a slower pace in a liminal space

So I suppose this part of the story could be augmented with a little Hintergrund and context.  Who is Sebastien?  Why am I in a small Swiss French-speaking village?   What’s the point?

In essence:  I am volunteering my services in exchange for room and board.  I did this last summer in Alaska and I ended up staying there.  No, I will not end up staying in Switzerland.

I met Sebastien via HelpExchange, a website devoted to helping hosts and volunteers match up for mutual benefit.  I could have picked any number of projects to voluntarily participate in, but I went looking for something in Switzerland.  I chose the French-speaking part of Switzerland because I am interested in learning French.  I wanted to find a place where I could live to extend the time I spent in Europe after the seminar, because it’s just not worth it to me to come to Europe for only two weeks.  In this way, I can remain within a living situation where I can learn and experience things which not only have significance for me personally, but also connect with my work.  What I only realized after I arrived and began working with Sebastien, is that this month-long project really is a fulfillment of much of what I was studying in Freiburg.  “Grenzüberschreitende Zusammenarbeit” or “cross-boundary cooperation” was the focus of many civic organizations in the border towns of France, Switzerland and Germany.

Sebastien and I are working on a renovation project in a very old farmhouse which belongs to his family, and which he is converting into a bed-and-breakfast and brewery.  He intends to use many of the old pieces of farming equipment as part of the decorations for the interior, but he also wants to be able to have a kind of museum to display the larger pieces of equipment.  Pleigne is a small village of about 300, located just about a ten minute drive from the border of France, at an altitude of about 800 meters, in canton Jura.  He’s hoping to be able to bring in tourists who are looking for a quiet place to stay outside of the bigger towns of Biel and Basel, who enjoy cycling or are traveling through Switzerland on their way to someplace else.  I am hoping to learn some skills in renovation work which will help me in my own house.  Sebastien has put together a team of people to work together this summer to help him with what is clearly a very ambitious goal. Malvena, a woman from Poland arrives tomorrow and Nanda,a  man from India will be arriving in about a week and a half.   Together, we will have until the end of July to make as much progress as we can.

But Sebastien takes his time.  We breakfast together at 7:30 and start working at 8.  We work until 1 or 1:30 and then we stop for lunch.  We cook together and usually eat outside, watch his uncle’s sheep and talk about all sorts of things.  Then I have the afternoons and evenings to myself.  I may take a nap or ride my bike, read, learn French, drink tea, or take a walk.  Around 8 or 9 we cook dinner together and then I retire to my room, where I make some notes, edit photos, write, and fall asleep.  I never feel a rushed sense of schedule.  There are no clocks in the house at all, and I just follow Sebastien’s lead.  He’s very easy-going and good-humored, always whistling or humming to himself or singing little scraps of songs.  We work together quite well.  He’s from the Valais region near Zermatt, in southwestern Switzerland and has worked as a ski and snowboard instructor in the past, so I regale him with stories of Alaska, its winter sports, snow and wilderness.  He can speak English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, and a bit of Portuguese.   We have a good connection.

The house is composed of three stories and a small cellar.  The ground floor is spacious, with a kitchen, two bathrooms, a living room and another large living room with a kitchenette, as well as a utility room which leads out to the backyard.  There are some sheep out there which belong to Sebastien’s uncle, and we don’t have anything to do with them.  There is also a garage where the car is kept, as well as the bicycles and a long old wagon is stored in there as well.  Along one wall, the feeding troughs can be seen, where in former times the animals would receive their hay.  Sebastien estimates that perhaps no more than ten cows were kept in this barn.  On the second floor of the house are two bedrooms, and an entrance to the barn, where many of these mysterious pieces of agricultural machinery are stored.  The ceiling in the barn is very high, and there are other levels which can be reached via a series of ladders, each leading to a different portion of the barn.  It is naturally dusty and many of the timbers are full of holes and very worn.  On the third floor there are only two bedrooms, one larger than the other.  It is here that we have begun our work.

We have spent the last three days painting the walls. Yesterday morning we also took spackle and filled all the cracks which we could find throughout the entire house.  After we finished filling the cracks, we took a small metal tool which Sebastien says in French is called a “nail hunter,” and used this and a hammer in order to more deeply set all the nails which were still sticking out a little from the wall in the wooden paneling which is in all the upper hallways around the stairwell.   Today we evened out the color on the walls between the edging and the main wall.  In the corridors, we tried to remove some very dark old stains from the wood using acetone and another more powerful cleaner, and even scraped the wood, but the stains remained.   We will try to sand them off.  Then Sebastien mixed some concrete and mended a bit of the garden wall.  I kind of helped, but really just fetched tools and watched.  Tomorrow,  we will use machine sanders to sand all the wooden paneling and perhaps the stairs as well.  Afterwards we will put a preventative coating to protect against insects, and then a lacquer finish.  Malvena arrives tomorrow, so Sebastien will go to pick her up from the train station in Delemont, and I will most likely sleep in.  He says we will work in the afternoon.

Today I took a long bike ride into France, back into Switzerland, and got lost on a mountain between one town and another.  Not really lost, but I lost my path and ended up wandering down a bramble-covered stretch of what used to be a road, ended up in a sheep pasture, then a cow pasture, and then finally Movelier, the little village before Pleigne.  I probably covered something like 22 miles, but it took much longer than I had intended.  I suppose it was an adventure, but I can’t say I made any fantastic discoveries along the way.  I did find a very strange ridge path fringed by mysterious cairns.

Strange cairns

Can’t say that it made up for the bramble scratches which now adorn my legs.  Oh well.  I got home okay and we made dinner.  Ende gut, alles gut.


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