Driving on the “wrong side” of the road in Ireland

We went to Ireland a few weeks ago, a journey which I might describe in more detail in a future post. Because I really like driving, and automotive tourism, one of the most interesting aspects of the trip was renting a right-hand-drive car and driving on the left side of the road. I want to share my experiences here, as I hope they might be helpful.

In the weeks leading up to our trip, I was pretty terrified of the idea of driving on the left side. I imagined making mistakes when turning and getting confused in roundabouts, primarily. These aspects were interesting, but it turns out that I generally got the hang of that pretty quickly. There were a couple times in a small village at night when I drove for a short bit on a the wrong side before realizing my mistake, but overall this wasn’t much of a problem. Things just became more deliberate. Every time I turned, I had to do mental geometry to determine which lane to turn into, and which way to look for oncoming traffic (this is a problem on foot as well). I noticed that I brought this strategy home with me—for a couple days after returning to the US, I found that I was overthinking my turns.

The bigger problem, which I totally failed to anticipate, was judging the left side of the car and my position in the lane. Over the past 20 years of driving on the right side of the road, I’ve learned to position my driver’s seat over the lane, and I possess a decent mental model of the whereabouts of the right side of my car. In fact, I drive a truck, so this is even more important. A lot of the driving in Ireland is on tiny country lanes, sometimes with no lane markings, but usually with a wall or hedge right next to the road. So encountering oncoming traffic is terrifying at first and mildly unsettling after that. The first night we had the car, I had a long white-knuckled drive in the dark, contending with the occasional tour bus or truck.

Renting a car in Ireland is crucial. I’m not the type to ride around on tour buses and there isn’t train service to get to the important destinations. So, I have some suggestions:

  1. We were there in the off season. This is probably preferred in terms of driving. We encountered the occasional tour bus, but it would be much worse at the height of tourist season.
  2. Purchase the super insurance. Some rental companies have zero deductible insurance available. We rented from Dan Dooley, a local company, and we would have been liable for only EUR 100 if we happened to lose a mirror.
  3. Speaking of mirrors, make sure to point out all prior damage when checking out the car (of course this advise goes for all car rentals). The guy that looked at our car noted serious damage to the driver’s mirror and also marked damage to the passenger mirror, a move that might have been out of generosity, as I didn’t see anything wrong with it. Curb damage to the wheels is also quite conceivable, so check for this as well.
  4. We rented at the Dublin airport and then immediately headed for the west coast. This was ideal, as my first couple hours of driving was primarily on the highway.
  5. On the subject of highways, remember that you should cruise in the left lane and pass on the right.
  6. Make sure to adjust the seats, mirrors, and steering wheel, and learn the layout of the controls before leaving the lot. You’ll have enough on your mind without trying to figure out the windshield wipers when it starts raining, and in Ireland it will start raining.

So which is better, left-hand or right-hand drive? They are fairly equal, except one usability issue that I noticed on Irish cars. While some parts of the dash are mirrored, as in the case of the headlight switch, the turn signal is still on the left side of the steering wheel. I found that this makes it tricky to signal while shifting to accelerate out of the roundabout, as the stick also requires the left hand. I read a piece about driving a Nissan Skyline that states that the turn signal is on the right side of the steering wheel in Asian cars, which would probably be more usable in general but even less compatible with an American’s mental model.

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Avoid doing business with ENSAM

As described in the post “Getting paid in France,” I had some trouble getting reimbursed for a conference. The situation is still ongoing.

As part of this conference registration, I had received a discount for becoming a member of IEEE. This is common, and universities always refund such a fee as long as it reduces their total bill. ENSAM promised to do the same.

However, when the money came (after the year of waiting described previously), it was short. ENSAM had failed to reimburse me for the IEEE membership fee. I contacted the secretary, and nothing happened for a long time. Eventually, I contacted the secretary again, and she told me there was nothing she could do and referred me to the finance office in Paris. I wrote them an email in French, explaining the situation. After months with no response, I wrote an angry English email. This time I got a reply from somebody saying it had been escalated and that she would handle the matter. I never heard back so I wrote her another email a month later and got no response. It’s been 7 months now.

There is good work going on at ENSAM, but they are a joke on the international stage if they can’t even pay their bills. It’s no wonder France isn’t competitive. I would be very careful about accepting any position at ENSAM.

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Bureaucracy in Europe: Germany vs. France

Europe is well known for excessive bureaucracy. However, there are distinct differences between European countries in this regard. We’ve lived in just Germany and France, but even between these neighboring countries there are easily identifiable differences.

German bureaucracy involves a lot of paper, but it simply works. I was always receiving loads paperwork, all in German, in my Bremen mailbox. But in Germany I learned very quickly that I could generally trust that the documents were prepared correctly. There were too many for me to actually translate. Additionally, documents from German organizations were always delivered promptly. For reference, and contrary to the situation in France, my health insurance card was delivered within a few days of signup. If I had to go to the Finanzamt or the Stadtamt, then some wait time was required, but the most important thing was for me to always have the correct paperwork in order. The Germans do sometimes make absurd document requests, like how they always want a diploma as proof of graduation, even though a transcript is far more appropriate for those of us from American universities. Apparently, to get married, a foreigner must get a document from his home country certifying that he has the right to marry (not already married, etc.). However, we’ve heard that this document does not actually exist outside of Germany and the other governments sometimes have trouble producing this made-up paper.

French bureaucracy involves a lot of paper as well, but I think it was slightly less than that in Germany. I wonder if this may have been slightly affected by the relative verbosity of the languages. It was much more important to read all correspondence in France. All paperwork is very slow in arriving and it is often incorrect. Health insurance cards in France take anywhere from 6 to 12 months for “fabrication.” I have no idea what they are doing during that time. Going to the Prefecture for simple visa or car registration tasks can require between 1 and 3 hours. The prefecture employees can generally be quite helpful, except when they are not. The best advice is, again, to make sure to have the correct paperwork in order before going to the Prefecture. They often send you (or you can find online) a checklist of all required documents for a given transaction. In France, they are a little more flexible than in Germany (and constant rule-bending likely leads to inefficiency), but bringing all of the requested documents is optimal.

A potential problem in Europe is the tenure of government employees. There is little motivation for them to be any more than mediocre workers because their jobs are secure. However, I didn’t really notice this in Germany, likely due in part to the strong cultural work ethic (it’s a stereotype, but it’s hard to argue its veracity). In France, this does seem to present a problem and there seems to be a lot of dead weight in the French government.

There is definitely a plenty of bureaucracy in Europe. Overall, my takeaway is that this is not an inherently bad experience. I’m much more concerned with accuracy than quantity. Note that here I am looking at this through a user experience lens. Bureaucratic structures have other costs and the opportunity cost of filling out paperwork may also significantly weigh on a society.


The incompetence of Aer Lingus at NCE

As you may know, we recently moved back to the US. I might write more about this in the future. Here I want to report some problems with Aer Lingus when flying out of the airport in Nice (NCE).

We arrived about two hours early, which was actually way more than usually needed given that our first leg was just up to Dublin. Normally it is sufficient to arrive an hour in advance before flights within Europe. We knew that our luggage might be overweight and we had attempted to spread the weight between two suitcases and our carry-on items (two each, including “personal items”). But without a scale, we had no way to know the actual weights. The Aer Lingus website said that it is possible to pay an additional EUR 75 fee for excess weight, so we figured we were covered if necessary.

So when they weighed the luggage, we were overweight on both bags. Our question then was if it was more cost effective to reshuffle everything heavy into one bag and keep the other bag lighter, or if it was fine to be over on both bags. However, the employees at the counter did not know the prices. They said that excess baggage charges are handled down the way at the AviaPartner desk and only they would know the cost. I went down to that desk, and waited in line for about 10 minutes before being helped. The lady who did help me didn’t actually know the prices either. At first she thought it was per kilogram, but then she looked at some papers and realized that baggage to the US was a flat rate as we had seen on the website. As expected, the EUR 75 fee was per bag, so it was generally better to get everything heavy in one. But, she indicated without much certainty that there was a maximum weight.

Afraid that we would go over that maximum weight, we couldn’t actually move everything heavy as we had planned. We decided we’d probably just have to eat the cost of two EUR 75 fees. So we went back up to the ticket counter and they decided we’d need to pay on both bags. They gave us a paper to bring back down to the other desk and told us we needed to pay and then come back before the luggage could be checked. Tiffany went down there this time and I’d estimate that the ordeal took her more than 20 minutes. Apparently AviaPartner again didn’t know the price so they had to look it up. They settled erroneously on the per kilogram price, meaning we overpaid EUR 45. But we didn’t have time to argue with incompetence at that point. Meanwhile, I complained to the ticket counter workers that it was taking too long and that most airlines just let you pay right at their counter. One of the ladies had the guts to tell me I should expect this type of delay because my luggage was overweight. So to summarize, this is a service that they offer on their website, but if you take advantage of the option to pay extra for extra luggage, they view you as a rule-breaker who doesn’t deserve fast service. It’s hard to say if this was Aer Lingus, or just typical apathetic French customer service.

After overpaying and dealing with incompetent, but fast, airport security (maybe I can write more at a later date), we made it to the gate just as the agents were searching for us for final boarding. Our luggage didn’t make the flight. We got the two suitcases about 24 and 36 hours, respectively, after arrival in Cleveland. Tiffany wrote a letter to Aer Lingus so they have a chance to make things right, at very least with respect to our over-payment. We’ll see how they respond.

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Getting paid in France

The French rarely care about getting paid. Of course their culture is set up around limited store hours and low pay in favor of extreme amounts of vacation. This we know. But they don’t even really understand why one would care about things like getting paid on time. While the situation may be bad in normal French life, it is mind-blowing in the university system.

Story #1

I first started my French post-doc in August. Normally pay comes by direct deposit at the end of the month. I waited until the end of October to receive any money. I had just moved from Germany so I ran out. Tiffany had to send me money from Germany and the professor I worked for loaned me some. Of course I had some money back in the US, but I wasn’t prepared to go months without pay. And, from my perspective (which I’d argue is correct), why should I? I was in a contractual relationship with an organization to do some work in exchange for pay. But apparently this is normal. It’s incredible.

Story #2

I was employed by two organizations during my time in the French lab. One was the university, Arts et Métiers ParisTech (ENSAM), and one was a somewhat private association (I don’t really understand the organizational structure), ARTS. The association has an absolutely terrible human resources department. They don’t respond to emails unless they want to argue with you. I stopped responding to theirs as well though, out of principle, so at least that worked out alright. But ARTS was comparatively really fast at paying out travel reimbursements. ARTS can get it done in about one month (which is still not great compared to the American 1–2 weeks) while ENSAM routinely takes anywhere from 4 to 6 months. Which account the money comes from depended on various circumstances (as is typical even in American universities). If I was lucky, it would be ARTS. If not, it was ENSAM.

I went to a conference last March down in Arles (south of France, not far from the sea), which was to be paid by ENSAM. My colleague and I registered a couple months in advance, as presenters usually must register and pay by a certain date to confirm they will show up. That date came and went, as ENSAM had still not paid the bill. Though it was an international conference, because it was held in France I guess the organizers understood the type of incompetence in French universities. Our secretary contacted them and arranged a deal wherein we had to submit personal checks for the registration fee but they wouldn’t be cashed. We finally got our checks back a couple months after the conference, because ENSAM had finally paid the bill (after the conference was done!). This is existential stuff if you are a university who wants to publish papers and be respected internationally. You might not get such friendly treatment if you call some American conference organizers and tell them you can’t pay until two months after the conference. Note that when I say “can’t pay,” I really mean “can’t be bothered to pay.”

Now it’s November, but this fiasco is still going. Though the conference has been paid for, ENSAM still hasn’t reimbursed me for my travel expenses. My colleague got reimbursed back in July, so the secretary (after much prodding, because in France they are used to this) contacted some people to find out what happened. It turns out that I had accidentally had the hotel invoice made out to the ARTS address instead of ENSAM. Though this makes basically no difference to anybody rational, it completely stopped the process for ENSAM. They weren’t going to even bother telling me about the problem or proceed with paying me for the other expenses, which were numerous. They apparently assumed that the problem of my 500+ Euros would simply go away if they ignored it. The secretary asked the hotel to issue a new invoice and now the process is moving again, allegedly, but it’s been two more months and I still haven’t seen my money.

Quality of life is impacted

I say all that French vacation is great, but time is wasted on this stuff and I can’t exactly go on vacation without any money. I don’t like the stress of dealing with people who don’t uphold their end of contracts. I don’t think ENSAM deserves to be a world-class university, because it doesn’t behave like one.

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Freedom of panorama in Europe

It’s no secret that I think European laws are a joke. Imagine the technologically illiterate politicians that we have in the US, but now imagine that they were actually effective at passing all the stupid laws they want.

There are many examples:

  • Their use of photo enforcement is unfettered by the rules of trigonometry.
  • If a website has cookies, it must display an annoying pop-up warning.
  • They required Microsoft to implement the browser ballot, a feature that was broken for 1.5 years before anybody noticed.
  • They required Microsoft to release an alternate version of Windows XP without Windows Media Player, a ruling that was so out of touch with the interests of the people that only 1500 copies were sold.
  • If you don’t like what somebody is saying about you on the internet, you have a “right to be forgotten” by Google.

Really any time the European Union or the individual European states pass a new law or make a ruling, it’s sure to be comical.

But today I want to write about “freedom of panorama.” This is actually an exception to copyright law, in that the person who designed a building has a copyright on its appearance. In the US, we have a scheme that considers most things that are outdoors and visible to the naked eye to be for public consumption and sharing. With minor exceptions (artwork, for example), one can take photos in public and use them as desired. There is a line, in that we cannot use a telescope to look in windows, for example. In my understanding, this scheme would not be considered true freedom of panorama due to the artwork exceptions. There are pros and cons, but a big positive aspect is that this is generally compatible with the realities of rapidly-advancing technology for taking and sharing photographs.

Now let’s look at Europe. Here, the right to share photographs varies by country. Germany is considered to have freedom of panorama, so outdoor public spaces can generally be photographed and shared as long as the photographer is standing on the ground. There are restrictions on sharing photographs of people. Also they have been drawing a strange distinction for large-scale mapping, and this is why Google Street view has a handful of blurred out houses in Germany. I don’t know the legal theory behind this, and it seems to be related to data privacy, but residents in Germany can opt-out of being pictured on Street View. It’s my understanding that one resident can even opt his entire apartment building out. Also, importantly, freedom of panorama does not apply inside buildings, such as museums.

In France, there is no freedom of panorama. People who own copyrights on buildings or outdoor art exhibits enjoy copyright protection even from small time photographers. A famous example of this involves the Eiffel Tower. In my understanding, the structure’s copyright has already expired, but the lights on it at night are considered an art installation and thus receive copyright protection of their own. Therefore, sharing photos of the Eiffel Tower lit up at night is copyright infringement if prior permission is not received from the organization that runs the tower.

My problem with all of this is practicality. These copyrights are being infringed all the time and it’s only going to get worse. The fact that freedom of panorama isn’t the rule everywhere shows a huge disconnect with reality. I complain all the time about the prevalence of cameras in public, but I’m not crazy. Tourists are not going to navigate a minefield of legal nuance when taking photos. So you’re either going to have broad copyright protection of outdoor sights and no compliance or very limited copyright protection of outdoor sights and high compliance.

Because European lawmakers are clueless, there have been recent attempts to eliminate freedom of panorama exemptions all across the EU. I understand that the EU is hot to increase consistency across borders, which may often be beneficial, but this is the wrong direction to go. For better or worse, the government is supposed to work for the people. The position of the people is clear.

Germany wine


A couple weeks ago, I went to Berlin for the third time. Berlin is one of my favorite cities in Germany, but I’ve never written about it. So I thought I’d change that. Berlin is full of history and fun, but at extremely low prices (ridiculously low, actually). Maybe you’ll get some ideas.

Tiffany was with me on the first two trips. We went one time for an extended weekend while we were living in Germany. On that first trip we stayed in a hostel that was situated on the location of the old death strip in Mitte. There was an incredible amount of history in that area and this is one of the things that I liked most about visiting Berlin. As Americans who were kids when the Berlin wall came down, we were both familiar with it, but it was all very abstract. I never really knew much about the history of the wall or the realities for the people living in the east, or Berlin in general (as it contained, of course, both east and west). The most exciting thing we did was the Trabi Safari, in which I got to drive a Trabant around while a guide communicated from a few cars up. For those who don’t know, the Trabant is the stereotypical east German car. I guess there were actually a couple other makes in the DDR, but the vast majority were Trabants. Citizens waited many years from order to delivery, though over the decades a few million were produced overall. They are interesting in themselves, so maybe I will write more someday. Also, we visited the DDR museum, which was extremely tight and crowded to the point that one time was probably enough for me, but very educational. We also went on a tour about the many escape attempts from east to west Berlin. Finally, we made reservations and visited the Reichstag, which is a must-see tourist attraction, though I think the dome lacks class. There were panels and an audio guide to learn about the history of the building. As I don’t know much about European history, I really like learning this type of stuff when I travel. Berlin is among the best for this.

On our second trip, I was there for a job interview in August down in Teltow, a suburb on the southwest edge of the city. Teltow was nice and I’m sure it’s a friendly and clean place to live, but it is also one of the most boring places I’ve ever visited in Europe. Luckily it is a short S-Bahn ride to Berlin, so after my interview we spent an extra two nights in a small AirBnB place in the Schöneberg district. By this point, we had been out of Germany for quite some time. We’ve just visited on a couple short trips since moving to France, so when we go back we have certain things we like to do. One such thing is having a proper brunch buffet, which we did. On weekends, and even weekdays at some places in Berlin, German cafes often have pretty good buffets. These often even include hot foods such as eggs, which are uncommon in normal European breakfasts. We luckily were there during the International Berlin Beer Festival, so that was pretty interesting. We tried several beers and scored many new coasters for our collection. On our previous trip we had tried to visit the Berlin Cathedral but failed because it is often closed. We almost failed on this trip as well, but we went back on our last morning and did manage to see it and climb up to the top. We’ve been to the top of a lot of German churches, so we shy away from it generally, but it seemed like a proper tourist thing to see.

My third trip, by myself, was for a second interview in Teltow. I won’t mention names, but that job didn’t work out due to a quite friendly but extremely incompetent hiring process. On this trip, I was by myself and I opted to stay two extra nights at Riverside Lodge Hostel in the Kreuzberg district. This turned out to be an awesome hostel and an awesome area. I only paid around 22 Euro per night but it was incredibly clean and friendly. It was a really small place with a very social atmosphere and the owner was enthusiastic about recommending things to do in the area. At his suggestion, I had breakfast and coffee at a really cool cafe around the block called Katie’s Blue Cat. Also most of the guests ended up at Wirtshaus Hasenheide for German food on the first night. I visited two other noteworthy places on this trip that I would like to go back to. First is Tempelhofer Feld, which is an airport turned massive park. I had a hard time picturing what it would be like at a park with no trees and such, but it was really quite cool. There were lots of quiet places to sit and many people were running/rollerblading/etc. I just read on Wikipedia that it has since been turned into a refugee camp, so I’m unsure if/when I’ll be able to return. The second cool place I went was Klunkerkranich, in Neukölln. This is a rooftop bar/cafe place with a great view of the city. I was there briefly just to have a quick snack for breakfast before catching the plane, but I’d like to go back. I must warn you though, it’s hard to find. You have to take an elevator up to level P5 in the parking garage of the Neukölln Arcaden and then walk around one of the ramps to reach it (it’s at the top). I’ve read online that there is a cover charge even in the daytime but, for whatever reason, I paid nothing in the morning.

I also want to specifically mention my trip to Cordobar, an amazing wine bar focusing on German and Austrian wines. After checking into the hostel on this last trip, I discovered on Facebook that Yann, the brother of a Burgundian colleague of mine was also in Berlin! He’s a real wine expert so I suggested that we have a drink. We decided on Cordobar, and it was incredible. Yes, a glass of wine was a bit pricey, anywhere from 4.50 to 8.50 if I recall correctly (they have a bottle for EUR 1699.00). But this was really good stuff and the bartender was very knowledgeable and passionate about wine. Once he found out that we live in Burgundy, he started pouring us samples and asking us to name the grapes and such. I’m only familiar with Burgundy wines, so this was impossible for me, but Yann was having fun with it. I guess one of their focuses is on biodynamic wines, which is obviously nonsense, but I still recommend this place wholeheartedly.

There is a lot of random stuff in here, but hopefully you get some ideas of places to see. Berlin is an incredible city, and I recommend visiting.

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Cutting grapes during the Vendange

My experience with the vendange (or grape harvest) was a little different than Eric’s experience, detailed here. I was out in the field cutting grapes from the vines each day, and, boy, it is hard work to do day after day! The cutting part of the vendange is pretty straightforward: cutting, passing the bucket to be emptied into crates, and cutting some more. Though physically demanding, I found it kind of meditative to be outside and face-to-face with the vines for so long each day.

Most importantly, participating in the vendange really gave me a new appreciation for wine, and something to remember and reflect on whenever I enjoy a glass of wine in the future. My new-found appreciation comes from two somewhat contradictory things I learned about the winemaking process. On one hand, if you know the grapes have been handpicked, you can appreciate the physical effort that goes into the production of wine. On the other hand, once you see how simple it is to do the initial processing, you can understand why this beverage has been around for millennia. So, this is what I will be thinking about in a year or so when I finally get to enjoy the 2015 vintage from Domaine Charton-Vachet.

Eric carrying crates of grapes.


For those interested in the minutiae of the cutting process, below are the nitty-gritty details:

First, after we congregated at the domaine in the morning, we would head out to the field. The more knowledgeable members of the crew decided how many rows we would pick at a time. Sometimes it was 9 or 10, other times it was only 3 or 4, depending both on how much area was left to pick, how much time we had, and the number of people we had cutting. Usually we went with a one person per row method, but it varied. Then they decided who would be assigned to each row, usually putting the bigger or more experienced people in the rows with crates. This seemed to be because the stronger people could help empty the buckets easier and the more experienced people could both do this and easily keep up with the pace. Then we started cutting! When we would near the end of a section of rows, those who finished first would step over to unfinished rows and help out. It made it seem like a team race where the pace of everyone else pushes you to perform as quickly as possible and your teammates help you over the finish line if needed.

The cutting method is basically to brush/tear away leaves blocking your view, and then cut the grapes off the vine as well and as quickly as you can manage with a pair of small garden clippers. Most of the time the grapes were easy to spot and cut off the vine, but sometimes clumps of grapes were tangled together or in the wires supporting the vines. After cutting away all the obvious clusters of grapes, I would give the plant a good final scan and maybe brush the leaves once more just to check for any hidden clusters before moving on to the next plant. Sometimes clumps of grapes get overlooked, so one way we dealt with this was to scan the rows as we walked back down them after finishing a section. Sometimes whole vines would be missed if two or more people were working the same row and they weren’t conscientious — you really don’t want that to happen, but people weren’t always very predictable in where they started and ended a section of cutting.

The vines themselves were quite variable in terms of the number of grapes they produced. Some had 15 clusters of grapes and others had only one. The size or the quantity of vegetation didn’t always predict how many grapes a vine produced. The Chardonnay plants were quite hardy and easily stood up to tearing away leaves. The Pinot Noir plants seemed more delicate and fragile, but the grapes stood out so well on those vines that you didn’t need to rip away too many leaves. We also picked some Gamay, and those vines were more scraggly than any of the others.


Eric standing with some Pinot Noir grapes.


The thing that makes being a cutter hard work is that grapes on typical Burgundian vines are usually about 1 to 1.5 feet off the ground (30 to 45 cm). This requires the cutter to bend over, lunge, kneel down on one or both knees, squat, or sit. None of these positions are very ideal to repeatedly perform at a quick pace over the course of a full day of grape harvesting. Bending over is hard on your back and could contribute to a bit of acid reflux after the morning snack or the 4-course french lunch provided by the domaine. Constantly lunging really works the leg muscles. Kneeling and squatting are hard on the knees, and with kneeling you also have to deal with avoiding all the rocks in the field. Sitting might be seem comfortable, but sitting is also problematic due to mud and prickly plant life growing alongside the grapes. Thus, the reality is that you do some combination of all of these positions over the course of a day.

For me, at the end of the first day my knees hurt a bit and my abs were surprisingly sore. Leg muscle and back pain seemed to only last so long as I was actually cutting in stances requiring use of those body parts. The next morning though, I could barely kneel; my knees were so sore after a night’s rest. This is how it continued for the remaining days. After an hour of cutting each morning, my knees would loosen up a bit so that kneeling and squatting were possible, but they would stiffen up again during the lunch break. Ultimately though I just started to tune the pain out by the end of each day, focusing instead on finishing the next row of vines.

For the uninitiated, four days of vendange is certainly enough to get the complete experience and to come away with a few battle scars. I highly recommend doing it if you have the opportunity, an interest in wine, and you aren’t one to shy away from character-building work.


Citizen of the earth

When Americans travel, it often seems like they don’t really want to learn about a place. They don’t want to be immersed and they don’t want to see from the vantage point of the locals. Instead they prefer manufactured experiences, like you get from a cruise or Disney properties.

I’m fine with the idea of hanging out on a cruise ship looking at some water (being on a boat is one of my favorite things) and enjoying the entertainment. I certainly respect Disney just due to how relevant it is for my line of work. But these are not first-degree experiences. In my mind, physical displacement is not sufficient to be deemed “travel.” There are many pros and cons of every world destination, and I want to experience them as they are, not sanitized and through no lens other than my own personal bias.

I complain about France perhaps more than other places I’ve lived, but I can do so because I’ve worked my way through the system. Obviously as an expat the immersion potential is greater, but how many expats do you know who have gone so far as to fight a speeding ticket in a foreign country, for example? As with any country, France has good aspects and bad aspects. I want to learn about both.

I travel because I don’t like the idea of there being aspects of life on earth that I don’t know about. In recent years I’ve come to despise the concept of borders. Yeah, I understand why borders and local governance make sense, but I feel like a citizen of the earth and it really bothers me that there are places on earth that I cannot freely go. I’d live everywhere if I could, but a life of travel is the closest approximation possible.

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Vendange in Burgundy

Every year at the beginning of September is when all of the Burgundy wine producers harvest their grapes. Many seasonal workers are hired, some for money and some for fun. As Tiffany and I both still have valid work permits, we decided to do it this year. It is a very unique situation for Americans to be able to experience a vendange in Burgundy, as most cannot legally work for money.

Four days in the fields

Our friend Didier, who runs Domaine Charton-Vachet, is a relatively small producer, so he hired us for just four days. Many of these gigs go for longer and often the workers will finish working at one domaine and move on to another. For example, one couple that we were working with also planned to go up to Champagne for their harvest (where they apparently pay by weight). For us, four days was a sufficient glimpse into the life of a vendanger.

Day 1

We arrived at the domaine in Saint-Vallerin (a small village in the Montagny appellation) at 7:30 on Thursday morning. Two days prior, we had presented copies of our work permits and birth certificates, so when we arrived on Thursday there were some contracts (contrat à durée déterminée, or CDD) waiting for our signatures.

(Sorry for the cell-phone quality photos. It wasn’t really possible to lug the DSLR around.)

Tiffany getting ready to harvest some grapes in Saint-Vallerin.

At about 8AM, we went out to the field, which was directly across the street and contained only Chardonnay (Montagny village appellation). Didier gave us some very brief instructions and we were off. The process was very simple. First we tore some leaves off to get a better view of the grapes and then we cut them using some small clippers. In this area the pickers place the grapes in relatively small buckets, which are then frequently dumped into larger crates placed in the rows. We picked for almost two hours, until it was time for our morning snack break which included saucisson (French sausage), cheese, pâté, bread, and some chocolate bars.

After the snack, Didier assigned rows to most people, but he skipped me! He then said I was coming with him. It turned out I had gotten lucky. Probably because I was one of the larger workers and Didier likely assumed I’d be interested in seeing some things, I was assigned the task (with another, very experienced guy) of delivering empty crates to the pickers, carrying the full crates (into which the pickers had dumped their buckets), and loading the truck and trailer (behind a small tractor). I say this was lucky because it was probably easier on my back than bending down in the rows and also I experienced a lot more. Driving back and forth to the winery, I got to see the whole process. It probably wouldn’t have been so lucky for somebody Tiffany’s size, however, given that we were carrying two crates on our backs and sometimes one in our hands at the same time.

When lunchtime came, I learned one of the downsides of this assignment. When the rest of the workers went to lunch (a four-course meal), we had to process all of the grapes they had picked in the morning, meaning we ate later. These white grapes had to go through one machine to remove the stems and another to crush them. My task was menial, because obviously the guy who had been doing it for 16 years and the domaine owner knew what they were doing. I was instructed to hold the hose going from the destemmer to the crusher and ensure that it never went into the crusher, otherwise very bad things would happen. This was a fairly high-exertion task, because I didn’t know the optimal strategy, but it was straightforward. I was just glad to be in the winery observing the process.

The afternoon followed the same basic process. Deliver empty crates, pickup full crates, and bring them back to the winery. The picking finished around 18:30 and then I experienced the other downside of my job. I had to stay later too, because we had to process all of the grapes from the afternoon. We (because Tiffany and I drove together) ended up getting out of there at maybe 20:00.

Day 2

On Friday morning, we showed up at about 7:45 to have some coffee before heading out at about 8:00. This time, we went to a plot near the village of Montagny. These grapes were Montagny 1er Cru Les Jardins (Chardonnay).

Truck in the vineyards near Montagny.

The day progressed similarly to Thursday, but one interesting thing is we took a ride over to deliver a small truckload of grapes to the coop in Buxy. We aren’t big fans of that place anymore, but it is where I got started with my Burgundy wine tasting two years ago. Last year Tiffany and I went over there during the harvest to look at the line of tractors and trucks dropping off loads, so it was neat to be in the line this year.

The way the coop works is farmers sign a contract to deliver some or all of their grapes from a given plot to the cave, and then they are paid by weight. This means that the farmers don’t need to have their own equipment (crusher, destemmer, tanks, etc.) but it also means that there is an averaging effect. In fact, I believe that these grapes from the Les Jardins climat that we dropped off are likely bound to end up in a more generic bottle labelled simply “Montagny 1er Cru” whereas the stuff that Didier produces himself will have the label “Montagny 1er Cru Les Jardins,” which is more specific to the plot of land. The wine that comes out of the cave will often be decent, but it’s rare to find really good stuff there. If a producer really cares about producing quality wine, he’ll have his own equipment and take ownership over the whole process. If a farmer just wants to profit on farming grapes, the coop is a better choice.

I again stayed late to help out in the winery, just helping to unload the palettes and perform the menial hose-holding task for the crushing. We didn’t leave until about 22:00 that night.

Day 3

On Saturday, we arrived at about 7:50AM. You can probably see how the sleeping hours were becoming scarce at this point. This time, we went to another plot just downhill from Les Jardins. This was the normal Montagny village appellation. The picking was done in time for (I believe a slightly late) lunch, but of course I stayed a couple hours extra to help finish up with unloading and processing the grapes. We left at about 17:00.

Day 4

Sunday was an early morning because we had to drive up to Nuits-Saint-Georges. We all met in Saint-Vallerin at around 6:30AM. We then took three cars to our destination, where we were met by a refrigerated truck. Because the logistics were quite different than the previous days, I spent most of the day picking. The majority of the day was spent on Pinot noir (Nuits-Saint-Georges village), but towards the end we also picked some Gamay. I’m not sure the appellation on that Gamay. It may just be “Burgundy” because I think the village appellation is probably reserved for Pinot noir, but then I’m not sure if the Burgundy name can be on something that is pure Gamay. I guess those grapes were being picked for another guy, so I’m not really sure how that all works. (EDIT: I’ve been told these bottles can be labeled “Coteaux Bourguignons.”)

Refrigerated truck in the vineyards near Nuits-Saint-George.

I didn’t get as much experience picking as Tiffany did, but to me the Chardonnay and Pinot noir plants seemed quite similar. The Gamay seemed similar also, but maybe a little more difficult to access the grapes. The grapes seemed to be closer to the vines, but this could be purely anecdotal.

For lunch on Sunday, we had a picnic on a palette. Otherwise, the normal schedule with the morning break and then the lunch break was pretty much the same as before. I was asked to help load some crates onto a palette for the refrigerated truck towards the end of the day and then I helped deliver some empty crates, before going back to picking. We finished picking at around 17:30 and were back in Saint-Vallerin at around 18:30. After the refrigerated truck arrived, we unloaded it and processed the grapes. This is easier for the Pinot noir, as they don’t need crushed. They simply got dumped into the destemmer and from there they went straight to the tank. A couple hours later, we began a dinner with sausages and plenty of wine (though I was driving and already exhausted, so I didn’t benefit much from that).


I was getting more and more stiff and sore each of the four days, but interestingly I wasn’t really that sore the next day after 11 hours of sleep. However, my skin has been reacting pretty badly all over my body and particularly on my hands. I get eczema sometimes, but this is the worst I’ve ever had. It’s interesting that I had no skin problems during the harvest itself, aside from a few scrapes, but a day later this became a real problem. Today is the fourth day of rest after the harvest and my skin was bad enough that I went to the doctor. It seems I likely encountered some plant that I was allergic to and this triggered a reaction all over.