My Return to the Ivory Tower

The last several months have been bursting with emotion.  Frustration, anxiety, self-reflection, relief, elation.  It is true what they say, that human beings have a difficult time with change, but also that it is essential, clearing the old dusty parts of us to make way for the succulent new growth (perhaps it is no coincidence that this process has occurred in sync with the emergence and growth of the vine itself).

DSC_0145The magnificent Dentelles de Montmirail in the southern Rhône valley

I left my full-time winery job back around the holidays, needing to redistribute my time and energy in order to find a job more along the lines of what I really wanted to do long-term.  But I quickly realized that I had absolutely no idea what that was.  I applied for jobs a bit half-heartedly, but between my own disenchantment and the lamentable state of the French job market, the search bore little fruit.  I also began applying for PhD positions in anything remotely related to environmental chemistry, but when it came down to it, the opportunities that I was offered just didn’t feel right and I couldn’t bring myself to commit to such an intense journey without being 100% on board.

Around the time I was starting to feel the effects of this visceral anxiety of being unable to discern the desires of my own soul – a form of identity crisis in our society with its hyperfocalization on what one does in life, I stumbled upon the University of Cambridge’s History and Philosophy of Science department.  I had already thought about trying to pursue some kind of science studies or history of science route in France, but I couldn’t find the information I wanted and found my research thwarted by a collection of unanswered emails, so I’d let the idea slip aside.  It had never occurred to me to look in the UK as I hadn’t been ready to expand my search beyond France, but now that the months remaining on my visa were ticking conspicuously away, England suddenly felt much closer.

Applications were still open for the 1-year MPhil program, which was recommended to me by a couple of professors in the department, to get a taste for the department and give me the time to prepare a PhD proposal.  I applied and was accepted only a few weeks later.  I had simultaneously received another opportunity that, on paper, seemed perfect for me (a PhD in geochemistry looking at the interaction between soil and microbes in vineyards), but there was really only one of these choices that felt right in my heart.  Questions raised by the history of science and science studies have truly guided all that I’ve done in the past three years, and have informed all of the big questions that have captivated me throughout all of my wine related adventures.  Going to Cambridge for this MPhil, and writing a PhD proposal to study the history of biodynamic agriculture, a topic that has fascinated me endlessly, is a path forward that allows me to maintain my links to science, to agriculture, to nature and to the wine industry.

After college, I seized the opportunity to leave the academic world because I felt the need to know what other paths existed.  I wanted to experience the big questions instead of just thinking about them.  And for nearly four years I have lived incredible experiences, learned amazing lessons, and I am eternally grateful for each one of them.  But one of these lessons that I’ve learned is that I like the theorizing, the musing, the questioning, and I’m ready to hit the books.

Language and Wine – Book Teaser

But he goes on. Does he really believe that I’m following along, or simply enjoy the sound of his own voice? It is beautiful after all, rhythmically flowing along at that southern pace, each word closing itself up with a gentle lift like the crest of the faintest little wave. Shaking myself dry of my imagination, I realize he’s offering me another glass of crémant. I probably shouldn’t, but I accept it. I don’t want to seem rude on only the first day. I catch a few words, here and there: those that haven’t undergone such colloquial metamorphosis, altered beyond recognition.

 We are on our lunch break, from my first official day of “work”, a title that has turned out to be a gross overstatement. I have come to harvest grapes, but when the morning coffee led leisurely out to the vines where we were each given a tripod camping stool to perch on as we cut bunches of Merlot, one by one, dropping each one tenderly into bright yellow plastic bins, it dawned on me that this could not possibly be an accurate reflection of typical labor practices in a country that manages to pump out a respectable GDP. I know the French savor their vacation time, but this had to be atypical. Indeed, harvest “à la Parisienne” turned out to be a primarily social occasion, an annual pretense to reunite an old clan of rugby-mates while kicking off the harvest season with a wine consumption that at least equals, if not surpasses, the day’s production.

But see, I don’t know that yet. My lack of comprehension has become a sort of training device in Buddhist philosophy: I can’t understand, or ask, what’s coming so I have no choice but to live in the moment. To be present. And for now, that means accepting another pour, and staring blankly at the lips moving all around me, trying to piece together some meaning from the patchwork of syllables that I can make out. But as I’m sitting firmly in the present moment, enjoying a not so well deserved break from a morning of not so intense seated harvesting, I am oblivious to the fact that this is only the beginning. I have not yet been indoctrinated into the culture of the French apéritif, and thus the idea that an entire meal, paired with wines from across the range: whites, reds and rosés, awaits me. And then suddenly, as if warned by an invisible call – pheromones, perhaps – everyone, spread throughout the garden relaxing in the early autumn sunlight, becomes alert, like the wave of attention as it passes through a coterie of nervous prairie dogs abruptly alerted to a nearby danger. We begin to file into the garage, emptied of its heavy vineyard machinery for this special occasion…


A little work…


…and lots of play

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The Textile of Language

(The River Maine at sunset)

Angers has welcomed me with open arms.  The beautiful small city has been filled with activity over the past few weeks, with Les Accroche-Cœurs (an arts festival that took over the entire city for a weekend), the European Heritage Days, where all museums and monuments in Europe were free to the public, and, of course, the Rentrée – the beginning of the academic year in this city of over 20,000 students.  The 50 or so that I have become friends with hail from across the globe, Argentina, Chile, Madagascar, China, Honduras, Bulgaria, France, Mexico, Romania, Slovenia, Croatia, and Russia to name a very select few.  My ‘official’ program has yet to begin, but for now my days are filled with French courses all shapes and sizes – French as a foreign language, methodology of written and oral French, French textual grammar, etc.  Though anxious to dive into the wine-related course work, I am extracting great enjoyment out of these classes – particularly out of the progress they hopefully represent – and am truly beginning to gain an appreciation for the importance of those nitty-gritty little grammar rules we all love to hate.

          At its crudest level, where communication of basic needs can be realized, language is like a quilt.  Even with a relatively elementary grasp of a foreign language, we are capable of picking and choosing the swatches we need and piecing them together in a patchwork that, while it may not look pretty, serves a utilitarian purpose.  You could say that I spent the past year, while I was in France and in Chile, wrapped up in a quilt.  But now, I am back in classes and realizing that those grammatical particulars are exactly what gives you a tighter and tighter weave.  Mastering the differences between the imperfect and passé compose gives you a crudely woven burlap, but when you add the correct use of the subjunctive your weave becomes a little tighter and suddenly you have a nice tweed.  But language can become something more.  A mastery of grammar gives us access to the subtlest signals and cues embedded in the language, working together to create the most delicately woven silk.  In language, so much is communicated through subtlety.   It is not only the choice of vocabulary, but the construction of phrases, of sentences, the use of tenses, pronouns, moods, all of these things that we never even think about in our mother tongue but weave together a subtext so fine, so lustrous and smooth that we don’t even recognize its existence.  But when you are learning a foreign language this subtext is often lost, unattainable, because of an inadequate grasp of the seemingly trite and pedantic grammar rules.  But this is the dream.  The dream, the motivation, to study, is to be able to weave a silken conversation that glimmers with the subtlest of connotation.  All things in time. 

(First in-class wine tasting!… so I guess it hasn’t ALL been about the grammar…)