Globe Trotter: ‘Les Vendanges’, a Costa Rican’s Experience Picking Grapes

En la vida hay que ser piso’e tierra. I have a number of quotes my mom used to tell me memorized; this is one of the simplest and one of my favorites. In life you have to be “piso de tierra”, which translates to “dirt floor”; in essence, it stresses the importance of a humble life. It means understanding that when stripped of riches, or wealth or power, we are simply beings that come from nature and from dirt, and that we are not superior to any of our fellow humans. It was through this desire to find humility and to challenge myself that I decided to participate in les vendanges, the annual grape harvest in Burgundy, France.

I had heard various things about les vendanges, from both media and people. My initial idea of it was that of a trans-generational activity with people from all ages working in vineyards, singing songs, making jokes and, later, eating, drinking and enjoying their time together. Evidently, I also knew it was hard work; after all it was still an agricultural job. This became more and more clear after I had signed up for it. When I began discussing my plans to participate with friends and acquaintances, many reacted the same way: “It’s really hard work”. All of a sudden, the tone from “great cultural experience” changed to “exhausting labor”. A friend from work even said her 26-year-old husband tried it and gave up after a day of work. The comments made me more apprehensive about participating but encouraged me, given that this only reinforced my original motivation of doing hard work. Thus, the night before my first day, I packed myself some lunch and made sure to have a decent night’s sleep.

The alarm went off at 5:45 in the morning. After making toast and preparing my bag I put on pants on top of my shorts and three layers on my upper body. I left my apartment, heading for the train station through the chilly, empty Dijon streets. The train sped through large fields and little towns as the sun woke, slowly covering all of the green vegetation in my eye reach. At 7h20 we arrived at my destination: Meursault. A small group got down with me and we all found a small bus the managers had sent for us. I immediately noticed that I was the youngest. When we got to the chateau, I found a group of three my age in the corner. Except for them, the managers and myself, I soon realized everyone in the room was an African immigrant, many of them were from The Democratic Republic of the Congo, I learned later. The reason this fact stood out to me was because it implied to me that employers were specifically looking for cheap labor. I briefly spoke to one of the managers who made me sign a few documents and, after having some coffee and biscuits, we headed off to the vineyards in three different trucks. One of the young guys invited me to join their truck, even if we hadn’t yet spoken. Feeling slightly out of place, with everyone knowing where to go, I followed him.

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The Work

Indeed, it was hard work. This was not obvious until later, however. The first day, because I did not know anyone, I put my headphones on and followed the limited instructions I had been given. Crouching, removing leaves to see the bunches of grapes better, cutting them with the pruning shears they had provided and putting them in my bucket. I would continue doing this and empty my bucket periodically when the Porteurs (carriers) came close to me. They had large buckets strapped to their backs and their job was to collect the bunches of grapes from the coupeurs (cutters), like myself, then to go dump them into the trucks. I later calculated that these men- they were exclusively male- were carrying between 30 and 40 kilos back and forth throughout the day; as much as my body hurt later that week, I still cannot imagine taking their position.

In the first three minutes of the job, I cut my finger with the shears. It burnt but was not bleeding too bad, so I decided to ignore it and continue. Other than this, the first two hours rushed by fairly swiftly; they were repetitive but painless, and they had given me plenty of time to listen to a podcast and music. It was surprising to see people stop so soon, but I followed without complaining. The managers arrived, brought out sandwiches, water and wine. I decided not to have the latter on my first day. We soon went back to the vineyards for another two hours. These were slightly more tiring, but still easily bearable. After the 30-minutes lunch break is when my legs and arms began feeling a bit tired, but I persisted as I had in other physical activities during my lifetime. It was in the last 2 hours that the amount of work I had been doing really began weighing on me. My legs felt sore, my lower back had an intense pain and my shoulders felt perpetually uncomfortable. I was very relieved when I heard our bosses yelling from the other side of the field to go back. After going to the chateau and changing, they dropped us off at the train station and I dozed off for the 40-minutes trip.

The following day, I woke up with pain all over my body. It was what I had expected all along, but my mental preparation did not lessen the pain in any way. I repeated my morning routine and savored every minute of the train ride, enjoying the stunning change of color scheme in the French countryside. I forced myself to continue my job despite the aching, and an hour into our arrival at the vineyards I no longer felt pain in a certain spot, just fatigue. By the end of the day, after hours of crouching, squatting, kneeling and sweating, the fatigue was truly getting the best of me. I had heard people often passed out while doing the job, because it’s often the first physical job they do. I thought of how back in Costa Rica I had helped in reforestation projects and a few building tasks, but how nothing compared to this. One of my bosses, knowing my origins, asked if I had ever picked coffee. I thought of how picking coffee was thought of as a very “lower class” job in my country, mainly done by Nicaraguan immigrants. This was an instant reflection of what the culture of the vendanges is slowly changing into. It certainly gave me something to think about while cutting the grapes. I should have at least tried picking coffee once, I kept thinking.

After getting home the second day, I cleaned my room, cooked dinner and then intended to take an hour-long nap at 8pm. My 9pm alarm did not wake me, and I slept 10 hours until 6am, only to wake up feeling even more sore than the previous morning. People had told me, and I knew it, just like with sports the third day was the worst, when you must bear the soreness of both the first and second day. I looked at my hands, scratched from reaching into vines all day, looked at my shoulders, burnt from late August’s sun, and smiled in pain, knowing that this was exactly what I had signed up for. The third day was by far the hardest, my legs hurt every squat and my back stung whenever I bowed down. And then the fourth day, I was ok. It was a very strange feeling where I was exhausted, but it didn’t bother me to continue working. At the end of every day I was ready to stop, hungry thirsty and sleepy, but not sore, not necessarily in pain.

In terms of work, I found precisely what I was looking for. Unfortunately, I had to start the harvest late because of my internship dates and could only do 6 days, yet these were enough to challenge me and satisfy my desire for self-achievement. Beyond that, I was satisfied in a philosophical aspect, as I had been working with nature and, in a way, doing exactly what my body was made to do: gather fruit. As you might expect, though, I doubt I would have been happy continuing for much longer and the experience also helped me appreciate office work and life as a student. That in itself is what made the experience so powerful as well: knowing I didn’t have to do this for the rest of my life and doing it next to people who were not fortunate enough to say the same with certainty. This work showed me what I could do in many ways, but it mainly taught me about what many people have to do; and in doing so it gave me great respect for all that part of the human community that allows the rest of us to have food on our tables at night.

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// 2 tips on picking grapes //

  • Try not to cut any grape in half. The juice will cover your sheers and your hands will become sticky, making it much more uncomfortable to continue the work. The longer you can continue with clean shears the best.
  • When you see several bunches bundled together, you can put your bucket on the bottom, move the leaves with one of your hands, cut with the other and let the fruit fall on its own.

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