The Grape Harvest — Part I: The Three Folders

Three Folders…

For the past 32 years, every time I’ve moved to a new home, I’ve taken with me three folders—one green, one blue, and one yellow. They are French folders, the kind that you slip papers and smaller folders into and close with elastic over two of the corners. Over the course of 32 years, I’ve lived in twelve different homes. I’ve never opened the folders until now.

The contents of the folders tell a story of curiosity and passion that took place the summer and fall of 1986 in Paris and Madrid, in villages across Southern Spain, and in the vineyards of Southern France.


I’ve always loved France, at least since I was eleven and chose France as the country to study as a junior high world history assignment. When I was 16, I spent the summer as a student in Mexico. My Mexican American father had insisted on it! In the home of my host family I met an American graduate student from Yale who was studying to become a professor of French literature. Two years later we married, moved to a midwest university town, and I embarked on a life moving every few years between Illinois, California, and France, for my husband’s academic sabbaticals, visiting professorships, and to direct a study abroad program.

I got a PhD in Spanish literature and became a mom. I was a migrant of sorts, regularly uprooted, living and working among three languages—English, Spanish, and French.

I have always been curious. That junior high report listed every province of France and every French king since Mérowig (fifth century). I’ve had a commitment to social justice, from marching for civil rights in high school to campaigning for Bobby Kennedy, and taking an interest in Mexican immigrants in the United States. I’ve continued to have a passion for France—its history, literature, art, architecture, food, politics, and worldview.

The Summer of 82…

I spent that summer in Paris with my husband and son in a one-bedroom apartment in the comfortable 7th arrondissement. By then I’d met some French immigration researchers (two years before), and at their urging, completed a survey of the work experience of undocumented Mexican women in Los Angeles. Not a social scientist, I’d teamed up with a university sociologist on the project. That summer I learned that France had gone through a major reform of its immigration policies the year before, which included legalizing some 300,000 « clandestine » immigrants. Hmm, I thought. My husband said, « You are curious about it ? Study it ! » So I did, and set out to work on what became the definitive English language study of France’s immigration policy reform of 1981. I put my literary talents to work—studying texts and their contexts. In 1983 my article on the new policies came out in an international scholarly journal. In the meantime, I’d come upon something else that piqued my curiosity.

Operation Vendanges…

Every fall since the 1960s, I learned, Spanish peasants from the hill villages of Andalucia and other regions of Southern Spain, traveled to France to pick grapes in the vineyards of Southern France—around Beziers, Perpignan, Montpelier, Nimes, Valence, and Orange. Over the years, mechanization had been introduced and had gradually reduced the number of workers needed. But by the 1980s still 45,000 were expected to make the trip to France for the month-long harvest.

What was interesting to me was that over the decades, according to French and Spanish officials, the bi-national guestworker program had improved in terms of working conditions, pay, and transportation of the workers, in spite of fewer jobs, which, according to the law of supply and demand, would have left workers with less power to negotiate with growers. That was in contrast with the two decades-long Bracero program in which Mexico sent seasonal agricultural workers to the United States. In that program, housing, payment, food, safety, and transportation of workers were poor to begin with and deteriorated over time, up to its termination in 1964. But the French and Spanish governments proudly proclaimed that their migrant labor program was safe, just, humane, and liked by workers and growers alike, by both labor unions and winemakers’ associations. Workers were paid a decent wage—officials said—they travelled in nice, second-class trains; and they were allowed to bring smoked hams from their Spanish villages into France. Could that really be true ? I decided to find out.

Gone Fishing

What if an entire country decided to « go fishing? » A general agreement, an official policy. You had to go fishing; you had no other choice.

In the US a sign posted on a storefront saying « Gone Fishing » means that the shopkeeper has decided to take a break from their routine and go off and do something fun. But we see those signs in souvenir or cute home decor shops, not on actuel storefronts. Few stores or offices close for weeks or a month, even in the summer.

In August my Paris neighborhood is empty and quiet. It’s a time when I walk long distances to find essentiels or simply do without. My butcher has gone fishing. My fishmonger has gone fishing. My baker, produce vendor, dry cleaner, florist, and pharmacist have all gone fishing, too.

I’ve gotten out of the city myself this month, to places with plenty of butchers and bakers—to Southwest France, the countryside west of Paris, this afternoon Cambridge (England), and then London and the Loire Valley before the month ends.

There are signs that my neighborhood is coming back to life. The baker reopened two days ago (August 21st) with a bang, with tarts piled high with berries in the window. I was able to pick up laundry and clothes at the dry cleaners that I had forgotten that I owned. Meanwhile, I see dates coming up in my calendar when my friends will be returning from vacation.

Yesterday the local Ludothèque (like a library but with toys, games, and costumes instead of books) opened up its big red container on the Place de la Republique. The huge public space around the imposing statue of Madame la Republique was full of happy fun seekers of all ages.

For the moment, on the Eurostar train headed for England, I’m also among the absent. I’ve gone fishing for a bit myself!

There was a water mill here in the time of Charlemagne.

That was in the 9thcentury, but the mill beneath the stone country house where I’m staying–visiting a friend I’ve known since I was 17–dates from the 12th.  Most of the villages here in Tarn-et-Garonne, in southwest France, date back to the Middle Ages.  From my 18thcentury bedroom above the mill I look out and see only trees, sky, clouds, and the tile roof of an old stone barn with a TV satellite pointed at England.  The room is completely quiet.  The babbling of the stream that feeds the mill can be heard only from the stone terrace on the other side of the house.  On a summer night, when it’s cool enough to open the bedroom windows, the cooing of a bird can be heard, and on occasion, the cries of wild boars up the hillside.

The 12thcentury mill likely belonged to a local lord, who charged a fee to peasants to grind their grain into flour.  The language of this part of southwest France then was Provençal—an earlier version of Occitan, that is still spoken in places here today. It was the time of the troubadours, who wrote and sang songs of courtly love across the region.

The 13thcentury Spanish poem I held in my hands in the “Reading Room” post was inspired by these very troubadours.  Well, not directly by them, but by little biographies (or vidas) about each of them that had been written and collected by performers who later sang their songs and wanted to know and share what they knew about them.

I found out about the little biographies as I hunted for information about what might have inspired parts of the poem—a question that had baffled scholars seeking to find earlier sources or traditions that it might have followed.  Then, one day, in a footnote, I spied a little text that resembled verses in the poem.  Nothing is ever completely original.  It sprouts from some earlier or contemporaneous tradition or context.  The text in the footnote was from one of the Provençal troubadour’s vidas, which were compiled in a book edited by two French scholars.  I bought the book, and voilà,I had discovered an important inspiration for the poem.  The young lover in the poem was described as a troubadour, in words taken from the little Provençal texts.

I felt at the time like I would have made a great detective, or at least that my curiosity had served me well.  I’m still curious about a lot of things, some of which will likely turn up in this blog.

In the meantime, it’s 93 degrees outside here at 5:00 in the afternoon.  For now, I’ll leave my comfy chair inside the cool stone house, venture out into the garden, and, when it feels too hot, jump in the pool!


Have you ever had several seconds of intense, extraordinary emotion? When was it? Where did it happen? What did it feel like? Here’s what mine was… “The Reading Room”

In Paris there are two main national libraries—the Bibliothèque Nationale Francois Mitterrand (opened in 1996), in the western corner of the Left Bank, and the old Bibliothèque Nationale (1868) on the Rue de Richelieu near the Opera. I first went to the old one in the summer of 1962. I was a (very) young bride, about to become a college sophomore the following fall, on my first of many séjours in Paris with my husband, a doctoral student in French literature at Yale. We got a “couple” Reading Room card, with our picture taken together. We were a pair of literary researchers, a pursuit we shared over our 24-year marriage. My task that summer was to help check the quotations in his thesis on French writers Marcel Proust (early 20th century) and the Duke of Saint Simon (late 17th and early 18th centuries), comparing what my husband had written with the original, sometimes quite old, books that were the sources he had used. Finding and correcting a mistake was a thrill, as was holding 250-year old books in my hands.

Although I majored in Spanish, I loved the summers and sabbatical semesters immersed in French literature. But I did have one literary adventure in Spanish that took me into the Manuscript Room of the old Rue de Richelieu library. In 1972 I discovered a Provençal source for the first lyric poem in Castilian, the “Razón de Amor,” written around 1240. I learned that the poem, written on parchment likely by a scribe, was located in the Bibliothèque Nationale. I was delighted to find that out, and although it wasn’t necessary for my research, I asked and was given permission to read the poem in the original. Sitting in a temperature-controlled room off the library’s courtyard, I held the poem in my hands, more than 700 years after it had been written or copied. The same piece of parchment the medieval scribe had held. I cried for joy, holding the manuscript far in front of me, to make sure my tears fell in my lap, not on the parchment. But that was not the most emotional moment I’ve had in that library. That moment was to come more than four decades later.

In the meantime, in my trips to Paris, I went less and less to the Reading Room, moving on to other topics and other libraries in the city. By 1996, when the new library was opened, I was no longer married, no longer in the field of literature, and when I would walk along the Rue de Richelieu, it looked to me like the old library I had loved so much was closed—likely forever, or a least repurposed for something different. I stopped thinking about or remembering my happy work there. Those years of book dust on my clothes and crumbling leather bindings under my fingernails had vanished from my memory.

In November of 2017 I moved to Paris. Not certain if I was moving to the past, to the present, or to a place where I’d live into the future. To feel grounded both in Paris and in my American origins I joined an organization of American women, which offered visits in English of Parisian sites and neighborhoods. In the spring I signed up for a visit of Haussmanian Paris, centered around the Opera. We visited late 19th century gems—streets, a bank, a hotel, and, finally, the old Bibliothèque Nationale on the Rue de Richelieu. I didn’t think much when our guide led us through the entry gate into the courtyard. I did feel happily surprised. I didn’t think the public could enter except for special exhibits.

The guide led us across the courtyard and up some stairs to the entrance that, suddenly and strongly, felt very familiar to me. Whoa, oh my God. Someone there asked who we were. Yes, there was always someone there who asked that. And then I moved forward in our group, drawn through the entry into… yes, the Reading Room! In an instant my eyes took in everything… the shelves of books along the sides, the wooden reading desks, the people reading there, the 19th century metal ceiling supports and lights, and I was transfixed, overwhelmed, and I burst into sobs.

The women in our tour group saw my sudden outpouring of emotion. I explained that in that Reading Room was my youth, my happy young years reading, holding, writing about, and loving books and my young husband who shared that love with me. Revisiting it was a gift I’d never expected to receive. It was a part of my life I’d thought was lost forever. And there I had it back. The woman who had organized the event told me that the best part of the tour for her had been seeing the look on my face just before I burst into tears. I will never know exactly what I looked like. I can only recall the feeling as I reread this story or… if I dare to enter the courtyard, go up the stairs, and have several seconds of extraordinary emotion once again!

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