The Harvest was a lot of painful manual labor, the food was just average, and it was sometimes really hard to understand the language. Sounds like something I'd never want to do again, right? Well, no actually. It was probably the most connected I've ever felt to a group in my life. There's a special quality to being on a harvest team that it took me a while to understand, but it something that brings everyone together. Now that I've been away from it for a few weeks, I find myself strangely longing to go back and toil in the mud with an aching back again.
The thing about working the grape harvest is that it's way more than farming to french people. They even have their own word for the grape harvest-- Vendange. La recolte is the real word for harvest, but Vendange refers to only the harvesting of grapes, to be used to make wine. Wine is part of everyday life in France, and working the harvest is something a lot of people do. The closest thing I can think to compare it to is the Israeli military service, although it's not required by law. But it's something a lot of people do, and it brings them together into a team to do something that is traditional and very French. We don't really have anything like this in the US that I can think of, so it's hard to describe, but let's see if I can in the rest of this post.
The realization hit me on about day 5, as I was cutting grapes and tossing them into my bucket. The way this works is you normally cut the vines that are on your left side. Everyone cuts to the left so that way no one doubles up on a row by accident. The person to my right in the next row of vines was leaning pretty far over to cut a bunch of grapes on my right, in his row. He was cutting the grapes over my bucket, so instead of bringing all those grapes all the way back over to his row to drop them in his bucket, he just dropped them in my bucket. My first response was to think a bunch of typically American thoughts, something along the lines of, "hey that's my bucket!" After all, I'd have to shove that bucket ahead every time I needed to move up my row, and eventually I'd need to hoist those grapes up for the porter, while the other person's bucket would be that much lighter.
But as I thought about it, I realized it really didn't matter that much. So I had to lift a little more, big deal. The end result, and the important thing, was that the other person got to work a little bit more efficiently. If he had to cut one bunch and bring it all the way over to his bucket, then go back 3 or 4 more times to do the same, it would take way longer for him to finish his row. It's more efficient to just cut and drop, cut and drop.
This started me thinking about whether or not it really mattered how quickly we finished the harvest. I mean, we all got paid the same amount per day right? It's not like we got paid by how many grapes we cut. But then I realized that people there cared about doing the work well. It wasn't because they'd make more money, or get some kind of special individual recognition for being the best worker. They just wanted to work hard and be part of the team. I realized that this is not really something I've ever personally encountered in the US. Not in this way anyway. I think most of the American way of life is too individualistic to allow something like this to happen (or maybe I'm just jaded, you tell me). In America you're supposed to go out and make something for yourself, rise above the others and stake out your part of the dream. In reality I think a lot of times that turns into figuring out how to keep everyone else down around you. This harvest thing seemed to be different though. I started to look back on a lot of the things I'd observed throughout the harvest and see them in a different light. Here's a list of things that pointed out to me that there's something special going on with this grape harvest thing:
- No one ever slacked off. Think back on all the jobs you've ever worked in the states, manual labor or not. There's always someone who everyone thinks is a slacker, right? Never happened at the harvest, not once. Sure, there were people that were slower cutters than others (I was one of them on more than one occasion), but those people were working as hard they could. And no one cared if someone was slow because they knew everyone was working their hardest. There was one exception to this, which underlines this point. When we all finished a section of vines, there was always a brief pause in the work. At one of these pauses, as we finished off the last few vines, several people were standing waiting for the rest to finish. Our boss saw this and reprimanded us. It was the first and only time she had to say anything. She told us it was not right for some to stand and rest while others were working, and that we should help finish the rest of the vines and then everyone could rest together. We worked together, we rested together, always. I think that this one slip up was really just a collective mental error, rather than people trying to slack off. Once we realized the mistake, it never happened again. There were plenty of times when people could have slacked off and the boss never would have noticed. But no one even thought twice about it.
- When the porters came to collect the pickers' grapes, they'd thank the picker for dumping the grapes in. Really the pickers were just doing their job, and a job that made the porters pretty darn miserable, as I saw later on! But they thanked them sincerely. Because we were a team, and by throwing that heavy weight on the porter's shoulders, the pickers were helping the team.
- There was one guy on our team who was Polish, and didn't speak a single word of French. But no one excluded him because of this. In fact they made every effort to make him feel at home. On Sunday, our day off, this guy was feeling really ill with some kind of gastrointestinal problem. While all of us lounged at the beach, our boss took him to see some Polish farmers that lived near by so he could be comforted with some food and a language he knew on his day off. She did this not being able to communicate with him in any way. She spoke no English or Polish, and he spoke no French. She just did whatever she could to help him, because she knew he was part of the team.
- On Saturday night, we went to a party in the town of Viellé-Morgon. The party was at a bar in the town center, with a band playing outside. You could buy beers from the bar, or you could bring your own, and there was a park right next to the bar, so there was room enough for as many people as could possibly come. Everyone there was a Vendangeur (grape harvest worker). This party was the most extreme example of exuberance and pure happiness I've ever been a part of. I've been to some pretty wild parties in the states, but I'm telling you there was something different about this vibe. Everyone, down to the last single person, was ecstatically happy. There was no worry about anything. I really don't think I can put it into words, but it was a representation of this special harvest energy I'm trying to communicate.
- Everyone was always happy with everyone else. Doesn't it seem a little unusual to think that with 20 people working and sleeping so close to each other non-stop for 10 days, that no conflicts would develop? That's why reality TV is so successful right? But not at the harvest. Not one single argument, fight, squabble, or disagreement. Amazing right? That's the harvest.
- On the first night, our boss showed us a sheet with the rules on it, which were of course all in French. I didn't think much of it, because I never saw anyone else read it. I figured it was probably a bunch of bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo that wasn't really ever enforced anyway. You know, things like the typical corporate code of conduct:Employees will refrain from using the internet for purposes other than the direct needs of the corporation or, Employees' behavior must always reflect positively on the image of the company when working on company property. But when I later took time to read the rules, I was found I was wrong. They were the most happy-go-lucky rules I've ever seen. There was a rule about how everyone needed to help clean up the table after dinner. And how we needed to help keep the bathrooms and showers tidy. There was even a rule that work in the fields must be done with a smile at all times, because harvest workers should always be happy! The thing is, no one needed to read these rules, they did all these things naturally anyway. Because there's something special about being part of a harvest team.
It might seem like what I've described is some kind of utopian ideal society. Well, yes, it is kind of like that. There a crazy feeling of equality going on. Even the bosses ate the same food, and basically did the same work. They never sat around and watched us pick. If they had nothing else to do they dove right in and cut right next to us. It seems like a more tribal way of being to me, where whatever is needed is provided by the group and no one is ever left hung out to dry by themselves. At least that what they taught me tribal societies were like in social work school.
In the end, I really liked feeling part of a society like this. Would I want to live like that all the time? No way! But it really is an amazing thing to experience, and I find myself thinking I might be trying to do it again next year.