Published in Travellers’ Tales, Provence, and Travellers’ Tales, a Woman’s Europe
WE WAKE EACH day to the sound of a different hippie instrument. Day one was a Tibetan Bell; on day two, Instructor Roger plays the piccolo; today, a man we call Guido because of his oiled hair and handsome gold neckchains walks around strumming a guitar. My brother emerges furrily from another corner of the biodynamic farm, teeth unbrushed, ready to hike to the field for our yoga matinal.
Fifteen aspirant yogis wait in the field for Instructor Roger. All of them are French, deeply earnest, and committed to the principles of biodynamic agriculture. At dawn exactly, Instructor Roger arrives, smiling and bright. He and Instructor Claire are leading this week-long yoga and hiking retreat in the Alps of Haute Provence. Both are disciples of the Indian guru Patanjali and dedicated biodynamic vegetarians.
The sky, like the fragrant wildflowers, is a luminous purple-blue. The air smells of lavender and wild thyme; a palomino horse whinnies in the distance. The milk cows are returning from the fields, making low cow noises, the bells around their stout necks tinkling. Instructor Roger wavesbonjour and produces a small teapot from his baggy trouser pocket. He murmurs something in Sanskrit, then cautions us in French to watch attentively. He begins pouring water into his right nostril. It drains directly out the left nostril and on to the dry ground. My brother and I are revolted and fascinated. “I’m sure it’s very healthful and all,” my brother whispers, “but I wouldn’t do it on a first date.”
I agree that it’s definitely not a first-date thing.
Roger proceeds to blow his nose boisterously, spraying the wildflowers with lavish plumes, then attends to the opposite nostril. Properly purged, he launches into a lecture about the healthful effects of proper nasal hygiene. With Roger, everything becomes a lecture. The practice is called netti, he tells us, making the word sound more French than Sanskrit, and if practiced faithfully, will cleanse the body of impurities, physical and spiritual.
In the distance Mont Ventou can be seen; the dawn is so clear that it is possible to see the white flag that flies from the peak. I am not sure what the flag symbolizes. Perhaps the French are surrendering again. The earth is tinder-dry, and a breeze rustles pleasantly through the grassy slopes and stirs a chorus of beating crickets, eddies of variegated butterflies.
Every morning begins with yogic nasal hygiene. We are not yet advanced enough for the teapot; instead we practice ritual noseblowing. Surrounded by golden rolled wheels of hay, we blow our noses with huge gulping snorts to Roger’s cadence. Inspire! Expire! Inspire! Expire!
My brother leans over and whispers again: “If you do this right, you’ll get high as a kite.”
I blow and I blow. Nothing much happens.
Disappointingly, none of the other yogis are below the age of forty. My brother is inconsolable. “I thought this would be, you know, a hippie thing,” he says to me. “With great-looking blond hippie girls, you know the kind with little anklets, the ones who just really like to pass the bong and stretch?”
“Maybe someone stretchy will show up tomorrow,” I say.
He takes no comfort, and mutters to himself. “I can’t believe it. I’m here with ten women old enough to be my mother, a fat guy with gold chains around his neck who wears a tiny leopard print swimsuit, and my sister. This is not what I had in mind.”
Josette and François, members of José Bové’s Confederation Paysanne, run the biodynamic farm. They are not yogis themselves, but in the summer, the farm becomes a hostel of sorts for visiting groups of New Age stagiares, students of yoga, astronomers, collectors of essential oils. The farm’s sunsplashed dormitories sleep groups of four or five; there is an oak-panelled communal dining room with huge windows that open onto the mountains, and an activity room with walls made of local stone, cool and pleasant in the afternoons. The hostel is spotlessly clean and redolent of lavender oil. The dining room is filled with brochures denouncing the IMF, leaflets decrying genetically modified organisms and battery farming, Greenpeace literature. To round out the activist palette, a prominent stack of tracts calls for the interposition of an international police force in Occupied Palestine.
Josette is a tall woman of handsome peasant stock and an imposing sternness, with a thick wedge of chin-length iron hair, high color and broad shoulders. Her arms are muscular from years of heavy labor. She instantly conveys that she is not to be defied and will brook no bourgeois nonsense, no nonsense of any kind. The word formidable comes to mind. My brother and I imagine her children, sitting on the psychoanalyst’s couch. “My mother was a formidable woman,” we imagine them saying. She is clearly running this show; François stays in the fields and wears a series of proletarian uniforms: Grey overalls, green overalls, thigh-high rubber boots suitable for mucking stalls.
In the dining room, at lunch, we examine the leaflets about biodynamic agriculture. We learn that the principles of biodynamic agriculture were delineated by the Austrian mystic Rudolph Steiner, in 1916. The ideal farm should be self-contained, he argued, with just the right number and combination of animals to provide the manure needed to revitalize the soil. These animals in turn should be fed from the same land. Biodynamic agriculture forbids the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, relying instead upon crop rotation and composting. Steiner, influenced by the Theosophists, posited subtle cosmic formative forces on plant growth, and claimed to be able to see back in time to ancient events imprinted on the cosmic aether. In his portrait, he is wearing a high starched collar and a heavy black overcoat; his eyes are wild, staring and mad.
As Steiner would have wished, the farm we are on strives for self-sufficiency, and the vegetables we eat — carrots, beets, lettuce and fresh herbs — come from the garden behind the stable. François raises his own wheat, from which the daily bread is made. The bread is just awful, like lead.
The life of the farm appears to be organized around the daily rhythms of the twenty milk cows. They come in for milking, they go out to pasture, they come in for milking again. Each cow’s name is hand-lettered above her stall. Jacinthe, Marguerite, Koala and their companions are milked twice daily, herded to the fields by means of affectionate slaps on their marbled rumps, and allowed to graze freely. They look to be in glorious bovine health. A calf is born the first morning we are there, white and brown with a pirate-patch of sorrel over one of his enormous eyes. He is hopelessly touching, following his mother around on unsturdy splayed legs. Behind the stable a family of black pigs and piglets scarf down slops, as Steiner would have wished: They are eating the acidic waste produced during cheesemaking so that it does not contaminate the soil. The pigs grunt happily. “Doesn’t get much better than being a biodynamic pig on a vegetarian farm,” my brother says, wandering over to scratch a pig behind the ears.
Later, we are dismayed to find a leaflet promoting the farm’s own paté. The farmers are vegetarians, evidently, but some of the customers are not. “This is disturbing,” my brother whispers to me, showing me the leaflet. “Verydisturbing.”
While we do yoga, the farmhands work. They pitch hay, or whatever it is one does with hay. They sweep the stables. There is incessant labor involved in collecting the milk, making the cheese and keeping these beasts warm, dry and happy. The farmhands are always doing something disagreeable; someone is always brandishing a pitchfork, driving a tractor, industriously hauling something heavy from a truck.
The farm does not belong to Josette and François, but to a fraternal, non-profit organization called the Earth and Sky Society. According to its charter, the organization exists to foster cultural exchanges and “make the world a better place for human life while finding a good relationship with the earth that nourishes us, a forum of life where respect for humans and nature forges a positive attitude toward humanity and its future on this planet.” Major decisions about the farm are made by committee, and loans to the farm come from a fraternal bank. The farm is staffed by volunteers, many of them conscientious objectors from Germany.
The food is just abominable, but everyone keeps raving about it, because it’s biodynamic. Every day Josette puts exactly the same thing on the long wooden picnic tables beneath the linden trees: Dark bread with the weight and density of plutonium, a bowl of undressed lettuce garnished with edible marigolds, lentils, grated carrots and stone-hard peaches. There is never quite enough, and even though it is a dairy farm, milk and yogurt are rationed sharply. After each meal the yogis lunge ungraciously for the scraps, bargaining savagely with each other for the last few lettuce leaves. The meals are dreary and monotonous. But no one admits it. C’est délicieux!the yogis declare, smacking their lips. How much better it tastes when it is prepared naturally! By the third day, my brother and I are desperate. At lunch, my brother looks down the table and whispers, softly, to no one in particular, “coq au vin.”
Half the table looks scandalized, as if he had revealed a fetish. But a dreamy look passes across the face of a plump woman named Anne. “Ah oui,” she sighs. “avec des frites.” Her husband looks at her indulgently, tenderly, but the rest of the table glares. “Of course this too is very good,” she says quickly, applying herself to her naked lettuce leaves.
That evening I spot Jonas. Jonas is at least six and a half feet tall, not yet 21, strapping, handsome, well-muscled, blond. He speaks excellent English, although very slowly, with a thick German accent that makes him sound exactly like Arnold Schwartzenegger. He looks as if he was born to invade Poland, but in fact he volunteered to work at the Farm in order to avoid German military service. At first he thought he was clever, Jonas did, getting out of forced marches and night patrols to spend a year in Provence, but after a year of shovelling manure and slopping hogs — ten hours a day, six days a week — those night patrols are sounding better and better. He loathes the Farm, loathes everything about it, is dying of boredom and hatred. He yearns to be in Berlin, listening to the music of Rammstein and taking Ecstasy at the fashionable clubs. He regards the yogis with pure contempt. He has lived for a year now on Josette’s flavorless biodynamic cooking, and when we ask him one morning whether he will share his pot of real coffee with us — the yogis drink only decaffeinated chicory brew — he clutches the pot to his chest and growls like a cornered beast. “Not enough!” he snarls. “Find your own!”
We leave him and his coffee alone.
This is no life for a young man of his sensibilities. There is no one his age on the farm except for Josette and François’s daughter. She is plump and pretty, but Jonas suspects that François is the kind of man who knows how to use his hunting rifle. Jonas receives room and vegetarian board. They pay him a few hundred francs a month in pocket money, not even enough to pay for gas to drive to the nearest city.
“Well,” I say, “it’s got to be better than the military. At least no one’s shooting at you.”
“Yes,” he replies. “But maybe if I see another cow I shoot myself.”
As if to punctuate his comment, a cow moos stupidly in the distance.
How does it work, I ask him, doing public service instead of joining the military? Can you work anywhere you like?
“They like it if you work for one of Germany’s enemies. You know, Ukraine, Russia, France, Israel. I think it is stupid. I wasn’t responsible for that war. I wasn’t even born.”
Young Germans always want to tell me that they weren’t responsible for the war. They say it as early in the conversation as they can.
He asks me what I do in Paris. I tell him I write novels.
“I want to write a novel too,” he says. “Like Bret Easton Ellis. He is my favorite writer.”
“What do you want to write about?” I ask.
“This place,” he nods toward the cows.
“What about it?” I ask.
“The story of how I sell my soul.”
“You sold your soul?”
“I sell my soul to work on a biodynamic farm. I do it for my future, but I sell my soul.”
“I see,” I say. I am not sure what he means.
“I would write about these people. You know, François is a communist. A real one.” He flings his cigarette into the flowerbed with a flick of his wrist.
“Which one is he, exactly?” I ask, trying to place him. Josette is a commanding presence, but François is just a spectre.
“He is the one with all the hairs growing from his ears.” Hay-uhs gro-ving frum his ee-yahs.
“You don’t get along with them?” I ask.
He shrugs. “They don’t like me because they think I am bourgeois. They hate all people who don’t want to work with their hands. All intellectuals, they hate them.”
“Once,” says Jonas in his Arnold Schwartzenegger accent, “I complain about the food. I say that it is always the same.” All-vays duh same. “But Josette, she freak out.” He shakes his head to indicate that something awesome and terrible occurred. “I never say that again.” I neh-vuh say dat a-gain.
As he contemplates his lot, the Tibetan chime sounds, summoning us to afternoon yoga practice.
My brother and I remark that Instructor Roger is a dead ringer for Marshall Applewhite, the leader of the Heaven’s Gate cult who prompted his disciples to ingest poison mixed with applesauce in the hope of quitting their earthly vessels to ride the comet Hale-Bopp. This resemblance is especially pronounced when Roger dons his long white yoga robes. But Roger is jolly and good natured, with a kind of softness to all his body parts. He prefers lecturing about the theory of yoga to practicing it. He lectures for hours at a stretch, winding his way slowly through each of the eight steps on the path to enlightenment. He begins each discourse with a rhetorical question:Qu’est-ce que c’est le Pranayama? Qu’est-ce que c’est les Asanas? He pauses for effect, scanning the class with his eyes. Eh bien. Then he reaches for the original Sanskrit authorities, a voluminous set of notes, photographs of a pretzeled Indian guru, and the illustrated Larousse, and begins methodically to answer his own question, saying nothing at great length. Alors, j’explique.
My brother and I came to practice yoga, not to listen to lectures on yoga theory, and we are maddened with impatience. But we are amazed to see that the other students appear to love these lectures, and pronounce Roger’s endless disquisitions to be très, très bien. They encourage him. They raise their hands and ask long, complicated, completely incoherent theoretical questions. We are not sure whether this is because they are French, or because they are old. We suspect, though, that it is because they are French. After a two hour lecture on the theory of yoga postures, as we become progressively more cramped and stiff from sitting motionless on the floor, my brother turns to me and asks, “How on earth do these people make love?”
Instructor Claire is deathly thin. She is nothing but bone and veins covered in translucent skin, like a jellyfish. Her spine can be viewed from the front as well as the back. My brother and I worry about her. When we go hiking, I ask what we would do if she suddenly dropped dead.
“No problem, just sling her over your shoulder and skip down the trail,” my brother says.
“Could probably fit her in your backpack,” I agree.
We can’t figure out why she is so thin. She seems to be filling her plate with biodynamic food at every meal. Later at lunch, My brother leans over to me and whispers: “She’s a chewer.”
“Watch how many times she chews each bite.”
I watch. She is chewing every bite for a minute or more. I ask my brother what this means. He thinks that maybe she belongs to an Indian chewing sect, one in which devotees are obliged to chew each bite thirty times. The effect is nutritionally devastating, he says: The salivary enzymes decompose the proteins so thoroughly that the body can no longer use them. There is a lecture on nutrition for yogis on the schedule, but my brother declares that we will boycott it. We are not taking any nutritional advice from Instructor Claire, he says. No way.
In the afternoons, when yoga theory crawls to a close, the gentle stretching begins, although Instructor Roger interrupts us after every pose to correct us and then offer the lengthy theoretical justification for his correction. To my side sits a plump grey-haired woman who bears so striking a resemblance to my brother’s second-grade teacher that we rename her Mrs. Loeb, and cannot thereafter think of her by any other name. She is unable to do any of the yoga postures, but greatly enjoys the nose-blowing. For the entire week, she is a one-woman nose orchestra. Especially when we try to meditate. Instructor Roger’s voice urges deeper and deeper relaxation, a gentle breeze stirs the dry afternoon air and rustles the grass, we focus on our breath, inhale, exhale, and — Snort! Blast! — there goes Mrs. Loeb’s nose.
No, they are not young and lithe, these yogis. This is not the place to come to meet hippie chicks. There is Mrs. Loeb, of course, with her orchestral nose, and Christine, a drooping creature with large hips and very pale skin and sad eyes, and Marie-Thérèse, another painfully thin woman, in her sixties with dyed red hair and a pinched prune of a mouth. She complains of constipation. But we have to admit that these yogis are the gentlest, kindest group of earnest middle-aged people we have ever met. Mrs. Loeb spends hours trying to teach us the genders of French nouns. The classification of the American states is a source of puzzlement and vexation to my brother; Mrs. Loeb goes through every state in the Union with us: It isla Californie, but le Kansas, and oui, le français, he is not always logique. They are solicitous, concerned: We have arrived unprepared, without water bottles for our hikes, without raincoats. They offer their own. “But it’s not raining,” my brother protests. No matter; he is the youngest. They bundle him up in an enormous raincoat; his bare legs stick out underneath and he looks like a human mushroom swaying on its stalk.
At night, the yogis sit in a circle in the stone-walled activity room and sing French songs from their childhood. Together, their voices are sweet and lovely, almost childish. They sing of picking daisies, gathering wildflowers, first love. They all know all the words to the songs. Anne-Marie becomes nostalgic when they sing a song about the train that whistles. It reminds her of her first love. “How I cried,” she says. I try to imagine her as a young woman.
The farm reminds them of their childhoods; they all agree. “The cows, they look like the cows when I was growing up,” says Marie-Thérèse. Everyone nods vigorously. “Cows don’t look like that any more,” someone says. The cows do look happy, as these things go. They are outside all day; their stalls are spacious and clean; their hay is fresh. The mother and her calf are inseparable. The food tastes awful, it is true, but in the end we are glad that meat is never served. “Imagine waking up in the morning and finding just an empty stall and a cowbell where Koala used to be,” my brother says.
Once, we are attempting to meditate in the activity room, when a cow walks past the window and moos loudly, making the most absurd bovine sound, a sound of pure comic stupidity. It sounds just like Mrs. Loeb blowing her nose. My brother and I begin to giggle and can’t stop. The more we try, the worse it gets. We are doubled over on our yoga mats, trying to stop laughing, dying of embarrassment. The moment one of us gets a hold of ourselves, the other one starts again, and we lose control. We ruin everyone’s concentration.
On Thursday evening, we are shown a videotape about biodynamic agriculture. The video shows a woman casting astrological charts, a man spraying his crops with some kind of crystal, cows being cured of hoof-and-mouth disease with homeopathic tinctures. Then Josette gives a lecture. We sit in a circle, legs crossed lotus style. She begins by asking us each to introduce ourselves and explain what we do in the “marche de vie.” I’m puzzled by the phrase, and as we go around the room, it is obvious that everyone else is puzzled too. The other yogis stammer and babble, talking about how they do yoga to relax. Josette is looking at them as if they are fools, she didn’t ask about yoga and she couldn’t give a damn what they do to relax. Finally, it is my turn, and since I have an excuse, I ask, what does this French expression mean, marche de vie? Josette stares at me, her expression stern under her iron hair. “It means,” she says in French, marching her two forefingers briskly in the air, “what do you do in the walk in life?” I am no closer to understanding, but somehow I know intuitively that she is asking what sort of meaningful physical labor I do, and that no truthful answer I give will be remotely satisfactory.
I write, I say.
Her gaze is withering. Finally, she says, “what do you write?”
Feebly, I answer: “Maybe a book denouncing factory farming?”
Her face softens, slightly. “Ça va, alors.”
I have joined Jonas in the club of sold souls.
Wide-rumped Yogini Christine has been flirting with Yogi Serge all week; she slaps his bottom coyly as we hike up Mount Chamouse. She seems to be flirting with Yogi Guido, too, cuddling up to him as he plays his guitar. Watching this with puzzlement, my brother asks whether I’ve noticed that these middle-aged French women give off an air of hideous sexual desperation. “Insane crazed lust,” he says. “Like if they got their hands on you they’d tear you to shreds.”
Suddenly, we both have the same idea.
“Jonas,” we say in unison, and look at each other. My brother imagines Marie-Thérèse emerging from the stable, hastily rearranging herself and shaking her short dyed hair. Oh la la! J’ai tiré un bon coup, moi!
We know we have a moneymaker on our hands.
Later, we pitch the idea to him. “Look, Jonas, this is a strictly commercial proposal. We arrange everything and we take ten percent. One night of work, you could make enough to spend next weekend in Biarritz.”
He looks at us, the muscles in his jaw twitching. He’s not sure if we’re serious.
“I already sell my soul. I don’t want to sell my body.” Boh-dee.
“Aw, c’mon Jonas,” I coax. “You wanted to write a novel, right? Let me tell you, no one’s interested in a novel about shovelling cow shit. But a novel called I was a Biodynamic Gigolo — straight to the top of the bestseller list, man, I’m telling you.”
He stares at us some more. “Really?” he says at last.
“Really,” I assure him.
He is thinking about it, and his head is getting warm from the effort. In the distance, we hear the cowbells and the low cow sounds. The crickets stir and croak. The children are playing petanque outside the stable and their voices are a gentle gabble. Jonas thinks. Christine returns from the field with an armful of fresh lavender and Spanish broom, which she will arrange in a bouquet for the dinner table. Jonas follows her wide hips with his eyes. The Tibetan chime sounds; it is time for the afternoon yoga. We leave Jonas, pitchfork in hand, golden hair gleaming in the sun, staring into the distance, contemplating the state of his soul.
Yogi Serge insists that it is possible to feel the trees’ energy. On one hike, we summit a hill and find the yogis on the other side, holding hands in a ring around an ancient oak, eyes closed, expressions rapt, attempting to pass energy from hand to hand in a circle. When they are finished, each of the yogis hugs the tree in turn. My brother and I look at each other; he raises an eyebrow. We go over to the tree to try to feel the energy too. I close my eyes and stretch out my hands just like Serge. I don’t feel much of anything, but of course I say that I do; I tell Serge that the energy is très très forte. “Did you feel anything?” I whisper to my brother afterwards.
“I felt a sort of rumbling,” he says.
“It’s all those lentils, I think. All this biodynamic food is making me really turbo-charged, if you know what I mean.”
I know exactly what he means.
I have almost given up on feeling the energy, writing it off as a bad job, but on the last day, Instructor Roger leads us in special yogic breathing exercises in a shady copse in the woods. The temperature of the air is exquisite, like dry champagne. We place our mats on the ground and sit with our legs crossed and our spines erect; we inhale, holding our breath, relaxing our muscles, then exhale, then inhale again. The wind rustles in the grass and the leaves of the trees. The air is so soft, the breeze so gentle, the sky so blue, the lavender so fragrant, the light so golden, that after two hours of this gentle breathing I am transported. We breathe energy into our fingers and toes, breathe energy into our scalps and our jaws and our ankles and our fingertips. We inhale and hold, we exhale and hold, my body feels as if it is lifting off the ground. My hands and my feet feel tingly and light, as if they are humming. I think I can feel the energy, yes, definitely I can feel the energy. I am willing to believe that the trees are speaking to me personally, telling me their sad tree stories, I can really feel it, I can, for a brief moment I can really feel it —
Then Mrs. Loeb blows her nose — Snort! Blast! —
My brother begins to snicker —
And the moment passes.