The French Tractor Story

by Denis Faye | August 13, 2021


illustration by Chris “New Girl” Gregory

Despite Marilyne’s instigation, the idea to buy a French farmhouse in the middle of a pandemic was mutual. While backpacking around Europe 21 years and a lifetime ago, I came across a French real estate gazette featuring ancient farmhouses at rock bottom prices. I eventually misplaced the dog-eared, marked-up old magazine, but owning property in rural France never left my future plans. So, when Marilyne suggested the purchase, I said “yes” before she finished her sentence.

Frankly, I think she was a little disappointed. She clearly expected resistance and had probably come up with a strategy to wear me down that she’d never get to use.

We bought the place based on photos and the recommendations of her family. (Her sister Sylvie lives about four kilometers away in the tiny village of Crocq, population 412.) At some point a couple centuries ago, it was part of a little community called “La Villatte.” Now there are just three homes left. Our particular property includes the house, a separate building housing a bread oven and pig sties, a barn-and-stables combo, a three-car garage, and a tractor.

I think the tractor is about 20 years old. She’s green and I’ve named her Olga in honor of the fact that she’s made by the German tractor company Deutz-Fahr. She has a manual transmission. Knowing how work a clutch and can therefore being able to drive her makes it worth being middle-aged.

Meet les neighbors.

An old couple rent the house directly across from us and a chicken farmer, Emmanuel, lives half a kilometer down the road, far enough away to not technically be a denizen of La Villatte. He has the same last name as the people from whom we bought the house although he claims no relation. Marilyne told me that he’s very helpful, having stopped by when I wasn’t there to assist in some Olga-related issue.

The old couple didn’t earn such a positive report. According to Sylvie, who shares my love of gossip, the husband approached Evan, our 16-year-old nephew who helps upkeep the farm in our absence, asking if he could use our garage to park his Renault and if his wife could use some of our acreage to plant veggies. I have no idea why he needs either since he’s got a sizable hunk of real estate himself, including what appears to be two barns. Either way, Evan had the sense to tell him to ask us directly.

However, when Marilyne flew over last month, he didn’t engage her. Personally, I have no problem giving him access to the garage and garden until we move there on a more permanent basis, but Marilyne insists it’s a bad idea. She tells me that once you agree to something like that in rural France, it’s almost impossible to back out. She also warned me that I should never, ever allow anyone to let their cows graze on our property because, according to French law, permission automatically enters us into a ten-year grazing commitment.

Flying out to see Olga, I mean, the house.

Life’s a little hectic right now, but I found a week this month to fly out and see my new investment. After a quick tour of the house, we made for the garage where Evan taught me how to operate Olga—the two transmissions put my clutching skills to the test, especially in my jetlagged state. I took her out for a spin around the block, content with this being the extent of my tractoring for the week, until Marilyne announced I’d be mowing an acre of waist-high weeds we intend to convert into a veggie garden and fruit orchard. This was not a request.

I found the prospect intimidating. Luckily, the weather was on my side. It rained for much of the time I was there and, apparently, one does not mow fields in the rain. I was happy to comply, spending my time exploring the farm, hunting for girolle mushrooms, and continuing to bad mouth my neighbor over vin rouge and fromage Epoisses with Sylvie, Marilyne, and Charlie, an expat friend from my UCSB days now living in Berlin. He drove down to check out our new digs and meet Marilyne for the first time.

A soirée to remember.

The weather cleared up Friday, allowing Marilyne to remind me of my commitment to actual farming. It also allowed Crocq to throw their weekly soirée de village, a gathering that takes place every Friday night in the summer. The townsfolk gather, drink wine and beer, eat hamburgers, and listen to a live local band. Sylvie tells me many of the bands feature talented musicians steeped in French tradition, unlike hamburgers. She also admits this Friday’s talent missed the mark slightly.

That said, maybe because it’s been over a year since I’ve seen live music thanks to COVID-19, I enjoyed watching the bald guy with the huge pirate earring on stage belting out French standards with a karaoke machine. The Crocqites loved it too. Many of them sat at long picnic tables in front of the stage, excitedly swaying or, during livelier tunes likeLes Sardines,” slamming into each other. Since the median age in Crocq is somewhere in the mid-fifties, occasionally this slamming resulted in someone falling off the edge of the bench, grasping their hip in pain, and limping off to the bar to buy more beer or wine for the table.

Maybe because table sitting seemed risky, we stood off to the side watching the spectacle. Cassidy and Aimée, my teenage daughters, wandered off with Evan, having figured out that drinking age doesn’t exist in rural France.

Sylvie leaned over and whispered, “Don’t be too obvious, but look behind you. That’s your neighbor.” I turned around, trying to be discreet and failing. He was in his late sixties, with a protruding belly and a glorious, white walrus mustache, resembling an introverted Wilford Brimley. He stood next to his wife, and he didn’t seem to notice me.

“Do you want me to introduce you?” Sylvie asked.

“Yes, but would that be weird? It’d be kind of uncomfortable for everyone, wouldn’t it?” I responded.

“Yeah, it would be a little bizarre,” she agreed.

I leaned over to Charlie, “The guy behind us is my neighbor. The one who only talks to Evan. He’s got a rad mustache.”

Charlie looked behind us in an even less discreet way. He turned back, “Yeah, that’s a hell of a mustache!” We started fabricating a story using cliché plot elements from various feel-good European movies, where the neighbor and I would hate each other at first, then fate would intervene, he would help me when I was in a tight spot, and then we’d learn to appreciate each other.

I think the neighbor took our highly apparent mirth the wrong way. A few minutes later, he and his wife left. I didn’t see them leave, but Sylvie tells me that they shot daggers at us as they walked by.

We’d just unintentionally mean-girled an old French rural couple who probably didn’t even know Lindsay Lohan existed. I didn’t feel great about it.

A hot date with Olga.

The next morning, the sun was shining. This made it, by Marilyne’s standards, perfect tractoring weather. Charlie and I wandered out to the soon-to-be garden/orchid. It’s about three feet higher than the road, surrounded by an ancient, mossy stone wall. The entrance features a sharp embankment and a metal gate. We immediately scored a small-scale victory by figuring out how to wedge the gate open. As I trotted over to the garage to get the tractor, Marilyne asked that I not run over the large sage bush that the previous owners had randomly planted at the top of the embankment.

I then scored another small-scale victory by remembering how to start Olga. Aimée jumped into the cab as I drove down the lane. I figured, “Why not?” I button-hooked into the field, through the gate, and up the embankment. All seemed well until we suddenly lurch hard to the left, finding ourselves at a 45-degree angle to the ground. I have a checkered history of finding myself at a 45-degree angle from the ground in motorized vehicles, so I knew to turn into the lurch, although I was still fairly certain I was about to maim my step-daughter just days before she started her freshman year of college. Fortunately, I did not. We leveled out safely.

We climbed out of the cab to see what had happened. The large sage bush Marilyne asked me to avoid had been tractored out of existence.

From there, Charlie, Aimée, and I took turns mowing. We finished the job and prepared to go into the house for a lunch of bread, cheese, and wine. Maybe some ham for Charlie. Only one task remained: driving Olga down the embankment without running over what was left of the sage bush.

I elected to apex into the turn, coming in along the border of the field so I could simultaneously mow some of the perimeter grass that I’d missed. But as I came into the turn, I realized that I wasn’t going to make it. The tractor was heading right towards the wall surrounding the garden. Unlike wooden fences you find in the states, the ancient stones would probably fight back if assaulted by a motorized vehicle, even a tractor. Halfway down the embankment, I turned hard to avoid collision. The tractor came to a halt.

I put it into reverse and tried to back out. Nothing happened. Charlie, who saw the whole thing, explained that the right rear wheel was no longer in contact with the ground. It was spinning freely. I pondered why the left rear wheel wasn’t picking up the slack. He explained that it was the differential.

“Right. The differential,” I agreed. “What’s a differential?”

Charlie explained that in motorized vehicles, the power automatically goes to the rear wheel experiencing the least resistance. This allows for smooth turning. In our present situation, this otherwise useful feat of engineering worked against us.

“I had this happen to me in a 4×4 once,” Charlie added. The trick is to turn off the differential.”

“Of course!” I agreed. “How do I do that?”

“Good question.”

Makes no differential to me.

During my brief time with Olga, I’d learned what every doodad in her cab did, save one pedal and one lever by my right leg. Both Charlie and I felt one of these could be the answer, so gingerly pressed the mystery pedal and pulled the mystery lever. No luck. I then tried every possibly combination of the two, still without luck. I went into the house and found the tractor instruction manual in a stack of documents the previous owners had left us. It confirmed that, yes, indeed, the tractor did have a differential, but it didn’t go into detail beyond that.

The Internet also held no information, although Charlie found a video of a tractor similar to Olga extracting itself from waist deep mud and then driving across a river just to show off.

My general sense was that disabling the differential on a tractor was some sort of intrinsic information that all farmers possess, much like the way us Angelinos all know to honk our horns and give people the finger on the 405 freeway. There’s no instruction manual for that. We just know to do it.

Charlie and I spent the next three hours putting various planks, slabs, logs, and bricks under the wheel to get traction. Evan showed up and joined in the fun. At one point, I apologized to Charlie. He’d driven all the way from Germany only to find himself lugging stones across a muddy field.

“Are you kidding?” he countered with a huge grin. “I’m having a great time!”

Thank God for Charlie. He had a point. The year’s harvest wasn’t in peril or anything; We were just three boys playing in the dirt with a really huge, noncooperative Tonka truck. Still, by 2pm, I was getting nervous. I had a flight home to catch at 4am the next morning, so if we didn’t solve this soon, I’d have to leave the mess in Marilyne’s lap.

“Now would be a good time for your mustache neighbor to help you out of a tight spot,” Charlie pondered. I agreed, but that wasn’t going to happen. Then I remembered Emmanuel the helpful chicken farmer. I really wanted to solve this issue myself, but I knew I’d been beat. I sent Charlie into the house to eat cheese while Evan and I walked down to Emmanuel’s house.

Helpful chicken farmer to the rescue!

Despite the fact that we’d interrupted his lunch, he politely greeted us at the door. “Salt of the earth” would be an understatement to describe this guy. He’d be salt plus a half dozen other minerals. He was burly and rugged and wore an ancient, orange tank top that was dissolving around the left shoulder. We shook hands. I could feel the calluses in his calluses.

I described the situation. He said it was the differential and that he’d come up after lunch. We went back to La Villatte to join Charlie for cheese.

Two hours later, Emmanuel showed up in his tractor. It had a big scoop attached to the front raised high in the air. At first, I first thought this was some kind of alpha gesture, but then I realized this is probably the safest way to drive around with a giant scoop.

He regarded what I’d done to Olga stoically, like a Steinbeck Okie. He climbed up into the cab and immediately went for the mystery pedal. When it didn’t respond the way he wanted it to, he stood up and slammed his boot into it with all his 80 kilograms of bodyweight. The pedal produced a large CLANG and went down another couple more centimeters. Differential locked, Emmanuel put Olga in reverse and effortlessly backed out of the mess.

The whole process took less than 45 seconds. “I knew it was the differential!” shouted Charlie.

Brute force had never occurred to me. All my life, I’ve been accused of being a “blunt instrument” and I’ve worked to overcome that. I’ve learned the hard way that, in 21st century urban life, brute force isn’t used in the workplace, on the bike, in the kitchen, in the bedroom, nowhere. And now I’d found a place where my “bull in a china shop” aptitude might serve me well.

I thanked Emmanuel profusely. Later that day, I would bring him a bottle of wine and then argue with him for ten minutes to get him to accept it. After he left, I did a few victory laps around the field, giving Cassidy and Cooper manual transmissions lessons. Charlie and I then spent too much time discussing a better exit strategy. I took a deep breath and went for it, managing to get Olga down the embankment and back into the garage with no further hijinks.

The fine art of brute force.

I spent the rest of the afternoon applying brute force. We fixed a sledgehammer with a broken handle by forcing out the old handle and forcing in a new one, semi-repaired an old lawnmower by bashing at some rusted-out bolts, and chopped wood.

In the middle of all this farmering, my mustached neighbor came out with his trash. His eyes were stuck the ground and he had no intention of making contact. I looked back nervously at Sylvie and Marilyne. They, too, looked to the ground. This was a broken relationship. A wall had been built.

Time for more brute force. I walked up to him boldly, hand extended. After introducing myself, I asked him in my featured French if he’d been at the soirée the night before because I recognized his “fantastic mustache.”

Perhaps bold flirtation wasn’t the ideal strategy for his demographic, but it worked. He told me his name was Michael and, yes, he’d been there. In fact, he was on the committee that organized the weekly soirées. When I told him I was from the states, he also shared that his son is currently living in Orlando, Florida. I introduced Marilyne. We all three cracked jokes, stared at the ground awkwardly, and commenced a neighborly relationship in the right way. The conversation wound down and he continued on his way to take out the garbage as I went back to abusing the lawnmower.

He never asked about the garage or the garden plot. Maybe he’s just shy. Maybe he thought better of it upon further reflection. I don’t know what the guy was thinking and it’s not my place to figure that out. Either way, once we move there permanently, we’ll probably end up sharing the copious number of fruits and veggies my green-thumbed wife will inevitably grow thanks to my mad tractoring skills.

And I think I’ll grow a walrus mustache.

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