I was approaching seventy --I was going to say dragging my feet along the way but it creates the wrong image-- when I moved to a small winemaking village in Occitanie--formerly Languedoc. I didn’t know a soul and could barely speak the language. Actually, I still barely speak the language, but I’m improving. Learning a language is supposed to be good for the ageing brain which should mean mine is barely out of the teens. When I announced my plans, I suspect there were some who wondered whether senility had set in. I’d packed three suitcases with clothes, a few pictures of the kids, the duvet cover my daughter gave me and a copy of Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart because there was a possibility they would and I always turn to her when they do. Fortunately, they didn’t. After more than four years, I still think that moving to France in what some would call my sunset years was an inspired decision.
I didn’t know when I arrived that I would also find inspiration in some ancient grape vines that grow on the terraced hillsides of Domaine de Cébène in nearby Faugeres. The Old Ladies as vingeron Brigitte Chevalier calls these vines; the younger ones around my age, the oldest planted before the First World War. The vines are Carignan, a prolific variety once used to provide wine for French soldiers. Over the years, Carignan fell out of favour and growers were paid to pull up the vines, replant them with new varieties. Thousands of Carignan vines never made it to old age, an unfortunate turn of events because while the wine from young Carignan grapes is callow and rough, these old vines, slowed and mellowed by time, are capable of magic. Sexy, rock star quality said one reviewer of the wine created from these Old Ladies.
Society doesn’t exactly put out a welcome mat for older humans either. After a certain age, we fall out of favour. We’re no longer relevant. We’re cast aside in favour of younger varities, pulled up, replanted in retirement villages. Our expiration dates are approaching, our contents questionable. I say rubbish to all that. Mellowed by time, enriched by experience, we still have plenty to offer. We can remain creative, interested and open to adventure. We can take risks, refuse to be discouraged and live in the present rather than dwelling on the past.
I came to France to do just that. The Old Ladies in the hills above my village gave me a lot of pointers. In fact they inspired me to write a book about my still unfolding adventures, We Make Some Very Fine Wine. (Stay tuned for publication details.) As the French dramatist Jules Renard said, It is not how old you are, but how you are old.
I was born in 1944 which by most definitions makes me an old lady. While there are days, when my hair is attractively tousled and I’m wearing denim and boots, that I feel I could confidently shave off a decade or two ( I do it all the time) there are others when my creaking back and stiff knees don’t seem to have got the message that seventy is supposed to be the new fifty. But, look, we all have those days. Rather than count the chronological years, I prefer to focus on fully living life. I say let's stop asking how old we are, but instead focus on how we are old.
Back to the suitcases. You could fill them with fear and foreboding, waiting quietly in the departure lounge for your heavenly flight to be called --or you could travel light, leave room for optimism and adventure. What's in your suitcase? Drop by and let's talk. You can leave a comment here . . .pleeeese leave a comment here, otherwise I'll feel negelected and old and fall into deep depression and you don't want that on your conscience, right? You can also visit me at www facebook com where I also post things about aging well and the ups and downs of the writing life --actually I suspect the latter doesn't help the former, an issue I might also cover. But do come and say hello.
In the harsh light of a winter morning, the Old Ladies that sprawl on the hillside terraces of Brigitte’s vineyard look more dead than alive. Their limbs are gnarled and twisted, battered by the elements. Just a few months earlier they were the centre of attention, ripe with bunches of purple fruit. After the harvest, the leaves had a brief blaze of gold and crimson glory and then, withered by winds and rain, they dropped to the ground. The vines are deep in slumper and spring is the distant future.
Debourrement is the French word for bud break, the moment in late March when the Old Ladies, neatly pruned, wake from their winter slumber and send forth tiny shoots. Fuzzy buds like the top of a baby's head.
Spring pulls out all the stops to welcome the new arrivals. The swits and swifts, returned from wintering in Africa, swoop and swirl above the rooftops. Wild Iris and pink rockrose bloom on the sides of the roads, clouds of pink and white almond and cherry blossoms fill the orchards. Amidst all this fertility, the new buds quickly swell into verdant green leaves.
May ushers in summertime. Pulses quicken. As though they’ve drank from the Fountain of Youth, the Old Ladies vines are now like gangly teenagers, glossy and new, all long slender limbs twisting this way and that. Nestled among the new leaves the embryonic bunches. Under the hot sun, they'll grow in size and change colour to become the purple grapes of September.
In November, a smoky haze hangs over the vineyards. The days
grow short. Autumn’s bright colours have faded, rains soaks
the tattered leaves; bedraggled, they fall to the ground.