France

going into great detail regarding mundane details of farm life

This was meant to be a short post because I had to go back to tackling Macroeconomics but it got away from me, so I added some photos to make it seem less tl;dr.

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I discovered embarrassingly recently that contrary to all I have said and thought and assumed, I am not even close to being in the south of France. I am not even in the center. I am actually in the north. This bummed me out for a couple of days – and explains why the weather hasn’t been as warm as I’ve hoped (and tricked myself into believing, partly due to being unable to read the diagrams in the French weather forecasts). Still, it hovers at a respectable 8-11 deg C, and after watching smug French reports on England’s tragic blackberry winter (new phrase I just Googled: it’s the opposite of an Indian summer), I accept the northern France climate with minimum complaint.

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I must also be dumber than a horse (or more impervious to pain? Unlikely, though) because the other day I pressed my body against the live, electrified fence surrounding the horses and did not even realize until a good thirty seconds later. I’d fed the horses in the morning and mucked out the stables, too, but in the afternoon after weeding the garden a little I was asked to leave the garden debris in the horses’ stables and I forgot about switching off the electricity (since it wasn’t in my routine and I’m stupid that way). I leant over the fence to drop the bucket and it was a good while before I even realized that my thigh and arm were twitching weirdly. Initially, I even thought it was muscle ache from bending for a good hour while weeding, and then it kept going on, whereupon it dawned on me that oh hey, that’s electricity I’m feeling! and then it still took me a few seconds to move away from the fence. Not my brightest moment, really. The plus side though, clearly the electric fence isn’t dangerous, if it’s not even strong enough for me to realize that I’m being shocked. I’d spent the previous two weeks flinching in anticipation when crossing any fence, even though I knew I’d switched the current off, because I was under the impression I’d get a cartoon-style zap (with skeleton flashing) and get knocked out for a bit.

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My life here is full of little, retarded episodes like that. I am uncertain of how I feel about being here – well, fundamentally, I mean. Sometimes I’m incredibly stressed about the perceived lack of studying I’m doing as well as the snail speed at which my French is improving, and then I get all upset when I have to work or wait around after work to see if more work will be assigned to me. Today I was asked to ramasser l’herbe (‘gather grass’, i.e. pick up the debris from the lawn-mowing done yesterday) from the garden for the sheep, right after my daily morning routine of taking care of the horses (which has proceeded undisturbed for the past 2.5 weeks), and this Interruption caused great resentment in me a, mostly because I thought I’d have to spend the afternoon working as well (as I have the past two days) and therefore could not study. (This turned out not to be the case, which is great.)

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Other times I am suffused with gratitude at being able to spend a month in a gorgeous environment that would simultaneously advance several of my personal goals. It is a lovely place to be, and on most days, it’s no hardship to be outside working when outside is radiant with sunshine, and everything is relatively tranquil (unless animals escape, like today, when the sheep did) and pastoral. One of my major tasks has been to, essentially, deforest a patch of land and that takes up to 3-4 hours each afternoon I have to do that. It’s boring work and I’m not going to lie, I think resentful thoughts the whole time about how pointless it is, but the moment it’s done and I’m sitting in the back of the tractor, life is all rosy again and I’m deeply aware of a contentment that comes from the tangible results of physical labor. The tractor bumps up the steep, rocky slope and the humblingly clear blue sky presses right down on us with fields and grasslands stretching for miles around, and maybe I’m easily amused but bumpy tractor rides are fantastic, calming in a way you wouldn’t expect.

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Patience is the virtue I’m cultivating here, I suppose – or anticipation, perhaps. I’m learning to ignore or postpone action regarding, at least, a lot of my reactions, because mostly I find they fade inconsequentially or are simply manifestations of a discomfort that accompanies maturity. At the same time, I am learning so much about myself: what annoys me (it may surprise you – or pas du tout, but many things annoy me, unfortunately), what makes me cranky, what I can and cannot live without. If being abroad is a matter of adjustment to the host family and a different way of life, it’s also as much a matter of adjustment to one’s own, often petty impulses, and learning to manage both.

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For instance, this shouldn’t have surprised me, but food and kitchen-related things bother me inexplicably. I apparently have firm opinions on the right way to load a dishwasher (why would anyone leave gaps when putting in plates? Why would you put a big bowl over several small bowls? Why would you put small plates in between big plates? Why would you put glasses used for water into the dishwasher? SO MANY EXASPERATING QUESTIONS) as well as the right ways to cook meat and pasta (why would you not salt your pasta water? Why would you not rinse your cooked pasta in cold water? Why would you not eat pasta and other carbs WITH SAUCES? Why would you not leave your meat to sit before cutting it? Why would you not season your meat when cooking it???) and even, unbelievably, the right way to feed lambs.

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I kid you not. I’ve been feeding the three lambs whose mother did not have enough milk left, after three previous rounds of birth, and I have a system of feeding, because there are six bottles: four of the same sizes, 260 ml; one smaller, around 250 ml; and one larger, at 350 ml. Two of the lambs are outside in the fields (the runt of the litter is in the house because it’s too weak to stand, still) and obviously, I feed them using the four bottles of the same size first, and then the two odd-sized ones (if they finish the four), and I rotate the biggest one so they both drink an equal amount. Two mornings ago, my host dad started feeding them while I was feeding the pig, and he, honestly, used a normal-sized bottle and the big bottle first, which meant that the two lambs would have drank unequal amounts of milk. This cheesed me off, I’m not going to lie. I was like jesus christ why would you do that in my head.

(And then after five minutes, I felt a bit silly. But still, after the dad got tired – he doesn’t really like lambs that much – and I took over, I switched the bottles back instantly. It just makes more sense, okay?)

I have a Singaporean need to promote efficiency and consistency (and be a control freak), clearly. It honestly would bug me a little if one of the lambs got more to drink on a daily basis than the other. Some things really just don’t make sense to me, in particular with the way they run their horse farm, the makeshift methods of feeding and providing water, the haphazard schedule, etc. etc. It is just a hobby of theirs, though – but I do think this is an example of the inefficiency in small-scale farm holdings. So much labor goes into work that produces relatively little, and there are so many aspects of the work that could be streamlined.

All that being said, while I clearly have lots of thinky (and critical) thoughts on their way of life, they aren’t meant to be judgy. I think them with the qualifier, if it was me, I wouldn’t do things like that, but I’m not them, obviously. It really isn’t my place to comment or even feel like I know better, since this is the life they’ve chosen for themselves – they have the means to change things if they were dissatisfied with them. For what it’s worth, as much as being granted observer status in other families’ daily lives is a bit disorienting and frankly, sometimes annoying, because their ways of doing things are bound to jar with yours, part of the value of the exchange/experience lies precisely in those moments of irritation that allow you to discover more about your preferences, especially the ones you had no idea you even had. Seeing how different families work gives you the opportunity to cull bad or inefficient or simply unappealing practices and rituals (as you perceive them), to separate your wheat from your chaff, so to speak.

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For one thing, I have discovered the answer to the single most definitive question of a person’s character, I think: are you a dog or a cat person? I’ve always demurred that I was both, really, since I thought I liked both equally, but now it’s clear: I’m definitely a cat person. The host family has four cats, in varying degrees of gorgeous-ness, and a dog, which is also lovely, but after a honeymoon period of maybe 3-4 days with the latter, the irritation started spiking – dogs are just so needy. I can’t count the number of times the dog’s come up to me with a stick in her mouth and an unseemly look of over-eagerness in her eyes. She’s adorable, true, and admittedly very intelligent and well-trained  but … cats are just more elegant and self-possessed and independent. They do have an annoying way of wanting to enter and leave the house five hundred times a day, though.

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On an unrelated note, I have a nightly ritual of cuddling with one of the cats, who sleeps in my room at night. Not this one, though it’s clearly my favourite; its name is Manga.

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On another unrelated note, did you know that cats love potato skins? Weird.

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I think I’ve reached the natural end of my blogging impulse. It’s been two hours.

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