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Claire had come to resent strawberries. The color, the taste, the way the seeds got stuck in her teeth — everything about them exhausted her. She stared down at the plant, nudging the stem with her foot. She felt like the berries were mocking her, peering up from under the thick, green leaves. Claire reached down and plucked one from the plant, dropping it into the bucket with more than a little hostility. By the end of the day, her hands would be red and raw from the scratchy fibers on the underside of the leaves, a feeling no amount of lotion would be able to soothe. When she’d finished one plant, she moved on to the next, following the row all the way to the other end of the garden.
This wasn’t exactly what she’d envisioned for her summer — or her life for that matter. By the end of her senior year, she’d been unemployed and scrambling, looking desperately for something that would be as impressive as the jobs her friends had taken in New York and Chicago. That’s when she found La Ferme Tourrette. Claire had been mindlessly scrolling online when she found WWOOF, Worldwide Opportunities for Organic Farms. It’s a program that connects people to farms around the world where they work in exchange for room and board. She read the reviews posted under pictures of smiling twenty-somethings holding armfuls of produce.
Claire had imagined herself at a quaint but tasteful cottage in the south of France, reading in the grass, swimming in ponds, learning to speak French and finding farmers markets that were très adorable. It was the kind of thing unique, interesting people did. She imagined herself saying things like “Oh, I just sort of hopped on a plane and went.” She’d come home with honey that she’d helped make on the farm, an amazing tan and stories of dates with French men on the back of mopeds.
What she forgot to imagine was the whole farming aspect.
In theory, she loved the idea of working out in the sun, being surrounded by plants all day. Once she had actually gotten to the farm, though, Claire quickly realized that her idealized vision was not grounded in reality. The lavender plants were spiky, it was impossible to get the carrots out of the ground and there was no one to talk to in the field. She had never done manual labor before (something that had seemingly slipped her mind when applying for the program in the first place), and she was quickly discovering that it wasn’t her forte.
As she pulled the berries from their stems, she thought of Cowbelles, a movie from her childhood about two spoiled girls forced to work in their dad’s dairy plant to learn the value of hard work. Following the lead of cinematic tropes, Claire had been expecting some life-changing, “Eat, Pray, Love” experience, but so far she didn’t know how much she was really learning about hard work — other than that she didn’t like it. She hated getting up early and going to sleep exhausted. The feeling of dirt under her fingernails made her skin crawl. Maybe she just wasn’t the type for “personal growth.” Maybe she was too shallow or maybe she just wasn’t trying hard enough. And after what felt like an endless number of strawberries, Claire got to the end of the row, putting her hands on her hips to take a breath.
“Es-tu fini?” Maryanne, the farm’s matriarch asked.
French fluency was one of the program’s few requirements — criteria that Claire definitely didn’t meet. So as soon as she’d booked her flights, she went rummaging through her parents’ library and found an old, beat-up French dictionary. Claire kept the dictionary tucked in her back pocket, keeping a mental list of all the words to look up when no one was watching. She’d picked up on the basics pretty quickly: Aller, go. Finir, finish. La ferme, the farm.
“Non, j’ai deux en plus,” Claire responded. No, I have two more.
Maryanne was nice enough but distinctly French. She was quick speaking and didn’t like explaining things twice. She would never hesitate to berate Claire on her poor attempts at the language.
“J’ai deux de plus,” Maryanne corrected.
Maryanne had two children — both boys ages 10 and 13 — and ran the farm on her own. She’d been divorced some years back, but rarely spoke of her ex-husband. Maryanne never shared any details, not even his name. The boys, Luca and Paul, were sweet yet rowdy, used to having free rein over the property while Maryanne was working or cooking or dealing with the vendors that worked at the markets. Claire had a hard time connecting with them. Even beyond the language barrier, the boys were a bit too old to see their new addition as an older sister, yet the age difference was a little too large for them to organically become friends. Not to mention that while Maryanne slowed down her speaking so Claire could keep up, the boys made no such concession, exchanging rapid-fire French between themselves all day long.
When Claire had finished plucking the last strawberry, she went inside to take a shower. Her room was small but nicely decorated with yellow walls, rustic wooden furniture and a vase of daffodils on the window sill. Maryanne had put the flowers there before Claire had arrived, but a month later, they were wilted and starting to lose their petals. She looked at the wrinkled stems, thinking about how much they had changed since her arrival and how she herself had not. She went over and started brushing the dry, fallen pieces into her hand as she looked outside. Claire knew the house must be very old by the imperfections in the glass window panes. New, manufactured glass all looked the same, but with old glass, when you look really closely, you can see a subtle pattern and tiny bubbles, blemishes from the way that it was set that cause the light to reflect just a little bit differently. Claire loved glass like that.
As she looked out onto the fields, she thought about what she’d be doing if she were at home. Her mom would be cooking dinner. Her dad would have PBS NewsHour on too loud in the family room. Her mom would make a comment about how the TV was making too much noise but only quietly and passive-aggressively to herself. Maybe her brother would come over. Claire would be sitting on the window bench in her room, reading with the windows open so she could listen to the rain — it rained all summer in Seattle. She’d be debating how to tell her parents she was going to bars with friends, and she’d be out late.
But instead, she was here.
Exhausted and alone in the countryside West of Avignon. Yet as much as she hated the strawberries and wished her French was better, Claire wasn’t unhappy. She wasn’t all that happy either. She was just there.
She would say she was content, a word Claire didn’t use often. At home, every day either felt like the best or worst she’d ever had. Some days, she’d go to the grocery store ecstatic about the week ahead. She’d plan elaborate meals and spend way too much money on clothes online and get two iced coffees because on a day as beautiful as that, how could she resist? It was on one of these ecstatic days that she’d booked the trip to France in the first place. Others, she’d be in bed all day, completely unable to do more than the absolute bare minimum. But, on the farm, she didn’t have the highest highs and the lowest lows. She just had days. Sure, she wasn’t frolicking through fields to “The Sound of Music” soundtrack-like she’d imagined, but things were alright.
Claire didn’t have the slightest idea what she would do when her time on the farm was over. The end date was just three and a half weeks away now. She felt just the faintest prickles of anxiety creeping up whenever she thought of it. She’d always felt an undefined sense of excitement about her post-college 20s, never anything as concrete as a job or where she would live — just an amorphous inclination towards the exciting. At some point, she’d have to figure out what to do, but there were a lot of strawberries to pick in the meantime.
When she was done showering, Claire went downstairs to help Maryanne with dinner. Even with her pocket dictionary, Claire only had an operational understanding of French, and Maryanne had made no effort to learn any English (almost as a matter of principle, Claire thought), so these downtimes passed wordlessly between the two. Over the summer, the two women had become accustomed to each other, developing something that wasn’t quite friendship. Camaraderie, maybe? Or was it simply a mutual understanding? Whatever their relationship was, it made the silence comforting.
Claire and Maryanne moved around the kitchen in near synchronization, listening to the sizzle of shallots in hot oil and the satisfying snap of lettuce being torn. Luca and Paul came screaming through the kitchen, knocking a pile of napkins to the floor as they bee-lined their way to the backyard.
“Casse-toi!” Maryanne yelled, long after they were out of earshot.
Every day as they made dinner, Maryanne poured a glass of wine for herself and Claire. As the light got softer and their shadows got longer, she grabbed the glasses. Claire handed her the bottle opener, and they both watched as the sun started to dip below the horizon.
“Es-tu heureux ici?” Maryanne asked.
“Yes, I’m happy.”
Statement Correspondent Lane Kizziah can be reached at [email protected]
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