Annique, pettite and French-speaking, invited me into her car at a stoplight before the highway on-ramp.
She took me south through a part of Belgium surprisingly not packed with people. Tangly, dominating forest dipped and rose dramatically beneath our road in the hill-land known as the Ardennes.
Annique's English was good. Her recent luck had not been. She was my age, twenty-four. Riding horses had been her passion, and she'd competed in equestrian jumping during the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. Her horse kicked over one gate, but she said she was happy she'd done her best.
Then, a year ago, a bad riding accident had left her traumatized. She could no longer do her passion. Three months ago, Annique's mother had died. And she could no longer stand to live in her mother's old home.
Annique drove to Luxembourg, because she had an interview for a job as a furniture saleswoman. I was going to Luxembourg to look for work duing "le vindange" (the wine harvest). We wished to each other that we'd both find jobs on the day. I hope things work out for poor, pettite Annique.
When I got to Remich, a countryside wine town, I immediately started taking pictures. Everything was invitingly not straight in rural Luxembourg. Patterned grids of man-shaped grape plants tumbled down roving hills to the slow, brown Moselle River. Views of the town got limited by roads turning ornerily like a teenager's attitude past houses of colors wonderful. The thick stone rectangle houses shared fun pastelle colors with creamy milkshakes: most often orange, mocha, chocolate, lemon, or vanilla-blueberry.
It was the day the wine harvest began. Although the staffs of most wineries were complete with workers from Poland, I found a job at the Caves de Wellenstein (Wellenstein Cellars). Woohoo! I found a nice room to rent a half-hour walk away for fifteen Euro's a night.
The Caves de Wellenstein was an orange-milkshake-colored palace-like factory. A catholic-style sculpture of wine harvesters hung over the factory floor and bore the banner: "Bons Vins Faites a les Maines de Bons Hommes." (Good Wines Made with the Hands of Good Men) Heh, heh - I was one of those good men.
Good men and women brigaded during the daytime to cut grapes off the vines of hte many wineyard hills surrounding the village of Wellenstein. Then, more good men transported the grapes by tractor to the factory. There, good men cleaned the grapes and dropped them into presses. Down in the cellars, a few good men operated the presses which squeezed the juice out of the grapes. Other good men pumped the juice through tanks, left it to ferment, and added the ingredients to it that made it become good wines. Some good men, though, took longer and more frequent coffee breaks than others.
My shifts began at two p.m. I was put in charge of my own machine. For a long time, I had no idea what the point of my machine was. All it seemed to do was transfer used-up grape plant remnants from one conveyor belt to another. But, eventually, I learned that my machine was extracting lots and lots of grape seeds to be sold to a vegetable oil company. I was the seed-man.
Working with my hands was fun at first, but soon I was working with filthy black hands. When I had pleasant thoughts to entertain me, the work was enjoyable. When I thought about missing my old girlfriend Elaine, the work wasn't so nice.
The most horrible part was the clean-up. Grape plant remnants were everywhere, all over the floor and in every nook and cranny of my elaborate seed machine. Generally, I spent from midnight to three a.m. cleaning like a madman.
But, it was the companionship among the good men which made the job really memorable.
Annique had told me to always greet people with "Moyen" (Luxembourgish for "Hello") while in Luxembourg, because the people will appreciate the effort. So, "Moyen!" I often said. However, French and German as well as Luxembourgish are spoken by the locals. And in the Caves de Wellenstein worked Germans, French, Portuguese, and Polish - oh, yeah, and for the first time in known history, one American Michigander.
Germany was only on the opposite shore of the Moselle River. A thirty-something German-speaker named Mattias ahd hired me. He had dark hair and the stark frame and walk of a boss. But, the funny, unskilled way in which he spoke English with me made him seem friendly. He was friendly almost always, though the frenetic schedule and long hours of "le vindange" left him sometimes exhausted.
France sat eight kilometers to the south. While the factory bosses were German, most of the full-time workers were French. Occasionally, I worked down in teh cellars with them. Amongst centuries-old underground stone chambers, we filled huge barrels with hundreds of thousands of litres of wine.
French Frank operated the press that squeezed the wine. He wore a thin moustache and a tiny diamond goatee that flared like a star. He wore green waist-high rubbers and sprang around his press like he was running on trampolines.
Twenty-six-year-old Nuno had a chubby face, serious eyeglasses, and a blond haircut violently altered by frustration. I sometimes helped him to pump the wine or poor coal into a barrel to give the wine taste. He was one of few people I could speak English with. Fatigue had victimized Nuno the most, and he could often be heard swearing in the cellars. My first memory of Nuno was watching him repeatedly throw a ladder into the wall; he was so fed up.
I helped forty-year-old Marino Temporali a lot, and I'm gonna really miss him. He was of Italian descent, with eyes always wide like pool-balls. He did Jerry Lewis dances when the work got to him, and he had a million things to talk about which made his face light up. He only spoke French, and my enjoyable fights to understand him helped my French to come along.
Marino told of absolutely loving the eight days he'd spent in Portugal, where the people threated him like a brother. He said I must experience classic French singers, like Edith Piaf. He cracked up, as he told me to watch "Le Septieme Compagnie" (The Seventh Company), a comedic film based during World War II. He spoke every day, with heartfelt emotion and fatherly pride, about his seventeen-year-old son.
In addition to the French, full-time factory employees included the Portuguese. Perhaps as much as twenty percent of people in Luxembourg are Portuguese. I spoke my Brazilian-style Portuguese and got along well with a warm guy named Jose. Jose's Portuguese had the enthusiasm of the Mario Bros. plumbers, and we were always interested in how each other's lives were going.
The final group of workers were the Polish. They ventured over every year during the wine harvest, to earn as much money for each day of work in Luxembourg as they would for a whole month back home.
The funniest character at my work was a Polish man twice my age. He usually worked outside in the dumpsters. As grape stalks and other vine remnants poured in, he used his pitchfork to even the dumpster out. "Waste Management Control Expert" could've been the title to his position, or else "Dumpster-Guy." The English-speaking Polish guys told legends about this man - the man who never tired.
I worked with him sometimes. He lovingly called me "Jose" though my name's Justin. I called him "Jackie," though his name's Zwcabjveb or something. This small man was always misplacing his hat. He had the voice of a furball character you might find on a cartoon. And although he could speak nothing but Polish, he talked constantly to everyone. He told me stories, he asked me questions, he discussed work with me. I understood him almost never. However, Jackie would never let you leave in the middle of a conversation you weren't understanding, even if work needed to be done. Spry, gray-haired Jackie continued his lengthy Furball chattering, his eyes intense to match his story's crucial magnitude.
And when the work evening finished, Jackie got on his bicycle and tried to outpeddle his co-workers who drove cars.
In all, I worked seven days at the Caves de Wellenstein during two weeks. Mattias let me go after Monday, because the machine I was in charge of rarely functioned correctly. For eighty hours of work, I earned 780 Euro's. All right!
I hope I helped Wellenstein! I hope I was a good man!
later, Modern Oddyseus
Thanks to Annique; Damiano; Marcus; Chris; moustachioed guy; Eric; Pierre & Alice; and Men for the rides!