In this post I’ll cover my two-week stay in southern France as a carpenter’s apprentice.
After my few days in Iceland, I flew to Nice and decided to visit the second-smallest-country in the world: Monaco. I was waiting for the train when I asked a group of five English speakers if I was on the right platform. I got to talking with them and learned they were British students going to Oxford. We wound up spending the entire day together in Monaco.
Walking around Monaco didn’t take long, but the short stroll was filled with luxury. Rolls-Royce, Bentley, Maserati, and Lamborghini cars abound on the roads (no Teslas sadly). The water was similarly filled with opulence. The harbor was populated with boats so fancy that the aggrandizing word “super” must precede “yacht” to satisfy the superiority complex of the owner. However, the flashiness quickly wore off. We went to find a clean beach. There we swam for a few hours before heading back to Nice, grabbing dinner, and having an enjoyable night.
I rested very little that night, so the thirteen hour travel day that followed was a struggle. I woke up at 7:30 and took an Uber to the outskirts of Nice where I met my BlaBla car driver (a European car-sharing service). After a 90 minute ride, an hour wait at the bus station, and another 90 minutes on the bus, I arrived at my intermediate destination: a nuclear fusion research center! …Where I lounged for another hour until my tour started.
Exhausted as I was after the long travel, the tour of ITER’s tokamak fusion reactor still filled me with excitement and hope. It’s the current construction site for the largest tokamak nuclear fusion reactor in the world. If everything goes well, the project will be the first fusion device to produce net energy! That sounds boring, but it’s a bigger deal than sliced bread. Science fiction movies often include cheap and abundant energy provided from fusion devices, but ITER’s reactor in southern France brings that closer to reality. Until now, humans have always had to put more energy into a fusion reactor than they get out of it. This reactor will change that. For an energy nerd like me, ITER is better than Disney World. The tour covered water storage ponds, the concrete structure that will hold the reactor, some of the manufacturing facilities, and a massive cleanroom.
After the tour finished, I had already missed the last bus to Marseille, so I hitched a ride with a family also on the tour. There I took a train to Montpellier and met Bruno who drove me an hour north to his apartment in Lodeve. I was finally at the end of a thirteen hour travel day, but I was just beginning two weeks full of work and fun.
I lived with Bruno and his girlfriend, Ursula, in an apartment building he owns and renovates. All told I ended up working 60 hours per week, but the experience was more than great. Looking back, it was a lot of work, but the jobs made the time fly by. There were two main projects and one side job we worked on:
– We spent the majority of the first week repairing an apartment rented by Bruno’s friends. Breakfast was at 8:30 AM, but from then until 9:00 PM, we spent the first five days working on the apartment. First we installed safety ground wires (through stone walls) to the major appliances. Then I split off to start smoothing the walls while Bruno repaired the broken floor tiles. After a few days of endlessly scraping and smoothing plaster, I wiped the entire apartment clean and coated the walls with white paint.
– After finishing the apartment, we started on the project I came to France for: building an eco-home. Once fully completed, the house should mainly run on roof-mounted solar panels and be much more insulated than traditional houses. The minimal heat exchange achieved by 30 cm thick walls stuffed with natural insulation and special, multi-pane windows.
– I worked on projects every house has in common. I installed door handles, strung ceiling light fixtures, and wired sockets.
The jobs may sound simple or boring (sometimes they were), but the work changed my perception of carpentry and home-ownership. Instead of defaulting to hiring a professional to tackle minor projects, I now see most home improvement projects as DIY-acceptable. Like my dad once told me:
“All you need is Google, a few tools, and a tolerance for beginner mistakes.”
Side Job – Moving a British Painter
Bruno was friends with a professional artist from Britain who ran a studio in Lodeve for 20 years. The weeks I was there, Bruno and I helped him move. We transported over 100 paintings and countless tables. The amount of bubble wrap was unreal. However, I’ll only ever remember one item. I had just picked up a table to lift it onto the pickup bed when the painter told me to “Be careful. That was made in 1640.” In the U.S. something is old if it’s over 80. By that measure, the table was already old during the first stirrings of French revolution.
The 60 hour work-week was burdensome, but Bruno’s French attitude made every hour enjoyable. We took lunches that lasted hours, played afrobeat music, and discussed politics. When we finished with work, then we partied hard.
At night and on weekends Bruno and Ursula were always keeping me active with something. They tried to show me French life. The assorted activities were too diverse for me to create fluent paragraphs connecting them, so I listed them instead.
- Went to a Buddhist temple once visited by the Dalai Lama
- Learned Ayurvedic medicine techniques
- Attended a live music festival – The French have their own type of mosh pit specifically for a style of music similar to polka.
- Shucked oysters
- Discussed differences in wine
- Went to a wedding – It was more stereotypical than weddings in movies. The ceremony and reception were held in a little grass clearing nestled between two hills filled with grape vines, the bride and groom rode in on a motorcycle, the marriage was non-religious – only a welding of consciousness, the only toilet available was a composting outhouse, wine flowed freer than water, and there were only 6 people who spoke English.
- Played guitar together
- Debated conspiracy theories – HAARPA causing Hurricanes, 9/11 as an inside job…etc
- Went foraging for figs and fennel
- Discussed why my love for milk was unhealthy
- Collected water from a mountain source – While I was with Bruno and Ursula, we did not consume any tap water. We filled liter jugs from a pipe in the mountains instead.
After two weeks of all that, I left Lodeve, France with the intent to come back. It’s true. Southern France is filled with cigarette smoking, alternative-medicine-loving, wine drinking French people, but they and the lovely weather are what made my time in southern France great.