Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Not Scary At All

I took a stroll around the farm yesterday after lunch (vegetable soup [always the starter], home-canned green beans with garlic, roasted rabbit, mushrooms in a sauce thickened with cornstarch and mustard) to stretch my legs and enjoy the sunshine before it was time to head back inside to vacuum-pack more sausages and get the store ready to open at 4pm. I walked around all of the buildings where the pigs are raised, including the one where I saw some being born yesterday, and along the back where the manure pond is, which isn't truly stinky except when you're walking by the far end. I came back past the huge greenhouses where the family used to raise tobacco (part of my school project is going to be thinking of things to possibly use these structures for profit in the future) and followed a young rooster and his girlfriend, who had slipped out of the main orchard/chicken yard and were enjoying a romantic walk through the fields away from adult supervision. They led me into a vacant field on the opposite side of the orchard, where large-leafed vines tangled across the tall grass, and the bright orange of pumpkins reflected the autumn sunlight.

I went back into the house and mentioned that I'd seen the pumpkin patch, and Jeanne said, "Yes, Halloween! Do you know it?" I think she was kidding. I haven't seen anything particularly Halloween-y anywhere here, and though all of the candy displays are up in the grocery stores now (especially the tall shimmering gold towers of Ferrero Rocher), and the toy aisles have doubled overnight, it's for Christmas.

Anyway, it's Halloween, so I thought I'd put up some pictures of dead pigs, just to get in the spirit. I've watched the porcine life cycle now from birth - literally, as the piglets came tumbling slimily out onto the ground - to almost-death, when I drove with Frédéric to the abattoir yesterday morning and got a quick tour of the holding pens, the electrocution stall, and all the rest, before he ushered this week's batch into the facility. Florence and I will go pick up the miscellaneous bits this morning; the halved carcasses are retrieved on Mondays, when all of the meat processing is done, but Fridays - Thursday this week, because tomorrow is Toussaint, All Saint's Day, and it's a national holiday - is for rendering the rest of the animal into boudin and pâté. We'll get a sack with three pig heads in it, and another that has all of the fat cut off the bellies, which I'll hoist up onto the gleaming blood-spattered table and use my knife (I have my own knife, now) to cut the nipples off of, which really squicked me out the first time, but not any more. I'll cut three hearts in half, and dig out any clotted blood, before tossing them into the grey bins under the table. Florence deals with the livers, because they're fragile, but I'll help Frédéric cut the cheeks and the rest of the usable meat off the heads, and then saw off the ears and split the heads in half, before chucking them in another grey bin to be boiled up with the vegetables for the boudin.

And then when everything is boiled, we'll separate the meat from the bones, and scrape the gelatinous coating off the ears, discarding the crunchy cartilage, and run it all through a sausage grinder. The blood comes in a double-bagged plastic sack, and some of it will be ladled into the ground meat mixture for the boudin, though most of it is discarded. Florence mentioned yesterday that they tried to make the thickened blood-only sausage (mixing the blood with cornstarch) but that they couldn't get them to come out right, so they gave up. There's usually one sausage casing that gives way when the boudin are being boiled in the rich pig's-head broth, and if so, we'll probably have it for dinner tonight, crisped in a hot pan and served with fried eggs from free-roaming chickens, the pumpkin-orange yolks running across the black shreds of the iron-rich sausage meat.

Monday, October 28, 2013

France: News As Performance Art

After a typical Monday - pick up the halved pig carcasses at the abattoir, slice them into hams and rib sections and long sections of loin and bacony bellies and a few other random salable cuts and then separate all the rest of the usable meat out for sausage and salami, and then make the sausage and salami and hang them up on steel rods to air-dry for several weeks (the salami) or overnight - I went back up to the house with Florence, and waited while she did some billing and bookkeeping chores. Her father, Éloi, had finished feeding the pigs and was watching an evening news program with Marie-Louise, his mother, in the kitchen. I joined them, stretching my shoulders after the day's work (I also spent the morning completely rearranging and restocking the store), and was immediately caught up in the program, "C dans l'air."

But not because of what they were talking about.

No, what fascinated me was the constant change in camera angles and viewpoints, and the unusual angles and perspectives the editor decided would be interesting. And I mean constant change. Before I thought to get up and fetch my camera, I watched a three-minute stretch in which the longest unchanging shot lasted approximately five seconds. It wasn't just the speed at which the perspective changed, it was the choices made for that perspective that I found so intriguing, then somewhat disconcerting, then pretty damned funny.

You can see that this studio is full of all sorts of shiny surfaces, and the camera operators were even more into reflections than I am when I take endless pictures of puddles and lakes. The moderator with the reflected face of one of the guests behind him, or maybe just the reflection as seen from someone else's viewpoint, or even - in a particularly inspired shot that I unfortunately didn't get on film - the reflection of the reflection of two people talking. Most of those shots were also tilted, just in case the reflection wasn't enough.

It was like the camera operator was being directed by someone who really wanted to be an improv instructor when they grew up, but found themselves stuck in a television studio.

"Now the studio is on the Titanic, and it's sinking fast! Change! Make the audience think that they're only six inches tall by filming while you're lying on the floor! Change! You're a spy, and this is a top-secret conference you have to get on film - without being caught! Now we're going to work on expression, so don't show the whole person - make the audience really feel the emotions of the speakers, but only using their shirt collars and ties!"

Then there were the shots taken from behind an intern's forgotten coffee cup, or the ones from the rear of the host, who was seated in a chair that apparently has heaters built into it, but which looked like it was about to ignite and take off like a rocket ship. A few of the shots were taken apparently from underneath the clear table/counter where the panelists were seated, so that we got nice views up their nostrils. And by the time I left, the camera operator, or the improv instructor, had finally found something they wanted to focus on for a while - the rear end of one of the panelists. The camera held there, steady, with the guy's nicely-clad butt (side view) in the middle of the screen, as I walked out of the kitchen, giggling.

In this shot, you can see the medical emergency kit hanging on the wall of the hallway off the studio area. It'll come in handy when the moderator blasts off and the camera operator gets caught in the flames.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Really Good Ham

This morning I helped scrub down all of the rooms in the laboratoire, in my black boots and white butcher's coat, then put date stamps and labels on 103 jars of pâté de campagne and 25 of têtu, which is the same thing that goes into the boudin but minus the blood (onions, leeks, carrots, cloves, halved and cleaned pig heads and hearts and bellies). I popped in and out of the shop assisting with clients (I even made change! accurately! in French!), and then went back to the cutting room to help make more packages of sliced ham, because we'd sold all that was in the shop and the storage room. While Frédéric was zipping his way through a massive jambon, I was manning the vacuum-packer, but at one point I turned around to see a really lovely pile of slices on the table, and commented on how nice they looked. "You think so?" he said. "Would you like to take some home for dinner?" I miss making cheese, but I like the perqs that come with this job. "Ham" isn't really the proper word to use; this is not cooked, but raw, salted, and dried. The jambon de Bayonne that gets so much press is actually originally from the Béarn region, not the Basque, at least according to the people who live here in the Ossau and Aspe valleys, and was traditionally preserved with the salt that comes from Salies-de-Béarn, just north of here. It became associated with Bayonne because that's where it shipped out of, being a larger city and a port. The Bergeras don't sell it under the Bayonne IGP designation, though we're in the geographic zone, I believe. I'll have to find out why.

UPDATE: Florence says that they meet all the qualifications for IGP certification and the "Jambon de Bayonne" label, except for the fact that neither she nor Frédéric has gone through the fairly expensive certification course that needs to be renewed frequently, and after weighing the pros and cons decided it wasn't worth it, and wouldn't make them any more money. But the ham is aged in the same place that the "real" version is, and isn't any different. And it is really, really good.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Uncertain About the Future

It has been a difficult few weeks for many people, and frankly I don't have much of a right to complain, although I'm going to do some grumbling anyway. At least I didn't have to deal with earthquakes, like my coworkers in the Philippines, or furloughs, like my federal friends in Oregon. Just frustration, and a lot of time spent being unclear. About what was and is expected of me, about what I can expect, and about just what the hell I am doing here in this school program, and what I will get out of it in the end. I can hope for a lot of things, but this has also been a time of alternately raised and dashed hopes, and that has added to the frustration.

Sometimes it seemed like everything was going really well. After being told by one school department that I didn't qualify for the work/study program under which I would be reimbursed for the work I'm doing because as a student I can't work full time, I was told by the immigration office that I could get permission to work full time since I'm enrolled in a work/study program. Yay! Except boo, because in the end the work/study program decision makers in Bordeaux overruled the immigration officials, and I am not going to be paid for my work here at the pig farm in Oloron-Sainte-Marie, which is where I currently am.

But I'm finally through the school enrollment process, weeks ahead of everyone else thanks to the secretary's help, though that only came about because I needed to submit my visa documents to the prefecture. Assuming I get the visa for the school year, my next paperwork hurdle is to reapply for health insurance, which I do qualify for as a student, but which takes a bit of dossier-juggling to accomplish. I'm getting to know the location of every administrative building in Pau.

On the other hand, I really am enjoying working and living with this family, the Bergeras - I'm rooming with the daughter at her house for the three-week periods I'm on the farm, since I can't easily get back and forth at the right times to be here to help.

We eat lunch and usually dinner at the farmhouse, and it's all good (if meaty) with fresh garden vegetables, or vegetables that the mother canned the year before, plus all the pork you could possibly want. Today it was vegetable soup to start, and then a salad of tuna and peppers and tomatoes, then slices of pork loin with peas. I'm hungry again already just thinking about it. And since they're not paying me they're being flexible on hours, and if I need to take time to do freelance stuff then I can.

I've been elbow-deep in raw meat, and then gone out to smile at the piles of snoring pigs fattening in the concrete pens built onto the old cow barn. They're fattening a dozen or so for local families who still have the tradition of buying a pig every winter, though most of those families don't kill their own any more. Those pigs are raised to an even greater slaughter weight than the ones the Bergeras process every week. So far my delight in the fact that pigs snore hasn't made it harder to eat meat from said pigs, but I wonder sometimes if my attitude towards meat animals will change over time. I made dinner for myself and Florence tonight, a big salad of endive and carrots, and raw zucchini that I presalted and then rinsed and squeezed dry, which turns out is a really good thing to do with zucchini, especially if you're eating it in salad.

And school is interesting, most of the time. I've had to miss most of the macroeconomics classes because they coincided with appointments in town, but since we have a test on it in a few weeks I'd better be at all the rest of the classes. I've got a mental block about what to do with the end-of-year changement du stock numbers in a ledger but I think I have a grasp on the rest of it. Marketing is still silly, but the environmental quality class is giving me some good information.

We're supposed to write a 60+ page analysis of the business we're working in, for the final project, including problem areas we see and suggestions for correcting those problems. I'm going to be looking at the amount of product that seems to be piling up in canning jars. As well as making fresh sausages, and cured dried sausages, and selling hunks of meat for people to cook, and sending massive hams out for curing by a third party (because there's not enough room on site here), and making boudin, they also put up jars and jars of pâté de campagne (a little too liver-y for my taste) and têtu, which is another type of pâté using more of the head portions. Some of the boudin mixture gets canned, too, and tomorrow we'll be making pork loin confit to can, and skimming off the bits that fall off and canning those too, along with the fat, to make a spread called chinchous, also called grasserons, the local version of the rillettes I feasted on in Tours. Only with more fat, if you can imagine that. Anyway, at the end of the day there are lots of jars, and they're getting to the point, nearly two years into this value-added business, where some of the jars are reaching their sell-by date. So that's my project, to help them figure out how the finished products move, where they stagnate, and what might be some avenues to fix any problems.

There's also a "personal project" paper to do, length unknown for the moment, that sets out what we plan to do after the program is over, and what we'd like to accomplish in the agricultural/business world. I'm going to look into becoming a cheese-business-house-and-farm-sitter, offering my services for small-scale cheesemakers who need a vacation for a few weeks. Since every cheesemaker I have worked with has greeted this idea with enthusiasm, it's definitely something to work on as a five-year plan.

It's not an original idea, however. There's already this type of service in France, as I learned from a young woman named Quitterie, who's planning on setting up her own small-scale goat cheese business. But whether I can get hired by one of the regional offices, I don't know. I do know that in order to set yourself up as an independent business here in France, you need a lot of money, and can expect to deal with thousands of times more paperwork than I've been handling to this point, which rather puts a damper on my enthusiasm for that route. It seems unlikely, given how difficult it is to integrate myself into the French administrative system as a student, and the state of unemployment in France in general, that I will end up being able to stay here and work.

I am not certain that I can build up a stash of 6,000 euro and find and be accepted into another school program, nor that I want to do that. Much as I love living here, I'm thinking another country might be fun for a while. I'm also thinking that I probably need to get a paying job for that while, because no matter where I go or end up, a stash of cash in whatever currency is likely going to be required at some point.

I'm looking for inspiration, for guidance, for help (some of which I have already received, for which much thanks). Somehow this will all come into focus, somewhere down the line. It's still clear that I am happy when I am making cheese; the work here processing pigs is interesting, if bloody, but it's not giving me the same deep sense of satisfaction.

I am still waiting for the final word on whether my visa extension has been approved for another year. I'm here legally now, at least through mid-January or until they say I have to leave, so I can't make any plans. I'll just concentrate on school, and work, and getting over this cold I just developed which unfortunately is starting to feel like strep throat, but I really really hope not. Another reason I feel like grumbling.

/end grumble/

Photos: In the bus, crossing over the Gave de Pau, on the way to school; the Hôtel Continental in downtown Pau, built in 1900 and now run by Best Western; a nice day in the Jurançon vineyards; near the school in Montardon; a pig who is also uncertain about his future; one of the 18th-century carved wooden figures in the Cathédrale Sainte-Marie d'Oloron, which itself dates back to the beginning of the 12th century

Sunday, October 13, 2013

And The Days Go By

I wake up at 6:00am to have time for a shower and coffee and breakfast before catching the express bus to the center of Pau, where I catch another bus out to the university, where I meet one of the two fellow students who have cars and who live in Pau for a ride up and out to Montardon and the agriculture college where the classes are held. We get to the campus with about 10 minutes to spare before the first class starts at 9:00am.

We're studying marketing and ecology, bookkeeping and macroeconomics. There will be other courses over the year, but those are the ones we're focusing on in this first three-week period. I'm not impressed with the marketing class, which so far hasn't had a lot of practical application in the real world of small-scale farm operations; none of us are going to be hiring George Clooney to advertise our products, nor worrying about whether the images we choose have hidden sexual meaning. The macroeconomics professor orates in a labyrinth of words, taking an hour and a hundred winding phrases to get to a point that could have been summarized in five or six quick verbal steps. But I'm enjoying the bookkeeping class more than I expected, especially since I don't even balance my own checkbook (and can't remember the last time I did so). I could get into the numbers game, and it's a skill that could prove useful in the future.

I'm trying my best to not be frustrated by the fact that I deliberately got here at the beginning of September, when the registration for the university opened, but was prevented from actually registering until the agricultural program started, and that things are moving very slowly on that front. In fact, I think I'm going to be the first person in the program to enroll, since the program secretary is pushing things through faster than usual because of my visa situation. Technically I'm currently here illegally, as my visa expired last Wednesday. Tomorrow I'll go back to the university, where they've promised my student ID card will be waiting, and then will go to the local prefecture to submit my application for another year-long student visa. However, I have no idea how long that process will take, and my chances of getting paid for the work I'll be doing on the pig farm are getting slimmer by the day. Another frustration - I was the first of the 24 students in the program to have my practical apprenticeship lined up, but because of the delays in registration I may be one of the last to make it official, and only the first six students get the chance for paid positions.

Most of the other students are 19 20 21 years old, and a half dozen or so spend most of their time chattering in class, even while the professors are speaking. I've been told that this is not uncommon, and that it's up to the teachers to call the students to order. Some of them do, and some don't. The other day two of the chattiest girls, who were sitting next to me (though I usually try to sit on the other side of the room so I can hear the instructor better) went from chattering to mock-quarreling, giggling and shoving each other, until one of them shoved the other into me, bumping my shoulder and knocking my pen out of my hand. I'm not particularly enjoying being back in grade school, in that respect, and find myself tempted to slap the irritating children so they'll just shut up.

On the plus side, I'm learning things, and my language skills are improving daily (though the phrase "shut the fuck up!" might not be useful outside of my current school situation). And the food at lunch in the cafeteria is surprisingly tasty, and the cooks know that I don't do gluten or dairy, so when there's pasta or something they save me some rice, or heat up a plate of cauliflower or potatoes to go with the roast pork or the duck in tomato sauce or whatever other main dish they've put on the menu that day. My main meal is lunch these days, and at 4 euros it's quite the bargain. And then after lunch I take a walk, to stretch my legs and get away from the children and balance my thoughts. I've found a dirt road that runs along a field of corn, with an orchard of kiwi bushes on the other side. It's just long enough for me to walk to the end and back, the sun on my face and the sound of birds and insects in my ears, before heading into the classroom again.

Classes are over at about 5:30pm, though sometimes we're let go earlier, and once the professor kept going until 6:00pm. I beg a ride back into town and if I'm lucky I'm at the central mall area in time to catch the express bus back to Gan and home by 6:45pm, though usually I'm not that lucky and have to wait for the regular bus and don't get home until 7:30pm. After a day of focusing on sometimes confusing information presented in a foreign language - because although I am getting better, I'm still not fluent in French - all I want to do is scan my e-mail, play my Lexulous moves, catch up on the latest depressing news about the Republicans and then balance that out with LOLCats or something similar, and go to bed. 10-hour days cutting pigs into pieces will seem positively relaxing after these weeks in school.

And yet, for all my bitching, I'm glad I'm here.