Saturday, April 5, 2014

Walking Away From School

And walking back again - don't worry, I haven't dropped out. There are only four weeks of class left, two starting on Monday and then two more mid-May; my apprenticeship contract has me working at the butchery the other weeks until mid-June, and the program officially ends with the presentation of our projects to the jury the last week of June. I am hoping for at least a "good enough" this time, so that I end up getting the official licence professionnelle. But I will be glad when this program is over, though I have learned a lot, and even occasionally enjoyed myself.

Yet there have been many times when I have not enjoyed myself. When I've been tired and frustrated, annoyed by the antics of some of my fellow students, exhausted from thinking and speaking and writing in another language, or exasperated by the (to me) fairly useless nature of several of the classes we spent hours and hours attending. This is a program that is theoretically designed to help young adults start their own small agriculture-related business, whether that's joining the family farm and moving it into the next generation, opening up a store to sell local produce and cheese and wine, or starting a goat dairy or chicken farm. An in-depth philosophical analysis of the impact of Clovis and Charlemagne on the historical background to current global pricing of wheat, with long side trips into politics, the connection between Henri IV and grain embargoes after World War I, and why Germany's lack of parental leave affects their minimum wage rate might all be interesting, but will it really help in any practical sense? And yet these economics classes occupied many, many days. And the score on the exam is weighted twice that of other classes like the one on environmental regulations or the one on product labeling, both of which have immediate impact on anyone thinking of raising pigs, say, and turning them into pork pâté. And don't even get me started on the days and days we spent on marketing theory, where we heard about Kant's system of structuring social classes, and how many people prefer the color blue over the color red, and why it's a good idea to hire George Clooney, and all the ways people can see sexual innuendo in advertisements. For a startup handmade yogurt business on a small farm in the middle of nowhere, almost nothing from that class will help. Yes, there was good information about customer communication and things like that, but 90% of the material would only help if you wanted to be employed by a high-class ad agency, which I strongly suspect is the instructor's fondest (and as yet unrealized) dream.

The fact that I expressed these sentiments only slightly more diplomatically on the feedback form at the end of the first semester is, perhaps, one of the reasons why I got my first non-passing grade on one of the final exams on economics. Perhaps. We haven't gotten the results back from the other economics exam, or the marketing one.

In general, I don't like working on teams in classes, because YOU'RE NOT DOING IT RIGHT. Up until the last week, I'd been able to pick the group I could work with, one that included the other adults in the class, or the students that pay attention and don't spend their time chatting to each other or watching YouTube videos on their smartphones. But one of the teachers assigned groups by proximity, and two of the chattiest were in my group, and I nearly lost it. One student immediately went off in a direction that was not at all following the teacher's instructions, and then got angry when I called him on it. The others weren't paying much attention to my suggestions, perhaps thinking that because I don't have the farming background they do, I didn't know what I was talking about. We were supposed to be analyzing the strong and weak points of a duck farm we'd visited, and I said that to me one of the weak points was that the owner was the only one who currently knew how to do the gavage step, the force-feeding of corn to fatten the livers. In fact, our farm trip had been delayed because the farm assistant was sick the day of our planned visit, so the owner was too busy to show us around. So wouldn't it be a good idea, I said, if the owner trained the other people to do the feeding? Oh, no no no no no, they said. It's a delicate step and it's best if only one person does it so that the amounts of corn are the same each time, and because the ducks get freaked out if it's a different person all the time, and traditionally it's a one-person job. Well, that might work in the ideal world, I pointed out, but look at what happened the week before, when the assistant was sick - what would happen if the owner got sick and couldn't do it? The whole business would come to a halt. They waved that off and didn't even write it down.

And then as our team spokesperson presented what had been written down, the teacher interrupted and said, "Wait, what about the fact that the owner is the only one who knows how to do the gavage? What if he breaks his leg?" But tradition and freaked-out ducks and equal quantities! spluttered the other three. "In an ideal world," the teacher pointed out, "yes, that's true. But this is reality."


Reading over that last bit, I realize that I sound rather a bitch, and I expect that's the impression I'm leaving with several - or many - of my fellow students. But you know what? I don't really care. I have made friends among them, or at least there are students that I spend more time interacting with, but I've never gone out on any of the drinking evenings, and never have wanted to. The culture gap is there, of course, but it's more an age gap; I just don't have very much in common with students half my age or younger (!!). And I'm better with one-on-one conversations, or in small groups, because it's hard for me to untangle the threads of sentences when they've been knotted together by people talking all at once. And as I have mentioned before, I have always been a bit of a loner. So this is nothing new, but sometimes when I'm reliving my high school years and hovering on the edges of conversational groups, not precisely excluded but not actively welcomed either, even though my attitudes and actions inform the situation at least as much as anything, I still feel a little left out. Et donc pour les étudiants de la formation qui pourraient être en train de lire ce blog, s'il vous plaît comprendre que je suis une personne agréable quand vous arrivez à me connaître, juste comme vous êtes des gens sympas dont ma réticence innée m'empêche de faire connaissance. That being said, there were times those two weeks in Hasparren, as there were at Montardon, when I just could not bear to be in class any longer. I took advantage of a sunny evening at the end of the first week, and an overcast morning the second week, to walk into the town and walk off my frustrations.

The church in the center of town, the Église Saint-Jean-Baptiste d'Hasparren, was originally built in the 16th century, enlarged in the middle of the 17th century, and then completely redone in the 19th century, so the current interior dates to around 1860. According to the local tourist office, this gallery-style seating is traditional in the Basque country; the women and children would be seated on the ground floor, and the men would occupy the upper stories. It's all done in carved wood, with spiral staircases leading up between the levels.

When the workers were expanding the church in 1665, they found an engraved stone plaque and an old stone altar buried under the chancel that date back to the 3rd century, one of the legacies of Roman occupation. Aquitaine was once known as Novempopulania, the "land of nine peoples" who lived between the Garonne River and the Pyrénées with their own traditions and language. The Gallia Aquitania was one of the famous three divided parts of Gaul, along with Gallia Celtica and Gallia Belgica.

Flamen item dumvir questor pagiq magister Verus ad August um legato munere functus pro novem optinuit populis se iungere Gallos Urbe redux genio pagi hanc dedicat aram.

I did do some school-related things in the middle of being a tourist, and it was much nicer sitting at a table on the square sipping a café déca with an Armagnac chaser while talking to the man in charge of the local service de remplacement about the general need for skilled short-term agricultural workers and the specific chances of my finding work in the cheesemaking field as a temporary employee replacing people who are out due to illness or vacations or maternity leave and such than it would have been sitting in the classroom getting annoyed at chattering students. I'll be writing up all of the notes from that conversation for my personal project over the next two weeks, and pulling my rapport de stage together with all of my findings about and recommendations for Ferme Bergeras.

There were several signs pointing to places that started with "Eliza" like the older section of town called Elizaberri, and I was feeling quite at home, until the woman at the tourist office informed me that eliza means "church" in the Basque language, and that it wasn't ALWAYS about me. (She didn't actually say that last bit.) I wish I'd had the time to visit the Chapelle de la Sainte Trinité there, a small stone structure essentially unchanged since it was built in 1687.

And I wish I'd had the time, and a car, and the ability to stay a few days longer for the opening date of the caves a few kilometres away, the Grottes d'Isturitz et d'Oxocelhaya that are filled with stalactites and remnants of prehistoric artworks. It's not at the scale of the now-closed Lascaux site, which I'd also like to visit (or at least its new replica), but it would have been an interesting side trip. One more item for the "next time" list!

On one of the final evenings, I walked up the hill behind the school to watch the sun go down. As I was puffing my way up the slope (really must start getting some aerobic exercise one of these days) I heard a chorus of baaing from a large grange to my left, and stopped to stick my head in the door. "Il y a quelqu'un?" I enquired, and when a dusty man emerged from the back I explained that I was a student taking a walk and taking photos and because of my interest in cheesemaking had wondered if this was a sheep dairy. "I'm in the middle of milking," he said, "and I'll have to ask my mother about the cheese, because she's the one that does it."

Hélène Etchegaray makes cheese for the family from some of the milk from their flock of Lacaune sheep, but most of it gets trucked to one of the sites belonging to the Fromagerie des Chaumes between Gan and Pau. The Etchegaray's milk goes to the plant at Mauléon-Licharre every two days, where it's turned into Etorki cheese under the auspices of the French multinational Bongrain, the second-largest dairy industrial in France (Lactalis is the biggest). They produce dozens of different cheeses that might be hard to find outside of France, but Alouette and Chavrie and Caprice des Dieux are sold in the United States. Probably more, as well, and of course you'll find many of them in cheese shops. I enjoyed talking with Hélène about cheesemaking techniques, and walked back down the hill to my dairy-free dinner in the student cafeteria with a smile on my face.

I will make cheese again, someday soon.

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