Every expat I know has a story about their French neighbours giving them something in exchange for help, we call it bartering but I’m not really sure it can be termed that since no negotiations ever seem to take place.
Take my neighbour J-P for instance, he suffers from a heart problem and has to be a bit careful but he has absolutely no intention of changing his lifestyle of self-sufficiency. He prides himself on having never been to a supermarket and grows absolutely everything himself or knows someone else who grows what he needs. One year he gave us a bucket of beautiful aubergines after we helped chop about 20 tonnes of wood for the fire for his belle maman!
When he came one morning and asked if we’d help him dig his potatoes up, I thought they were in his garden and was a bit surprised when he said we’d go in our car – I was thinking how odd to drive 50 yards to his garden! But, he directed us out of the village, a few miles down windy little lanes and suddenly we were in Azincourt (which we Brits call Agincourt – where the famous battle took place). He told us to stop at the side of the road and there in front of us was a huge field and he had three very long rows of potatoes growing!
J-P farms à l’ancienne – the old way – by which I mean he doesn’t have one of those new-fangled tractors to dig the potatoes out. The farmer who owns the field had turned the soil for him so the plants weren’t hard to pull up and we basically shook the potatoes off and bagged them up in huge hessian sacks. It was back breaking and took all day. The OH and I pulled, shook and filled big buckets and J-P held the sacks open for us to pour the buckets in!
At noon J-P produced bottles of beer, wine, cheese, bread and ham, we had a bite to eat at the side of the field. The sun was shining and the wedgewood blue sky was beautiful, bees were buzzing about, birds came down to see what we were doing and pick amongst the upturned plants. There was no sound except for a distant tractor and the birds singing. A buzzard hovered above checking us out, we sat in companionable but exhausted silence and contemplated the next stage.
We were almost done by late afternoon – half a row left, when my neighbour told us he had enough potatoes to get him and his family through winter and what was left was for us. By now his mate had arrived with a trailer and had loaded the many many sacks we’d picked and the pair of them trundled off leaving us with some empty sacks.
We were so surprised, we hadn’t expected anything in return for helping a neighbour but he wouldn’t hear a word of dissent and told us if we didn’t take them they would go to waste.
We picked all those potatoes and 2 hours later filled our boot with 6 enormous sacks. On the way home the car was filled with an earthy, fresh smell which was then transferred to our little dark wine room where the spuds were stored over winter. They lasted right through from October to February and were the best potatoes I’ve ever had!
I’m pretty sure J-P will have given the farmer something for his troubles, perhaps some fruit from his garden or a chicken for the pot; he will have given something to his mate with the trailer who helped him store the potatoes.
It’s old fashioned but it certainly provokes a feeling of community and sharing – no money changes hands but everyone benefits from helping each other out and I don’t know a single expat in France that doesn’t have a similar story to tell…