Picking Grapes in Alsace

Memories of France in the 1970s

By: - Sep 04, 2022

I had hitchhiked my way up from the Midi to Alsace via Paris where I spent some time with Alix and then moved on to find more work as a farm worker harvesting grapes in Alsace. I followed the northward ripening of the grapes. The last person to give me a lift as I approached Alsace happened to know a “vigneron” whom he thought might hire me. He dropped me off at the door of the wine grower’s estate (I believe his brother was part of the harvesting team) who did not hesitate to take me on. I learned later that even though they had enough workers they thought I had a pleasant smile. Like the family I worked for in L’Herault the vendanges were perceived to be a pleasurable social experience They liked to fill up the ranks of grape pickers with interesting characters, even though it was easier to hand the work over to professional farm workers from Spain who needed the work and would be more efficient. In Alsace many of the harvesters were buyers of the grower’s product, who came for a day or two to enjoy the outdoors and the camaraderie. Some I observed were certified alcoholics who enjoyed a bit too much the passing of the bottle at the end of each row and were quickly dispatched.  The time of year was like the mellow wine made of the “noble rot”. We were already getting into the end of October and mornings were chill.

One of the first co-workers I met was a sullen Cambodian who sported an oversized military jacket which judging from the way he wrapped his arms around his body didn’t seem to keep him sufficiently warm especially as I learned he was experiencing cold weather for the first time in his life. He had been sent to study in France by his father in Phnom Penh who was a wealthy jeweler. Whether intentional or not his departure from Cambodia coincided with the takeover of Cambodia by the Red Guard. His family was sent to concentration camps where they were killed. He did have relatives who were in refugee camps in Thailand that he communicated with.

The harvest lasted a week. I recall the evening meals were enjoyably shared with the owner. The lunch in the vineyards consisted mostly of cured uncooked bacon and wine to wash it down. Much to the disappointment of the family that hired me I overstayed my period of employment when I became horribly ill; I believe due to drinking the “new” wine in the village of Ribeauville and could not leave the dorm where I was housed. Alix had come to join me and nursed me back to health. 

However, all in all, I was better taken care there than in the Midi where the workers were given lodging in cold water flats with a single unit gas stove to cook our own food on. We must have been advanced enough money to buy food. We got a quota of two bottles of free wine (“pousse au crime” they called it) each day on top of our pay that we could either save or return to the owner for reimbursement. I recall the Australians on their world tour hopping from one Commonwealth country to the next drank their quota. They marvelously could drink all night and get up refreshed the next morning to pick grapes whereas, if I were to march their consumption, I would wake up at 4 pm the next afternoon with a horrible hangover.  

Our boss in L’Herault created quite a presence. He drove a convertible Mustang. He was well over six feet tall and sported an impressive Asterix style mustache. I had worked for him the prior season when he hired Alix and I as we left an employment office where we inquired about work picking grapes. I suspect he waited to hire us after we left the office to avoid paying a finder’s fee. I remember the pleasure in being carried off to the grey village of Tressan, our place of employment, in the back seat of the Mustang with the top down. 

Living in the gloomy village, however, did have its entertainment value. Whatever happened out of the ordinary in town would make its way to be discussed in the central square in the evening by the “town fathers” so to speak. One topic that I recall inspired a few laughs was their mockery of the shape of the wife of a friend of mine who came to visit me from the States. She didn’t fit their French definition of femininity being a tad hefty or “big boned” as the euphemism goes.

Another involved the interest an elderly woman Madame Thiollet showed in me by baking me on occasions traditional omelets mixed with flour. She worried that being alone without a mate I had no one preparing meals for me. She lived alone with her brain damaged husband who sat drooling off to the side of her poorly lit dwelling. He had been hit over the head accidentally with a shovel while doing road work. The dwelling smelled of spoiled fruit that she as a senior had permission to scour from the fields after the commercial harvest was done.

In any case, the gossip of our friendship addressed what they (the evening news in the town square) thought was my intent through our friendship to inherit her house.  Years later after I returned to Boston living with my parents before starting my academic career, I received a letter In the mail ambiguously addressed to Mugar Belmont USA (or some address that should not have been sufficient to make its way to me) announcing her death. It came from her son. He had learned that I had made her acquaintance and that she thought enough of me that I should be informed of her passing. I vaguely recall the gossipers of the central plaza said her son’s wife had been a prostitute much to the chagrin of my elderly friend. Such unkind/ ungenerous gossip. 

I am not sure of the Cambodian’s name. Leng Noon or Noon Leng. We addressed him as Leng. We became friends, a friendship that lasted ten years even after we returned to the US where he once came to visit. He eventually found training in the hospitality industry. While Alix was finishing her degree at the beaux-arts I returned for a short stay in France and swung down to the Loire valley where Leng was living. He lived in a tent on the edge of a field in order to save money for his education. I passed several days with him.

One memory that still haunts me to this day was a meeting he took me to of Cambodian refugees in a public hall. On the middle of the stage sat a man who seemed to have some authority over the others. Leng came up to talk with him in a seemingly deferential manner and then left. Leng must have explained to me who he was and what was the purpose of the meeting but I imagined that the meeting was of a political nature. Was it an anti Khmer-Rouge organization or maybe the contrary, pro-Khmer. A chill ran through me as the notion of politics and identity took hold of my imagination. Was Leng trying to assert his fealty to a political party, so as to avoid being on the wrong side of the power structure.

I recall the way  Rosanna Warren describes the peregrinations of the savvy survivor Max Jacob through the complexity of the Parisian avant-garde only to find himself despite his conversion to Christianity unable to distance himself from his Jewish origins as the power structures of France were taken over by the nazi-sympathetic Vichy government. He was holed up in a monastery south of Paris which he thought would provide him some sort of protection from the Vichy. He was found out, nonetheless. Others thought that Picasso his mentor, or one might say that Jacob was his mentor, had enough connections among the powers that be to save him from the hands of the Vichy. The avant-garde was a sort of meta identity beyond nationality but it had a small constituency. When the hold of national identity reared its ugly head the died in blood identities were suddenly lethal. Hearing that Jacob was in a prison waiting his turn to be shipped off to Germany Picasso quipped that Jacob was an angel and he would lift himself over the walls to freedom. 

Rosanna Warren’s book on Jacob came out before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Now, all the trademarks of national identity, fealty and loyalty that marked WW2 reassert their terrifying presence. Notions of a sort of Ur Slavic identity independent of the Occident is dredged up to justify the invasion and of course the Western European hold on Ukraine is perceived to be one of decadence. It is like a deck of card that gets reshuffled and one never knows were one will end up in that deck of cards or whether one will be dealt a losing or a winning hand. If the story of Jacob and the revival of ethnic and national identities seemed distant when the book was published in 2019 before the violence of Ukraine, of a past more than 70 years ago Rosanna’s book was prescient of what was to transpire in Europe.

One night in Tressan, the vendangeurs were gathered together on the central plaza drinking; we were all drinking pastis. As the evening wore on an Irish boy and a French girl showed some interest in hooking up. They could not communicate since neither one nor the other knew the others language. I found myself negotiating this tryst. The essence of the discussion that all was OK as long the Irish boy would use protection. The Irishman had a friend who showed little interest in participating in where his friend was headed.  Over the next few days I got to know him better. He described how his personality had been irreparably marked by the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland where a bombing near by where he was walking left nothing but body parts. It must have blocked his interest in the passing pleasure that his fried would experience that night in Tressan. 

Like the Australians he had been on a world tour. He had not been home in several years. I asked him if I could do his portrait. I liked it so much I said I would keep it for awhile but if he would share with me his home address I would send it to him at a later date. When I left for Alsace at the end of the vendange I left my art supplies behind with the intention of coming back to pick them  up. I returned a year later. Oddly enough the wandering Irishman had come to Tressan that very day to see if I was still there. I don’t recall what he had been doing all that time. We passed the day together reminiscing,  he related a poignant anecdote. Well before he finally made it home to his house in Northern Island his mother had received the drawing. When she opened up the package and saw the face of her long absent son, she broke into tears.

The last time I saw Leng was in the USA in 1986. His visit coincided with our family’s move from a job in North Carolina to one in New Hampshire. We had two cars that had to be moved up north so we gave one to him and let him drive it wherever he wanted as long as he ended up in Maine where we had bought a house. He and his girlfriend arrived in time although we were in a sort of chaos for not having hired a lawyer to finalize the contract on the new home as the moving truck arrived in our driveway. That day happened to be Leng’s birthday and he insisted we celebrate it. I was overwhelmed with the mess of the unresolved closing, so I ignored his request for a celebration or as I recall we may have done  something subdued at a local restaurant. I never heard from him again. 

Maybe one day I will receive a minimally addressed note from him like the one from Madame Thiolet that will recall our good times together.