I have to admit, there have been a few moments in the last five months when I have finally felt like I was starting to make some headway in the community: Cider left on the windowsill; The first time the old man in the yellow Renault waved to me after so many times driving by without turning his head; The time the lady next door loaned me her fourche á bêcher after watching me struggle in the garden all day; Getting compliments from neighbors I had never met about how happy they were about all the work finally being done on the house and how great it looks… small things, but they mean so much to me.
Today though, I learned really just how much is stacked up in my favor here, and how much I have to live up to. It had already been fairly daunting watching the 80-something year old lady next door out do me in just about every way possible: Her bulbs bloomed earlier and more plentiful than mine just a few meters away. Her garden was dug and weeded in a matter of days while it took three lazy Americans working on and off for more than two weeks to get mine dug. Hers is bigger, and sure to bear a more bountiful harvest, be just a little greener, and will certainly always have just a little edge that only years of experience can bring. I watched ruefully day after day as the manure fairy showed up while no one was looking and fertilized all the other garden plots in the commune – save mine. Next year, I thought; I’ll get some next year…
It’s hard to explain, but the French are cautious people. Friendships slow to form, but are honest and concrete and are formed the same way the land is worked – one step at a time following nature’s unspoken rhythm. One other important point to this story: Gardening is serious business here. It’s not just a past-time for retirees or housewives, but rather it’s looked upon as an essential part of life. It’s a matter of survival; to live from the land, and to put food on the table.
I broke the first ground on my small (by French standards) garden plot just more than two months ago. I started with a rocky, grass covered patch of land which had been fallow for more than three years since the woman who owned it prior had fallen ill and could not work it any longer. I was working by hand; alone- with no one to give advice or offer a roto-tiller to do the hard part. But, slowly I carved my way through the hardened and neglected dirt, digging weeds, turning the soil again and again a few feet at a time. Friends have come and gone, and each has given invaluable help and energy toward making it happen.
I had just come home in the early afternoon and was elbow deep in apples in the process of baking a pie, when someone knocked on the door. “Oui, Entrez.” A neighbor whom I recognized, but had never spoken with walked in. I couldn’t shake his hand since mine was covered in Crisco from kneading the pie crust, but we exchanged greetings and I offered him a drink. He explained that he was cutting down some trees that ran along the border that separated his property from mine and that some of the smaller branches were falling on my side of the fence. I reflected briefly about how a few weeks earlier Clint and I had struggled with the same trees cutting back what branches we could with a small pair of clippers and a wobbly ladder to let just a bit more light through. He said he just wanted to let me know and asked if I wanted him to pick up the branches. I told him not to worry about it, “C’est pas de problem,” and that I would take care of picking them up and burning them but asked him to please pay attention as there was a garden there. “Mais Oui, Of course. I know there’s a garden there which is why we are cutting the trees.”
Wait: I planted a garden on my side of the fence, and he was cutting his trees, (planted long before the strange American ever showed up) so that they wouldn’t block the sun from nourishing my plants. I tried to place this somewhere in my bank of American cultural understanding but I couldn’t quite make it fit.
I was taken aback. Wow. “Merci.” I couldn’t think of anything more to say… I wasn’t sure if I had understood him correctly. “Ah non, thank you.” He said. Thank Me? Just for picking up the smaller branches that had fallen on my side of the fence? I was dumbfounded. I weekly thanked him again and tried to protest that such drastic measures were not at all necessary, but he brushed it off. “C’est normal,” was the response, “And do you need any manure for your garden perhaps?” AHA! The notorious manure fairy unmasked at last! Of course I wanted some- I’d only been waiting for-ever for someone to offer. I thanked him over and over again, but it was he who got the last Merci in somehow… Somehow I was the one being thanked.
So, it was arranged that since I was going out he would leave some manure near the doorstep next time he passed with the tractor. I left and the event slipped my mind for much of the evening. It wasn’t until I turned the corner on to the street when it hit me: I noticed a trail of black gold scattered about leading to my doorstep and an absolutely enormous pile of beautiful steaming shit piled in front of my door. It was a glorious moment. I certainly didn’t expect him to leave near that much. I stepped out of the car and felt something squishy under my Converse. I let out a yell. Not a vulgarity that would slip out when a sneaker meets dog crap on the sidewalk, but some ecstatic cry from deep inside. I looked up at the moon and the stars, and at the tiny stone houses bathed in darkness and moonlight and started to laugh hysterically. I couldn’t stop. It was just beautiful… This was it. This is what I had been waiting for. THIS is why I am here.
Sometimes self-realization comes in strange packages… this time, mine happened to come in the form of a giant pile of cow manure. Planting a garden had unintentionally given me permanence and established some kind of credibility with the neighbors. I had unwittingly turned this foreign place into that-thing-we-call-home and was no longer just the strange American guy who showed up one day and was too shy to introduce himself. I was now the strange American guy who was here to stay, who was working the same land that they were, and who now had the strangest lawn ornament on the block…