Lifting large bins of grapes onto a van all day was taking a toll on my humor, despite the fact the van driver was a very lovely woman for whom I was falling hard. She was drop-dead gorgeous, witty and urbane, and I was naive, smitten and achingly untested in the ways of the world.
At times, being clueless can have advantages: one thinks anything is possible, that perhaps with hard work and perseverance, goals can be achieved. Anyone with any sense could see that I was hopelessly out of my league, but working those vineyard bins on that hot October day, in 1968, remains forever in my heart and thoughts. I was trying to impress my boss, my fellow co-workers and above all, Helene. They would have to drag my dead ass out of those vineyards before I would slow down or quit.
As we bumped along the end rows of the vineyards, Helene began to tell me a little about herself. It all happened quite innocently as I began to complain about the overfilling of the bins for the 10th time that afternoon. She stopped the van under a giant fig tree and turned off the engine. Wiping dirt from her brow, she turned to me and said, without any anger but with great conviction, that I had no idea how "lucky" I had it. I could, she said, "go home" any time I wanted; there was nothing keeping me in France or in the vineyards.
Helene was getting very emotional. I could see tears welling in her eyes and I wondered what all this was about. I began to tell her about my work-study program and she gently brushed that away with one hand while wiping her eyes with the tail of her shirt with the other hand. I just sat in the van watching her quietly weep with absolutely no idea of what to do or where she was coming from. Tears were making tracks down her cheeks as she sat there, transfixed in sorrow. It remains one of the most poignant moments of my young life.
After some time, she started the engine and we went on in silence. I lifted bins and shoved them into the van while she stared straight ahead and wiped her eyes from time to time.
After some time, she began to tell me her story. She was Czechoslovakian. She had come to France with a small group of fellow students for a cultural art exchange several years ago. Secretly, her parents had urged her to "not return" but to stay in the West as long as she could. Helene had taken the courageous decision to walk away from the group and ask for asylum.
Then, in August, the Soviets had come back to Czechoslovakia and she was very afraid to return home. Yes, I had no idea how lucky I was.
After a while, things got back to normal, and she patted my arm with a nod and a smile. I tried to reassure her that things would be all right, but, of course, I had no idea what I was talking about. They might have been heartfelt, but my assurances rang hollow in light of what was happening in the Eastern Bloc.
Not an hour later, we would find ourselves in an emergency clinic.
Lorn Razzano is former owner of the Wine Cellar in Ashland and still works there parttime. Reach him at email@example.com. To see previous columns on his adventures as a wine intern in France, visit www.dailytidings.com/razzano.