Les Amis de la Douceur et de l'Harmonie

60km north of Perpignan, French Pyrenees/2001.05.23-2001.06.01

"... You will have a great time here because the house is situated in countryside of breathtaking beauty and the people are lovely and everything is so tranquil and peaceful. ..."

This passage is from an email sent to us by a WWOOFer that was staying in this Vegan commune in the mountains. We decided to make it our first stop in France, on our way north.

In our recently acquired, English version of the directory 'Eurotopia' which includes listings of ecovillages in Europe (more info here), the catchwords for this place are: ecological, feminist, spiritual, organic diet, vegan diet, peace-work, animal protection, organic agriculture, organic gardening, biological/natural animal husbandry. Not bad huh?
Well, later on we learned that though the communes we are interested in all sound great and virtually the same, we can't really get a feel for the place without actually visiting it, and then find out how different they are from one another.

The name of the commune means 'Friends of Gentleness and Harmony', and though it was never a problem being vegan in other situations, we were happy to be in a place which is vegan by definition, where we never have to ask questions and verify ingredients, and where the usual diet related conversations and jokes could be skipped.

After a few hours ride from Barcelona, we got off the train at Perpignan. Waiting for someone to pick us up, we spotted a man carrying in a self-made sling (from two rings and a piece of cloth, similar to ours) a diaperless child and a cloth shopping bag... Hmm.. he must be going where we are going... and indeed once a truck painted with doves showed up, we all approached it.

We found many things in common with Wayne, who with his family is in search for a suitable community to settle. He was very progressive in his ideas of how he wanted to raise his daughter and live his life, and many things we talked about were new and eye-opening for us. He was also vegan (used to work as a baker and made us tasty chapatis!) and his daughter was born at home, just the three of them. Check out their website about birthing freedom, with a beautiful birth-story and horrific after-birth story [update: they removed their website since].

After a stop at an organic produce distributor, getting wholesale organic fruits and vegetables(!), we started the ascent to the Pyrenees mountains. El-Faitg (pronounced El-Fatch), the name of this farmstead, is 850m above sea-level, 60km north from the coast. It was indeed breath-taking to stand there, and look around - snowy mountains, huge forest, no neighbors to be seen or heard, just birds, singing all day long.

The house was huge and we probably only saw half of it. There were many rooms and levels, each one painted differently, usually with bright colors, doves, long-haired people holding hands, and words of virtue such as compassion, order, humor, honesty, etc. The house even came with its own chapel (18?? on it's main brick), which they converted into a Christ-free spiritual place. In a photo, we saw a funeral taking place there for shoes made from dead leather. There are two simple composting toilets outside, and one active bathroom (no toilet) inside. Water in the boiler was heated by burning a bucket of sawdust (excess from town) in a special way that made it burn for four hours.

There are four people living in this castle, all in the 'autumn of their life' (45 to 81), which made it kind of a retirement commune. We interacted mainly with Bleuette, who does most of the garden work and is the only one who speaks some English (learned it as WWOOFers came along). Erika knows a bit of French which was helpful when communicating with the other residents, who work mainly on their quarterly periodical. There were shelves and boxes full of copies of this periodical, dating back to the 70's, and in it were poems and stories about gentleness and harmony. Other than that, the library had an impressive collection of books, magazines, articles and leaflets about veganism, vegetarianism, animal rights, etc. We swallowed the little that was in English, and scanned in this heart-breaking article that really must be read.

Yes, being vegan was taken seriously here, which is quite rare, and the whole place was practically an animal-product-free zone. Most other 'vegans' we meet, are only vegan at home, or eat honey, or fish, or skip ecological awareness, or in other words, simply don't understand what it means to be 'vegan'. I wish I could speak French, and converse with the founder, who has been around long enough to witness the whole vegan movement (and the word 'vegan') growing to the large society it is today.

Strawberries, peas, tomatoes, herbs and greens, to mention a few, are grown in different locations around the house. The gardens are planted in a sprawl manner on fantastic ex-forest earth. The nicest part, in front of the house, was more dense and with more variety of plants, and not accessible by tractor. But the rest and most of the gardens, though organically grown, were all centered around heavy machine use. The earth is plowed tilled and weeded constantly with a tractor, rotatiller, other machines and by hand (which hardens the soil in the long term, and interferes with the natural 'tilling' made by earthworms). Therefore, the recently covered earth, by forest and/or weeds, that feels so nice on your bare-feet now stands bare in the hot sun with no mulch (except a little around some of the strawberry plants) to protect it (when mulch is absent, the soil is robbed of its natural nutrient stores, becomes leached and often desiccates. Non-desert plants grown in bare soil require constant fertilization, nutrient amendment and water, not to mention the work required to keep the soil bare. read more in the sheet-mulching page).

After the birds wake you up in the morning, unless it's raining, you'll hear the constant music of expensive petrol being burnt to power expensive machines that need expensive repairs. All the plants are being planted apart from each other, in straight rows, so the rotatiller can pass through and rotate the earth and do most of the weeding. I am glad we experienced this type of farming that I only read about so far, to feel how it is to work for machines, to serve the rotatiller and the grass-cutter. I only questioned Bleuette once, in a hinted manner, about this, and from the answer I understood her point of view - that she is alone, working alone and that is seems to her that the machines saves her a lot of time and back-breaking work. I can relate, as I had been working with machines for quite a while, alone, with computers that is. It is quite easy to become dependant on a relationship with a machine and forget how it was before and whether it was really any harder. So yes you can get by, gardening and living like this, but it certainly shouldn't be desired.

I don't feel that good about criticizing our host in this manner, but then I don't really feel bad either. During our stay, the atmosphere was tense and uncomfortable, especially towards Wayne and Nolwenn. It seems like they are not used to little children, and Nolwenn was going through a rough week, away from her mom, and never being smiled to by them. Momo happened to be in a good mood most of the time, and to her and us, they were somewhat nice and warm. I chose to overlook these things, and allowed myself to get comfortable there, but then things got ridiculously out of hand between Wayne and our hosts. With plenty of places to visit ahead, we left abruptly the next day with Wayne and Nolwenn. Maybe it was the combination of people, the time of the year, or just 'bad vibes' in general and though overall it was a good experience, it's really too bad it ended up this way, especially since I only had the chance to take few pictures...:

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Working for the rotatiller in the garden in front of the house.

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Bleuette, Stephan, Nolwenn, OfeK and Wayne planting Basil in the nicest garden, in front of the house. The shape of the garden is made by putting a stick in the middle of the to-be circle, and tying a hoe to it, digging a circle and expanding the radius for every 'row'. With the help of Wayne we figured out how to plant a spiral and an eliptic garden too.

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It was quite comfortable in our room because we could leave Momo locked in the closet for the whole day (we don't carry a play-pen/lool), and she was such a happy girl once we opened the doors!

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View from the upper gardens. This mountain was usually hidden behind clouds. Don't let the snow fool you, we had some very hot days.

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Our first cherry tree encounter, to be followed by many others.


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