A thousand lives : My time as a winemaker in Napa, California

Arriving in Napa, California, was a little bit like going back home. Going back to “civilization” as only a European snob can say it. I just came from two months in the south of the US, where, let’s face it, everything is either fried or deep fried. Where all the restaurants are the same kind of joints, serving the same kind of food, with the same kind of accent.

I got there, and it was instant love. It’s just the cutest, most distinguish little town. It’s all European deli with really fancy delicate food. It is restaurants with a “concept”, with a nice decor, imaginative menus. It’s Americans at their snobbiest. The kind of Americans that spend every holiday in south of France or Italy, and talk about wine and fine cheese and traveling. California was for me like being back in Europe, expect sunnier, wilder and little bit more “in your face”.  Napa was the easy lay back small town, with distinguished rich people, talking about culture and being snobs.

It was my first stop in California because I found a job there working in a vineyard. That was always one of the things I regretted not doing in Australia. One of the arrows missing from my quiver. Working in the fields, in wine. The dream.

I absolutely loved it there. My bosses were this couple of retirees who had spent a fair bit of their time traveling in Europe. I would spend my days with my little cowboy belt, working on the vines with my secateurs, cutting the little regrowth so the main vine would have more strength. It was a long and tedious job but painless and easy. And I would work alongside people. Either my boss, talking to me about what we were to eat. My boss’s wife, talking to me about books and movies. Or their only employee, talking about his studies and Mexico.

For lunch the boss would always take me to town, we would go to this fancy Italian deli, buy the best food, come back home with fresh bread and pastrami, delicious expensive cheese and salad. And in the evening after work, if it was a good day, he would open one of his own bottle of red wine, offer me some fancy cheese and crackers, and we would sit there, in the delicate color of the evening, surrounded by vines. I loved the work, I loved the wine and I loved the people. They were brilliant. Old travelers, cultured, with their vineyard in Napa and their beautiful house in San Francisco. They were living the life, quite comfortable about what they had achieved, in what they were doing, and in the glorious and easy future ahead of them. And I just thought, well, I wouldn’t mind being here, quietly working the fields, when I’ll be their age. Winemaker it is.

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No one ever walks : welcome to the US

I will always remember my very first day in the US. I arrived in Florida and worked near Miami. I asked where was the closest supermarket and I was told the nearest Wal-Mart was about 30 minutes away by bus. I asked if I could walk there and I was told “nooo, it’s too long a walk”. On my phone it was about 15 minutes away, so I happily put on my brand new little white shoes and went on my shopping trip.

15 minutes it was but there was NOWHERE to walk. Not one sidewalk, not one bicycle lane, nothing. I walked on the side of a road for about 5 minutes and suddenly I was confronted with two massive motorways. I tried walking by the side of it, a little farther away, in the grass. It was uncomfortable and loud and after about 5 minutes I feel into a puddle of mud, up to my knee. So much for the pretty white shoes.

Then I came to the point where I was forced to cross those motorways. I had to run across them, it was highly dangerous and probably incredibly illegal. I arrived at Wal-Mart exhausted, sweaty and disgusting. And that was just one way.

But that’s the way it is in the US. There is just nowhere to walk because, well, let’s face it, no one wants to. I found that the lifestyle was, for the most part, very lazy. Everybody owns a car there, because that’s the only way to get around. And then their whole system is built around that. I went to a burger place one time, and wanted to go to the ice cream place across the road for dessert, and there was LITERALY no way for me to walk there, I had to take the car and DRIVE those 100 meters.  And since they are driving everywhere, they are getting pretty reluctant about leaving their cars. That’s probably why they have drive-in for everything. And I do mean everything. Drive-in for MacDonald’s and burger king, ok, fine, we have those in Europe. Drive in for Starbucks, well, why not. I mean, the line was always so long that if you would have just PARKED your car, walked out, ordered your coffee, walked back, you would have been 10 minutes faster than just waiting in the drive-in line, but I guess that’s just too much commitment for coffee.

I saw a drive-in for an electric company, so you can pay your bill from your car. Drive-in for the post office. Drive in for ATMs. So you can get into your car and, without once getting up from it, get cash, spend it at the fast food place, get a coffee for dessert and go home. All of that from the comfort of your leather seats and AC environment. Well. After all. Isn’t that what we are talking about when we are yearning for the American dream ?

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Yallaboroo or how I arrived in heaven

At one point during my Australian adventure, I decided to go on a 3 days boat trip through the Whitsundays. That’s a story for another time. It was marvelous, and absolutely exhausting. I’m writing this to tell you about the little things in traveling. Like arriving to a new place and finding it better that you have ever dreamed it could be.

So my boat arrived at the harbor late afternoon. I was exhausted. I didn’t shower for 3 days, my skin was salty and dry, my hair were blonder than ever before, I didn’t like a single person on that boat but for the friend I came with. I wanted a shower, a nice meal, 3 litters of water and to NOT be around people all the time.

20150501_161620But no rest for the warrior, I had to drive 2 hours to my next job. And of course I wouldn’t start working right away. But it’s always the same thing when you arrive in a new place. You have to be “on” all the time. And polite and nice and funny. Make a good impression, present well. Get up and do the dishes, help around, offer your service. And I was just exhausted, and uncomfortable in my skin.

So I drove the 2 hours, didn’t find my farm because of course it was in the middle of nowhere, had to call the people so they would help me on my way.

And then, something wonderful and amazing happened. I was suddenly and instantly home. The house was the nicest, so calm, comfortable, clean. I had my own room and, what never ever happened before, my own bathroom ! And I’m not talking about a shady shower outside of the house (because THAT happened). A full-on bathroom with a tub and a big mirror and made of marble. Now I know that I may seem overly excited over something that is, after all, pretty common. A bathroom. But when you are on the road for as long as I was, you really, TRULY appreciate those things. Not sharing the space with 10 other backpackers showering at the same time as you do. Not having to pack all your stuff every single time you take a shower. Not having to precariously balance your products so they don’t touch too much of the floor if it’s disgusting. Not worrying about the camel dudes barging in when you are in the shower. Your own space. Were you can leave your stuff. That, my friends, is pure LUXURY.

My new boss made me a yummy diner, didn’t ask anything out of me “you just rest darling. You look exhausted”. The conversation was easy and floating. I talked and I listening and none of it was awkward or forced, none of it was politeness, it was instant friendship, and instant ease. My whole body and mind relaxed in those first hours and quite frankly, it was like arriving home. And believe me, when you are on the road for two years, this is a rare miracle indeed. You have to appreciate to the fullest, every comfortable, easy, and fuzzy second.

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How I fell in love with Memphis, Tennessee

I know that Memphis may not seem like the trendiest coolest destination when going to the US. I know it’s all about California, New York and Miami. But I wanted to get inside the country, to experience the South, to go deep. And yes, I went to Louisiana, and Texas. And it was wonderful. But what I want to talk about right now is Memphis.

To be truthful, I went to Memphis for Elvis Presley. Yes, old school, almost dusty really. But I am a HUGE Elvis Presley fan.  So my goal was to visit Elvis Presley house. But when I got there, I loved it all. It was brilliant. Yes, the average traveler there was a bit older than I was, so what ? Memphis was rusty and tough, a bit older and shabbier than the places I went to before. But it was a good tough, authentic and palpable. It was old bars and old beers with old dudes listening to old rock n roll. I felt right at home.

It was friendly Uber drivers telling me where were the best joints for nice ribs. Nice bars and restaurants with live bands dressed like Elvis or Cash, singing amazing songs and none of that clubbing crap I hate.

It was old whisky in rough glasses, paved streets and music everywhere. That’s what I loved about it the most I guess. The music. I went to visit the Sun studio, where Elvis Presley started his career. It was tiny but packed with memories. They made us listen to a lot of music, most of them are now on my ipod. It was the Howling wolf, Elvis, Johnny Cash or Jerry Lee Lewis. It was old vinyl signed and memorandum. I went to visit a guitar factory, went to concerts, live music events, the Stax museum.

I obviously went to visit Elvis Presley house. When I went into the little bus taking us there I was very aware of being the youngest person there by a good 30 years. I didn’t care, I was just smiling to myself, so happy I made it. I loved the house because it was all about history, records, music. And I loved Memphis because it was my soul place. The whole vibe of the city is : come in, have a drink, listen to old music and just be comfortable in your old ripped jean and old band t shirt. Just chill out and be true to yourself. Be rough, be tough and be cool.

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#My people : the best crazy lady in Louisiana

I guess I already mentioned somewhere here that one of the things I absolutely love about traveling is the people you get to meet. Those completely INSANE humans, that you could never have imagined were walking this earth. I love them. It makes me wonder about it all. It makes me think that anything and everything is possible. It makes me relax about the kind of life I’m trying to build for myself. It just opens my mind so much.

I want to start writing a few articles here about some of the best of them. I’ll start with my boss when I was in Louisiana. That state, and New Orleans, was the sole reason I wanted to go to the US. Everything else was opportunities and bonuses. But Louisiana, that was my goal, that was what my soul was yearning for. I got a job working in a “spiritual retreat” there.  I arrived at the bus station, in the middle of absolutely nowhere. I was so out of place than in the 10 minutes I was waiting for her, 5 different person came up and talked to me “what are you doing here ? are you lost ? wow, really, a spiritual retreat ? Where is that at ?”.

SHE came and picked me up in a car full of junk, with little pendants and bracelets everywhere, just talking the whole ride. Talking and talking and taking with that delightful Louisiana accent, saying “cray cray” and “ya’ll” everything few seconds. I got comfortable instantly.

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In the Bayou

I had a truly brilliant time there. The woman was AMAZING. She was in her own world, something she created herself. Her home was full of herbs and potions, she talked about her late shaman and the spirits. She believed that we had to inform the fairies one day before mowing the lawn that we were about to do it, so they could hide way and not get hurt. She was an amazing cook and she made her very own tea, that she would sell to her daughter’s friends to help them in their diet.

She would wear her cowboy hat and blast country music while we were out in the garden creating a “fairy garden”. She would make some mean mojito every night and we would drink them on the front porch, with the sound of a thousand frogs around us, talking about our path in life. It was brilliant. I admire her so much. From what I could piece together she spent her life reinventing herself, and that is just pure genius. She was a big career person, and then a pirate in the street of New Orleans, and now a spiritual guide in a retreat. She had designer clothes and yet wore flowery blouses tucked into her cowboy jeans for working the dirt. She was crazy and creative, so open-minded and loving. She held my hand and told me I came a long way, but had still a long way to go. That I had to stop caring about what other people thought. Honestly, I’m not really a shaman kind of girl, and I just rolled my eyes. But now I’m thinking, may be that crazy, loving, red hair energy devil was right after all. And maybe it was more of a special place than what I allowed it to be. All I know is, when she’s writing that the light porch is always on for me, my stone heart melts a little bit.

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On the Creole trail

A thousand lives : My time as a housewife in Dubai

I’m going to be honest, Dubai wasn’t exactly on the top of my list of places I wanted to go to. But I had friends living over there, and it was kind of “on the way” to other destinations, so I decided to stop and visit them for a while.

To all those people out there who just LOVE Dubai, I guess we experienced it in a very different way. I was told later on that Dubai was a lifestyle. You had to have to money to live it to the fullest, the right people, the right places. I lived it as a housewife. Getting up in the morning to wave the husband goodbye, then driving the children to school. Big ass SUV, big ass private school, with English uniforms, the work.

The morning was then spent in our beautiful big apartment, paid by the husband’s job (as well as the school for the kids. I mean, you have to GET people there, in the middle of the desert, in the middle of nowhere. Better be attractive conditions). The building looked fake. It was the same building over and over again, I always wondered how could they actually find it back. Then we went to the pool, because of course every 5 buildings or so were sharing a pool.

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The pool in Dubai was a special experience. I was there at the beginning of autumn, so it was basically 44 degrees all the time. The temperature of the pool made it feel like I was swimming in my own sweat. It wasn’t as much “refreshing” as just pleasant to at least not FEEL the sweat dripping from your body all the time.

Then we went back to our heavily AC apartment. To walk to the bus stop and get into the heavily AC bus. There you would meet people in full traditional clothes, with the Islamic veil standing right next to people wearing trendy F and M clothes or cute short squirts. In the bus you could sit in the “family” section if you wanted to, reserved to women and their kids.

Then we would walk to the school and wait. That was always the worst part of my day. It was me and about 50 other mothers, standing really close together even though it was 44 degrees, very close to the doors, waiting for people to open them from the inside. You could feel the sweat going down your back, your neck, your legs. And I never quite understood the ritual. As SOON as those doors were open those women would almost RUN inside to get their kids. They pushed and shoved and just wanted to be the first one at the door of the classroom. Why ? I never ever got the WHY ?

After that, back into the AC bus. And THEN, the afternoon would usually be spent at the mall. Heavily AC mall. The malls there were ABSURD. Gigantic. Enormous. Decadent. It was sections and sections decorated in another style. Shops and shops and luxury products. You would go out of the H and M and find yourself right next to a big ass aquarium with sharks inside. They had ice rings and ski slopes. You could eat fondue next to a fake fire in fake snow while outside it was nothing but sand and sweat. I mean I get it. It was basically the only place where you could “go for a walk” or “stop for a coffee” without dying of heat and thirst after 10 minutes of walking.  But it was all so fake. The whole entire city was made of skyscrapers. It looked like the whole thing just popped out of the ground two years ago, brand new, with heavy AC.

My friend would buy ice cream treats to her kids and ask them about school, worried that they wouldn’t get along with the other kids, defending them against everyone and everything.  We would then eat in a pizzeria, or American diner, or French restaurant. Because Dubai is more occidental than its surroundings. It’s all about the lifestyle. The money, the brands, the fake buildings and the fake malls.

Once, I saw this yoga class. Three woman in heavy winter jackets with their little yoga mats, in the ski slope, doing their moves in the snow. While it was 40 degrees outside and they would have to change back to their miniskirts after the yoga class. Why ? Well, because you burn more calories when it’s cold. Yep. That’s Dubai.

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The great ocean road or the brutal reality of tourism

One of the top things I wanted to do when I got to Australia was to see and drive the great Ocean road. First of all, it’s basically just the most wonderful piece of coastline in the world, with nothing but stunning views of the beautiful ocean. And I am definitely an ocean child. Secondly, it was about driving this mythical road. The turns and turns of the asphalt, right next to cliffs, all drowning in the blue of the ocean, the salty air and the sun. I honestly can say that it was one if the best drives of my life. Ok, may be not Nullabor drive, but it was wonderful. I listened to Elvis Presley and the Beach boys (yes, I’m rather old school), sang along, had the windows pulled down and had to constantly remind myself to look at the road and not at the glory of the ocean.

That part was not disappointing. It was every bit as exhilarating as I thought it would be. The tragedy began when I started to pull over to look at the main “attractions” on the road. The arch. The 12 apostles. The grotto. That was just mass tourism at its worst.

To be fair, I just came from 4 months in the less touristy part of Australia. 3 months in Western Australia where I didn’t meet any other European but for the people I was working with. Working in deserted farms, in the middle of national parks, feeling blissfully lost in my adventures. It was all about going out of my comfort zone, getting dirty working the earth. Drinking beers with the locals, going to endless beautiful beaches where I could see only my footprints when leaving after hours of staring at the ocean and writing. I was naively unaware in those first few months to what extend Australia was touristic. I just experienced the wildest, loneliest part, and I loved every miles of it.

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And suddenly, I was thrown in the area. Without so much as a warning. Without a big city to get into before, without expectations and without defenses. And then it was endless buses filled with tourists which kept on arriving at my little spot on the beach. I didn’t get a second by myself.

And it was always the same. 50 people would go down. With big hats, high  uncomfortable heels, big cameras. They would walk powerfully to where the “thing” was. Whatever that was.

Beach, ocean, rocks. The “thing” they came to see. And snap snap snap pictures pictures pictures. Some pictures of the “thing” itself, but the great majority were selfies. That’s when I discovered the selfie stick by the way. Thousands of them. And everybody was just fake smiling for the pictures. Because it wasn’t enough to prove that you made it there, to show a picture of the THING. You had to show yourself with the thing, because, after all, it’s all about you.

And it just made me SO sad. All those people. Who had traveled from so far, spent so much money to BE here, not even stopping a SECOND to just LOOK AT IT. I swear some of them didn’t even bothered. Came, took a picture of it, took a picture of themselves with it, left. Not ONCE did they pause to look at that incredible beauty right in the face and not through a screen.

And I know it makes me sound old and grumpy. “aaah all those young folks don’t know what life is anymore”. And maybe it’s true. Don’t get me wrong. I am a digital nomad. I have Instagram and Twitter accounts and I travel blog. I believe technology has a lot to offer. And yes, I am a bit of a snob. I am a traveler and not a tourist. But tourism is fine. I have nothing against tourism. It expands your horizons and broadens your mind.

But you have to give it a chance. Let yourself be amazed. Look at things. Be there, in the moment. What I witnessed there was not being there in the moment. It was business. The business of being there, of showing yourself.

It made me sad but it didn’t bring me down. I just sat there. Looking at it all. Breathing it in. And it was glorious.

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If you want to know what it was like in my little car, just listen to it 🙂

 

Watching my world burn while drinking white wine

I don’t know if I mentioned this before, but I feel like a good story is always worth living just to be able to tell it later on at some bar in some other place. Sometimes it was something funny, sometimes it was scary, but once you tell it, it was always worth it. You meet people on the road, and the stories you lived will only allow you to meet more people. It’s one of those little things that I truly appreciate. Being able to drink a whiskey in some lost bar somewhere in Texas, and wining over people with my stories about some other bar in the deep outback of Australia. I always feel really relaxed then. Like I have earn some swagger after all. Even though I always feel like I must appear way more badass than what I actually feel in my little heart.

So it was at the very beginning of my Australian trip, I was working in the middle of a national park in Western Australia. One glorious morning, I woke up to a burn smell in the air. When I went outside, the forest all around our little wooden cabins was just slowly burning down.

It was a CONTROLLED fire, explained my boss. She was very glad it was finally happening around here, because it had been a few years. The purpose of a controlled burn is to destroy the leaves and little wood in the forest, so that in case of a REAL fire, it won’t spread as fast and as wild. So they carefully and watchfully burn parts of the forest every year, to be able to better control any wild fire.

It was honestly a surreal experience. I couldn’t work so my boss just set two chairs right in the middle of the road, may be 4 meters from the fire, and we opened a bottle of chardonnay. We watched as the firemen came and went, exchanging jokes and waving. We just sat there and watched it burn. You could smell the fire, feel the heat if you walked a little closer. You could HEAR it, and I never realized until then how much NOISE it actually makes. It’s a soft, warm, but still kind of menacing background noise that never truly leaves you.

It was even more spectacular at night. Everything was burning and you were just standing still, in your little clearing, on the threshold of your wooden cabin. And I just sat there, listening to it, looking at it. Going to bed that night, everything burning around me, was surreal. I KNEW the firemen were there, monitoring it all. They gave me SO many explanations, a map, were so friendly. But still. Closing my door on the burning red flames 10 meters away from me, I felt that I would definitely be telling THAT story in a bar somewhere.

A thousand lives : my time as a house painter in Darwin

One of the things I love about traveling is all the people you get to be. I have been away two years and I have lived a thousand lives. Worked so many different jobs, been in so many different families, met and became friends with so many different people.

This is going to come across as incredibly snob and princess like but I was so happy to get the chance to do those odd jobs. When I was a student I didn’t work at McDonald’s, didn’t do the dishes in some shady pizzeria. The worse job I had was probably being webmaster for a really cool company.

So when I got to Australia and suddenly I was a waitress, a maid, a barista, it was like being somebody else. Adapting to your surroundings, always.

When I arrived in Darwin, Australia, it was near the end of a 10 months round trip across the country, and I needed money.  The ex-husband of the women I was babysitting for saw me one day in my “work pants”, covered in old paint, and hired me on the spot.

I spent 10 days with him, painting the inside of a WHOLE HOUSE. It was one of the most physical job I’ve ever done. We were working 10 hours a day. I did every single freaking ceiling on that house, and my arms were so sore it was uncomfortable to sleep. I LOVED it. John was completely insane, “on” 24 hours a day. Always on his way, always working some deal, always a cigarette between his lips. Laughing his barking laugh and making jokes and being busy so busy. And I was one of the guys. I was working like a maniac, being tough, dripping sweat, aching in my bones. But none of that mattered because every night, after the hours of hustle and hard work, John went and got a pack of Bundaberg. We sat on the back porch, lighted up a cigarette and opened up those rum and cook. My muscles were sore, my hands dirty with paint, I was stinking and famished. But that rum in my stomach was sweet and the hot Darwin night air was all around us. And we talked about life and we laughed exhausted laughs and it felt amazing. Physical labor has its perks, I was feeling productive and like I deserved a rest. My brain was mellow and I was just at ease. I loved that life of mine.

Sunset in Darwin

Sunset in Darwin

The open road is calling. Always and forever

One of the main reasons I wanted to go to Australia was for the Outback. I wanted to taste it, to live it. Those endless roads, the red dust, the infinite blue sky. I wanted to drive for hours without seeing anyone. Be lost in a lost world. I wanted the roadhouses on the side of the dirt track where old tough drivers were drinking old tough beers.

Having arrived in Perth and bought my car there, if I wanted to continue my circle I had to drive through the desert of the Nullarbor. At the time it didn’t seem special. I didn’t understand the surprised expressions and look of worries of people around me. I didn’t get why my last boss before the long drive got me all those tools and camping equipment. Telling me to call when I made it through.

I guess it’s only from the other side, when people responded to my crossing with things like “by YOURSELF ?! in THAT car ?! oh my GOD it’s a story you’re going to be able to tell to your grandchildren” that I realized that I might have been a little reckless about it all.

But it was one of the best experiences of my life. You can’t drive through the desert at night because of all the kangaroos. They are nocturnal animals and bound to jump in front of your car in the middle of the night. Which would be as lethal for the kangaroos as for my adorable car.

So you’ve got to drive the 700 k between the last city and the only motel in the desert in daylight hours. Which means you cannot stop. Ever. You just drive. I drove 8 hours straight for 3 days. 8 hours without pausing, just for gas (and you pause EVERY TIME you see a gas station, because who KNOWS when the next one is going to be). I got so many cramps in my foot that I used the other one to push on the gas pedal. I had stages of intense deep thinking. Then almost falling asleep, so blasting the music and singing at the top of my lungs, the windows rolled down, the desert smell in my hair. I saw dingoes and kangaroos. Giant lizards making a slow crossing. You meet so few people than when you do see a car coming from the other direction, you do this awesome little salute, two fingers from your  temple and away.

Those three days were intense and exhausting. Exhilarating and delirious. It was the purest form of life on the infinite, open road. It was endless possibilities, the feeling of going somewhere and being nowhere at the same time. It was moving as fast as I could and standing still because the road would never end. It was dangerous and amazing. And I loved every second of it.

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More travel pictures on my Instagram