(A french nightmare)
Each year at the end of summer a huge number of people, young, old, rich, poor, etc. travel from Portugal, Spain, Poland, Hungary, Belgium, etc. to France in order to make cash in the grape harvest.
Maybe you are thinking about doing the same or already did it. This is a quick note I wanted to leave you fellow hitchhikers about my experience this year. Your experience can be totally different from mine.
It was my first time and I came from Lisbon hitchhiking all the way to the Bourgogne region in the east of France.
I had got the contacts from a friend of a friend and I had heard lots of stories and read lots of books and therefore imagined some kind of romantic stay in a barn sleeping on hay and straw, drinking wine, falling in love with some the other young workers and so on. All the way I was anxious to see if that work was really so hard as everyone said, that I could not put up with it, or maybe I could, I do not practice any sport other than hitchhiking.
I started somewhere in the hot and dry Alentejo region at 5 pm at a small national road, feeling I neither had energy nor time to hitchhike. It’s one thing having to go 3000km, another thing is to cross Spain. I though I’d probably sleep there beside the road and it would take me half of the next day to get a ride, or maybe I’d take a bus to the next big city with a highway or pay the train, whatever.
This discouragement was due to half a year of almost no hitchhiking, some failed attempts and ugly situations with disgusting old men. I came back on the road after 6 month of being resident in which I think I changed a lot, I even didn’t attend this years Hitchgathering, because in some way I didn’t feel entirely part of the hitchhikers life and community anymore. Having a stable home opens possibilities to make different kind of friendships, to get involved in different kind of projects and I grew very fond of this stability over the winter.
The reasons why people do the grape picking jobs are diverse, for some and also for me it’s a mix of needing money (as quick as possible, without having to commit myself for a long time) and being curious for it is a cultural event that dates back to ancient history and had always had huge significance for people, for others it’s just the fun of it, the yearly routine, the friends, or even just curiosity.
It happens that in France workers are paid the minimum wage and this may mean twice or in some cases much more the amount people would be receiving in their countries of residence. In my case I was determined to work only in bio-, eco- or biodynamic- or some kind of these more environmental conscious enterprises, but only managed to get a place in a conventional one. They asked me to bring my birth certificate (they said even as EU citizen it was indispensable) which I didn’t have and had to order it from the municipality of my birthplace, which took time and in the end I didn’t know if they would let me work or not, because by the time I left Portugal the expensive document hadn’t arrived yet. All this is very complicated if you’re not proficient in French language.
So, I was standing by the road without hope, but after I had waited only 20 minutes I was living every Hitchhikers dream. I made about 900 km in one direct ride and with the loveliest driver. He was a surfer that came along in his old camper van, picking me up at this desert road. He was alone because his friends decided to stay in Portugal’s festivals and therefore happy for any company. At first I didn’t understand he was going all the way to France, also he didn’t understand me, because we were lacking a language in common, so we spoke a mix of fragmented English, French, Spanish, Portuguese and German, but mostly using the good old hand-and-feet-technique. He simply as that revived my faith in the road and the people. As it was already late afternoon he drove to a nearby lake to stay the night. It was weird, as a hitchhiker I am kind of used to these situations, I didn’t know this guy at all and had to decide whether I felt comfortable or not staying over night in the middle of nowhere. Of course I have huge faith in anyone who smiles at me and offers me a ride, and I think I have some kind of what people call intuition, but these skills have betrayed me a few times in the last month. Realizing that I was not standing by the side of the road anymore but having dinner with a stranger that is already my friend, living mutual trust and intimacy was beautiful. Sitting there in the almost dried out lake with cows and herons and huge grey stones that adapted forms of animals in our eyes sharing a joint and noodles with tomato sauce, Sagres beer, watching the sun set made me very happy. We stayed up playing Domino until late and I even learned to say the numbers in French.
The next morning we started driving in his old camping van 80km/h all the way across the desert of Spain, while he was even serving me fresh beer all the while and being sorry for going so slow and not making more breaks.
Two days later, after a night at the surfer’s beaches south of Bourdeaux and my driver having insisted in writing the cardboard sign for me and make a detour to leave me at a good spot, lots of hugs and kisses. After sleeping on a Park in Orange, hitchhiking to Dijon, meeting old friends who would come with me at the Quartier des Lentillères, (a huge collective gardening and living project) we finally arrived at the working place in Puligny-Montrachet.
We signed contracts (no one ever asked for birth certificates) in a office decorated with huge portraits of the boss and afterwards the boss himself spoke to all of us, with volunteers translating everything to Polish and Hungarian. He gave a speech saying more or less that we could be proud to work for his company, we were feeding 40 permanent workers, he had the best working conditions in the area, paying transport money and a 10% bonus if you hold on until the last day without complaining. The boss with his white hat, American English, never without cigarettes made a huge show. He explained that drinking and smoking joints was absolutely forbidden and if they’d see you doing this, you would have to leave the place immediately. It was hard to take him seriously because while he was saying that most of the workers were laughing and already drinking alcohol. He also explained that he had cero tolerance for people that left trash (plastic bottles, condoms, or ”rests of apples”) in the vineyards, also cero tolerance for vegetarians, which he repeated several times, considering himself awesomely funny.
We were about 80 workers, lots of different backgrounds and energies. The camping place, alias the place were the workers parked their cars was for free, there were also some dormitory beds, toilets and showers and three meals a day which cost around 15 Euros a day which I opted not to pay as it was meat everyday and they didn’t agree to let me pay less if I only ate soup and salad, nor did they let me use their kitchen. Instead of a romantic barn, there were security cameras everywhere.
After a night of little sleep because of the noise the party people made (which on the second day I decided to join and which later we didn’t mind because we were so tired from work that we slept right away) we started work at 7:20 in the morning, the big bus started honking shortly after 7 am, the driver having a lot of fun honking right when you passed it to go to the eating place. The breakfast did not deserve to be called breakfast and the coffee didn’t deserve to be named coffee. We were asked to form teams of six cutters and one porter. The porteur was the carrier of the big basket on his back where the cutters emptied their buckets full of grapes every 5-10 minutes and he then emptied on the truck at the end of the line. On the truck there were men who looked as if they had worked in the vendages all their lives. On the first days we usually worked 10 hours cutting green grapes and had small breaks every two hours and and a 1-2 hour lunch break.
Each time we arrived to a new field the bosses called the teams by their porteur´s name and indicated how many people had to do a line, “Bobo team“, “Nico team”,“par ici, par ici!” and soon they knew the names of all of us.
We all got burned by the sun which shone steadily with merciless 35 degrees on our heads and necks, after lunch at one thirty was the hardest time of the day. As a city kid, I really enjoyed being in the countryside, in the middle of a ocean of green, green lines that only ended behind the horizon where small hills and rocks elevated spotted with romantic ruins of castles covered with ivy and the villages in the valley with all the houses made with the same brown stones and church towers pointing to the sky, postcards of central Europe.
We were offered free water bottles by the bosses and supervisors who followed us on the heels to see that we left no single grape behind and probably got paid a lot more. If you bent down, the green labyrinth it is the perfect hiding place. So after finishing one line we drank half a liter and used the rest of the water to wet our bodies.
The fact that there were small teams gave an opportunity to get to know each other, to remember more or less the names, to talk and to form solidarity, carrying the buckets of our team members, handing over water bottles to everyone, helping the ones who were the last in finishing one line. But I could also feel a little of this dynamic of “us” and “them”, linked with “the Polish group”, “the Spanish group”, “the crazy Belgians” and stupid things like “team X always runs to get the green buckets for themselves”. The green buckets were the best, because you could sit on them while cutting and throw the grapes in it between you legs. People told stories of harvests with competitive systems that worked on the basis that you don’t collaborate with no one in order to get the bigger grapes as pay is made by kilos, the slowest teams send home, that must be really terrible.
“Allez! Allez!” The boss with his white cowboy hat made jokes like ”fast, fast, or I will have to get the whip”or “fast, fast, you can rest on the bus we will drive a long way to the next field”, then we drove less than 500 meters. Under these circumstances this was not funny at all. Everyone worked as fast as they could.
We learned by doing, there were different approaches, people had their own way to cut, to rip of the leaves, to bend or to knee, to crawl the fastest with their bucket and scissors. Some had knee protectors, some worked barefoot, some listened to music, or used the left hand to cut, when the right was tired.
The next time you drink a glass of it, remember the wine is made with blood, we repeatedly cut ourselves. Because of the green leaves the grapes that grow between leaves and the hidden wire are in camouflage. We cut with gardeners´ scissors, not with the wires (I don´t know the term) that were used in the past centuries. The bosses gave us some disinfectant and rubber gloves that were an opportunity to stop working for 5 minutes, the gloves left your hands like you´d let them soak it in water overnight, smelly. The cuts were usually not deep, but I was not sure about all the chemicals that found their way to my blood.
The second day we had lunch on the field, because we were too far away to drive home and come back within an hour. The food was white bread with very little of cheapest paté spread, cheapest potato chips and coca cola. After I complained they served at least some fruits, some cheese breads, but as also non-vegetarians took them there were never enough. There was no vegan options. I know now, I should have brought my own food, but it was too late, it was impossible, I was desperate and I was hungry.
Slowly I began to realize that this was kind of a social field experiment, we were in a situation that for many could be called extreme or at least extraordinary, cut away from the rest of the world in a village without Internet, and submitted to a “system” with its proper logic, pushing the limits of our comfort zones. It was on us to take advantage, learn, enjoy, to observe and analyse ourselves.
I am a person who likes to eat and is used to eat a lot to maintain my energy level and I had counted on the possibility to go dumpster diving in the village, or if not, to be able to buy my own food, but by the time we finished working (5-6 pm) and tried to get a ride to the next town with supermarket they already closed, the trash was usually empty or locked. If we were quick we had still 10 minutes to buy food quickly and say hello to all these dirty vendageurs from the surrounding villages buying their beer at carrefour. Me and my vegetarian friend bought kilos and kilos of couscous and many tins of cooked lentils and beans because we could not cook, but had hot water. Working makes you hungry and eating bad really affected my mood.
Nevertheless I really enjoyed the cold in the morning when the valley is covered in morning mist like clouds along the valleys, your hands feeling stiff from cold while you cut the first grapes of the day, then the heat that started merciless at 8 am, and the sweat and the sticky sweet grape juice that drops on you when you empty your bucket or that runs down your back when you walk the line uphill. I enjoyed sitting in the bus and feeling the social connection of 50 people that are going through the same shit. There happened also some crazy water fights, grape fights, mud fights. I kind of enjoyed having a rhythm of working, eating, sleeping, even if I lacked time for myself. I loved seeing the sunrises, actually never in my life I saw 12 sunrises in a row.
The mix of people was the most interesting. In our team we were 5, not 6 cutters as the others, but we had Lucille, a beautiful girl full of energy that cut three times as fast as the average cutter. She told us that each year she says it’s the last time, but in the end she comes back. Usually we worked two people per line and Lucille one by herself. At the same time she seemed very shy and modest. We kept telling ourselves (and her) to work slower as we were paid by hour, but it was impossible as everyone worked fast and the fastest teams then helped the slowest. There were the hermanos Lopez in whose family I felt included, and Emy who was rather quiet, but a powerful backup carrying our buckets and a nice company for a beer after work. From her I learned to swear in French. Nico, our porteur and therefore the teams´ representative, was always smiling, helping, singing and drinking for everyone. He, the mole, was almost blind which led to some tragic-funny situations, like when he wanted to help us cutting and in the first movement cut his finger in a way that made all the blood spill on his T-shirt. In our team we spoke a mix of mexican Spanish and French with a Liège dialect. The people from Poland I met there were the most humble ones, they wouldn’t complain even if treated really bad. There were people who make 5 harvests one after another. Many of them had kids at home and needed the quick money. There were people putting on make-up and wearing evening dresses and there were others who really enjoyed being there and would do the vendange even without getting paid. I looked at them questioning myself, why could I just not feel the same?
I was feeling already homesick, but the worst for me was when I discovered the glyphosate containers on the buses. Naïve as I was I thought that it was long forbidden in France and the EU and only applied at genetically modified (and made resistant) soy beans in South America and China. Specially because we were harvesting highest quality grapes. But I was wrong. Of course, how can you keep hundreds of hectares of monoculture free of any plants that are not wanted? ¿ Worse I felt when talking to the others I was most of them had never heard about it and the rest didn’t care. I remember hearing news about glyphosate intoxicated ground water and suspiciously rising cancer rates for at least ten years. Glyphosate (N-(phosphonomethyl)glycine) is a broad-spectrum systemic herbicide. Scientific evidence is controversial, but in March 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic in humans” (category 2A) based on epidemiological studies, animal studies, and in vitro studies. On the vans that carried our buckets there were several containers of Monsanto’s glyphosate gold, filled with water. I don’t know if anyone drank it, but people cleaned their hands with it and then ate their apples. We found a brochure of the producer with indications, I showed it to the boss the text where it clearly says “do no re-use recipients” because it’s highly concentrated acid used to be diluted to spread it on the fields. He just shrugged his shoulders and my team complained that I was risking the 10% bonus pay for the whole team.
Working the lines usually there was little to talk. Sometimes everyone concentrated, some were calculating all the time, calculating the minutes it needed to fill a bucket, the money we made, the money the bosses made, the hours of work, the number of days left. Sometimes we worked with other teams and had nice talks making new friends. I felt the need to sing some old cotton pickers songs, or the international hymn, but I didn’t know the lyrics of either. Some people were singing though, everyone´s favorite was “I cut the grapes, and sometimes I cut my finger, too” in the melody of Bob Marley’s I shot the sheriff.
Someone said that the richest village of all France is in this area and our boss also owned a 4 star hotel in the village where mostly Japanese tourists came taking pictures of us which offended me but at the same time I thought of all the European tourists taking pictures of workers in other countries (it’s hard not to think in terms of countries). Anyway the boss”s wife taking pictures of us offended me more and I always hid. The most famous Burgundy wines produced there are the white Chardonnay wines. The grapes, mostly “premier cru” vinyards, produced there are very expensive, they sell a bottle for more than one hundred Euros, so be careful not to forget a grape, it´s obvious that they have more value than you, your knees, your back, your time, and your dignity.
And now for something related to the most human of necessities, to bring it to the point and spell it out: there was no time to shit, in the mornings there was a queue at the eating room toilet, and in the vineyard it was very hard to find a minute to hide away even to pee. But then people again told about grape picking in the Champagne were there was no such thing as a eating room, or dixie-toilets and everything was fine again.
At dinner, when they would give wine to everyone for free, usually we ate our couscous and waited until the “normal eaters” were finished in order to ask for leftover salad and bread. Usually everyone would offer it, but if the boss saw us, he would say that the salad had to be be thrown away rather than be given to people who were not paying for it. Also we were forced to sit at the boss’s table to eat. I ate as fast as I could to escape the tension there. The psychological side of these things was tricking us all, at least that is what I felt. My body got used to the work, my mind didn’t. No one had as many problems as I did, with authority and what I felt was a big offense on dignity and respect.
I was feeling down and more than once seriously considered leaving and rejecting the 10% bonus.
One day our saviour appeared, he just came walking by, a tall boy with black curly hair, glancing eyes and a big smile, Juan from Perú was working at another wine maker in the same village. He just came to bring us some vegetables from his garden, prepare a big salad and drink tea together. He is living at a farm in a small village in the Pyrenees and invited us to come by after all the work was done. Good to know that there are these down to earth people that have this capability to make you feel at home.
Some people were spending all the amount they were earning on alcohol for the parties, some drank even in the mornings when we sipped the watery coffee from soup plates in lack of cups, they would put whiskey in ice tea bottles to drink at 8 in the morning on the bus. Some people took muscle relaxers, pain killers or other kind of doping. And the bus driver having fun making the vehicle jump up and down. Someone took red mud and wrote “Grape me, grape me my friend” on our tour bus.
Eating time for me was the worst, it was being in the “boca del lobo”. I even started discussions at the bosses´ table, where they usually asked me “it´s nice to do the harvest here, isn´t it?” and I answered honestly saying I didn´t feel well, which they interpreted as “of course for someone that young who has never worked before it can be quite hard”. Then I talked about capitalism and agriculture with the second boss, it was so previsible that I won’t repeat it here. He looked at me from above with a paternalist smile, giving me tips for my life as “you know, you always have to have a goal”, his daughter was my age but doing a PhD or something.
One of us was becoming a father while he was working, comunicating with his girl friend in the hospital with his phone and then showing the picture of the newborn around. Poor guy, I think he didn´t get much sleep those days.
One day we drove far (40 minutes paid time we could sleep on the bus) and uphill in hidden and surreal place in between forests and rocks and did some lines that were very steep and long. The boss (who was at least 70 years old) had even brought his son, who was 7, to play with us. There were rumors that it was the second last day, but we never really knew, but people were happier and everyone was decorating their straw hats with flowers from the village. The last day there was the big party, big tradition in the vendanges. We had to stay for the party, because the pay was only the day after. The next morning we got up before sunrise as always and started working lines when at 10 o´clock the bus driver suddenly put on a dress, a wig and make up and put balloons under his T-shirt, embodying what the polish call kurwa, walking up and down the lines of the vineyard, homophobic, transphobic, sexist and whatelse, in other words just stupid and shortsighted humor. Even the old men from the tractors filmed the scene with their mobile phones. We didn´t understand anything, but then the boss took my scissors and told me “you don´t need this anymore” and we got it. It was over.
Finished! Such a great relief. It was like the feeling you have when you reach the top of a mountain. Your knees give in, you feel less weight and are happy! On the way back everyone was shouting and singing on the bus. Free time, time to read, draw, sleep, talk or go to the toilet without looking at the clock, giving massages to each other. Wow!
What did I learn?
I got more conscious to care where my food comes from, in general.
Always someone will tell you about worse working conditions, nevertheless protest against bad ones, even if for future worker generations!
I got more active informing people on Monsanto/GMOs/”food security”.
The body (at least mine) gets along quite well with this kind of work, but my mind does not with disrespect, boredom and injustice
During that day the boss came over to me, he clearly remembered me, two or three times and announced (in French), that tonight there will be special food for vegetarians and for free.
We still had to clean the bus, 5 of us did the whole work, which took us hours because it was full of mud. On this last day, the boss even showed us the cave, the „factory“ and explained the different steps, telling us how many hectars he owned and everything.
In the evening the factory hall was converted with tablecloth, the workers wore suits and served expensive wine (Rully) in the good glasses and appetizers. Everyone pulled out their evening dresses except me and my team who went barefoot and dirty. It was a strange and powerful atmosphere. I kind of felt sorry for having been so rude to the bosses, I was almost crying when I saw the big hall decorated with flowers and printed pictures of us at the walls, good plates and cutlery, bottles of the good wine on each table, a DJ set, speakers and a screen were the same pictures were projected. They were actually saying “thank you” to us and even had a special table with the sign “vegetarians”. I was feeling really sorry and thought I had judged the whole company wrong.
Later I knew, they were not stupid in setting the party before the pay.
What happened then was that they were serving the food, cooked by a invited chef, it was something french, first pastel with snails, then duck, and something else and then desert. We, the vegetarians waited, waited and waited, the others went with the duck, until someone served us tuna, left overs from the day before. No one of us ate anything, we were 12 vegetarians, the other than until then had hidden somewhere, I don´t know. Then we waited and waited, the carnivorous already finished desert, but there was no more food for us. I don´t remember anything else. I was furious, I got up and went to sleep in the cold tent where of course I dreamt about green grapes.
They told me later that what followed was a big show moderated by the boss people were called by names and received T-shirts with the name of the boss, according to how many years they did the harvest, there were additional presents, a 22 year old girl that comes since 5 years got a polo T-shirt with the name of the boss, some that are there for 5 or 10 years got an umbrella and a plate with the name of Olivier Leflaive printed, and so on. Then there was a big disco lasting until the morning with a DJ playing It´s raining men and Britney Spears with a doorman taking care no one would steal anything.
Pay day uuh, finally! We all pilgrimaged to the office with Olivier´s portraits. The waiting room seemed like a dentist´s and waited.
Everyone who came out was very disappointed. First of all, according to the experienced of us it was around 20% less than people earned last year, which was probably due to more taxes or maybe the food was more expensive, who knows. But a lot worse than the amount was the inequality, some of us received the bonus, others (me) didn´t, without explanation. Same with the transport money. Some of us went to talk or to demand at least a justification, but they were told not to complain or else not to come back next year. I´ve seen the calmest people get really angry and upset. For me, I had already exhausted my emotions in the last days, so it didn´t really get close to me anymore.
Everything what was over the 35 hours of the French working week was supposed to be 25% more pay and Sundays 50% more. We counted on that as it figured in the contracts we were given, but they just counted different, out of two worked Sundays they made one and so on.
They gave everyone 3 bottles, with a worth of about 50 Euros in total, and we couldn´t chose the money instead. The alcoholism went to a next level, as some drank the three expensive bottles of wine in the morning to help fight the hangover. I have never seen people that drunk, they were just crawling on the ground. The hours we spent cleaning the bus were also not paid, contrary to what someone had said.
In the end it´s not worth the anger, as it is still quite a lot of money, for me that I live in the south of Europe and don´t have children. Also it´s true that there are millions of people who work like that all year round and the money they make is barely enough to survive.
The thing I initially wanted to write about here is my assumption that it is the vendanges which keep hitchhiking in french territory alive and maybe this can be said for anywhere where there’s vineyards or fruitpicking, handmade farm work in general? Thanks to the vendanges, in the beginning of September every dirty hobo is given a ride, and drivers usually ask to show them your hands with the scars and wounds and then they smile and say when they were young they used to do the same.
What followed was some days carrying our backpacks and 3 kilos of wine and trying to sell it in Dijon and some villages. In the end we left it with our friends at the Quartier des Lentillers.
In the end the harvest is an opportunity to get to know people you will remember, there were strong personalities, Cedric, Lucile, Nico, Emy and my dear brothers Lopez. Lucile had to leave to the next harvest and didn´t see me to to say goodbye so she left me a message carved by stone in my carton wine box. Grande Lucile! Big hugs and email changing. The girl that drove us to the next village told us she just knew she was pregnant and her boyfriend opened his expensive wine and shouted all over the village.
I learned a lot about myself and others and what a little bit of what it means to “be a worker”. I am happy to have made this experience, but I doubt that I will want to repeat next year. I prefer to help my friends harvesting the olive trees of their grandparents without getting paid. I’m curious about other fruit picking experiences.
For the next time I learned to be prepared and wrote down some essential tips:
be very careful in choosing where to go, google the place, try to talk with people that have already worked there
study and if needed discuss the contract
be prepared to bring you own kitchen and food, sun protection and gloves
P.S.: Hitchhiking back was great, we even passed “Hitchhing road” (see picture). I am happy to sleep in a bed and have shelter from the rain, and being at home.