back to work. (read more)

Three easy ways to let divinity flow through you

Nights without lights

by Mike, because he’s the self-righteous one.

These are three simple things that everyone can do today to live more in the present. (read more)

Catchup post – Free(gan) Food!

Learning learning learning

by Mike

Dude, we’re way behind, but I’m going to post some stuff to catch up, and for posterity.

We were with Riana and her family at the end of March….

We’re staying with a Freegan family in the idyllic town of Saint Laurent de la Cabrerisse in southwest France. Freegan means that they aim to spend no money on food. They dumpster dive (which just means that they poke around to see if there’s anything they can use whenever they take out the trash), they get produce from the local grocer after it’s unsellable, they have a large garden, they forage and they trade for food. We’re sleeping in a cozy attic of the 18th century stone house they’ve been renovating for the last couple years. Their budget is next to nothing – the husband is a school teacher and mom doesn’t have a job outside the house. (read more)