Montauban-sur-l’Ouvèze, FRANCE – The call came from a neighboring farm: “Could you help us round up a herd of cows and take them to high pasture? Oh, and one more thing: Bring as many people as you can.”
Our friend in the village where we are staying, a local farmer named Raphaël, asked for volunteers over lunch. He told his neighbors: “I’m bringing a German, a Belgian and an American – and that’s not a joke.” (Here in France there are a bevy of jokes that start just that way, “Once there was a German, a Belgian and an American…” and go on to have some fun with cultural stereotypes.) But this was not a joke; these were the volunteers that Raphaël had been able to scrounge up. No wonder they were all visitors from abroad because at this time of year the locals in this farming region were sweating in their own fields or scurrying around in tractors hauling the freshly cut lavender to the stills where they extracted the essential oil.
“You’re going to meet some real French people,” another friend, Marie-Annick said, by which she meant we were going to meet deep country people; the equivalent of rednecks in the US, just wine-drinking, ratatouille-making French rednecks.
Raphaël clarified: “They are big-hearted people – the best you’ll ever find – but they are certifiably crazy. I have no idea how long it will take.”
When we arrived at the farm, Sylvie and Bruno, the owners of the farm, were saddling up two horses, amid much yelling and joking and barking dogs. Bruno was in shorts and thongs and had a broad, kind smile. Sylvie, on the other hand, was a firecracker: wiry, deeply tanned from farm labor, crowned with short-cropped salt-and-pepper hair, wearing a dark blue tank top over her sagging breasts and chain-smoking cigarettes. In a fight, I would have preferred to go up against Bruno.
Bruno changed into long pants and sturdy boots and our little group set out from the farm which was nestled in a narrow valley at the base of some low mountains. Our mission was to gather 30 cows that were in the woods and herd them to high pasture at the top of the mountain.
But first we had to find them. Now I understood why they needed so many hands: flushing cows out of a tree-covered hillside made the proverbial impossible task of herding cats sound like fun, by comparison. For a long time, we couldn’t locate a single cow. Eventually, we heard the ringing of their bells and I praised God for the person who had first thought to hang a bell around a cow’s neck.
Once found, we needed to convince them to first go downhill to where the trail began up the mountain. Cows, it turns out, have a mind of their own and love to break through holes left by their human captors. If provoked, they will even bluster blindly through barbed wire or an electric fence, as well. Such fences, it turns out, are just wishful thinking. We got the main herd down to the road but a splinter group had broken through our lines and had lead the two strongest of our group, Bruno and Raphaël, all over the hillside. Eventually they brought them in, but four or five cows remained up in the trees. Someone would come and get them another day.
The trail to the top of the mountain made no apologies: it was a heartless straight line up the ravine. The only good news was that the trail was shaded by trees, so at least God would not witness the suffering of our thighs and calves. The night before I had danced four hours of tango under the lunar eclipse. My legs were beginning to scream.
Many of our group began to fall behind or turn back. This was not a gentle stroll and the French rednecks set a relentless pace. Like farmers everywhere, their bodies where accustomed to laboring day in and day out. And, like farmers everywhere, they had work to do: the sooner they finished this job, the sooner they could get started on the next one. You could keep up with them – or not. Your choice.
One lazy cow fell further and further behind the herd. She would go twenty meters then stop. Raphaël and I would wait with her and then coax her back into movement. I admit that I used this cow’s breaks to cover for me, while I caught my own breath. Finally the cow refused to move at all. She didn’t care that the herd was getting further and further away and you could just occasionally hear their bells; she wouldn’t budge. Raphaël tried treats, a crust of bread he had found in his pocket. No takers. He set the shepherd dog to yapping at her heels, but even this display of mock ferociousness did not get her moving. He tried banging on her with his staff. Still no reaction.
Finally, Bruno came up the trail alone. I suppose he had been searching for the lost cows. It is no small matter to leave cows abandoned in these woods. There are wolves out there and a few cows separated from the herd without their guard dogs run a great risk.
Bruno came and caressed the cow and spoke softly, almost confessionally, in her ear. She made one tentative step, then another. It turned out that it was the last 100 uphill meters before the trail leveled out. Raphaël and I didn’t know this in the heavy vegetation and nor did the cow.
When the cow turned onto the flat stretch, Bruno winked at Raphaël and said, “I guess it’s just my winning personality.”
After the ordeal of the climb, walking on a flat trail felt absolutely luxurious. My legs seemed to move of their own volition. The very last stretch of road was a paved mountain highway leading toward the alps. We crossed a few startled cars, who had to wait for the impassive cows. Up ahead our companions blocked the road with their bodies to drive the cows through the gate into the pasture.
After the last cow was in, Sylvie asked Bruno for the key to the car they had left up there to shuttle everyone down. But Bruno had left the key in his shorts, the ones that he had changed out of down at the farm. Sylvie started cursing him and waving her arms about. It didn’t look good for Bruno. Her cries echoed in the mountain wind.
Bruno knew this was no time to give battle. He and Raphaël headed off quickly. Before they got out of sight, Raphaël turned and whistled to me. No time for a celebratory photo; we were off. They strode fast, choosing a short-cut down the mountain, the fastest way back to the farm and the offending key. They moved quickly and I had to stay alert to keep up with them and not tumble down the fields of broken stone.
When we were still up on the mountainside but now in sight of the farm, dogs started barking below. Bruno shouted at them, “Relax… it’s me.” The dogs understood and reluctantly went quiet.
When we reached the farm, Bruno grabbed cold beers from the cooler and handed them around.
“Ahh,” I said in French.
“Ahh,” replied Bruno, drinking his beer quickly, then making for the car to get back up that mountain. He knew what was best for him.
We drank our beers a tad more slowly, then hobbled over to our car for the ride back to our village. It had been a good day. I was glad I saw the top of the mountain and I was glad that I had kept up with Raphaël. It felt like an honest day’s work.
The next day Raphaël stopped by our house. He said, “I have a joke for you. You’ll never guess what happened. This morning, all the cows showed up at Sylvie and Bruno’s farm in the valley. They had descended the mountain in the night. They’re going to have to do the whole thing all over again.”
“Ah, that’s terrible news,” I said, rubbing my thighs nervously. “What a waste of effort.”
It’s good to know though that French cows are every bit as crazy as those loveable French cowboys.