After a rest day in Briançon, playing tourist with Rohan and Jill, it was time to head to my first helpx experience, a volunteering gig in a little village in the Alps, where i had signed up to help with picking apples. On a picture perfect day, Rohan, Jill and I got on a train to Marseille, where Rohan and Jill were heading. I got off the train at the first stop in L’Argentier. After a nice hour long walk along the Durance river, I arrived in Roche-de-Rame. I called Aurélie, my host and she directed me to the “workshop” : go up along the “torrent” until you see two walnut trees and a pile of wood. When I arrived, i saw Aurélie throwing apples into a machine and a guy working the press. We exchanged “bonjours” and she told me to make myself at home in the little room at the back of the workshop, which served as living room, kitchen and dining area. There was a little patio outside with a table and chairs. The scene from the patio was breathtaking. On both sides of the valley, loomed the mountains of the L’Ecrins national park. In the valley itself lay the tiny village on the left bank of the Durance.
Thus began my 9 days at the “pressoir”, a very unique and memorable experimce. In the coming days, I would help pick a ton of apples and help process that into juice. In the process, I would be humbled by the incredible hard work that goes into an operation like this and form a transient community with Aurèlie and Valentina, another helper from Chile.
First, it was time to pick tomatoes. Aurèlie and I threw a bunch of crates into a van and drove up to the tomato patch. For 6 hours, we filled the crates with 500 kg of tomatoes under a blue alpine sky.
The next day, I was free. I borrowed Aurelie’s bicycle and checked out a couple of village in the valley as well as an old fort called Mont Daphin. As I was biking back, I got caught up in a group of about hundred people protesting THT. As I walked along with the protesters into the small village St. Crepin, I asked some of the protesters what THT was. Nobody spoke English but with French, a couple of English words and lots of signing, they explained that they were protesting high tension electricity transmission towers. As the protesters moved on to the next village, I stopped to get a beer and a pizza at the only restaurant in the village called Le Gauloise, complete with the Asterix theme.
The next day, Aurelie and I left early with 75 crates in the big van to pick apples from an orchard about 1.5 hrs away. Along the way, we stopped at a village to pick up another Helpx helper, Valentina, a 28 year old from Chile. That day, the three if us picked literally a ton of golden delicious apples. Here’s how it works: the orchard owners pay pickers to pick the apples from the trees, but in the process, a lot of apples fall on the ground. If the apples on the ground don’t get picked up, they rot and encourage mice to multiy in the orchard, so the orchard owners alow Aurelie to pick those apples for free. It is hard work, picking apples from the ground, crate after crate, and then loading the van with all the full crates.
The next day, all the apples were crushed and pressed into juice, the juice pasteurized and bottled. Aurelie has a couple of guys from the village doing the pressing. I helped out by feeding the crushing machine with 75 crates of apples.
We settled into a routine along these lines. Picking fruit, making juice, cooking dinner, eating together, hanging out and sleeping well. Valentina spoke a little English and was keen to learn more, so she and I alternated between English and Spanish, each of us getting better every day. Valentina was traveling on a shoestring, a very small shoestring, hitch-hiking, volunteering and staying with friends. I was impressed by her confidence in doing that. She was vegan, which prompted Aurelie to ask, “What are you going to eat in France, especially here in the Alps”. But, it all worked out. Every now and then, Valentina and I would walk down to the only store in the village and buy some vegetables and bread. We made ratatouille, couscous and lentil soup, everything generously spiked with tomatoes (we had our pick from the 500 kg of them in the workshop!). There was also lots of cheese and some delicious cures wild boar from Corsica.
On a free day, Valentina and I went hiking in the L’Ecrins national park. Aurelie dropped us off at the starting point, some 15 km away. We hiked up to a couple of alpine lakes in picture perfect weather.
In all the days there, I never saw Aurelie take any time off; she was constantly working. On the next drive out to pick apples, she explained the economics of her business, which I found to be sobering. All summer and autumn, she works non stop and produces about 10,000 liter bottles of juice, mostly apple, but some pear, apricot, tomato and cherry. She has a couple of guys in the village who work for her and the occasional volunteers like us. On each bottle, she makes about 1 euro, after subtracting the cost of labor, electricity, rent, etc. So, she makes about 10,000 euros in profit in a year. In the winter, she does other work in the ski resorts. This year, she has moved into a bigger workshop and is trying to work extra hard to produce 20,000 bottles, so she can take the winter off and ski. I also learned that she was pursuing a PhD in agricultural anthropology for 10 years before dropping out and deciding to do this. She says it is a lifestyle choice. She loves living in the southern alps and is passionate about making quality juice from local fruit.More I learned about Aurelie, more I realized what a remarkable woman she is.
On my final free day,Valentina and I hitch-hiked to a picturesque alpine village called Vallouise and had a relaxing afternoon.