Not a week after my college graduation I was on a plane to Europe and within a month I was huddling around a campfire with a group of French, Spanish and British vendangeurs in the Eastern Pyrenees, my “home” a shack built with wine crates. It remains my claim to fame that I picked what was at the time undoubtedly the worst wine in all of France. It was a brief one-month stint as an itinerant farmworker, but it changed me forever, for it taught me a great deal about hard work and humility and just how many stories we carry within.
Despite the passage of many years I can still see the endless rows of lush green vines, feel the weight of the grape clusters as I cupped them in my palm readying my scissors. I can remember the indelible purple stains on my skin and the weight of my body as I lay it down to sleep after a long day’s work. My palate, since much refined, still retains the memory of the rustic food, the saucissons and the onions and peppers cooked over a fire right there on the field, the crustiness of the baguette as it scratched my lips and the ache in my lower back which never seemed to go away.
Like the rest, I arrived with just a bit of money, a decent sleeping bag, and not much else. I started out with a group of Spaniards but we split up and joined with other groups of people depending on the job. Some jobs were for a day, others were for a few, the farmer picking us from a pre-dawn lineup of those gathered in our makeshift camp behind the wine cooperative. “Pick me, pick me,” we would beg, silently willing these beret-clad men with boots leather-worn and muddied to make that gesture for us to jump in the back of the truck, ensuring us work for a day, or a few.
There were good patrons and bad, some who treated me (the sole American, and often the only woman) like a guest, others who came short of whipping my back as I leaned over (often painfully and under the hot sun) picking the grapes from the low vines. There was no special treatment, and had there been I would not have allowed it. It was very, very difficult yet less so since I knew it was short-lived and that my reward was more travel. Even when dizzy with fever and fatigue, I was lifted by the ever abundance of sun and fresh air, by the simple food cooked on open fires, and by the incomparable camaraderie. These were the days before cellphones and facebook and nights were spent telling tales and looking up at the stars.
What brings one to such work? As many reasons, I suppose, as there were workers. There were families who followed the harvests, each year. There were students, and adventurers, couples and those who traveled alone. Many had stories to tell, and others had stories they kept quiet about but which seeped through their skin thick with mystery and melancholy. Not all were moving forward seeking adventure and newness, some were clearly fleeing the past, and desperately so. Yet for the moment, we were all the same.
Simon was the only Brit amongst us. A tall, muscular man with an unruly mop of golden hair on his head and a laugh that echoed through the fields. We were all enamored with him, with his bumbling way of moving through the paths which separated the vines and through the narrow cobbled streets of the village. He was genuinely interested in everything and everyone, was always ready to help out, to offer a smile or a pat on the back. He was also a killer poker player.
He was strong and as such was the one designated to carry the basket on his back into which we dumped our buckets of grapes. Because of his size, it was not a surprise when he was picked to accompany a few of us to the mountains where we spent several days working the fields on a steep hillside in a small isolated village.
The patron put us all in an apartment in town, simple but with hot running water and a kitchen, which was unparalleled luxury. And best of all, Simon was our chef. I remember going to the bakery and to the small store in town with him while he gathered his ingredients. I don’t recall if he was able to find them all (surely he was not) but it didn’t seem to matter, for later he whipped up his dish with characteristic extravagance and humor, his laughter filling in for what may have been missing.
Here is the recipe he prepared for us that night, which I have kept ever since, written in pencil on a page torn from a journal I’ve long since lost. Considering the fact that I keep very little over the years, it is rather miraculous (and telling) that this has remained with me, always. It was, beyond a doubt and despite all the exquisite food I’ve had since, the most delicious food ever to touch my lips.
Simon’s Sweet & Sour Curry
½ chicken (cooked)
1 large onion (Spanish)
1 green pepper
3 cloves garlic
1 lemon (cut in half)
1 tablespoon raisins (or Sultanas)
1 large apple
1 tablespoon dessicated coconut
½ tin pineapple & juice
3 tablespoons vinegar (or malt)
1 small tin tomato sauce
dash of ketchup
salt & pepper to taste
1 to 1-1/2 Tablespoons curry (madras)
Simon was at once the sweetest man I’d met and one of the most volatile. Indeed it was his pride which led him to toss the basket of grapes down on the ground one day and walk off the field, only his curses—perhaps justifiable and directed at the abusive patron—left behind. And I would imagine that it was a similar outburst or uncontrolled emotion which led to the scars which snaked up his inner wrists in angry pink road maps to nowhere as if trying to hide amidst the swirling lines of his poorly inked tattoos. He never explained what they were from, and I never asked.
I’ve often found that those who are the most exuberant with their joys are those whose sorrows are the deepest.