Detox in Normandy

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Rodin sculpture, capturing my frame of mind early in this latest journey

It was 4 a.m. and my head was resting on the table at an all-night restaurant in The Hague, my ears still ringing from the bar where we had just been dancing. I was so desperately tired that when one friend mentioned an after-hours party, I pleaded for mercy. "Please, please take me home and let me go to sleep. I need sleep. I have to sleep. I'm begging you." The three of us had been going for 14 hours at that point, and this was day four of too much fun and not enough sleep. My friends have family commitments, hold down day jobs! How do they do it? It was clear that I was outclassed. I was in over my head. I had stumbled onto the express party train, when I can only handle the local.

Just a few days later, the world was a different place as I took the regional train to a small Normandy town for two weeks of good, clean farm living. I signed up as a volunteer with WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) to help out at an organic garden specializing in herbs, salads, and edible flowers.

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The field in the morning, still a little misty

The farm's owners, Mike and Renate (who are not French at all, but English and German, respectively), showed me to my room, tucked under the eaves of their lovely old stone farmhouse. I would be fed and sheltered in exchange for my labor in the fields and greenhouses. I would work hard. I would eat well, and sleep long. They would take care of me. Life would be simple, scheduled, healthy. I sat on the clean, spartan futon that first day, overwhelmed with gratitude, exhaustion, I don't know what all--and tears streamed down my face.

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The Hewitt's restored farmhouse. It dates back to either the 18th or the 19th century.

From my journal, August 9:

"Worked in the garden from 8:00 until 1:00, and from about 2:30 until 4:00. My hands feel hot and sore, and my knees are a bit raw. Being out in the field is so soothing--I feel sheltered from the decadence of recent life by the quiet, the jewelled colors of the leaves, the sun and the breeze. The colors in the garden are so vivid that the scene reminds me of some kind of underwater picture, with limey greens and magentas, and inky dark purples.

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Flowers: beautiful and tasty!

"I weeded. First, I cleared around a patch of red leaf lettuce. Then I weeded two really unusual crops: a land-based algae that looks like a thick, dark green, delicately ferny sea plant; and a succulent plant with a slightly furry surface, thick but not as thick as an ice plant, and bluish green in color. Its edges are slightly ruffled. Both of these are Asian greens, and Renate says they go well with fish." [Mike and Renate will be shaking their heads as they read this; I cannot remember these plant names. Hopeless.]

August 10:

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The tunnel, where I did much of my work

"It rained today, and I worked in 'the tunnel,' a long greenhouse-like structure that's open on the sides, but roofed over with plastic sheeting. The tunnel shelters three long rows of crops from the elements--and it sheltered me from the rain today. The raindrops pattered on the roof. I did some weeding around the tomato plants, and I also completely cleared a bed almost the whole length of the tunnel. Then, even as it rained outside, I watered. Mike said today was the first real precipitation they have had all season. At 4:00 p.m., after a full day of rain, the soil was still dry less than two centimeters below the surface.

"We had a spinach, tomato, and chevre puff pastry pie for lunch. Late in the afternoon, the rain tapered off and the three of us drove to the home of some of their friends. There, Mike collected some manure from the paddock where they keep two donkeys--Raku and Hyssop--which he will use later in his own garden. Meanwhile, Renate and I picked black currants from half a dozen bushes taller than we were, heavy with ripe, black fruit. We filled two bowls with currants, and I'll use most of them to make a black currant tart.

"Today I learned that arugula is also called rocket, and that there is a perennial variety of it. Tiny, starlike yellow flowers float on long stems above the peppery, fingery leaves. Right now I am sitting in the living room, listening to the old clock tick. This end of the house is very quiet. I am feeling much more solid today. I am reminded of how much the passage of time affects my outlook. How I feel about life works just like the weather. You know the expression: if you don't like it, just wait. It will change!"

August 14:

"More rain today. I trimmed the sorrel and marjoram, cleared more weeds around the tomatoes, and nipped the dead heads off the marigolds. In the evening, we went to a nearby village and attended a paella dinner and movie night at the town's Salon de Fete (every town has one--this one looked like any American Moose Lodge or fire hall, but with twinkly lights hung in the rafters.) I peeked in the kitchen door while the cooking was going on, just as the chef was adding a full grocery sack of clams to the mix. The paella pan must have been three feet across, with four handles, one at each compass point. We sat at a long table with some of Mike and Renate's friends, and other village locals. With his usual dry, British wit, Mike called this a gathering of deepest, darkest Normandy: plain, strong faces. Work-worn hands. Practical cardigan sweaters and no-nonsense haircuts, with a few ladies making exceptions and wearing fancy dresses and hairdos for the occasion. Children ran around the room while parents sat with food and wine at the long tables for two noisy, convivial hours." 

August 15:

"I planted some new seeds in starter flats. I worked at a formica counter in one of the farm's several stone outbuildings, under the yellow glow of a lamp clipped up on the wall, powered by a long extension cord running out the door to the little greenhouse down the path. The rain beat down on the roof. A transistor radio murmured BBC news as I dropped three tiny lettuce seeds into each cell of damp soil. I tried not to itch the spot on my wrist where a red ant gave me a couple of sharp stings while I was weeding earlier. The ant got caught in the cuff of my glove. Later I asked Renate about it, and she showed me a plant that I could have rubbed on the sting to cut the reaction immediately. It was a plant that I had been stepping all over, that grows as strong as iron right on the garden path.

"Mike and Renate told great stories about the volunteers they've had over the years. They've been cultivating this piece of land for about 15 years, and inviting volunteers for nearly that whole time. There was the lady who claimed to be 59 on her application, but must have actually been north of 70. She had a posh British accent and fancied herself a dandelion expert. She applied again the following year, still claiming to be 59. Then there was the Korean princess with an eating disorder. One day she told Mike she did not like what he was cooking for dinner before she knew what he was going to make. She kept asking if she could just eat something 'later,' and Renate finally told her, 'No. What would your mother think?' Plenty of rotund, easily exhausted Americans have come through; couples who have to be given jobs on different parts of the property so that he stops trying to 'help' her; and a hard-working Canadian who keeps being welcomed back, though he always eats absolutely everything in the house."

August 18:

"Oh, I will sleep well in just a minute. Today I picked amaranth, shiso (red and green), lemon verbena, magenta, and perennial buckwheat. Earlier, I cleared about a third of another row in the tunnel. My biceps and back are sore. My fingers are sore, and stained red from the magenta leaves. I found a baby hornet spider crawling up the underside of the wheelbarrow when I dumped a load of weeds on the compost pile. The big stripey mama spider disappeared from her web a few days ago--well, almost all of her disappeared. One of her legs was left tangled in the web."

August 19:

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Green and purple basil

"Today, I spread compost, raked, and watered the bed that I'd cleared. I weeded the basil out in the field, and I cleared a path next to a field row that was overgrown with, among other things, stinging nettle. Long sleeves made no difference. My forearms are still tingly, many hours later. The last two days have been sunny and spectacularly blue, clear, postcard-pretty. We sat around the dinner table until around 10:30, with Daisy the cat in my lap. It feels great to be tucked in bed, clean, warm, and sleepy."

At the end of two weeks, I was ready to go. I'd gotten just what I needed: a regular schedule of hard work, delicious and healthy food, and plenty of sleep. The repetitive nature of the garden work and family life is exactly what makes Mike and Renate's operation work so well--and it was starting to get to me. My three weeks in Europe ended up being beautifully balanced: a week of gleeful urban excesses, followed by two healthy, orderly weeks in the moody, lovely Normandy countryside. To discover balance, one must lean first to one side, and then the other. Cementing both feet down in the safe, predictable middle is not going to do it: not at all. In these three weeks, I reached to one extreme, and to the other, and I found a measured middle.

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