This Volcano Loves You

I’m writing this from a tiny hotel room on Rue LaFayette in Paris where it’s not quite 6am but I couldn’t quite sleep. After getting the news that both the Amsterdam and Dublin airports were closed indefinitely as of Sunday evening (which just so happen to be the two airports Bethany and I actually need to get back to the States), I haven’t been able to really sleep.  We experienced this before back in April – back when I didn’t take volcanoes or ash clouds seriously.  And then our flights got cancelled.  

I’m beginning to feel like the volcano is chasing us a bit – doing its best to turn us into European citizens.  This wouldn’t be such a huge predicament for me if I didn’t have some fairly critical things to get back to in the States (things like concerts in both Athens, OH and Livonia, MI this weekend and a job starting on Monday…).  So….while it may have been a knee jerk reaction,I fought back and bought another flight back to the States – this time out of ash-cloud-free Paris – then took a train down from Amsterdam.  If all goes well, I’ll be in the air and on the way to the States in under 6 hours (all fingers, toes, and eyelashes crossed…).  

That said, in honor of such a tenacious little natural disaster, I thought I’d attach Neko Case’s (fabulous and amazing!) song, “This Tornado Loves You”.  And while I’d probably prefer this volcano over a tornado any day, I’d still kind of like to get back home.

If all goes well, see you soon!

Les Miserables

We fell off the map for awhile last week when we worked on an organic farm in Epernay, France.  Now that we’ve had a long train ride here to Amsterdam (and showers!  Thank the sweet baby Jesus for hot showers….), I can finally post this to explain why:

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Tuesday le 11 mai

The sun was setting on only our second day of work at the Ballu farm in Epernay, France when Bethany told me what had already been running through my mind all day.

“I’m plotting our escape,” she said, picking soil and thistles listlessly from her fingers and hair.  We had 4 more days to go but I’m fairly sure that she meant it.

I’m not sure what I had anticipated when I signed us up to work on an organic French farm for a week.  I had read in several farm profiles that most hosts require only 5 to 6 hours of work a day and leave the afternoon or evening free for sightseeing or personal time.  This seemed agreeable to both of us on paper and beautiful images of the bucolic French countryside filled in the rest of the gaps.  There had been no room left for reality.

Reality hits quickly at the end of another 12-hour day when you’re covered in dirt and feel as though your entire body has been ground to pieces under a tractor.  I began composing t-shirt slogans in my mind throughout the day like: I spent the whole day working and all I made was mud.  It seemed more than appropriate. 

When I first read Matthieu Ballu’s profile on the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms’ website (or, WWOOF, as it’s affectionately called…), I was mostly drawn to the fact that he had a piano and that he could speak French for me, Spanish for Bethany, and English for when all else failed.  I was impressed with his goal to become completely free of any sort of diesel or petrol fuel and to provide both his family and community with foods as organic and healthy as possible.  I pictured a chuerubic rosy-cheeked man dancing to salsa music on a record player with his Portuguese wife, Lady, in a flour-covered apron and bowl of bread at her hip.    

We were greeted, instead, by a tall and angular man with worn fingers, his dark eyed Peruvian wife and daughter, and a house full of eccentricities without any heat.  Large collection bins lined the perimeter of their courtyard – collecting rain water for use with their inoperable toilet. Lazy heaps of clothes lingered haphazardly in closets or on tables even though Matthieu and Lady rarely seemed to change clothes.  The tiny refrigerator housed little more than a few jars of jam, a stick of butter, and mustard from a local Aldi; yet their kitchen was covered from floor to ceiling with sacks of spices, grains, and herbs collected and brought back in brown paper sacks from Peru. 

“Do you have neighbors?” I asked skeptically the first morning, staring up at a connected extension of the house that would seem a likely home for a family, while trying to imagine their faces as the communal courtyard filled with more plant trays and rain water bins.

“Of course,” he responded, as though it were obvious.  But upon further investigation of the house, all of the rooms were empty and dormant with nothing more than dusty feather beds and rolls of rotting wallpaper.  Wherever the ‘neighbors’ actually lived, they definitely were not next door.

The work itself made a bit more sense – although not much.  We started the morning by lining more trays to make small pallets of mud.  Then we went through the arduous task of actually making the mud.

“More water, I think,” he’d say at the first inspection – usually followed by, “More soil,” upon the second inspection – and on and on and on, back and forth.  After striking the right mud combination and laying out trays, we planted seeds of salad (lettuce), cabbage, and tomato – straining to keep the seeds from blowing away while trying to keep warm in the sharp wind.  Had the seeds not needed to sit in as much daylight as possible, I surely would have planted seeds in the house (granted, that would not have been too much warmer…).  

The end of each day was typically spent in the fields at Matthieu’s ‘greenhouse’ – a steel skeleton of a similar structure without any actual plastic to keep in the heat.  Instead, the plants were covered with mesh at the end of each day to fend off cold and animals.  It seemed such a contract to the neatly trimmed vineyards blanketing the entire horizon for miles around – most of which used herbicides and pesticides to simplify the task of actually getting something to grow.  Given that those farms also usually had a staff of paid people to choose from to keep things running smoothly, Matthieu definitely had his work cut out for him.  We were only two days into our trip when Bethany and I found ourselves overwhelmed. 

“I mean, if he had people like us working for him even just a few weeks out of the year, he’s still making out like a bandit in the labor department,” Bethany calculated, “We’ve been working out here for 12 hours now.”

We planned to break the news to them sometime the next day – Saturday – at lunch, perhaps.  We were concerned for our health and didn’t feel all that helpful anyways – it was best if we just left.  Besides, Bethany wanted to visit a friend in Switzerland and I should go, too (a mostly-true story…).  I didn’t feel nearly brave enough to actually follow through with the plan to leave early – especially after spending Friday night singing songs for them and eating grilled cheese sandwiches made by Clement who begged me sweetly to eat and sing all the more.  I felt even more wary when Saturday morning rolled around and no one came by to wake us up – not even the rooster.  Maybe they weren’t taskmasters after all.  Instead, we were greeted warmly late in the morning when we wandered downstairs by more home cooking, salsa music on the stereo, and an old friend of theirs named Jim.

“Too bad – this place is really magic, isn’t it?” he said when I mentioned as innocently as possible that our plans may have to ‘change’ and we’d have to leave the next day.   Magic??  There was obviously something I was missing…

            We were forced to see what Jim was talking about when we couldn’t manage to change our tickets to leave and realized that we were most likely stuck there for the next few days.

            “It’s only two more work days.  I think I might actually really enjoy it,” Bethany said calmly, “Besides – there’s a market tomorrow and that’s what I really wanted to experience.”

            I should mention that were my family the ones selling their wares in a market, I would most definitely be expected to help and would get all sorts of flack if I didn’t. 

Thankfully, the Ballu family isn’t my family.

            “Come when you can,” Lady said Saturday evening with an enthusiastic smile, “But only if you want to.  It’s the weekend, yeah?”

            We managed to stop by and help them load all of the trays back up into the van.  Matthieu seemed so completely at peace with how things had gone – not an ounce of frustration despite having to load everything by himself, no guilt trip, not even a single gripe about sales.

            “And now!  The grand feast!” he declared to no one in particular from the rattling driver’s seat of his van on the way home. 

            We spent the next 2 hours cooking, cleaning, and squeezing chairs around a dining room table entirely too small.  Friends filtered in here and there, instantly embracing us with three European kisses on the cheek and offering to help.  The sound of voices mixed with music and wine drifted out over the garden from every corner of the house.  And while I spent the start of the evening huddled in the kitchen like an indentured servant, Matthieu and Lady insisted we put dishes down and drink along with their friends. 

            “Working, working, working – all of this working!  This is a party, girls!!” they said, pouring us glasses of champagne and ushering us out to the living room. 

            It’s initially a daunting task to mingle at a party where you know no one but the hosts.  It’s even more daunting when all of the guests speak a language you don’t fully understand.  Even I was scared to sit down with the small crowd of people sharing drinks in the living room – and I actually studied French.  But good friends make even better guests and Matthieu and Lady pick friends of the highest quality.  Everyone instantly made us feel more at home than I have felt even in my own country.  And before I could wrap myself up in a servant mindset again by heading straight back to washing dishes, the tables and chairs were cleared to make room for dancing.

            “Bailar??” a girl named Michelle asked me just as I took my post back with the dishes at the sink.  I didn’t even have a chance to answer before she led me by the hand back to our makeshift dance floor. 

            After 2 hours of dancing to songs in countless languages and laughing right alongside these newfound friends of mine, I finally stepped outside to catch some air.  For the first time in four days, I was actually too hot in the house.  I stood out in the courtyard under a familiar sky with nothing but the distant sounds from inside of the house to ebb and flow with the stillness of the night. 

            You would have missed this, I thought to myself, thanking every star in the sky that I hadn’t. 

            I can’t pinpoint an exact time when things really turned so blissfully grand on this particular portion of our trip – especially given the fact that it seemed so bleak for a good stretch of time.  But things definitely took a turn for the best.  By Monday morning, I wanted to work harder than ever before to help move things along – even if that meant hours of making the perfect mud.  Meanwhile, Matthieu pretended to wail at the thought of losing us the following morning, insisting that we stay for longer next time. 

            “Quelle catastrophe! Oh, the misery!

            Misery, indeed….

            To some degree, I think I needed a part of the trip to be ‘hard’ – to really wrestle through it and feel stronger in the end (if a bit more sore).  Needless to say, I’m plotting my escape – this time, back to the Ballu farm in lovely Epernay.

Swiss Nursing Home

Our host, Roger, manages the kitchen of a nursing home in Zurich where he said there is a Steinway piano at my disposal.  Talk.  About.  AWESOME.  So….I finally got to make my way over there this afternoon and spend some time hammering out a cover song I’ve been singing since I left for Europe. For those of you who know and love “Maps” by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, hopefully you’ll like this version, too.  For those of you who don’t know the song, be sure to look it up and check it out!  Til then, here’s my version (note: I tried to change the preview image for the video from the awkward one pictured here; but alas….this was the only option.  Youtube hates me.)

CD Release Party

It is nearly 3 in the morning here in Switzerland as I’m writing this.  I am the only one still awake and the only sound is through the house the ticking of the wall clock above the kitchen cabinets.  Somehow I thought that releasing a CD would be more exciting than this.

In the end though, this is it – as good as it gets.  After years and years of starts and stops, here is where the end product has taken me.  Had you asked me 4 years ago that this is how a dream would come true, I never would’ve believed you.  Maybe that’s why it’s best to not know how the future will unfold.

So, without further ado, here is the link to my lifelong endeavor:  http://jessicaripka.bandcamp.com/

It’ll be available here completely free of charge until the 1st of July.  I realize that seems completely ludicrous.  Years of work?  Hours of labor?  Thousands of dollars?  All made available…for free???  If the goal of this had been to make money, though, then I’d be seriously disappointed by now.  Instead, I really and truly hope that you’ll not only download this project for yourself but that you’ll pass it on to your friends.  Tell your co-workers at the copy machine, leave a few flyers on the subway, post the link in your Facebook status – anything to get the word out.  It’s easier to get people to pay attention when they aren’t forced to pay to listen.

So – again, here’s the link: http://jessicaripka.bandcamp.com/

I’m shutting down for the night; but you, my friends – I hope that you’ll pass the word on and enjoy this quiet little CD release party along with me.