21 January 2008

"Doing" the vines

At 8:40 this morning I was standing in front of the sink, washing up a few dishes that wouldn't fit in the dishwasher, when I heard the horn blow. That's Roselyne, the bread lady, who toots the horn of her little white van when she gets here. She was about 20 minutes earlier than usual. I hadn't even opened the roll-down shutter on the kitchen window yet.

Walt was out walking the dog so I had to rinse and dry my hands, grab some change, and stumble downstairs to get our daily baguette. Roselyne was sitting in front of the gate working on her fingernails with an emery board. That's the first time I've seen her do that. She seemed to be thinking about something.

The vines in the foreground of this picture haven't been
trimmed. I assume the work will be done before spring.

« Bonjour, Monsieur ! », she chirped. She calls me Monsieur but then she uses tu, not vous when she talks to me. On Saturday, she had told me that she and her husband were making the three-hour drive that afternoon to go down to supervise some work being done on the old house they are restoring in the Auvergne region, very near where Callie came from.

I think they just had a septic system put in. She told me a week or two ago that the septic tank was the first priority, because when they go down there for a few days or a week, not having adequate toilet facilities gets old really fast. They can do without a kitchen right now, she said, since there are cafés and restaurants not too far away.

« Ça s'est bien passé là-bas samedi et dimanche ? » I asked, politely inquiring about their weekend trip and activities. Yes, she said with a smile, we got a lot of work done. In fact, I think all I do is work these days. The house project, my bread rounds, and today I start doing the vines — « je commence à faire les vignes. »

I asked her what she meant by "doing" the vines. Trimming them, she said. Cutting off the sarments. I thought the sarment de vigne was the thick, heavy stem or trunk of the vine, but I just looked it up and it means the "vine shoots" — the long canes that they carefully trim back every winter, usually leaving just one or two slender branches for the next season's growth. We see people doing that in the vineyard out back all winter.

Vines trimmed and ready for the new growing season

"Do you cut them off and then burn them?" I asked her. Oh no, she said, when you burn them you go home smelling like a fireplace. I just cut them and stack them between the rows of vines.

I asked her why some people burn the trimmings and others don't. Because they did it that way in the old days — autrefois — she said. But nowadays, with the equipment the grape-growers have, it's a lot easier just to stack the trimmings down the rows and then send out a big grinding machine that runs up and down the rows and pulverizes the sarments. I didn't think to ask her if they just deposit the resulting sawdust back on the ground or if they haul it away.

« Alors, bon courage », I told her. Oh, I like the work, Roselyne said. When it's not raining and it's not cold, like right now, I can spend the afternoon out there by myself, just clipping and stacking. It's nice. When it starts to get dark, I go home. Some days, when he can, my husband comes and helps me.

I asked her if she listened to the radio. She said she had done that, but she gets tired of it pretty fast. She said she doesn't like to wear écouteurs — headphones or ear buds — because then she can't hear what's going on and she risks being surprised by a dog or a wild boar! She said she'd rather just listen to the birds singing.

« Je suis payée à la pièce, » she said — it's "piece work." In other words, they pay me for each hectare I do (a hectare is 2½ acres). That way, I work as long as I feel like it and then I quit for the day.

Here you can see the trimmings stacked up and down the rows.
They arrange them up and down every other row so that
they can walk up and down the other rows to do the work.

I asked her if she worked in the vineyards in our village or over in hers, which is called Couffy. Neither one, she says. A lot of the growers have their regular workers. The one I work for is in Pouillé — that's the next village up the road from ours, about five miles from here. There are wine villages all along the Cher River from east of Saint-Aignan down to Chenonceaux.

So there's an example a Frenchwoman who works at least two jobs, both of them part-time. That's life in the country, I think.


  1. fascinating. there's a subtheme in your account of her idea that she is free of supervision or bosses. am i right, or is this a mirage of cyberspace? the image of her filing her nails while walking the fine line of monsieur/tu is also very intriguing. thank you.

  2. This is a most interesting "moment of the day"...French baguette delivered at the door by the lady ""doing" the vines", conversing at leisure, avec le monsieur, about her work "à la pièce". Vocal painting-à-la-Millet.

    Thank you also for your photos of the vines.

  3. Thanks for the interesting post. You manage to get a lot of detail out of a conversation and then post it for all of us to share. Love it!


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