The Goat Farm
France, Summer 1986
DAY ONE (okay you can say it in a Big Brother, Geordie accent if you like)
I was waiting on the platform for the metro train to arrive which would take me from Gare St Lazare to Montparnasse. It was very early in the morning and I was tired after a day of travelling: train to Newhaven, an overnight ferry to Dieppe, catching whatever sleep I could. Paying for a cabin just did not seem such a high priority for a twenty-two year old student about to embark on a little adventure working on a farm in France. That, and a need to do the journey on a shoestring – as it would to the writer’s 57-year-old alter ego, who would most likely dine in the ship’s best restaurant, savouring a plateau de fruits de mer – plus, perhaps, a bottle of wine or two – before turning in for the night in one of the ship’s well appointed cabins.
The ship pulled into Dieppe and the sky was still dark. In the distance, fishermen could be heard hauling in their catch, the unmistakable yellow glow of French headlights could be seen as well as the familiar sounds and sights of a town coming to life for another new day. Then ensued an unremarkable train journey from Dieppe Maritime into Paris.
Still feeling sleepy, occasionally drifting off to sleep, I summoned up my forces to stay awake. We – I am certain I was chatting to a couple of Americans about the same age as myself – gathered our things together and started to board the train, hoping we had picked the right one. I wearily hauled myself and my rucksack onto the metro train.
The station had that unmistakable smell of, dare I say, urine, and the rubber of the trains’ tyres. The train was already packed full of commuters oblivious to the sense of trepidation I was feeling. It was my ‘year out’ from university. I had spent most of the year as an Assistant at a school in Frankfurt am Main, a few weeks at home with my family, and I was off again – this time to France, a country I knew pretty well, having spent many childhood holidays and exchange visits there. But working on a farm? Would I have a clue what I was doing? Would I fit in? Would they ridicule me for being a student and a townie who knew nothing much about rural life?
“Bonjour Messieurs/Dames. Bienvenus a bord du TGV a destination de Lyon Perrache.”
A 22-year-old recovers rather more quickly from a sleepless night than does his 57-year-old counterpart and so, feeling more ‘alive’ I marvelled at the modernity of French trains compared with some of the old British Rail crates I had travelled on the day before. A whole list of stops were mentioned, Auxerre, Dijon, Chalon Sur Saone – I only mention that one because I love the sound of the name! – and several more I no longer remember.
The sun was streaming in through the window and it was beginning to feel quite hot. I must have fallen asleep for a fair bit of the journey as the next thing I remember is the squeaking of the brakes, the announcement regarding our imminent arrival in Lyon and seeing some crusty old houses, tall with nice shutters and looking unmistakably southern above a meandering river, probably the Rhone.
I got my things and prepared for the onward journey on a second train from Lyon Part Dieu. I do not remember how I got to Part Dieu, and I think I was surprised that my train did not depart from Perrache, but I do remember asking someone where the station was, so I probably walked. Probably not far either for a twenty-two year old despite the weight of my rucksack.
A much quieter train and a much shorter journey followed. Again, I cannot remember but I am guessing that the final destination of the train would have been St Etienne or Vichy. I cannot be sure. ‘Madame’ had written to me a few weeks before telling me that she would come and pick me up from Regny, which was the nearest station to them. Eventually, Regny was announced (this time by a simple microphone message rather than a sophisticated TGV message with ding-dongs etc).
It felt strange to arrive at a tiny station which did not seem to relate to any village or town. One or two people got off the train and I scanned the platform for my ‘hotesse’. Madame appeared neither like or unlike who I was expecting. The world is so different these days as we would probably have had video interviews with each other. Come to think of it, the family would probably have decided quite quickly that I was not a suitable farmhand for them!
Behind Madame was my college friend James! I had not expected to see him, had not even entertained the idea that I would see him before our third year at university started up in the Autumn. I felt more reassured seeing James. We could converse a little in English although not too much as I would not want to offend my host. I had forgotten that James had worked at the farm the year before and had returned for a short visit, I believe that our work placements in France were as a result of one of our lecturers phoning into a French radio programme called ‘Et pour vous, qu’est-ce qu’on peut faire’ (‘What can we do for you?’).
We piled into Mme F’s Citroen GS and sped through a series of quiet country lanes until we reached La Foret. La Foret was a rambling collection of farm buildings standing proudly at the top of a hill. One could immediately see a group of thirty or forty brown goats who were going to be my companions for the next couple of months.
Not much time was spent on introductions or explaining sleeping arrangements. My, and James’ help was required sur le champ – a bit of an intended pun for French speakers – with les foins – haymaking. Not long back from Germany, still a few months of carefree life until the serious business of the ‘final year’ was to begin, I am not sure I imagined what work life was going to be like on the farm. ppermost thought in the family’s minds would have been employing someone reliable to help them through the really hard work and stress of haymaking. I am not sure they got what they bargained for!
It was rather disconcerting being called into a large cornfield, given a pitch fork and, after minimal explanation, being expected to perform to their standards. I think I sort of got the hang of it. James and I were both wearing shorts as it was pretty hot. I think Monsieur looked at me rather strangely for wearing them. I was the new boy but James had done ‘les foins’ before. The reason only became clear that night. I awoke feeling feverish and legs burning. Lesson: hay is horrible against the legs. Never wear shorts!
So ended day one on the farm.
‘On s’habitue’…(Getting used to things) or La Routine Quotidienne (The Daily Routine)
I don’t think I was entirely prepared for this kind of rural life! Gradually, a routine established itself. Get up in the morning, minimal wash (as showering was something reserved for Sundays, and pointless anyway considering how grubby one could get), draw some buckets of water from the well, trying not to drop the bucket in the well and, if you did, being able to eventually scoop it up onto the hook again, giving the water to the goats then feeding them etc.. It is all well over 30 years ago so I cannot truly remember all the details of my routine.
One of the first things I had to do in the morning was to go and help Mme F turn the cheeses. They were on shelves in big units and at different stages of maturity. We had to clean out a lot of the cheese making equipment and add rennet to the cheese mixtures. The smell of goat’s cheese stays with you…for life. This part of the day was fine, I knew what I was doing and Mme F was less hot headed than M F, who did occasionally get angry with people. Mme F was fine, apart from the time when I came downstairs and, for some inexplicable reason, started speaking in German! She just looked rather shocked.
Out ‘in the fields’ it was a different matter! I had to learn a whole load of skills I had never encountered before: haymaking, using a scythe to cut grass for the goats which then had to be folded into a big blanket in a special way, making barbed wire fences and hammering posts into the ground. And, of course, drawing water from the well, as outlined above. My hands were raw from that chain.
Anyone who has studied a foreign language will be able to empathise with the following situations:
Firstly, you have studied the language for many, many years so assume you are pretty competent. However, you have arrived in an area of the country where they speak with a ‘funny’ accent. How many times do you ask someone to repeat something because you just didn’t understand what they were saying? Eventually, you are so embarrassed that you just exclaim ‘ah oui! Bien sur’. Mind you, the same thing can happen in your own language.
I was on holiday on the west coast of Ireland many years ago staying with some friends. They asked me to walk down to the neighbouring farm to collect the fresh milk. Julia, well into her 70s, and with a whole face and demeanour which said she had not had an easy life, chatted to me for a good while. To be honest, she might as well have been chatting to the wall as I understood not a word. Later it transpired that she was annoyed that I had not gone down early the next morning to help her and her son Michael (who wore a whole with a jumper around it – the same one every day) move the cows to a different field. Lesson learnt: Don’t say yes!
Secondly, people tend to see language ability in absolute terms. You either don’t know anything or know everything. If you have carried yourself off convincingly at the dinner table, you surely understand all genres and fields of a language. Typically, M F and I would be in a field working and he would ask me: “Va chercher un…” “Go and get a..” plus French words I did not know. I spoke French, so surely I knew what an X was? Wrong, you don’t instinctively know every word in the language. It just, most likely, strengthened his opinion of me as being some kind of spoilt, middle class student who had never really done a day’s work in his life. How right he was. Still at least he didn’t say “T’es con, comme une valise”(you’re as thick as a…suitcase?) which he frequently shouted at poor, young Christophe. Or did he?
Various other memories of the daily routine come back. Rather pleasing to me, was when we had been haymaking, helping out other farmers, the glasses and the wine would come out. Less pleasing was when, over dinner, there would be a phone call to ask if we could help a neighbouring farmer ‘decharger’ a lorry with hay bales. We could be loading a hay barn till gone midnight.
The farmhouse was simple but welcoming. True, you did have to take care not to knock your head on a hanging ham as you were walking upstairs to bed.
Mealtimes were rather different to home. Coffee was always made on the stove in a pan and that same coffee was reheated and reheated throughout the day. We only had tea once – more of that later and that was totally the fault of another Voysey, not me!
As one would expect in a rural French home, there was a huge table in the kitchen, which simultaneously served as a living room (no comfy sofas), covered in an oilskin cloth. Mme F always made a cross with her knife on a new loaf of bread but always maintained she didn’t know why she did it. Most of the time, we didn’t have plates and shared knives. I still remember that very fatty bacon, the one that James warned me not to cut the fat off (and the one which the other Voysey mentioned above, did cut the fat from…Jean was not amused!).
It amazed me how, on a Sunday, when we went to church (an hour of total seriousness and pretty depressing followed by a mass congregation at the café where wine was liberally imbibed) one of the young girls, they were eight and ten respectively, would stay behind and cook the Sunday roast.
We always ate cheese at mealtimes and we usually had a sort of teatime (still sometimes referred to as ‘le five o’clock’). This was a piece of bread, fatty ham, more goat’s cheese and some reheated coffee from the morning.
I forgot to mention. Just mind those fly tapes as you rise from the table!
Jean buys some geese
We were sitting at the table having breakfast. Jean took a big slab of butter onto his knife, as he always did, and mixed it around in his coffee. It melted the butter, as intended, to spread onto his ‘tartine’ but also left some remnants in his ‘bol’.
Talk turned to ‘les oies’ – the geese. Jean and Denise had been planning to get some geese for a while. Evidently, a kilo of goose down would be worth some 80 Francs. Jean set about constructing a pen around an existing pond and outhouse. The outhouse would be the geese’s coup.
So the geese arrived one day, white with shiny orange beaks, cackling very loudly.
“Whatever you do, make sure that if you go in the coop, you close the door behind you as well as the entrance gate to the pen”, we were told strictly by Jean.
Then came the demonstration of how to pluck the down from the geese. You had to just pull out the soft down from under their wings, without hurting them. Now, I have a bit of a bird phobia, so I was very nervous about handling the geese. The procedure was, you pick up a goose firmly and decisively. You then fold its wings over so that it can’t fly away – theoretically. A rubber band goes over the webbed feet and a sock over its beak so it can’t peck you. The bird looks funny cackling around trying to get the sock off and I did feel quite sorry for them! One more detail: you lay a big sack over your lap before beginning the process of plucking the down. Obviously the poor bird isn’t too happy about the whole process. The sack over your lap is to protect you as the bird gets quite nervous. Understandably.
So, I and all the family had to try plucking down. A lot of cackling ensued as well as the odd goose who would try to peck you from under the sock. Occasionally, one would get the sock off its head and peck you quite viciously. The real disaster came when a goose would get its wings free, flap about and undo, possibly an hour’s worth of work because it would upset the big basket in the middle of the coop, in which we were collecting the down. The place smelled to high heaven.
Guess who forgot to close both the gate and the door to the coop one day. Moi. “Merde alors” I would have said if I had been French. The geese were running away. I think there were about seven of them, cannot be sure. They were running faster and faster across the track and then a few of them managed to flutter over a fence into the neighboring field. I managed to scoop one, first, under my left arm and then another under my right arm. Even carrying two, I somehow got over the fence into the field as I could not flutter over it like the geese. Somehow I managed to coral them all along the pathway and eventually back into their pen.
I was exhausted and in shock after this. How would I have explained losing the geese? I would probably be banished from the farm. However, this little event has stayed private to me ( well, and my college friend James. And all of my family, who could not believe I would be capable of recapturing a whole load of geese especially since my bird phobia had got worse after the age of about 10, when a seagull pooped on me in holiday in Mevagissey.
To this day, I don’t think anyone else knew about this incident. It would probably be all over Youtube these days.
A Voysey Sibling arrives bearing tea (“Quel desastre!)
It was coming towards the end of my time at the farm and one of my brothers wrote to say that he and his girlfriend (I’ll call them R and V to save them embarrassment), wrote to me at the farm to say they would like to come and stay and, that way, they could drive me back to England when the time was right.
This was not the only familial visit. My father was a great Francophile and I owe him much for introducing me to the country at an early age. When we were pretty young, my father liked no more than to pack us all into the Morris Oxford estate, later a Peugeot, and we would drive all the way through France to Spain. Often we would be stranded in some small French town waiting for a car part to arrive as the car would break down or we would be stranded in, say Andorra, at midnight, when my father nearly got arrested for misunderstanding a customs guard’s signal – he thought he was waving my father through, quite the opposite was the truth.
So, it came as no surprise as, one evening, when I was carrying two heavy pales of well water across the courtyard, I looked over my shoulder and saw a blue Austin Metro. No, it wouldn’t be! Surely not! They didn’t warn me. Somehow my Father had convinced my Mother to go on a little jaunt through France to come and see me on the farm. How did he even find it? My father had a great sense of adventure.
Anyway, I think I dropped the pales of water and went in the house to announce to the family that ‘mes parents sont arrives!’ Well, it got me a couple of days off work. Mum and Dad took me out for some nice meals, they took the three kids out for the day too. They also took me up to the rough and ready, spit and sawdust café at the top of the hill in the village. The one where the prostitute worked – or at least Mme F thought she was a prostitute because she wore too much lippy and spoke to too many other men.
Digression over. R and V arrived in their sporty but somewhat tatty Toyota Celica. R is quite a bold and, dare I say, pretty assertive driver. They brought a box of provisions into the kitchen and we all started talking in English, French and a mixture of the two. R and V had been camping and it seems like R had reversed into a tree and mangled the car bumper. They were quite hot and tired.
R said to me “We’ve got some tea with us. Do you think we could make some?”
“I’m not sure. They won’t like it.”
We were invited to sit at the table (mind you don’t get your hair caught on the flytape) and partake of our ‘gouter’ or teatime, when everyone shares a table and a knife or two, some bread, a couple of bits of ham and cheese and a block of chocolate for the children.
Must warn my brother not to cut off the fat from the ham. Too late. He had already neatly cut off the fat leaving about half of what was cut for him. Monsieur did not look amused.
Anyway, apart from this, the mood was pretty jovial and the two little girls, Stephanie and Caroline were mimicking my brother and his girlfriend.
“The tea Steve”…
So, I asked if we could have tea. One of the little girls, Stephanie, I think, said “oh we learnt all about making tea in our English lessons. Can I make it?” She excitedly went over to a cabinet where an old fashioned teapot and some little cups were kept. Teabags were offered by my brother and put in the pot and she proudly and carefully poured for all of us. Immediately afterwards, Denise, her mother, lifted the pan of hot milk from the stove (which she was warming along with the more coffee – a just in case scenario, I guess). She then went round all our teacups, topping them up with HOT milk.
I remember very clearly the words “c’est pas mon gout” (not my taste) coming from Jean and his wife Denise, swiftly replacing the horrid tea with coffee.
We never spoke about it again!
The next morning, I, my brother and his wife started the long journey home.
There are still some other episodes I could write about such as the time when a neighbour called and told the farmer, “Monsieur vos chevres sont sur la route” (Your goats are on the road), the goat who got a ride home in the Citroen GS, or the goat which swallowed a syringe necessitating a midnight rescue mission. But I don’t really remember enough about the episodes to be able to confidently relay all the details clearly.
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