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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.

France visa

France is broken

There are many things I like about France. I like the tourism. I like the cheese, wine, and cuisine, for example. We have a good time driving around Burgundy on weekends visiting wine festivals in small historic villages.

However, France is a very hostile place to foreigners trying to live here. I do not mean the people. Though the French have always been known for their dislike for foreigners and their languages, and they are becoming well known for their racism recently, that stuff is another story for another time. Overall I have not had big problems with individual people and I find that people all over the world have similar desires, goals, and needs, and really we are all the same. What I want to rant about here is the bureaucracy, though I do recognize that it is really the emergent sum of the people.

Everything here takes forever and it is often done incorrectly. First, this is true with the government. We spend a lot of time at the local sous-prefecture (administrative office) dealing with slow and incompetent bureaucracy.

  • It took us nearly a year to get our health insurance cards. We have heard stories of others taking a couple years. Sure we can still get medical care in the meantime, but it means that we must submit the paperwork ourselves. This is obviously not ideal when you cannot speak the language or understand the system, but this is what all immigrants deal with.
  • The immigration system is awful, though probably better than that in the US. They take so long (on the order of several months) to issue visas so people often end up with what is called a recipisse. This is a receipt of an application for a visa. It is valid if the cops need to see paperwork while in France, but it is not valid for entry at the border. This means that they are giving foreigners, the very people who might have a reason to leave France a lot, a document that does not allow for them to leave France. Tiffany had one of these for almost 6 months. In her case, the short story is that they lost papers and were generally slow. The sous-prefecture told her that if she wanted to leave France she should just lie to the border control upon reentry. When you have one government office telling you to lie to another because their bureaucracy provides no way to obey all of the laws, then you are dealing with a “broken” country.
  • Each employee at two different prefectures gave us a different story regarding my ability to legally drive with my license. Some of these people had a very wrong understanding of the basics of the law. This is ongoing and I hope to write more once it is resolved, but so far it has already been five months (with no driving) that we have been querying these authorities.
  • I got a photo citation more than a year ago. I still haven’t been given a court date to appeal it. But don’t worry, they made me pay immediately so they have had my money for the whole time.

This is also true in the workplace. It is comically absurd how many things are broken in our building and in our organizational systems. I cannot usually blame any one guy. I believe that the problem is cultural throughout the organization.

  • It took me about 3 months to get paid when I first started working here.
  • I work at a national university, with campuses all over France. To hire a new researcher, the paperwork must be signed by the head of the entire university. (Yes, take a moment to think about how ridiculous that is.) So this means that every new contract has to go to Paris and wait to be signed, as part of a two month process. In some cases I guess people can start working in the meantime, but it is also a roadblock for getting visas.
  • Countless things are actually physically broken. I have never before worked at a university where you cannot just call maintenance if something breaks. As an example, our building’s work centers around a large room full of virtual reality equipment, but unfortunately the light switches to that room barely work. It is nearly to the point where we will no longer be able to turn the main lights on in that room. The first switch failed in May (8 months ago)!
  • I waited more than 3 months to get a key to my new office.
  • When I go on missions, I sometimes get under-reimbursed. There is no recourse. At every level of the hierarchy, unless something goes horribly awry nobody cares about the misfortunes of others.
  • I have a bunch of vacation days (which is great), but because the system is so complex (long story) I never know ahead of time how many days I have in order to plan trips far in advance. I can email the human resources people and they rarely reply, but if I did get ahold of them in most cases they will not know the answer either.

The French always talk about their quality of life. But I ask you: How high is my quality of life when I go months without a paycheck or the ability to drive? I think the French system is unrealistic. Though it is the largest country in Europe, it is a mere footnote when it comes to the world’s economy. There are lots of resources and a good strategic location, but with all of these inefficiencies the French are increasingly unable to compete with the world around them. For these reasons and others, I do not see a bright future for France and I believe the quality of life is going to go down before it goes up.

France visa

Applying for French Residence

If you’ve ever heard anything negative about French bureaucracy, let me just confirm for you right now that it’s true. The French have really perfected the art of creating tedious, drawn-out, ineffective, and incomprehensible government processes. If you ever have the pleasure of living in France, you will, without question, experience fits of hysterical laughter and from time to time shed tears of overwhelming frustration after interacting with the French bureaucracy.

Today I’ll be explaining the nightmare of attaining a French residence card, the carte de séjour. First, you have to have the right type of visa to enter France and apply for residence. You cannot merely enter the country as a tourist and convert your visa status. Before moving to France, Eric and I lived in Germany, and therefore we had to obtain our French visas through the French consulate in Frankfurt. As I recall, Eric had an extraordinarily difficult time emailing back and forth with the consulate to arrange an appointment, and we were required to have an appointment. Eric had to have this one sheet of paper from the university before we could apply for his scientifique-chercheur visa and my conjoint visa. It took at least a month to get this piece of paper, because it had to be completed by Eric’s lab, signed the university president, and then get a special stamp from the local French prefecture. This document had the least extraordinary appearance of all the documents in our application package, but naturally it was the most important one for obtaining the correct visas. Once we had all the paperwork submitted at the consulate, the process took two to three weeks before we could go retrieve the visas.

After entering France, the real fun begins. Within two months of entering as a conjoint, you have to apply for French residence at your local prefecture. When I first arrived I had very little idea what this entailed, and a few well-intentioned locals told me all I had to do was mail in a couple of documents. My request was denied. My documents were mailed back to me along with a checklist of about fifty documents one might possibly need to apply for residence, 10 of which were checked off for me. I gathered up all the documents I needed, and submitted them in person to ensure there were no problems. At my local sous-prefecture they are nice enough to accept submissions in person, but some prefectures require you to mail in your application.

Weeks passed by with no communication from the sous-prefecture. The expiration of my three-month visa drew imminently nearer, and still there was no news. I took measures into my own hands and visited the sous-prefecture about two weeks before my visa expired. They issued me a récépissé, a receipt of my request for residence. At first I thought this was a success, but then I researched the document. You can’t travel on a récépissé for your first request of residence. If I traveled, it would essentially be illegal for me to try to re-enter France without applying for another visa while I was out of the country, an excessively burdensome requirement. When I asked the sous-prefecture about this issue, they would only tell me that it was “risky” to travel on a récépissé.

Well, as long as I had no plans to do any travel by air, it wasn’t that big of a deal. Three months passed by, and OFII, the French immigration and integration administration, finally contacted me for the required medical exam. I was checked for TB a full five months after I first arrived in France; if I had it, I would have spread it to everyone in Burgundy by that point, I’m sure. There was also a brief French language test, but the required level of knowledge was very low. OFII gave me a bunch of papers that they said I would have to turn into the prefecture when my carte de séjour arrived.

My récépissé was set to expire about a week after the OFII appointment, and the sous-prefecture told me I would need to get another récépissé. However, the sous-prefecture would not issue a new récépissé before the old one had expired. I explained that I would be out of town when it expired, and that I didn’t want to go without proper documentation of my status. The administrator at the sous-prefecture treated the prospect with a blasé attitude, and told me to come back as soon as possible after my récépissé had expired. I did so, but did not get my new récépissé until after they wasted a day trying to locate my misfiled dossier.

Well, nearly another three months has rolled by, and two weeks ago I went into the sous-prefecture again to check the status of my carte de séjour. Initially the answer was that nothing had happened with it yet, and I would have to obtain a third récépissé when the current one expired. I again asked about the travel situation, because I may travel to the US at the end of the summer. This time the administrator basically told me that if I am still on a récépissé by the time I travel, I should lie to the immigration officer when I re-enter the Schengen area; I should hide my récépissé and pretend to be a tourist, and because I’m American it should not be a problem for me to re-enter this way. Yes, the French government told me to commit fraud to regain entry to their country. Then the administrator asked me if I had had my OFII appointment yet, and I replied that I had, back in February. Her eyes grew wide, and soon the truth unraveled. Apparently I was supposed to bring those OFII documents to the sous-prefecture before they could process my carte de séjour, not after it had arrived as OFII indicated. I took the documents in the next day, and hoped for the best.

Last week we had to go down to the main prefecture so Eric could begin the process of renewing his residence status, and I was able to find out that my carte de séjour is now in fabrication and should be ready the day after my current récépissé expires. How it possibly takes more than 10 minutes to “fabricate” a card, I have no idea. Leave it to the French. So now I am waiting to see what happens when I next visit the sous-prefecture. Hopefully when I finally get this card, it will be valid at least long enough for my summer travels. I really have no idea though, as it could possibly expire as soon as August when Eric’s titre de séjour expires.

France visa

Getting Indian Visas as Americans in France

Eric and I recently attended a friend’s wedding in India. Before our trip, we were excited to be adventuring to a new country and new continent; however, for us to travel to India, we first needed to obtain tourist visas, which turned out to be a rather expensive and somewhat stressful process.

First off, we didn’t fully consider the visa issue while we were trying to make up our minds about whether we should take the trip. In retrospect, that did not show great foresight on our part, because we delayed and delayed the decision; then with one month before the wedding we realized we definitely wanted to go and that we would need to acquire visas for this trip, ASAP. The timelines we found for acquiring an Indian tourist visa in France without going to Paris directly were not quick.

In France, to get an Indian visa you must use the services of the company “VFS”. From what I gather, the Indian government has basically outsourced the entire visa application submission procedure to this company, both here and in other countries. Luckily for us, their website for France has all the information available in English as well as French.

To apply for a visa, you first have to fill out several form pages on an Indian government website. You will possibly (probably?) have problems with the website’s security certificate. I did in both Chrome and Firefox. This is not a very inspiring sign, given that you are about to submit a ton of personal information over the internet. Obviously you always want to use due caution with such issues, but this is apparently a common issue with this website — several online guides on how to fill out this form, as well as the website itself, mention that you may need to download the security certificate. The output after filling in these form pages will be a two-page long pdf.

You’ll need to submit this along with any additional supporting documents requested and your passport to VFS. Submitting our passports was something we were really uncomfortable with, given that we are foreigners in France and our passports contain our French visas. Handing over our passports for days/weeks is not something we had ever been required to do in the past — when we have applied for other visas while in Europe, it was understood by the governments we were working with that people who are foreigners should generally retain possession of their passports during the visa process. Luckily we did not have any problems while VFS had our passports.

The woman we worked with at the VFS collection point in Lyon indicated that a month “should” be enough time to get our visas, but mildly scolded us when we affirmatively answered her question about whether we had already purchased our plane tickets. Ultimately our passports were returned to us by post after approximately two weeks processing time.

Unfortunately, being a foreigner in France meant we paid a premium for these visas. The price was somewhere around 140 Euros per visa, and that was only for 6-month validity, single entry visas. This included a bogus 25 Euro fee because we hold US passports. If not pure greed, why US passport holders are subject to a special fee no on else gets stuck with is beyond me, especially when there is already a 30 Euro fee for all foreign passport holders.  We were a bit disgusted when we found out our American friends who had obtained their visas in the US were able to get 10-year, multiple entry tourist visas for only about 50 USD more than their base price (which was also much cheaper); we would have paid at least an extra 100 Euros per visa for that privilege.

Hopefully in the future the visa process will not be so expensive or such a hassle. In my research on the visa issue, I found out that extending the “Visa on Arrival” program to US and other nationality passport holders has been proposed. If that proposal is put into practice, I imagine it will make traveling to India a much more enticing prospect for many tourists.