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East European Pickers on the road

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-A dropout from Budapest University

It was supposed to be the end of summer but it turned out to be the hottest autumn to be remembered. The last days of August I join my friends in Geneva to go to France, a bunch of other Eastern-Europeans, Polish, Checks, Hungarians, all of them seasonal farm-workers and restless vagabonds.

Some of them had just managed to save-up their picking wages to buy mature and experienced second-hand camping vans: The Hotel Transporter and the Transit Paradise. With more folks on board they run the merrier. But they don’t run fast. No highways, no haste, only small distances on little roads and many halts. The Swiss turn back and stare: they never see such rickety things driving through their towns.

France is full of luxurious camp-sites, not quite legal but not really risky. With always a river or a lake to bath in, a fountain to drink from, a five-star view and all of this is free of charge. So we live like this, improvised, modern nomads. From farm to farm, from river to lake, mountain to mountain, from the Alps to the Pyrenees through France. I’ve read an article lately about ten thousand families in the US who are thought to be struggling being homeless and living in vans. They are classified as “unsheltered” which was defined as a person who sleeps in a place not intended for human beings. Oh, it’s such a sweet life but only if it’s out of choice.

We drive to Beaujolais, the charming hilly region of the Rhône-Alpes to work in the grape-picking like every year when the season starts. Most of the farmers here still harvest the conventional way resisting the machine and keeping the tradition of the hospitable feast of the wine. It is possibly the only full-time physical labour with using a sharp object where getting drunk during working hours is encouraged by the boss. The sun is burning, we have to bend all day and cut very fast but at the end of the day we make fire and party with the many picker-pals.

Once a season we all go to St Etienne, a village nearby where all the grape-pickers come together and celebrate. Dirty, scruffy and a little stinky crowd grows at the parking in front of a wine cellar, claiming space, making noise. It’s a nice thing to see in the heart of the neat and impeccable French village. Everyone’s tired having been working hard, but still: all ages, nations with different history and hair style are happy to be here, feel connected, and proud. Then a samba percussion band comes to play and all people burst into dance in a frenzy, there is an explosion of joy and energy while the corks of the local sparkling wine keep shooting into the sky.

After quite a few weeks of labour with our wages in our pockets we go up to explore the French Alps. Little by little we make our way through valleys and ridges. The Hotel Transporter needs to get heated like an oven to ascend but its brave and it’s tough. Over the Glandon pass we arrive to the department of Isère and the Écrins National Park. We roam the unending pasturage, always in the footsteps of goats, with abundance of water, the million eyes of the ocean, and the many shades and shapes of the malleable rock. This tranquility is divine, it’s overwhelming. This tranquility is unnerving.

The villages are dead, we almost never meet a person, between the summer and the ski season only this abandoned infrastructure stays…The poles, the cables, the lifts are ugly skeletons on the soft green slopes. And there are so many of the luxury ski resorts, mansions to let, hotels, restaurants. One of the most bourgeois of the pleasure-sports. All what it costs to get carried up to the top is forgiven during the delirious sliding down the slopes.

Neither it takes us a great effort to park the vans for the night so that a magnificent view would unfold at every sunrise. Our treks are signposted and not too bold, after all the poor picker is still a bit fragile and has a broken back to cure. The crystal and porcelain sets recycled from swiss dumpster are clattering in the back and every couple of days after a badly managed packing-up all our stuffy-stuff and bric-a-brac slide forth and fall down to the ground. That is always the moment of nervous breakdown, I turn hysterical from the claustrophobia “I cannot live like this anymore!”. But then the coffee-grounds/leftover/broken glass/underwear heaps mushy muck gets cleaned up and at the next picnic on a viewpoint all inconvenience is forgotten.

To make sure that we keep warm we start heading south. Only the Transporter because the Transit needs to take back some friends to continue their university course.There is a place I really like, the farm of Joan and Marguerite at the feet of the Pyrenees. They cultivate without machines, chemicals or digging the ground. Without big investments but with great knowledge they are turning a piece of land into a self-sustainable habitat.

In only two years a lot have been achieved here by working with and not against nature, by continuously feeding the soil and improving the design. All the seeds wanna make it to fruit here, and people keep coming all the time to learn and help. I stay for some weeks to take part, we build an extension to the cottage of straw-bale and mud among the many other farming tasks.

I meet many who come to the countryside, opting for a different way, to make their own projects. Cyril lives on a little land hidden in the forest, he bought it for the price of a flat-screen Tv, as he puts it. He has constructed two yurts, grows his own food and manages his water. He has no electricity so he invites us to watch the stars. “Do you know that 80% of the world’s population cannot see the milky way?” He shows us a tree. By looking at the shape and the roots he can tell that there have been no trees around it since it started to grow, they were cut out and that is why the soil is so hard, so compacted here that no-one else would bother. And this tree must be around 150 years old, you see, it takes nature a long time to recover. He doesn’t care what people say or think, that he uses state aid, because he knows what he is doing and why, and he is more in harmony with nature than those. Right now he sees this as the most ethical work he could do: influencing others by making an example.

We want to climb the Pyrenees before the winter and the snow arrives and before I have to separate from my nomads. Toulouse on the way is stranded by the demonstrations triggered by the death of a young activist student, who was hit by a stun-grenade while protesting against the Sivens dam project. A reservoir that is intended to supply water for a couple of large-scale, industrial farms threatening to destroy the local biodiversity.

Later on we stop for a coffee in a village and the summer heat strikes us once again. In the bar we meet Nicolas, who works in a national park in the Pyrenees. He frowns at the weather: this is not normal he says, this is not right, this change what the humans have caused, accelerated, this enormous impact is a tragedy and more yet to come. And he talks about the Gulf-stream that is likely to disappear and then such cold will come, and he goes on about the melting of the ice and the decreasing water of the Pyrenees. He calls himself a geographer of catastrophes and believes that one must happen soon, a big one, like the death of the dinosaurs so that the change to the better would arise.

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