Students

Your holiday work is their daily life

Blood, sweat, and grapes

Getting physical, working on your tan, making a few extra bucks: for students, picking grapes in France feels like an escape to the country. But many of the French pickers earn their daily bread on the fields.
By Sisi van Halsema / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

It’s 32 degrees Celsius. My clothes are drenched in sweat and grape juice, and my hands are covered in bloody cuts. But my back bothers me the most. I don’t know whether to bend or kneel; everything hurts. It’s only my second day here.

After finishing my thesis, I literally and figuratively needed some air, so I decided to go pick grapes in France. If you’re like me, that idea probably conjures up images of warm, late-summer sun, rolling hills and vineyards, good food and red wine, new friends and deep conversations: a holiday that earns you a buck or two on top of everything.

But as I rush to keep up with my fellow pickers, I clumsily let my sharp shears slice straight through the nail and soft flesh of my little finger. ‘Ouch!’ I look up to see everyone else well ahead of me. Wasn’t this supposed to be relaxing? Am I even having fun?

Working throughout the year

Not everyone here is doing this job ‘just for fun’. Nataniel, from Marseille, tells me he works the land throughout the year from harvest to harvest, always looking for ways to make some money. We don’t talk much while we’re picking grapes; my French is poor, as is his English. Every once in a while, though, I hear him moan in pain. ‘Ça va?’ I ask him. ‘You okay?’ He doesn’t answer. ‘Ça va’ is apparently not a great question to ask.

I’m broken after just a few days. How do people do this for months on end?

Soon I find myself in the same row as Eddy, another Frenchman. I ask if this is his first harvest this year. ‘Yes’, he says. ‘But before this I was digging up onions.’ I ask him what’s harder: grapes or onions? ‘Onions, without a doubt.’ But picking grapes is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I’m broken after just a few days. How do people do this for months on end? How do they keep it up when there’s no end in sight?

Valérie, a local girl, tugs roughly on the vines. When she releases them, they smack me in the face. She hardly uses her shears. But she’s very fast, and it’s clear that she’s developed her own technique over the years. Every time I grab a bunch it slips from my fingers because she’s tugging on the vines so hard. Other pickers, like Jerome, pick the grapes gracefully and dexterously. It looks like he’s barely touching the vines.

‘If you can handle the harvest at Jean-Claude’s, you can handle anything’, says Jerome, throwing a few bunches in my buckets so it isn’t so empty. He’s been picking for our farmer, Jean-Claude Papillon from Saint-Laurent d’Oingt, for ten years. Jerome isn’t the only one who keeps coming back every year; the people here are like a family.

Lonely work

No wonder: our farmer is a friendly man around seventy years old. He’s enthusiastic about his life as a viticulturist, or grape farmer. He took over the company from his father. ‘You can’t be a grape farmer if you don’t love it’, he says. ‘The pickers are just here for a few weeks during the harvest, but for me the work continues year-round. I have to take care of my land and my vines. It can be lonely work sometimes.’

Jean-Claude says this year is extra hard. Several heavy hailstorms have ruined part of his harvest. I can tell by the size of the grapes; some are so tiny that I hesitate to pick them.

During the short breaks I want to lie down in the grass to relax my back, but there’s no time for that. After we’ve all had a little water and wine, Jean-Claude urges us back to work: ‘Allez, allez.’ If we need to pee, we have to do it somewhere in the vines we’ve already harvested. It’s easy for the men, but the women have a harder time. I’m afraid people will see me, so I pick a spot farther away. The others have started picking a new row when I’m done and I have to run after them to catch up.

I’m amazed the French manage to stay upright in the field after so much wine

When the day is over we pack like sardines into a yellow Peugeot van that drives us home. We’re thrown around as the van navigates the many turns in the road. Marga, the farmer’s ex-wife from Limburg, is waiting for us, the tables covered in food. There’s white bread, French cheeses, a lot of meat – although they also take vegetarians like me into account – and wine. Lots and lots of wine. I’m amazed the French manage to stay upright in the fields.

Marga first came here when she was my age, also to pick grapes. Jean-Claude fell head over heels in love with her. A few summers later, they were married and had a daughter. Mother and her now-grown daughter have since moved back to the Netherlands, but for the past five years Marga has returned during the harvest to help Jean-Claude with his administration and cooking.

Lost all sense of time

During dinner, I realise I don’t even mind the hard work that much. It’s exhausting, sure, but it gives me a feeling of fulfilment at the end of the day. After the work is done there is nothing else to occupy my mind. I fall asleep the moment my head hits the pillow. I’ve not slept this well in a long time. I’ve gotten used to the rhythm and the pain and I’ve lost all sense of time.

It helps to know that the end is in sight, though. When I started, I knew I would be picking grapes for approximately ten days. I know I can last that long.

For the French pickers, the work isn’t an intermezzo. The fields are their life

The other Dutch people here are in the same situation. Loes, who has been picking grapes for Jean-Claude for seven years, has been accepted into the group. Just like me, she enjoys the physicality after all the sitting in her daily life.

Lieke is in between jobs and has taken her parents’ camper van to drive to France; Gerrit is a business analyst who looking for something a little bit different than the standard beach vacation. We all have one thing in common: we’re here for the experience, not for the money.

But for many of the French pickers, working the land isn’t an intermezzo, a fun little experience away from school or work. The fields are their life.

When I return to the Netherlands, my grape-picking days will just be a lovely memory. I’ve finished school, and in the fields I had tons of ideas of what to do when I get back home. I now realise how lucky I am to get to pursue them.

Interested in picking grapes?

The harvest usually starts late August, early September. You can register with several organisations, like Apcon. This will cost you 100 euros. You’ll be placed with a farmer in either the Beaujolais or the Maconais region. They’re both near Lyon. You will get room and board, but you have to pay for your own travel. I took the Flixbus, but it was an uncomfortable seventeen-hour journey.

You can also apply for jobs through other websites, such as pickingjobs.com. Or you could just take your chances and travel to France in the hope that someone needs pickers. September is your best bet. Make sure you find a good farm though; not everyone will have a room for you. It might be a good idea to bring a tent and a sleeping bag.

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