Markets, hot-pants and getting stuck in to ecological building

It’s funny… despite the language barrier, I feel more relaxed and more like I’m ‘being myself’ here than I did at ECOlonie, and even quicker than in Ireland. Maybe it’s because there’s less people to meet all at once, or because I’m getting used to this travelling thang… or maybe I’m just more comfortable in a situation when I know that a lot of what I’m saying isn’t being understood… Who knows. I would like to come back here one day, but I would like to improve my French a helluva lot first, or learn Esperanto. Pierlo can speak a bit of many languages but only describes himself as fluent in French and Esperanto – a universal language created in the late 1800s by a eighteen year old Polish boy who wanted the many nationalities in his town to stop arguing over which should be the mutual language. There are now, according to Pierlo, ten million people in the world who speak Esperanto, as well as many books, films and music in the language and plentiful resources online to help you learn it quickly and for free. Apparently it’s very easy to learn and Pierlo did it in one month (although I get the feeling he’s one of those people who’s naturally awesome at languages, which I ain’t. I have enough trouble speaking English correctly…) and you can even send recordings of yourself speaking, and written work to Esperanto teachers for free.

The free aspect is a big part of Esperanto, or at least it’s a big part of it for Pierlo who – although he isn’t moneyless – seems to share a lot of similar values as the moneyless people I’ve read about and spoken to. The more people I meet, the less I care about having a house, a job or any money and the more I care about having a life. ECOlonie was confirmation for me that there are places out there that I can live happily without the money or status worries that suffocate me in the ‘real world’. Unfortunately, I do have a big ol’ graduates overdraft hanging over my head… Having no money at all doesn’t bother me but having an ever-increasing amount of minus money that I owe the bank does. As soon as that’s gone, I’m free as a bird… we all know “student debt” doesn’t count.

ANYWAY. What was I saying? Oh yes, Pierlo is very good at spending as little money as possible. For example, all the windows in the house he got for three euros each from an office building that was closing in a local town. They’re all at least double-glazed, some a triple-glazed and he even got one bullet-proof window which he told us happily that he was saving for the toilet. For water, the family relies on Mother Nature – who hasn’t let them down yet. They have six 5000 litre storage tanks for rainwater which are all currently almost full and any excess is gradually filling up the big hole that Pierlo dug for their rainwater swimming pool that should be deep enough for swimming in a few more months. (I did try and have a little swim the other day because it was really hot and 10 year old Jule was jumping up and down excitedly and babbling at me in French – “I won’t shut up ’til you swim with me” was the gist of it, I think – I splashed around with him for a bit and even swam for a few strokes with my stomach touching the ground…) Pierlo’s also a big fan of free computer software and has helped me install Ubuntu onto my netbook… I love it. Three months of using Windows has been plenty for me and Ubuntu is a lot more Mac-like in its usability and gets bonus points for being absolutely free, open software and not owned by Microsoft or Apple.

For food, the family really do mainly eat what they grow – made in to different delicious dishes by Sandrine each day (her crustless quiche is delicious, as are her various veggie dipping sauces). For fertiliser, they use good ol’ humanure from the compost toilet, and of course have a compost heap for any food waste, peelings etc. The family also have six or seven chickens who provide eggs, and occasionally provide meat too. The family very rarely eat meat and Pierlo made it clear how much he dislikes killing the male chickens… but it’s inevitable that some of the chicks are male and it’s oven quite hard to give away a rooster. Yesterday, his friend who is an expert in killing animals as non-violently as possible came round and helped him with the unfortunate task of killing one of the roosters.

So, we went to the market in Bagnères with Pierlo and the kids on Saturday morning, after trying to sleep late but failing miserable because it was so very hot. Pierlo knows everybody – which we’d already begun to notice from going places with him but it became more apparent at the busy market – the main thing they went to get was two big crates of apples to last the week. As you already know, the main thing Matthew and I went to get was cheese. So we wandered together for a while and then Matthew and I branched off whilst Pierlo and the kids went to run some other errands. It was a nice Saturday treat that the percentage of people who could speak English was much higher amongst the market stall owners than anywhere else we’d been in France so far. So typically, it was me who got chatting to a friendly fella who collects herbs from the mountains to make various herbel remedies – and who reeled me in with a free goji berry taster – yet, it was Matthew who ended up being guilt-tripped (this guy wasn’t as creepy as the Camden Market pushers, but still very persuasive) into buying something. But it was something useful at least, a menthol and eucalyptus based oil – basically a more naturally made olbas oil – to help with his Hayfever which has been causing him serious grief. Poor Matthew has been coping with a lot for this visit – aggressive allergies, suddenly almost quitting smoking (the family evidently don’t smoke and Matt didn’t want to ask, so instead decided to stop… apart from the odd one when he ‘goes for a walk to take photographs’), and no meat or milk and very little cheese and bread. A lot of changes to deal with at once!

SO. We got baguettes, a couple of fresh local cheeses, fresh apple juice and a whole load of olives at the market and had a feast for lunch and then a big ol’ siesta in the afternoon when the heavy clouds finally broke and it rained for the first time since we got here. It was just in time though, the plants have shot up like crazy since the weekend and also it meant we got a good nights sleep and a real lie-in on Sunday… Although it did mean that our post-lunch Sunday walk was in the rain.

Laurent (the French helper who was here last week) left on Saturday and I’ve really missed him this week. We’d gotten pretty good at a charades-like communication system and he’d taken to shouting “Jozzzie!” (I let the French get away with putting a Z in my name) and doing jazz hands whenever I entered a room. A new helper arrived on Sunday – Gunther, a fifty-eight year old German man with tiny feet. I’ve really tried to give him a chance, but boy am I glad we only had to be there for one week with him. I’m really not sure what he’s doing there, and I can’t imagine he’s going to stay for the four weeks he’s planned to, because all he does is complain and then drive off every afternoon to eat sausages in Bagnères (seriously). These are just a few of the things he would say to me and/or Matthew daily:
“I need to eat something other than green food. It’s shit.”
“I need to have a proper shower. It’s shit.”
“There’s no hot water. It’s shit.”
“The chickens wake me up when I want sleep. It’s shit.”
“I need a room where I can stand, with Wifi. It’s shit.”
It really is a downer to have a grunting, pink-faced, hot-pant clad man moaning at you continuously. As far as I could tell, he didn’t have any interest in ecological building or organic gardening whatsoever, in fact on his very first day he said to me, “I only came to France to learn French”. Well okay mate, why don’t you go and do that somewhere where you can get all the sausages, hot water and internet access that you want.

Okay, rant over.

I’ve started to get a bit more in to the swing of kissing everyone on both cheeks every time I see them or leave them. Sometimes I love it, but when there’s seven of us living together, and then seven people working together, it gets pretty exhausting… and is not very compatible with morning breathe. There’s been a new helper at Dominique’s this week – Michel, a friendly, skinny Parisian who is studying Ecological Construction and working with Dominique and Pierlo as part of his course. On Monday, we all finished off the plastering in Jule’s bedroom which was a great feeling, especially when Jule came home from school and saw it. I’ve gotten a lot better at plastering too, and even tackled a tricky corner where the slanted roof meets the ground. I was also trusted to mix the plaster by myself (following Pierlo’s recipe), which was a lot of fun.

On Monday evening, Pierlo, Gunther, Matthew, Marion and I had a crepe-eating marathon. Thirteen year old Marion made the mixture and Pierlo rustled up one of the family’s two hot plates – with six circular indents especially for crepe-making (I need one of those in my life). We feasted for a good hour after dinner, with toppings of melted chocolate, honey, sugar or a mixture and it turned in to a bit of a competition. I don’t know how many I ate, but I came in second to Pierlo and Tuesday was the first morning that I wasn’t hungry, even by break-time. In the morning, Pierlo made me laugh so much – “It’s funny, the last time I ate that much, I dreamt about shit. And I did it again! I was swimming in a pool of shit.”

This week has gone past much too quickly. One afternoon, I helped Pierlo make a start on the floor boards of Jule’s room. He talked me through the process step-by-step and I got pretty handy with the two different sorts of nail guns by the end of it. The great thing about being here, is that there’s never any hint of there being men’s jobs and women’s jobs… which there even was a bit of at ECOlonie. Each morning, Pierlo and Dominque say all the jobs that need doing and everyone says what they want to do. So this weeks been a real mixture of jobs… One morning I spent an hour or so attaching string to tomato plants to guide their growth (which was a method recommended to Sandrine from a local tomato farm, instead of the usual method I’ve seen of using sticks which takes up more room in your green house or poly-tunnel)… I spent some time helping Pierlo varnish the ceiling in his and Sandrine’s room with a linseed oil & turpentine mixture… Matthew, Michel, Pierlo and I spent a morning doing the tricky task of changing the large straps securing the straw-bales on one side of Dominique’s house, for smaller straps… I’ve done a bit of weeding and a bit of helping with food preparation… and another morning taking the plastic sheet protection off one wall of Dominique’s house and attaching wooden guide sticks and cut up hessian bags with a staple-gun. On Thursday we all had a lot of fun getting absolutely covered in the earthen slip – made up of just earth and water and mixed with a huge industrial electronic whisk – which is the very first layer after on the exterior of a straw-baled house. I was splattered in mud from head to toe and I loved it. We even managed to finish the next layer as well, just in time for the wall to be protected by the rain that arrived yesterday.

***

 I’m writing this on the train to Toulouse on Saturday morning… though I’m not sure when I’ll be able to upload it. It was sad to say good bye to Sandrine, Marion and Jule last night and to Pierlo and the lovable family boxer, Mama, this morning at the station. They really are an amazing family, so kind and fun and welcoming and the life they’ve built for themselves is truly inspiring. I hope to go back some day and maybe see the house finished and whatever project Pierlo works on next – I’m sure there will be many.

From Toulouse, we’re getting the train to Barcelona where we’ll spend the afternoon before traveling overnight to Granada and spending the day there tomorrow. On Monday we’ll travel to meet our next host in Ugijar, for lunchtime tapas. We’re going to stay with Karen – a Scottish lady living in the mountains of Sierra Nevada, growing veg and making cherry wine… amongst other things which I’ll guess we’ll find out about on Monday.

Sorry for babbling on again, I haven’t quite got the hang of the short & snappy blog post style yet!

 

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